Get Rich Slowly personal finance that makes cents Wed, 08 Apr 2020 15:04:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 By the numbers: First quarter 2020 Tue, 07 Apr 2020 19:41:30 +0000 Carole Baskin killed her husband!

Why, hello.

After nearly three weeks of hiatus, it's time to get things back to normal around this joint! Has anything happened while I was away?

Despite the ongoing coronavirus crisis, I'm ready to resume writing about personal finance. I've (nearly) completed my “intro to FIRE” project for Audible and The Great Courses — we're now in the editing stage — Kim and I (and our beasts) are healthy, and I have plenty to say about money.

Let's do this thing!

A Little Housekeeping

To start, let me say that I'm aware some folks have experienced trouble actually seeing new articles here at Get Rich Slowly. I've received several reports that things have “stuck” on the cybersecurity basics article from mid February. Some people cannot see new articles or comments.

Obviously, people with this problem aren't going to see this post, so I can't ask them to drop me a line. But if you were experiencing this issue and know anything that might help us resolve it, please let me know. Tom and I are baffled by the situation.

We did change hosting companies around the time the trouble began. We switched servers, and that seems to have created some sort of caching issue. Maybe? Like I say, we're not sure.

While I've been hard at work on my Audible course, my business partner Tom has been messing with things behind the scenes here at GRS. At long last, we think we're close to launching our redesign, which has been in the works since I repurchased this site 2-1/2 years ago. If everything goes well — and it is, so far — the new design should go live by the site's 14th anniversary next Wednesday.

Here's a preview of the new logo and the new home page:

Site redesign

It's possible (likely, even) that we'll have some bugs when we launch the redesign. I'm counting on all of you to help us find them and squash them!

With that housekeeping out of the way, let's talk about how the first quarter of 2020 went for my finances. Short answer: Aside from the stock market (which I cannot control), things were pretty darn good!

First Quarter Finances

Here's a look at some of my spending numbers from the past three months and the first quarter of each of the past four years. Please note that this isn't all of my spending. It's just spending on select categories. Also, this is my spending and doesn't include Kim's purchases. Tracking numbers (whether for fitness or finance) drives her nuts so she doesn't do it. That means there's no way to know for sure how much we spend on things as a family.

First quarter numbers

January and February had relatively similar spending. Why was March so high? For three reasons.

  • The $450 annual fee for my Chase Sapphire Reserve card came due.
  • We bought a new mattress for $2450.10. (More about this soon, I hope. It was a process!)
  • We renewed our tickets to Broadway in Portland for next season. That cost $1473.50.

Without these three expenses, my spending for March was only $2433.44. That's great! Too bad I can't just ignore major purchases like mattresses and theater tickets haha.

When taken as a whole, my first quarter spending was down 21.4% from the same period last year. It was down nearly $6000 (31.1%) from first quarter spending in 2017! That's some fine progress.

Here are some thoughts on individual categories:

  • I am very very happy with my decline in spending on alcohol. As you can see (if you look at the “sin” category), I drank nothing in January. And most of that $233.92 in February went to the pot tincture I take most nights before bed. I bought two bottles of it. (Pot is legal in Oregon.) In fact, it's only since the coronavirus quarantine that my alcohol consumption has increased. Even so, I'm not drinking nearly as much as I have in previous years.
  • My big goal for this year is to reduce my food spending. The pandemic is helping with that. You can't go out to eat if all of the restaurants are shut down! Still, I find it curious that I spent roughly the same on food in March as in previous months despite only going out to eat twice. There's no doubt we've been buying more groceries. My food spending for the quarter was half what it was in 2017. Nice.
  • Last year, I made a focused effort to reduce my iTunes spending. That's clearly reflected in the spreadsheet. I'm definitely spending more on iTunes in 2020 than I did in 2019, but it's less than in previous years. One change I've made is to rent more movies. What's the point of buying Frozen II if it's unlikely I'll ever watch it again?
  • Lastly, I find the utilities trend interesting. You see, in 2017, we still lived in the condo. Some of our utilities were covered by our outrageous HOA fees. In 2018, we were in this new house but had not yet installed the hot tub. For the past two years, the utility fees include heating the spa. It looks like (during the winter) we're paying an extra $150 per quarter or about $50 per month to keep our water warm.

The big news, of course, has been the flash crash of the stock market. The S&P 500 lost one-third of its value in a month — and has since bounced back 20%. (Which means it's still down 20% from its peak. Funny how math works.)

I've seen far far too many posts in Facebook groups about people wondering when they should sell. This makes me tense. If you're a long-term investor, you shouldn't sell during a downturn! This is the opposite of what you should do. If your wealth snowball is meant to be used twenty years from now — or even ten years — what do you care that the market is down right now?

Anyhow, the market drop has certainly melted some of my personal wealth snowball. At the end of 2019, my net worth totalled $1,437,543. At the end of March, it was $1,234,053, a decline of $203,490 (-14.2%).

Actually, I AM going to recover from this

The End of the World

So, the first quarter went well for me financially despite the stock market drop. I'm pleased with my current level of spending all the way around. I've been so deeply focused on my work on the Audible course that I really haven't done anything else. Seriously. I've blocked out the world for the past three weeks.

In the evening, I've been indulging myself by reading and watching post-apocalypse fiction. It's one of my favorite genres. And our current situation makes this material feel more relevant than ever.

One of my favorite books, for instance, is the 1949 novel Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, which takes a realistic look at the aftermath of a global pandemic that wipes out nearly all of humanity. It sounds dreary, but the book is actually hopeful, optimistic. Hardly anyone knows Earth Abides, and it's a shame. It's great.

I've also been watching movies about the end of the world, including The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), which I'd never heard of before. It's fascinating.

After a radiation catastrophe destroys most life on Earth, one man finds himself alone in New York City. Eventually, he meets a woman. Adam and Eve, right? The trouble is he's black and she's white. They're in love but cannot consumate their relationship because of the race issue — despite the fact that nobody else is left. When a third survivor appears — a white man — things get complicated quickly.

Judged by today's standards, this film is pretty tame. But in 1959, it must have been bold stuff. Personally, I think it's a pretty powerful indictment of the racist standards of the time. (And it takes a few stabs at sexism, too.)

Oh, and like everybody else, Kim and I watched the awe-inspiring train wreck that is Tiger King. Holy cats!

Okay, that's enough for now. I need to begin editing the lessons for my Audible course. After that, I'll go help Kim tackle the yard. There's tons to do! But over the next few days, we'll resume a more normal publication schedule around here. And, as I said, look for the launch of the GRS redesign in about a week. Take care!

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My life philosophy: 51 lessons from 51 years Wed, 25 Mar 2020 12:00:31 +0000 Happy birthday to me!

Today, I turn fifty-one. Holy cats, that's old! It's also a very, very strange time in this world. Kim and I had planned to celebrate by spending the weekend with my brother somewhere else in Oregon. With the coronavirus crisis in full swing, that's not going to happen. Oregonians have been ordered to stay at home with family unless absolutely necessary. So, we'll celebrate today with the dog and cats.

As I do every year here at Get Rich Slowly, I'm going to commemorate my birthday by sharing some of the most important things I've learned during my time on Earth. These are the core pieces of my life philosophy.

I'm no wiser or smarter than anybody else. And I'm certainly no better. But I am an individual. I'm my own person with my own personal preferences and personal experiences. These have all jumbled together over the past fifty years to give me a unique perspective on life (just as you have a unique perspective on life). To quote my favorite poem:

Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met…

So, these fifty-one nuggets of wisdom are things I've found to be true for me — and, I believe, for most other people. (But each of us is different. What works for me may not work for you.) These beliefs make up the core of my personal philosophy of life.

For obvious reasons, some of these notions overlap with the core tenets of the Get Rich Slowly philosophy. Plus, long-time readers will recognize this as an article I update every year on my birthday.

Some of these ideas are original to me. Some aren't. When I've borrowed something, I've done my best to cite my source. (And I've tried to cite the oldest source I can find. Lots of folks borrow ideas from each other. There's nothing new under the sun and all that.)

Here are fifty-one principles I've found to be true during my fifty-one years on this planet. I'll lead with this year's new addition.

  • Love yourself. All my life, I've struggled with low self-esteem. There have been times when I've hated myself. Last year was especially tough for me as anxiety and depression proved to be crippling for several months. Working with a therapist has helped. She's helped me to understand that it's important to learn to both accept myself and love myself — even though, like everyone, I'm imperfect. I still have a long way to go, but I'm making progress.
  • Self-care comes first. If you're not healthy, it's tough to be happy. Before you can take care of your friends and your family, you need to take care of yourself. Eat well. Exercise. Nurture your mind, body, and spirit. Your body is a temple; treat it like one. If you don't have your health, you've got nothing.
  • You get what you give. Your outer life is a reflection of your inner life. If you think the world is a shitty place, the world is going to be a shitty place. If you think people are out to get you, people will be out to get you. But if you believe people are basically good, you'll find that this is true wherever you go.
  • Life is like a lottery. You receive tickets every time you try new things and meet new people. Most of these lottery tickets won't have a pay-out, and that's okay. But every now and then, you'll hit the jackpot. The more you play — the more you say “yes” to new friends and new experiences — the more often you'll win. You can't win if you don't play. That said, however…
  • Luck is no accident. What we think of as luck has almost nothing to do with randomness and almost everything to do with attitude. Lucky people watch for — and take advantage of — opportunities. They listen to their hunches. They know how to “fail forward”, making good out of bad. [Via the book Luck is No Accident.]
  • Don't try to change others. “Attempts to change others are rarely successful, and even then are probably not completely satisfying,” Harry Browne wrote in How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. “To accept others as they are doesn't mean you have to give into them or put up with them. You are sovereign. You own your own world. You can choose…There are millions of people out there in the world; you have a lot more to choose from than just what you see in front of you now.”
  • Don't allow others to try to change you. Again from How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World: “You are free to live your life as you want…The demands and wishes of others don't control your life. You do. You make the decisions…There are thousands of people who wouldn't demand that you bend yourself out of shape to please them. There are people who will want you to be yourself, people who see things as you do, people who want the same things you want. Why should you have to waste your life in a futile effort to please those with whom you aren't compatible?”

An Early Birthday

  • Be impeccable with your word. Be honest — with yourself and others. If you promise to do something, do it. When somebody asks you a question, tell the truth. Practice what you preach. Avoid gossip. [This is directly from Don Miguel's The Four Agreements.]
  • Don't take things personally. When people criticize you and your actions, it's not about you — it's about them. They can't know what it's like to be you and live your life. When you take things personally, you're allowing others to control your life and your happiness. Heed the Arab proverb: “The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.” [Also one of The Four Agreements.]
  • Don't make assumptions. The flip side of not taking things personally is to not assume you know what's going on in other people's heads. Don't assume you know the motivations for their actions. Just as their reality doesn't reflect your reality, your life is not theirs. Give people the benefit of the doubt. [Another of The Four Agreements.]

True story: Before Kim and I moved to our current country cottage, the dog park near our home had a homeless problem. (And still does.) We early-morning walkers did our best to clean up camps when they were vacated, but it was a never-ending task. Once, I joined a new woman for a stroll down the trail. “Look at that couple,” she said, pointing to a man and a woman who were dragging a tarp down the hillside. “They just woke up and are packing up their camp.” I tried to tell her that no, they were regular dog-walkers who were pitching in to clean things up. She didn't believe me. “I'm going to report them,” she said. Classic example of a faulty assumption.

  • Always do your best. Your best varies from moment to moment. Some days in the gym, for instance, I'm able to lift heavier weights than on other days. Some days I can run faster than usual; some days, I'm slower. That's okay. What matters most is that I give my best effort every time. No matter what you do, do it as well as you can. This is one of the keys to success and happiness. [This is the last of The Four Agreements.]
  • Effort matters more than skill or talent. “Effort counts twice,” argues Angela Duckworth in Grit: The Power of Passon and Perseverance. Skill, she says, is talent multiplied by effort. The more you do what you're good at, the better you get. But achievement is the product of skill multiplied by effort. Effort counts twice. (This may be why psychologists say it's better to praise your child's efforts instead of her results. Praise her for spending time on her homework, not because she got an A.)
  • Embrace the imperfections. If you do what is right, and you do your best, then there's no reason to feel bad about the outcome. Nobody's perfect. Don't beat yourself up if you make mistakes. And don't sweat it if other people get upset with you too. If you're doing the best you can, that's good enough.
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good. Too many people never get started because they don’t know that the “best” first step is. You don't know the best guitar, so you never learn to play. You don't know which Spanish book is best, so you never learn to speak. You don't know how to bench press, so you never go to the gym. Don’t worry about getting things exactly right — just choose a good option and do something to get started.
  • There’s no single “right” way to achieve success. Each of us is different. We have different goals, personalities, and experiences. We each need to find the tools and techniques that are effective for our own situations. There’s no one right way to eat, love, pray, or pay off debt. Don’t believe anyone who tells you there is. Experiment until you find methods that are effective for you. (Note, however, that there are wrong ways to do these things — steer clear of obvious bad choices.)
  • Be present in the moment. Accept life for what it is, without labels or judgment. Yield to events; don't block them. Go with the flow. Nothing exists outside the present moment: Don't dwell on the past or worry about the future. Improve the quality of the here and now. When you do something, do that thing. When you're with somebody, be with them. Don't multitask. Put away the smartphone or the computer or the book. Be all there. [This is an ancient concept made popular by The Power of Now.]
  • Spirituality is personal. The desire for one person (or group) to impose her (or their) beliefs on others is the source of much of this world's strife. Believe what you want, and let others do the same. “There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophies. My brain and heart are my temples; my philosophy is kindness.” — the Dalai Lama
  • Be skeptical — but keep an open mind. Don't believe everything you hear — from others and from your own internal self-talk. Practice healthy skepticism. But keep an open mind. Don't automatically assume that everything is fake or false. Do your best to analyze the things you see and hear to determine whether they actually make sense.
  • Don't yuck someone else's yum. Just because you don't like something doesn't mean it's bad. Pursue your passions, and let others pursue theirs. If you don't like something, fine. Don't make a big deal about it.
  • You can't prevent every possible thing from going wrong. Don't even try. Instead, learn to deal effectively with minor problems. You'll build self-confidence, which will lead to an increased willingness to take calculated risks. (Similarly, you can't make everyone like you. It's foolish to try.)
  • Be flexible. Goals are good, but single-minded devotion to a goal can often blind a person to other opportunities. And it's a mistake to cling to one path out of sense of obligation. If you enter law school and discover you hate it, then quit. Don't endure years of misery because you feel like it's expected of you. That's dumb. You have more options than you think, but you may need to slow down and open your eyes in order to see them.
  • Be encouraging. Support the creative, positive actions of others. There are a lot of people out there who want to tell others what's wrong with their actions, why the things they want to do can't be done. They're quick to criticize small mistakes instead of praising the greater effort. Don't be this way. Do what you can — in ways both big and small — to help others achieve their goals. [Taken from Action Girl's Guide to Living.]

Keep Dropping Keys All Night Long

  • You are the author of your own life. Everyone has a story they want to tell you about yourself. Society tries to push a “standard narrative” on us about how life should go. Ignore these stories. If you don't like the story you're living, it's up to you to change the plot. You didn't write the beginning of your story, but you have the power to choose the ending. Choose and adventure you love instead of one that makes you unhappy.
  • You don't need permission. When we're young, we wait for our parents and teachers to say it's okay to do the things we want to do. As an adult, you don't need permission from anybody else. Do you want to quit your job and travel the world? Do it. Do you want to learn how to ride a motorcycle? Do it. Don't wait for somebody else to give you the go-ahead. You are the only one who needs to give yourself permission to do these things.
  • Don't let fear guide your decision-making process. My girlfriend Kim told me this on one of our first dates, and it echoes something my accountant once told me. He says that too many people make money moves based solely on the tax repercussions. “That's dumb,” he told me. “You should do what you want because you want to, not because of the tax hit.” This applies in all aspects of life. Make decisions based on what you want to do. Move toward something, not away from something.
  • Action cures fear. Thought creates fear; action cures it. What we're actually afraid of is the unknown. We like certainty, and choosing to do something with an uncertain outcome makes us nervous. Taking the first step can be scary, but each additional step becomes easier and easier. When you act, you remove the mystery. Action creates confidence. It creates motivation. (Most people think motivation comes before action. They're wrong. Action leads to motivation.) [This is an old idea but this phrasing is from The Magic of Thinking Big.]
  • Action is character. If you never did anything, you wouldn't be anybody. Superman is a superhero because he does heroic things, not because he talks about doing them. And a writer is a writer because she writes, not because she talks about writing. What we say doesn't matter; it's what we do that counts. We are what we repeatedly do. [From F. Scott Fitzgerald's notes on The Last Tycoon.]
  • You're more likely to regret the things you don't do than the things you do. That's not to say you should be an asshole, or that you won't regret making big mistakes. But generally speaking, you're more likely to be sorry that you didn't introduce yourself to the barista at the coffeehouse, didn't go bungee-jumping with your friends, didn't stay in touch with your friends. [This is the central idea in The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.]
  • Give without the expectation of return. Help other people — even if it costs a bit of money or time. Don't always expect a financial payoff. Don't get offended if your effort isn't acknowledged or appreciated. Help because it's the right thing to do, not because you want to be noticed.
  • When good things happen to people you know, help them celebrate. Their success does not diminish you. Be happy when your friends and family achieve something cool. If a co-worker gets a raise, be supportive and not jealous. Approach life as if it were a win-win game. Because it is.
  • Happy people almost never criticize, says Steven Pressfield in The War of Art. “If they speak at all,” he writes, “it's to offer encouragement.” This is true in my experience, as well. Being sarcastic and cutting doesn't mean that you're smarter than the people around you. Most of the time, it simply means you're an asshole. And that leads me to the next lesson…
  • Staying in a relationship out of a sense of obligation or pity is not a good reason. Sometimes you really do have to walk away — from a friendship, from a family member, even from a romantic partner. Yours isn't the only story in this world; sometimes it's better to be somebody else's villain than to make yourself miserable.
  • You have the freedom to choose how you respond to any event. In the classic Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Fankl writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” He based this philosophy on his personal experience in a Nazi concentration camp. When that jerk cuts you off on the freeway, you get to choose if you'll get angry or give him the benefit of the doubt. When you get stuck behind the old lady in line at the grocery store, it's up to you how to respond. When those stupid kids next door vandalize your lawn, you get to choose how you feel about it.
  • You'll be happier if you focus on efforts and attention only on the things you can control. Each of us has a large number of things about which we're concerned: our health, our family, our friends, our jobs; world affairs, the plight of the poor, the threat of terrorism, the current political climate. Within that Circle of Concern, there's a smaller subset of things over which we have actual, direct control: how much we exercise, what time we go to bed, whether we leave for work on time; what we eat, where we live, with whom we socialize. You'll be happier and more productive if you dedicate yourself to your Circle of Control and ignore your Circle of Concern. [This notion is part of Julian Rotter's social-learning theory of personality, but was popularized by Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.]

[Circle of Concern vs. Circle of Control]

  • You can have anything you want — but you can't have everything you want. Everything is a trade-off. You have limited resources. When you choose to spend — time, money, brainwidth — on one thing, you're also choosing not to spend on others. Do your best to spend only on the things that matter most to you. Don't really give a rat's ass about Big Bang Theory? Then why are you watching it? Spend your time and energy on something you do care about.
  • Make room for the big rocks first. It's easy to let your time and energy be sucked up by trivial errands and tasks. You find you no longer have space for the things you thought were most important. Don't do that. Always carve out time and attention for those people and activities you value most. If the house doesn't get clean because you were hanging out with a friend, so what? If you didn't mow the lawn because you went to the gym instead, that's a good thing. Tackle the important, then the trivial.
  • If you want to avoid feeling overwhelmed, create margin in your life. Simplicity brings peace. Many people have tried to beat this into my head over the years, but it wasn't until I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up that I really understood. Every item you own, every meeting you schedule, every email you receive — every obligation in your life carries both psychic and physical weight. Traveling in an RV for fifteen months, I learned to love owning very little. It was freeing! And it was freeing too to not be a slave to a schedule. As much as you can, build margin into your life so that you can feel peaceful and free.
  • Be your own advocate. Don't be afraid to ask what you want and what you need — especially if it's help. Too often, we struggle in silence when we could make our lives better simply by asking a question or two. Better to look ignorant for a moment than to remain ignorant for a lifetime. Don't wait for others to solve your problems. Be proactive. Find answers. Take action. Learn to help yourself.
  • It’s always best to be proactive. In life, there are often default options. If you don’t consciously and deliberately choose something different, you get the default. When this happens, your life shapes you instead of you shaping your life. Most people go through their entire lives in default mode. They accept what life hands them without question. They're reactive. Choose to be proactive instead. If you don't set your own goals, somebody else will set them for you.
  • Quality tools can make life better. For years, I equated low cost with smart spending. Now I know that's not always the case. Now, I'm willing to spend to buy high-quality things when I know I'll use them all the time. I have high-quality boots, for instance, and an expensive computer. I'm okay with that. I walk everywhere I go, so the boots are worth it. And my computer is my livelihood. The expense is worth it because it makes working a joy. For items used daily, buy the best. If you don't use it often, of if it's not important to you, buy the cheapest possible.
  • The meaning of life is the meaning you decide to give it. Some people are searchers. They wander through life looking for answers…but rarely find them. Others accept without question what an outside authority tells them is true. I believe that the meaning of life comes from within, from the things that you lean to prioritize and value. Nobody is going to tell you what life should mean to you; you have to decide that for yourself.
  • You are the boss of you. Your circumstances might not be your fault, but they’re your responsibility. Don’t blame anyone or anything else for your situation, and don’t expect somebody else to rescue you. If you don't like where you are, resolve to do what it takes to make a change.
  • Don't compare yourself to others. I preach this often at Money Boss. Comparing yourself to others is counter-productive. Generally one of two things happens: You either feel shitty because you're not as good as the other person, or you feel superior because they're not as good as you. In reality, nobody is better than anybody else. We're just different. If you want to compare yourself, compare Present You to Past You — and do what you can to make Future You a better version of why you are today.
  • You can't get rid of a bad habit; you can only change it. “You can never truly extinguish bad habits,” writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit. “Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.” He calls this the Golden Rule of Habit Change. To change your habit loop, you have to do something different when the habit is triggered. Let me give you an example: I used to be a stress-eater. I'd eat junk food — and lots of it — any time I had a deadline or a conflict with a friend. The act of eating soothed my mind. The stress was the cue (the trigger), and the rush was the reward. No surprise, this habit made me fat. I've managed to (mostly) change the habit loop by walking instead of eating. Now if I get stressed, I go for a walk. I get a similar rush for a reward, but my actions are healthier.
  • Positive reinforcement is powerful. When Tahlequah performs a desired behavior — sitting, coming when called, being nice to the cats — we reward her. She learns to connect the treat with the actions we wants, and becomes more likely to offer them…even when we don't reward her. What's true for dogs is true for people too. Does nagging your spouse actually work? Probably not. (In fact, it probably has the opposite effect you intend!) But if you reward the behavior your want, you'll eventually see it offered without prompting. The same thing is true with children, co-workers, family members, and so on. [This is a fundamental principle of psychology. An excellent source for more info is Don't Shoot the Dog.]

  • Create your own certainty. Don't allow yourself to be dependent on the choices and actions of others. I call this “Michelle's Law” after my friend who taught it to me. But I have another friend — Jenn — who talks about “ensuring success”. When she's working on something important, whether it's a relationship or a vacation, she always follows up to make sure that what she expects to happen will happen. This philosophy is akin to the idea that you should trust, but verify.
  • Choose happiness. Do work and play that brings fulfillment. Spend time with people who build you up, not those who bring you (and others) down. Strip from your life the things that take time, money, and energy, but which do not bring you joy. Focus on the essentials.
  • Time is more valuable than money. You can always make more money…but you can't make more time. This isn't permission to spend lavishly on anything and everything just because you might get hit by a truck tomorrow. It is, however, an invitation to consider what's important to you and to focus on that. It's encouragement to get clear on your personal mission statement and to build your life around it.
  • It's never too late to be great. It takes time to achieve anything worthwhile. But just because you haven't started yet — or haven't reached the level your aiming for — doesn't mean you can't or won't make it happen. Don't be daunted by audacious goals. Are you fifty and want to run a marathon? Start training. Are you sixty and only now thinking of retirement? That's okay. Better late than never. Are you seventy and want to write a novel? Do it. History is filled with examples of folks who achieve great things later in life. [This argument is made persuasively by Tom Butler-Bowdon in his book, Never Too Late to Be Great.]
  • Be yourself. This is the most important thing I've learned during my 49 years of life. For too long, I tried to please others. I tried to be and do the things I thought they wanted me to be and do. As a result, I was unhappy. And most of the time, my actions didn't have the results I thought they would. They didn't make others like me any better. Instead of trying to please others, now I'm just me. I'm honest about who I am and what I want. Maybe some of my old friends don't like who I've become. That's okay. I've made plenty of people who do like who I am.
  • “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.” — Barbara Ueland, If You Want to Write.

This isn't a comprehensive list of my beliefs, but it's a fair survey of my life philosophy. It has evolved from my philosophy when I was forty or thirty. And I'm sure that my philosophy at sixty will have changed in ways that I cannot foresee right now.

Also note that although I really do believe these things to be true, I also struggle with them. I'm human, just like you. I don't always live up to my ideal self. I don't always adhere to my own life philosophy.

How many of these ideas do you agree with? Which do you disagree with? More to the point: What are the core ideas that make up your personal life philosophy?

One Hundred Words

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A short list of useful coronavirus resources Fri, 20 Mar 2020 18:00:15 +0000 Believe it or not, the current coronavirus crisis is affecting Get Rich Slowly too. Things are slow around here. Traffic is down. Revenue is down. Production is down. Plus, I have a big deadline at the end of the month. My project for Audible and The Great Courses is due on March 31st.

So, just like the rest of the world, we're going to press “pause” for a couple of weeks. I will return next Wednesday with my annual birthday article, but you'll have to scroll down to see it. I'm going to pin this post to the top of the front page.

The break will allow me to focus my full attention on the FIRE course. Meanwhile, my partner Tom can work on behind-the-scenes stuff (including the nearly-completed site redesign!) without worrying that I'll mess things up haha. And, best of all, maybe we can get ahead on our publication schedule for once. We have two new staff writers. I have some articles planned. Tom has some articles planned. It would be great to resume in a couple of weeks with a backlog of material!

Note: During this break, I'll continue updating the “spare change” links on the front page and Jim and I will continue publishing Apex Money every weekday.

While we're on hiatus, I'll use this post to collect useful coronavirus resources. Some of this will be general info, but I'll also bookmark stuff related to personal finance and the economy.

I'm going to be very selective about what I list here. I'm only going to share the best of what I find. If you know of a resource that should be included, please share it in the comments.

General Coronavirus Information

First up, here's some of the best general coronavirus info I've found.

Our World in Data has an amazing page with coronavirus statistics and research. This is the best comprehensive resource I've found for coronavirus facts and figures. It features up-to-date info on growth and spread, plus other essential info. Here's a sample chart from the site.

The Financial Times, which keeps most of its material behind a paywall, is allowing free access to its own set of COVID-19 tables and graphs. I like these because a few of them are interesting and unique. A lot of people (including my ex-wife) are partial to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus dashboard. I find it to be a bit buggy and lacking in info.

You can find reliable info regarding the health aspects of COVID-19 at the World Health Organization coronavirus hub. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have a useful COVID-19 info center. Also, Consumer Reports has created its own guide to the coronavirus.

The FluTrackers forum is collating coronavirus news from around the world, including news from each U.S. state. I've been using this coronavirus live dashboard for a week now, although I cannot vouch for the veracity of its data.

The Emory University school of medicine has created a quick and dirty coronavirus checker. (I've been feeling blah lately, but it's almost surely just my annual tree allergies. This checker gave me this result: “It is unlikely you have coronavirus.”) And, if you'd like to play with possible scenarios, this epidemic calculator uses a classical infectious disease model to project disease spread based on variables that you can tweak.

Epidemic calculator

Here are a few other articles and resources that you might find informative:

To fight misinformation about the current situation, check sketchy claims at Snopes (here are the Snopes search results for ‘coronavirus') or the World Health Organization coronavirus mythbusters page.

Coronavirus Financial Information

As I've written recently, this situation is going to wreak havoc on many families. The financial outfall of COVID-19 is likely to be severe. Here are some of the best resources I've found for tackling the money side of this situation.

Lastly, here's a podcast episode in which Brandon, the Mad Fientist, interviews J.L. Collins about the coronavirus stock market crash (and what to do about it).

Okay, that's it for now.

Although I know folks who have indeed contracted COVID-19, Kim and I (and our families) are currently healthy. I hope that you and your family are doing well too. See you on the other side.

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Stopping the motor of the world Tue, 17 Mar 2020 14:37:51 +0000 “What a crazy day,” Kim said yesterday after she got home from work.

“Coronavirus?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “My schedule fell apart, which I figured it would. But I did see three patients in the morning. All three were doctors. Obviously, they thought it was safe to see the dentist. A lot of others stayed home though. Staff too. Meanwhile, people are pissed.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, it looks like our practice is going to have to shut down for a while. The Oregon Dental Association sent everyone a letter today that explained we're in high-risk professions. They recommended shutting down except for emergency procedures, except for cases that involve pain. So, our office is probably going to close for a while, and that means nobody's going to get paid.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

“It does,” Kim agreed, “but people aren't happy about it. Some of the people in the office need each paycheck. They can't pay their bills if they don't get paid. They think the dentist should keep paying them — out of his own pocket, if necessary.”

“Whoa!” I said.

“I know,” Kim said. “They don't understand that if we don't see patients, the practice doesn't make money. And if the practice doesn't make money, it can't pay employees. They just figure dentists are rich, so he should be able to pay us anyhow.”

Naturally, this will have a ripple effect.

  • Fewer people are going to the dentist (and the O.D.A. has recommended closing anyhow), so the practice isn't making money.
  • The practice isn't making money, so it can't pay employees.
  • Employees aren't being paid, so they can't buy things. Some can't even pay their bills.
  • And, of course, the businesses that rely on payment from the employees then lose revenue — and cannot pay their employees.

This morning in The New York Times, Neil Irwin calls this the one simple idea that explains why the economy is in great danger. “One person’s spending is another person’s income,” he writes. “That, in a single sentence, is what the $87 trillion global economy is.”

It's as if the global economy is a perpetual motion machine. It's a virtuous cycle. I buy from you. You buy from Jim. Jim buys from Jane. Jane buys from me. In a very real way, money makes the world go round.

When money stops changing hands, the world stops spinning. Markets crash. People panic. It's as if we've stopped the motor of the world.

What If We Lose Our Incomes?

“What would we do if we both lost our incomes?” Kim asked last night as we were getting ready for bed. “What would we cut first?”

I thought about it for a moment. For the most part, we live a comfortable but frugal existence. Most of our indulgences are obvious. Many are annual expenses. I don't feel like there's a lot left to be cut from day-to-day life. Besides, I don't really have an income right now. Any revenue generated by this site (which isn't much at the moment) simply gets pumped back into the business.

“Nothing?” I said.

“Come on,” Kim said. “I'm serious. What would we cut? Restaurants?”

“Sure,” I said. “But we've already cut back on restaurant spending quite a bit this year. And now we won't be eating out for at least a month.” Yesterday, the governor of Oregon ordered that all restaurants and bars to close for the next four weeks.

“Seriously,” I said, “I think that if we had to cut costs, I'd start with our big annual purchases like Portland Timbers tickets. Or our Broadway shows.”

“Oh, I forgot about those,” Kim said. “Those are good cuts. Those are luxuries.”

“Yes they are,” I said. “So are the restaurants. So are our subscription TV services. Plus, don't forget that we're spending much less on alcohol this year. Alcohol is definitely something we could cut completely. That'd probably improve our quality of life rather than hurting it.”

As I was falling asleep, I got to thinking. If I were to cut expenses to bare bones, what would that look like? How bare bones is “bare bones”?

  • If needed, I know that I could live without a car. I'm perfectly capable of surviving with foot power alone. Sure, it's a long walk (or short bike ride) to the office, but it's doable. Groceries are absolutely walkable — about half an hour each direction.
  • If we cut our streaming services (or if we even cut internet completely), we have hundreds of movies and TV shows already downloaded. We have plenty of music. More than that, we have each other — and our aminals.
  • Plus, we own our home free and clear…and we have a lot of money in savings. (Although that savings has dropped by 30% in the past week!)

I don't know precisely what my “squeak by” number is. I spent $3212.24 in January this year (and something similar last month), but that included restaurant dining and some entertainment. I'm certain that I could get by on less than $2500 per month — possible less than $2000.

Cutting Back

Yesterday after work, Kim started her personal process of cutting back. She called to cancel her therapy appointment. She cancelled an upcoming massage. She and some girlfriends have a getaway weekend planned for the end of April; they haven't decided what to do about that. Today after work, she'll see if there are other things she can cut.

Kim and I are fortunate. We have cash reserves. Many Americans aren't in this position. They're in for a rough few weeks. Or months. Or years.

According to the Federal Reserve's annual Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households:

Seventeen percent of adults are not able to pay all of their current month’s bills in full. Another 12 percent of adults would be unable to pay their current month’s bills if they also had an unexpected $400 expense that they had to pay.

What happens to these folks when the economy grinds to a halt? If you're not able to meet your obligations when the economy is booming, what will you do when there's no economic engine to speak of?

Yesterday, for the first time, my Facebook feed contained posts from people worried about how they're going to make ends meet. Meanwhile, I'm concerned for friends who aren't taking this seriously.

When you post photos of how you're out partying with a large group until two in the morning, you scare me. It's great that you're not afraid of the coronavirus — so brave! /s — but you're not just putting your own health at risk. You're putting the health of others at risk. And more relevant to this blog, you're putting your financial livelihood at risk.

Look into the future. Forget about the health factor for a moment. Focus only on finances. If things stop for a month or two or three, can you get by? Forget about whether this situation is rational or if it's panic. Accept it as the reality we are going to face, regardless whether you think it's a justified response. Based on what you see, does it make any sense at all to continue spending as if everything is normal?

Back to Basics

The next few weeks (and months) are going to be rough. Financially, we (as a society) aren't prepared for the world to stop spinning. We don't have a contingency plan for when everything comes to a halt.

Sure, many individuals are prepared. I'm willing to wager that most GRS readers have substantial emergency savings, for instance, and that many of us have built lifestyles that don't cost much to maintain.

But we, as a group, aren't typical. We're not normal.

More typical is my good friend who quit her job in January. Because she reads GRS, she's built some savings (and invests for retirement). But she quit without having another job lined up. Then she took a vacation to Mexico. All of this sounded fine (and fun) at the time, but now I worry for her.

Her plan was to look for work when she got home. Now she's home, but what work is she going to find? How long will her savings last? How long til she has to dip into that retirement account to pay her bills?

Then there are Kim's co-workers. Some are desperate because they cannot miss a single paycheck. Doing so will send them into a personal financial crisis.

I have high hopes that the coronavirus situation will make it very clear to Americans just how important it is to be prepared for problems. In normal life, it's easy to put off saving, especially if you're young and healthy. “It won't happen to me,” people think, and they buy big homes and new cars and upgrade their smartphones. Most of the time, it doesn't happen to them, so they're able to skate by. Whew!

But when the entire world stops spinning? When everyone takes a hit at once? Well, that's trouble. You can't say, “It won't happen to me” when it's happening to everybody at the same time.

Only time will tell the lasting impact of this crisis on the world economy — and your personal economy. I think one thing is certain. When this all blows over, a lot of folks will want (and need) to get back to basics. If you're one of these, here are a few articles from the GRS archives that you might find useful.

For now, I hope that you and your family are doing well. Remember to get your coronavirus info from reliable medical sources (such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization). Don't trust what you read on Facebook, even if you believe the advice is well-meaning. Most of all, keep an eye on your friends and neighbors. Let's practice caremongering rather than scaremongering!

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How will the coronavirus affect your personal finances? Thu, 12 Mar 2020 17:16:06 +0000 How quickly things change.

Last week, the coronavirus (or Covid-19, if you prefer) was a distant problem. It was something other people in other places had to wrestle with. Sure, there was a looming sense that maybe this runaway train was steaming our way, but it still seemed distant enough that maybe it'd stop before it reached us.

Not anymore. Now it's clear that the coronavirus isn't just headed to the U.S., it's already here in our communities.

I'm fascinated by the financial implications of the coronavirus. They're going to be huge — they're already huge — but I don't know who is going to bear the burden or how we, as a society, are going to make sense of this in the long run.

The stock market is tanking, obviously, and will likely continue to tank for some time. But I expect (hope?) that when the dust has settled, things there will largely return to normal.

Yes, I know it's impossible to make predictions about the market's direction. But I believe the current movement is largely due to the coronavirus and its immediate implications. When this event has receded into the past — in a few months, say — I expect stocks to regain most of what they lost. Not all, but most. (And again: I could be full of shit. Don't make any market moves based on what I personally believe will happen. I'm just a random guy behind a keyboard.)

But outside the stock market, there are a whole host of financial implications. We're entering uncharted territory. I don't know what to expect, and I don't think anyone else does either.

Here are some of my questions.

What Happens When Events Are Cancelled?

Many places — including here in Oregon — are banning large gatherings.

What happens to gatherings that have already been scheduled? I expect some events (such as the Portland Timbers match on March 28th) will be postponed. This should have a minimal financial impact on all parties. It simply shifts all of the money-related stuff to a later date.

This has been one of the toughest articles I've ever written. As I'm sitting at my desk composing it, new updates to the situation are occurring. Just now, for instance, Major League Soccer announced that it's suspending the season for thirty days. Rather than re-write as news hits, I'm going to leave the article as it was in the moment I wrote it.

Other events, though, will have to be cancelled. What happens then?

For instance, Kim and I have tickets to see an April performance of The Illusionists at Portland's Keller Auditorium. This event falls inside the 28-day ban on large gatherings in this state. I highly doubt this event well be re-scheduled. I expect it to be cancelled.

So, what happens when this event is cancelled?

Under normal circumstances — if the event were cancelled for any other reason — I'd expect to receive a refund for the ticket price. But what about now? Will ticket holders still receive refunds? Or will the production company say, “Sorry. This is beyond our control. You're out of luck.” I can see that happening. And I'm not sure I'd complain.

What about St. Patrick's Day? I consider this kind of a silly holiday, but it's a Big Deal to a lot of people.

Perhaps because it occurs in early spring, St. Patrick's Day fosters events with large crowds. Here in Portland, that means the Shamrock Run, in which 30,000+ people gather in the cold and the rain to run through downtown. That's been postponed. And Savannah, Georgia, home to the second-largest St. Patrick's Day parade in the country, just cancelled the event.

When I posted about this on Facebook, one of my friends noted that formal disaster declarations allow insurance claims to be filed. This sounds great, in theory. Disaster declared, so both the production company (or event producer) and potential attendees all get their costs refunded. Yay!

Or is it “yay”?

Doesn't this simply shift the financial burden to another party? If, as appears increasingly likely, we experience large-scale cancellations, won't this effectively gut the insurance industry? Do they have enough financial reserves to cover something of this magnitude? I find that unlikely. So, what happens then?

Here's another real-life dilemma.

The first-ever Financial Freedom Summit is scheduled for May 1st in St. Louis, Missouri. I'm supposed to speak. I haven't booked my flight yet, and at this point I don't know whether I should. While St. Louis hasn't been hit as hard as the West Coast, it's beginning to feel the effects, and events are being postponed or cancelled.

Will the city (or state) eventually issue a ban on large gatherings? How long will this ban last? I believe we're at the front-end of the coronavirus vector curve here in the U.S., but how long will it be a concern? Will we still be talking about this in late April and early May? Or will we be done with it in a couple of weeks?

If I had to guess, I'd say things are going to peak by the end of March, and that by the end of April, we'll mostly be back to normal. But what do I know? Again, I'm just a random guy behind a keyboard.

If I did book my flight and the event were cancelled, would I be able to get my money back? Airlines seem to be making some accommodations, but for how long? For now, I'm holding off on any decisions. (Worth noting: Not everyone has been able to get ticket refunds from airlines. Some are simply out of luck.)

Over at I Will Teach You to Be Rich this morning, Ramit Sethi published an excellent piece on the coronavirus: Panic is bad, but overreaction is good.

What's Going to Happen to Small Business?

In reality, I'm less concerned about how Big Business is going to weather this storm and more worried about how small businesses are going to hold things together.

Take restaurants, for instance. It's been a couple of weeks since I dined out — hey, I'm following through with my resolution to spend less on food in 2020! — but I can only imagine that things are slow slow slow. (In hard-hit Seattle, layoffs have already begun.)

To check my hunch, I messaged my friend Kyra Bussanich. Kyra's the only four-time winner of Cupcake Wars and owns a local gluten-free bake shop. “Have sales slowed at all?” I asked.

“Oh gosh yes,” Kyra answered. “And if things continue, I don't know if there'll be a bake shop when this blows over.”

Things are so bad, in fact, that she's taken a part-time job to make ends meet — and is even considering applying for a full-time job. All this while trying to run her business, a business that's struggling because of the coronavirus.

At the end of our conversation, Kyra gave me some words of advice for how to help. “If there are artists or small businesses you love,” she said, “I urge you to go buy gift cards to them and when this all blows over, redeem those gift cards.”

GRS reader Christine runs a small business that gives food tours in Nashville. She says that new bookings have stalled. Plus, folks are cancelling travel plans, which means she's refunding tour tickets. “I had a plan for a recession,” she says. “This is like somebody turned the faucet off.”

So, as bad as things seem for big companies like Apple and United Airlines, they're even worse for small businesses.

I should note that not all small businesses are being affected. As you know, my family owns a small firm that manufactures corrugated packaging. Custom Box Service is humming right along. In fact, things are busy right now, which is a good sign.

How Will the Coronavirus Affect Personal Finances?

As a personal finance writer, though, my biggest concern during this crisis is the impact it's going to have on individuals.

I know I just updated my article about what to do when the stock market crashes on Monday — and I stand by my advice there — but there's more to personal finance than stock-market investing, right?

How is all of this going to affect workers? If Kyra's Bake Shop has to shut down — even temporarily — she loses income as an entrepreneur, but suddenly her employees are out of work. If my girlfriend's dental office decides it can't (or won't) see patients, she'll have to go without an income for a while.

Fortunately, Kim has savings. So do I. We can weather the storm. Not everybody can. In fact, most Americans have little (if anything) saved.

If you're thirty-something with a family, a mortgage, a car payment, and credit card debt, then what happens when you lose your job (or experience a layoff) because people stop coming to where you work?

In a normal economy, this happens constantly on a very small scale. People no longer use typewriters, so a typewriter firm goes out of business and its employees no longer have jobs. But that's a tiny handful of businesses. Now, today, this is problem is wide-spread and happening all at once.

This isn't me making stuff up. This is happening to our family and friends right now in the real world.

Coronavirus reality

What happens when many people experience this at the same time? What then?

The Independent, a British publication, recently opined that the coronavirus will bankrupt more people than it kills. I suspect this is true. From the article: “We may look back on coronavirus as the moment when the threads that hold the global economy together came unstuck.” I hope not.

The financial effects won't simply come from lost wages. Many folks who succumb to the coronavirus in the U.S. — and I truly hope this will number in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands — could face high medical bills.

For 81% percent of people who contract it, the coronavirus is mild, which means it feels like the flu. For 14% of people, however, it's severe enough to require hospitalization. Another 5% of those infected suffer symptoms so severe that they need intensive career. (Generally speaking, they need artificial respiration.) And roughly 3% of people die from infection.

While I keep GRS largely politics-free, health care is one rare exception. Our current system is ridiculous: expensive and outmoded. This coronavirus may finally serve as a catalyst for change. Maybe.

What Happens in the Long Run?

I have other questions about what will happen in the long run.

Can the national (and global) economy simply take a two- or three-month break, then resume as normal as if nothing happened? What happens in the meantime? How do we care for our at-risk populations and for those who already struggle to make ends meet?

How do we improve our ability to handle black swan events like this in the future?

Will this crisis change anything about how we live and relate to each other? Is it possible that this could perhaps alleviate some of the partisan bickering we've been experiencing in recent years?

It's my deepest hope that this unprecedented event will draw people together in a way that we haven't seen in this country for some time. I hope that the spirit of cooperation blossoms and that people and and government and business find solutions to make sure everyone comes happy and healthy and financially secure.

Unfortunately, I don't think that's likely to happen.

I don't have any answers here, obviously. All I have is a lot of questions. I suspect that's true for everyone. For once, this really does seem like a case of “this time is different”.

Lifehacker has published a guide on what to do if the coronavirurs is affecting your finances.

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How to build credit the quick and easy way Tue, 10 Mar 2020 07:30:53 +0000 Most Americans know that it's important to build credit but many don't know how. If you're one of those confused about how to build credit, you're not alone.

In 2019, CNBC reported that around 40% of Americans don’t know how credit scores work. This is a disappointing but not altogether surprising statistic since credit-building is still absent from curriculum at most schools. Good for you for seeking out this valuable information!

Today, let's cover some credit-building basics. In this article, I'll share some tips on how to build credit quickly and easily.

What is Credit?

Credit is simply the ability to use borrowed money.

When you think of credit, you probably picture credit cards and loans (student loans, auto loans, mortgages, etc). But you’re also using credit when you use services like utilities, rent, and your cell phone plan.

Companies provide these services with the expectation that you’ll pay for your usage each month. That’s why you need to have some established credit to qualify for an apartment or a cell phone. And if you’ve ever been asked to put down a deposit for your utilities, it’s because you didn’t have enough positive credit history to assure your utility provider than you would make your payments on time and in full.

To build credit, you have to prove you can be trusted to meet your financial obligations. The only way to do this is to start using credit. Not sure how to get started? No problem, we’ll get into that in just a moment. But before you start your credit-building journey, you deserve to know why good credit matters.

Good credit opens financial doors. When you have a positive credit history, you’re more likely to qualify for an apartment rental, credit card, auto loan, or mortgage when you have good credit. But, just as importantly, you qualify for better interest rates on your loans.

Interest is the cost of borrowing money. The better your credit, the lower your interest rate. And the lower your interest rate, the less you pay to borrow money.

Take a mortgage, for example. If your credit score is just okay, you might be able to get an interest rate at 4.997%, but with excellent credit, you could get a rate as low as 3.408% (using late 2019 rates). Doesn’t sound like a big difference, does it? But on a 30-year mortgage for a $200,000 home, that interest rate difference can save you $185/month in interest. Over the life of your loan, you save $66,754 in interest!

The bottom line? Good credit pays. Bad credit is costly.

How to Build Credit

Okay, so how do you start building good credit?

Using a credit card to build credit is a quick and effective option. But be certain you use your credit cards wisely. Never spend more than you can afford to repay. And if you can pay your balance in full every month, you’ll never have to pay a cent in credit card interest!

Here are four ways to use a credit card to build credit:

  • Become an authorized user. Ask a parent or guardian if you can be an authorized user on their credit card. Because the parent or guardian will be responsible for your credit card spending, the credit card company isn’t taking much of a risk by allowing you to be an authorized user. So you’re extremely likely to be approved as a user so you can begin building credit.
  • Secured cards. With secured credit cards, you have to put down a deposit before you can use your card. If you were to fail to pay your bill, the credit card company would keep your deposit.
  • Student cards. Student credit cards come with low credit limits to help students learn to use credit responsibly without getting into too much debt.
  • Store cards. Store cards are typically easier to qualify for than general credit cards because they generally have fairly low limits and can only be used for certain stores.

If you’re afraid you’d get into too much debt with a credit card (and good for you for being self-aware and honest!), there are ways to build good credit without getting a credit card.

Here are three options:

  • Student loans. For many of us, student loans are the only way we can afford college. While student loans aren’t ideal, at least they help you build your credit.
  • Auto loans. As with student loans, auto loans are a necessity for many of us. And while we hate the higher interest rates, at least they provide a way to purchase a car and build credit.
  • Ask for service credit to be reported. Service credit is less about borrowing money and more about owing money for services. Utility bills, rent payments, and cell phone plans all fall into this category. In most cases, your on-time payments aren’t reported to the credit bureaus. But if they were reported, they would help you build good credit. So contact your providers and ask if they can report your on-time payments.

It typically takes about six months to establish credit. That may sound like a long time, but remember, lenders need to see a history of responsible usage before they will trust you enough to lend you money. In terms of your overall financial life, six months is a drop in the bucket.

Start small. Maybe get a secured or student credit card. Put just a few necessities on your card each month and pay the bill in full before the due date. Then, in six months to a year, apply for more credit, like a second credit card with a higher limit. Use this card in the same way as the first to demonstrate that you can be trusted to remain responsible even with more credit.

Continue making payments on time every month, and before you know it, you’ll have excellent credit!

How are Credit Scores Calculated?

A key part of your credit history is your credit score. Your credit score is the numerical rating you’re assigned based on your history of credit use. You’ve probably heard the term “FICO Score”. This is one specific type of credit score.

Your credit score is composed of five key factors:

  • Payment history: do you pay on time? Aim for zero late payments.
  • Utilization: how much of your available credit do you use? Try to use less than 30% of your available credit limit.
  • Length of credit history: how long have your accounts been open? The longer, the better. That’s why you don’t want to close your accounts.
  • Recent activity: have you applied for more credit recently? Applying for too much credit in a six-month period looks suspicious.
  • Credit mix: what kind of loans do you have? You generally don’t want to have only short-term, high-risk loans. Lenders are more comfortable if you have a mix of credit cards and installment loans (like a student loan, auto loan, or mortgage).

These five factors aren’t weighted equally. Some matter more than others. Here’s the breakdown for calculating your FICO Score:

  1. Payment history: 35%
  2. Utilization: 30%
  3. Length of credit history: 15%
  4. Recent activity: 10%
  5. Credit mix: 10%

For more on this subject, check out our handy guide to your credit score (and why it matters).

FICO Score Components

How to Increase Your Credit Score

Once you open your first credit card or get your first loan, you’ll increase your credit score over time simply by making on-time payments each month. If you're worried that you'll forget to make payments, set up auto-pay so you never have to think about it.

And there are a few other things you can do to quickly and easily increase your credit score.

  • Correct any errors on your credit report. Errors on credit reports are surprisingly common and can drag your score down. Get a free credit report online at least once a year to check for errors.
  • Don’t apply for too many cards at once. Space out your applications by six months to a year.
  • Don’t carry a large balance. Keep your balance under 30% of your available credit to show that you’re not overextending yourself.
  • Don’t close your accounts. Even when a credit card is paid off, keep the account open and use it for necessities once in a while. This will increase your credit history length and your overall credit score.

Having good credit is critical to your long-term financial health. To build good credit, you have to use credit tools wisely. Consistently making your payments on time is the best way to increase your credit score over time.

Building good credit doesn’t happen overnight. But it also doesn’t take much time or effort. Just use your credit responsibly and make those payments on time every month. Within six months to a year, you’ll have an established credit record.

But remember: Just because you have a credit card doesn’t mean you need to incur interest charges or credit card debt. Pay your bill in full every month to avoid credit card trouble.

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What to do when the stock market crashes Mon, 09 Mar 2020 16:30:39 +0000 Can you feel it? There's panic in the streets! We're in the middle of a stock market crash and the hysteria is starting again. As I write this, the S&P 500 is down six percent today — and 17.3% off its record high of 3386.15 on February 19th.

S&P 500 status

Media outlets everywhere are sharing panicked headlines.

Panicked headlines

All over the TV and internet, other financial reporters are filing similar stories. And why not? This stuff sells. It's the financial equivalent of the old reporter's adage: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Here's the top story at USA Today at this very moment:

USA Today headline

But here's the thing: To succeed at investing, you have to pull yourself away from the financial news. You have to ignore it. All it'll do is make you crazy.

Note: This is an updated version of the article I publish whenever the stock market crashes. I last shared it on 21 January 2016. Some comments are from previous versions of the piece.

Bad Behavior

The sad truth is that people tend to pour money into stocks during bull markets — after the stocks have been rising for some time. Speculators pile on, afraid to miss out. Then they panic and bail out after during a stock market crash. By buying high and selling low, they lose a lot.

It's often small individual investors like you and me who make these mistakes. During the Great Recession, one Get Rich Slowly reader shared the following story:

“I'm in the [financial] industry…I can tell you now that when the markets tanked during October [2008], people with less than (approximately) 100k behaved significantly different from investors with 100k+ in the market. Also, people who did not have an emergency fund behaved significantly different than those who did, generally to their own detriment.

“These actions lead me to believe that people with substantial assets tend to ride out the market and not worry about short-term fluctuations, whereas people with smaller amounts of assets lock in losses by removing assets from the market at poor times. Then, when/if they get back in, they’ve missed out on several days of big gains…

“As it was happening I was shocked by the clear income demarcation that seemed to separate rational behavior from irrational behavior. Do small investors make behavioral mistakes that keep them from becoming wealthy?

Instead of selling during a downturn, it's better to buck the trend. Follow the advice of billionaire Warren Buffett, the world's greatest investor: “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.

In his 1997 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Buffett made a brilliant analogy: “If you plan to eat hamburgers throughout your life and are not a cattle producer, should you wish for higher or lower prices for beef?” You want lower prices, of course: If you're going to eat lots of burgers over the next 30 years, you want to buy them cheap.

Buffett completes his analogy by asking, “If you expect to be a net saver during the next five years, should you hope for a higher or lower stock market during that period?”

Even though they're decades away from retirement, most investors get excited when stock prices rise (and panic when they fall). Buffett points out that this is the equivalent of rejoicing because they're paying more for hamburgers, which doesn't make any sense: “Only those who will [sell] in the near future should be happy at seeing stocks rise.” He's driving home the age-old wisdom to buy low and sell high.

Doing this can be tough. For one thing, it goes against your gut. During a stock market crash, the last thing you want to do is buy more. Besides, how do you know the market is near its peak or its bottom? The truth is you don't. The best solution is to make regular, planned investments — no matter whether the market is high or low.

Meanwhile, ignore the financial news.

No News is Good News

The mass media is in the business of selling news, and to do that, they sensationalize it. Fueled by the over-eager reporting, irrational exuberance can quickly turn to pervasive gloom. Neither state of mind makes sense. They're both extremes that lead investors to make poor choices.

For example, I know a couple of people who “invested” in Bitcoin when it was all over the news. Now they wish they hadn't but they bought into the hype. My brother lost two homes to foreclosure and declared bankruptcy because he bought into the U.S. housing bubble during the mid 2000s.

Meanwhile, the people I know who ignore financial tend to prosper.

The May 2008 issue of the AAII Journal featured an article entitled “The Stock Market and the Media: Turn It On, But Tune It Out” in which author Dick Davis argued that daily market movement is often illogical and/or arbitrary. Except for obvious catalysts — military coups, natural disasters, the coronavirus — nobody knows what makes the market move on any given day. Short-term changes appear random. Besides, as we just learned from Warren Buffett, they aren't really relevant if you have a long-term investment horizon (which is probably the case for most of you).

To the long-term investor, daily market movements are mostly noise and filler. “What's important is repetition or the lack of it,” Davis writes. A trendline is more useful than a datapoint.

“I believe one of the worst things that can happen to a long-term investor is to be instantly and totally informed about his stock. In most cases, spot news fades into irrelevance over time…Big market moves may be inexplicable, but a long-term or dollar-cost averaging approach precludes the need for explanations.”

You can watch the daily investment news, but don't let it sway your decisions. “Focus on the long term,” Davis writes, “and you can ignore the media's distortions.”

Davis isn't the only one to believe that no news is good news. Research backs him up. In Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes (and How to Correct Them), the authors cite a Harvard study of investment habits. The results?

Investors who received no news performed better than those who received a constant stream of information, good or bad. In fact, among investors who were trading [a volatile stock], those who remained in the dark earned more than twice as much money as those whose trades were influenced by the media.”

Though it may seem reckless to ignore financial news, the book argues that it's not: “Long-term investors need not concern themselves with yesterday's closing price or tomorrow's quarterly earnings reports.” Make your decisions based on your personal financial goals and a pre-determined investment strategy, not on whether the market jumped or dropped yesterday.

“But This Time Is Different!”

Whenever the stock market crashes, there are folks who cry, “This time is different!” This time the market won't recover. This time the economy is going to be mired in a morass for years. Or decades. Or forever. So far, “this time” has never been different.

But I'll admit: This time does feel a little different. Yes, I believe that much of this panic is just that — panic. And I expect that, overall, this downturn will mirror previous downturns. That said, the coronavirus is real. Despite the admonitions of certain self-proclaimed experts, the coronavirus is not the flu. It's far deadlier. And even when it's not fatal, it can be debilitating. (Did you know that 5% of cases in China require artificial respiration? Another 15% require oxygen therapy? That's not the flu.)

The coronavirus is having real effects on the global economy. And those effects may linger for months — or years.

Take Apple, for instance. One of the world's largest companies, Apple's profits depend on a regular product cycle, one that routinely introduces updates to existing gadgets while occasionally introducing new ones. But the coronavirus is going to delay many of its planned 2020 announcements. Plus, it's gumming up production of existing items. The bottom line? Apple's numbers are going to be a mess this year.

Apple isn't alone. The coronavirus is wreaking havoc with the global economy — and I suspect this is just the beginning.

Here in Portland, we've had the coronavirus for about ten days now. The first diagnosed case came from a person employed at a school just five miles from our house. This has caused panicked runs on Costco and Wal-Mart.

Coronavirus in Oregon

Yesterday, Kim and I attended two crowded events: a Broadway musical (Frozen) and a Portland Timbers soccer match. Both had light attendance. (The official Timbers stats show a max-capacity crowd of 25,218 but that's bullshit. There were empty seats all around.)

All this is to say: The coronavirus has already affected the national economy, and it's only going to get worse. Your best defense? An ongoing campaign to develop a strong personal economy.

The National Economy vs. Your Personal Economy

Obviously, the national economic situation affects our personal financial decisions to some degree.

When unemployment soars, it's important to maintain an adequate emergency savings and to limit your use of debt. When the stock market crashes, you need to understand your investment objectives, and how these relate to your risk tolerance and your investment timeline. (And when the stock market is up, you need to ask the same questions.)

Regardless the state of the national economy, ultimately you are responsible for your personal economy. A money boss is proactive, preparing for problems before they occur. When times are flush, you need to set something aside for the future. Then, when things turn dark and dismal, you'll be better shielded from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

A strong personal economy is built on personal-finance fundamentals such as these:

  • Clear financial goals. You need to know why you're earning and saving money. Where do you want to be in five years? Ten? How do you want to get there?
  • An adequate emergency fund. Experts disagree on how big an emergency fund should be. Some say six months, some say twelve, and others say three. I say it should be large enough to let you sleep at night when the economy gets rocky. (And the best time to save is before you need the money.)
  • Limited use of debt. If you use debt, use it wisely. A mortgage isn't a bad thing, and neither are student loans. A car loan is borderline, though, and borrowing to buy a television is foolish. Use debt only when needed. If you suspect you may lose your job or encounter some other big life change, then get rid of debt completely.
  • The practice of thrift. When your personal economy is good, it's easy to get lulled into complacency. You start buying organic ketchup and eating in fancy restaurants. You take bigger vacations. But if you can master the art of frugality when times are fat, you'll be better able to practice it when times are lean.
  • Smart investing for the future. Lastly, invest wisely. Don't let the news lead you to make emotional decisions. Buy low and sell high. If you weren't willing to sell your investments when the Dow was near 30,000, then how in the world does it make sense to sell them when the Dow is near 25,000?

The foundation of a strong personal economy is education. To become a wise investor, you must be an educated investor. And you must recognize what you can and cannot control. The national (and global) economy affects your personal economy, but ultimately all you can control are your personal finances.

I'm overly fond of this analogy, so I'll share it again: The national economy is like a river. Sometimes the water is still and deep. Sometimes the current is swift. Sometimes snags and rapids block the river. Your personal economy is like a boat on that river. Your goal is to reach the river's mouth, and to do so you have to keep the boat in working order. You have to avoid the snags and rapids, which means advance preparation. Mostly, your trip down the river is pleasant. From time to time, though, things can get hairy. If you're not careful, in fact, your boat can capsize. Through it all, the river flows in one direction — and daily, well-prepared sailors reach their destinations.

The Bottom Line

I know market downturns can be scary. But here's the thing: If this volatility makes you nervous, if it causes you to make bad decisions, then maybe you've put too much money into the stock market. Volatility is one of the fundamental features of stocks.

On average, the stock market returns 10% per year (around 7% when adjusted for inflation). But average is not normal.

Recent history is typical. The following table shows the annual return for the S&P 500 over the past twenty years (not including dividends):

S&P 500 annual returns

The S&P 500 earned an average annualized return of 6.06% for the twenty-year period ending in 2019. But zero of these years generated stock market returns close to the average for that time span. (2007 came closest to average with a return of 3.53% — still more than 2.50% off the average.)

Short-term market movements aren’t an accurate indicator of long-term performance. What a stock or fund did last year doesn’t tell you much about what it’ll do during the next decade.

In Benjamin Graham's classic The Intelligent Investor, he writes:

“The investor with a portfolio of sound stocks should expect their prices to fluctuate and should neither be concerned by sizable declines nor become excited by sizable advances. He should always remember that market quotations are there for his convenience, either to be taken advantage of or to be ignored. He should never buy a stock because it has gone up or sell one because it has gone down. He would not be far wrong if this motto read more simply: “Never buy a stock immediately after a substantial rise or sell one immediately after a substantial drop.

If you believe stock prices are still high, then steer clear of the market. If you think they're low, then buy. And remember: Unless you sell your stocks, you haven't lost anything at this point — it's all on paper.

During the tech bubble of the late 1990s, I was part of an investment club. My friends and I chortled with glee as we bought tech stocks (Celera Genomics, Home Grocer, Triquint Semiconductor) near the top of the market. We thought we were going to be rich. We weren't laughing so hard when the bubble popped; we closed the club and sold the stocks at huge losses. What lesson did I learn? The time to buy is when prices are low, not when they're high.

I believe that for the average long-term investor, the best course of action right now is to make regular scheduled purchases of low-cost diversified index funds.

That's what I've done in the past. If I had money to invest, that's what I'd be doing today.

Further reading: Eight years ago, my buddy J.L. Collins wrote a great article about market crashes and how to handle them. Jeremy from Go Curry Cracker has written about exposure therapy, about how repeatedly “losing” $100,000 (or more) in the stock market has desensitized him to the experience. And Mrs. Frugalwoods has a great artricle about the zen art of losing money.

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Keeping up appearances Fri, 06 Mar 2020 20:25:22 +0000 Spring has sprung here in Portland, and that means yard work. I'll spend most of March completing my project for Audible and The Great Courses — which means things around here may be slow for a few weeks — but when I'm done hacking in the word mines each day, there's plenty of mowing and pruning and digging and weeding and planting to do at home.

“I'll be glad when everything looks pretty back here,” Kim said last Saturday. We were lounging at the bottom of the yard, soaking up sun and sipping beer. We'd spent the afternoon trimming blackberry vines and moving yard debris. Now, our three cats and one dog were with us, enjoying Family Time.

“Me too,” I said. “This back yard is a jungle. It was a mess when we moved in, and it's only gotten worse in the past three years. My goal for 2020 is to clean it up completely, to create a space where it's fun to hang out with our friends.”

One small corner of our yard

Kim nodded. “I've been almost embarrassed to have people over because the yard is such a mess,” she said. “I was proud to have people over to the condo. It was beautiful. It was a place where I wanted to host parties. Here? I don't know. I love this house, and you know it, but I'm not proud of it. In fact, sometimes I'm ashamed of it with all of the mice and bugs and weeds.”

It's true. Our neighborhood is infested with rodents. It's not just our house; it's every house on the ridge. (It's more obvious at our house because our cats frequently bring us presents.) And we do have large populations of mosquitoes and box-elder bugs. Our home is tidy but it's surrounded by chaos.

Plus, the condo had 1547 square feet of space, about half of which was devoted to entertainment areas. It was a fourth-floor corner suite with beautiful views of the Willamette River and downtown Portland. The place was luxurious. It was light and airy. We felt rich living there.

Our country cottage has 1235 square feet of space, none of which is laid out efficiently. The house isn't designed for entertaining. It's designed for living. The place is dark and cramped, almost like a hobbit hole. Nothing about it feel luxurious — but it feels like home.

“Do you want to move?” I asked.

“No,” Kim said. “Not at all. I just wish we had a home I was proud to show to people.”

Keeping Up Appearances

I've been thinking about this conversation for a week now.

A key part of the FI/RE movement — the financial independence and early retirement movement — is carefully considering societal values, then (possibly) choosing to do things differently if that will lead to better results. (By “better results”, I mean an increased saving rate or quicker retirement date.)

FI folks think outside the box. They make choices that go against the mainstream. We're more concerned with results than with appearances.

  • We drive older vehicles for a longer period of time, for instance. Or we commute by bike or public transportation. We don't view cars as status symbols.
  • We choose cheaper places to live. We recognize that housing is the single largest expense for most families, so we choose less-expensive houses and we prefer smaller homes.
  • We save 30% or 50% or 70% of our incomes instead of the standard 8%. We sacrifice present comfort for future security.
  • We spend to support our personal goals. We don't spend to keep up with the Joneses. We're not interested in what other people buy and do.

And yet…

We are human beings. We're social animals. We live in a society. Conformity is hard-wired into our brains. It's biological. We want to fit in with our neighbors, so it can be deeply uncomfortable when it's clear that we don't fit in. We want to appear “normal” so that others will accept us.

This need to “keep up appearances” can be almost pathological in some people. I have friends (and I'm sure you do too) for whom appearance is much more important than reality. They have a driving need for others to view them and their families as happy and successful. Things may be chaotic behind the scenes, but they project an aura of orderliness. How things seem is more important than how things are for these folks.

So, at one extreme you have the Hyacinth Buckets of the world.

But is it possible to swing too far in the other direction? Is it possible to not care enough about appearances? Is there a certain minimum level of polish that one ought to maintain as part of society?

What Do You Care What Other People Think?

Fifteen months ago, I paid $1900 to purchase a 1993 Toyota pickup. I love the truck — and it runs great! — but I'll admit that it looks like a piece of junk. The paint is peeling. There's moss growing out of the grilles. The upholstery is stained and worn. The seatbelts are frayed. The dashboard is gouged. (It's even been patched with duct tape in one spot!)

My 1993 Toyota Pickup

I'm not embarrassed by this truck, but others are embarrassed for me.

Kim doesn't like having it in the driveway. My cousin Duane thinks I'm crazy for not cleaning up the moss and washing the truck. My brother thinks I need to remove the canopy. (“That's an old-man canopy,” he told me.) As I drive around town, I'm acutely aware that my pickup looks out of place next to the Tesla Model 3s and Porsche Cayennes so popular in our neighborhood. (I would not be surprised to discover that our town was the Porsche Cayenne capital of the world!)

Mostly, I don't care what other people think. My lifestyle works for me. My choices are aligned with my values, and they've helped me (and continue to help me) achieve financial independence. If I were to buy a $69,000 SUV instead of a $1900 pickup, I might look wealthier from the outside, but I wouldn't be wealthier. I'd be poorer.

So, mostly I don't care what other people think. But a part of me does. I can't help it. Like I say, this stuff is burned onto our brains. We want to fit in.

And, like Kim, I haven't felt comfortable having people over for the past three years. I'm not proud of our home right now. It's not a place I want to show off. Instead of inviting friends over to sit in the hot tub, Kim and I always suggest we meet elsewhere. As much as I want to believe appearances don't matter to me, they do. Yes, how things are matters more, but apparently how things seem is still something I consider.

Final Thoughts

Build Your Own MiniAfter years of talking about it, Kim finally bought a new car last month. Her 1997 Honda Accord is gone, replaced by a 2016 Toyota RAV4. The Honda, like my truck, looked like a piece of junk. The paint was peeling and things were falling apart inside the cabin. Kim's RAV4, on the other hand, is an options-laden thing of beauty.

“Driving the RAV4 makes me feel special,” Kim told me on Monday night. “It's so fancy. It's so far ahead of my Honda, it's ridiculous. It's like the future. It makes me feel rich!” As you can imagine, this only made me more eager to buy a new car of my own! I I want to feel special. I want to feel rich.

It doesn't help that the car-buying issue of Consumer Reports came on Tuesday. I've spent far too much time in the past week building my own car on various manufacturer websites. Wouldn't I feel better driving a new car with new features? (Answer: Probably not, but a piece of me believes so.)

Fortunately, it's not often that I get wrapped up in appearances. When I find myself worried what other people think, I:

  • Remind myself of my personal mission statement. Is a new car aligned with my values? Is a fancy house? Is a successful image? Are there other things that are more important?
  • Connect with like-minded folks. When I don't spend enough time with my FIRE friends, I begin to feel pressure to conform to societal norms. But when I'm able to attend events like the Financial Freedom Summit or the chautauqua in Ecuador, I realize that I may be a weirdo, but I'm not the only weirdo.
  • Give myself permission to buy what I want. If my spending choices are deliberate, fine. It's not wrong to buy a new car — and I suspect I'll do so soon. That might be five weeks from now, or it might be five years. When I do make the purchase, I won't feel guilty. I can afford it. But I don't want to succumb to the new-car itch simply for the sake of appearances.

Some people appear rich but have nothing. Some people are rich but appear to have nothing. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. Do appearances matter? I don't know. My inclination is to say, “No, not at all.” But I feel like the real answer is, “Yes, appearances matter — but just a little.”

What do you think? How important are appearances? How do you balance the way things are and the way things appear? Do you care at all how other people perceive you and your family? Would you drive a 27-year-old pickup? Would give up a fancy condo for a country cottage? As you pursue your financial goals, where do you find the courage to be different?

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15 best paid survey sites in 2020 Mon, 02 Mar 2020 08:30:37 +0000 If you have some spare time and are looking for ways to make a little extra money, you could try filling out surveys for money. With survey companies paying out millions of dollars to users each year, it’s a legitimate way to earn an income online.

Or is it? There’s a natural skepticism whenever this topic is brought up in personal finance circles, and for good reason. For starters, far too many people have been burned by the claims of ‘scammy’ survey sites in the past, walking away with nothing more than a whole lot of wasted time. And, let’s face it, you’re never going to get rich filling out online surveys. Forget rich, you’re going to struggle just to get to minimum wage.

So why even bother? Survey sites are definitely not for everyone, yet they remain very popular. If you stick to the most reputable ones, there is money to be made. We’re not talking rent-erasing money, but it might cover the cost of your monthly Netflix subscription, or subsidize your coffee habit, which for some people is worth the effort.

In this article, I’ve selected what I think are the best online survey companies out there today. Most have been around for several years and have established a fairly solid reputation. Some are better than others, without a doubt. Before we dive in, here are a few tips on ways to maximize your online survey earnings.

How to earn more with online surveys

As I already mentioned, if you’re looking to make money with only one survey site, you’ll likely be disappointed. Most sites pay very little per survey, often less than $1, while the sites that claim to pay more, say $5 per survey, tend to send very few surveys your way. Still, if you’re willing to put in the time, there are things you can do to maximize your earnings.

Sign up on more sites – It only makes sense, but by signing up for more sites, you’ll increase your potential earnings by increasing the number of surveys you qualify for.

Opt for the higher paying activities – In addition to taking surveys, many of these sites will reward you for other activities, such as searching the web, watching videos, or participating in focus groups (rare). Simple tasks pay less than more detailed ones. Pay attention to the higher paying activities, and stick with those.

Register for sweepstakes – Many survey websites provide an option to use your points to register in sweepstakes, where the prizes can be as much as $500, or $1000. While there is no guarantee you will win, consider taking the chance with some of your points, to improve your odds of a better payout.

Survey Junkie

Top Feature: Quick payment via PayPal

Typical Earnings: $1 – $3 per survey

Survey Junkie has been around since 2013 and rewards users with points for completing surveys, which are then converted to dollars. Surveys are worth between 50 and 450 points each, with 100 points equalling $1. Earnings can be paid out via PayPal or in the form of e-gift cards. Unlike many companies on this list, Survey Junkie sticks to what they know best, surveys. There are no rewards for shopping online, browsing the internet, or watching videos. You can cash out as soon as your earnings reach $10, which is a nice feature, and payments via PayPal are processed within 24 hours, which is very quick when compared to many of its competitors.


Top Feature: More options to earn money

Typical Earnings: $1 per survey

Swagbucks is more than just surveys, rewarding users for shopping online, searching the web, playing games, and more. Survey earnings can be very minimal, less than $1 per, but you have no shortage of options to make money. Like Survey Junkie, SwagBucks users are compensated in the form of cash via PayPal, and gift cards. A nice feature is the ability to redeem gift cards for as little as $3, while the minimum PayPal cash payout is $25. To help you get paid sooner, SwagBucks offers a $5 sign up bonus.

Pinecone Research

Top Feature: Offer payment via check

Typical Earnings: minimum $3 per survey

Pinecone Research is another long standing survey company that rewards you with points for completing surveys. They pay well for surveys, at a minimum of $3 each. The catch is that because they are searching for a specific demographic at different times, they operate on an invite only basis so the number of survey opportunities are limited. Still, it’s worth signing up as a way of padding diversifying your survey income. Pinecone is run by Nielsen, the same organization that measures television viewership ratings.


Top Feature: $5 bonus after completing 5 surveys

Typical Earnings: $.30-$.50 per survey

MyPoints is owned by Prodege, the same company that owns SwagBucks. They’re similar in that you can earn points a number of ways, including online shopping, watching videos, and playing games. They offer plenty of survey opportunities, but the earnings per survey tend to be very low. You do get a $5 bonus after completing your first 5 surveys however. Payment options include PayPal cash and gift cards.

Inbox Dollars

Top Feature: $5 sign up bonus

Typical Earnings: $.50 – $5 per survey

Inbox Dollars pays cash for completing a variety of activities online: answering surveys, fulfilling offers, watching videos, playing games etc. While you can earn up to $5 when you complete a survey, the average payout is much lower than that. A positive is that they have a large number of surveys to choose from, so if you have the time, you can increase your earnings that way. Before you complete a survey, or an activity, Inbox Dollars will let you know how much you’ll be paid. That way, you can decide if it’s worth your time. You can receive payment via gift cards, PayPal cash, or a check in the mail. The minimum payout amount is $30.

Opinion Outpost

Top Feature:Convert points to travel credits

Typical Earnings: $.30 – $3 per survey

When you complete surveys with Opinion Outpost, you’ll earn points that can be converted a number of ways. In addition to receiving PayPal cash or gift cards, you can turn your earnings into travel credits, by joining the MileagePlus program. As with most survey companies, you’ll be required to fill out a questionnaire when you register, so that Opinion Outpost can collect your demographic information and make sure you’re legit. According to their website, survey topics are varied, and include anything from electronics and medicine, to sports and politics, even your eating habits.

VIP Voice

Top Feature: Sweepstakes entries

Typical Earnings: No cash payout, sweepstakes entries

VIP Voice works a bit differently than the other survey companies on this list. You earn points for completing surveys, but they can’t be converted into cash or gift cards. Instead, points can be used to enter sweepstakes, or online auctions on sites like Bidland and Sweepland. The problem with this is that there is no guarantee that you’ll be compensated for the time you spend completing surveys. If you don’t mind the idea of taking your chances with sweepstakes, then there are plenty of surveys you can fill out with VIPVoice. Upon signing up, you are entered into their registration sweepstakes, for a chance to win $1000.


Top Feature: 10 LifePoints at sign up

Typical Earnings: $.50 – $1 per survey

With LifePoints, you can convert points for PayPal cash once you reach a minimum $20 payout. The downside is that the amount you earn per survey is fairly low, usually less than $1. They do claim to have paid more than $20 million out to members in the past year alone, however. Survey invites are sent out via email, and the number you receive each month will vary based on the type of data being collected, and your suitability to complete the survey. While LifePoints lacks the optionality of a Survey Junkie or Swagbucks, it works well if you’re looking for a basic survey site.

Vindale Research

Top Feature: $1 sign up bonus

Typical Earnings: $1 – $5 per survey

Vindale Research doesn’t incorporate a point system, meaning that your earnings are expressed as a dollar value only. This way, you always know what you’ve earned, at a glance. Payment is via PayPal, but you will need a minimum of $50 before you can cash out. Of note, Vindale offers other earning opportunities that pay more than surveys. For example, you may be able to write product reviews, which pay as much as $75 each. Of course, these opportunities don’t come along very often.

Prize Rebel

Top Feature: Offers a bonus loyalty program

Typical Earnings: $.40 – $.60 per survey

Prize Rebel has been around for more than 10 years, during which they’ve paid out over $19 million to their members. With Prize Rebel, signing up is easy, as they only require your name and email address to open a free account. They will gather more of your personal demographic information when you complete your first survey, but you’ll earn points for doing so. What makes prize Rebel standout is their loyalty bonus program, which rewards members based on the number of surveys they complete. You can earn a bonus of up to 3% on your earnings, not to mention a 3% discount when you redeem your prize (Diamond level). 500 points equal to $5, and earnings can be redeemed for PayPal cash, gift cards, or Dwolla cash.

Survey Club

Top Feature: Variety of earnings options

Typical Earnings: Up to $5 per survey

With Survey Club, you can earn up to $5 per survey, although the vast majority will be much lower than that. They also give users the opportunity to participate in focus groups, some of which pay handsomely, up to $200 per hour. Survey Club doesn’t actually host surveys, rather they steer towards surveys on other websites. What makes Survey Club standout from their competition is the ways in which you can earn. Not only can you be paid in cash or gift cards, you can also make charitable contributions, receive a prepaid debit card, and enter draws and sweepstakes. The minimum earnings required to cash out is $25.

Harris Poll Online

Top Feature: $10,000 sweepstakes entry with every completed survey

Typical Earnings: $1 per survey

With Harris Poll Online, you earn points for completing surveys, which can be redeemed for purchases at a number of leading websites. Their screening process is quite detailed, as they lead you through a series of demographics questions. To complete surveys, you must login in to the Harris website, surveys aren’t sent via email. At an average of around $1 per survey, the earn rate is modest, but the more you visit their site and take surveys, the more money you’ll make. I do like the fact that they enter you into a draw for a $10,000 sweepstakes every time you complete a survey, and they also allow you to make charitable donations with your earnings.


Top Feature: Lightning fast sign up process

Typical Earnings: Up to $5 per survey

The sign up process with OneOpinion is very quick, which allows you to start earning without a lot of effort. Their surveys pay as much as $5 each, but typical earnings are lower than that. Users earn points that can be exchanged for gift cards (there is no PayPal option with OneOpinion). You’ll need to accumulate $25 worth of points before you can redeem, and 1,000 points has a value of $1.

Ipsos iSay

Top Feature: Low minimum payout

Typical Earnings: Up to $1 per survey

iSay by Ipsos is similar to most other survey sites in that you earn points that can be converted to PayPal cash or used to redeem gift cards. The payout per survey is very low, but Ipsos does have a unique point multiplier, that rewards users loyalty with bonus points after they reach a certain number of surveys. After completing 5 surveys, for example, you’ll receive 25 bonus points. One thing I like about iSay, is that they have a low minimum payout. You only need 500 points ($5 value) before you can redeem for PayPal cash. With iSay, 100 points has a value of $1.


Top Feature: Targeted surveys based on area of expertise

Typical Earnings: Not available

The sign up process with ProOpinion is quite detailed. That’s because their mandate is to select surveys that align closely to your individual expertise. When you complete surveys, you earn points that can be redeemed one of 4 ways: PayPal cash, Amazon gift cards, Apple store & iTunes gift cards, and charitable donations via The American Red Cross. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any information on the Pro Opinion website regarding the points you earn, and how much they’re worth. Other sites are more transparent. The data collected is used in articles and other content found on the Pro Opinion website. The information provided is geared towards helping business professionals learn and grow.

The benefits of completing online surveys

There you have it, my list of top paid survey sites for 2020. If you’ve read through these mini-reviews and are interested in getting paid to take surveys, my recommendation would be to start with Survey Junkie and Swagbucks, and go from there. If you need more motivation, there’s another reason filling out online surveys may be beneficial.

On the homepage of the Survey Junkie website, is the caption, “Share your opinion to help brands deliver better products and services”. Personally, I like the idea of having a voice, of being able to influence the direction a company takes with its products and services, even if it’s in a very small way.

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How much does it cost to drive? Driving cost calculators and tools Thu, 27 Feb 2020 19:02:42 +0000 My girlfriend recently bought a new car. After 23 years, she sold her 1997 Honda Accord to a guy who's more mechanically inclined than we are. Kim upgraded to a 2016 Toyota RAV4, and she loves it.

One of her primary considerations when searching for a new car was the cost to drive it. In her ideal world, she would have purchased a fully-electric vehicle but it just wasn't in her budget. The RAV4 hybrid was a compromise. According to, it gets an estimated 32 miles per gallon. (And actual users report 34.7 miles per gallon.)

Cost to drive a RAV4 hybrid

Kim's quest for a fuel-efficient car prompted me to revisit apps and online tools that help users track their driving and fuel habits. I've written about these in the past — and, in fact, this is an updated article from 2008! — but haven't looked into them recently.

Here's a quick look at some of my favorite driving cost calculators, tools, and apps.

Cost to Drive

Cost to Drive (stylized Cost2Drive) is an easy-to-use web app that estimates how much you'll spend to drive from point A to point B. Enter your starting point (address, city, state, or zip code) and your destination, enter your vehicle information, then click a button.

Cost to Drive input

That's it. Cost to Drive calculates travel distance, approximate driving time, and an estimate of your fuel costs. Here, for instance, is how much it would cost to drive from Portland to visit Kim's brother in Groveland, California.

Cost to Drive output

This tool is handy for road trips, of course, but it's also useful for extended journeys. Before Kim and I set out on our R.V. trip across the U.S., I used Cost to Drive to estimate how much we'd spend on fuel. (I was way off, but that's not the fault of the tool. I overestimated the fuel economy of our motorhome!)

This isn't the sort of tool that you'll use every day, but it's certainly useful enough to bookmark for later use.

Folks in Europe — and possibly the rest of the world — might want to play with the Via Michelin app, which offers route planning and driving cost calculations.


While we only used the Cost to Drive once for our R.V. trip, we used the Fuelly app every single day. And I still use it today.

Fuelly is primarily a smartphone app with which you can track your vehicle's fuel economy. Whenever you stop to pump gas, you enter mileage and pricing info into the app, and it computes how much it costs to drive.

Here, for instance, are two screencaps from Fuelly showing how it tracked info for our motorhome.

Fuelly cost to drive screenshot  Fuelly cost to drive info

To get more accurate estimates of the cost to drive your vehicle, you can also log maintenance info in Fuelly. And, as you can see, the free version of the app is ad supported. Ad-free premium versions are available, and they include added features.

While the Fuelly website doesn't offer a lot, there's one feature that I think GRS readers will find interesting. If you select the browse vehicles option from the main menu, you, you can get a profile of driving info for all Fuelly users. Here, for instance, is what the app has tracked for other folks who own a 2004 Mini Cooper, like me.

Fuelly individual model info

Fuelly cost to drive info


A decade ago, GasBuddy was a gas price aggregation tool. It collected fuel price info from across the United States, and served it up so that visitors could find the best prices in their area.

Today, GasBuddy is still that website, but it's a whole lot more. For instance, you can look up a chart of gas price trends over the past couple of years.

Gas price trends

Or you can find local maps and national maps of current gas prices.

Local gas prices

National gas prices

And because it's 2020 now, GasBuddy offers a smartphone app featuring all sorts of tools to help you calculate (and reduce) your fuel costs. is the official U.S. government source for fuel economy info. Like all U.S. government sites, it's a treasure trove of data and resources.

The site includes a car finder (and comparison) tool (also available for iOS and Android devices), a vehicle power search, a fuel savings calculator, and more. There's even a page exploring extreme MPG!

The site also provides some widgets for site owners (like me!) to share with their audience. Here's

Find a Car Tool

This tool lets you look up official EPA fuel economy ratings for vehicles back to the 1984 model year.


Gas Mileage Tips

This tool displays a fuel-saving tips and provides links to additional tips on

Each year, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency produce a Fuel Economy Guide to help buyers choose fuel-efficient vehicles. You can find guides from recent years in the Get Rich Slowly file vault, if you're interested: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

If you're into alternative fuels and advanced technology vehicles, the U.S. Department of Energy has a bunch of different widgets to play with at their Alternative Fuels Data Center.

Sidenote: Many folks want a new Tesla or Prius in order to minimize their impact on the environment. This isn't as straight-forward as it might seem. The calculations are complicated but the bottom line is this: In many cases, it makes more sense to keep (or buy) an older fuel-efficient vehicle than to buy a new one. That's because the manufacturing process itself is the source of roughly 25% of a car's environmental impact.

The Bottom Line

It's important to note that even the best driving cost calculator has limitations. Most of these tools track only fuel costs, which are a small portion of the overall cost to drive your car.

Your true cost of car ownership includes the purchase price,insurance, maintenance, and more. According to the American Automobile Association, the average new vehicle costs 62 cents per mile to drive. AAA figures the average driver spends $9,282 per year on her automobile.

To truly determine how much you're spending to get around, you need to take matters into your own hands. Find a cheap notebook or pad of paper. Grab a pen or pencil. Whenever you make a trip – even if it’s just down the street – log the time and the distance. Write down how much you spend on fuel and maintenance. Tally your car and insurance payments.

Do this long enough and you'll begin to get a picture of your personal driving costs. At any point, you can simply divide the amount you've spent on your vehicle by the number of miles you've driven to learn how much it costs to drive.

What you do with this info is up to you!

Note: This is an updated article from the GRS archives. The original version from 03 December 2008 was woefully out of date. Some older comments have been retained.

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