Live on < $20k: March

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Spending in March was much lower than February, on account of not buying a transatlantic flight! (Removing the flight from February brings that month’s total to $963.43, only a little higher than spending in March.)

CategoryThis Month: MarchLast Month: FebruaryYear to Date
Rent$425$425$1,275
Utilities
$197.51$77.09$337.52
Groceries$119.63$55.96241.81
Restaurants$43.62$34.79$78.41
Alcohol/Bars$10$10
Coffee Shops$8.75$16.8$25.55
Public Transit$9.23$18.46$36.75
Parking/Taxis$12.04$12.04
Personal Care$15.89$15$30.89
Home stuff$25$25
Clothing$223.8$223.8
Donations/Gifts$80$80
Travel$579.58$579.58
Miscellaneous$15.90 (SIM card)$7.70 (shipping)$23.60
Total$873.74$1,543.01$3,051.1
% of $20k4.4%7.7%15.3%
Savings Rate52.59%34.31%59.57%

Remainder to spend: $16,948.9 of $20k

Our quarterly water bill and a new cellphone plan inflated utilities.  I had to buy a SIM card for my phone, and I bought a polka-dot duvet for my bed from Craigslist. I’ve spent less than a quarter of $20k, which puts me in a good place for the rest of the year. 

My savings rate was back where I like it: over 50%. How was your March?

Want more? Check out Live on Less Than $20k and recaps for January and February.

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Constructive Criticism Isn’t Everything

constructivefeedback_simplyputstrategies1Why is criticism, even constructive criticism, hard to hear?

An Iranian friend said, “the first thing I learned when I moved to the United States is that you never admit that you’re wrong.” Whoa. It made me think about our tendency to defend ourselves when we receive criticism. For many of us it takes intention, patience, and practice to receive feedback gracefully. Perhaps it’s partly because of our culture: one that doesn’t always admit mistakes or prioritize listening and learning.

You will always have your critics, whether partners, children, bosses, or strangers on the Internet. And when criticism makes you feel defensive, pay attention. There may be a kernel of truth to the criticism. We’re told to listen to feedback and learn from it, and that’s usually good advice. But constructive criticism isn’t everything.

I had a relationship in which I received a lot of criticism. Some of it made me feel defensive, for there was some truth to the feedback I received. But mostly it made me feel bad. I got stuck in a negative spiral of beating myself up for the mistakes and misunderstandings that led to criticism. Without realizing it, I let the critical relationship have power over me until I felt anxious, insecure, and guilty most of the time. A friend told me,

“With constructive feedback there is always some of it that’s true and some of it that’s not. People will try to put ideas in your head. Know in your heart what’s true. If you worked your hardest with the directions you were given, know that you did your best.”

Criticism is a two-way street: it’s a reflection of the person it’s directed to, and it’s a reflection of the person it comes from. It’s as much about you as it is about the person who’s saying it. Remember that, and take criticism with a grain of salt. Listen and learn, but don’t let it bring you down.

What do you do when you hear criticism?

(photo taken by a friend: Dead Sea, Israel)

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The Best Advice Ever (How Life Is Like Math)

trustyoursef_simplyputstrategiesThe best advice I received in high school came from Ms. Jones, my math teacher. “Trust yourselves,” she would say. “Why trust someone else’s answers over your own?” She was encouraging us not to cheat on quizzes, but the advice applies to all situations.

I was not confident in math. I peeked at others’ answers not to copy them, but to confirm that mine were right. I preferred English class. I trusted my interpretation of text and my perspective on poetry. The “no right answer” of studying literature felt safer than the “one right/many wrong” answers in math.

Yet people love math. There is something comforting about knowing there’s a right answer out there. It’s not up to chance and it has nothing to do with feelings. It just is. It’s satisfying to puzzle through problems and arrive at the correct answer.

Learning math in school was about learning formulas to get to a solution (imagine if we had studied fractals!). It actually didn’t matter what formula you used, as long as you got the right answer. Life can be like that: you need to learn processes to do jobs. You need to create templates, systems, and checklists. Sometimes life is about plugging into systems and following the rules. But life is also like literature. Your experiences and feelings influence your understanding, your priorities and opinions change, and chance leads you in directions you couldn’t have imagined. When you make a decision, no matter the pros and cons you weigh or advice you solicit, the decision is yours. Unlike math, life has no “right” answers. It’s unpredictable.

But another possibility is that life has only right answers. Think about it: you have reasons for everything you do. Even if the reasons seem terrible later, they were reasonable when you used them. Like in math, it doesn’t matter how you arrive at a decision: whatever the decision is, it’s right for you at the time. What if life is like math problems that only have solutions? There are no wrong decisions. There are no mistakes.

Of course in life, there are no “right” answer that you can check in the back of a book or have your teacher grade. You won’t receive applause for all the decisions you make, because no one knows what the right decision is for you. You have to trust that you can do the math. Trust yourself in relationships. When they start to feel wrong, pay attention. Trust yourself in what you’re working on. Are you doing something easy right now while you build your next move? Are you taking a big risk that scares but thrills you? Are you saying no to an opportunity because it doesn’t feel right? Trust that.

There’s no wrong way to live, like there’s no wrong way to solve math problems. Life is like a math problem that only has solutions. Trust yourself that your answers are right.

(photo taken by Eva Jannotta: Yerevan, Armenia)

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Rings Are Just Things: Letting Go

letting-go_simplyputstrategiesI grew up around my grandparents. My mom’s parents and my dad’s mom lived close, and we saw them often. It was wonderful to have them nearby: I had two homes-away-from-home where I knew I belonged; where there were adults other than my parents ready to play with me, cook with me, and as I got older, just talk with me.

Of course, they won’t be around forever. Nobody will. It’s getting to the point that my paternal grandma’s health is failing, and we are preparing ourselves for the what comes next. To ease into the process, my aunt and I are sorting through things in her basement which we will divide among family members or let go when the time comes.

My grandma and I have a lot common, and one thing is jewelry. When she was well she always wore jewelry: funky rings, bangle bracelets, big hoop earrings. She’s one of the quirkiest grandmas I’ve met, wearing high heels, black cut-off t-shirts, and string bikinis with her old fashioned swimming cap well into her 70’s.

Years ago, we started a project together: cataloguing her jewelry and the stories behind each piece. I learned about my great-grandmother Nell’s sapphire engagement ring, which she stepped on once and had to get fixed. And my great-grandmother Helen’s emerald and sapphire dinner rings (only appropriate with evening attire at that time) one of which got lost in turkey stuffing and was later found!

Recently I went to my grandma’s to organize her jewelry boxes and see what I could match to my list of stories. To my dismay, I couldn’t find some of the family rings: her engagement ring to my grandfather, Nell’s rings, and Helen’s rings. We may never know for sure what happened to them, and I’m really sad. Those rings have family history, and their stories make me feel close to our family, close to what makes us, us. (Thankfully, Nell’s and my grandma’s weddings rings remain, with inscriptions. My great-grandparents were married in 1926!)

I’m a minimalist: I like having only 33 pieces in my closet, keeping only the books I love, keeping my mementos and knickknacks to a minimum. I believe that when we don’t have things it’s because we don’t need them. I don’t need more rings. I don’t need certain objects to feel close to my grandma.

Yet though I know letting go is important, it’s hard! It makes me sad that those family items are missing. Sometimes we choose to donate or re-give our things. Other times, the decisions is made for us.

I recently heard a story about a family across country and stopping in Las Vegas. While there, their Penske truck (and in it all their possessions) was stolen. All they had was the stroller and a small suitcase of clothes. Such a traumatic experience puts the loss of rings into perspective.

Some things are precious, and sometimes we have no choice but to let them go. What treasured items have you had to let go?

(photo source here)

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Plan Your Day and Avoid Paralysis

clocks_planyourday_optionalparalysis_simplyputstrategiesIn times of rest, my mind is often busy planning my next several moves. Sometimes this is useful – on the bus I jot down blog post ideas, or I break down tasks for a big project.  Other times a busy mind is the worst – waking up before my alarm and lying there while my mind spins a list of what I need to do that day; anxiety mounts, but I’m not doing or writing anything down.

On any given day you have a lot to do at work, home, for yourself, your family, your friends. When there’s a lot to do but no plan, it’s easy to get Analysis Paralysis:
where-do-I-start-everything-is-important-everything-will-take-so-long-how-do-I-prioritize?

Yuck. Here’s how to avoid going down that rabbit hole:

Have a Big List. Then Small Lists. Keep lists of things you need to do in notebooks or spreadsheets. For each day pick several items and put them on a small list, such as a post-it note or into your daily schedule. Looking at the big list and seeing so few crossed-out items compared to waiting ones is discouraging. But seeing a list of five items that keep getting crossed out is a vision of achievement.

Estimate Times. How long will each of today’s tasks take? If you think you can get thirty things done, this will give you a reality check real quick. Estimate a time for each item, erring on the side of more time. Remember how many hours are in a day. As soon as you’re over a certain number of hours, call it quits.

Schedule Variety. It’s unfun and unproductive to do the exact same things for hours upon hours. Vary your tasks: schedule months’ worth of social media posts, clean the bathroom, prepare for a meeting, cook lasagne, check email, research the presentation. By all means, schedule easy things as well!  It’s satisfying to cross things off the list, even if they only took 5 minutes to complete.

Keep a Done List. See You’re More Productive Than You Think

I use Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours spreadsheet (which you can get by subscribing to her newsletter) to track my time and To Do list, or I use post-it notes with times written beside each task.

Plan your To Dos the evening or day before (or by week, if you’re into that). When you wake up, you know your tasks are covered. Yet even on planned days my mind jumps into useless action before my body is ready. I tell my mind to take a hike. No point in obsessing over things that I’ve already allotted time to do. Time is also needed to relax.

(photo source here)

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Go Where The Money Is: College

Eva&KevinRecently I attended an admitted students reception for my alma mater, UMBC. I met Sarah, a math and economics alumna and Michael, a current senior in biochemistry. It was Sarah’s and my first such reception (a bonding excuse if there ever is one) and we wondered: how do you act at such events – do you just walk up to people and insert yourself into conversations?

I went with: “may I use your table? It’s difficult to eat this quesadilla and drink cranberry orange juice while walking.” There were several chest stares as people peered at the name tag on my blazer, trying to read the five letters of my degrees: Gender and Women’s Studies, English.

I gave suggestions: study abroad, take a gender studies class, declare a major to receive departmental advising (you can always change later). I bragged honestly about the UMBC community: I live with two UMBC graduates now; I made great friends on campus (Exhibit A: Kevin, above left). I mentioned the opportunities at UMBC such as undergraduate research awards and independent projects.

We arrived at the topic of money – one of my favorite topics. College is expensive. Even in-state tuition at a school like UMBC costs up to $27,000 per year if a student lives on campus. I was honest that a scholarship was why I chose UMBC over other options. As a fellow UMBC scholarship student put it, “I came for the money. I stayed for everything else.”

How do students choose a college? From my high school guidance counselor: don’t choose college based on your boyfriend, and don’t go where your friends are. People say go where you love, but how much can you love a place in the space of a three hour visit? Even an overnight? There are many influencing factors: your tour guide, the person you stay with, the class you visit, the food you eat at the dining hall. Some people attend a school and then transfer away (always an option) because it wasn’t the fit they expected. But I’m of the mind that you can make it work almost anywhere. Besides, college is a transition that will likely take at least a semester before you get your bearings.

Why not choose a college based on money?

For some students this is a no-brainer or necessity. Yet one of the students I spoke with at the reception confided that she doesn’t want her decision to be about money. Why not? It may not sound romantic, but you’re facing four years of unknown school, people, and possibly your own or your parents’ debt. Then you’re facing the rest of your life. Is romance as important as setting your future self up for financial success?

You don’t know what your future self will want. You probably don’t know what you’ll major in, much less the field in which you’ll get your first job. But you can be sure of this: your future self will appreciate options. And being debt-free means more flexibility with money, which = options.

Choosing a college based on money is a better reason than many. With all the schools to choose from, you have to narrow the list somehow. (Michelle Singletary sings this song beautifully every week in the Washington Post.)

There’s a lot of cultural hoo-ha around The College Experience. Some say it’s the “best four years of your life.” I object: if college was this the most fun I’ll ever have, that makes the next seventy years seem pretty bleak! Going to college is good for many, but it’s not everything. Soon after you graduate it’s your experiences, skills, and values that matter.

Remember, you have an entire life to live after college. The fewer monthly payments you have to make on debt, the more options you’ll have to pursue your goals.

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Three, Two, One, Ignition: Launch!

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How do you know when you’re ready to launch? It could be anything: a side project, a business, a book, a career, yourself after college, a family, etc.

Time:
There’s no such thing as perfect timing. As this article on happiness puts it:

“There may be better and worse times to do something, but there’s no perfect time, ever. Stop waiting around for ultimate readiness, because it’s not coming.”

It’s tempting to wait to launch until everything is perfect: your website, your edits, your logo design, your finances. But this is a trap. You’ll be in the waiting place forever. No matter your situation, launching is a risk and risks are chancy. At the very least, they signify changes.

thewaitingplace_simplyputstrategies

I handle timing by asking this question: are you launching right now? Yes? Good. Then you’re ready. In other words, there’s no right time to launch except the time you find yourself launching. Which means that if you’re mid launch and and freaking out because you’re not “ready,” don’t worry. You’re probably more prepared than you think and if not, it’s fixable: the Internet exists. But since you’re no fool, you’ve probably done a lot of thinking, talking, research, planning. Well, you can do that forever and still not feel “ready.” You have to go for it.

Don’t wait for the perfect time. (For more on timing and changes, see Bullish: When To Make Massive And Ballsy Life Changes For Your Career)

Money:
What about money? Having a financial cushion eases the discomfort of launching, especially if your launch involves a pay cut of some kind (actually, it eases discomfort in general). But. A nest egg is not a requirement to launch. I read that starting my business would cost up to $7,000. It didn’t. I was recommended to get a second credit card before I launched. I didn’t. Of course, having money is easier than not having any, but like timing there is no magical state of financial “readiness” to reach before you start something.

But you do need a business model, i.e. an idea of where the money you need to live will come from while you launch your empire or start your family. My solution is working part-time in retail. It’s a win: I like the job and people and being on my feet several days a week is a nice contrast to sitting in front of a computer. You’ll enjoy your launch a thousand percent more if you’re not panicking about how to pay your rent. You don’t need a nest egg, but it’s good to avoid going broke.

Confidence:
What if your thing sucks and nobody wants it? This is unlikely, and there are ways to make it less likely: market research, marketing research, testing, finding a niche, getting specific, putting yourself out there, trying new things.

Starting a brand new thing is vulnerable. It probably won’t go the way you expect (fear of the unknown) and it might not work at all (no one loves failing even though failure and mistakes are important and inevitable). No problem. This is your launch, which means that you define success. Success may be self-publishing your memoir, even if only your friends buy it.

bullish-blog-networkWhen I cried to my sister that my business would never make money and I’d be alone and friendless forever, she suggested redefining success as helping people instead of making enough money to live. Making money is a good measure of success, but it’s not the only one. As my primarily measure of success it was making me feel like a panicked failure instead of a powerful person who makes her clients’ lives better.

Do you have an idea, project, or business you want to launch? There’s no time, money, or confidence like the present.

This post is part of The Bullish Blog Network.

(Photo sources here and here)

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Know Your Limits

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This post is (mostly) for introverts.

Everyone has limits. Your mind and body can only handle so much before you become useless to the world. Across the introvert-extrovert scale, people’s limits vary. Introverts “may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas.” (Susan Cain, Quiet). For extroverts, maybe a lot of alone time makes you crazy.

You can’t always tell what your limits are until you cross them. Then you find yourself tearing up for no reason or flying off the handle over something small. Other times you can tell when you’re approaching your limits, so what can you do about it?

Sometimes you’re stuck. When you’re caring for children you can’t lock yourself in a room to read. In the middle of working, you can’t just leave. Sometimes relationships require conversations or energy that you barely feel you have. Then there’s the voice in your head that berates you: “it’s only 10 pm, how can you want to leave? What if you miss something fun? You rarely get to hang out with these people: live it up!”

I was at a bar with coworkers. I’d planned the happy hour and I was excited to be there. After three hours there were six people people who stayed for four more hours. I was ready to leave after three, but I stayed. I didn’t have fun. I wanted to go home and I was irritable and anxious. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I wanted to be alone.

People gave me a hard time when I left. “Is it past your bedtime?” “You’re such a grandma.” Comments like these make me feel defensive. I want to retort, can you just let me leave without the patronizing smile, eye roll, and comment about how I hate fun? 

But I prefer confidence and humor to defensiveness, so I remind myself that these comments have a variety of meanings, and I can respond with alacrity:

  • People love spending time with you because you’re enjoyable to be around. Smile and mention that you’re needed elsewhere, that you can’t entertain everyone all the time, that you’ve got plans with other people who adore you.
  • Everyone (not just misery) loves company. People will always urge you to join whatever they’re doing. You can’t do it all. Shrug.
  • You leaving makes others feel guilty that they’re still out. Ignore. Other people’s guilt is not your problem. You owe them nothing.

You don’t need to explain why you’re leaving but if you want to, “other plans,” “I’m ready to leave,” or “things to do at home” work for me. Energy and social stamina are applauded in our culture, but they are not the only way to be. Know your limits and respect them. Other people’s approval is not your concern.

“Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to. Stay home on New Year’s Eve if that’s what makes you happy. Skip the committee meeting. Cross the street to avoid making aimless chitchat with random acquaintances. Read. Cook. Run. Write a story. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll attend a set number of social events in exchange for not feeling guilty when you beg off” (Susan Cain, Quiet).

Listen to your integrity. If you’re not having fun anymore, you’ve crossed your limit. Come back home.

(Photo credit here)

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Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: Create Templates

Don't Reinvent the Wheel: Create Templates • Simply Put StrategiesAt a lot of jobs and in life, there are tasks you will have to do over and over – emails to send, meetings to run, presentations to write, events to plan. Often these tasks will be months apart from each other. As you design the meeting or event in the present, it’s obvious how to do it. In a few months it won’t be. You won’t remember the tricks, phrases, and contacts you’re using now.

Save your Future Self time and hassle: create templates, write checklists, and take notes. Then, file them. Use Evernote, or a filing cabinet – whatever floats your boat!  The point is, make sure to sort and tag your notes so it’s easy for your Future Self to find them.

I have a Google Spreadsheet where I paste text from all the emails I might send again: about donating my professional organizing services, sharing my childcare references, long and short descriptions of my business, etc. I enter them alphabetically so they’re easy to find. It’s already saved me time and annoyance.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ll remember later what you know now. Because you won’t. Instead you’ll spend many minutes searching your Sent folder or skimming old notes. And you know what’s more fun than that? Grabbing a template out of a Google Spreadsheet in 4 seconds.

Want some examples? Check out 6 Email Templates Every Business Owner Needs

(photo credit here)

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You’re More Productive Than You Think

productive_simplyputstrategiesI had a client scheduled today, then woke up feeling like a knife was wedged in my throat. I rescheduled my client, and I found that I had an entire day with no plans!

I briefly imagined jumping on the productivity wheel and producing results for hours and hours. But when you’re sick, it’s hard to want to exist, much less be productive. So I spent the morning laying in bed, the early afternoon making stew, and the entire time feeling vaguely guilty that I wasn’t being optimally productive.

Sound familiar? That nagging feeling that you should be doing something other than what you are – that you’re wasting time, missing opportunities, etc.

It’s toxic to feel this way and it makes it difficult to do anything fully. Here are strategies I’m using to combat the mental nagging:

Keep a Done list: today I made beef stew, packed dried thyme leaves into an old basil bottle, took a walk, cleared out my inboxes, and read a bunch of articles about entrepreneurship, productivity, and creativity. Only one of these was on my To Do list. But crossing one thing off isn’t indicative of all I did. Keep a Done list so you know how much you’ve achieved.

Pick 3 things: keep a big To Do list, sure. Then choose only three items that you will do today, and focus only on those for the day. Having too many items on your list means feeling defeated when you inevitably don’t accomplish them all.

Estimate time: tempted to put more than three things on today’s list? Me too. I’ll write down ten things and find (of course) that there aren’t enough hours to focus on them all. Solution? Estimate how long each item will take. Once you’re above a certain number of hours (remember you have to eat and rest), you know you’re overbooking yourself. Alternately, you can create time limits for each task and stick to them, no matter how much progress you make. Then you have a better idea of how much time you’ll need to finish the task tomorrow.

Set a timer: got your To Dos and time estimates? Set a timer for 25 minutes, or however long you like to work until a break. Once the timer goes off, check in with yourself. Are you working on one of your three priorities? Are you goofing off? That’s okay – maybe you need another 25 minutes to meander around the Internet. Setting a timer keeps you aware of how you’re spending your time, whether on the priorities you chose, or something different. This also works if you decide to take a nap, or write some emails, or anything.

Do 1 thing at a time: this is very challenging for me. My mind urges me to optimize! optimize! until I have ten tabs open and I’m trying to write an email while entering something in my calendar and reading an article. Try to complete one thing before going on to the next. I know you’ve heard this before – this advice is all over for a good reason.

What are some of your strategies?

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