WEBSITE REVIEW: Be More With Less

Living The Minimalist Life

Look around your home, your room and your life. How much useless stuff is crammed into every available corner and taking up your valuable space, time and money? More importantly, is any of it actually making you happy?

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Courtney Carver believes that our obsessive drive to acquire more stuff complicates our lives on every level. And she is determined to change the world, one reader at a time.

Courtney is the founder of Project 333, a minimalist wardrobe challenge that requires participants to choose just 33 items of clothing to wear exclusively for the next 3 months. [You can read all about Project 333 on creditunionURL/article…] Since launching her project in 2010, Courtney has been on a mission to spread awareness of her passion to readers around the world through her blog, at BeMoreWithLess.com.

Be More With Less is all about simplifying your life to start living it to the fullest. To do so, you’ll embrace a minimalist approach when taking stock of your possessions and the way you spend your time. If you can’t honestly say that you need something, out it goes!

Courtney promises that joining her journey will help you rediscover the things that really matter. You’ll save money, have more space, create spare time and enrich each of your relationships by cutting down on the energy and resources spent acquiring and maintaining all your “stuff.”

Website Review - genericAs Courtney says, “Simplifying my life gave me the space, time and love to be more me.”

Be More With Less is updated several times a month with fresh content on a wide range of topics that all lead back to minimalism. You can check out the latest postings on the blog’s homepage or browse through the archives in any of the following categories: Clutter, Busy, Health, Money, Lifestyle, Work, Mini-missions, Project 333.

Some of the recent posts on the Be More With Less blog include:

  • How to Quit Anything Without Feeling Like a Failure
  • Busy Boycott: Trading busyness for what you really want (+ live challenge)
  • Becoming Debt-Free: 21-day guide to help you get started
  • How to Let Go of 3 Fears that are Holding You Back Every Day
  • How to Simplify Your Life: gifts, downsizing, wardrobe, work and other good stuff
  • Journaling Prompts to Relieve Stress: 10 for Morning + 10 for Evening
  • 3 Little Lessons from Minimalist Fashion Challenge Project 333
  • 90 Days of Discipline: Why I’m Going All In and How You can Too
  • Choosing to Live with Less is a Privilege for Most of Us
  • Enrich your life by simplifying it. It’s that easy.

Your Turn: Are you a fan of minimalism? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Do My Child’s Activities Really Need To Make Me Go Broke?

It’s back-to-school season and you’re just about ready to zip that backpack closed before tossing that supply list into the trash. You’ve been shopping for weeks to get the right pencils and pens, binders and the dozens of other must-haves. This, of course, is in addition to the perfect school shoes and autumn wardrobe. But now you’re done, done, done! Your sanity and your budget are ready for a breather — at least until the holiday shopping season starts. 

hockey-players-on-iceBut then your darling daughter comes home breathless from school telling you she’s made it onto the school’s soccer team. She’s thrilled and can’t wait to start attending practices and games! Oh, and did she mention she’ll need some money for her uniform and equipment? 

Before you can finish digesting this piece of news, your son barrels through the door and announces he’s decided to take drum lessons. It’ll only be, say, $600 for the drum set, plus the price of lessons. But that’s not a big deal for you, is it? 

Extracurricular activities are an important part of a child’s development. They allow students to shine in ways that may not be possible for them in the classroom. Plus, it helps kids step out of their social circles to forge new and lasting friendships. They serve as a creative outlet and can improve your child’s physical and cognitive health. If you have a real prodigy in your family, they may even be your child’s gateway to a college scholarship, and possibly a lucrative career. 

But there’s no getting around the truth: Extracurricular activities are expensive. If you’ve got several school-aged children at home and each one wants to participate in two activities, you can be looking at an investment as high as $10,000 or more because of fees, equipment, uniforms, instruments and supplies. 

No worries, though; you don’t have to choose between your budget and your children’s happiness. Here are some ways you can save on your kids’ extracurricular activities this year: 

1. Limit the number of after-school activities you allow for each child 

If you’ve got several over-ambitious young ones at home, consider limiting extracurricular activities to just one per child. You’ll actually be doing your children a favor by forcing them to pick one activity of focus where they’ll be channeling all their energy in one direction. They’ll also be more dedicated to perfecting their game or hobby when they own their choice. Plus, it’ll be easier for them to keep track of just one practice and performance schedule — and a lot easier on your carpool calendar, too! Finally, you’ll help your children avoid taking on too much so they are less likely to wind up neglecting their schoolwork or not having any time to spare for family and friends. 

2. Register early 

Lots of children’s’ sports programs offer discounts of up to 30 percent just for signing up early. Speak to your children about after-school programs and sports teams months before the official season launch so you can register early and snag those early-bird specials. You might also be able to net a discount by pre-paying for the entire season instead of paying on a monthly basis. 

3. Purchase used equipment 

Save big on sports gear by purchasing gently used equipment from sites like PlayItAgainSports and SidelineSwap. Some of these sites also allow you to sell your own used equipment. 

4. Swap equipment 

If you have friends with kids who are (or were) also into sports and music, see if you can swap equipment and instruments from year to year. Maybe your friend’s son was into guitar last year and baseball this year, while your daughter’s interests ran in the opposite direction. Swapping with friends allows you to save on expensive equipment while putting your own unused gear to good use. 

5.  Rent musical instruments 

If you’ve got budding musicians at home, consider renting the instrument they’ve taken up this year. There’s no way to tell if that burst of passion they’re currently nursing for the oboe is just a passing phase or the beginning of a hobby that will last a lifetime. Why blow hundreds of dollars on an instrument only to see it lying forgotten in the attic in a few months’ time? Some instruments, like the French horn, can cost as much as $1,000 but can be rented for as little as  $50 a month. 

If your child is convinced they’ve found their instrument of choice or you’ve already been renting one for a while, you can purchase gently used musical instruments from resale sites like Craigslist and eBay or through Reverb, a site devoted to selling used musical instruments. 

6. Volunteer your time 

If you’ve got the time to coach or manage a team, or even just to walk around selling refreshments during games, you might be able to nab a discount on the program’s fees and equipment. 

Don’t let a tight budget stand in the way of your child’s creative and physical development. By making smart, frugal choices, you can turn your children’s dreams into reality without draining your wallet. 

Your Turn: How do you save on your children’s extracurricular activities? Share your own tips and tricks with us in the comments.

Price-Checking Apps

Do you often dawdle over items on a store shelf because you’re wondering if you can get a select product cheaper somewhere else? Stop guessing and start being a smarter shopper with a price-comparison app. You’ll get a list of prices for the same product at other retailers so you’ll instantly know if you’re getting a good deal or not.

Once again, we’ve done the research for you. Read on for the inside scoop on the best price-checking apps on the market. Then, download your favorite pick and you’ll be ready to hit the stores!

ShopSavvy

shopsavvyShopSavvy is a powerful price-comparison app that lets you scan barcodes from your phone to find product reviews and pricing. You can also choose to input your product’s name in the app’s search engine. Once it’s found your product, ShopSavvy will pull up the cheapest local or online price for it.

The app makes sure you’re current on all the latest deals and sends you alerts about price cuts, coupons and sales on the items you’ve recently scanned.

Best features

ShopSavvy will bring you online deals along with those you can find in local shops. The app also remembers your search history to make your browsing easier and lets you keep a wishlist of items you’d love to purchase someday. 

Glaring glitches

Users complain that ShopSavvy’s scanning tool has poor lighting and its database is too narrow. Also, the app is not equipped to scan stores’ private barcodes, and only works with the manufacturer’s label. 

PriceGrabber

pricegrabberIf you’re looking for the price-checking app that features a huge range of products and retailers, look no further than PriceGrabber. The comprehensive website, which now offers a free app for Android and Apple devices, lets you search products from a whopping 2,000 sellers. 

Looking for a special gift for a special someone? Browse through the app’s 27 categories for inspiration and you’ll find something in every price range imaginable. You can also choose to search its mega-comprehensive database for the product you’ve got in mind. And, if there’s a coupon for the item you want, the app will pull it up for you. 

Each product is clearly marked as new, used or refurbished. Seller ratings are also instantly visible when browsing a product. 

Best Features

PriceGrabber’s powerful search engine and super-comprehensive database is unparalleled among price-checking apps. Users also love that the app automatically calculates the tax and shipping costs for a product when you input your ZIP code. 

Glaring glitches

The app can show you seller ratings but it doesn’t offer much in the way of product reviews.  If you’re unsure of which brand or type of product to get, you’re pretty much on your own.

Price.com

pricedollarsignAnother shopping site that’s now available as a free app, Price.com offers shoppers a way to grab the best deals at all major stores. You can add the app to your share function and then shop in your favorite store’s app. Then, Price.com will let you compare prices for the product you’re looking at with a single click.

Best features

Price.com’s Facebook Chatbot takes price comparison to a new level. Copy the URL of a product you’re interested in and the Chatbot will instantly analyze billions of data points to pull up the best prices for the item, used item options, generic copycats or similar products, and coupon codes to bring your price down further.

Glaring glitches

Price.com’s search tool is sorely lacking; the app will sometimes bring up products that have almost no connection to your search words. While the app does excel at searching big-name stores, it won’t search for products at local shops. 

How they stack up

APP

Barcode Scan

Powerful Search

Large Database

Local Products

ShopSavvy

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

PriceGrabber

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Price.com

No

No

Yes

No

Your Turn: What’s your favorite price-checking app? Tell us all about it in the comments!

BLT Pasta

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Book Review: Meet The Frugalwoods

Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few decades, you’ve no doubt absorbed society’s message that you can buy your way to a happier life. From the minute we wake up until our eyes close at bedtime, we’re bombarded with splashy ads and commercials promising us the world—for a price, of course. 

meet the frugalwoods bookElizabeth and Nate Thames were an archetypical couple of our consumerist world. In 2014, this pair of professionals was holding down high-powered jobs, living in the city and pulling in big bucks. The world was theirs for the taking. 

But one day, they decided they’d had enough of that lifestyle. They were sick of wishing away their workdays and desperately counting down until the weekends. They wanted to start living genuinely and enjoying each day to the fullest. 

Together, they hatched a plan: They’d sock away as much money as possible to become modern-day homesteaders in rural Vermont. They called themselves “the Frugalwoods,” and as soon as they put their plan into action, starting by saving more than 70 percent of their income, Elizabeth began documenting their progress on the couple’s popular blog. In less than three years, the Thameses had achieved their goal and reached financial independence at the age of 32. They are now living on a 66-acre homestead in Vermont, together with their little girl. 

In her book, Meet the Frugalwoods, Elizabeth retells the eye-opening story of how her financially comfortable family disengaged from the race of keeping up with the Joneses and drastically scaled back their spending to live their dream life.  The book is a compelling read that will make spenders of any level stop and think about the choices and financial habits that direct their lives. 

You don’t need to be harboring a secret dream of quitting your day job and moving to the woods to enjoy this book. Most of us can stand to cut back on our consumerism for living with a bit more frugality. Meet the Frugalwoods encourages readers to examine their possessions and physical comforts, as well as to determine which of those add genuine joy and value to their lives. Only things that are truly valuable to you are worth holding onto. As Elizabeth says, the process of cutting back and bowing out of society’s peer pressure is enormously liberating. 

Thousands of readers have found Meet the Frugalwoods to be an inspiring and motivational tale, but many others find it to be preachy and condescending. A widely-voiced complaint is that the couple is still pulling in a handsome salary and cannot comprehend what it means to truly struggle. Nate works from home and earns over $200K a year, while Elizabeth authors their personal finance blog. While it’s admirable that they were able to pull out of the spending trap and now wear second-hand clothing, knowing they have a huge financial cushion to fall back on greatly diminishes their “sacrifice.” 

However, lots of readers find it truly inspiring that a couple who can afford to live large has managed to untangle themselves from the web of consumerism that ensnares most of society. 

You may not want to live as frugally as the Thames family, but by reading their story and incorporating some of its lessons into your own life, you, too, can learn to lead a simpler and more meaningful life. 

Your Turn: Do you think it is possible to be truly happy and fulfilled while living a life of excessive consumerism? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

WEBSITE REVIEW: Mr. Money Mustache

Extreme Money Management, If You Dare

Are you hardcore enough to handle personal finance with an edge? Are you ready to read tips and advice from an in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is blogger? 

mr mustacheIf you think you can handle all that and more, check out Mr. Money Mustache (https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/). The wildly popular blog sees millions of visitors each month and has been featured in prominent financial publications, like Forbes and The Guardian. Authored by a retired 40-something-year-old dad who lives on $25K a year and spends his time pursuing his hobbies and managing his site, the blog makes no attempt to “play nicely”. It will not hesitate to mock those who do not believe in the Mr. Money Mustache (MMM) worldview.

Enter at your own risk! 

The MMM philosophy on life and finances manifests itself into every blog post in one way or another. The “Mustachian” core values are as follows:  

1.        Jump off the spending train even if it makes you the odd one out.

2.        Spend your money on experiences and purchases that actually make you happy.

3.        Avoid waste and don’t ruin the planet.

4.        Paying for and depending on conveniences can make you soft.

5.        Invest sensibly.

6.        Teach your kids to work hard. 

MMM believes that most of the country is blindly following the dictum they were brought up to believe: Work hard so you can afford the good life someday. Sadly, though, most people find they become slaves to luxuries and can’t seem to figure out where all their money is going. Plus, they’re so busy working hard, they have no time to enjoy life. 

Instead, MMM advocates slashing your expenses, saving like crazy, building your financial independence and retiring early. He himself saved up 65% of his income for seven years and then retired at 30 so he could raise a family. He now lives super-simply and only indulges rarely. 

Like many finance bloggers, MMM can afford to live large, but chooses not to do so. But what makes him different is that he is not penny-pinching now for living lavishly later. Instead, he is living with ideals he truly believes in, because, as he says, luxuries are just a drug that loses its appeal as soon as the high wears off. And, of course, you’ll always need a bigger fix. In contrast, MMM finds enormous enjoyment in his simple life and makes choices that support his theory, such as biking to the grocery store in a blizzard and living in a relatively small home. He claims his way of life brings him true happiness and fulfillment.   

On his site, MMM strives to create a “new normal,” in which there is no room for the crazy spending that dominates the rest of the world. For example, he’s written several articles about reframing the way you buy a new car. According to Mustachian philosophy, instead of asking yourself, “What kind of car do I like?” you should be asking, “What cars are the most efficient and can provide me with the most value?” MMM believes there is no shame in driving an aging but cost-efficient car, even when you can afford the latest model. 

The MMM blog is super-comprehensive, with hundreds of in-depth articles covering a wide range of financial topics, from how to invest your way to an early retirement on a middle-class salary to buying a car, cultivating cheap hobbies, teaching kids to value hard work and so much more. The blog also has hundreds of extremely active forums where visitors can join the discussion on anything money-related and beyond. 

Are you tough enough for Mr. Money Mustache? Visit today to find out! 

Your Turn: Do you agree with the MMM philosophy that the ultimate goal is to retire early and live simply? Why, or why not? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Should I Go Solar?

Q: I’m really thinking about having solar panels installed on my roof. I figure it’s gotta help me save on energy costs, but I hear they can be super-expensive. Should I go solar? 

A: Solar panels are popping up on roofs all across the country. This year, with aGREEN-House-solar-panels 30-percent federal tax credit on solar panels extended until the end of 2019, solar panel installation is especially popular. It’s also incredibly effective: A solar panel system can lower a three-digit energy bill to less than $10. 

But, are they worth the price? Let’s take a closer look at the cost-effectiveness of solar panels and highlight some important questions that will help you determine whether a solar energy system is the right choice for your home.

The dollars and cents of going solar 

Most residential homes will need a five-kilowatt solar panel system for meeting their energy needs. According to the Center for Sustainable Energy, this will cost homeowners between $15,000 to $25,000, or $10,500 to $17,500 after the federal tax credit. 

That’s a whole lot of money! Let’s take a look at four ways you can pay for your solar panel system: 

1. Cash. If you can afford it, paying for your panels upfront will bring you the biggest return on your investment since, after the initial startup fees, your panels likely won’t cost you a penny. Depending on your system and your general energy consumption, your solar panels can reduce your electric bill by 70 to 100 percent. This means most systems will pay for themselves in five to seven years. 

2. Lease agreement. Solar leasing is available in about half of the country. Like a car lease agreement, you’ll pay a monthly rent instead of an upfront fee for your panels. The leasing company will then install your panels and collect the federal tax credit, as well as any government incentives available in your state, on your behalf. 

Leasing solar panels is generally not recommended for several reasons. For one, after the lease agreement is over, the company will either remove the panels or charge you full price for the privilege if you want to keep them. You also may end up saving less on your energy costs than you assumed since many leases contain an escalator clause, which increases lease payments by 3 percent a year. Finally, a leased solar panel system can scare off potential homebuyers should you decide to sell your house before the lease is up. 

3. Solar loan. If you’d rather not lease your panels but you don’t have the cash available to pay for them upfront, you can take out a loan created just for the purpose of funding this purchase. A secured solar loan will use your home as collateral and offer tax-deductible interest, while an unsecured solar loan will likely have higher interest rates. Prepare to pay high origination fees with any kind of solar loan as well. 

4. Home Equity Loan or Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC). Excluding cash, the most financially responsible way to finance your solar panel purchase is through a loan or a line of credit taken out against your home’s value. Speak to a Branch Representative at True North to learn about the low startup costs and interest rates on our home equity loans and lines of credit. Interest is often tax-deductible (talk with your tax professional), and the funds you need can be available to you in very little time. 

Are solar panels for you? 

Ask yourself these questions before you make a decision: 

A.   Which way does my roof slant? In the United States, south-facing roofs are the best recipients for solar energy. Next up is west-facing, and then east-facing roofs. North-facing roofs are the least desirable for solar.

B.   How much sunlight does my roof get each day? Are there obstructions, like neighboring homes, trees or hills that block the sun from reaching your roof? It’s best for sunlight to hit your panels for a minimum of five hours a day.

C.   How large is my roof?  An average residential solar system will need 20 panels to receive sufficient sunlight, which comes to roughly 500 square feet of roof space. 

D.   What type of roofing do I have? The cheapest and easiest solar panel installations work on roofs made of asphalt shingles or corrugated metal. 

E.    How old is my roof? It only makes sense to install your panels on a roof that has many more years of life left. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay to have the panels removed and then reinstalled when you replace your roof. Similarly, it’s not worth installing panels if you plan on moving out of your home within the next decade or so. 

F.    How expensive is my electricity? The higher your local electricity rates, the more cost-effective your solar panels will be. You can determine the rate you pay per kilowatt hour by looking at your most recent energy bill. 

G.   Are there any government incentives in my state? Aside from the federal tax credit mentioned above, many states offer their own incentives for going solar. You can check for any available state credits on the database of state incentives for renewables and efficiency. 

The bottom line 

Should you go solar? At the end of the day, it’s your call. If you can afford to pay for the panels or take out a HELOC or Home Equity Loan to help fund the purchase, and all other factors are in your favor, you may want to consider getting solar panels. Especially consider it while the federal tax credit is still active. 

However, if you don’t think you can afford another monthly payment and you don’t believe solar panels would be in your best interest, you can find other ways to cut back on your energy costs without going solar.

Your Turn: Is your home solar-powered? Tell us what drove this decision and how your solar panels are working out for you in the comments.