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16 Favorite Things I Use (Almost) Daily

I wonder how well I’d do as a contestant on the hit TV show, Survivor. Have you seen the rules for what contestants are allowed to bring? Basically, it’s the clothes on your back, sunscreen and one luxury item. For example, a toothbrush is considered an acceptable luxury item; a hairdryer is not. Paper and pen—yes; Macbook Pro—no.

While I’m certain I could survive in my life with far fewer things than I do (I have in the past, trust me), there are things that I depend on heavily and use nearly every day—16 to be exact. These are things I love because they bring efficiency, joy and beauty to my life.

I’d need to be granted some kind of exception to allow me 16 rather than one luxury item on Survivor Island. Shouldn’t be a problem, right?

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1. SHARK NAVIGATOR. Just the most amazing vacuum cleaner known to mankind. The bonus is that it is also inexpensive. While there are many models, I love my Shark Navigator with the Liftaway option and hard floor attachment. Simply indescribably efficient.

2. DYSON HANDHELD VAC. While not exactly the one pictured (mine is now 8 years old, because they change up the look with each model, I use my Dyson handheld vac every single day, sometimes multiple times. It’s like a member of the family.

How to Get Fiscally Fit

We all know about getting physically fit: Participate in aerobic exercise, do some weight training and walk whenever you can. But how much do you know about getting fiscally fit? It’s not difficult but it does require a plan like this:

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RECORD YOUR SPENDING. Sounds like a silly instruction, especially if you feel overwhelmed and under deposited. Nonetheless, if you will begin keeping a written record of every expenditure I can promise you a couple of things: 1. You’ll hesitate before making silly, impulsive purchases. 2. You’ll start taking back control once you see where all of your money goes.

GIVE BACK. I know. You’re broke. You have mountains of debt and some idiot is suggesting you give money away. That’s right (except for the idiot part). Giving is a mysterious, miraculous activity that when practiced regularly, will transform your life. Giving away part of what you have is the antidote for that wretched trend toward excess and self-indulgence.

PAY YOURSELF. Ideally, you should pay yourself ten percent of what you earn. If you can’t start with ten percent, start with something. Even if it’s a dollar a week, start saving. Even if you are heavily in debt, start saving. Saving money is a great attitude booster. If you’re discouraged and down-in-the-dumps, start saving money

Don’t Go Broke for the Wedding Gift

Wedding season is in full bloom and while tying the knot is getting more expensive for the bride and groom, attending a wedding is becoming costlier, too. In fact, a Market Watch reveals from a recent survey that the average guest will spend $673 this year to attend a single wedding—including but not limited to travel, accommodations and attire.

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And then there’s the wedding gift. The average spending ranging from $80 to $150 per person, according to The Knot Registry Survey. Want to cut the cost while still giving a gift the couple wants and will appreciate?

COMPARE PRICES ON REGISTRY ITEMS. It’s wise to reference a registry to see what the couple wants, but it’s even smarter to compare prices among stores. Online retailers like Overstock sell popular registry brands for less than most high-end stores.

USE DISCOUNT GIFT CARDS. If you’re planning to give a gift card or you’re buying an item off a couple’s registry, save money by purchasing discount gift cards from GiftCardGranny.com. The site offers gift cards for less than face value, like a $100 Macy’s gift card for $80.

KNOW WHERE TO FIND COUPON CODES. Most stores offer coupons these days, you just have to know where to look to find one. By signing up to receive an e-newsletter from Pottery Barn or Williams-Sonoma, you’ll get a coupon code for 10 percent off a future order. 

Half-Price State of Mind

The data is in and it’s not pretty: The average overspending American spends $1.22 for each $1 of income. If you’re “average” you’re in trouble. You are digging yourself into a horrible pit of debt.

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Let’s say you’re below the average and spend $1 for every $1 you earn. That’s a lot better. Still, you’re living from paycheck to paycheck. If one thing goes wrong, you’ll be in trouble.

The key to achieving financial freedom is to live below your means—you limit your spending to $.80 for each $1 you earn. That leaves $.10 to give away and $.10 to save for the future. That’s called balance and I promise if you live by that formula you will never be broke. Impossible? No. It takes skill, effort and determination. It takes desire and commitment to live below your means without giving up your style and your quality of life.

The first step is to adopt a new attitude, a simple personal standard: I do not pay full price for anything. It is not realistic to think you will never pay full price for anything or that everything is available somewhere for just pennies on the dollar. But if your goal is half-price, it will average out over time. This is a mindset, an attitude. 

Eight Things to Do With a Tax Refund

It’s easy to see a tax refund as some kind of gift from the universe. It’s not. It is a chunk of your annual income you should have been seeing all along in your paychecks. Plan now for how you’ll manage it, or your refund could easily evaporate into thin air!

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1. Treat it like a paycheck. Give away 10 percent, save 10 percent and put the rest into your household account. This would be especially advisable if you are having trouble keeping up with your current financial obligations.

2. Stash it. Put it in your Contingency Fund or Freedom Account. Don’t think twice. Just get it into the bank quickly before you are tempted to pick out a new TV or book a vacation trip abroad. Money in the bank lets you back away from the “edge” in ways that buying more stuff cannot.

3. Open a Roth IRA. Talk with your bank or go to Vanguard.com to discover your options. Provided your Contingency Fund (a pool of money you keep in a safe place for serious emergencies) is well-funded and you are not drowning in credit-card debt, this may be the perfect opportunity for you to boost your retirement funding.

Lessons We Can Learn from the Madoff Scandal

In my mind as a fifth-grader, Mr. James M. Migaki was the smartest man to have ever lived. Every day was special in Mr. Migaki’s class. He taught us the importance of learning history so we would never have to repeat its mistakes. He made that lesson real when he said that last year counted as history, and so did last month and last week.

Mr. Migaki said something is only a mistake if you can’t fix it. Sometimes he would let us re-take our tests to learn from history and fix our mistakes.

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Speaking of lessons we can learn from things that went wrong in the past, how about that Bernie Madoff character? He’s the guy who, for decades, was ripping people off, claiming to be investing their fortunes, paying them inexplicable returns on their money, and all the while stealing from them blind with his $50 billion ponzi scheme. There are several important lessons that all of us need to learn for good. Following are my top five:

1. Know what you own. No matter what you have or the investments you own, make it your business to know what you own and where your money is. If your fund manager or broker cannot give you an explanation you can understand, that is not a reflection on you. It could be that person is more unsure than you are. Keep asking questions, keep researching, keep digging and don’t stop until you describe each of your assets and investments in 25 words or less.

Beware of this Risk with Gift Cards

Gift cards have become the go-to gift for millions of people. They might seem like the perfect present because it’s so easy. You don’t have to put modicum of thought into the gift and generally a gift card it is well-received. Many people are happy to get them. Unless, of course, they get stuck holding cards from retailers or restaurants who file for bankruptcy—either full dissolution or reorganization—before they get a chance to redeem that gift card.

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Millions of consumers holding gift cards for American Apparel, RadioShack, Wet Seal, Sports Authority, Sharper Image, Brookstone and others on the growing list of recently failed or financially ailing businesses need to pay attention to what follows.

Even though I am not a fan of gifts cards, in the past I have suggested that if you must buy one, you should choose a card issued by a retailer—not a bank-issued gift card—because generally retailer gift cards are free of expiration dates, annoying fees and other gotchas.

With worsening economic conditions, consumers should think twice about retailer-issued gift cards. Store-issued cards are not as good a deal as you’d think because of the danger of bankruptcy and or some other court-approved reorganization.

Never forget this: Gift cards are not the same as cash. When you buy a gift card you are purchasing store credit at that retailer. You may know something about store credit if you ever tried to return something only to have your refund denied for some technicality. Instead, the clerk offers you store credit in the same amount as a refund should have been. That’s exactly what a gift card is—store credit that can be used only at the store identified on that card. 

Money is Not for Spending

It took me a long time to fully understand this important truth: Money is not for spending. It is for managing first and then for spending.

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It takes courage to believe it but when you do, it will profoundly change the way you think about and manage your money.

Imagine this: It’s Friday, a day you have come to know and love as Cake Day. You want cake, you love cake and doggone it, you deserve to eat cake. You stop at the supermarket and pick up the ingredients necessary to bake a chocolate cake.

The most bizarre thing happens on the way home. You can’t wait. You are powerless against this overwhelming desire to have your cake and eat it now!

You grab the grocery bag from the back seat (while stopped at a red light, of course) and begin eating the ingredients because you are so hungry for cake. It’s there, it’s yours and you simply cannot help yourself. You gulp a couple of eggs, chew up some butter and sugar. You choke down a big handful of flour followed by a big scoop of cocoa powder.