It’s not always easy to feel gratitude.

Complaints and Gratitude.

Complaints and Gratitude.

In fact, I think it would be easier for many of us to list all the things that annoy us. Case in point – the woman sitting behind us at a college concert this weekend who kept rustling through her purse to eat a snack even though food was prohibited in the auditorium. The noise she was making was extremely distracting and diminished our enjoyment of the show. People can be so rude!

Or how about all the annoying drivers on the road who can’t seem to realize their actions affect other people? Craziness!

See how easy it is to complain? But this week of all weeks is a time to reflect on the positive and give thanks for the good things in life – family, friends, and the pets we adore. Just the mere fact that I was born in the United States is reason to give thanks (despite my jokes that I’m moving to Canada (too cold)). I’m lucky just to have been born somewhere I have many more freedoms than other people in the world, not to mention an abundance of food, shelter, and water.

And on the days when people drive me crazy, as they inevitably will, I force myself to take a step back and reflect on all the things I have that someone else might not; someone will always have more than me, so it does no good to make a comparison to them. I’m sure some people would suggest you shouldn’t make comparisons at all, but if that works to make you a more grateful person, then I say go for it. Because when I’m not feeling grateful, I’m not my best self, and I want to be better today than I was yesterday.


And while we are on the subject, I think it’s important to show our gratitude to others. The simple words thank you often go unsaid. Perhaps it makes me a petty person, but if I do something nice for someone and they don’t utter those words, I can’t help but notice and think of that person a little less. Because at the end of the day it’s really not that hard to show someone that you appreciate them (or their actions) by thanking them. I hope you reflect on that and consider whether or not you thank the people in your life for the things they do for you. I know they’d appreciate hearing it.

And if you’re in the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving!

I recently attended a meeting at work held by a financial adviser. Even though my husband and I are already contributing to 401ks and Roth IRAs, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything new out there I wasn’t familiar with. There wasn’t. However, it made me happy to see many of my coworkers show interest in opening a Roth IRA. Until the meeting, many of them hadn’t realized the main benefit of a Roth IRA – the ability to withdraw contributions penalty free if necessary. Once they learned that, they realized it made more sense to grow their money in a Roth IRA than sticking it in a bank account which, on average, earns less than 1%.

This got me thinking. We as a society have failed at educating the public on how to properly handle their finances. Why is it that we take 12 years of general education courses, which include subjects that we may never use again, yet we do not have a mandatory course on personal finance? It should be taught in all high schools because it’s so very important. It’s something we all will deal with throughout our lives, and while learning other subjects helps make for a well-rounded individual (assuming the material is absorbed – how many people do you know who after 12 years of English courses still can’t spell or string together a coherent sentence?), properly handling one’s finances is a skill everyone needs. It doesn’t matter if you live paycheck to paycheck or make six figures (or more). Haven’t we all read stories of high-paid celebrities (or lottery winners) who are completely broke? How does that happen? Poor financial choices stemming for lack of knowledge, that’s how.

Every time I think about it, I feel frustrated. Imagine how many people wouldn’t be in the poor financial position they are today if they had been properly educated beforehand. Knowledge is power! People would be less stressed out if they felt financially secure. Sure, some people do everything right and they still struggle to make ends meet due to low paying jobs, lack of education (don’t even get me started on the cost of a college education and how much debt people start out with – that’s another post altogether), or medical issues which quickly rack up debt, but many people get themselves into trouble financially even though they are earning a very healthy income. They either spend more than they earn buying unnecessary things, dining out too much, or just budgeting poorly, or they don’t leave any room in their budget for contributing to retirement and savings, thus putting themselves at risk should their income disappear for any reason.

That’s another thing that bothers me – people who say, “I just plan to work until I die” because they either love to work, or they don’t feel they have any other option. But the harsh truth is that regardless of whether you want to work, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to do so. You could get laid off and have trouble finding a new job, or become too ill to continue working. Better think about that now while you’re young enough to do something about it.

Another thing that worries me is how many people figure they’ll rely on social security when they retire. But look at the facts – social security is uncertain. I don’t believe it will be completely gone by the time I retire (could you imagine the ramifications???), but I do believe the predicted payments I’m seeing on my statements will have decreased by as much as 25% by that time. And even if they don’t, you really can’t live that well off social security alone. It would break my heart when I used to work in customer service for the cable company and an elderly person would literally start crying on the phone because their cable wasn’t working and it was all they had for entertainment due to living on a fixed income. I decided I didn’t want to end up in that situation which is one of the reasons why I’ve prioritized saving for the future. It’s just hard watching the people around me not do the same even though they have enough disposable income to go out to eat, attend events, etc. Priorities, people!

Remember: no one cares about your future as much as you should. Start planning now. Educate yourself about finance since our schools are failing us in that regard. I wish someone had stressed the importance of saving when I was in my early twenties. We didn’t really start saving until about a year before Joe and I were ready to buy a house. Luckily we were still young enough (27 for me, 34 for him) that time was still on our side, just not as much as it could have been.

While you should start saving now regardless of your age, if you’re very young I stress it even more. Because after 20+ years of working you may grow disillusioned with the whole concept and want out, but you won’t be able to afford it. You’ll be shackled to a lackluster existence because you didn’t plan ahead. Don’t let that happen. Educate yourself!

There’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as my fortieth birthday looms on the horizon – what’s the point of saving for retirement if I don’t take care of my health now?

I’ve read too many stories of people who saved their whole lives only to die before, or just after, retiring. I’d hate to think all the careful planning would be for nothing.

Plus, even if I live well into my 90’s, I want to be healthy enough to get around on my own. I envision visiting forest preserves and taking vacations, but that won’t be possible if I am in poor health.

Coincidentally, I was at the library earlier this week when I came across this book.

A Short Guide to a Long Life

I devoured it in a single night. Unfortunately, I learned that while I’m doing some things right when it comes to my health, there is definitely room for improvement.

Things I’m doing right:

Working out 20-30 minutes 3-4 times a week on my elliptical machine
Eating fruits & vegetables
Getting at least 6.5 hours of sleep every night (although my body prefers 8-9)
Keeping my stress levels low

Things I’m doing that are a detriment to my health:

Eating processed foods and junk food
Not eating any fish
Not pushing myself harder on the elliptical machine or doing any weight training
Taking vitamins & supplements
Not having correct posture
Sitting too much

I’m sure there’s more but there’s only so many things I can tackle at once.

Eating properly is a tough one because all the foods I really enjoy are not the most nutritious things to eat. I don’t eat fried foods constantly, but I do like red meat, bread, and potato chips. Plus I love to bake. Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and while I do eat fruits and vegetables, I wonder how much of the “bad stuff” is affecting my overall health.

I will try and add interval and weight training to my schedule, however. I have been doing the interval stuff a little already, but no weight training. I can do that while I watch TV. That could also help with the whole sitting too much thing if I stand while doing it.

The vitamin thing really throws me because I’ve always heard vitamins are good for you. Now studies are showing that multivitamins in particular are linked to a higher risk of mortality. I do not take a multivitamin, but I do take a few single vitamins for very specific health reasons:

  • Vitamin D since my levels were low before I started taking it
  • Vitamin B12 to help with a balance issue
  • Magnesium to help with a balance issue as well as to promote better sleep
  • Probiotic for digestion (plus I’ve found it helps me not gain weight as quickly)

I read in the book that taking a low-dose aspirin daily minimizes inflammation in the body. Inflammation contributes to the development of a host of diseases, including cancer, so this week I’ve started taking one of those as well.

In addition, I’m trying to improve my posture. My back hurts already because it’s not used to it, but I will suffer through the discomfort for the long term gain of a longer life expectancy (according to the book).

Changing things for the better is not going to be easy, and I will admit right now that some things might not change because I know myself too well and I don’t want to give up the foods I love, but I will try to cut back on the junk food. Everything in moderation, right?

What things have you changed recently to adopt a healthier lifestyle?

Are you loyal to particular brands, most notably when it comes to groceries? We used to be, but haven’t been for many years.

Growing up, I recall there being a stigma attached to generic and/or store brand products. Perhaps there still is… but we no longer care. Why?

Because generic products are cheaper.

You don’t have to be living paycheck to paycheck to want to reduce your food costs so you can save money. Without the fancy packaging, generic products sell for much less and often taste the same, if not better, than their name brand counterparts. There are exceptions, of course, but the best way to find out is by trying them. Over the years we’ve always tried the generic equivalent of a product and then decided based on taste whether to continue buying generic, or switch back to the name brand.

We swear by certain Aldi products in particular because they are 10%-70% cheaper than their competitors yet aren’t lacking in taste. Our favorites:

Aldi Branded Items

    » Casa Mamita Mexican Syle Corn – $0.89 per can vs. $1.25+ for the Green Giant brand

    » Casa Mamita Diced Tomtatoes & Green Chilies – $0.57 per can vs. $1.00+ for Rotel

    » Baker’s Corner Fudge Brownie Mix – $1.19 per box vs. $1.50+ for Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, or Pillsbury. Plus they are the best brownies I’ve ever tasted. Add a teaspoon of powdered espresso to enhance the rich chocolate flavor and no one will ever know they aren’t homemade. Well, I guess my friends now know! I do make brownies from scratch occasionally, but when I’m in a hurry these are my go-to.

    » Reggano Pasta Sauce – $1.00 a jar. I believe there are some brands that might be just as inexpensive, but we haven’t found any we like more than this brand. We do not care for Prego or Ragu and the Classico brand is at least twice the cost and not that much better.

Like any new adventure, there were some pitfalls along the way. For instance, we’ve tried several different mayonnaise brands and Hellman’s reigns supreme in our household. The same goes for Heinz ketchup (although Target’s Market Pantry brand is a close second). Speaking of Market Pantry, have you tried their BBQ sauce? It is amazing and tastes better than our second favorite, Sweet Baby Ray’s.

If you’re feeling a little apprehensive about switching brands, take it slowly. You might just be surprised at how much money you’ll save!

What are some of your favorite generic products?
What are some name brand products you would never give up?

If you have children, you’ve probably started thinking about saving for college. How about a 529 plan? It’s a great tax savings seeing how you can invest money, let it grow, and be able to use the money and its gains tax free for educational expenses.

529 Plan

529 Plan vs A Regular Savings Account

Let’s walk through a possible scenario. Making it easy, let’s say you open two accounts, one 529 and one regular savings account with $10k each, make no additional contributions, and they grow for 16 years. Note: no estimate for annual account fees, etc, is in included here.

$10,000 initial contribution
0 additional contributions
7% interest (average stock market rate over the years)
$29,521 – value after 16 years (gain of $19,521)
-$1,952 – 10% penalty (on the gain of $19,521)
-$4,880 – 25% ordinary income tax on $19,521
$22,689 – final value (est w/o annual fees and such)

Savings Account
$10,000 initial contribution
0 additional contributions
1% interest rate (highest rate you’d find today)
$11,725 – final value after 16 years

What a difference! Know, though, the stock market isn’t consistent. The 7% is an average over decades of tracking. Which is good for long term investors because 7% is pretty good. But the market is still volatile. It may be in a low year when you need to pull the money for school. If you’re not going to use it for school, you can always leave it in the account until a good year comes up. There’s no time limit for leaving it in the account.

What if my child decides not to go to college?

This is the biggest concern most people have when contemplating opening up a 529 plan. There are alternatives, however!

  • The money can be transferred to another family member. You can even use the funds to go back to school yourself!
  • The money can be used for trade school instead.

Penalties if neither option above works

Worst case scenario there is no one to transfer the money to and your child doesn’t use it. In that case there would be a 10% penalty to pull the money out in addition to having to pay taxes on the gains made. The 10% penalty is only on the gains, not the entire amount in the account.

Keep in mind the tax part you would have to pay regardless of this or any investment in an ordinary account. So really, it’s just the 10% penalty you would incur for withdrawing for non-educational related purposes.

Penalty Example

Say the account increased in value by $5000 over the years and you withdraw the full amount. There will be a $500 tax penalty (10% of the $5000), leaving you with $4500 (will be a little less after brokerage company fees). You will be taxed at your current tax rate for the $5000. Say you’re in the 25% tax bracket, that means you’ll be taxed $1250 ($5000 x 25%). You’ll account for it when you do your taxes for that year.

Retirement first, then 529 plan

Before you think about opening a 529 plan, however, be sure you’re saving for retirement fully. If you already are, great. Keep going with it. Otherwise, start saving now before saving for your children. That’s selfish, right? Not really. Ask yourself this – do I want to be in a position where I HAVE to work after retirement age even if I don’t WANT to?

You can’t borrow for retirement, but your little one can borrow for college. If you’re not in a good place yourself with saving for retirement, you should take care of that first. Your child can always take loans and look for scholarships (there are tons out there, many of which go unclaimed) for college. And once you’re set up with a secure financial future you can always help your children pay off their loans.

Does anyone have any of their own experiences with college savings they’d like to share???