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Why “Opportunity” Funds Are the New Emergency Funds

Why "Opportunity" Funds Are the New Emergency Funds

You know your emergency fund is important to your financial well-being. In fact, it’s a bit like flossing is to dental health. We know it’s important. In fact, we know it is hugely beneficial. But do we do it? Well, no — or at least not like we should.

The emergency fund is a classic example of what has become known as the "knowing-doing gap." These are cases where know we should take action, yet we don’t. That’s because abstract thoughts about future emergencies — auto repairs or a leaking roof — are hardly compelling. An emergency fund, as vital as it may be, just isn’t sexy.

If it’s time for you to bridge the knowing-doing gap, and start future-proofing your finances, here’s a smart trick to try.

Bridging the Gap

When it comes to an emergency fund, size matters less than habit. If you think that it’s not worth starting because you can only spare a small amount, then you’re kidding yourself. Small amounts regularly saved do mount up.

In reality, what prevents many people from saving is not a shortage of spare cash, but a lacking desire to build an emergency fund in the first place. After all, if you were really committed to saving, and prepared to fully audit your budget, you could probably find ways to trim your expenses a few dollars a week, or bring in some extra cash on the side.

But saving for an emergency fund is an inherently pessimistic and abstract thing. There is no conclusive rule to tell you how much you should have. You’re saving for things that might never happen, and anyway, isn’t just thinking about emergencies a little like tempting fate?

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Opportunity Fund

The real barrier to saving an emergency fund, often, is in the mind. So instead of saving for an emergency fund, why not shift your thinking into a more positive groove? Decide instead to save an opportunity fund, so that you never need to fear missing an opportunity for want of cash.

How much more would you be motivated to save for some unknown opportunity that might present itself in future? Instead of saving as insurance against the stuff of nightmares, think about saving so you can grab an opportunity when it arises.

It is a whole lot easier (and more pleasant) to think about the opportunities that might come up in the future than it is to speculate about the disasters that might befall us. Imagine these scenarios, both with and without the financial cushion provided by your opportunity fund:

  • Your dream job comes up, but the salary doesn’t stack up. What do you do? Your savings give you choices.
     
  • You have the opportunity to start your own business in an area you’re passionate about, but starting out means living on less to begin with. Now you can weigh your options.
     
  • You decide to study again, and need to flex your finances.
     
  • Your best friend is about to embark on some pretty major travel plans, and you really want to join. Guess what? Now you can.
     
  • You choose to drop hours at work to care for family, to travel, or to focus on a hobby. Having an opportunity fund means that you can consider different routes.
     
  • You need (or want) to relocate suddenly. This could be for a good reason like a new job, love, or family. Don’t feel stuck — your opportunity fund gives you the control you need to make the decisions that matter.

While an emergency fund feels like an exercise in damage limitation, your opportunity fund will feel like control, flexibility, and financial confidence. With those motivating factors on side, you are far more likely to make a savings plan and stick to it — even if it means trimming the spend a little elsewhere.

Naturally, once you have saved your financial cushion, it is there for you if an emergency should ever arise. But more importantly it’s there as a comfort, an assurance that money worries do not need to be a reason to walk away from a great idea or opportunity. Doesn’t that sound better?

What do you think? Do you have an emergency fund? Would you consider using it for a great opportunity instead?

My 2016 Budget Challenge: Affording Education

My 2016 Budget Challenge: Affording Education

[Editor’s Note: This is the another episode in Max Wong’s journey to find an extra $31,000 this year. Read the whole series here.]

I am on the cusp of transitioning into a new dream career. Actually, two new dream careers. People keep approaching me for work as a documentary filmmaker and as an architectural photographer, so I have decided to take the leap and try to do both full-time for money. This is tremendously exciting and mind-numbingly scary for two reasons:

First, I am old. Well, not old-old. I am 46. So, I am certainly young enough to start a second career. However, at 46, I am too old for a long educational track and too poor to get training for a career that leaves me saddled with student loan debt that then leaves me unable to save for retirement.

Second, I will just say it: I am a luddite. In order to succeed as a documentary filmmaker and as a professional photographer, I have to learn how to use my motion picture camera and sound system, a film editing program, Lightroom and/or Photoshop, and a new digital camera system. And that’s just what I have to learn this year. I basically have to go back to film school, but cram four years of learning into the next nine months.

So how am I going to acquire all these new-fangled skills without breaking the bank or, more importantly, breaking my brain? Here’s how I am cobbling together some quality learning on the cheap.

Finding a Mentor

If there is such a thing as a professional meet cute story, I have it. Last year, one of my favorite photographers started following me on Instagram and subsequently hired me to work as his sometime assistant.

It is incredibly gratifying to have an artist, who I greatly admire, support me creatively, even if it comes in the form of terse texts such as, "If you take that photograph now, I don’t want to hear any whining from you about how sucky it is later." And, "Do better." Because I know he is rooting for me to figure things out, it is easy to stay motivated and learn the technical side of photography, a process that involves failing repeatedly. To quote Henri Cartier-Bresson: "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." With thousands of my worst photographs still untaken, I am glad that I have professional supervision and a safe space to crash and burn.

In addition to the self-esteem boost, a good mentor just makes everything easier. For example, after reading through approximately 556,373 camera equipment reviews, I still could not parse out what gear to buy, so my mentor wrote me up a custom shopping list based on what he thought would work best for me creatively, financially, and physically. Not only did this take some of the stress out of buying $2,288.94 worth of photography equipment, but he ended up saving me hundreds of dollars.

For example, the Arca Swiss Cube gear head is the industry standard for architectural photography. One of the reasons why my original gear budget is $10,000 is because the Arca Swiss costs $1,600. My mentor owns several different gear heads. The one he recommended to me is the one he uses the most: a $300 model that was not mentioned in any of the reviews that I read. Because I have seen what he can do with a $300 gear head, I feel confident that I can do professional work with the same model and save $1,300.

While mentors are always presented as white-haired, lions of industry (or Morgan Freeman) in films, I should point out that my photography mentor is actually younger than I am. Good teachers can be any age.

Interning

I am extremely pro-interning because it has worked well for me. I was hired as a film executive before I even graduated from film school. I never had to be an assistant or work in the mailroom, which are both standard entry-level film gigs. I graduated from college and the next day I went to work at my fancy production company job. I managed this feat by interning for a full year at the company that hired me. For them, it was just an internal promotion. I was already working 60 hours a week for them, so why not just pay me so I could afford better work clothes?

Interning while you are in college has become a huge drag. You either have to find a paying internship, which really don’t exist anymore in a lot of fields, or you have to work an internship for college credit, which means you have to pay tuition for a job your school probably didn’t even get you. It’s tough. However, interning as an adult post-graduation is way easier. Plenty of companies have rules against hiring unpaid students, but very few companies care if a "grown up" volunteers to work for free. Interning is a great way to learn the industry culture, network, and discover the skills you actually need for a specific job.

I don’t think of internships as just office jobs. In fact, I could probably invent an internship in almost any industry that does not require safety certification or security clearance. In addition to interning for my photography mentor, I am currently interning with a master beekeeper. I help him schlep heavy equipment around a farm once a week, and in exchange he helps me level up on my beekeeping skills. I am currently learning queen rearing, so I can breed and raise my own queen bees to sell to other local beekeepers.

For the record, I generally don’t refer to my beekeeping arrangement as an internship. I am WWOOFing, which sounds endlessly more "authentic," "artisanal," and fancy. Kinfolk Magazine should just interview me right now.

Hiring an Intern

I bought my parents their first Apple computer in 1999. When they crashed it the first time, they called me in a panic. Since this was before Apple stores were in every big city, they had no idea who could fix their computer. "Pay the 12-year-old who lives down the street $40 to come over and show you how to fix your computer," I told them. "Which 12-year-old?" they asked. "Any 12-year-old," I said.

Like my parents, I am a digital immigrant, not a digital native. To this day, I am still more comfortable with analog technology than I am with the digital world. Just ask my editors at Wise Bread who are all half my age. I am clueless.

Right this second I’m trying to learn how to use iMovie to edit my documentary. It is going very slowly. It is not as intuitive as I had hoped. Or, maybe I am just extra dumb at this.

As luck would have it, my friend Cheryl called me the other day. She’s trying to get a summer internship for her daughter who is applying to film schools in the fall. Could I use an intern on my current documentary? "Does your kid know how to use iMovie?" I asked. "Oh, sure. But she mainly uses Premiere to edit at home and she uses Avid at school."

Boom.

I now have a 17-year-old summer intern who is going to sit with me and walk me through the editing process.

See? Good teachers. Any age.

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Visiting the Public Library

My friend Fareed is superhuman when it comes to Photoshop. Where did he pick up his mad skills? The Los Angeles Public Library. Apparently, you can access Lynda Lessons for free at some public libraries. This is how I am going to learn Lightroom and Photoshop.

RTFM (Reading the Fricking Manual)

My new tripod has an instruction manual. I am reading it. My new gear head has an instruction manual. I am reading it. My new tilt-shift lens has an instruction manual. I am reading it. My borrowed camera body has an instruction manual. I am reading it, even though it is 260 pages long and in Spanish because my photography mentor misplaced the English instructions. Not that I am complaining as the photographs are in English and I am learning a lot of good vocabulary words in Spanish for free. So, bonus?

I know. Reading the manual to learn how to use a machine seems like, well, obvi. But, apparently I am in the minority. According to a survey, 24% of women who call tech support hotlines in the United Kingdom have never bothered to read the manual before calling for help. And lest anyone believe that this is just a problem for women because we are mechanical simpletons who can’t understand technology, that exact same survey found that 64% of men don’t read the manual before demanding IT help.

Of course, Americans are even stupider, or maybe just more stubborn than British tech consumers: 95% of gadgets returned in the United States actually work.

Watching YouTube

Even though I am muscling my way through all the camera gear manuals, I am hating the experience. The diagrams leave a lot to be desired. Also, while paper manuals are very good at explaining how to use the various buttons and levers, text-based manuals are not good at explaining how to use the various buttons and levers to get the desired photographic image. Thank God for YouTube. Now I understand how to use my tilt-shift lens! Concepts that take 13 pages of explanation in the book, can be explained in one five-second close-up shot.

While many YouTube instructional videos leave a lot to be desired in terms of production value, the sheer number of subjects covered make YouTube my first stop when I am trying to learn new, random skills. Do I have a Small Hive Beetle infestation in my beehive? Found a video on how to make a no-poison Hive Beetle death trap from an old CD case and vegetable oil. Did I make the disastrous decision to cut my own bangs without watching a YouTube bang-cutting video first? (Yes). Found a video on how to hide my bangs inside retro hair-dos while I grow them back out.

Reading the Comments

Fact: Reading Internet comments can be as pleasant as self-surgery. However, I often learn more from the comments on how-to blog posts than I do from the original article!

Are you an autodidact? What tools do you use to learn new skills quickly? Please share in the comments section! I can use all the help I can get.

Progress Report

My husband managed to save $1,500 this month from his regular paycheck. (At this rate, I am going to have to change his nickname for this series from Mr. Spendypants to Mr. Saveypants). He also earned an additional $1,100 for creating all the original artwork for Desert Island, a Kickstarter-funded card game.

I am so relieved that the start date for my professional architectural photography job has been pushed back to May. After much discussion and contemplation, we decided that it would be better for me to purchase all the equipment I need for the job, with the exception of the camera body, so I could have a month to practice using all these tools. Also, although this is a big expense, it is cheaper to buy the basic tools needed for this job rather than rent. The total cost of camera equipment purchased this month: $2,288.94

Goal: $31,000.00

Amount Raised: $14,978.00

Amount Spent: $7,592.66

Amount Left to Go: $23,407.34

Flashback Friday: The 107 Best Breakfast Hacks to Start Your Day Off Right

Flashback Friday: The 107 Best Breakfast Hacks to Start Your Day Off Right

If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, then it should also be your best, most delicious meal of the day. Why not start the day off right, right? But with a hectic schedule ahead of you, it’s easy to toss breakfast off the top of your priority list, and just grab something quick, something probably not-so-healthy, and ultimately, something that will tamper with your energy before you’ve even started work.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. You absolutely can have a balanced breakfast without sacrificing much of your limited morning time. Here are the 100+ best breakfast hacks we’ve ever shared.

Flashback Friday: The 107 Best Breakfast Hacks to Start Your Day Off Right

The 7 Most Calorie-Burning Breakfasts — Oh, you wanna torch massive calories throughout the day, eh? Well, you gotta start early in the morning. And these healthy, calorie-burning breakfasts will give you a stellar head-start.

11 Delicious Breakfast Dishes for Your Grill — Warmer days, they are a comin’, so why not enjoy the morning sun while you grill up some breakfast pizzas and hash browns? Sounds pretty wonderful, doesn’t it?

20 Easy and Delicious Granola Recipes — Granola is no one-trick pony. There are so many yummy ways to use it! So step up your granola game and mix it in with these amazing toppings.

Flashback Friday: The 107 Best Breakfast Hacks to Start Your Day Off Right

15 Nutritious Breakfasts for People With Busy Mornings — You’re busy. I’m busy. We’re all busy! That’s still no excuse to consume a pile of garbage first thing in the morning. These delicious day starters will keep your energy up, your belly full, and your tastebuds doing a happy dance.

8 Easy Superfood Smoothies for a Better Morning — Food just tastes so much better when you mix in fruit, natural sweeteners, and liquify it together, doesn’t it? Smoothies make fantastic grab and go meals because it takes just a few minutes to dump everything into the blender, blend it up, and then you can take it to go. Win-win!

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15 Grab-and-Go Post-Workout Breakfasts — If you’re an a.m. exerciser, you need to stay hydrated and replace those calories you just burned off. If you skip breakfast after a workout, your energy will plummet and your body will be seriously pissed at you. So just whip up any of these breakfasts and head on out the door.

Flashback Friday: The 107 Best Breakfast Hacks to Start Your Day Off Right

12 Delicious Slow Cooker Breakfast Ideas for Lazy Cooks — Lazy cooks are actually brilliant cooks. They know how to make their meals taste delicious without spending too much time on it. And with a slow cooker, you can toss the ingredients in the night before, and wake up to a wonderful smelling breakfast, just waiting to be eaten.

10 Delicious and Frugal Power Bowls You Want Right Now — Power bowls are so in right now. These healthy bowls can be eaten at any time of day, but just add eggs and you’ve made it into a breakfast bowl. They’re a bit pricey to buy, but make ’em yourself and you’ve got a gorgeous, healthy meal to Instagram and then eat — in that order, of course.

9 Make-Ahead, Freezable Hot Breakfast Recipes — No time at all in the morning to prepare a nice hot meal? No problem! These breakfasts can be prepared ahead of time and frozen until you’re ready to chow down.

What are your favorite breakfast hacks? Share with us in the comments!

10 Signs Your Company Is Going Under

10 Signs Your Company Is Going Under

If you have ever read Who Moved My Cheese? you’ll know that there are warning signs everywhere about an impending job loss. But what about the company itself? Is it safe? Or is it in real trouble? If you’re having a few doubts about the future of your company, look out for these 10 red flags. (See also: 11 Financial Moves to Make the Moment You Get Fired)

1. There’s a Hiring Freeze

When a company is doing well, it will be actively looking to expand and add talented new people to the roster. When times are tough, the HR department will initiate a hiring freeze. This is never a good sign. It can be done in a few ways. If the company management does things in a transparent way, they’ll be up front about it. You’ll be told that there is a hiring freeze until things stabilize.

However, most of the time, you’ll be given no warning. Positions that should have been filled will be left vacant. When an employee quits, one or two other people will take on their responsibilities. Take a look at the current openings at your company — they should be listed on an intranet, or publicly on job boards. If you don’t see any positions out there, or there are positions that have been open for many months, or years, then your company is probably in the midst of a hiring freeze.

2. Closed Door Meetings Are Everywhere

You walk through the halls of the company and office doors are closed, or sometimes slammed in your face. You peek in to see people clearly upset with raised voices, red faces, and there’s a lot of shrugging shoulders and hair pulling. Unless your company has a specific reason to keep a lot of secrets — perhaps there’s a top secret new product in development — then this can only mean one thing: bad news. Management will not want rumors to start running rampant, and will tell the decision makers to keep everything under wraps. Not only that, but when you ask questions about it, you’ll get vague replies. These closed door meetings are not only bad for morale, but a sure sign that there are conversations happening about the future of the company.

3. The Good Employees Start Leaving

Good is a relative term, but in your company you will have employees who are known to be excellent at their jobs. They are good for the business, they are passionate and driven, and they are working on the important projects. When these employees start leaving on their own accord, for jobs that may be seen as a lateral move (or even a downward move), you know something is wrong. The rock stars of any company have a good handle on things, and their gut (plus inside information) will tell them to escape while they can. If upper management starts quitting, that’s an even bigger sign of trouble ahead.

4. Layoffs and Reorganizations Are Constant

A company doing well does not need to lay people off, or continually restructure. A company performing poorly will look to cut staffing costs, and shuffle the remaining employees around. It’s a Hail Mary approach that rarely works. Layoffs may result in some of the better employees being let go due to salary, or internal politics. The increased pressure on the remaining staff to do more work will take its toll. Mistakes will be made. Problems will escalate. Before you know it, six months have passed and the company is in even worse shape. And then there will be more layoffs, and more reorganization. When this loop occurs, the doors will be closing imminently.

5. Playing It Safe Is Encouraged

Taking risks is part of the business — any business. After all, starting a company is a risk, and risks are often required in order to grow and succeed. When risk-taking is suddenly frowned upon, you know the company is on shaky ground. What was once considered a bold move will be rebranded as dangerous, or problematic. Your company will slide into patterns of doing only what worked in the past, despite market changes and demographics shifting. Instead of making decisions that will elevate the company, management will pull back, and "play it safe." Expansion disappears. Innovation crumbles. Everything that made your company a success will be relegated to the back benches, with "tried and tested" solutions taking the lead. When playing it safe is the mantra, it’s a big sign of weakness.

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6. Everyone Is Unhappy

The conversation in the kitchen is all about how much the culture sucks. At lunch, employees everywhere are complaining about the state of the company, and the future it probably doesn’t have. Smiles are in short supply. Everyone is stressed out. The entire staff is walking around with the weight of the world on their shoulders. This is not the kind of culture you’d see at Pixar or Google. Energetic, enthusiastic employees are the sign of a thriving company; the opposite is true of companies that are on the ropes. When everyone is down, the company is going in that very same direction… and quickly.

7. There’s No Money to Do Anything

Cash flow is extremely important to any company. It’s the lifeblood of the business, and without it, it’s hard to pay salaries, order products, and advertise. In the past, getting the money you needed to get the job done was no problem. Now, it’s a struggle. Your requisition for new supplies is denied. Pay raises are eliminated. People are asked to take salary cuts, or even worse, work for free — furloughs are very real, and very scary. Bills are not being paid. Vendors call you angry about not receiving money they are owed. These are all classic signs of serious money troubles. They are usually followed by closing the doors, for good.

8. The Company Stock Is in Free Fall

If your company is on the stock market, you can track the share price. Every stock has its ups and downs, but if the only way is down, your company has issues. Now, this may be because of a recent press release, or a piece of news that directly impacts your industry. However, if your company is in good shape, it should be a small fluctuation. When the stock starts tanking, and continues on that downward trajectory, things are bad. What’s even worse is when major shareholders, including management, start selling off a majority of their shares. If they want out, the end is near. Get out now while you can, and don’t let what happened to Enron employees happen to you.

9. Benefits and Freebies Dry Up

Your company was once great at giving employees the benefits they deserved. Not just health care and vacation, but things like free sodas and snacks, parking reimbursements, college tuition, and matching 401K. When times are tough, the perks disappear. If you now have to pay for a lot of the things you used to get for free, your company is in financial trouble. What’s worse is that these perks, or lack of them, impact employee morale. Being asked to do more for less is never going to result in a great workforce, which then results in poor performance.

10. You’re Not Busy

Your days used to fly by. You were frantic at times, but always had a lot on your plate. Now, you find yourself staring out of the window, or sending emails to people asking for something to do. When it’s just you, it could be a clear sign that your position is about to be eliminated. But when there are many people in the company twiddling their thumbs, things are looking bleak. No business can afford to pay a staff to do nothing. If you’re not busy for a long period of time, it’s time to move on.

What are some other signs that a company is in trouble? Share with us in the comments!

Best Money Tips: Ways to Become a Millionaire Next Door

Best Money Tips: Ways to Become a Millionaire Next Door

Welcome to Wise Bread’s Best Money Tips Roundup! Today we found helpful articles on how to become a millionaire next door, simple ways to show you care, and bathroom upgrades that won’t break your budget.

Top 5 Articles

How to Become a Millionaire Next Door — Work on building good habits, like living within your means, paying with cash, and saving money. [Cult of Money]

10 Super Simple Ways To Show You Care — One way to show someone you care is to leave them a fun note that will make them giggle. [Change Your Thoughts]

How to Upgrade Your Bathroom on a Budget — Adding storage and organization can make your daily routine much easier. [Stack The Chips]

14 Sleeping Tips For City Dwellers — A plush, double-layer blanket can muffle the sounds of the city. [PopSugar Smart Living]

Five things to keep in your car — Your car’s manual is a good item to keep on hand. It’s full of useful information like how to connect your Bluetooth devices, what the light on the dashboard means, and which kind of oil to use. [Unclutterer]

Other Essential Reading

Tips for a Stress Free Large Family Vacation — Communication is essential when there are lots of people involved. Creating a Facebook group for the family vacation will help keep everyone in the loop during the planning and booking stage. [Saving Dollars & Sense]

How To Declutter Your Technology Life — Your desktop is the first thing you see when you power up your computer — it also tends to be the place where digital clutter accumulates. An organizing wallpaper can help you make better use of the space. [Adventures in Frugal Land]

3 Biggest Fears Facing Would-Be Retirees — Learn what these three fears are — and what to do about them. [The Motley Fear]

How to Buy Shoes Online for the Cheapest Prices — Different manufacturers may have slight differences in their sizing. If you want to be sure you order the right size, try on your favorite manufacturers at a store and find your preferred size. [SavingFreak.com]

How to Make Breastfeeding Easier — The first few weeks will be the hardest. Take a breastfeeding class if you can and find support among your family and peers. [Parenting Squad]

5 International Destinations You Can Visit for $50 a Day

5 International Destinations You Can Visit for $50 a Day

If you think you can’t explore breathtaking and exotic places on a budget, think again. Here are five beautiful destinations where you can travel and experience culture for less than $50 a day.

1. Thailand

5 International Destinations You Can Visit for $50 a Day

  • Budget for a solo traveler: $50 / day
  • Budget for a couple: $65 / day
  • Average budget private room cost: $25 / night
  • Cost of a meal in a restaurant: $5
  • Round trip flight from New York to Bangkok in high season: $640+

A long time budget traveler’s favorite, Thailand can give you more bang for your buck than almost anywhere else on earth. Here you can explore Buddhist temples, swim in impossibly clear water, lay on white sand beaches, and sample some of the world’s best cuisine. The people are always smiling and the weather is always hot and balmy.

There are good value flights from the U.S. and when you’re in Thailand, everything is affordable. You can get rooms here for as little as $10 per night, but for a nice, clean, and comfortable stay, $25 will be more than enough. If you stay in Thailand for two weeks, it will likely cost you less than one week at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico.

2. Indonesia

5 International Destinations You Can Visit for $50 a Day

  • Budget for a solo traveler: $45 / day
  • Budget for a couple: $60 / day
  • Average budget private room cost: $20 / night
  • Cost of a meal in a restaurant: $5
  • Round trip flight from New York to Bali in high season: $820+

Indonesia offers travelers even better value than Thailand in most cases, and fewer travelers make their way to this jungle clad, volcano-carved archipelago. Land in Bali and explore the beaches, temples, and surf spots that made this island famous. Then head out to some of the lesser visited islands like Lombok and Sumatra.

Domestic flights in Indonesia are very cheap and you can also take local ferries between many of the islands. Consider a trip to Komodo Island where you can share the rugged landscape with real, live prehistoric dragons.

Flights to Bali will take a long time from the U.S., so it’s best to plan to visit Indonesia for two weeks or more if possible. A two-week trip here, including flights, won’t likely cost a solo traveler more than $1,500! That’s still less than many one week, all-inclusive holidays.

3. Bulgaria

5 International Destinations You Can Visit for $50 a Day

  • Budget for solo traveler: $50 / day
  • Budget for a couple: $65 / day
  • Average budget private room cost: $25 / night
  • Cost of a meal in a restaurant: $5
  • Round trip flight from New York to Sofia in high season: $1,100+

Not all European destinations will cost you a fortune, especially now that the U.S. dollar is so strong. Bulgaria is one of the best-value-for-money countries in all of Europe and the people here are extremely hospitable.

You can take tours to some of the region’s oldest wineries, explore ancient Roman ruins, and wander around fascinating Ottoman-era towns. There are even beautiful beach holiday hot spots along the Black Sea coast in towns like Varna and Burgas.

A two-week holiday here including flights, traveling around to different towns, and exploring much of the countryside will only cost you around $1,800.

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4. Mexico

5 International Destinations You Can Visit for $50 a Day

  • Budget for solo traveler: $50 / day
  • Budget for a couple: $70 / day
  • Average budget private room cost: $30 / night
  • Cost of a meal in a restaurant: $6
  • Round trip flight from New York to Cancun in high season: $410+

Before your mind automatically starts daydreaming about cocktails on the beach in an all-inclusive resort in Cancun, consider traveling this fascinating country for its culture. Mexico is one of the most underrated independent travel destinations simply because so many North Americans are hypnotized by posh resorts and free booze.

Mexico has so much more to offer than beaches and cocktails. By traveling independently here, you’ll be able to sample some of the world’s most complex cuisine, explore ancient Mayan ruins, discover Spanish colonial towns, and learn how to salsa dance.

The best part is that Mexico is actually one of the best-value countries for travelers in all of the Americas. A return flight from the U.S. probably won’t cost you more than $500 in the high season and you don’t have to worry about jet-lag.

Give Mexico a try. Steer away from the resorts and immerse yourself in the culture instead. Most people who travel Mexico this way once never go back to all-inclusives again.

5. South Africa

5 International Destinations You Can Visit for $50 a Day

  • Budget for solo traveler: $50 / day
  • Budget for a couple: $70 / day
  • Average budget private room cost: $30 / night
  • Cost of a meal in a restaurant: $7
  • Round trip flight from New York to Cape Town in high season: $1,200+

The Rand (ZAR) has recently taken a huge dive, meaning that travel to South Africa is cheaper now than it has been in over a decade. You’ll have to be on a pretty tight budget to keep it under $50 per day, but it’s definitely doable, even with the occasional wildlife safari.

Even though it’s possible to get by on $50 per day, I highly recommend upping your budget by $20 per day to allow room for a rental car. There’s no better way to see South Africa than in your own private vehicle.

Pick Your Place

I’ve only listed five places where it’s possible to travel on $50 a day or less, but there are many others. In this article we’ve visited four of the world’s continents and even with the long journeys, most of these destinations will cost you less than your average resort holiday.

Have you traveled to any of these frugal destinations?

11 Food and Beverage Stocks That Are Having a Good Year

11 Food and Beverage Stocks That Are Having a Good Year

Food and drink. They are necessities, and if we invest in companies that produce them, there’s a good chance we’ll make money.

There are a number of companies whose shares have been off to a great start this year. Here’s a list of food and beverage firms that have already delivered positive growth for shareholders in 2016.

1. Coca-Cola [NYSE: KO]

Coke has historically been a great stock to own, due to its long history of steady growth. But in recent years, it’s underperformed the market as consumers have shifted to healthier food and beverage options. That said, its investors have made out well so far in 2016, as the company has started a major restructuring. Shares are up more than 9% this year and hit a 52-week high on April 11.

"Even as they brace for another year of shrinking revenue and sluggish earnings from the beverage giant, a growing number are encouraged by an accelerated restructuring that many saw as overdue," Dow Jones reported.

2. Campbell’s Soup Co. [NYSE: CPB]

Investing in chicken noodle soup and SpaghettiOs can help your portfolio: Campbell’s shares are up nearly 20% this year, powered by a 26% rise in earnings during the last quarter. The company has enjoyed strong results from an aggressive cost-cutting initiative, and investors are expecting to see positive impact from last year’s acquisition of Garden Fresh Gourmet. Campbell’s also got some good press when it announced all of its cans would be free of BPA by 2017.

3. McDonald’s [NYSE: MCD]

It’s been tough going for McDonald’s in the last couple years, but patient investors are finally being rewarded. Shares are up more than 9.5% this year, as both investors and analysts seem to agree that the company has its operating fundamentals in good order. The stock also responded positively to the news of plans for 1,300 new stores in China.

4. General Mills [NYSE: GIS]

This massive food conglomerate has a market cap of more than $37 billion, making General Mills a veritable blue chip of the food industry. But investors should be especially happy with General Mills’ recent performance, which has seen shares rise nearly 9% this year alone. In its last quarterly earnings report, the company announced progress on cost-cutting plans, and a 5% increase in profits.

5. Tyson Foods [NYSE: TSN]

Shares of this massive food processor and marketer are up 22% this year, which is a big jump for a company worth nearly $24 billion. The company’s first quarter earnings rose 49%, making analysts bullish on the stock.

"Fiscal 2016 is off to a very strong start in what we expect to be another record year," said Donnie Smith, Tyson’s president and chief executive officer in February.

6. Marine Harvest [NASDAQ: MHG]

We know that salmon fight to swim upstream, but there’s been no struggle for this Norwegian company, which sells farmed salmon products all over the world. Shares are up 24% in 2016, and the company announced in early April that its first quarter salmon harvest of 97,000 tons exceeded expectations.

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7. Molson Coors Brewing [NYSE: TAP]

Shares of the Denver-based brewer began rising in the second half of last year and the momentum has continued, with a 52-week high in early April. The good stock movement is largely the result of last year’s announcement that the company would seek to buy the other half of the MillerCoors Joint Venture and the entire Miller brand portfolio for $12 billion. That’s a lot of beer brands under one corporate umbrella, and a lot of revenue for investors to salivate over.

8. MGP Ingredients [NASDAQ: MGPI]

It’s been a hot couple of months for this producer and supplier of distilled spirits. Recently, the company reported a 7% increase in revenue year over year, and the stock price quickly responded, rising 20% within a month. MGP also got some good press when company officials rang the closing bell of the NASDAQ to celebrate the company’s 75th Anniversary in March.

9. National Beverage Corp. [NYSE: FIZZ]

Coke isn’t the only soda stock that’s hot. National Beverage Corp., the maker of Faygo, Shasta, and other soda brands is also having a great run that began last summer and has continued through 2016. The Florida-based company reported in March that sales from the previous three months rose from $143 million to $162 million. Shares are up nearly 7% in 2016 and more than 80% in the last year.

CNBC’s Mad Money host Jim Cramer took note of National Beverage’s performance.

"That is an astonishing move for a little-known soft drink maker, and it is really just the tip of the iceberg," Cramer said.

10. Constellation Brands [NYSE: STZ]

This producer and distributor of some of the most popular wine brands has been on a tear in 2016. Shares hit a 52-week high above $160 in early April, and are up more than 12% this year alone. Constellation reported revenues of more than $6.5 billion in the last quarter, beating analysts’ estimates, with a 26% increase in net income. Investors are bullish on 2017, as Constellation is expected to make some forays into the profitable craft beer market.

11. Primo Water [NASDAQ: PRMW]

This smallcap stock has had a nice year, with shares up more than 30%. Revenues in the most recent quarter beat analysts’ estimates and rose from $29.6 million to $31.5 million. Primo Water is expected to have double-digit earnings growth this year, and that should bode well for the stock.

Do you own any of these food and beverage stocks? Do you have any of their products on your fridge or pantry?

6 Tricks to Making the Most of Your Reward Miles

6 Tricks to Making the Most of Your Reward Miles

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After using travel rewards credit cards for a while, you might find that you’ve got tons of miles to redeem. But making sure you’re getting the most out of those rewards takes considerable planning and organization. Here are some tips on getting the most value out of your rewards miles and points. (See also: The Biggest Mistakes When Redeeming Credit Card Rewards)

1. Extend or Add a Vacation with Stopovers and Open Jaws

Stopovers and open jaws are big money savers for organized travelers.

Open Jaws: An open jaw ticket is one where you fly from point A to point B, then back to point A from point C. There is an open gap in the middle of the itinerary — which is perfect for a road trip. If you were to pay for this with cash instead of rewards, it would cost a lot of extra money, but it will cost you the same amount of reward points as a regular return flight.

For example:

Return Flight New York to London = 60,000 points

Open Jaw Flight New York to London + Barcelona to New York = 60,000 points

Stopovers: A stopover is any stop in a flight itinerary that lasts more than 24 hours. Not to be confused with a layover. A layover is that boring period of time that you dread, waiting at the airport for your next flight.

A stopover gives you time to exit the airport and explore. In fact, a stopover can be a week, a month, or even a year. Let’s say you plan a holiday in Rome, but you’ve always wanted to see Barcelona. You can add a one-week stopover in Barcelona into your rewards itinerary and it won’t cost you any extra points.

The best trick with stopovers is actually calling your home airport a stopover. Let’s say you book the trip above and the airline you fly with allows for two stopovers — and many do, including Lufthansa and Air Canada.

You can enjoy your first stopover in Barcelona, then fly to Rome to complete your holiday as planned. But on your return journey home, you call your home airport a "stopover" for one year. This means that, up to a year later, you can complete your journey with a free, one-way flight to your next holiday destination, like Las Vegas, perhaps.

If you are organized enough to plan more than one holiday at once, you can get a lot of free flights using this hack. Now you’ll just have to book a cheap one-way ticket from Las Vegas back home.

2. Redeem Rewards for Higher Value Flights

There are many people who save up a great number of rewards miles and then squander them by redeeming them for the wrong purchases. Typically, one of the biggest mistakes that rewards travelers make is redeeming their rewards for short-distance domestic flights.

Often, a 10-hour international flight will cost the same, or just slightly more, in points and miles as a long-distance domestic journey. Whereas the cash value for an international flight is often more than double a domestic one. You get much more value for the same amount of rewards points for an international flight. Sometimes it’s best to just pay cash for the short-distance flights, and save your rewards for the next time you’re leaving the country.

Redeeming wisely may sound like a pretty straightforward idea, but with seemingly endless rewards restrictions like expiration dates, blackout dates, eligibility restrictions and limited rewards seating, it can be a confusing matter.

If you’re not willing to do a lot of research and spend time planning the perfect rewards trip, you may want to consider using a service like Award Advocate or Award Booking Service to help you with your rewards booking.

For a fee of $100+, they can find the best reward seats for you, book the flight with the airline, and ensure that you’re using the least amount of miles possible for your journey.

3. Put Purchases on the Right Cards

A wallet full of credit cards is like a rewards hackers Swiss Army knife. Each card is its own tool and using them appropriately will allow you to get the most rewards for your purchases. For example, use a card that offers bonus rewards at supermarkets for your grocery purchases. Get the best credit card for gas to maximize rewards for that monthly expense. Keep track of the rotating categories on your Chase Freedom or Discover It card to get your 5% cash back.

Depending on your recurring expenses, there are cards that offer bonus rewards for dining, entertainment, travel, and even office supply purchases. Finally, you should have a card that offers extra rewards for all other purchases, such as the Quicksilver Cash Rewards Card that offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases with no annual fee, or the Amex Everyday Preferred Card that gives you 50% bonus points for making at least 30 transactions per billing cycle.

4. Try a Sign-Up Bonus Spree

Don’t have a wallet full of cards yet? You’re actually in luck! You can start a sign-up bonus spree to fill your wallet with the cards that you need, and maybe get a free vacation out of the sign-up bonuses, too! (See also: 5 Steps to Getting a Free Vacation in 9 Months or Less with Credit Cards)

Many credit cards offer a bonus for signing up and many of these bonuses are worth $500 or more in travel.

5. Pair Cards for Extra Rewards

Sometimes when you put two cards in your wallet, sparks fly and they become the perfect couple. One particular "dream couple" is the Chase Freedom and the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. Points on the Freedom are only worth about one cent each, but on the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, they’re worth 1.25 cents each (a whole 25% more).

Coupling these cards is easy. All you have to do is use the Freedom card for the 5% cash back on bonus categories each quarter, and then transfer those points to your Preferred card to get 25% more rewards.

When the Chase Freedom bonus category isn’t offering 5% for travel and dining, use the Chase Preferred which gets two points per dollar on these purchases. For all other purchases, you can use either card but make sure that you transfer the points to the Sapphire Preferred when it comes time to redeem.

6. Know Your Limits

Whether you’re starting a credit card spree or just trying to earn as many points as possible, you must know your limits.

Earning 5% cash back is completely useless if you end up paying interest (15% average in the U.S.) on your credit card each month. You have to be sure that you can pay off all of your cards before they start to accrue interest.

Savvy travel hackers never pay a dime in interest and earn thousands of points each year. You can do the same, but you must first start slowly and know your limits with each and every card that you carry.

If you can stay organized, watch your spending, and know your limitations and those that apply to the cards that you use, you can earn a lot of free travel from your cards in a very short period of time. Good luck!

How do you stretch your reward miles? Share with us in the comments!

Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any bank, card issuer, airline or hotel chain.

16 Simple Kitchen Skills Every Frugal Person Should Master

16 Simple Kitchen Skills Every Frugal Person Should Master

Would you rather eat out than cook? You aren’t alone. In fact, owing greatly to the availability of fast food, frozen food, and convenience food, fewer people are preparing meals at home regularly. Another factor is the decline of home economics classes at the high school level, where many basics were taught to both sexes. All of that eating out takes a toll, though, on your budget and your health. Learning to cook can also be relaxing and enjoyable. Ready to give it a try? Here are 16 simple kitchen skills that every frugal person should, and easily can, learn.

1. Make Coffee

How much are you spending each week at Starbucks? Ouch, right? Why not be your own barista? If you own a French press (I paid less than $20 for mine), you can make your coffee concoctions right at home. I love a good latte. Some people are intimidated by the frothy milk, but there is no need to be. It’s just aerating the milk, and you don’t need fancy equipment. Your "froth" goal is to just double its volume. That can be done in the French press, too, or by using a whisk. Add your favorite Torani syrup, if desired, and you’re set.

2. Roast a Chicken

One of the pleasures of being a home cook is the aroma of a roasting chicken on a Sunday afternoon — especially one that contains fresh lemon and herbs. Roast chicken ensures you’ll have delicious leftovers for several days (or you can freeze the leftovers). You don’t even need a fancy roasting pan; a large, shallow casserole dish will work.

3. Boil an Egg

Every time Easter rolls around, I am surprised by the number of articles online, or in the newspapers, explaining how to hard-boil eggs. Egg hunts aside, hard-boiled eggs are a very handy thing to have around for a quick high-protein snack, an egg-salad sandwich, deviled eggs, etc.

4. Cook Rice

I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t own a rice cooker. No need! It’s really easy to make perfect rice on your stovetop, and so long as you use your timer, it’s pretty darn foolproof. I always make a big batch, because I think it’s nice to have leftovers in the refrigerator for fried rice, a cold rice salad, or to toss into a tortilla with beans and cheese.

5. Cut Up an Avocado

Avocados are so enormously popular right now (watch for Sharwil avocados, now being imported from the Big Island of Hawaii). Full of healthy fat and vitamins, B6, E and C, we just can’t get enough of them. How do you cut up avocados without making a mess? If you’re a beginner, the chef in this video has an excellent safety tip for cutting out the pit, using a towel.

6. Know Which Knife to Use for Which Job

Ever use a paring knife to cut meat? How about a serrated edge for cheese? Doesn’t work very well, does it? Choosing the right knife for the right kitchen job, as well as knowing how to use that knife, will not only keep you safe, but is also more efficient.

7. Use Sharp Knives

Most kitchen accidents occur from use of a dull knife. This is due to the fact that a dull knife requires more pressure to do the job, increasing the odds of slipping and cutting yourself. Is sharpening knives something that you can do, yourself? Sure! As you become more comfortable with cooking, you’ll learn to appreciate working with sharp knives.

8. Bake a Potato

I prefer a potato baked in the oven, but you can also do them in the microwave. However, they won’t have that nice, crispy potato skin. Few foods are as economical as potatoes, and you can easily make a meal out of one. Try adding chili, sour cream, and onions, or how about steamed broccoli and cheese? Key point: Don’t forget to prick the potato with a fork to allow steam to escape.

9. Use Separate Cutting Boards

To minimize risk of cross-contamination, and making yourself sick, use different cutting boards for meats and vegetables. Wash thoroughly after use. If a board starts getting grooves in it from your knives, replace it.

10. Brown Meat

Why do you need to brown meat? Browning meat, or chicken, adds color and flavor, as well as gives it a better texture. If your recipe calls for browned meat, don’t skip that step. It’s mildly messy, and you need to be careful you don’t burn yourself. However, the results make this step well worth the effort.

11. Peel/Chop Garlic

As you begin to do more cooking, you will want to learn how to peel and chop up garlic. This isn’t difficult, and it will give your food so much flavor! One bulb of garlic will go a long way. Store in a cool, dark place (but not in your refrigerator). If you prefer, you can put it in a little jar, and cover with olive oil.

12. Grow Herbs

Even if you have no outdoor space, you can still grow herbs inside. Herbs greatly enhance your food — think of dill in potatoes, tarragon with chicken, or sage in stuffing. You can make a quick pesto if you have fresh basil around, or liven up a tomato sauce with some fresh oregano.

13. Make an Omelet

Not only inexpensive to make, homemade omelets are really versatile. Think ham, cheese, and tomatoes at breakfast; herbs and a little shaved parmesan at lunch, or a "filled" omelet for dinner. They take a little practice, but even when they don’t come out looking omelet-y, they’re still delicious.

14. Make Chicken Broth

After making chicken broth, I let it cool, and then pour into Ziploc quart bags, and freeze flat to stack (don’t forget to label with the date). I use broth just about as fast as I can make it, using it in soups, sauces, or in place of water (try in rice). The bonus is the cooked chicken, which you can also use right away in meals, or freeze.

15. Frost a Cake

Not much of a baker, my cakes always had a humorous "made this for you myself" look. I finally sat and watched an amateur cake decorator frost a cake, and what a difference that made. Getting rid of the crumbs was my favorite tip, followed by cutting the cake into the right shape.

16. Plan Your Menu

You’ll save yourself a lot of time and money if you learn to plan menus. It doesn’t need to be complicated — all you need is pencil and paper. Getting the hang of cooking once and eating twice is a real treat, particularly during a busy week. Learn to watch grocery ads for sales; plan around those and save more money.

Lastly, if you have gone to the trouble of making your own meal, why not enjoy it in style? Here is how to set the table.

What frugal kitchen skills do you find essential?

Everything a First-Time Home Buyer Needs to Buy a House

Everything a First-Time Home Buyer Needs to Buy a House

The number of people buying homes for the first time is falling, according to the most recent data from the National Association of Realtors.

According to the association’s 2015 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers report, only 32% of buyers in 2014 were purchasing a home for the first time. That’s the second-lowest percentage of first-time buyers since the survey’s start in 1981, beating out only 1987’s survey, in which just 30% of all buyers were first-timers.

However, this still means that plenty of first-timers are in the market today. And they are entering a housing market in which prices in major markets are continuing to rise.

What do these buyers need to successfully land that first home? Here are five of the most important advantages that a first-time buyer can bring to the house hunt.

A Large Down Payment

Mortgage interest rates remain at historically low levels. According to Freddie Mac’s Primary Mortgage Market Survey, the average interest rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage loan stood at 3.59% as of April 7. That’s the lowest this figure has been in 2016.

But to qualify for such a low rate, first-time buyers — and all buyers, really — will need a solid down payment. In general, the larger the down payment you can provide, the lower your mortgage interest rate will be.

There’s a reason for this: When you have more money invested in your home at the start, lenders believe that you’ll be less likely to stop paying your mortgage should you run into financial challenges. This makes lending you mortgage money less of a risk. And when you’re less of a risk, lenders don’t need as high of an interest rate to protect themselves.

Ideally, you can come up with a down payment of 20% of your home’s purchase price. That’s a lot of money, though; for a home costing $200,000, such a down payment would cost $40,000. Fortunately, you can still qualify for solid rates even with a down payment as low as 5% of your home’s purchase price, if your other financials are strong.

A Good Credit Score

Your FICO credit score is a key number when buying a home. Lenders rely on this number to gauge how well you’ve handled credit and paid your bills in the past. In general, lenders consider a FICO credit score of 740 or higher to be a good one.

Realtor.com reports that the average FICO credit score of approved mortgage borrowers stood at 718 during the last six months of 2015 and the first three of 2016. If your score is near that level, then, you should have a good chance of qualifying for a mortgage loan.

The higher your score, the lower your interest rate will be. Getting to that 740 level isn’t always easy. According to Realtor.com, the average U.S. adult with a credit score had a score of 695 during the last six months of 2015 and the first three of 2016.

A host of factors determine your credit score. The key to a good score, though, is relatively simple: Pay your bills on time every month, cut down your credit card debt, and never close a credit card account, even when you don’t use it.

Plenty of Cash

You’ll need plenty of cash to buy your first home. First-time buyers, in fact, typically need more available funds because unlike repeat buyers, they can’t count on any cash from selling a home.

You’ll need cash for your down payment, of course. But you’ll also need it for closing costs. Closing costs are the fees that lenders and other third-party sources, such as title companies, charge for closing your mortgage loan. Closing costs can vary, but in general they average about 2.5% of your home’s purchase price.

If you are buying a home that costs $180,000, you can expect to pay about $4,500 in closing costs.

The good news? You can accept gifts from relatives or friends to cover your closing costs. The key, though, is that these gift funds have to truly be gifts. The person gifting you the dollars can’t expect you to pay them back. Otherwise, your lender will count your gift as a loan, and that will boost your monthly debt obligations.

A Low Debt-to-Income Ratio

Your debt-to-income ratio is another key number when you’re buying a home. As the name suggests, this ratio compares your monthly debt obligations with your gross monthly income. Lenders today want your total monthly debts, including your estimated new mortgage payment, to equal no more than 43% of your gross income.

If your debt-to-income ratio is too high, you’ll struggle to qualify for a mortgage. Lenders will worry that adding a mortgage payment to your already high debt obligations will boost the chances that you’ll fall behind on your home-loan payments.

A Steady Income

Lenders prefer that you have a work history of at least two years at your current employer or, at the least, in your current field. Not having this history isn’t usually a deal-breaker, but it can cause lenders to hesitate before approving you. And if you have any other financial challenges — high debts or a middling credit score, maybe — a shaky job history will increase your odds of a mortgage rejection.

When you apply for a mortgage loan, you’ll have to provide lenders with a signed letter from your employer stating your position and annual salary. Lenders want to make sure that your monthly income is high enough to support the addition of a mortgage payment.

Anything we’ve overlooked? What else does a first-time buyer need to buy a home?