Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Never Pay Full Price and Making your own deals

Part of making money is saving money, right?  Everyone knows that a penny saved is a penny earned, and I don't know anyone who blatantly wants to overpay for things.  However, looking for good deals can be confusing.  How do you know you are getting a good deal?  How do you know when is a good time to buy? Where do you go to find amazing deals?  Well, lets try to demystify some of this...

I am a firm believer in the principle of "never pay full price" (aka NPFP).  I think it comes from my crafty side.  If you are crafty, you probably know that you never go to Joann's or Michael's without a 40% off coupon AT LEAST.  30% off is maybe acceptable if you have to have it right away, but if you can wait, there will be a 50% off coupon or sale coming up at some point.  So hold out and look for the deals.  Why do I know this?  Well, I shop there frequently, and I am familiar with how their ads work and I know the inventory they sell intimately.  I also know there are other shops around and if I can't get it one place I can get it another.  I also know when an unbelievable deal comes around, and I buy what I need then.  I shop a lot, so I know what a good or a great deal looks like.

If you aren't shopping craft stores, these principles still hold true.  If you buy groceries a lot, you may notice that milk coupons come out about every two weeks, and when one store has one, usually they all do.  If you are like my family, you can't go 2 weeks without buying milk, so I hit up more than one store to use my milk coupons or I go to somewhere like Walmart that takes competitors coupons, and I stock up ahead of time.  Milk expires, but not THAT fast, and I know we will use it.  I also know that once in a while my local store has amazing deals on canned goods.  I buy as many as they will let me (or usually a case if they have no limit) because I know I will go through them, and they have a long shelf life.  If you wont drink that much milk or use that many canned tomatoes before they go bad, don't fall into the trap of buying up on it only to throw it out.  Know your household needs, and buy the things that work best for you.

So how do you find out what a good or a GREAT deal looks like?  The answer - do your research. For things like groceries, you need to do it a lot.  For larger items, you need to do some shopping around. Get yourself comfortable with pricing and asking questions.   Ask sales people if there are any promotions coming up, and also ask about ones that just ended that they can still sneak you in on (sometimes it is easier to get them to cut you a deal if they know they will get a sale on the spot). Talk to others about it and see what they are seeing and spending. Look online for sales.  Even if they are not in your area, you may be able to get an idea for what a good sale price looks like and then wait until one comes up by you.

Next, how do you know when to buy?  Well, first of all, don't be in a hurry.  If you wait to purchase something until you need it right away, you don't have time to wait for the good deals.  Plan large purchases as much in advance as you can.  For many those large items you only buy once in a great while, like appliances, cars, or electronics, there are certain times of the year that are better than others for buying. Most consumables and durable goods have a cycle, meaning they come out with a new model around the same time.  There are tons of guides out there from consumer organizations and budget or shopping bloggers that can help you figure out when items are going to be clearanced out to make way for incoming stock or to clear space as the seasons change.  As long as you don't mind having last year's model of washer and dryer or waiting until summer is over to get that larger grill you have had your eye on, this is a great way to save.  Save even more by buying floor models.  A few dings and dents can save you a bundle!  This also applies for smaller things like clothes and food, but you may be less likely to wait when the payoff isn't as big, and I don't blame you! Decide what your needs are and wait only when it makes sense to you.

Over time, I found myself wishing I had a coupon for 40% off for everything.  I went to the grocery store, and I wished I could pay less for the meat or flour I was buying.  I went to get a new computer after mine died, and I swear I felt physical pain paying sticker for it.  Buying Christmas presents, I wished everything went on sale as much as I wanted, and even if it was on sale, I wanted a better deal.  Our last question was, where do you find amazing deals?  You can go to flea markets, garage sales, outlet stores, and more, but this is kind of a trick question.  The answer is, don't find them, make them.  When you go to the store to buy a new fridge, knowing that you are buying at the time when the new models are coming out and you have your eye on the floor model, let the sales person know that you saw a similar fridge at a competitor's store for less and ask if they will match the price, or ask if you can get a % off discount because there is a large scratch on the door, or ask if they can apply the promotion they are using to clearance their stock on the floor models, too... Don't be afraid to ask for a good deal.  There are about a million ways to talk a price down, and generally, you will be successful.  Be creative, and most importantly, don't be shy.  Bartering is a skill that many cultures nurture from birth, but us Americans seem to have missed the boat.  Haggling over price makes us so uncomfortable, we would rather pay way more than necessary to avoid doing it.  Its a bummer that it makes us so uncomfortable, but that has some bonuses, too.  People you are buying from are also so unused to people asking for a deal, they rarely say no.  Use the social awkwardness to your advantage and make yourself a GREAT deal!  You should still attempt to find those great shops that always have a good deal or hit up craigslist and local garage sales for things, but never miss the opportunity to haggle, even in a retail store.

Do your research, shop around, look for the right time, ask for a deal, and buy up when you find a GREAT deal.  You could be pleasantly surprised, and your wallet might be, too!

A note on haggling:  This can be a slippery moral slope.  Many people view haggling as dishonest or rude because you are "cheating" someone. That is simply not true.  Garage sales and craft fairs are a few examples of when people expect to haggle, but even your local chain store has a large markup they can come down on.  I take the opinion that it is the seller's responsibility to stay firm on a price.  The seller always retains the right to decline a sale.  That said, I may argue my case, but I will never manipulate someone into doing something they clearly are not comfortable with.  Bottom line: if it feels slimy and wrong, don't do it.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Be Bold - Changing your life.

Many, many months ago, I began a "series" (don't know if I can call it that when I have posted precisely once this YEAR so far) about self improvement; A guide to changing your life.  I gleaned a lot of this information from my own life, but much of it has come from tons and tons of self help/motivational books I have read recently.  All the books had one thing in common - they taught me something.  Some of them taught me what I DON'T believe, but even that is important.  So, here is the first of what I learned.  These are not in order of what I believe to be important, just kind of how it all spilled out of me in my writing process :-)  I hope you learn something - even if it is that we disagree!

Fear is prevalent in our society.  And no, I am not talking about fear of people crashing planes into buildings, fear of diseases run rampant, or fear of guns in schools.  Those things are terrifying, no argument there, but I am talking about something that is far more insidious and that affects our lives in a much more daily and negative way.

I am talking about social fears.  These are the fears that come from some secret behavioral code we have all been taught just by growing up in our culture. These are things like being afraid to speak your mind for fear of what others will think, fear of failure, and being afraid that people will not love or accept you. These fears keep us from trying new things and achieving our true potential because we believe the fallout to be unlivable. What if I fail?  What if people make fun of me?  What will he or she say? or do? or think?

This social fear comes from our culture and our interconnectedness with one another.  This in itself is not bad, but in our minds we take things too far and paralyze ourselves.  As a child I was taught that pride was a sin and that the meek would inherit the earth.  I agree with both of these statements, but my perception of their meaning has changed over the years.  As a kid, I thought that believing that you had done a good job was bad, and the only way to respond to compliments was to deflect them to show modesty.  Self deprecating humor became my armor of choice.  I felt that I shouldn't strive to be really, undeniably good at something because there would be no way to remain modest... This sounds a bit silly, but I think a lot of people fall into these traps to some degree.  Avoiding compliments, seeing only the bad in what you do instead of recognizing how much you learned or how far you have come, giving credit to someone else, comparing yourself to someone else who appears to be better... all of these are common pitfalls.  We often undermine our successes because culturally, we are supposed to strive for personal betterment.  I am not saying be complacent (that is a whole other topic actually!) but recognize your accomplishments. My adult brain sees those two statements differently.  It is good to have pride in a job well done, to have pride in yourself, and to have pride in your accomplishments.  Pride that tells you that you are better than others is bad.  Pride that leads you to say you can do something that you cannot is bad. Pride that demeans others is bad.  But pride, when it is justifiable, can lead us to believe in ourselves and our abilities, which allows us to try bigger, harder things.

And then there is meekness.  Well, God has this way of flipping the world on its head: the first shall be last and the last shall be first and all that jazz.  Those that are striving to come out on top, that shove to the front of the line without regard for others, or that are eager to elevate themselves artificially will lose.  But those that are calm, patient, and encourage others will have their accomplishments respected and will be deeply successful (even if the world rewards the first with money and power and not always the last, I think that true success must allow for more than dollar signs).  That is meekness.  Meekness and boldness are not mutually exclusive.  You see, boldness requires us to put off social constructs and listen to the voice inside of us.  The one that says we CAN do something even though it is awkward or hard or difficult or scary.  Meekness simply says that we shouldn't undermine others to gain something, not that we shouldn't try to succeed.

Our perceptions of others' perceptions of us is another hurdle. Read that again... What we think that other people think about us.  Its a convoluted statement because its a convoluted concept.  When we think that others will reject us if we do something "strange" or don't follow a prescribed path in life, we are really projecting our own beliefs onto others.  We don't know what others think.  In fact, we CAN'T know.  Even if someone tells us, we cannot be 100% sure it is true.  So we have to make up the rest.  It is pure fiction.  I won't go into "who cares what others think" because lets be real.  We care.  However, there are a few ways to cope with the negative self talk.  One, people rarely think about you as much as you do.  You are the center of your universe.  Your life is the only life you are living.  You don't obsess over someone else's life, even a best friend or spouse or even child, like you do your own.  They don't obsess over yours, either. They have their own problems and pay more attention to themselves.  Two, when we make up in our heads what others may think, we are using our own worldview to simulate what they may be thinking.  Since everyone has their own experiences that shape their responses to different stimuli, we can't possibly simulate how someone will react to something with any kind of accuracy.  Finally, you more closely scrutinize yourself and you see more flaws than others do.  As I said earlier, we tend to fixate on the negative first.  Others probably see the whole a lot better than we do and don't have the negative bias we do so think of it more favorably.  So others probably think of you better than you do, if they even bother thinking of your situation at all... Certainly not a good excuse for fear.

Finally, back to boldness...Being bold means taking your confidence in yourself and stretching it.  I will talk later about deliberate practice, but for now, lets just say that you can't get better unless you try new things that challenge you.  When you try something hard or unfamiliar you are gambling.  There is a much higher likelihood of failure than with something you have done before with success.  But what does failure do? Nothing bad.  It shakes our confidence a bit, but only as much as we allow.  However, it doesn't do nothing.  It teaches us something about what we have just tried, even if it is only what doesn't work.  Failure is a sign that we are trying hard, much harder than most people do, and that is a serious positive (and something to take justifiable pride in).  Failure has virtually no negative side effects except those we do to ourselves and our confidence.  Some failures may cost time or money, but you can work up to those kinds of risks, and money can be earned again and time is wasted if you are not growing, so even those are not good enough reasons not to try.  I think we see failure as an indication that we are more likely to fail in the future. However, once we have failed at something, we are more familiar with the challenge and more practiced at it.  Therefore, we are more likely to succeed the more we fail!

If we only ever do things within our comfort zone and never try anything that scares us, we will never grow.  Encountering novel situations is scary because of the risk of failure, but when we realize that we are capable (admitting we have skills and building our confidence), that we should strive for excellence (this doesn't undermine our meekness), that others are far less critical of our failings than we are (because they are busy worrying about their own lives to care), and that failure is not a negative, it helps release us from the crushing doubt that keeps us from living to our full potential.  So while its okay to be nervous, don't let the crushing fears overcome you - they aren't real, they are just social constructs we think are real.  Now that you are free, go out there and fail. You just might succeed.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Change: A How-to Guide of sorts

The past several years have been ones of great change for my husband and me.  We moved in together and had to combine our personal finances.  We got married.  We had a child.  We started looking at the future: things like life insurance, 401ks, and college savings plans became very important to us, but the more we looked at things the more alien they seemed.  We learned to budget.  We learned to stick to our budget (and no, those are NOT the same thing).  We learned how to save.  We learned how to cut out the extras and figure out what is really important. I started an online business, and my husband took on a part time teaching job.  We got involved in our church and took on responsibilities there.  And somewhere in there I made a New Year's resolution to read more nonfiction. 

You see, my husband is not much of a reader.  I have loved to read ever since I was 4.  My grandmother taught me to read early, and I loved the escape a story could offer me.  My husband was taught to read without phonics, and so he struggled.  He was not very fast at it, and he did not do it for pleasure.  However, he is a smart man, and he likes learning about things.  So once in a while, if a book is given to him or recommended to him, he will read one.  Because I read for fun, I read popular fiction.  Because he reads to learn, he reads nonfiction.  He always has interesting things to say about the books he chooses to read, and because they are few and far between, he gets a lot out of them.  I forget half the last story before I am through the next book.

All of this change forced us to take stock of our lives and learn some things.  I used to live 2 hours away from my husband.  I hated my job, and after we were engaged we started talking about me moving to the same city.  However, after a diligent search, I was having trouble finding a job.  My lease was ending, and we had to determine whether or not we could make ends meet on a single income if I moved.  So we made a budget.  Only the essentials.  The outlook didn't look good, but it was do-able.  We cut out things like cable, eating out, and having any fun whatsoever.  My husband took a second job.  I scrimped and pinched pennies while trying my hand at craft fairs and Etsy.

We got the opportunity to take a class called "Financial Peace University" at our church.  I know a lot of things have been said about Dave Ramsey and his ideas and his empire, but all that judging aside, it really helped us on our journey. We were already doing most of what he recommended, but had we taken his class a few years earlier it could have saved us a lot of headache.

Sometime after that, I decided to do what my husband does and read some things that would teach me something instead of entertain me.  I made a resolution to read one book every 2 months, and while I fell short of that goal, I think I came close - to 4 or 5.  Plus a few articles here and there that caught my eye.  All of which is way more than I had ever done before, so I consider it a positive change!  And slowly but surely, some of the things I read started to soak in to my thick skull.  I realized that many smart, successful, happy, well adjusted, effective people had a lot of the same things to say.  Things like how to manage change, or how to be reliable.  Things like being bold in your choices rather than always playing it safe and within your comfort zone.  Things like how to plan for the future and be financially secure.  Really important life skills, basically.  The things that you don't learn in school, even though they often determine your effectiveness in life (note that I didn't say success which changes based on what you value, but your effectiveness: how well you do what you value).  And I found myself stressing these points to friends and family. Even my parents and older relatives that should have it more "figured out" than I do.  And most of them kind of ignored me.  A few seemed to get it, but my passion seemed to fall on deaf ears for the most part.  But I still think it is really important to share what I learned.

So after that exceedingly long introduction, this post is to let you know that I will be starting a series of posts, probably interspersed with more normal posts for me, all about things that I have learned in the last few years.  I will try to keep it personal but applicable to all.  I think telling my story might give it some more impact, but try to keep an open mind when applying it to your own situation.  Not everything will map properly, but think about it and you will find something of use for you in your situation.

Just as a sneak peak, here are some topics I will be covering:

Be bold.
Do what you say you will.
Practice deliberately.
Invest in yourself.
Learn to budget (time and money).

I look forward to exploring these topics and many more with you.  I know this will probably not change the world, but you can't blame a girl for trying.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Trello and Scrum and time management

I have been BUSY lately.  The end of summer saw Renaissance Faire rush orders followed by Halloween, then a week off, and then starting in on the holidays, a vacation thrown in there and now some custom dresses and of course the handmade Christmas gifts.  Blogging has obviously taken a back seat as my posting has been non existent.

With the new rapid rate of life, I have sought out a new way to manage time.  I need a system to track my projects, keep a list of projects I'd like to (eventually) do, and work in home and family life on top of it all.  Keeping things in balance is not always easy, so I wanted a system that I could see where my time was going and how much time I was committing myself to so I didn't get over-extended.

Enter my husband.  He is a software engineer and his company recently began using Agile frameworks to keep track of their ongoing business initiatives, etc.  He heard my constant complaining about working hard all day and never getting anything done.  So, he scrummed me.  Yeah, its not what you think.  Scrum is the Agile framework he has been using at work for software development with much success for the last two years or so.  I've been doing this whole thing for about 6 months now and while it doesn't invent time (I still barely blog), I do find myself finishing things a lot more regularly.

Scrum basically helps you plan how much to do in a certain time frame.  I am really oversimplifying a complex system here, but this is how I use it, so bear with me.  It uses numbers to estimate how much work a project is.  You don't estimate time, you estimate difficulty.  They are correlated, but are not the same thing.  You pick a fairly simple task you do frequently or are familiar with and make it equal to a 3.  Then, you go through your list and compare each item to that baseline item.  Is it easier?  Is it harder?  How much?  Is it half as hard?  Twice as hard?  The beauty of this system is that it uses Fibonacci numbers only to assign to tasks.  It can't be a 4.  It can only be a 3 or a 5.  That way you don't get bogged down in the back and forth decisions about how many points something is. 5 represents something that is roughly twice as hard as your baseline 3, and a 1 or 2 is half as hard. Don't worry if you are not sure... things generally balance out, and over time, you will get better. You can use .5, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and 21 (I rarely use .5 or 2). Generally, items that are bigger than 21 must be broken down into smaller tasks.  These numbers represent how many "points" a task is worth.  Assigning number values seems complicated, but as you go on it gets easier.

From here, you can choose a number of points to do in a time period called a sprint. I use a week since many of my tasks repeat on a weekly basis.  Each week or sprint, you should try to do a certain number of "points".  Doing a number of points rather than a number of tasks helps protect you from the "I only got ONE THING DONE ALL WEEK... I must be lazy" syndrome.  If its a gigantic project, you get mega points for it.  And I feel deep down like I'm playing a video game.  Who doesn't like points?  you determine how many points you can handle by doing a test sprint and guesstimating how many points you can do then seeing what you actually accomplish.   This number (points per sprint) is called your velocity.  Since everyone's baseline (what they consider 3 points) is different, it is important to note that your velocity will be vastly different from mine.  Just because I do about 40 points per sprint and you do 15 doesn't mean I get more done (in fact, it could be the opposite!).  It just means we are working on different scales.  Don't compare apples to oranges!

But how do you organize everything?  Ahh. The best part.  I use Trello to track my work, a free web application.  It is simply a list system in which you can make different boards containing multiple lists, which contain cards which are the individual tasks.  It sounds a bit confusing, but it actually makes a lot of sense.  A board can be a large project (how my husband uses it at work) or a person (how I use it at home).
The main page of Trello shows all your boards. I only have one lonely board.
I only use one board since I want to track how much home stuff I do as well as how much business stuff I do, and it makes no sense to split them apart.  I need one place for everything.  In that board, I have lists.  My lists are: someday, soon, to do, doing, and done.  I use these lists to organize my cards.  Cards are individual tasks that I put into lists.  My lists help me know when I will do certain tasks, or cards.
FYI: I have way too much to do.  And yes, this is my real list.
Individual cards also have things like labels which can further help sort them, and they can contain notes or checklists to keep ideas or track progress of a complicated project, but those are totally optional.  Play around with them once you get comfortable with the general stuff.
Trello by itself is not a Scrum tool, but I use a Scrum for Trello plugin that allows me to assign points to individual cards and then totals up the number of points I have in each list (those are the blue numbers on the cards and the lists).

Okay, so I have points, a sprint, and lists.  But there is more to the mysterious way of Scrum... you still need a process, right?

So here is the deal.  My someday list holds all my projects that are currently tabled.  They may be UFOs (unfinished objects) or just ideas for new products, they may be administrative tasks like taking pictures and getting new listings up, or they may be long term chores like spring cleaning.  Each week, I go through my cards and try to decide what is important and time sensitive.  I usually end up with about 3 times the number of points I can do in a sprint (the lists above are a perfect example of that - I have way too much and need to sort), so some of the stuff goes into the "soon" list which hypothetically will get done in the following sprint.  Like I said, I need to sort.  Badly.

The "To Do" list is the tasks I have taken on for the week.  This is my sprint.  I take tasks from the "to do" list and move them to the "doing" list, and then when complete, they go to "done" so I can keep track of my progress for the week.  At the end of the sprint, I archive all the cards in my "done" list. (I also record my progress week to week, but that's another optional thing.)

Here is the catch, and quite frankly, the best part. You can only have 2 things in your "doing" list at once.  I used to say 1, but practically speaking, I think 2 or sometimes 3 works better.  Why only 1 (or 2 or 3)?  Well, Scrum is focused on getting things done.  If you try to make progress on 30 different things, you will never finish any of them. If you focus all your energy on one (limit yourself, Jennifer!!), you are forced to complete it before moving on to something else.  In my practical life, I usually have to switch between tasks a bit because I cannot sew while baby sleeps or I don't have internet access right now or things like that, hence the 2 or 3 rule.  But the beauty of it is that it gives you focus.  You pull one card at a time, complete it, then move on.  It means you get #$@% done! And we all want that!

I know this is a whole wazoo of confusing to throw at you, but I LOVE this system, and I think it has really helped my creative crazy get a little more defined and easier to manage.  It keeps me from over booking and it shows me how much I really DO accomplish on a regular basis.  It keeps track of all those awesome ideas I have, but never remember when I have time to spare.  And it also helps keep important stuff from falling through the cracks.  If you have questions, please ask, and I will update this post as needed!  Give Trello and Scrum a shot!  After all, its free!