Personal Finance Resource Roundup

There is an astonishing amount of personal finance advice out in the world. The sheer volume of it all can be overwhelming, and it’s often difficult to sort through it all, especially since a lot of it conflicts.

This post is a spot where I can list the budgeting resources that I have found helpful in my quest to manage my money, pay down debt, and achieve my financial goals. This list is meant to grow over time as I find new finance tools and resources. I’m constantly finding new people talking about finance in interesting ways, not to mention tons of interesting personal finance apps and budgeting tools, and it’s definitely worth sharing the best of them.

Quick disclaimer: My ideas about personal finance are a bit unique. I am pretty enthusiastic about personal finance. I’m sure my partner could live with never hearing me wax poetic about budgeting tools and high-interest savings accounts again. However, I am also a dyed-in-the-wool socialist. My personal finance obsession often works in concert with my political views, which is a whole other post in itself. That said, the core of my thoughts on personal finance is that your finances should reflect your own goals and values, whatever they may be, so take my opinions on all of these tools with a grain of salt.

 

Budgeting Gurus

The folks listed here are Big Deals in the personal finance world. These are the people who have talk shows and best-selling books, or websites that are consistently linked in personal finance communities. If you’ve heard financial advice before, it’s likely that one of these people originated it.

Dave Ramsey

The granddaddy of modern personal finance. My stepdad kept Dave Ramsey lectures on CD in his truck for years. Ramsey is all about living debt-free and paying for everything in cash. His “baby steps” are a great entry point into personal finance. I will say that I don’t entirely agree with the way he frames things, which falls into the “everyone can be a millionaire if you just try hard and be smart,” which I think ignores some broader systemic issues. However, the core of his advice is simple and fairly easy to work into your own life.

Suze Orman

I’m a big Suze Orman fan. I think she has a lot of really excellent advice to offer. I admire her no-nonsense approach and emphasis on doing what’s right for you. She’s pretty open about the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to personal finance. She’s also a big proponent of women taking the reigns of their finances and really understanding their money, where it’s going, and what it’s doing.

That said, she isn’t always the most… sensitive… to the struggles of the average person (drinking coffee does not mean you are “peeing a million dollars down the drain”), and her advice can be a little overly blunt. I have personally found a lot of value in her advice, but your mileage may vary.

Mr. Money Mustache

I am a lot less familiar with Mr. Money Mustache, but he’s incredibly popular in a lot of online personal finance communities. He’s all about FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early for the uninitiated), which makes him a bit different from a lot of other personal finance gurus. He does offer some helpful ideas about money, and I think parts of his message about living more frugally and reducing consumption are positive. However, his advice is often coming from a place of relative privilege: he’s a white dude with a computer engineering degree who retired in his thirties and now lives off income from rental properties and other investments. He can also be a bit condescending about people still in the “rat race” or who use their money in a way that he deems frivolous. That’s not really my bag, but many appreciate his perspective.

 

Books

The books section is going to be a bit light for the moment! I tend not to read personal finance books very often. I’m much more interested in more compressed blog posts and forum discussions. That said, I am often on the lookout for more books about budgeting and frugal living, so if you have recommendations, let me know in the comments!

The Tightwad Gazette

This is a seminal work in the annals of frugal literature.It was Pinterest before anyone had even dreamt of social media. I’m pretty sure if I had to pick a writer who influenced my life most, it would be Amy Dacyczyn. I almost cried when my mom handed down her copy of the Gazette to me. If you like reading about hyper-frugal habits, you’ll eat this up. Much of the advice still holds up after several decades, and the sense of saving money and taking on DIY projects being fun is really infectious. It also acts as a bit of a time capsule.

The Wall Street Journal Complete Money & Investing Guidebook

I’m generally not a huge fan of the WSJ, but this book came into my life at just the right time. Someone left it on the bookshelf in the laundry room, so I was able to read it for free–and right as I was about to become eligible for my first 401(k) plan. It’s not the most exciting or entertaining read, but it covers the basics of investing and then some. It acts as a great primer for new investors, and offers a wealth of information for those who may want to dig a little deeper.

 

Podcasts

I listen to a ton of podcasts, but I prefer to use them to get my news or relax, so I don’t tend to seek out personal finance shows all that often. I would love to hear more recommendations, though, especially shows with more diverse hosts!

Bad with Money

The host of this pod, Gaby Dunn, reminds me a whole lot of myself. Bad with Money is a deeply personal podcast about everything from Dunn’s financial fears to broader systemic issues that affect people’s finances. She interviews a wide variety of guests about a ton of different finance-related topics. Sometimes, she’s asking an expert investor what a stock is and how one should go about investing. Other times, she’s drilling down into the injustice and cost of the American healthcare system. Some of the episodes are really informative if personal finance is still super new to you.

Planet Money

It may not be a personal finance podcast, but it can definitely help inform some of your financial decisions. It’s an often humorous podcast that delves into the numerous aspects of our lives that money touches. The number of topics they cover is pretty astounding. Their past episodes include “Is the NCAA An Illegal Cartel?” and “Shrimp Fight Club,” along with more serious episodes like “Counting the Homeless” and “Economics, Sexism, and Data.”

 

Communities

Currently, this is really just a list of Reddit communities. If you have some awesome corner of the frugality/personal finance/budgeting internet you’d like to share, please do!

r/povertyfinance

This community is all about people coming together to grind their way out of some of the worst financial situations. It can sometimes be a little grim, there’s also a ton of practical advice. Plus, the solidarity is comforting. There are a lot of people willing to lend a helping hand in this subreddit, plus some great stories about how the community has helped them.

r/frugal

There’s some overlap between this community and r/povertyfinance. The focus of r/frugal is a bit different, though. This sub tends to be more about choosing frugality out of a desire to save more or otherwise conserve resources, unlike Poverty Finance, where frugality is born of necessity. While there are WAY TOO MANY arguments about how much toilet paper is appropriate to use–the real answer is AS MUCH AS YOU NEED, OH MY GOD, WHY IS THIS AN ARGUMENT–there are some interesting tips, tricks, and hacks that crop up regularly. If you’re the type who’s into DIY and finding interesting ways to save a couple pennies, you’ll like this crew.

r/PersonalFinance

The PF crowd tends to be a bit more experienced with the basics of personal finance, and they’re usually working with a bit more money than the folks in Poverty Finance and Frugal. This is a great place for those who are a bit more middle-of-the-road financially speaking. It’s ideal for those not quite dealing with poverty but also not exactly in the position to FIRE. If you’re at the point where you’re getting more involved in investing or simply trying to figure out what to do now that you’ve got an emergency fund and a functioning budget, this’ll be a good spot for you.

 

Budgeting Tools

Everyone has their own favorite budgeting tool. And there are TONS out there, most of which I haven’t tried. Below is a list of digital tools I’ve enjoyed using.

Mint

This is one of the best-known budgeting tools out there. It’s a free service where you can input information for all your various accounts. My Mint lists the balances for everything from my main bank account to my student loan balances. It’s a great way to get a bird’s eye view of your financial situation. It also offers the ability to set savings goals and create budgets. Plus, it offers spending and income reports and allows you to compare your finances over time. However, because I do a lot of my financial planning on the go, I have noticed that the app’s mobile functionality is pretty limited. The desktop version (which you can access through your browser) is much more complete, but I find it clunky. It’s not as intuitive as I would like. Creating a budget on Mint can be kind of a pain, and making adjustments as your needs change is even harder. Which is is why I’m a total convert to this next tool…

YNAB (You Need A Budget)

YNAB is another popular budgeting tool that offers both mobile and desktop browser versions. It is also not free–and, at $6.99/mo, not necessarily cheap. However, after just a month of the free trial, I’m totally in love with it. It’s similar to Mint in that you attach your various accounts to it in order to aid your financial tracking. What makes it different is that it follows the “give every dollar a job” form of budgeting, or a “zero-based budget.” That means that by the time you’re done budgeting, there isn’t any money left without “a job.” The whole goal is to know exactly where every last cent is going.

The budget that you set is also extremely flexible. If you overspend in one category, it’ll ask you to cover that overspending with money from another category. This kind of living, adjust-as-you-go budget is exactly what I was missing with Mint. With YNAB, I get a simple overview of my finances and an easily-adjustable budget. I haven’t yet shelled out the $6.99 a month for it, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to someday.

 

Low-Threshold Investing Tools

While you may be interested in investing, you might find yourself in a position where you only have a couple extra dollars to invest at a time. With some investment options requiring that you have a minimum of $1000 or even more to start with, it can feel like investing is out of reach. But there are some tools that have cropped up more recently that have made it a whole lot easier for those of us without much to plunk down.

Robinhood

Robinhood is a free app that allows you to invest in the stock market. You can start with a very small amount of money. I opened my account with just $10. (I think you might be able to start with even less.) The app makes it very simple to purchase stock. You can also invest in ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds). Overall, this is a great app to begin investing with. Just remember not to invest any money you’re not willing to lose, to try and stick it out even when the market is looking bad, and to try to diversify your investments as much as possible.

If you use this link to sign up, we can both get a free stock!

Acorns

If you’re interested in a more hands-off investing approach, Acorns might be more your speed. The idea behind Acorns is that you’re investing your small change–so you spend $3.79 at the store, and then Acorns rounds the purchase up to the nearest dollar and invests the extra $0.21. It’s a pretty clever idea based on the fact that spare change can add up quickly, but is still small enough that we won’t necessarily miss it if it’s gone. Acorns waits to make any transfers from your bank or attached card until you’ve hit $5. So, really, you’re investing in increments of $5 (or more, if you make larger transfers manually). The app then automatically invests in a specific portfolio based on whether you’re a more conservative investor (i.e., you want a return but you’re risk-averse) or a more aggressive investor (you’re able and willing to risk a bit more for the chance of greater returns). It’s a really simple, relatively painless way to invest.

If you use this link to sign up, we both get $5 invested into our Acorns accounts.

Motif

The way Motif is set up is a bit different from other investment platforms. It does offer the ability to buy and sell stocks, but Motif’s main focus is on investing in… well, “motifs.” Motifs are collections of stocks based on a particular theme. So, for example, you can invest in a motif called Cleantech Everywhere that invests in companies focused on green energy and technology. You can also choose to invest in motifs meant to represent larger sectors of the economy, like Casino Gambling or 3D Printing. There are a huge variety to choose from, and you can even build your own motifs. This makes it easier to know that you’re investing in companies and industries that reflect your beliefs. The big difference is that it’s a bit pricier to invest in motifs–you have to put in $300 minimum to buy into one. This can be pretty prohibitive if you’re just getting into investing, but the peace of mind of knowing you’re not investing money in a company you disagree with is pretty nice.

 

Have a finance resource you’d like to share? Feel like I missed something? Let me know in the comments!

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June 2019 Update

It’s six months into the year and I’m having a very “well, this has been a 2019” sort of feeling. Which is wild considering that I’ve actually accomplished a fair amount this year. (But of course never as much as an over-achiever like me would like.)

This year I’ve:

  • Started a new job with great pay where I’m learning all kinds of stuff about content management and content strategy
  • Written another 1/4 of the webcomic project that should come out later this year (it’s! so! pretty!)
  • Joined the Oakland teachers when they went on strike
  • Almost joined the ISO as a full-fledged member just before their complete implosion
  • Joined a local crocheting/fiber-crafting group and started to learn how to crochet
  • Read some books
  • Actually filled up an entire composition book journal and started on #2 for the year

It’s not the most exciting list, but considering the fact that most of the time I could swear to you that I have never accomplished anything in my life, much less in the past six months, I’ll call it impressive.

Right now, I’m reading A Wizard of Earthsea and agog at how lazy of a reader I’ve become. I’m enjoying it very much, but it’s not exactly an easy read. It takes brain power and more commitment than I’ve been able to muster for a book in a while. But I’ve been soldiering on, reading through a few pages during my commute and at lunch, and I think it’s doing me some good. Stretching my brain-legs a bit.

I’ve also been exploring vegetarian foods a bit more this year, both for health reasons and to try to handle some of my climate change anxiety. I definitely haven’t given up meat, but it’s been fun to revisit some of the vegetarian staples I grew up with (Mom, I’m sorry for hating on your veggie burgers all these years) and also try out other recipes that are completely new to me. A new household stable is pitas filled with spiced roasted sweet potatoes and other veggies along with this really tasty harissa mayo sauce. It’s simple and delicious and satisfying, which is all a girl can really ask for.

With a new job and a longer commute, I’ve also tried to figure out new ways to make my own life easier. I can’t say that any of them have really stuck, but I am still really enamored with things like cleaning schedules and bullet journaling.

I can’t say my bullet journal gets used every day, but I do look at it most days. It’s been a good tool for organizing to-dos and some other things, like writing down books I’m interested in reading or reminding myself what TV shows I’ve started and haven’t finished. For those of you who struggle with focus or get that “I just can’t hold everything I need to remember/do/check in about in my head!!” feeling, I highly recommend it. I’ve used a lot of different methods for remembering tasks and other things, but pen and paper tends to be more accessible and easier to remember for me. If you’re interested in learning how to set up a bullet journal, check out this post by Kendra over at The Lazy Genius. I followed a lot of her advice, minus buying a fancy journal and getting new pens. (I just use ballpoint pens and composition books.)

Also, in a similar productivity/brain management vein, I started using the budgeting tool YNAB (You Need A Budget) and I’m kind of in love? I’m going to write a longer review at some point, but if you’ve been frustrated with other budgeting tools, use the trial. As someone who gets pretty overwhelmed by numbers but who also low-key finds budgeting kind of delightful, it’s my favorite budgeting tool I’ve ever used.

All of this is to say: I’m living the life of An Adult and it’s complicated and deeply exhausting, but I’m still out here getting things done, even if I doesn’t always feel like it.

 

October 2018 Reads!

I don’t know if it’s the chill in the air now that October is at its close or the fact that the holidays are fast approaching, but I have been reading voraciously the last couple weeks. It’s been a while since I’ve flipped through so many books in such a short time, and I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. Part of that is getting back in touch with my roots as a reader, which feels like something I’ve drifted from as streaming services have gotten better and I’ve gotten more and more addicted to my phone. But this month, I think it mostly had to do with the fact that everything I read was absolutely delicious.

The first book I picked up this month was The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare. Tessa Dare is hands down my absolute favorite romance writer. Her plots are always a fun ride, and I always find myself laughing and squealing out loud when I read any of her books. The Duchess Deal was no exception. The heroine, Emma, is brash and strong-willed, but still feels very human and grounded. The hero, Ash, is harsh yet seductive. It’s a bit of a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, mixed with the classic marriage of convenience trope. Though I can’t say it’s my favorite of her books–that honor goes to A Week to Be Wicked–I really enjoyed the characters and plot. It’s a Regency romance, but it grapples with issues that have been centered in our own time by #MeToo. All in all, it’s a really fun read perfect for anyone ready to settle down with a fun, light romance.

Of course, I couldn’t keep things fun and light for long. I crave intensity and dark stories, especially this time of year. Fortunately, I found a copy of World War Z at the library last Sunday. It’s been on my list for months, but there was never a copy at my library branch, so I always ended up picking up other things. Which was probably a good thing, because I basically did nothing for the next couple days besides hurtle my way through it. It wasn’t exactly what I expected, but I found it riveting. I love post-apocalyptic media, but the angle Max Brooks takes in World War Z is decidedly different. First off, the story is told in the form of interviews with survivors. Some have said that this defangs the story a bit–why would I be worried about these characters when I know these are the people who made it?–and I don’t entirely disagree. Still, to me, World War Z was less of a zombie novel and more of a dissection of inter- and intranational politics, human nature, and how governments and individuals react to pandemics and disasters. If you’re looking for a classic zombie story that focuses more on individuals or a small group, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re interested in reading more about a global response to a zombie apocalypse and the ways that society breaks apart and comes back together, I have a feeling you’ll be very satisfied.

After World War Z, I shifted back into lighthearted territory with Tony Cliff’s graphic novel Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant. Delilah Dirk is a fascinating (and dangerous) woman living in the earlier part of the 19th century. She’s a thief who is constantly getting into wild shenanigans that involve exploding buildings and fast escapes, sometimes on horseback, and other times on her boat… which can fly. This is the kind of graphic novel I wish I’d been able to read when I was younger. Now, I read it and think, “God, I would love to write something like this.” It’s a fun ride with amazing art and lots of great banter. I found myself laughing aloud more than once. Delilah is dashing from the start and you can’t help but love her. Selim, the titular Turkish lieutenant, makes for an excellent straight man and traveling companion for Delilah. This is the first of the Delilah Dirk books and I’m definitely going to be picking up the rest.

Of course, my reading binge isn’t about to stop any time soon. I just started Dietland, which I’m super excited about. Books with fat protagonists who take no shit? Count me in. I’ve also put a few books on hold at the library that I’ve been seeing people talking about nonstop on Twitter. Both Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun and Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand seem like they’re going to be stellar reads with fresh takes on the fantasy genre. I also put Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway on hold, which should be a nice dive back into sci-fi. I’m also looking to explore more solarpunk fiction. My library doesn’t have a whole lot on hand since the genre is still so new, but I put in a bunch of requests and am hoping I’ll get to read them soon. I would love to hear recommendations from anyone else interested in the genre!

But enough about me. What have y’all been reading lately?

How to Self-Publish a Book

Self-publishing can be an extremely rewarding experience, both financially and otherwise. It allows you to write on your own schedule, set your own deadlines, and have a hand in every step of the publishing process. At the same time, it also means you won’t really have anyone to hold your hand and help you as you publish your book. Luckily, I’ve written up this handy guide that will teach you the basics and help get you started on your self-publishing journey.

I’m going to cover the basic steps involved in prepping your work for self-publishing, tools you can use for different parts of the process, and tactics for getting your work out there. While this covers the basics of what you’ll need to know, there is always more to learn. If there’s something you have more questions about after you finish this post, leave a comment so we can chat further!

Editing – The First Step to a Finished Product

Writing your story is only half the battle. Editing your work is the first step of many to self-publishing your work. I have a few posts about the process of editing your work on your own that start here. I am a big fan of doing some self-editing before asking for help. Once you’ve gone over your story yourself, though, it’s very important to get some fresh eyes on your book. If you want your work to truly be its best, it’s also important that those fresh eyes belong to a professional.

There are lots of different kinds of editors. Some (like me!) are line editors who willing and able to help at all or most parts of the editing process. Other editors focus on specific areas, like developmental editing or proofreading. This article at The Helpful Writer gives a good general overview of different kinds of editors and the services they provide. A professional can give your story the polish it needs.

Paying for editorial services can get expensive, though, especially if you’re hiring more than one person for different parts of the process. If you really don’t have the extra cash to hire an editor, ask friends and family if they’d be willing to help. Check to see if your library or local community college has a writing workshop. Poke around the internet to find critique groups, both online and off.

Whether you pay an editor or get feedback from friends, honest feedback from people who understand story structure and grammar will be your best friend. Get really good at listening to critiques of your work and seek out a LOT of it. It can be hard to have someone tell you “this character doesn’t really leap off the page” or “I found this chapter confusing.” There might even be times when you disagree with the feedback and don’t end up using it. Still, hearing it is good, and getting diverse perspectives on your work is helpful.

Digital, Physical, or Both?

After the editing is done and you feel like your book is ready to go out into the world, you need to figure out whether you want to release your book digitally, as a physical book, or both. Consider your goals for your work and how much capital you have to invest in the initial publishing process.

Digital publishing is going to be the cheapest way to publish your book. Digital publishing is basically free once you’ve gotten editing and cover art out of the way. You don’t have to have an ISBN (more on that later!) as you do with physical publishing. For an indie author who is just starting out and doesn’t have a ton of cash, this is likely where you’ll start.

Physical publishing is a bit more capital-intensive. Your cover will need to be more than just a simple cover image–you’ll need a design that covers the front, binding, and back of your book, which requires more work and skill to create. Then, you’ll need to purchase an ISBN for your book. After that, the process is much the same as it is with digital publishing: you’ll research distributors and choose the ones that work best for you and sell your books.

The ideal option for most writers is to do both. Doing both gives you the broadest possible audience to market to and ensures readers will be able to get your book in whatever format they prefer. Still, a lot of that comes down to your goals for your work and how much you can invest. If you decide to publish both digital and physical editions of your work, you’ll need to make sure you purchase 2 ISBNs, one for each edition. While this will give you more avenues to distribute your work, particularly for your digital edition, it does require some up-front investment.

Every option available to you is valid and they each come with different benefits and drawbacks. The great thing is, you don’t have to stay married to one option or the other. When you’re self-publishing, you have the flexibility to publish a different edition of your work later on. If you start out purely digital, nothing is stopping you from eventually getting into physical publishing. The same goes for starting with physical publishing. Regardless, you should know what editions of your book you’re going to publish when you start out. It’ll make some of the decisions you’ll have to make down the line a little easier.

Cover Art – Because We All Judge Books By Their Covers

Obtaining cover art is an integral part of the publishing process. Whether we admit it or not, a book cover can make or break a reader’s decision to buy your book. A quality cover results in more sales.

For those of us with limited design skills (ahem), this part of the self-publishing process can be nerve-wracking. Fortunately, you can find a cover artist who specializes in the kind of cover you’re looking for.

Hiring a cover artist is especially important if you’re planning on having your book printed or using print-on-demand services. Physically printed books require some extra help in order to make them look truly polished and professional, as I mentioned earlier. Rather than just a standard rectangular book cover, you need someone to design your front and back covers and the spine of your book. If you have the money, paying an artist to create a great cover for your book is 100% worth it.

If you don’t have the cash up front to pay an artist, there are simple ways to make an attractive-looking cover. Photoshop and InDesign are amazing for creating DIY covers, especially if you have a template to work with, but they’re expensive. My two favorite free resources for making any kind of graphic? Canva and Unsplash.

Canva is a simple, free tool for creating graphics. They provide thousands of free templates for every graphic you can imagine, including book covers. It’s easy to learn and won’t cost you anything. They also have a phone app that’s super functional and easy to use. Unsplash is a great source of beautiful stock photos that you can use for any purpose for free–including popping them into a book cover template on Canva. With those two tools, it’s easy to make a simple, attractive ebook cover. Caveat: Canva doesn’t have any built-in templates for physical book covers, so it works best as a tool for ebook covers. However, there are ways to make it work. If you download a book cover template from CreateSpace, you can upload that template to Canva or another tool like Photoshop or InDesign and use the template as a base.

No matter what option you choose, make sure it looks good! Get feedback on your cover from people you trust to make sure it’s eye-catching and attractive to more than just you. God knows there are times when you’re working on a graphic for so long you totally lose perspective. Extra eyes are a huge help.

Formatting – More Important Than You’d Think!

Formatting is an oft-overlooked part of the self-publishing process. Depending on the channels you will be distributing your book through and the format your book will be published in, you will need to format your book in specific ways. Most distributors will provide you with simple guidelines for formatting ebooks. Very simple formatting works well in ebooks, so if you’re only publishing digitally and your book doesn’t contain complex graphs or images, you can definitely do it yourself.

Formatting for physical publishing takes a bit more work. This write-up over at DIY Book Formats is an excellent overview that can help you figure out how you want to format your book. (Seriously, I learned so much from just that one post.) There are also some really good examples of what certain print formats look like elsewhere on the site, plus more detailed instructions on how to format your book using Word and InDesign. It is totally doable to format your book by yourself, and that’s what most self-published authors do.

Of course, some people prefer to outsource this work. There are professionals that specialize in formatting ebooks and print books. If you’re not the most tech savvy, don’t have much of a design eye, or would prefer to hand this work off to someone else, look into hiring someone to handle this part of the process for you.

ISBNs – What the Heck Are They and Why Do I Need Them?

If you are only planning on publishing an ebook, this is a section you can skim. However, if you’re planning on having your book physically published or are interested in wider distribution for your ebook, listen up!

First, a definition: ISBNs (or International Standard Book Numbers) are unique numbers that can be used to identify your book worldwide. ISBNs are not required for ebooks, though they can be helpful and boost your visibility as an author. For physically published books and audiobooks, though, ISBNs are a must. Giacomo Giammatteo explains how ISBNs work and the process of purchasing them in great detail here. (One important detail that he mentions that I want to emphasize: you should purchase your ISBNs directly from Bowker or whoever your local provider of ISBNs is rather than from CreateSpace or a similar company. Purchasing your own ISBNs gives you more freedom in terms of distribution avenues.)

If you’re in the US, you’ll need to purchase your ISBN through Bowker at this link. Bowker offers discounts on bulk purchases of ISBNs. They also provide barcodes that you can print on your book, which are required for many physical distribution channels. Keep in mind that you need a separate ISBN for every edition of your book. This means that an ebook would get one ISBN, a physical book would get another, and an audiobook would get a third. If you come out with a new edition of your physical book that’s in a different size, that would need another ISBN.

As a budget-conscious writer, I can’t really justify spending the money on ISBNs at the moment, especially since I want to focus on ebook publishing. However, as Giacomo points out in his article, ISBNs can allow you to include your book in more distribution channels and therefore earn more. By skipping out on an ISBN, you miss out on potential sales through libraries and services like OverDrive, even if you’re just publishing digitally. Weigh your options and decide what’s best for you. You can always purchase an ISBN for your ebook after you publish it.

Picking Distributors

There are a huge number of distribution options for a self-published book.

Amazon Kindle is often the first choice of many authors. It’s easy to use and gives you access to millions of readers all over the world. But there are a whole lot more self-publishing options than Kindle, and they’re all worth looking into. Aside from Kindle, you can publish through Apple iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press, the Google Play Store, and more. Working directly with each of these channels is possible and ensures that you’re getting the maximum amount of profit out of your book. Still, managing all those individual channels can be exhausting. That’s where aggregators come in.

In a nutshell, aggregators allow you to publish your book through them. They then get your book into a whole bunch of distribution channels without you having to do a whole bunch of extra work. It’s a good way to maximize the number of eyes that will see your book. The drawback is that aggregators take a cut of every purchase, usually somewhere around 10%. For the amount of work they handle, it seems fair. Aggregators are also usually non-exclusive. You can use multiple aggregators who have different distribution channels to increase your book’s footprint.

There are also lots of options for aggregators, and new ones pop up all the time. The one you’ll hear about most often as an indie author is Smashwords, which distributes to all of the channels I named in the paragraph above along with numerous others. This blog post gives an awesome overview of the top aggregators in the market.

Most of those aggregators are focused on ebooks. Ingram is the top distributor for many physically published books, and is used by indie authors and publishers. Ingram distributes both ebooks and physical books and has a worldwide reach. They are trusted by independent bookstores and chain retailers alike. Amazon’s CreateSpace offers similar services, and many recommend that authors use both CreateSpace and Ingram.

And, Finally, Publish Your Book!

Once you have all your ducks in a row, publish! your! book! Give yourself a pat on the back, go grab a mimosa, and relax for a bit. You earned it.

Have more questions about the self-publishing process? Have some information or resources on self-publishing you’d like to share? Let’s talk in the comments!

A Simple Guide to Self-Publishing

A Guide to Digital Publishing

If you’re a writer who is just starting to seek out publishing opportunities, you may be feeling overwhelmed. Should you self-publish? Go traditional? What about digital publishing? It’s a lot to take in. The publishing world isn’t easy to navigate and it can be difficult to understand exactly what you’re getting into.

Thus far, my career has been entirely in digital publishing. I more experience in this field that most people could not lay claim to. That said, I still find digital publishing to be one of the most confusing parts of the publishing landscape. I worked with dozens of authors who had varying levels of experience with a bunch of different digital publishers, as well as people with no experience outside of free publishing sites like Wattpad and Archive of Our Own (AO3). Some people came to me with lots of great questions as they tried to learn more about the industry and their options. Others seemed to scared to ask anything at all.

In this day and age, a guide for digital publishing is a necessity for any writer, even if you’re planning to query traditional publishers. Read on to learn more about how to navigate the digital publishing world.

So, what is digital publishing?

When I say “digital publishing,” I don’t mean self-publishing sites/tools like Kindle or iBooks, at least for the purposes of this post. Though works published through these services are published digitally, I consider digital publishing to be something else entirely. In the same way that there are traditional publishers like Hachette and Penguin Random House, and self-publishing tools like Kindle, there are also digital publishers like Radish, Tapas, and Inkitt. Digital publishers are similar to traditional publishers in that you are usually working closely with an editorial team that works for the publisher and not simply doing all the work yourself.

You have to sign a contract with a digital publisher the same way you would with a traditional publisher. Digital publishers also provide varying levels of help. Some will provide line editing services, help you get a cover made, and most of them will help promote your story on their site, app, and social media. Because of the services they provide, digital publishers wind up being a kind of middle ground between self-publishing and traditional publishing. This makes them very appealing to more inexperienced authors who feel that they are not quite ready to start querying agents or publishers. They can also be great places to build a paying audience (something difficult to do on free sites like Wattpad).

How does digital publishing work?

I can only speak to my experience working with one digital publisher. Usually, we sought out authors whose work we wanted to publish. We would send authors a contract and talk it through with them to make sure they understood it. (Always read your contracts thoroughly and ask lots of questions! Don’t be afraid of being annoying. I loved answering authors’ questions. It let me know that they were really reading the contract and fully understanding everything.) After that, we would begin the editing process and start working with an artist on a cover. Once the editing and cover were done, the book would be published on our site where readers could purchase the story chapter by chapter. Authors would receive 50% of the revenue on each purchase.

From what I know of other digital publishers, many of them work similarly in that authors make money off of the number of reads they get, either through ad revenue or making money off of direct purchases by readers. Each publisher is different and has their own specialties. Radish, for example, sees more success with erotica, so they promote that more heavily. Tapas tends to focus on romance. Inkitt has a little bit more variety, but they also don’t have the best reputation. There are also other small presses that are now digital-only that will get your book out into digital markets like the Kindle store. I have less experience and knowledge when it comes to that breed of digital publisher. Fortunately, this article gives an extremely detailed and helpful overview of what you should keep in mind when looking into digital publishers, whether they are small presses or a more app-focused publisher like Radish.

Why should I work with a digital publisher? Is it something I should even consider?

It really depends! What are your goals as a writer? If you’re just looking to share your work but aren’t all that interested in making money off of it, then posting on Wattpad or Royal Road might make the most sense for you. But if you’re looking to make money, you either need to self-publish (which is a whole other post), go the traditional publishing route, or go to a digital publisher.

There are pros and cons to each option, which I will detail below:

Self-publishing: Self-publishing gives you the most freedom when it comes to your work. You don’t have to worry about who has the copyright or publishing rights because you never sign them away to anybody. You don’t have to worry about your publisher asking you to make changes. On the flip side, though, you don’t get free editing services, help with covers, or any help with marketing. Paying for these kinds of services out of pocket is expensive, and for a writer just starting out, it can be difficult to produce a book that would rival what they could produce with a publisher behind them. This isn’t because the writer’s work isn’t any good, but because polishing a first draft is difficult without outside input. Still, it is possible, and if you’re willing to put in the extra work in order to have more freedom and keep a larger chunk of the profits for yourself, it’s totally worth it.

Traditional publishing: This is the holy grail for writers. Every author’s dream is to eventually be published by a publishing house (be it big or small) and become the next George R.R. Martin or J.K. Rowling. Traditional publishers have more resources to market your book, a whole team of people who can help you polish your book until it shines, cover artists, people to format the ebook, people to format the print copy, the money to offer you huge advances… basically all the resources we hope to have when we publish a book.

Still, now that self-publishing is so simple and the services used to sell self-published books are often the same as the ones the traditional publishers are using, a traditional publishing deal may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Traditional publishing is by no means dead or bad, but writers should see it as one of several paths rather than the One True Path. Why? Traditional publishers often ask for significant rights to your book. (Writer’s Digest gives a great rundown on what kinds of things publishers might request in a contract here.) You lose the kind of freedom you might have if you self-published or digitally published, but you also get a ton of resources to help you produce your book.

However, even that is often hyped up more than it probably should be. Many writers who aren’t big names don’t get big advances. You’ll get the standard editorial services and help with covers and formatting, but that huge marketing machine might not do a whole lot for you. Most big publishers expect their authors to do a lot of the legwork. You’ll also earn a smaller percentage of the profits in the form of royalties, especially when compared to self-publishing. This can make it difficult to earn back advances or make much money at all. Still, the fact that traditionally published works continue to dominate the literary market, and the fact that self-publishing your work seems to decrease its value in the eyes of both readers and the wider literary community, means that there are still a lot of benefits to a traditional publishing deal.

Digital publishing: This is similar to traditional publishing in that there is some expectation that you’re going to be doing some of the work besides writing the book. Digital publishers are usually not large enough to provide the kind of financial backing that traditional publishers can offer. You’ll be giving up some of your rights in exchange for having your work marketed to their audience, but you’ll likely have to handle the marketing outside their site. You’ll have to split your earnings with the publisher, too. The ways those earnings are split will vary depending on the digital publisher you work with.

While digital publishers often have a smaller audience than a traditional publisher, they likely have a broader readership than you have on your own. They can send people toward your work and give it their stamp of approval, which helps convert their readers into your readers. Getting organic, targeted traffic to your book is incredibly difficult, and digital publishers have it in spades. You do lose some freedom (the amount you give up and for how long depends on your contract), but you also gain a broader audience.

Some digital publishers can also handle the editing process for you, pay to have cover art made, and possibly even give you an advance. And, because their overhead is usually lower than that of traditional publishers, digital publishers can offer more competitive revenue sharing. (The standard split for the company I worked for was 50/50, which would be unheard of in the traditional publishing world.) They can also help you with adaptations of your work into other mediums, like comics or movies, and potentially help you land a deal with a traditional publisher. However, they often only ask for the digital publishing rights at first, and some will even settle for non-exclusive digital rights.

In short, digital publishing is a middle ground that can help you take that next step toward living off of your writing. It’s a good space for new writers, and though it may not suit everybody, it’s an option worth considering, particularly if you can get a non-exclusive publishing contract and continue to pursue other sources of income from the same work.

 

How can I be sure this digital publisher isn’t a scam?

There are a lot of ways! The first thing you should do is look into their track record. If you can, try talking to authors who work with that publisher. Ask them if there are things they wish they’d known before they signed. If the publisher is promising things, like that they’ll get your book physically published or help you broker a movie deal, do some research to see if they’ve actually put any deals like that together.

You should also get to know the platform before selling anything to them. This helps you understand the kind of content the publisher is interested in, what’s popular on the platform, and how your work fits in. If you sign with them, it will also help you figure out how to market to that specific audience in the future.

Once you’ve done this detective work, you should have a solid idea of whether this is a publisher you want to work with. If you’re still interested, you can start asking one of their representatives questions. Ask to see a sample contract as early as you can and have someone you trust look it over.

You should carefully read any deal you’re about to sign, no matter who it comes from, and always do your best to negotiate the best deal for you. If there are parts of a contract you’re uncomfortable with, either voice your concerns or walk away from the deal. Even though the playing field might not feel even, you have to realize that you have something that they want, and in the end, you’re the one who has the power. A publisher may not be willing or able to give you what you want, and that’s okay. You can choose to either shift your expectations to suit a particular deal or hold out for something that feels right. If their contract asks for anything beyond digital publishing rights without giving you anything in return, pay attention and make sure you’re comfortable with giving them those rights. You’ll also want to keep an eye on how long the deal will last. Are they going to own these rights in perpetuity, or just for a few years? What rights do you have to end the deal? Are they open to negotiation?

If the contract looks good but they haven’t given you information about how you might be paid, given you a way to check how much revenue you’re owed, or otherwise indicated that they are going to compensate you in return for signing your rights away, that’s a huge red flag. If they tell you that you need to pay them in order to publish on their site, you should run as far and fast as you can.

Basically, if you get a terrible contract and zero room to negotiate it, you have no idea when or how you’ll be paid, and the publisher who is offering you a deal has a well-known track record for screwing over writers or lying to them about the kinds of opportunities they can provide? It’s a scam, and you should look for another opportunity.

How do traditional publishers feel about stories that were published digitally first?

This varies depending on what you’re writing and who your audience is. A lot of traditional publishers really like it when authors come to them and already have an audience behind them. However, while they might like your audience, they may want to publish a fresh, new title that the public hasn’t read yet. Still, this varies depending on your individual situation.

If you’d like to read more about this, definitely check out Phoebe Morgan’s write-up about whether to publish digitally or in print first, and the benefits and drawbacks of both. Jane Friedman also has a ton of great insight on the subject. (The long and short of both of these articles is that publishing digitally first is unlikely to hurt your chances unless you’re working in a niche market, like literary fiction.)

How do I submit my work for a digital publisher?

Look into their submission guidelines! It’s different for every publisher (as with traditional publishing), but they will probably have an email you can contact them at, as well as some basic guidelines for submitting. Follow their guidelines as closely as you can. Keep your email professional and focus on selling your story–they want a strong synopsis that lets them know whether your story will be the right fit for them. Talking about the book’s following (and your own) can also be helpful. If your story is posted online, provide links. You should also attach a PDF of the first few chapters and the synopsis.

Have more questions about digital publishing? Have some experience you’d like to share? Let’s chat in the comments!

 

A Guide to Digital Publishing

It has been a very long time since I’ve been able to look at the day ahead and know that it is entirely empty. I can’t really remember the last time I was able to wake up whenever I wanted and know that I didn’t have anything pressing to take care of. Each day is my own to do with as I please… for better or worse.

I’m doing my best to enjoy this time and relax a bit. I’ve been playing a lot of Frostpunk (which is genuinely one of the most entertaining, brutal strategy games I’ve ever played) and digging back in to my Baldur’s Gate playthrough. I went out with a friend this past weekend and enjoyed the sunshine. Once I’ve gotten my fill of gaming, I’m going to start going after my TBR pile and fall into all the stories I’ve been missing for so long. I might even do some of my reading (gasp!) outside! I’m also hoping for some time to reconnect with my partner and give back all the attention and affection he’s given me all these years.

I have a whole host of things I want to take care of. A house deep-cleaning needs to happen soon, along with some decluttering. Blog posts need to be planned and written and graphics need to be made. There are stories I’ve been meaning to write that I have had to bury for years that can finally see daylight now. But the break from the pressure to be as productive as possible is incredibly pleasant.

There is a small part of me that is going absolutely insane without extrinsic motivators. Who am I without a seminar to prepare for or a work project to complete? What is my value if I am not actively contributing to society in some way? My answers to these range from the positive and positively anticapitalist (“I am not my productivity.”) to the terribly dreary (“I am nothing.”).  But rather than allowing myself to turn into a puddle of anxiety and existential dread, I’m forging ahead and reminding myself that I am whoever I choose to be. If I want to cozy up to my desk and play games all day with the aim of relaxing as much as possible, I can. If I make it my goal to whirlwind through the house and dust and scrub and spritz until everything is as clean as I want it, then I have achieved everything I set out to.

I am not entirely sure that I am suited to being unmoored like this. But I figure it’s a new challenge and will give me a new opportunity to grow. Let’s hope I can rise to the occasion.

6 Tips to Help You Save Money When You’re Moving Out for College

Moving out is a complicated experience. You’re all excited because you’re going to be living on your own for the first time, and also terrified because… well, you’re going to be living on your own for the first time. You’re probably looking at every “what you need before you start college” and “what you need for your first apartment/dorm” list you can find. It’s all kind of overwhelming, and so much of the advice is conflicting, not to mention super expensive.  How are you supposed to stay frugal and stick to your budget when you have a list with a million things on it that are supposedly the bare minimum of what you need?

Fortunately, it’s a lot less complicated than most people make it sound. Living on your own for the first time definitely isn’t easy, but you also don’t need to spend thousands to be able to do it. These are the things that helped me out most when I was first moving out, and will hopefully help you stick to your budget and build a healthier relationship with money and the stuff you have around you.

First, make a list of what you need.

While using other lists as guidelines can help, you should really be focusing on what you personally need. If you plan to cook while you’re going to school and are going to have a access to a kitchen, you’ll probably need more kitchen supplies than if you’re going to be living in the dorms and using a campus meal plan. If you’re a light sleeper and you’re going to be living with roommates, you want to make sure you’re bringing earplugs and an eye mask. If you have food allergies, bring a stash of your favorite foods.

There are some things you won’t know you need until you get to school and settle into your new life. There will also be some things that you thought you would need that you never end up using. It takes a while to figure out exactly what you need, and your needs will probably change over time. Don’t go hog wild and buy a ton of stuff right when you move out. Get the necessities and pick up things here and there as you need them. This will give you the time to find the best price and make solid purchasing decisions. Money is always tight in college, and you want to get the most bang for your buck. The best way to save your money is not to buy stuff you don’t need.

Second, bring stuff from home or borrow stuff from family and friends.

The cheapest way to furnish your new living space is to make sure you’re not spending anything on the really big-ticket items if you can hack it. If you’re going to school relatively close to home, this is a little easier. If you’re going to be in a stable living situation where you won’t have to move in and out every few months, this is even more ideal. You can bring some of your furniture from home and set it up in your new place–things like your mattress, bookcases, and other big stuff that’s way too expensive to repurchase on a regular basis. When I moved out, my roommate’s aunt was kind enough to loan us her couch. That was a few hundred dollars saved right there.

And it doesn’t just have to be big stuff. If you’re going to have kitchen access and aren’t going to be relying on a campus meal plan, having your own pots, pans, baking dishes, and cooking utensils is vital. You can get super cheap kitchenware at the thrift store (more on that resource later!), but if your budget is super tight, family and friends will often have extra stuff they can give you. I ended up buying a lot of my kitchen stuff new for super cheap at places like Walmart and the Dollar Tree, but I honestly wish I would’ve asked around more and gotten higher-quality stuff for free rather than cheap stuff I’ve ended up having to replace over the years.

Next, check out Freecycle, Craigslist, and Nextdoor.

If you don’t have family who can spare extra furniture or kitchenware, or you’re going to be living too far from home for it to be practical for you to bring any of that with you, start looking at Freecycle and the free section of Craigslist in the area you’re going to be moving to. If you’re moving to a more rural area, the pickings will be pretty slim, but the more urban and populated an area you’re moving to, the more likely it will be that you’ll find tons of great stuff. With both of these, you have to keep an eye on them and check them regularly for the stuff you want. There’s a lot of luck involved, and you have to move fast to get the good stuff, but it’s totally worth it to take a few minutes every day to check and see if someone is giving away something you need.

Nextdoor is a little different in that it’s more community-focused, but people post about free stuff they’re giving away all the time. Join Nextdoor in the area you’re planning on moving to and start poking around to see what your neighbors are getting rid of.

One important thing to keep in mind with all of these: stay safe! Have a friend with you whenever you meet someone to get new stuff, and always make sure someone knows where you’re going. Getting free stuff is only worth it when you’re safe!

Once you’ve exhausted the free resources, it’s time to start thrifting.

Thrift stores are going to be your best friend during this time. Places like Goodwill and the Salvation Army tend to have household goods as well as clothes. There are also likely lots of other small thrift stores and charity shops near you. You can find tons of household basics for super cheap, from dishes and frying pans to sheets and home decor. Everything is usually in decent condition.

I’ve actually had way better luck finding interesting, high-quality items at small-town thrift stores rather than here San Francisco, but your mileage may vary. This is a good tool for finding charity-driven thrift stores, so you can feel good about your money going to a good cause.

Timing is also key. Ask about each store’s sales cycles. Half-price items are often marked with colored tags or stickers that are only valid on certain days. Visiting on certain days of the week can make a difference, too. The weekends tend to be a lot busier, and if you go late on a Sunday, you’ll probably find that the whole store has been picked over. Go in the middle of the day on Wednesday, though, and you’ll probably have a whole lot more luck.

Finally, get good at finding good deals.

I wrote more about how to save money in general here, but when it comes to moving out, the most important thing is to get amazing at finding deals. Start learning where the clearance section is in every store. Whether you’re buying furniture, clothes, food–whatever it is, there is probably a clearance section, and it is usually worth picking through.

Use store apps, but don’t get sucked into the marketing! Stuff like Target’s app, grocery store apps, and Ibotta can make it a little cheaper to buy things, but don’t get blinded by all the flashy sales and deals. Companies put things on sale because they know it will make them money. Don’t buy more than what you need just because it seemed like a deal. Always comparison shop, and never assume that just because something is on sale that that’s the best price. Prices on furniture and clothes always drop eventually, and it’s worth waiting.

Lastly, take a deep breath.

It can be scary trying to get everything together as you prepare to move out, but I promise you that you’ll get the hang of it. In many ways, this is a practice round for your post-graduation life. If you make some mistakes along the way, it’s not the end of the world. The most important thing is making sure that you always have the tools to get back on track.

Make the best use of the resources you have available to you, and always be sure to check in and make sure you’re only purchasing things you actually want or need, not what someone else said you should want or need. The more you listen to that voice inside you that always asks things like, “Do I really need this? Would I really use/wear/enjoy this? Do I already have something like it?” the happier your bank account is going to be.

Have questions about moving out or how to be successful in college? Do you have tips to share about living on your own? Let me know in the comments!

 

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Moving Out on the Cheap

 

Minimalism and Frugality: A Match Made in Heaven!

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You’ve probably read a lot about minimalism recently, and I’m sure you’ve been hearing about the benefits of frugality basically your whole life. Minimalism and frugality are separate philosophies, but they can work together well in order to help you live your best life. (Zero waste can be a nice addition to this mix, but that’s another post!)

But first – what is minimalism?

Minimalism is the practice of ensuring you don’t have excess stuff in your life. The core idea is that you keep the things that you love in your life and eliminate the rest. While this mostly applies to the physical objects we surround ourselves with, it can also be a helpful tool for really focusing your attention on what matters to you in your life and what you really need to achieve your goals.

And what’s frugality?

Frugality is all about living on the cheap while still living well. It means something a little different for everyone. For some people, frugality is all about pinching every last penny. The Tightwad Gazette is a really famous example of this kind of lifestyle. For others, it’s about saving on the little things so that there’s money to enjoy the big things. Living frugally is a necessity for many people, but it is also a helpful way of thinking about making purchases and living life. Frugality isn’t necessarily about deprivation. It’s meant to help you stay in control of your finances so that you can live the life you want.

So, how do they work together?

Both minimalism and frugality force you to think about things a little differently. Our current culture is fast-paced and we’re often under pressure to make decisions quickly, especially when it comes to making purchases. Minimalism and frugality both emphasize slowing down and really thinking about how you’re spending your time, energy, and money.

I talked a bit about the beginnings of my minimalism journey here. I have always been a frugal person by nature, as I just don’t find it logical to spend extra money on things I don’t need to, but minimalism is sort of new to me. I’m a total collector who is slowly trying to get out of a book hoarding habit. But I have realized that most of the stuff I have is just… there. Gathering dust. Making it harder to focus and clean and live. So I’ve stopped bringing stuff into my life that I know I’m not going to use or that won’t improve my life, while also slowly getting rid of the things that are filling up my apartment. It’s completely changed the way that I make purchasing decisions, even when I’m buying things for other people.

For example, I’ve gotten great at regifting things. A well-chosen book makes an excellent gift. Those piles and piles of yarn I have that I’m not currently using for a knitting project? I can use them to fill up the rest of a gift bag for a friend who likes to crochet. If I do need to purchase a gift, I focus on buying consumable gifts like food, wine, soap, or a bath bomb. When I’m shopping for myself personally, I always make sure to have a list, even if I’m shopping for clothes. I also have a 24-hour waiting period for most random purchases. You’d be surprised how many things you realize you don’t actually need or want after mulling it over for a bit.

Frugality is all about using your money in ways that are effective. Minimalism is all about clearing all the extra junk out of your life. By combining the two, you basically make it your goal to live frugally but well, and you give permission to yourself to ignore some of the less important things in life. You can breathe a little and remember that you don’t have to keep up with the Joneses or give in to FOMO.

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You don’t have to change your entire life, but taking a few moments to slow down and make sure that you’re focusing on the right things can be incredibly beneficial. We gotta take the time to appreciate what we have!

Real Tips for When You're Actually Broke

Frugal Tips for When You’re Actually Broke

Life is rough, y’all. And, for some reason, a lot of personal finance bloggers just don’t seem to… actually get that. I see the same tips over and over, just in a different order and said a slightly different way. The intended audience never seems to be people who are actually legitimately struggling to find enough cash to get by. That’s where I’m coming in, my friends.

I’m in a decent financial position right now, but given that I live in San Francisco and my costs of living are pretty astronomical, I constantly feel like I’m walking on a razor’s edge. If my budget goes absolutely perfectly this month, I’ll have exactly $23.65 left over from my monthly paycheck. I’m proud that there’s anything left over, but that is just too damn close to zero for my liking. I know a lot of you are dealing with even tighter situations.

So, here are some money tips that I hope will help you get through your struggle season the same way they’ve helped me.

 

Make Your Bank Work for You

Make sure the bank you’re using is actually your best option. A lot of us use the really big banks. A lot of us also know that banks seem like they’re trying to squeeze every last penny out of you through various fees. It doesn’t have to be that way, though! I highly recommend thinking about what you want and need from your banking services and searching for the banks that will provide them at the lowest cost. Search tools like Find A Better Bank can help. I also recommend looking into local banks and credit unions.

You often get far better benefits at a smaller institution like a credit union than you would from one of the biggest banks. If none of the smaller banks near you seem more appealing than your current institution, don’t sweat it. If you’re a student, think about signing up for a college account. Many banks grandfather in college accounts so that you’ll never have to pay banking fees. I bank with a Wells Fargo college account and between their robust mobile and online banking tools and the lack of fees, I don’t really feel the need to make a major switch.

I did do some research on high-interest savings accounts last year, though. Paying interest is one thing big banks aren’t all that great about. I use Synchrony Bank for my emergency fund. Synchrony runs entirely online. They also don’t charge me any bank fees, and they didn’t require more than $1 from me to open up my account. Also, they have some of the best interest rates for savings accounts in the country (1.75%! Crazy, right?). There are a lot of other great options out there for high-interest savings accounts and everyday checking accounts. Everyone’s needs are different, and you might require things that I don’t, like easy access to a local bank branch or an ATM close by. Do your research and figure out where you’re most comfortable putting your money. 

 

Budgeting and Organizing Your Finances

Get organized! There are a ton of ways you can track your finances. YNAB (an abbreviation for You Need A Budget) is super popular, but it costs $83.99 a year. I definitely do not have that kind of extra cash for budgeting software. I prefer Mint. Mint is totally free. You link your various financial accounts to Mint–everything from your bank accounts to PayPal to retirement accounts to student loan accounts–and it takes in all that information and tracks your spending each month. I love this because I really struggle with math and numbers. It does require some tweaking to personalize things and make sure every transaction is being properly categorized, but that’s well worth it to me.

Once you figure out how you’re going to track your spending and see where your money is going for a few months, start creating a budget. Sitting down and estimating your expenses for the upcoming month based on your standard spending is ten times more helpful than saying “Okay, we’re only going to spend $X a week on groceries,” with X being a number you randomly pulled out of the air, and then inevitably going over because you underestimated. If I look at how much we spend on groceries historically, it’s pretty stable. You’ll find that’s true for a lot of your spending categories. Use your historical spending to help you figure out your budget and where you can sustainably cut back.

 

Save Where You Can

Be frugal, but don’t brutalize yourself. This ties into tracking your spending above. Don’t scrimp on things that matter to you. Having one-ply toilet paper makes me miserable, so I opt to pay an extra $5 at Costco for the bulk pack of the cheapest two- or three-ply. Make sure every dollar is being utilized wisely for you personally. Sometimes, you have to save every possible penny. But don’t feel guilty for spending a little extra money on things that genuinely improve your day-to-day quality of life. You’re broke, but you still deserve joy. Do what you can to make your journey to financial stability more bearable, but don’t go all “treat yourself” and go completely wild. Enjoy the little things you can afford. (And don’t forget that it’s Treat Yo Self Day, not Treat Yo Self Year.)

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Don’t pay full price on anything you don’t have to. Now, I am aware that we live in the real world. I totally use coupons and discount codes and rebates wherever I can. But I also know that sometimes you need that new pair of work pants, and you have the kind of body shape where thrifting for those pants just isn’t an option if you don’t want to wait 6 months. Still, it’s super important to always check and make sure that you’re getting the best deal possible. Utilizing local thrift stores for a lot of your clothing needs is great, as is digging through clearance racks. Signing up for emails from your favorite retailers is also a great idea. They’ll notify you of any sales that are going on and sometimes give you extra discounts if it’s been a while since you purchased something.

If you do a lot of your shopping online, get the Honey extension for your browser. It tries a bunch of different coupon codes and tries to get you the best deal. It’s saved me a bunch of money over the years. (Also, if you use this code, we’ll both get an extra $5 from Honey!) A lot of people also highly recommend Ebates, but that’s one I haven’t used yet. Ibotta is great for getting a couple extra pennies back from your grocery trips, and they also offer rebates for lots of other things, too. You can cash out once you’ve earned $20 in rebates. If you use this code, you’ll get your first $10 just for signing up, and I get a little cash, too. I’ve never made much off of this, but it’s a nice little extra boost once you’ve made enough to cash out.

Check to see if the grocery store you go to most often has a loyalty or rewards program. I shop at Safeway and have saved thousands by using their Club Card over the years. I select digital coupons in their app each week and it applies them automatically. I know FoodsCo has something similar, though not as robust. Your grocery store might, too. Always worth checking! Also, definitely look to see if wherever you’re shopping has a clearance rack. My local store just started putting out a day-old rack for baked goods and it’s all super cheap. It’s a cheap way to treat myself or get baked goods that are still pretty dang fresh but heavily marked down. There’s also a clearance rack that has all kinds of stuff marked down due to minor damage to the packaging. Little things like this add up over time and can help you significantly reduce your spending, so always keep an eye out.

 

Increasing Your Income

The most important tip I can share: work on increasing your income. Everyone likes to talk a big game about helping you save $10,000 in just a few easy steps! But for the majority of us, that’s just not feasible, and it’s not a productive way to think about money. Sure, you “saved” $2 on that shirt, but you still paid $15 for it. Or, you were able to cut your grocery spending down to $50 a week for a family of 5 (power to you, honestly), but the money you’ve been saving keeps going to other necessities, giving you a net of $0 “saved.” If you’ve been stretching every dollar every way you can think of and it’s just not enough? It’s time to think about increasing your income. This is way easier said than done, of course, and in some cases, just plain might not be possible. But it’s worth taking some time to explore your options. Gunning for a raise or a promotion at your primary job is our best option, especially if you’re dealing with a physical or mental illness. Even an extra dollar an hour can make a huge difference.

If you’re one of those people with boundless energy, or who are just so incredibly determined you can work in all conditions, consider taking on a part-time job. This can be a huge sacrifice if you’re already working full-time (or more!), especially if you have a family. I would also not suggest this as a long-term solution. Working too much is a great way to burn yourself out and make things even more of a struggle. Still, there are a lot of great options out there with flexible schedules now. You can drive for Lyft or Uber, use dog-walking apps like Wag, or make deliveries with services like Doordash and Postmates. Most of these apps allow you to work at any time and don’t have specific numbers of hours you have to work. This can be a good solution if you need money but also need the flexibility.

Make sure you’re utilizing any special skills. Upwork is a vast freelance marketplace that’s perfect for those of us who might want to take on an extra bit of work for a short period. (Note: Make sure to do your research on standard rates of pay in your industry before accepting any job! Your time is worthwhile, and working for pennies doesn’t make sense in the long-term.) Fiverr works similarly, but as someone who has used Fiverr in the past, I can’t say it’s a particular favorite of mine. Lots of people have made it work for them, though, so if you’re willing to put some time and energy into it, it might be worth your while. Crafters and DIY-ers should definitely check out Etsy. I ran an Etsy shop for a while while I was in college. If you can find your niche, market your products well, and price your products properly, Etsy can become a great source of income.

If your response to that last paragraph was “I don’t have any special skills. I’m screwed,” don’t give up hope! First off, refer to the part-time job paragraph above. Second off, maybe now is a good time to further your education. If you don’t have a degree, get one! Even an associate’s degree can open more doors for you. Check out your local community college and see what kind of certification programs and degree paths they’re offering. Keep in mind the kind of jobs that are in demand in your area, or the area you’d like to live in in the future. Also, don’t forget to keep in mind jobs that you’d like to do. It’s probably best not to spend money on learning how to work in a field that’s going to make you miserable. I studied English Literature because that’s my true passion in life, and even though everybody (including me) jokes that getting an English degree is just me begging to be broke forever? It’s simply not true. I got a good job right out of college with solid pay that covers all my basics. It really just depends on how you market yourself and your education. Don’t be afraid to get creative.

As you explore further education, make sure to look into every possible scholarship and grant available to you! Taking out loans sucks and should be a last resort. If you do have to take them out, try to go federal–the interest rates are usually much, much lower. If navigating all that stuff feels too complicated, talk with a counselor or someone in the financial aid department at school. They can help walk you through it.

If your situation ever gets truly dire and you’re really struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out to local charities or see if you’re eligible for programs like general assistance, SNAP, or WIC. That’s what those services are for. They’re there to help you get back on your feet. Whatever guilt you might feel, brush that aside. We all need a helping hand sometimes and there’s no shame in asking for it. You’re worth helping.

For more resources, or just a place to commiserate, make sure to check out the Reddit community r/povertyfinance. I also recommend checking out r/frugal and r/personalfinance. Dave Ramsey and Mr. Money Mustache are also great resources. Some of these are more helpful than others depending on where you’re at in your financial journey. Use what works for you and disregard the rest.

What are your favorite financial tips for making sure you get by every month? Share in the comments, and link me to your favorite finance blogs and resources!

Real Tips for When You're Actually Broke

18 Tips for College

18 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting College

I feel like I was more prepared for college than most people are. I had been dreaming of a place where I could sit and discuss books at length in an academic setting with other people who were equally invested in the subject matter since I was in the second grade. Once I realized college was where I could do that, I spent a lot of my time researching what I would need to know. Even though I feel like a lot of my life experiences had prepared me for things like living on my own and handling school, from the academics of it to all the bureaucracy.

Still, there are a few things that I wasn’t prepared for, and I think they’re well worth discussing. These definitely aren’t the only insider tips about getting through college in existence, but they are the ones that kept me sane for four years and still help me keep it together now.

18 Tips for College

 

 

1. Be flexible. Sometimes, you don’t get the class schedule you wanted and you have to scramble to find something else to take. This will not ruin your semester. Nor will realizing you’re crunched for time and can’t complete assignments with the level of quality you usually consider your best. Do what you can, and move on.

2. Use your syllabus to ground your schedule. This is extremely helpful if you regularly use a calendar or a planner. When you get your syllabi, start penciling in the dates assignments are due and when exams are supposed to take place. You’ll be thankful later when a paper is due in two days and you completely forgot it even existed, but your calendar reminded you.

3. You are allowed one major screw-up with each individual professor. Use it wisely. Some professors are tougher than others, so this may not always work, but I’m adding it here because I think it’s important to let all of you know that I screwed up pretty badly more than once while I was in college… and everything was fine. Did I forget the day of the final for my Comparative World Lit class and not go? You bet. Did I not realize I was supposed to turn in my Human Sexuality paper on the last day of class? Of course! But despite these mistakes, I passed both classes with flying colors. Why? The professors knew I cared about the coursework, and I reached out immediately to ask for help. They were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. Be consistently good and people will forgive your mistakes.

4. This one is super important. Never forget that your professors are people. If you’re struggling, talk to them. Not every professor is flexible or willing to work with you, but the vast majority of them are, especially if you’ve proven yourself to be trustworthy and consistent. (See #3 above.) Your professors are there to teach you specific material, yes, but they are also available when you need extra guidance, whether it’s with coursework or other life stuff. They are people, and most of the time, they care about you and just want you to succeed. Most professors aren’t trying to set you up for failure.

5. Write your schedule and to-do list down regularly. I’m not a huge fan of pre-organized planners, but I always carry a notebook everywhere to write down assignment details and notes that would help me compose a to-do list. When I was working shift jobs, I always put my shifts into Google calendar, along with my class schedule for the upcoming semester and any important due dates for different papers. Whether you use bullet journaling, a day planner, a calendar app, or just a plain old composition notebook, getting stuff written down somewhere you’ll see it is hugely important. Figure out what works with you and do it consistently. Organization often feels like half the battle in college.

6. Create a class schedule that works for you. I lived super close to campus, so I preferred to have my days really spread out. 2 hour breaks between classes were ideal, because I could walk home, eat, gather my notes for my next class, and then walk back. I also liked loading most of my classes into one or two days because that made scheduling work a lot easier. And, after I stupidly signed up for a 9 AM class my very first semester, I promised myself that I would never take a class before 11 AM again. Your freshman year, experiment a little to figure out what’s best for you. This is your education. Figure out what kind of schedule will help you learn best.

7. If you have to take out student loans, start paying them down ASAP. Future you will thank you. I put a significant amount of money toward my loans while I was still in school. I made a small dent in my loans and kept my loan interest in check, and I also created the habit of paying my student loans regularly. Now that I’m in repayment, it doesn’t feel like a huge deal since I’m already used to putting a significant portion of my income towards my loans. Even if you can only afford to put $10 toward your loans and it all goes to interest, I’d say that’s worth it. It’s a super important habit to build!

8. Consider a more minimalist lifestyle. I’ve been in the same apartment since I moved into it before freshman year started, and I’m grateful to my past self for not buying a bunch of crap I’m just going to have to get rid of once I move. Really think about what you’re bringing into your space, especially if you’re living in a dorm and have to pack up at the end of every semester. Check out this post I wrote about the decluttering challenge I did last year. I highly recommend trying one of your own if you feel like you’re getting overwhelmed by stuff. Clutter makes it that much harder to succeed in school, and it makes life ten times better not to have it around.

9. Your local library is an extremely valuable resource. If you’re an English major, the library will probably have all the books you’ll need for the semester, along with tons of other helpful resources. Many libraries (especially if you’re in a large city) put on events pretty regularly. They also offer classes on everything from budgeting and money management to coding, making your own lip balm, and yoga, all for free. You may also be able to get into some local museums or other local attractions for free with passes obtained from your library. Most libraries also have extensive resources online. I’m able to get tons of audiobooks, movies, music, comics, and video games for free through my library. Take the time to get a library card. It’s free and it could save you a ton of money.

10. Speaking of libraries, your school libraries literally have degrees in how to research things. Ask them for help. I had more than one professor take advantage of the awesome library we had on campus and sit us all down with librarians who taught us how to use the university’s databases properly, as well as the basics of research. Even though I considered myself a strong researcher at the time, I still found a lot of their tips helpful and continue to use some of them to this day. If ever you’re working on a research paper or another project that requires finding X number of sources or that you just need to know more about, go talk to your librarians. They can help you find everything you need and then some.

11. Learn how to research! This goes hand in hand with #10, as your university librarian can probably teach you a lot of basic researching skills. This will save your butt in the future, both in college and in the rest of your life.

12. Good writing covers a myriad of ills. Knowing how to write and communicate well can sometimes cover up the fact that your paper’s argument isn’t all that strong. Taking the time to learn how to write well will help you so much, through college and beyond. But work on those arguments at the same time, though. Critical thinking skills are also super important.

13. Don’t feel stifled by research paper format. Whenever I read the papers my peers wrote, I was kind of stunned by how… boring a lot of them were. They were super formulaic and even if their arguments were strong, they just weren’t discussing them in a compelling way. I’m here to tell you that you’re allowed to have fun and be creative while getting your point across! You’re allowed to your own opinions! (Caveat: some professors really just want you to regurgitate what they taught you about the material. Those professors suck, but do what you gotta do. That said, most professors don’t really care what you’re arguing so long as you argue it well and have evidence to back it up.)

I highly recommend figuring out what argument you want to make and then just rolling with it. If it’s enjoyable for you to write and research, it will likely be enjoyable to read. Also, play with your papers’ formats and structures. The five-paragraph essay is a great starting point, but by the time you’re a sophomore in college, you should have moved beyond that. Look at the papers you’re reading in your field, especially the ones focusing on theory. (If you’re majoring in literature, that’ll be most of what you read anyway.) They don’t follow the five-paragraph format. They use whatever format it takes to make their argument. Those are the kinds of examples you want to try and emulate.

14. Learn how to study in a way that works best for you. Experiment with different methods. Different courses and exams may require different tactics, but overall, you should have a basic study method. I preferred to thoroughly read the material and make notes (even if they were silly, like writing “omg” in the margins when I was annoyed with a character) so that I knew I was staying engaged. Class discussions would allow me to cement that knowledge. My partner struggles more with that kind of intense focus, so he uses a method called junebugging. This method involves jumping around from one task to another, but knowing he always has to come back to his main project. There are tons of different study methods out there. Figure out what works best for your brain and your courses.

15. Avoid unnecessary shortcuts. You are paying to learn (or, at least, someone’s paying for you to learn). So learn the material. Don’t just learn it for long enough to do well on the test. If you actually take the time to absorb what you’re learning long-term and put it to use, you’re ten steps ahead of most of your peers.

16. When you’re giving a presentation, remember that no one wants to see you struggle. Everyone is rooting for you. Watching someone stumble and shake through a presentation is hella uncomfortable. I shake really, really bad when I present. It always helped to remember that even if people noticed, they weren’t judging me for it. I could just take a deep breath and keep going.

17. In the same vein, make sure to practice your presentations out loud, preferably more than once! This is extra helpful when you’re working in a group. Even if it’s right before the group presentation, meet up and take a few minutes to run through it together. All of you will be so much less nervous. If you’re going solo, practice it to yourself in the shower or while you’re doing other mindless tasks. Then practice it in front of your roommate or someone else you trust a couple times. Actually moving your mouth and saying the words before you get up in front of the class will greatly improve your presentation technique and soothe your nerves. You got this.

18. Know your limits. Don’t take on too much. You will burn out, which makes everything ten times harder. Yeah, I worked 55 hours a week and took a full courseload at school and lived. My depression and anxiety also got really bad and I was stressed to my limit all the time. Sometimes, I feel like I’m still recovering, even though it’s been over a year! Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many commitments. You need time to relax, spend time with friends, and recharge however you need to.

That’s all 18 tips! There is so much more I could say, but these tips are the most important. If you take nothing else from this post, remember these three things: ask for help when you need itlearn how your brain works and work with it, and make time for self-care. College can be hard. Don’t make it harder than it has to be.

Do you have any questions about college or tips to share? Leave a comment and let’s discuss!

18 Tips for Surviving College