Flex or Fiction: How Accommodating Is Your Job?

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This post comes from Anna Williams at our partner site LearnVest.

flex job

When it comes to work perks, flexibility is one of our favorite nice-to-haves—whether that means occasionally telecommuting from home, working variable hours or being part of a job share. In fact, a 2013 LearnVest study found that more than half of us would prefer a flexible schedule.

But are employers actually meeting this growing request?

Yes and no, according to new research from the Families and Work Institute. On the one hand, employers are increasingly allowing workers more daily flexibility—think perks like occasionally working from home (67% of companies offer this, up from half in 2008). Companies are also more willing to let workers attend to personal needs during the day, like picking up a sick child from school or spending the morning waiting for the cable guy.

But when it comes to more innovative, long-term flex options, employers are drawing a harder line. Perks like sabbaticals, job shares, or the option to go part time are becoming increasingly rare, the study finds. For example, just 18% of companies today are open to job shares, while almost 30% of firms were in 2008.

What’s behind the switch? It’s likely an effect of the smaller staffs left in the wake of the recession. “[Companies] may be more reluctant to offer long leaves because they don’t have the financial margin to cover that, ” Ken Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute,  told the Wall Street Journal. “And they may be using day-to-day flexibility to compensate for the extra work people are doing when you have a smaller staff.”

If you’re itching for a more accommodating schedule, learn how to successfully negotiate for perks like sabbaticals and flex time, or take a cue from these real parents who scored flex jobs.

More stories from LearnVest:

10 All-Inclusive Resort Secrets—Revealed

How I Did It: Opened My Own Etsy Shop

8 Ultimate Opening Lines for Fearless Networking

Is The American Dream Dead?

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Is the American dream dead? A majority of people say it is, according to the recently announced CNN Money survey, as well as several others done at academic institutions like Xavier and Youngstown universities and other private organizations. Although the samples, questions and methodologies differ from survey to survey, the results all seem to indicate that the American dream (however people define it) is dying.

The term “American dream” was coined in the Great Depression the first time a major economic meltdown happened in full view of the entire nation through mass media, like radio and national print. It is a bit ironic that author James Adams penned this in 1931, the depth of the Great Depression: “The American Dream of a better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank … is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world.”

You could make the case that the American dream has turned out to be America’s greatest export to the world. Entire societies, from Japan and China to Russia and Dubai, have undergone significant changes, all shifting toward the American dream, however they translate it into their version.

What Is The American Dream?

Ask ten people and you’re bound to get eleven answers. It’s one notion about which everyone seems to have a vague idea but few actually articulate down to a short list. A number of surveys consider the following components when they discuss the American dream:

  • Owning your own home
  • Getting married
  • Having kids
  • Getting a degree
  • Retiring at 65

Other studies reveal more nebulous definitions, with terms like:

  • A good life for my family
  • Financial security
  • Freedom
  • Opportunity
  • Pursuit of happiness

Homeownership, the number one item in the Learnvest/Chase study, was ranked number one by only 7 percent in the Xavier study, illustrating the wide disparity in how people articulate the elusive dream.

When you sift through the noise, though, the essence of the American dream boils down to a system of hopes, aspirations and beliefs: If you do the right thing and work hard, you believe that you will get ahead, that you will one day accomplish the things to which you aspire, and that each generation will have a better life than the previous one.

However, that system of hopes and beliefs is crumbling as this economic recovery has not benefited the majority. We are now seeing a generation which believes it will not match their parents’ standard of living.

That is profound because it is the first time in this nation’s history that has ever happened.

What Does It Look Like?

  • More kids are staying at home with one or both parents.
  • It is harder to find jobs that pay more than minimum wage and involve a full 40-hour week.
  • Job rewards are falling behind: pension, health, job security, job satisfaction/pressure.
  • Job security is dead: Fewer people believe that dong the right thing and working hard will work.
  • Education is costing more and guaranteeing less.
  • Student debt is now the largest category of debt after home mortgages.
  • Trust in leadership (both public and private) is at an all-time low.

Hard statistics bear this out. The labor force participation rate for those under 25 has been declining for a while and shows no sign of turning around. Conversely, the participation rate for those over 55 is rising, at a time when their forebears checked out of the workforce and retired.

If you had to pick a notion which captures the quintessence of the American dream, it’s probably retiring in a paid-off home. Some stereotype that as old fogies playing golf in plaid pants all day, while Missy plays endless rounds of bridge with the blue-rinse set in the senior center. Today’s generation may deride the image, but increasingly they realize they may never attain what their parents could take for granted — a lifetime of diligent work yielding financial freedom to do whatever you want to do.

If you look further, you can see other, more subtle, signs. Walmart has displaced Sears as America’s retailer of choice, showing how consumers have spurned “good quality at a fair price” for “everyday low prices” regardless of quality.

What Can You Do?

The reasons this generation expects to do worse than its parents are many, and, for most of us, don’t matter as much as figuring out what we can do in the face of our declining prospects.

1. Reset your expectations

All unhappiness, my wife tells me, comes from unmet expectations. Most Americans started life expecting they’ll end up with a better life than their parents. When, after some years, it starts to look like that’s not going to happen, they get frustrated and impatient. Immigrants, on the other hand, who grew up with an entirely different set of expectations, arrive in the States with wide eyes and beaming smiles. To them, America is still the land of opportunity. It’s not surprising to see that almost all of the surveys note that the American dream is still alive to a much greater degree in immigrant households.

The difference? Expectations. Immigrants seem to have lower expectations. By simply lowering your expectations of material comfort, career advancement and peer group acceptance, you remove a lot of the pressure you put on yourself. In essence, you reset your life compass to a slightly lower north. Just changing what you regard as your version of the American dream will increase your happiness.

And isn’t happiness, at the end of the day, what the American dream is all about?

2. Reset spending

It’s simple math, really: Spend less than you earn. No need to beat that dead horse.

It does get complicated, though, when you have to commit to expenses into an unknown future, like on a home lease or mortgage. We’d all like to be able to buy a home for cash, but the reality is most of us can’t do that these days. Instead, we have to make spending commitments which count on a future income.

The solution to that problem is obviously to keep those commitments to a minimum and to sacrifice to amass an emergency fund that can see you through any periods when you won’t be able to keep those commitments from income.

3. Understand that debt is more dangerous than ever before

I suspect many people nod their heads in agreement to that headline — and then incur debt anyway because they feel they can justify it. That feeling of justification is often rooted, directly or not, in the American dream.

However you look at it, debt is nothing but impatience expressed in dollars. And those with aspirations for better things take on debt when they can’t afford them.

The key to finding your way in a “dreamless America” is not falling into the trap of thinking that “things will get better in the future, at which time I can pay off this debt.” Is this hard? Painful? Unfair? Frustrating? It’s all of the above and more, but it’s still the prudent new reality. As Marty Schottenheimer always says when asked how he feels about not winning a Super Bowl: “It is what it is.”

Much better to assume things will never get better than to assume they will and live an unhappy life.

4. Be content with what you can afford

Kiss the Joneses good-bye and don’t try to keep up with anybody. I’m an immigrant, and unabashedly a believer in the American dream. But I’m not stupid enough (any more) to sacrifice my journey for a destination which often ends up being a let-down. Are there things I’d like but don’t have, places I’d like to see which I haven’t? You betcha. But I’ve learned, as someone once said, to be content with what I do have (and did see).

This recommendation is not a financial one; it’s one of identity and emotion.

Happiness is what the American dream is all about. I grew up in Africa, where I saw contentment in a hut of less than 400 square feet, no plumbing, no phone and no electricity. The people had no degree, no job, no pension — just family and enough food to get by. When you look at those wide smiles, you can’t help but realize you don’t need “stuff” to be happy. We’re privileged that what we might call a low standard of living in America is the lap of luxury to the majority of people in the world today.

No matter how distant your dream is, you can be content. By scaling back your expenses and expectations — and, above all,  avoiding debt — you can stay content until the day you die.

What do you see as the American dream? Do you think you will reach it?

The economics of running out

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In a sense, personal finance is a battle of conservation. People manage their resources in the hopes they won’t run out of the essentials — only what people find essential can differ. This centers around the fear of losing money or some other aspect of your financial life, and overcoming that fear should involve some element of minimizing the reality of it happening.

Offensive vs. defensive finance

Fundamentally, some people approach finance on the offensive, while others are on the defensive. People on the offensive are driven by acquiring more, or advancing their careers and social standing. People on the defensive care more about keeping what they already have than acquiring more. Both an offensive and a defensive mentality towards finance can come from a fear of loss — but what you fear losing determines whether your approach is offensive or defensive.

What do you fear losing?

These common fears of loss may determine how you approach your finances:

  1. Time. People who frequently say “life’s too short” are likely to be more defensive than offensive financially. Rather than being driven by career advancement or amassing wealth, these people’s priorities are to save time for themselves, and they won’t hesitate to spend money on a vacation or other experience that they feel will enhance their appreciation of life.
  2. Money. These are people who are concerned about career setbacks, financial losses, rising prices, or anything else that might cause them to run out of money. Often, these are people who have had to claw their way up from a difficult financial situation and never want to have to do it again, making them very defensive financially.
  3. New things. It is easy to see this simply as greed, but if you look closely, acquisitive people are driven by a fear of loss in a way — they would miss the constant thrill of having new things, so they are always on the offensive financially, looking to make and spend more money.
  4. Prestige. Acquisition is sometimes not about the things themselves, but about social standing. Fear of losing that standing makes people aggressive financially, as they seek to get further ahead of their peers.

To a large extent, concerns with time, buying things, or prestige require a philosophical solution — you need to find a way to stop these concerns from becoming obsessions. People can be obsessed about running out of money too, but this is also a very real concern. So, conquering the fear of running out of money requires both a philosophical and financial approach.

Conservation, not compulsion

For people whose fear is someday running out of money, the trick is to conserve your resources without becoming compulsive about it. Here are some approaches that might help:

  1. Shoot for conservative targets. This means low return assumptions, but a high longevity assumption. This will force your savings targets higher, but reduce your risk of unpleasant surprises later in your retirement savings.
  2. Give yourself an allowance. Being careful financially is great, but you should not compulsively save every possible dime. Give yourself a set allowance that you are allowed to spend. This will allow you to enjoy your money, but also the discipline of keeping discretionary spending within a known limit should also make you feel more secure.
  3. Keep your financial plan current. This is advisable anyway, because so much can change over the years, but in the context of overcoming the fear of running out of money, updating things regularly (such as once a year) will help you feel confident that things are on track.
  4. Have a what-if plan. Setbacks such as market corrections or a job loss are part of financial life. The problem is, when they occur the emotional distress involved makes it difficult to think rationally. Try building some what-ifs into your financial planning — some negative scenarios to make you think through how you would cope with them. This will help you think through the possibilities more calmly because, to some extent, the more you plan for setbacks, the less you have to worry about them.
  5. Give something away. This is definitely more philosophical than practical, but sometimes the philosophical side of things is a necessary part of getting comfortable with your financial situation. If you have a fear of running out of money, it can dominate your thinking to the extent that however much you earn and save is never enough. Most likely, though, you can give some money to people less fortunate than yourself without jeopardizing your financial future. This will demonstrate that letting go of some of your money is not the end of the world, but it will make that point without the guilt involved in splurging on yourself.

Personal finances are exactly that — they are personal, which means there is an emotional as well as a practical component to them. For this reason, both the reality of your financial situation and your perception of it are vitally important.

Overwhelmed at Work and Home? You May Be Living on ‘Contaminated Time’

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“There just aren’t enough hours in the day.”

“I’m crazy busy.”

“My to-do list is a mile long.”

If you’re like most Americans, you likely say one (or all) of the above statements on a regular basis.

A few years ago Brigid Schulte — a journalist for The Washington Post and a mother of two — did, too. “I kept waking up in a panic at 4 A.M. worrying — not only about all of the stuff on my to-do list that I hadn’t done that day and how much more there was to do, ” Schulte says, “but also whether I was missing my life even as I was living it.”

And then she started to wonder why she, and so many people she knew, was living this way. So, like any good journalist, she started doing some research. This led her to write what she calls an “accidental book”: “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.”

“It’s a journey to understand what happened to leisure in America — why I, like so many, felt so compelled to unthinkingly overwork and overparent and overdo, ” she says. “And how I could begin to create time for what philosophers and psychologists say are the three great arenas that make for a good life: work, love, and play.”

Since this balance is what everyone is seemingly searching for these days, we sat down with Schulte to find out more about trying to live a less overwhelmed life. Here’s how it went:

FCN: I think that a lot of people today can relate to your book. How did we get to this point? Are we really more overscheduled and overwhelmed than our parents’ generation?

Brigid Schulte: Yes! A generation ago, people knew the difference between hard work and overwork — the latter of which has become our reality. Work hours began to rise in the 1980s. Now Americans put in among the most extreme hours of workers anywhere in the world. Why? Because of what’s changed and what hasn’t.

What’s changed: the world, technology, the economy, gender roles. What hasn’t: cultural attitudes and expectations and unconscious bias. I think the writer Katrina Alcorn [author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink] said it best: “Our society expects people to work as if they didn’t have families or lives, and to have families as if we didn’t work. And that’s just not the reality for the vast majority of Americans.”

About 40% of all children under 18 are being raised by a sole breadwinning mother or mom who outearns her spouse. But you would never know that by looking at our workplace cultures, policies, and laws.

At the same time, the standards for what it takes to be a good mother have continued to ratchet up. Social scientists now say that the gap between what we consider the ideal and what we’re realistically capable of doing has never been wider. Since so much hasn’t changed as the world has, we’ve created an impossible bind for most people — not just mothers.

Related: Does Work-Life Balance Actually Exist?


You heavily researched this book. So, what was the most surprising thing that you uncovered in the process?

I hate to admit this, but it was how ignorant I was of the forces that had shaped my own thoughts, actions and life. For example, I had never heard of family responsibilities discrimination [employment discrimination based on needing to care for family], nor that pregnancy discrimination was so real and so rampant — even though a federal law banning it was passed in 1978.

I also didn’t know that we have virtually no family policy in the U.S., unlike every other advanced nation on earth. And that all meaningful conversation on the topic stopped in the 1970s. Nor did I realize how ambivalent this country is about working mothers, although it explains a lot of the guilt I always felt, and why we don’t have fully flexible workplaces or supportive policies or cultural attitudes that see mothers and fathers doing excellent work and preserving sacred time for family—or any worker, really, who wants to work and have a full life.

What are the consequences of living in this pressure cooker?

The health consequences are huge. The National Institutes of Health is involved in a multimillion-dollar multiyear study and has found that overwork, the squeeze between work and life, and managers who value face time and long hours, is associated with higher stress levels, poorer health, poorer sleep patterns, more anxiety, and absenteeism.

And the Yale Stress Center has reported that constant stress — the body was built for short bursts of stress, followed by a return to calm — is not only bathing the organs in the stress hormone cortisol (it’s been linked to higher rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and cancer), but it may also shrink the prefrontal cortex of the brain. That’s the “thinking” part of the brain that governs executive functions like thinking, learning, remembering, planning, and decision-making.

Related: Infographic: Could Workplace Stress Kill You?

In leisure, all of civilization, in essence, has been created—art, philosophy, history, science, discoveries, innovations—and all in long periods of uninterrupted leisure.

Aside from preventing these health issues, why is leisure time so important? In today’s culture, it seems looked down upon.

I have to be honest that there were times when I was embarrassed to tell people that I was writing a book about leisure. It seemed so silly and trivial. We clearly have lost all sense of its value as we’ve gotten wrapped up in busyness and the feeling that we always have to be “productive” and “doing” something.

But then I began to read more and understand that without leisure time, we wouldn’t have civilization. It’s exactly when we take our nose off the grindstone and have time outside of work — outside the routine of survival — that our thoughts wander and wonder, that we make new connections, figure out how to solve old problems in new ways, and have the kind of insights that come in “aha!” moments. In leisure, all of civilization, in essence, has been created — art, philosophy, history, science, discoveries, innovations — and all in long periods of uninterrupted leisure.

So what can people do to find leisure time in their hectic lives?

The first thing is to stop and recognize how strong the pressure is to overwork, overparent, overschedule, and be busy. Then, when it comes to your to-do list, do a brain dump to get everything out of your head and clear mental space. Then give yourself permission to not do any of it.

And give yourself permission to designate joy, fun, play, reflection, and idleness or quiet time as top priorities — and schedule them in until it becomes routine. You really don’t have to earn leisure by getting to the end of the to-do list. You never will. So flip the list. Put joy first.

Finally, what’s the one thing you hope people take away from your book?

That the way we’re living is unsustainable — we’re not doing our best work, giving our best to our most important relationships, or living our best lives. We need to completely rethink the way we work, unstall the stalled gender revolution and our automatic assumptions about who should do what, and recapture the value of play. It’s what makes us human, and rewires our brains in creative and positive ways.

In researching the book, I found so many bright spots. I’m hoping not only to spark a national conversation about changing the way we work and live, but to show that, in many places, in many ways large and small, it’s already starting to change. And I find that really exciting.

Related: 8 Easy Ways to Curb Health and Wellness Costs

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on June 6, 2014.

Sensational Way to Triumph in Negotiations

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Before reading this post, please grab a steaming cup of coffee, and recline in the most comfortable chair you can find. If one is near, lift a warm puppy to your lap and stroke the soft, furry pet as you read. All set? Proceed.

When professor and author Thalma Lobel was ready to finalize the sale of her Tel Aviv apartment, she sat down with the buyer for final negotiations. She and her husband had determined they would go no lower than a figure they had decided upon earlier. But holding a warm cup of coffee, Lobel found herself granting the buyer price concessions she hadn’t originally intended to offer.

What made her warm to the buyer’s lower offer? Was it the warm coffee?

Lobel’s research into that question has resulted in her new book,  Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence, offering insights about the impact of physical sensation on negotiating psychology that you can take right to the bank.

Who knew, for instance, that holding hot or cold beverages could have such an impact on your perception of an individual? Who knew that it makes a difference whether you’re sitting on a hard surface or a cushy armchair when it’s time to hammer out the details of your salary increase? Who knew that resumes printed on thin paper are taken less seriously than those on thick paper?

Beyond these findings are others that could contribute to greater earnings over your lifetime. Among them is the discovery that bright light can enhance your ability to generate problem-solving ideas. Or the finding that the smell of peppermint can bring about the sense your workout is less difficult than it is, leading you to get in better shape and, as a result, pursue your career more vigorously.

A book by its cover

That Lobel’s book is all about physical sensation is evident without even cracking the actual tome open. The front cover is soft to the touch, while the back cover is rough. Touching the book results, Lobel says, in “embodied cognition.”

Inside, Lobel, a research psychologist at Tel Aviv University and one of the world’s leading experts on human behavior, takes us into an understanding that unrelated environmental cues and physical experiences impact our decisions in all kinds of profound, even shocking, ways, without us ever recognizing they do.

Let’s start with the warm — and cold — coffee. In a study by Yale University professors, participants were led by a research assistant one by one into a room where they would be asked to judge someone they’d never met before.

While escorting them into the room, the assistant asked each participant to briefly hold her coffee while she juggled papers. Half the participants were handed a warm cup of coffee; the others received an iced coffee. Later, the participants who’d been given the warm coffee judged the individual they met as more warm-hearted and caring than those who’d been given the iced coffee.

Another group was instructed to hold a warm or cold therapeutic pad in a focus group. Later asked to pick between receiving gifts for themselves or for a friend, holders of the warm pad were more likely to choose the gift for a friend.

Hard and soft, red and grey

Other studies reported by Lobel demonstrated that sitting in a soft, deeply cushioned chair made individuals more open to negotiation, while sitting on a hard surface, like wooden chairs found in many libraries, made them inflexible.

In yet another study, men participating in an experiment were shown photos of a woman. In each photo, the only difference was the color of the blouse the woman wore. Each man saw the woman in either a red, blue, green or grey blouse. Asked to rate the woman, the men shown her in a red blouse rated her as more attractive, and were willing to spend more money on her on a first date.

Financial takeaways

These are just a few revelations from the book, but each points a clear path to financial behaviors as rational as choosing the best savings account or best credit cards. If you are up for a salary review, for instance, come prepared not only with a list of your job achievements, printed on the thickest paper that will travel through the printer, but several other props as well.

Devise an excuse to carry a hard-seated wooden chair into your boss’s office. Have an assistant wheel a pillow-top bed in for the boss. Arrange for another assistant to accompany you in with a tray of liquids. Proffer the steaming cup of coffee to your boss, while accepting a Slushee for yourself.

You’re sure to get the raise. It will be a great talking point on that first date you have coming up. If you’re a woman who likes first dates with big spenders, go shopping for crimson tops. If a man not inclined to blow too much money on a first date, prepare that confirming phone call.

“What to wear? Well, if you’ve got a grey blouse, that should be fine.”

Now, if you followed my instructions in the first paragraph, you can put down the coffee and the pup. You’re certain to have found this post just … sensational.

How to save money on dental insurance

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When I transitioned from a full-time job to being self-employed, one of the biggest hurdles I faced was finding low-cost health insurance. Finding affordable dental insurance proved to be even more difficult. First, I couldn’t find any dental insurance with benefits comparable to what I was getting from my full-time job. Second, even insurance with very basic coverage cost over a thousand dollars per year for two people. Reading the fine print, I discovered that benefits were capped at a thousand dollars! Why would I want such a product? I decided to dig deeper to see how I could find affordable dental insurance and make dental care cheaper. Here is what I found.

How to find affordable dental insurance

  • Comparison shop: Like any other type of insurance, start by comparing the coverage and premiums of different plans. Sites like Dentalplans.com or eHealthinsurance.com are good places to start.
  • Check with your dentist: A lot of dentists now offer savings plans. My dentist offers a plan called SmileMore Dental Savings Plan. For about $200 a year, I can get as many cleanings as I want (for $10 each), free exams and x-rays. If I want any other procedures done, like crowns or dental implants, I can get them done at a 25 percent discount. If your dental health is very good, this might be a great option.
  • Check your alma mater: My school sends me a letter every year asking for donations. The letter always accompanies a list of benefits I receive as an alumnus, one of them being group dental insurance. I asked for a quote using the group discount and found that, while it was not the cheapest, it definitely brought the rate down significantly.
  • Check trade-related associations: Are you part of any professional associations? A lot of them offer group discounts for their members. For example, freelancers union offers group dental insurance at a discounted cost to their members. This ended up being the best option for me.
  • Have a warehouse club membership? Check their benefits: When I lived in California, I had an option of purchasing dental insurance via Costco. At this time, they only offer this benefit to residents of California. Sams Club doesn’t seem to offer dental insurance, but they have a dental plan that offers a significant discount if you use one of the covered dentists.
  • Check the new health care marketplace: Dental insurance is not mandatory, so it is not offered by all the states’ marketplaces. Among the states that offer dental insurance, some include it as part of health insurance and some offer it as a standalone product.
  • Work part time for benefits: If I want the best coverage for a reasonable cost, unfortunately, this is the best option. A lot of companies offer insurance benefits for part-time employees. Even if they don’t pay the premium, the group discount alone could save you a lot.

How to lower the cost of dental procedures

  • Make use of a Health Savings Plan or Flexible Spending Account if you have access to them.
  • Get the procedures done at a dental school: If you don’t mind being treated by students — they will be supervised — you can use dental schools that offer free or discounted care to the public. You can use the American Dental Association site to find a school close to you.
  • Negotiate the cost of the procedure: As with any type of medical care, you should never assume the price quoted for a particular service is the final price. Check for the average cost of the procedure you are looking to get done in your area. I used the FAIR Health Consumer and Health Care Blue Book to get an estimate. Ask your dentist to match that amount or give an explanation on why it is different.
  • Ask for discounts: Ask your dentist if they offer any discount for paying in cash or paying in full.
  • Don’t miss the health insurance deduction if you are self-employed: This is not a way to get cheaper dental insurance; but deducting the premium you pay for yourself and your family from your income will save money in taxes, essentially making the insurance itself a little cheaper.
  • Consider free and low-cost health clinics: Some community health clinics also offer dental care on a sliding-fee basis. Call your county health department to find if there are any such clinics nearby.
  • Look for special programs: This option will depend on your eligibility. There are organizations like Smiles Change Lives, which connect low-income families with charitable orthodontists. Do some research and see if there are any programs that will help you to make your specific procedure more affordable.
  • Go abroad: In some cases it might be worth it to consider crossing the border to get dental care, especially if you are in one of the border states.
  • Take good care of your teeth: Prevention is the best way to save money on any health issue. Schedule your regular cleaning and exam once a year (latest research shows once a year is as effective as biannual cleaning recommended by the dentists). Identify problem areas and take care of them before it gets serious.

Have you ever bought dental insurance on the open market? What kind of plan did you purchase? How did you find an affordable option?

Are You A Prius Lover or Hater?

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When is the last time you got into a heated argument about cars? Cars in general are not controversial. Yes, there is the odd low-key Chevy vs. Ford thing from days gone by and that sort of thing, but most people generally don’t get worked up about cars, arguing about them after dinner in mixed company.

The Prius Parade

That changed a decade or so ago, when gas prices spiked and the media fueled public outrage over behemoth SUVs like Ford’s Expedition and Chevy’s Suburban. The “darling of the day” solution became the Toyota Prius. Californians were so enthralled with it that they pushed through legislation allowing single drivers to use the carpool lanes if they drove a Prius. If you’ve ever lived in the Bay Area or the L.A./Orange County sprawl, you know there is no ground on earth holier than their freeway carpool lanes. Other than winning the lottery, no fantasy occupies commuters’ minds more than finagling a way to zip along that ribbon of greased lightning while the rest stew in their mobile prisons, stuck listening to talk radio.

The Prius became the first car in eons that people talked about when they met for a little libation, or even just standing in lines. Sales went through the roof and dealers had waiting lists. Hollywood celebrities, always chasing the latest cool, hid their blinged-up Escalades — and Cameron Diaz, Harrison Ford and others made sure cameras saw them driving to the 2003 Academy Awards in their Priuses. (Actually not theirs, just loaners from Toyota, but cameras can’t tell the difference.)

All that chatter made the little car the most controversial thing on four wheels since the Edsel. Everyone seemed to sing its praises.

Not everyone, though. Jeremy Clarkson, on the top-rated British show Top Gear, never missed an opportunity to bash the car and humiliate anybody who confessed to even sitting in one, let alone owning it. The TV show South Park parodied the Prius parade in a 2006 episode, citing its excessive emissions of “smug.” Elsewhere, I read a lengthy rant from someone in the Bay Area incensed by an extreme Prius driver driving less than 20 mph on a freeway, windows rolled up while sweating, obviously minimizing the wind drag of open windows while keeping the AC off. Why he didn’t change lanes and blow by Planet Earth’s last savior escapes me, but that’s not the point.

The point is the Prius excited more passion than any Lamborghini or Yugo ever could, or ever did. And that passion is centered around a lovely word in these quarters: saving. The gas savings make it easy on the planet as well as your wallet.

How much is this saving?

You’ve no doubt read numerous articles and posts claiming the Prius is the best thing since recyclable tissues, and others which say that’s baloney. So, what’s the truth?

There are many variables to skew the numbers this way or that. In fact, most articles I read only selected the numbers they quote to favor their stance. In pursuit of the truth, I took all costs, not just gasoline, over a five-year period, doing my best to track them down from neutral sources (i.e., sources that didn’t have an axe to grind in the debate).

It’s impossible to avoid picking a number not favoring one position or the other, though, so I decided to favor the Prius where there was latitude for choice. For instance, I picked a gas price of $4 a gallon for the entire five years, making the Prius’s fuel economy count for more. (A lower price obviously negates that benefit.) I also used the EPA “City” mileage number in my calculations. Not all miles are driven in city conditions, but I had to pick a number, and that’s the one that favors the Prius the most.

A glimpse at the IRS mileage reimbursement rate components shows the biggest car expenses are:

  • Depreciation (they say close to half of all vehicle costs)
  • Gas, and
  • Insurance

All the other costs add up to roughly the same as insurance, which is not that different from car to car, so I ignored that. (The goal isn’t to determine the total actual cost; it’s to see where and how big the difference is.)

To get depreciation, I looked at three cars from 2009, to get a five-year number:

  • Toyota Prius (obvious)
  • Toyota Corolla (same company, same size)
  • Chevrolet Tahoe (most popular gas guzzler,  added just to see how bad it really was)

I found the MSRP of a mid-level model for each car, and then looked up the current Kelley Blue Book private party price for it in “good” condition with 60, 000 miles (1, 000 miles a month). The difference gives us the depreciation of each car over five years.

For fuel, I assumed 1, 000 miles a month, all in the city, at the aforementioned $4 a gallon.

Insurance was a little trickier to get because, in order to give you an accurate quote, all of the online sites like Insurance.com and the individual carrier sites want to know everything from your firstborn to the last time you read a blog (just kidding, but not by much). I am astounded by how many extraneous variables go into car insurance cost — my social security number even makes a difference (they say). I got quotes for each car being the only car, so no multiple-policy discounts. My age, driving record and occupation probably make for more favorable rates than a young delivery driver, but at least it’s the same assumption across the board. Bottom line: Your car insurance rate is affected much more by who you are (and where you live) than by what you drive.

Okay, so what’s the number?

prius costs

It’s as close to a tie between the Prius and the Corolla as you can get, basically. What you gain in the cost of gas you lose in additional depreciation. (And if you had any illusions that your Tahoe had any redeeming merit in the economy wars, it’s time to go and hide in a corner.)

So, the Prius can be the lowest cost vehicle for you, but not by much. And to get that, you need to:

  • only drive in the city
  • live in an area with sky-high gas prices,
  • not own it too long, because high-mileage maintenance on the Prius is much higher, and
  • disregard the higher interest on the higher initial price if you finance a new one.

In real life, odds are a Prius is not going to be as economical for you as a Corolla. In the past decade, the Prius’s advantage has been eroded as almost all cars get better mileage than a decade ago.

In closing, forgive me for not resisting the temptation to note that your friendly government does not intend to let this good work go unpunished. Back when they raised taxes on gasoline, a big justification was that you, miserable gas-guzzling consumer, need to be saved from yourself. Noble public servants that they are, they did their duty by raising gasoline taxes to give you a bigger incentive to conserve precious fuel.

It worked. However, as gas consumption dropped, so did their gasoline tax revenue. Their solution: simply add other taxes. Michigan, for example, is floating the idea of taxing you on miles traveled,  in addition to the existing gas tax. Why indeed should they suffer when you do what they want you to? Next time your government tells you they’ll increase your taxes for some social good purpose, ask what will happen if they reach their goal.

The side effects of credit cards

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While I’m not a fan of all the pharmaceutical advertising on television, I have to admit that they can be brutally frank about disclosing potential side effects. If you take something for chronic indigestion, a variety of things could happen which will make you lose your appetite — which at least would make you less likely to suffer indigestion. If you take something for erectile dysfunction, the assorted side effects could really ruin the mood anyway.

The point is, I know next to nothing about medicine, yet the drawbacks of taking these medicines come through loud and clear in their disclosures. In contrast, credit card disclosures list page after page of numbers and financial terms, but they never really come clean about the possible side effects of credit card borrowing. Perhaps credit card disclosure should not just list a series of numbers and financial terms, but should also include a description of the possible side effects of excessive borrowing.

Toward this end, here is a list of some of those credit card side effects:

  1. Credit card debt is like bringing back inflation. Inflation over the past year grew at just 2.0 percent; so while the job market remains tough, at least things are not getting much more expensive — unless you charge them to your credit card and do not promptly pay off the balance. Then, the cost of your purchases could grow at a rate of around 13 percent a year, which is the average rate currently charged on credit card balances. This type of cost increase is like bringing back 1970s-era inflation, something which no one is nostalgic about. In fact, the low level of current inflation makes adding credit card interest to your costs especially burdensome by contrast.
  2. Borrowing creates an exaggerated lifestyle expectation. There are poor, middle-class, and wealthy people who are all content with their lifestyles. What people tend to feel most strongly about is a change in lifestyle, either for better or worse. Borrowing creates the illusion that you can afford a better lifestyle than you really can. Since borrowing cannot be sustained indefinitely, that means at some point your lifestyle is going to have to downshift. This is likely to be felt as more of a hardship than if you had simply maintained a more modest lifestyle all along.
  3. Borrowing creates a drag on future growth. This is both a macro- and micro-economic concern. From a macro-economic standpoint, a problem overhanging the United States is that huge levels of public and private debt outstanding represent past spending that must be paid for in the future. This will subtract from the money available for future spending, resulting in chronically slower economic growth. Now imagine the same thing on a household level — debts have to be repaid sometime; and when they do, your household budget is going to miss that money.
  4. A debt burden makes the consequences of a career setback more severe. A common reason people borrow is that they expect things will get better for them financially in the future. When the country was in an era of consistently high employment and steady earnings growth, there might have been some logic to this, especially for younger people. Now though, unemployment has remained stubbornly high, duration of unemployment can be very long, and wage growth has been sluggish. If you have a setback instead of a step forward, what was once a manageable debt burden can quickly drive you to the verge of bankruptcy or foreclosure.
  5. Debt makes the future something to fear rather than to welcome. One of the things that defines how happy you are is whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the future. The hope of a better future has traditionally been a characteristic American value, but having a debt burden hanging over you can make the future something you fear rather than enjoy. The problem is not just the size of the burden, but how certain you are about how you will repay it — the bigger the uncertainty, the greater the fear.
  6. Debt disrupts generational continuity. People living in the same house for decades, the next generation finding jobs near their home towns, and simply having some consistency in their careers and income levels were all things that brought a sense of continuity to American families. These days, a variety of economic disruptions, including debt, have greatly challenged that continuity. Foreclosures, job losses, and business closures have made change — sometimes sudden, drastic change — a fact of life that can split families apart.

Of course, as with pharmaceuticals,  credit cards can normally be used safely and effectively. Even so, I’ve seen all of the above side effects play out in the lives of friends and acquaintances. The more people know about the potential side effects of borrowing going in, the more likely they would be to avoid them.

The Post-College Outlook: A New Money Worry for 20-Somethings?

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This post comes from Anna Williams at our partner site LearnVest.

College seniors graduating this spring are more optimistic than ever … but should they be?

According to Accenture’s 2014 College Graduate Employment Survey, a full 84% of the class of 2014 believes they will land a job in their chosen field. This group of seniors is hopeful despite the fact that only 67% of 2013 grads have found a position in the area they expected to work in.

At the same time, more than 82% of this season’s grads anticipate raking in at least $25, 000 a year in their first jobs. Reality check: Over 40% of recent grads are actually making less than that, the survey found. And by as late as this March, just 11% of the class of 2014 had actually secured a post-college job.

To add to the struggle, not only will these newly minted grads likely be earning salaries below their expectations, but many will be juggling significant student loans as well: one-quarter of college grads will walk off campus with at least $30, 000 in debt, the survey found.

Still, this is the most optimistic class in recent years, Katherine Lavelle, a managing directer at Accenture who oversaw the study, told Fortune. One theory? Improving job numbers could be an encouraging sign to college seniors.

There’s nothing wrong with being positive about the future, of course—as long as you have a plan in place to help you get there. If you’re a 20-something on a tight budget, learn the key strategies for using your small salary smartly, and discover how to balance paying off student loans with your other financial priorities.

More stories from LearnVest:

10 All-Inclusive Resort Secrets—Revealed

How I Did It: Opened My Own Etsy Shop

8 Ultimate Opening Lines for Fearless Networking

Speaking Well of the Dearly Departed: You

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If you’re like me, you hold the firm belief that a personal finance site like the one you’re currently visiting should occasionally offer more than the usual advice.

Oh, it’s fine if these posts primarily advance ways to track down the best savings account, how to save on life insurance or find the best zero percent APR credit cards. It’s just peachy if most offer timely tips on how to stage a profitable yard sale, get the best deal on pro sports memorabilia, save money on trips to the dry cleaner and earn a mint recycling common household items over online auction sites.

And of course, it’s terrific if they remind us of practices we’ve long known we should get going on but can’t often rouse ourselves to actually undertake, like investing for our kids’ college educations and our own secure retirement.

But every once in a while, shouldn’t there be a posting that truly saves readers from catastrophe? Should there not be, on the rising of a blue moon, a column that, once they absorb it, spurs readers to bellow, “Oh, my God! Can this be correct!? If it is correct, it may have saved me from being vilified as a doofus or worse by my spouse, children and other heirs, after I pass away.”

It’s that kind of wisdom I hope to dispense in this posting. I was clueless about it myself until a fortnight ago. I later learned many folks, up to and including some in the financial services field, remain similarly uninformed.

Naming beneficiaries

Here’s the promised insight. When you establish a retirement savings plan or an annuity or insurance policy, you designate beneficiaries to receive those assets upon your death. Those beneficiary designations take precedence over your will. I repeat, those beneficiary designations trump your last will and testament.

Put another way, you may intend to leave your entire estate to people you name in your will. But they won’t receive a dime of the assets in your insurance policies, annuities and retirement plans if others are named as beneficiaries.

How could this be a problem? Let us count the ways.

Let’s say your former spouse is a blending of Attila the Hun, Benito Mussolini and the devil, all rolled into one. You have been divorced from this person for years if not decades, never want to hear his or her name again and can’t abide the thought of one penny of yours ever falling into this jerk’s grubby little hands.

Your current spouse, the love of your life, is like an angel descended to earth. You sincerely want to ensure your assets go to your life partner upon your demise. You establish in your will that everything you own will go to him or her.

Then you die. And those long-forgotten insurance policy and retirement plan beneficiary designations, which name your original spouse, kick into action.

Your current spouse, the apple of your eye, gets nothing. And that past spouse, like a rat feasting on an uneaten jumbo cheese pizza that somehow missed the dumpster, gets his or her greedy claws on your hard-earned dough. Is there any legacy you’d less like to have attached to your memory after your death?

Just think, if you can do so without passing out, of your despised ex-spouse taking round-the-world cruises, purchasing European luxury sports coupes and buying a vacation home with money you’d planned to leave the love of your life.

As Michael Stuart, member manager of The Stuart Legacy Alliance, LLC, in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, told me recently, “There are hundreds of stories where husbands and wives get divorced, forget to change the beneficiary designations on their life insurance or retirement plans, and then they die. And their money goes to their ex-spouse, rather than to their children or current spouse.”

Gregory DeJong, a financial advisor with Naperville, Illinois, Savant Capital Management, recounts an instance of disaster averted. He recalls making idle chit-chat across a kitchen table with a woman while her husband went into the family files to fetch an insurance policy. After much longer than expected, the husband returned, red-faced, with an insurance policy that named his ex-wife, to whom he had not been married for more than ten years, his beneficiary.

File drawers rattling

I think I can hear some of you right now diving into your file cabinets and hunting frantically through file folders marked “Insurance” and “Retirement ” for insurance policies and retirement plans. As you do, tune in to this additional nugget.

“Not only do beneficiary designations trump the will, but the joint tenancy trumps the will, ” Stuart says. “The easiest example is the residence. If you want your house to go to your kids, and you have joint tenancy with your wife, the wills and trusts mean nothing. You can effectively disinherit someone unintentionally.”

We all wish to be fondly remembered after we pass away. We all wish to know our assets will go to those we love when we die. To ensure yours do, check your beneficiary designations as soon as possible.

It could keep those most important to you from awarding you a posthumous designation you’d rather not contemplate.