Jamie Cattanach - The Penny Hoarder

Jessica Lawlor is good at being uncomfortable.

She hated her first yoga class, but she went back -- and fell deeply enough in love with her practice to become an instructor.

She “didn’t really plan on becoming a writer,” but the title is one in her manifold resume. (Other entries include editor, content manager, speaker, professor, consultant and CEO.)

So it makes sense that her blog, Get Gutsy, is all about finding your best self at the end of your comfort zone. It was also the key to her eventual (and surely uncomfortable) decision to quit her hard-won day job and take on the freelance life full time.

And as it turns out, discomfort is 100% worth it.

Although she’s only been in business for about a year and hasn’t yet celebrated her 30th birthday, Lawlor’s earnings now dwarf the $50,000 salary she left behind.

Here’s her story -- and her best advice if you’re looking for some lucrative discomfort of your own.

Quitting Your Job is Scary… But It Can Pay Off Big Time

Lawlor spent six years climbing the ranks in corporate public relations positions after studying the subject at Temple University.

It’s not like she didn’t like her jobs. She worked first in healthcare and later in travel, and PR itself was a blend of all her passions: writing, speaking, creativity and strategy.  

But Lawlor always knew she wanted to work for herself.

She’d been inspired by a book she’d read in college about making a living as a freelance writer. “I had no idea that was even a thing,” she said. She’d always been drawn to writing, and in her freshman year had briefly studied journalism.

Plus, she said, Temple has a reputation for churning out hard workers, hustlers and entrepreneurs. “The word ‘gritty’ is used to describe it a lot.”

Still, when she started her blog, she had no idea it would be the key to her future. It was the fall of 2012, two years after her college graduation.

Lawlor had always been very involved as a student, constantly taking on side gigs, internships and extracurriculars. So after turning the tassel, she found herself at a bit of a loss.

“All of a sudden, all I was doing was working,” Lawlor said. She’d never had so much free time. Even though she logged 40-hour workweeks, it felt like she was on vacation.

So in her free time, she found herself doing some pretty gutsy things in the pursuit of finding new passions -- like getting active, losing 40 pounds, and becoming intentional in her networking -- writing about it all the while.

One day, she found an interesting email waiting in her inbox.

Greg Galant, CEO and cofounder of Muck Rack, had noticed an article of his had been referenced in Lawlor’s blog. (She had tagged him in a Tweet.)

He wanted to say thanks and to ask if Lawlor did any freelancing -- he needed writers for his company.

After she penned a few guest posts for the company blog, Galant upped the ante, asking Lawlor to become his blog’s managing editor. Did she feel like she was up to the job?

Well, maybe not -- but remember: Lawlor’s an expert in discomfort.

“I lied and said yes,” she told me. “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

And “make it,” she did. After taking on that first gig, other opportunities began flowing her direction. (You can read more about how she landed her various clients here -- Twitter proved an invaluable tool.)

Eventually, waking up at 5 a.m. to keep up with her side hustle stopped making sense. Plus, she’d never been a morning person.

So Lawlor quit her job and took her freelance business full time in December 2015.

Fast forward: now she’s the CEO and founder of Jessica Lawlor & Company, LLC. She has one employee so far, and at one point earned $10,000 in a single month’s time.

In other words, she knocked the freelancing thing out of the park.

Want to Start Your Own Business? Here’s This CEO’s Advice

Even if your day job isn’t well-paid and cushy, it can be terrifying to let it go in pursuit of your dreams.

But if you’ve been fantasizing about starting a business of your own, Lawlor’s story might inspire you to, well, get gutsy.

“There’s more out there than sitting in a cubicle for 40 hours a week,” she promises.

Before you start drafting your resignation, however, here are a few pieces of sound advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

1. Get Hustling and Start Saving -- ASAP

Lawlor was freelancing long before she dropped her full-time job to start her business, which was key to her success for two important reasons.

First of all, she was able to save up a $40,000 backup fund in case her plans fell through.

And secondly, it helped her narrow down exactly what she wanted to spend her time doing.

Lawlor dabbled with freelance writing, social media marketing and consulting before eventually finding her main source of income in content management.

“Whatever it is you think you want your business to be, start doing it right now and save that money,” Lawlor advises.

It’s always nice to have some extra side hustle cash -- and if worst comes to worst, you’ll learn what you don’t want out of your freelance career.

2. Prioritize and Focus — You Can’t Do Everything

By the time Lawlor had the wherewithal to quit her job, she was working 16 hours almost every weekday.

Whether “work” meant freelance writing at 5 a.m., sitting in her cubicle from 9 to 5, or staying late chatting after teaching evening yoga classes, it was undeniable: Her life was too full.

“I was doing all these cool things, but I didn’t really feel fulfilled,” Lawlor said.

So she made a list of everything she was doing, and circled all the stuff she felt she couldn’t live without.

“The only one I didn’t want to keep was my full time job.”

She knew what she had to do.

Prioritizing and focusing not only helps you avoid burnout, but also enables you to strategize your business. Although Lawlor earns money in a variety of ways, she knows where she needs to spend the majority of her time and energy to continue being successful.

It’s a fact of life, after all: You just can’t do everything. So pick a few things and do them really, really well.

3. Have a Backup Plan and Eliminate Unnecessary Expenses

Lawlor didn’t even think about ditching her day job until she had some considerable savings.

“It eased my worries a ton to have this money to fall back on,” she confided.

One reason Lawlor was able to save up that $40,000 cushion in just three years? For the first six months after starting her company, she lived at home, as she had since college.  

And once she did get her own apartment, Lawlor realized just how nice it had been to have people around during her workday -- even if they weren’t actively conversing. (Work-at-home freelance writers quickly learn how isolating their career choice can be.)

“There’s no shame in it,” Lawlor said. “I actually really loved that experience.”

In fact, she still visits and works from her folks’ home on a regular basis.

4. Use, Use, Use That Network

As mentioned above, networking -- both online and in real life -- was key in the creation and growth of Lawlor’s client base. In fact, she found just about all of her clients through her network rather than via cold calls or emails.

If you’re not a natural networking guru, here’s a piece of sage advice: Use your social media feeds to promote not only your  own work but also that of others.

It’s an easy way to make new connections and strike up possible business opportunities.

5. Be Yourself

It might seem trite, but she swears it’s her secret ingredient.

Whether on Twitter, Facebook or her blog itself, Lawlor makes it a point to be transparent.

She writes about her wins, of course, but blogs about the un-sexy parts of business ownership, too. (Tellingly, the latter of those two posts is exponentially more popular.)

People like authenticity, she’s discovered. She guesses it has to do with the innate disconnect between real life and our carefully-curated online personas.

A reader might “see your Instagram post from the beach on a Monday, but they don’t see what goes into that,” she said. To counteract the dichotomy, Lawlor’s as honest and real as possible.

“We’re all human, we all have our flaws and that’s what people relate to. Being vulnerable,” she added, “has actually helped me get more clients.”

So there’s more incentive than mere authenticity to follow Lawlor’s mandate:

“Be yourself online.”

Hey -- no one said it was going to be comfortable.

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for SELF, Ms. Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, VinePair, The Write Life, Wonderfilled Magazine, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog, Santander Bank’s Prosper and Thrive and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.

Good debt.

For a dedicated Penny Hoarder, there are few better examples of an oxymoron. It would be pretty hard to argue that it’s ever preferable to owe money than not to, in an ideal world.

But as you may have noticed, the world we’re living in is far from ideal.

Sometimes, debt is all but unavoidable.

But is it ever sort of financially sound to take out a loan… or is it always dangerous?

Good Debt: Is There Really Such a Thing?

The old rule of thumb to vindicate debt is a simple one.

“Good debt” is the kind that will help you make more money down the line.

By that account, student loans are A-OK because the degree they buy will, at least ostensibly, help you find a better-paying job than you’d be able to otherwise.

And a mortgage might be fine, too. Although it’s not ideal to pay interest, once you pay that loan down, you’ll have a valuable asset to your name that you otherwise might not have been able to purchase.

On the other hand, bad debt is the kind that doesn’t have the potential to remunerate itself.

"When you buy something that goes down in value immediately, that's bad debt," David Bach, CEO of Finish Rich Inc., and author of "The Finish Rich Workbook,” told Bankrate.

That might seem pretty cut and dried.

But when you can take out over $100,000 on a possibly useless (but not always!) English degree, are student loans firmly in the “good debt” camp? After what happened with the housing market in 2008, exactly how confident are you about that whole equity thing, anyway?

Unfortunately, in this imperfect world of ours, things are rarely black and white.

Should You Take Out That Loan You’re Considering?

As a personal finance blog, we’re not encouraging you to go into any kind of debt.

No matter what you’re after, it’s almost always better to save the cash to buy it free and clear.

But since we’re stuck here on imperfect planet Earth for the foreseeable future, we did the research to figure out which types of debt are the most justifiable.

Here’s what we found out.

Mortgages

Becoming a homeowner as soon as you can is well ensconced in the annals of traditional financial advice.

That’s because experts have long assumed homes were appreciating investments -- that is, they end up being worth more than you bought them for.

But after the housing crisis in 2008 left many homeowners irretrievably bankrupt, some financial gurus have had second thoughts about this assumption.

"If you look at the history of the housing market, it hasn't been a good provider of capital gains,” Yale economist and Nobel prize winner Robert Shiller told USA Today. “Capital gains have not even been positive.”

In plain English? According to Shiller, data shows that many homeowners may break even but earn little more than that by way of returns.

Nowadays, more finance experts acknowledge that the advisability of purchasing a house has a lot to do with your personal situation.

Obviously, you need a roof over your head. But depending on where you’re living and how much money you have to spare, it might actually make more financial sense to rent. (Curious about your own situation? Here’s a calculator.)

And by the way, if you do decide homeownership is right for you, you could always save to buy the house cash. Yes, it’s possible.                      

Student Loans

Talk about complicated.

We’d love to say it’s always a good idea to invest in your education.

But there are simply too many factors at play to make that sweeping statement. And in some scenarios -- such as attending a for-profit college -- taking out student loans might be anything but a smart move.

“Education debt is often considered to be good debt, because it is an investment in your future,” wrote Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of college and scholarship decision tool Cappex, in an email.

“But too much of a good thing can hurt you.”

For instance, even if you’re awarded a solid and reasonable financial aid package, it’s a waste of money to squander your loan refunds on frivolous purchases.

And even if you’re only borrowing money for tuition and bare-bones living, you could be in trouble if you don’t end up earning enough to pay it back in a timely fashion.

According to Kantrowitz, who has studied and written extensively about student debt demographics, “if your total student loan debt at graduation is less than your annual income, you can afford to repay the student loans in ten years or less.”

On the other hand, if your debt exceeds your annual income, it’ll be a lot harder to make the monthly payments on a standard decade-long repayment plan. And when you opt for easier-to-foot alternatives, like extended or income-dependent repayment, you’ll significantly increase your total interest charges.

You’ll likely also still be repaying your own student loans, he warns, while helping your children enroll in college.

Yikes.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go into debt to get a college education. And no, you don’t have to go into a STEM field if you don’t want to.

Don’t get us wrong: You’ll surely have to hustle, and you might have fewer options when it comes to picking your dream school.

But when you find yourself walking across that stage debt free, you’ll thank yourself for those sacrifices.

Auto Loans

Sigh. This one hits close to home.

As I wrote here before, several years ago, I signed a loan on a 2014 Jeep Cherokee I named Desiree. I was between two years of a grad school program that was not working for me, and I wanted to get out of town -- and out of my own head -- as quickly as possible.

I didn’t quite have the $20,000 asking price floating around my bank account, though.

So I took out the loan, hit the road, and didn’t look back… until I did. Cringing. I wished I’d stuck with my trusty, if hiccupping, beater.

It’s well known that vehicles depreciate -- that is, lose value -- as soon as you drive them off the lot. And after that fateful drive, it only continues, making it extremely unlikely you’ll ever get back what you paid for it.

Classic “bad debt.” Avoid if at all possible.

If you’re bound and determined to take out an auto loan, at least do yourself a favor and go for a used vehicle.

The depreciation rate on a brand new car is exponentially steeper, which means buying one, even for cash, is almost universally acknowledged as financially foolhardy. (Desiree had a measly 1,000 miles on her, but she still wasn’t new new.)

Credit Card Debt

If there’s one kind of debt that’s basically unjustifiable, it’s credit card debt -- although that doesn’t stop us from racking it up.

According to NerdWallet’s 2016 survey, the average household with credit card debt has a whole heap of it: $16,748, to be exact.

Wondering how that number can possibly be so high? It’s because revolving debt really is that insidious.

Basically, high credit card interest rates mean you’re paying extra for every single thing you purchase with them.

For instance, that reasonable pair of $75 boots might end up costing almost $100 after accruing a year’s worth of interest -- calculated at a not-at-all-unheard-of 24% APR.

It’s like a reverse clearance rack. No, thanks.

Of course, most of us are funding more than $75 indulgences with our credit cards. All too often, people use them to make ends meet or on non-negotiable, high-stakes purchases. Americans might foot high medical costs with credit or use it to pay bills when cash is running low.

Then you’re deep in the cycle: You can’t afford what you purchased, which means you certainly can’t afford to get ahead of the interest you’re charged. And before you know it, you’re almost 20 grand in the hole.

Our advice? Steer clear of credit card debt at all costs, and if you’ve already got it, prioritize paying it off.  

Of course, if you learn how to use rewards credit cards wisely, they can be a great financial boon. But you have to make sure you pay off every single cent you spend before you’re charged any interest.

You Can Take Out Loans if You Want to… But Proceed with Caution

Obviously, we can’t predict all the individual circumstances you need to weigh when deciding if going into debt is the right decision.

Sure, spending a large, personal loan on an epic vacation seems totally unjustifiable. But what if it’s an aging family member’s dying wish?

And on the other side of the spectrum, a small business loan for an intricately planned venture might look like the picture of “good” debt… but sometimes, even great ideas fall through.

Like everything in life, all debt comes with risk. It’s up to you to weigh that risk against the potential benefits.

I guess that’s how this whole “financial responsibility” thing works, huh?

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for Ms. Magazine, SELF, Roads & Kingdoms, VinePair, The Write Life, Wonderfilled Magazine, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.

I was 24 when I took my first serious solo trip, and as soon as I landed in Lisbon, I knew I was in over my head.

My sleepless red-eye came in at 10 a.m. local time, or 5 a.m. EST. That meant everyone I knew and loved at home was still snug in bed, not to mention further away from me physically than ever before.

Long story short, I spent my first hour alone abroad crying my eyes out.

But after pulling myself together well enough to meander through the beautiful, hill-strewn city -- and no doubt thanks in large part to a good night’s sleep -- I found myself deeply grateful I’d been brave enough to come alone.

Why You Should Travel Solo

Instead of experiencing this brand-new, foreign world through the prism of a built-in (and English-speaking) comfort zone, my decision to travel solo meant I had to rely on my shoddy Portuguese and figure out my own itinerary. I ended up having dinner with a new group of people each evening, and even -- admittedly foolishly -- letting a handsome local whisk me away to a fancy seaside birthday party on his motorcycle.

In short, traveling solo has its perks. And after my adventuresome time in Portugal, I ended up doing more and more of it.

It’s a great way to see the world on your own terms, and it can leave you more open to experiencing new things and making new connections.

Plus, you don’t have to worry about getting your whole party to agree on a certain destination, restaurant or activity, or even navigate the nightmare of finding a travel time when everyone’s schedules line up in the first place.

But solo travel isn’t all cocktails, sunsets and attractive strangers.

For one thing, it can be a pricier enterprise than traveling with friends or a significant other, since you don’t have anybody around to split expensive travel costs like accommodations or local transportation. If you’ve got kids you’re leaving behind, you also have to factor child care into the equation.

Finally, many people are intimidated by the prospect of solo travel regardless of cost, whether out of concern for personal safety or even just the social stigma against being seen dining alone.

But if you’re curious about traveling on your own, none of that stuff has to be an obstacle -- as I soon discovered, you and I are far from the only folks trotting the globe solo. In fact, there’s a whole slew of resources and support systems, built by and for other people doing just that.

25 Priceless Resources for Frugal Solo Travelers

[caption id="attachment_60552" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]Traveling alone Photo courtesy Jamie Cattanach[/caption]

Here are a few resources to help make your solo travel experience affordable, safe, fulfilling and fun.

A quick note: I won’t go into the cost of actually transporting yourself to your destination, since the per-ticket cost of airfare is pretty much the same whether you’ve got ten people in your party or just one.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t save money on flying solo! Frequent flyer miles, booking early, and even booking on the right day can help you get the best price on tickets.

Some of the best apps and websites to check out include Skiplagged, Hopper, and Google’s Flights feature -- and don’t forget Pocket for your in-air reading material.

Staying

Nightly accommodations are one of the priciest parts of travel, no matter how many are in your party. When you’re alone, the cost can be almost prohibitive.

But if you’re willing to be a little bit scrappy, you can put a pretty serious dent in the cost of keeping a roof over your head for the duration of your trip. Here are a few of my favorite resources for finding affordable accommodations.

1. Airbnb

More than likely you’re already familiar with this peer-to-peer vacation rental website and app. And with its increasing popularity, it’s no longer a guaranteed ticket to lower-than-regular-hotel-costs stays.

But if you utilize the filters and book well ahead of time, you can find incredibly cheap and unique lodgings that include money-saving kitchens. Choose between finding a private retreat or staying in a shared space, which allows you to hang out with the hosts and get an inside scoop on local attractions.

2. Homestay

Specifically geared towards solo travelers hoping to make friends with locals, Homestay allows you to do just that: stay in someone’s home, where you’ll get all the deets on the best stuff to do in the area. Bonus: They might even cook for you, and prices start as low as $15 per night!

3. Couchsurfing

Although crashing on someone’s couch might make you feel a little exposed -- or like a mooch -- Couchsurfing is an amazing way to sleep for free and make fast friends. After all, these people signed up for it, so they’re clearly down.

A word to the wise: If you’re couchsurfing solo, always make sure someone knows where you are. The app has built-in verification and ratings systems to ensure everyone’s safety, but there’s no such thing as being too careful on the road.

4. & 5. Hostelworld and Hostelbookers

If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, prepare to fall in love. This European model of travel accommodation features shared bathrooms and sometimes even dorm beds, but more than makes up for the lack of privacy in cost savings. You can reliably book a bed for less than $30 per night, even in some of the world’s most glamorous destination cities.

Many hostels also include a private suite option, although you’ll likely still need to share the toilet and shower. They also frequently feature community kitchens which can save you cash at mealtime.

Hostelworld and Hostelbookers both exist in website and app form, and offer an easy comparison between different hostels and even regular hotels in your destination area. Be sure to utilize the filters to find the best deal!

6. Hotel Tonight

If you find yourself in a jam with nowhere to stay, Hotel Tonight is a great tool to keep in your back pocket. Hotels with empty rooms partner with the program to get filled up in a hurry, which means steep discounts for you -- although it’s far from the cheapest option.

Getting Around

That $300 price tag for a weeklong car rental looks a lot less steep when you’re splitting it with a group of friends.

But even if you’re alone, there are ways to get around your destination affordably. You already know about Uber and Lyft, but here are some other options. And hey, if worst comes to worst, you’ve always got your own two feet!

7. Getaround

This peer-to-peer car rental service offers hourly options, which can save you lots of money if you only need a car for a little bit. (Psst: Enterprise and other major rental dealerships are increasingly getting hip to the hourly, sharing-economy model, too.)

8. GasBuddy

If you’re relying on a rental car to take you across a foreign country -- or if your solo sojourn is a domestic road trip -- make sure to use GasBuddy and other, similar resources to ensure you spend as little on fuel as possible. After all, no one else is contributing gas money!

9. Hitcharide

This app matches private drivers and passengers, allowing them to split costs and negotiate on their own terms. That is, it’s more social network and less paid taxi service (i.e., Lyft).

10. MAPS.me

No matter how you get around, you’ll probably need a map to figure out where you’re going. This app lets you download one ahead of time so you won’t get lost, even if you don’t have access to WiFi or data.

11. Rome2Rio

Don’t underestimate the power of public transit. No matter how far you’re going, Rome2Rio will give you all the options for getting from point A to point B, including estimated prices.

Communicating & Logistics

Even if you’re alone -- actually, especially when you’re alone -- communicating with locals and loved ones back at home is imperative. These tools will help you stay in touch.

12. Duolingo

It might not be much use to you at your destination, but if you devote just a few minutes to studying each day in the weeks leading up to your trip, you could be chattering away like a local. Duolingo is one of the most powerful language-learning tools available, and it’s 100% free.

13. Google Translate

Want to know what that menu description says? Can’t figure out what the cute guy or gal at the bar is trying tell you? Whip out Google Translate and you’ll be on your way to understanding in no time.

14. & 15. Whatsapp and Kik

Although there are ways to get cheap data and SMS while you’re traveling abroad, your total cost depends on your carrier and also where you’re going. Chat apps like Whatsapp and Kik can keep you connected without paying per-message prices, and they’re popular in lots of non-American countries.

Bonus mentions: Skype, Google Hangouts and FaceTime are all free ways to stay connected to loved ones back at home -- or the new friends at your destination you’ll want to keep in touch with after your trip is over.

16. XE Currency

When you’re dealing with foreign currency, it can be easy to lose track of your budget. XE Currency provides up-to-the-minute data on exchange rates, no matter where you are, which means you won’t have an excuse to overspend.

17. & 18. Numbeo and Expatistan

Although they won’t help you when you’re standing at the counter about to order an overpriced espresso, these cost-of-living sites can be great tools to consult while you’re still deciding where to travel.

Meeting People

Part of the benefit of traveling alone is that it’s a lot easier to meet new people. After all, you don’t have a familiar face around to fall back on. But in case you’re a little too shy to start up a random conversation in the wild, here are some resources to help break the ice.

19. EatWith

Mealtime is, for many, one of the most uncomfortable parts of solo travel -- although if you’ve never treated yourself to a restaurant meal with nothing but a book for company, I’d highly recommend it.

But if you’d like to find some friendly folks to share an incredible, local, scratch-made meal with, this website is pure gold. In many cases, the hosts are incredible chefs sure to put together an unforgettable meal.

20. Rent a Friend

We’ve written about this unique app before as a weird way to make money. But if you’re really uncomfortable being alone at the bar or need a date for an event at your destination, you could consider spending a little bit on (platonic!) companionship.

21. Airbnb Experiences

Airbnb recently rolled out this exciting new feature, which helps you find well-informed locals providing once-in-a-lifetime local experiences -- think cheese tasting in Paris or hanging out in arty clubs with a DJ in Miami.

These “experiences” can be surprisingly affordable, and allow you a chance to be social and also get a genuine glimpse of your destination’s lifestyle.

Staying Safe

There’s no way around it: Traveling solo leaves something to be desired on the safety front, especially for women.

But nothing worthwhile in life is risk-free, and as long as you’re well-prepared and keep your wits about you, you can minimize the chance of disaster. Here are a couple of tools to help.

20. StaySafe

This brilliant app acts as a failsafe, notifying your loved ones if you don’t reach out to check in with them after a given amount of time. It also includes GPS location services, which can be lifesaving in a (super unlikely!) abduction scenario.

21. SafetyMap WorldWide

This app is like Google Maps with a built-in “bad neighborhood” filter. It uses publicly-sourced crime data to show you exactly which areas of your destination you might want to avoid.

Finding Cool Stuff

Although I doubt you’ll have trouble finding something fun to get into just by setting out into your destination on foot, here are a few apps that can help you discover hidden gems -- or just a place to pee.

22. Sighter

A little like geocaching, but with phone-snapped photos, Sighter can alert you to cool local sights you won’t find on TripAdvisor.

23. Google Goggles

Think of Google Goggles as a tour guide in your pocket. Just point your device at an eligible painting or landmark, and you’ll be regaled with interesting facts and historical information. The app can also translate text on the fly -- crazy useful. It’s the future!

24. Foodspotting

I don’t know about you, but finding the best local plates is one of my favorite parts of traveling.

Foodspotting is kind of like Twitter (or maybe Tinder?) for foodies; think crowd-sourced photos and ratings of everything delicious in a one-mile radius. Decisions, decisions!

25. Sit or Squat

Hear me out -- because when you’re in need, a clean public restroom totally counts as a cool travel find.

This app by Charmin identifies nearby potty locations, and allows user ratings so you can make an informed decision about where to, uh, go.

Solo Travel is Anything but Lonely

Still on the fence about making the lone travel leap? It might make you feel better to know that lots of others have safely leapt before you.

Browse the vast array of solo travel blogs -- some of my favorite figures are Nomadic Matt, Adventurous Kate, Interstellar Orchard, Technomadia and Free Candie. These folks are generally full-time nomads who can provide insight and inspiration, as well as from-experience travel tips and secrets you won’t find anywhere else.

You could also consider becoming part of a caravaning group, like Sisters on the Fly. These groups host events and activities for those who prefer to travel alone… together.

Happy trails, Penny Hoarders!

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.

If you’re a fitness buff, you probably know it can be an expensive hobby.

Plain old gym memberships are just the start. You might also hemorrhage cash on stupid-expensive workout clothes or fancy dietary supplements.

And if you get sucked into the boutique fitness vortex (been there!), heaven help you. Some of those classes cost more than $20… for a single hour.

Even if it would be a stretch to call fitness your “hobby,” per se, you shouldn’t have to weaken your wallet to stay physically strong.

TPH editor and fitness blogger Caitlin Constantine is no stranger to workout-related expenses. As a triathlete, a huge chunk of her disposable cash goes toward racing fees and nutrition.

But she knows staying in shape can lengthen and improve lives in every way from preventing injury to counterbalancing mental health issues, so she’s passionate about deconstructing the myth that fitness has to be complicated and expensive.

“It’s our birthright as human beings to be able to use our bodies and make the most of them,” she says.

So she was thrilled to share the details on the cheap home gym she built to help her cross-train cheaply and conveniently -- all for less than $100.

A Fitness Transformation

Constantine started working out nearly a decade ago, when she met the marathon runner who would later become her husband. She wanted to get healthier and build the mental strength that comes with a physically strong body.

It was all about the journey, and it was a long one.

She hadn’t been athletic growing up. In fact, when she started getting into fitness in her late 20s, she was a smoker who was winded after running just one block.

“It was super hard,” she says. “It took like three years before I started to finally feel like, I can do this without dying.”

But soon enough, running captured her heart -- and catapulted her into a health-driven lifestyle.

[caption id="attachment_32618" align="aligncenter" width="640"]cheap home gym Robert-Daly1/Getty Images[/caption]

Because she knew it was the only way to become a better runner, she was finally able to quit smoking.

“It was… a very visceral immediate thing: ‘be good at running,’” says Constantine, “as opposed to the far-off risk of developing lung cancer or whatever.”

Now, she’s an Ironman triathlete. She’s also competed (and placed!) in a ton of other races, including a 50-mile ultramarathon in the Florida Keys.

I think it’s safe to say she’s got a new addiction.

But those race fees add up, to say nothing of all the time and energy she spends on her extensive training. Why add in extra hours slogging back and forth to a gym?

How to Build a Home Gym for Less Than a Benjamin

To ditch the expense of her fitness membership, Constantine built a home gym for under $100.

If that still seems pricy to you, keep in mind: You might spend that for just five Pure Barre classes or a few months of a gym membership. That doesn’t count activation fees or the gas you’ll spend getting there and back.

Once you stock your home gym, it’s yours to keep -- no membership renewal necessary.

Here’s what’s in Constantine’s workout room, and how she uses it.

Resistance Bands

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Cost: $10+

Exercises: Clamshells, leg lifts, almost any bodyweight exercise

You can amp up nearly every classic exercise you can think of by adding extra resistance.

The cheapest way to do that? Resistance bands.

Constantine found hers at a sports store for $12, but you can find them online starting for less than $10. They usually come in a set of three different tensile strengths, so you can customize your workout.

Constantine notes they’re a great addition to any runner’s fitness regime.

“As a runner, I’m constantly trying to strengthen my hips,” she says. Doing resistance-assisted clamshells and leg lifts helps her accomplish that goal, and also helps with her running-related knee issues.

Balance Ball

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Cost: $10-$30

Exercises: Jackknife, plank (not actually just for men, despite the video!), bridge, back extension

Ah, the stability ball. Turns out it’s good for more than just replacing your office chair and making your colleagues feel lazy!

“I like the exercise ball because it’s good for doing a lot of core work,” says Constantine.

And as awesome as the stability ball is for core work, you’ll find you can use it for everything from glutes to arms. Tons of full-body workouts require nothing but a properly sized stability ball.

Plus, they’re dirt cheap -- starting at $10 and going up to about $30, depending on the size and brand.

Dumbbells

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Cost: About $20 apiece, depending on weight

Exercises: Bicep curls, shoulder press, overhead triceps extension, all sorts of rows, flyes, deadlifts, the works!

Full disclosure: This is the most expensive item on the list. Dumbbells can go for $20 or more each -- and yes, that means a single dumbbell, not a set of two.

That said, dumbbells are awesome. They’re one of the most versatile and long-lived pieces of equipment you can add to your home gym.

Constantine sprung for two pairs -- a 10- and 20-pound set, which she uses for everything from chest press lying on her stability ball to deadlifts.

Hers cost about $20 each, but the lighter ones are slightly cheaper if you’re not on Constantine’s super-strong level quite yet.

If you’re just starting out and aren’t sure where you stand -- or squat, as the case may be -- you might consider snapping up a set of several dumbbells, or an adjustable version. That way, you’ll have a few options to choose from, and you can scale in either direction if things prove to be to heavy (or too light!).

You can also find them (and anything else on the list!) pre-owned on Craigslist to cut your costs even further.

This even goes for bigger pieces of equipment if you have a special interest in weight training.

Constantine says you can find many online from hopefuls who purchased, and then never used, their weight racks. (“They ended up becoming an expensive clothes hanger” instead, she says.)

Other Home Gym Odds and Ends

Although you can craft an effective workout with any or all of the home gym equipment listed above, Constantine also picked up a few more odds and ends.

Since she practices yoga (psst -- here are some great free yoga videos on YouTube!) to round out her intense training, she’s got a yoga mat. You can get one as cheap as $20 or get fancy -- Manduka mats are pretty expensive, but they do offer a lifetime warranty!

[caption id="attachment_32617" align="aligncenter" width="640"]cheap home gym PeopleImages / Getty Images[/caption]

And her next purchase? A doorway chin-up bar, as long as she can find a good place in her home to install it. They cost between $20 and $40, and work way more body parts than just your arms: core, back, shoulders, you name it.

Staying Fit Might Be Hard, But It Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated

Since Constantine’s a capital-A Athlete, she supplements her at-home workouts with a strenuous training program involving long runs, swims and bike rides.

(“How long is long?” I asked. “Well, the long run I did on Saturday was like 12 miles,” she responded. So, yeah.)

But you don’t have to be in a competitive sport to be fit and healthy -- or to reap the life-changing benefits of a commitment to fitness.

“All the triathlon stuff that I do, that’s way extra,” Constantine says. She considers it her hobby.

“If I was just trying to be healthy, I would just do some planks, do some push-ups, maybe walk for an hour around my neighborhood each night.”

“I feel like there’s this tendency to make fitness seem more complicated than it actually needs to be,” she says -- partially because fitness is a huge and profitable industry.

But you don’t have to pay a coach or buy a gym membership to be healthy.

No matter what, just do something that’s not sitting for at least an hour every day. It doesn’t have to be intense or unpleasant -- in fact, it should be fun!

“There’s no one specific way to get fit,” Constantine says. “Mostly the body just wants to move.”

So pick an activity -- any activity -- you enjoy and get moving. Yes, dancing around in your underwear or playfully chasing your toddler around the backyard both count.

Ideally, you’ll get your heart rate up, do some weight-bearing exercises to keep your muscles strong, and stretch enough to maintain your flexibility. But it doesn’t have to be complex.

Constantine’s favorite full-body workout? The humble push-up.

[caption id="attachment_32613" align="aligncenter" width="640"]cheap home gym BraunS / Getty Images[/caption]

“The push-up is the most amazing workout,” she says. “You do a push-up, you do it with good form, your entire body is going to be feeling it.”

It’s not about losing weight or fitting into your favorite clothes; those are just the icing on the cake. (Yes, you can, and should, still eat cake.)

It’s about how good it feels to live your life in a strong, capable, not-sick body.

“Your body is the only thing that you really get that you’re guaranteed to have for your entire life,” says Constantine. “Everything else can be taken away from you.”

So you should do what you can to take care of it -- especially if it doesn’t have to cost very much.

Disclosure: You wouldn’t believe how much coffee The Penny Hoarder team goes through. This post contains affiliate links so we can keep the grinds stocked!

Jamie Cattanach is a contributor for The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at Word Riot, DMQ Review, Hinchas de Poesia and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.

Waking up at middle age -- or later -- and realizing your finances are still a wreck is a scary scenario.

Almost as scary?

Having the same realization for your parents, who seem oblivious or apathetic, despite their advancing age.

Maybe they still have nothing saved for retirement, though they’re more than halfway through their careers.

Add in some revolving credit card debt, a mortgage that just won’t disappear and maybe a not-yet-paid-off vehicle or two, and you’re looking at a complete mess.

But you’re a Penny Hoarder, so you don’t have any of those issues.

Your finances have been in order for years, and thanks to your spendthrift ways and the magic of compound interest, you’re well on your way to financial independence and a long, happy retirement.

Maybe you’re the first Penny Hoarder in the family; we are something of a rare breed.

But if mom and dad aren’t so lucky, you might need to know how to manage money for them, so their problems don’t become your problems.

Your Parents’ Finances Affect Your Finances

No one wants to think about the fact their parents are going to die. I get that.

But aside from preparing to emotionally deal with it, you need to be prepared for the logistical fallout, too.

It’s going to be hard enough to keep track of all the documents, passwords and IDs you’ll need to get mom and dad’s things in order -- even if your parents’ finances are golden.

If they’re leaving a financial sinkhole behind, you’re going to be in even worse shape.

Your parents’ money decisions may have ramifications for you they don’t even know about. And if they’ve mentioned they’re planning to leave you an inheritance, the total might change drastically depending on their financial health.

Can You Inherit Your Parents’ Debt?

After grandma’s temper and dad’s bunions, the last thing you want to inherit is parental debt you had no part in creating.

Luckily, laws are in place to prevent that from happening… most of the time.

“The rules are complex and differ depending on the type of debt and where your parent lived,” CNNMoney's Jeanne Sahadi reports.

In general, creditors are required to go after your parents’ estate to collect outstanding debts post-mortem.

For us non-pre-law folks, someone’s estate basically amounts to their net worth: It’s the total of all their liquid funds and savings, investments and physical assets -- minus the total of their debts, of course.

However, there are exceptions to this rule, including about 30 states which still have filial responsibility laws on the books.

And even if you’re not legally responsible, if any of your parents’ debts have gone unpaid for a long time, you might receive phone calls from collection agencies trying to convince you to empty your pockets.

In the wake of a family member’s death, your head is already going to be spinning.

The bottom line? You’re going to need to check with a lawyer.

Ideally, you’ll want to help your parents get their situation in order now, while they’re still alive.

Get Ahead of Your Parents’ Financial Problems: Help Them Out

While this is a huge and intricate topic and you’ll likely have to do more research depending on your individual situation, here’s a beginner's guide for how to approach three common, but less-than-ideal, parental finance situations.

1. Your Parents Have Nothing Saved for Retirement

The scariest part of this scenario is it’s pretty darn likely.

A recent study showed almost half of American families have absolutely nothing saved for retirement -- and those of us who do aren’t doing much better, with a median $5,000 saved.

Having no retirement savings is a huge financial no-no at any age… but it’s even worse if you’re over 30. Or 50.

That’s because as time passes, compound interest -- which makes saving for retirement shockingly easy for 20-somethings -- is less and less on your side.

To put it bluntly, you’ve got less time to make it work.

But you’ve gotta start somewhere.

If your parents are part of this unfortunate statistic, help them make a budget and calculate a savings plan.

You might want to look into ways to automate savings so mom and dad don’t feel the pinch quite as much -- but it’s gonna be a bumpy ride, no matter how you slice it.

They’ll have to be pretty aggressive to accumulate any appreciable nest egg… but $50,000 or even $10,000 of savings is a heck of a lot better than $0.

A good place to start? Look for obvious, extraneous expenses to cut -- like storage units full of stuff no one’s using.

2. Your Parents Have Credit Card Debt

You might already know, but you should hear it again: Credit card debt is the very worst kind you can have.

It’s more likely to have an interest rate in the teens or 20s than any other kind of debt, like a mortgage or student loans.

And since credit card companies often lure customers in with promotional low interest rates, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of revolving credit card debt. Why do you think the companies are so rich in the first place?

When you carry revolving credit card debt, you might pay almost double the price of everything you charge.

Don’t believe me?

Spend a few minutes playing with this debt repayment calculator -- and tell me credit card debt doesn’t terrify you.

There is some good news here, though: Credit debt is one kind you absolutely can’t inherit, unless you’re a cosigner. Keep that in mind should a credit card company or collections agency try to convince you to pay up after someone’s death -- they’re not above it.

But those outstanding debts could take a pretty hefty chunk out of your parents’ estate and mitigate any other efforts your folks are taking to get their money on the mend.

So tell mom and dad their balance has got to go. Now. Here are 11 ways to make it disappear post haste.

3. Your Parents’ Mortgage Isn’t Paid Off

Newsflash: The American housing situation ain’t what it used to be.

When your parents were growing up, they more than likely invested in a house in the name of the American dream, with the expectation they’d made a smart investment and would be able to pay it off on time.

These days, things are probably looking a bit backwards to baby boomers.

Young people are less likely to settle down and buy a house, while many older folks are still grappling with mortgages, likely due at least in part to the housing bubble of 2008 and its subsequent foreclosures.

When the fixed income of retirement proves to be more belt-tightening than they’d hoped, many seniors take out reverse mortgages to cover living expenses.

And since reverse mortgages don’t require a monthly payment, the interest is simply tacked on over time -- creating a loan that can even surpass the value of the house itself.

In the case of a regular old mortgage, heirs may have several options, including taking over the loan at the same interest rate with the payment plan, refinancing or walking away from the property.

If there are enough funds in the estate to pay off the remainder of the mortgage, they might even inherit the property free and clear.

But a reverse mortgage is a different animal.

Payment is due at the occurrence of a “trigger event” such as sale of the home or -- you guessed it -- the debtor’s death.

If you’re the beneficiary, that means it’s in your hands.

And since the loan hasn’t benefitted from being paid down on a regular basis, it could be pretty hefty.

It’s important to note reverse mortgage creditors can’t come after your assets after your parents’ death in order to settle the loan. But you could still be losing a valuable asset -- maybe even the place you thought you’d be calling home.

What should you do about it?

If your parents are still dealing with mortgage-related issues -- or even worse, facing down foreclosure -- you might want to gently suggest they consider downsizing.

Ideally, you could help your parents find a home they can afford free and clear… even if it means going back to renting, or moving in with you. (Hey, they changed your diapers.)

A good friend of ours has been able to buy his home in cash -- three times! -- to avoid the mortgage problem altogether.

And if a move is on the table, check out these cities that will pay you to move there. Free land or assistantship might help make the cost of housing itself more footable.

Need More Help?

You’re in the right place.

Your parents can find great tips and tricks to demystify personal finance and fatten their wallets here at TPH -- we publish them every day.

But healthy spending habits are learned skills, and it’s going to take practice.

For your parents’ sake (and your own), use your hard-earned penny-hoarding prowess to help them get situated.

After all, they’re your parents. You owe them big-time.

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a contributing writer for The Penny Hoarder. Her creative writing has been featured in DMQ Review, Sweet: A Literary Confection and elsewhere.

Think making your own peanut butter at home is the domain of the super-crunchy, old-school San Francisco Bay type?

(Related: Do people use the term “crunchy” to describe those folks anymore?)

Well, maybe it is. But there’s a good argument -- or three -- that you should take a page from their vegan-leather-bound notebooks and give homemade peanut butter a try, even if you’re skeptical.

If you eat this delicious, already-cheap, plant-based protein source on the regular, making your own peanut butter at home could save you a surprising amount of money.

Plus, you can customize your ingredients to create fun, inventive flavors. You can decide the exact level of chunkiness or lack thereof. And it’s easy, to boot: All you need is a food processor and about 10 minutes.

Sounding less hippy-dippy yet? Thought so. Read on to learn how -- and why -- to give homemade peanut butter a spin.

Here’s Why You Should Make Your Own Peanut Butter at Home

Before we dig into the financials, one more thing: If you’re particular about the ingredients you put into your body (or your children’s), you have yet another reason to go the homemade route.

Even if you religiously buy the most natural-looking, minimalistically marketed peanut butter, there’s a decent chance you’re ingesting some processed ingredients.

While brands must adhere to certain standards and restrictions to call their products “organic,” a “natural” label means next to nothing in the eyes of the law.

If you want to prove it to yourself, take a leisurely stroll down your local grocer’s PB aisle, and pick up a few “natural” jars. You’ll find everything from plain-old peanuts, salt and oil goodness to sticky paste with hydrogenated oils listed right there in the ingredients list.

Ugh. Whatever happened to clarity in advertising?

Not to mention the fact that grocery stores offer these “natural” products at crazy-inflated prices that start at well over $3 per pound -- even when the butter itself is indistinguishable from what you find in the $1.19-per-pound bargain jar at Walmart. That goes double for organic peanut butters, which I’ve seen sell for up to $8 per jar.

Seriously. Seriously?

I don’t think so.

You can make your own delicious, actually natural peanut butter at home for as little as $1.21 per pound.

How to Make Your Own Homemade Peanut Butter

Shelled, blanched, and sometimes even pre-roasted peanuts are available in bulk for as little as $1.20 per pound, or $2.40 per pound if you don’t want to deal with truly gigantic packages.

That means a basic homemade peanut butter recipe, which calls for nothing more than peanuts, salt, and an optional drizzle of peanut oil and honey, works out to under $2.50 per pound no matter how you slice it. This saves you at least a buck -- and up to $3 or more, off the fancy “natural” peanut butter at the store.

Here’s the price breakdown for The Kitchn’s recipe (before the add-in flavor options -- we’ll get to that in a second):

  • 2 cups peanuts: $1.20
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt: 1 cent
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons peanut oil (optional): 4 to 9 cents
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons honey (optional): 8 to 15 cents

Total cost: $1.21 to $1.45, using the cheapest bulk-bought peanuts

If you’re devoted to organic peanuts, you’re looking at a price more along the lines of $5 per pound. Still, your peanut butter would be about $2 less than the fancy-shmancy $8 organic jar!

But considering peanuts aren’t even in the top 50 “dirtiest” types of produce, you might consider moving to conventional in this case.

And all you need to do to transform those nuts into nut butter is let them sit in your food processor or blender for a while. Really, every other ingredient and addition is 100% optional.

But let’s consider those options.

Create Flavored Peanut Butter With Chocolate, Cinnamon and More

You might be familiar with Monkey Butter, a well-known peanut butter brand that comes in inventive and scrumptious flavors like “White Chocolate Wonderful,” “Dark Chocolate Dreams,” and even a savory “Everything” flavor. Yum, right?

These delicious nut butters come at a price, though, costing as much as $6 per 16-ounce jar.

But armed with your trusty bulk peanuts and blender, that’s no problem. Based on our peanut butter recipe above, a dark chocolate peanut butter cost only an extra 40 cents, which accounts for the 2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder. Total cost: $1.85.

Cinnamon raisin swirl? Two teaspoons of cinnamon: 10 cents. Two ounces of raisins: 35 cents.

One pound of cinnamon-sweet peanut butter bliss: Priceless… but $1.90, actually.

You can even make your very own homemade white chocolate peanut butter. Check out this recipe by Lynn at Fresh April Flours, which makes half a pound of decadent dessert dip:

  • 8 ounces peanuts: 60 cents
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt: 1 cent
  • 1/2 cup white chocolate chips: 90 cents

Total cost: $1.51 ($3.02 if you scale up to make a whole pound)

Looks like those everything-homemade hippie types have some good ideas, after all.

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.

Did you know it’s possible to not have a credit score?

I’m not talking about a score of zero. I mean a nonexistent credit history.

When you go to check your credit score (for free, of course) on a site like Credit Sesame, it’ll tell you there’s not enough information to generate a score.

Others will say you have incorrect information — even after you’ve triple checked it.

The experience can be incredibly frustrating because, after all, you need good credit history to be approved for new credit accounts, but you need active accounts to build good credit history.

Sound like a familiar dilemma?

This Catch-22 is common, whether you’re new to the world of credit or your positive accounts have been idle too long for them to appear on credit reports.

Regardless of the reason, if your credit file is thin or non-existent, here are some of the best ways to build your credit history.

1. Start Slow

Building credit history is like building muscle: You have to be strong enough to walk before you can run.

If you try to apply for a bunch of credit cards at the same time right off the bat, you don’t just risk rejection. Your credit score might actually suffer, because every time you apply, your would-be creditor makes a hard inquiry on your report.

Since overdoing it at the start is a rookie mistake, multiple hard credit inquiries within a short time can negatively impact your score. Plus, it’s easy to get in over your head with credit card debt if you’re charging purchases to multiple cards at the same time.

Starting slow will encourage you not only to be a responsible credit user, but also to carefully choose which cards you apply for -- and many have great benefits.

Here are some of the best cash-back credit cards to apply for once your credit is stronger. Prefer to travel? Here’s how to choose the right travel rewards credit cards for you.

2. Piggyback (Responsibly!)

If you have a trustworthy person with great credit in your life, you could ask to become an authorized user of one of their accounts. (If you’re young and starting out, a parent’s account is a good option.)

But be careful: If the account holder doesn’t pay the bill, your score could also get hurt. Plus, you might not be able to remove yourself from the account, tying you to a negative credit impactor.

Ask the card issuer exactly what will be reflected in your history. Also, make sure not to go wild with someone else’s credit card!

3. Try a Secured Card

A secured credit card is similar to a debit card -- you put down a collateral cash deposit and can use that amount in credit.

However, unlike a debit card, secured cards -- at least, good ones -- report your payment, balance and other relevant behavior to credit bureaus. The creditor might reward your good standing with a credit line increase, and you’ll build some credit history.

You can also  check with your credit union or bank about getting one of their credit cards, but shop around -- some charge exorbitant fees or, worst of all, don’t report to the major credit bureaus.

4. Ask Your Bank for a Loan

Banks and other small private lenders might offer you a low-risk loan, even if you have little or no credit.

For instance, you could purchase a CD from your bank using one of these loans. You wouldn’t own the account until you paid it off, but once you did, you’d have some savings and a credit history boost, just for the price of the fees and interest on the loan.

5. Talk to Your Lenders

It always pays to ask questions.

To set up an account, some lenders might be willing to review nontraditional data, like your rental history, or utility or installment purchase plan payments. You can then use your new account to begin to build a more “traditional” credit file.

6. Keep Using Your Plastic

Most of us know bad credit information falls off reports after seven years.

But did you know good information falls off after 10 years?

Even consumers with good credit history are at risk of losing it if they pay off all of their accounts and don’t touch them again.

Instead of celebrating by cutting up your cards once you pay them off, use them -- but keep paying them off.

You could even set up autopay on each card for a small monthly bill, like Netflix or your cell phone plan. Then, pay off your cards in their entirety each month.

7. Keep Tabs on Your Credit Score

Once you become a “real person” with a credit score, you’ll want to keep tabs on that score. The best way to do this is through a free service. (No, you shouldn’t have to pay to see your score).

We use Credit Sesame. It’ll reveal your score as well as walk you through steps to keep hiking that number up, which will help you in the long run.

You’ll reap the credit rewards and keep your history active -- without paying a cent of interest!

Jamie Cattanach is a contributing writer for The Penny Hoarder and a native Floridian. She’s passionate about learning, literature, chocolate and finding ways to live the good life as cost-effectively as possible.

As Tropical Storm Bret churns in the Gulf of Mexico deciding whether or not to make landfall, now is a great time to evaluate -- or create -- your emergency kit.

Are you ready for the worst if disaster strikes? Preparing doesn’t have to be expensive.

How to Build Your Emergency Kit on a Budget

Sure, you could plunk down more than $200 on a one-size-fits-all emergency kit filled with stuff you probably won’t need.

Or, try the budget-friendly option: build your own customized, cost-effective kit. Here’s how.

1. Decide What You Need

First of all, know what you need.

The Red Cross suggests keeping these bare essentials on hand, mostly common-sense items: food, water, extra clothes and medicine.

You definitely need a stash of those. But what other goods make sense for where you live?

In my part of Florida, I can’t think of a disaster scenario that would necessitate the hand chain saw or rope in the $200 kit I mentioned, but maybe I’d feel differently if I had to deal with tornadoes or earthquakes, or if I lived in a wooded area.

Figure out what your kit needs and prioritize those items. And don’t get carried away -- you probably just need to be able to feed yourself for a week or so, not build a shelter on a desert island.

2. Prep for Free

Some of your preparation won’t cost you a dime. It’s all about gathering stuff you already have, like important documents, cell phone chargers, maps and spare emergency cash.

You can even stock your stash with free items -- Raven signs up for free samples online and uses some of the giveaways toward her emergency kit.

Instead of buying it by the flat, consider bottling your own water. Use bleach-purified, leftover two-liter bottles and treated municipal water. Just don’t use milk or juice cartons, which can harbor bacteria. Date your bottles and replace them every six months, and you’re good to go.

If you’ll need water for hygienic purposes, clean your bathtub, then fill it with cold water. It won’t be potable, but you can use it to flush toilets and keep yourself clean.

Don’t forget your protein! Beef jerky is a great survival snack -- but it isn’t cheap. You could dehydrate your own and save money and sodium content. Plus, you get to make your beef jerky the way you like. Check yard sales or Craigslist to find a dehydrator on the cheap.

Whenever you’re doing your own food prep, make sure you’re meticulous. Items undergoing long-term storage can get contaminated if they’re not perfectly sanitized and sealed -- and you don’t want to discover your food stash is useless when an emergency arises.

3. DIY to Save

In my area, hurricane shutters are important, but expensive.

The good news is you can make your own out of plywood or polycarbonate from Home Depot -- just make sure to factor in the cost of waste when you’re doing your comparison. You may not be able to find much use for raw material scraps once you cut out shutters.

4. Collect Cost-Effective Items

When you have to buy items, use coupons and your penny-hoarding knowledge to your advantage: Shop on the right day, use cash-back sites to earn rebates and use hacks to get the best deals at stores like CVS and Walmart.

When you pick up batteries, hydrogen peroxide, bleach and bandages, make sure to buy generic -- they’ll work just as well as the brand name stuff. Check out the dollar store for these items, and while you’re there, pick up some emergency entertainment: crayons and coloring books for the kids, and a pack of cards for adults.

You probably already know how much you can save by buying in bulk. Emergency rations of paper towels, toilet paper, canned goods, batteries and bottled water are a perfect opportunity to take advantage of those savings.

Finally, consider battery-free emergency additions, like wind-up flashlights and weather radios. If you’re going to be without electricity, you’ll definitely want a handheld cell phone charger, which you can keep charged and prepared beforehand.

5. Plan Ahead

One of the best ways to save money on disaster preparedness is to play the long game: Look for sales in your day-to-day life and stock up, way before your storm season approaches. Cans of tuna on BOGO? Put your “get-ones” into your stash.

The more you can avoid a last-minute disaster-prep rush, the better: Vendors do price gouge. Here in Florida, the price of canned goods and gallons of water goes up in June and falls steeply in December, after hurricane season ends.

In case you do need a last-minute item, include disaster prep in your savings budget. Set aside $20 a month or so, and consider it part of your emergency fund -- because that’s exactly what it is.

Stay safe, Penny Hoarders -- and don’t forget your can opener!

Disclosure: A toast to savings! Thanks for allowing us to place affiliate links in this post.

Jamie Cattanach is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere.

Everyone loves getting presents, no matter the occasion.

But most gifts are only given once. Even if they’ll be useful throughout the year, the anticipation of unwrapping something new is a singular event.

Want a way to keep the thrill alive? Try giving the gift of a subscription box or specialty membership.

The subscriber -- your giftee -- will open a new package every month or two, keeping whatever special occasion you're celebrating alive for the forseeable future.

Plus, if funds are tight, you’ll benefit from spending a little bit over the course of multiple months. It’s probably easier than plunking down the whole amount on an expensive gift right now.

20 of the Best Subscription Boxes to Give as Gifts

Sounds like a cool idea, right? If you’re not sure where to start, read on.

We’ve compiled this list of 21 smart subscription boxes for any personality on your shopping list -- even the hard-to-buy-for.

The “OMG, Shoes!” Friend

Tired of being yanked into the nearest shoe store every time you go shopping with that one girl on your list?

Surprise her with a VIP Membership to ShoeDazzle.

She’ll take a style quiz -- then a stylist will put together a personalized showroom of shoes she can choose from to purchase each month.

The monthly fee is $39.95, which she can either use toward her next purchase or save if nothing catches her eye (unlikely).

Plus, there’s an option to skip any month as long as she logs in before the 6th.

Even if a monthly subscription isn’t your thing, ShoeDazzle is a great place to find a pair of shoes.

Just find the perfect pair and purchase as you would at Zappos or Amazon.

The Sommelier in Training

Mmm, wine.

I love wine so much. Robust reds, crisp whites, perfect-by-the-poolside dry rosé…

What was I talking about?

Oh, right! You probably have a wine lover in your life, too! Want a gift that’ll make her happier than a bottle of the good stuff would?

Try three bottles delivered monthly and hand-picked to suit her evolving tastes.

Winc starts at $39 plus $9 shipping for a monthly box of three wines. Plus, members get access to other steeply-discounted bottles whenever they want -- with free shipping on boxes of three or more.

If the savings mean bottles start stacking up, skipping a month is easy.

My favorite part? Every bottle comes with a short video, complete with tasting notes. Winc is a great way to become the resident wine snob of any office or circle of friends.

Psst -- make sure she checks out this list of 10 surprisingly awesome wines under $15 that totally won’t blow her growing wine cred when she brings them to a ritzy holiday party.

The Girl Who Wears Yoga Pants to the Office -- and Pulls It Off

No matter how much Pilates I do or how in shape I think I am, I’m never going to be one of those girls who can wear leggings and a slouchy tee and look ***flawless.

Do you know one of these women? Are you able to get over your (understandable) envy enough to buy her a holiday gift?

Consider the FabFitFun subscription box. It comes filled with health, beauty and fitness products for the Instagram queen on your list.

It’s pricier at $49.99 per delivery, but only ships once per season. Because each box contains $200 worth of products, at four deliveries per year, you’re basically buying one box and getting three free!

The Coffee Snob

Remember when your uncle scoffed at the bag of ground Dunkin’ Donuts coffee you picked up at the grocery store while he was in town for Thanksgiving?

Whatever, man -- you just need a way to get through the morning.

But your uncle might really enjoy a subscription to BeanBox, a gourmet coffee subscription that delivers monthly, fresh-roasted, whole bean Seattle coffee.

And when I say “fresh,” I mean their beans are shipped within 48 hours of roasting. You can be sure there’ll be no scoffing at this holiday gift.

Plus, it’s only $20 a month -- even less if you buy a six-month or one-year package!

The Proud Nespresso Owner

Got a friend who keeps inviting you over for shots -- from their Nespresso machine?

Making espresso at home is a great way to save cash on a latte-a-day habit. Signing up for a Gourmesso subscription? That’s an even better way to save.

You can start out slow and get your caffeinated friend 50 capsules per month for $22.50 per month. If more is needed? There are a ton of subscription options for every budget and level of caffeine addiction, so check them out.

The Token Tea Drinker

The tea folk among us need their fix, too.

Tea Sparrow delivers a box of hand-picked, loose leaf teas from across the globe every month -- enough for about 35 afternoon cups. The recipient reviews her favorites and can be connected directly with the blenders of the teas if she wants to buy in larger quantities.

It’s just $20 per month and easy to stop and start. Shipping’s also included for those in Canada or the continental U.S.

The Cubicle Dweller Who Never Takes Lunch

We all know people who live off snacks whether they’re too busy to leave their work desk or too footloose to get off the road for a real meal. (“But we’ll be there in five more hours… why stop?”)

Keep those people out of the Cheetos and M&Ms with Graze.

Each box is usually $11.99 and comes with eight healthy snacks the recipient chooses themselves -- so you know they’ll enjoy them! You can even get them sent straight to their workplace -- in case they’re sleeping there, too.

The Mom with Ambition -- or the Kid Who Keeps Taking Stuff Apart

Know a mom who keeps talking about how her kid’s definitely going to be an astronaut -- before they even hit kindergarten?

Check out subscription boxes from Kiwi Crate. There’s an option for every curious kid on your list ages 3-16 -- or even older. They range in activities from art to engineering, and start as low as $16.95 per month.

Shopping for multiple moms? Check out our list of 20 educational holiday gifts under $35.

The Wanderluster

One of the best-loved parts of traveling is trying exotic foreign foods. If there’s someone on your list who’s equal part foodie and footloose, keep reading.

Try the World will deliver a box filled with goodies from different countries every month. Celebrity chefs curate the boxes to help recipients discover and appreciate exotic new cuisines.

Bonus: It features free shipping, and it’s easy to pause or cancel at any time.

Pay $39 for a month, or save by paying for six or 12 months at a time ($168.30 and $295.80, respectively).

The Do-Gooder

Everyone likes snacks -- especially all-natural, organic snacks without trans fats or high-fructose corn syrup.

But your friend who’s always too busy at the soup kitchen to hang out on weekends will really love this subscription box.

Every time a snack box is delivered, Love With Food donates to an American food bank.

Talk about a feel-good gift!

Boxes start as low as $7.99 per month. Once she discovers them, your recipient can buy any of her favorite snacks through Love With Food’s online portal.

The Busy Professional

Do you know someone who loves to make healthy, home-cooked meals -- but spends too much time at the office (or freelancing or chauffeuring the kids from school to soccer to sleepovers) to hit the store, read the recipe and get dinner on the table before 8 p.m.?

Enter meal subscription plans like Hello FreshBlue Apron or Plated.

All of these services operate on a similar model. They put together healthy, delicious recipes and deliver the ingredients in exactly the correct amounts, as well as the instructions to subscribers’ homes.

Basically, it’s a DIY restaurant meal delivery service.

Although it’s more expensive than buying groceries, it could offer some savings if you’re eating takeout most nights. And it will definitely save you time running to the store.

Plus, you get to learn a new recipe to add to your repertoire.

Pricing for these services start at about $9 per plate. The services offer diet-friendly menus and the ability to swap meals that aren’t to your taste. See their websites for full details.

We tried a bunch of them -- they're pretty tasty.

The Outdoor Adventurer

Got a friend who always brings her hiking gear to work on Friday so she can get the earliest possible start on her weekend camping trip?

She might be an awesome candidate for a subscription to the Cairn box.

It’s $22 per month and includes a variety of gear like compasses, cookware, portable foods, apparel like beanies and gloves and skin care/first aid products.

You’ll also get the added satisfaction of knowing you’re helping her stay safe and comfortable out there in the wild.

The Bookworm

For the family member who’d bring her book to the holiday dinner table if she were allowed, check out the Book Riot subscription box.

This one’s shipped every three months, so you have time to actually read what it sends you, and it’s $50 per shipment.

The box is filled with -- you guessed it -- books! But it also includes bookworm swag like notebooks, genre map posters and even a bookish flask.

As a former English major, I’ve gotta say, it looks pretty cool.

Bonus: If said bookworm is a young adult -- or full-grown adult with a penchant for supernatural romances and dystopian narratives -- there’s a YA option, too.

The Pet Parent Who Never Shuts Up About Spot or Fluffy

Guilty as charged: My dog, Odin, is in 90% of my photos. Including one of my headshots. That I use professionally.

The good thing is, animal freaks are easy to cross off your holiday shopping list.

Check out BarkBox for the dog-lover on your list -- or KitNipBox for the resident cat lady (no judgments, only purrs)!

The lucky recipient (and furry friend) will receive a monthly box of treats and toys. Both start under $21 a box.

The One Whose Manicure is Always On Point

Keep the beauty geek in your life well-bedecked and happy with a subscription to Julep’s Maven program. She’ll receive a monthly box of cosmetics and nail polishes -- fully customizable to her sense of style.

Even better, she’ll get 20% off and free shipping on any Julep product she buys outside her shipments!

Memberships start at just $19.99 a month.

The Geek

Your favorite nerd will love a subscription to Loot Crate -- a monthly delivery of four to eight geeky goods and collectables worth more than $45 for less than $15 a month.

Choose from a variety of themed crates -- like an anime-specific crate, apparel crates and even crates for pets.

Literally Anyone

Pretty much everyone shaves some of their hair.

Help anyone on your list save a ton of pennies with a subscription to Dollar Shave Club.

That’s right -- this super-simple subscription service isn't just for guys.

Just because it isn’t pink doesn’t mean it can’t shave legs. I’ve been a subscriber for months, and I love how easy it is to upgrade or downgrade your package. You can even request shipments more slowly if you don’t use your blades in time.

Choose from three razor packages -- the $1 dual-blade carries a $2 shipping fee, but the quad-blade middle option is just $6 a month and ships free. The six-blade “executive” razor is just $9 -- and also ships for free.

The subscriber is getting a huge discount from hiked-up drugstore prices.

Need More Great Gift Ideas?

These subscription packages are pretty great. But keep your eye on our website for lots of other gift ideas -- no matter who’s on your list!

We even found 100 free gift ideas your friends and family will actually want.

Disclosure: We appreciate you letting us include affiliate links in this post. It helps keep the beer fridge stocked in the Penny Hoarder break room.

Jamie Cattanach is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder and a native Floridian. She’s passionate about learning, literature, chocolate and finding ways to live the good life as cost-effectively as possible. You can wave hi to @jamiecattanach on Twitter.

With all the different diets out there, your options can begin to sound like alphabet soup. (... Is alphabet soup allowed on your diet?)

But you may have heard chatter about one speedy-sounding plan in particular. The DASH diet is a healthy option that’s often prescribed to those struggling with high blood pressure or to anyone trying to keep healthy and fit.

If you’re hoping to dash your way to a healthier you, read on.

What is the DASH Diet?

DASH is an acronym, which stands for Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension. It’s an eating plan that’s rich in healthy carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, but low in saturated and added fats and sugars. It also includes lean meats, beans and low-fat dairy.

Basically, it’s probably what you think of when you think of someone “eating well.”

The DASH diet has been shown in clinical studies to markedly reduce blood pressure when followed consistently, and, true to its name, its effects don’t take too long to start working.

“By following the DASH diet, you may be able to reduce your blood pressure by a few points in just two weeks. Over time, your systolic blood pressure could drop by eight to 14 points, which can make a significant difference in your health risks,” according to Mayo Clinic.

And the DASH diet isn’t just for people who have hypertension. The guidelines sync up with existing dietary recommendations that are thought to prevent diseases like osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

In fact, the DASH diet is considered so healthy, it’s recommended in the 2010 USDA dietary guidelines as an ideal eating plan; it also topped U.S. News and World Report’s 2016 list of “Best Diets Overall.”

But if you’re reading this, you’re probably already well aware and convinced of the DASH diet’s many benefits.

So now that you’re embarking on a healthier lifestyle… how are you planning to afford it?

How to Save Money on the DASH Diet

Ideally, you want to keep your body and your wallet healthy.

And as you’ve doubtlessly noticed, the fresh, unprocessed groceries you need to support your DASH diet eating plan aren’t always the cheapest items in the store.

But there are lots of ways to make the DASH diet affordable. In fact, if you follow these tips, you’ll likely find eating well is actually cheaper than relying on packaged goods, prepared meals or eating out.

Here are a few key ways to save money on the DASH diet.

1. Plan your meals.

Whenever you’re following any kind of specialty diet, it’s helpful to plan your meals as far ahead of time as possible. (Many meal planners make their menus on a weekly, or even monthly, basis.)

Getting organized does double duty: Not only does it help you avoid temptation and stick to your regime, it also makes budgeting for groceries a snap, since you know exactly what you need to have on hand ahead of time.

A DASH diet meal plan will focus on fresh produce, legumes, whole grains, lean meats and dairy products. In other words, there’s a whole lot more on the list of what you can eat than on the list of what you shouldn’t.

So you can definitely have fun and get creative with your meal plan… or save yourself time and fall back on a pre-made menu designed by someone else. There are tons of menu templates and tips available online!

2. Optimize your shopping trip.

Not all grocery stores are created equally. And you can stand to save a ton of money by figuring out where to shop -- and how.

The first step is figuring out which ingredients you’ll rely on the most. With the DASH diet, that list might include lean meat like chicken breast or low-fat yogurt and milk.

Once you’ve got your shopping list, it’s worthwhile to check prices at several different stores in your area.

You can either figure out which grocer’s the best overall and make it your go-to… or, if you have the time and patience, make two different grocery store stops. (Yes, it might sound like a pain, but you’d be surprised at how the savings add up. This dad banks $150 a month by making one extra stop each week!)

3. Buy what you can in bulk.

The DASH diet’s focus on whole grains and legumes is totally a tool in your grocery-saving arsenal.

That’s because staples like dried beans and brown rice are prime candidates for buying in bulk -- which can save you tons of money over time.

If you’re not already a member of a warehouse club store like Sam’s or Costco, now might be a good time to figure out if it’s worth the investment for you and your family. After all, $50 per year is pretty affordable -- and you might be surprised at exactly how many perks you get!

But even if you don’t have a fancy membership, you can optimize your shopping at a regular grocery store. For instance, go ahead and get the family-sized bag of frozen broccoli or quinoa. It’s pretty much always more economical to do so.

And if you prep meals ahead of time and get industrious with your freezer, you can even buy meat and other perishables in bulk, or stock up while they’re on sale.

4. Use coupons (yes, you can!)

You may think all coupons are for boxed and branded goods that don’t figure prominently in your new diet.

Not so.

If you’re not already using it, download Ibotta -- a rebate app that gets you cash back on everyday purchases from groceries to getaways. Yes, many packaged items are featured here, too -- but you can also find rebates for items like fresh produce, a dozen eggs or a gallon of milk!

All you have to do is verify your purchase of listed items by snapping a photo of your receipt. Once you amass $20 in rebates, you can withdraw the cash directly into a Paypal or Venmo account, or cash out with a gift card.

Pretty sweet deal, right?

8 Affordable DASH Diet Recipes You Won’t Get Sick Of

Now that you’re armed with surefire ways to save money on your new diet plan, it’s time for the fun part: Actually eating it!

Here are a few of our favorite DASH diet recipes, no matter what dish you’re in the mood for. And better yet, not one of them costs more than $5 per serving!

(Author’s note: Prices are approximate and were pulled from the writer’s local Walmart and grocery stores. Your exact cost may vary.)

1. Breakfast: Pumpkin Cookies

Cookies… for breakfast? That’s a diet we can get behind.

DASH Diet Oregon offers this recipe for pumpkin breakfast cookies, a great make-ahead option to keep the family fueled for quite a few mornings -- it makes 48 servings!

  • One can pumpkin puree: $1.88
  • 1 1/2 cups brown sugar: 74 cents
  • Two eggs: 26 cents
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil: 16 cents
  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour: 30 cents
  • 1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour: 51 cents
  • One tablespoon baking powder: 9 cents
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice mix: 20 cents
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt: 1 cent
  • One cup raisins: $1.12
  • One cup walnuts or hazelnuts: $3.36 for walnuts; hazelnuts can be much pricier ($1 per ounce)

Total Cost: $8.63 for the batch, or 18 cents per cookie

2. Smoothie: Banana Berry Oatmeal

Smoothies are a delicious and portable way to get going fast, and they’re super customizable. (Use what you’ve got!)

Here’s one recipe to get your creative juices flowing. The frozen banana is genius -- a healthy way to make any blended beverage creamier and sweeter.

  • 1/2 cup ice: 3 cents
  • One banana: 19 cents
  • One cup frozen mixed berries: $1.68
  • 1/2 cup plain lowfat yogurt: 45 cents
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats: 20 cents
  • One cup lowfat milk: 14 cents
  • Optional sweetener: 4 cents

Total Cost: $2.73

3. Salad: Orange-Sesame Shrimp Salad

Salad doesn’t have to be sad. In fact, if you do it right, it’s anything but ordinary.

Here’s a DASH-friendly version from EatingWell, complete with a homemade dressing you can whip up in a flash -- and that you’ll want to put on absolutely everything.

  • Two cups romaine lettuce: 80 cents
  • 1 1/2 cups red cabbage: 38 cents
  • Three ounces shrimp: $1.47
  • 1/2 avocado: 75 cents
  • 1/4 cup orange juice: 24 cents
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar: 9 cents
  • Two tablespoons sugar: 5 cents
  • Two tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce: 12 cents
  • One teaspoon toasted sesame oil: 12 cents

Total Cost: $4.02

4. Soup: Chicken and Wild Rice

What’s more comforting than chicken soup? (Spoiler: Not much.)

We love this version from the Dash Diet Collection. It’s delicious, healthy, and best of all, crazy easy to make. The recipe doesn’t list how many servings it makes, but with 12 cups of broth and a pound and a half of chicken, it’s safe to say you’ll get at least four meals out of it.

  • Two cups onions: $1.24
  • Two cups carrots: 68 cents
  • Two cups celery: 62 cents
  • Four cloves garlic: 21 cents
  • One cup green beans: 49 cents
  • One cup wild rice: $3.84
  • Two bay leaves: 13 cents
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper: 1 cent
  • 12 cups organic chicken broth: $5.94
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken breast: $5.14
  • One cup fresh parsley leaves: 98 cents

Total Cost: $19.28, or $4.82 per serving -- but you could get it down even further if you bought conventional chicken broth, or switched the wild rice for a cheaper grain or noodles.

5. Dinner: Barbecued Pork Chops with Roasted Potatoes and Kale

[caption id="attachment_58463" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]Dash diet recipes Barbecued pork chops with roasted potatoes and kale. Photo by Jamie Cattanach[/caption]

Pork is so underrated: More satisfying than chicken but healthier than beef, and super versatile to boot.

This all-inclusive dinner by Katie Webster is cooked in a foil packet, which helps keep the meat nice and moist without additional fats and oils. (It’s also a cinch to clean up!)

  • 1 1/2 pounds red or yellow potatoes: $1.24
  • Four cups kale: $1.18
  • Two tablespoons canola oil: 10 cents
  • One teaspoon chili powder: 12 cents
  • One teaspoon paprika: 12 cents
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt: 1 cent
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder: 2 cents
  • 20 ounces boneless pork: $4.48
  • Four tablespoons barbecue sauce: 14 cents
  • Two tablespoons water: 1 cent

Total Cost: $7.42, or $1.85 per serving (!!)

6. Bread: Honey Whole Wheat

Yes, you can have bread on a diet.

This loaf is filled with healthy additions, like flaxseed, and sweetened with honey and applesauce. It’s the perfect bookend for your favorite sandwich!

  • One cup rolled oats: 40 cents
  • Three cups water: 3 cents
  • Three cups whole wheat flour: $1.02
  • 3/4 cup soy flour: $1.36
  • 3/4 cup ground flaxseed or flaxseed meal: 96 cents
  • Three tablespoons whole flaxseed: 31 cents
  • Three tablespoons sesame seeds: 58 cents
  • Three tablespoons poppy seeds: 29 cents
  • 4 1/4 tablespoons yeast: $2.20
  • One tablespoon sea salt: 1 cent
  • One cup unsweetened applesauce: 48 cents
  • 1/2 cup honey: 78 cents
  • 1/4 cup olive oil: 45 cents
  • Five cups unbleached white flour: $1.00

Total Cost: $9.87, or about 49 cents per slice. (Yes, that might seem costly for bread, but it’s so much better for you than the storebought stuff in plastic!)

7. Side Dish: Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Maple Syrup

If brussels sprouts made your face fall when you were a kid, prepare to be amazed.

Just two teaspoonfuls of sugar -- in this case, healthy maple syrup -- help this medicinal vegetable go down. In fact, you may want seconds.

  • Two cups brussels sprouts: $3.12
  • One tablespoon olive oil: 21 cents
  • Two teaspoons maple syrup: 18 cents
  • Salt and pepper, to taste: 3 cents

Total Cost: $3.54, or 88 cents per half-cup serving

8. Dessert: Grilled Peaches with Honey and Yogurt

If you thought eating healthy meant banishing your sweet tooth forever, think again.

This summery recipe uses heat to increase the peaches’ natural sweetness even more. Feel free to experiment with whatever fruit might be in season where you are!

  • Two large ripe peaches: $1.59
  • 1/4 cup fat free vanilla Greek yogurt: 23 cents
  • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon: 2 cents
  • 2 tablespoons honey: 19 cents

Total Cost: $2.03, or about 51 cents per serving

Bon appetit, Penny Hoarders!

Disclosure: A toast to savings! Thanks for allowing us to place affiliate links in this post.

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere.

No matter how old you are, eating healthy is a challenge.

Not only do you have to fend off the perpetual temptation of all the deep-fried and sugar-filled goodies we’re surrounded with every day, but you also have to figure out how to work fresh, healthy groceries into your budget. Oh, and learn to cook them.

The problem only gets worse when you’re a college student.

You are already strapped for cash and may never have had to buy (or budget for) your own groceries before. And, up until now, your experience with meal planning may have been limited to being around when mom put dinner on the table.

So figuring out how to eat healthy while also balancing your new schedule, maintaining your social life -- and, you know, deciding what you want to do for the rest of your life -- isn’t easy.

But it is possible. And it’s also really, really important.

How to Avoid the Dreaded Freshman 15

During my first semester of college, I spent hours in the buffet-style dining hall just steps from my dorm.

You only had to swipe your meal plan card once and you could stay as long as you liked. I’d haul in all my books and call it a study day, eating whenever I felt like it. I convinced myself I was making an economical choice.

When I started seeing some weight creep on, I tried to formulate a plan to make my dining hall binges more reasonable. True story: When I’d leave after lunch, I’d take some ice cream and eat it while walking up the hill towards the classrooms, depositing the empty bowl and spoon at the second dining hall at the top.

“They totally cancel each other out, right?” I’d half-joke with my friends.

Two pants sizes later, I wasn’t laughing.

In the flurry of research you’ve no doubt done preparing for your first year of college, you’ve probably heard of the infamous freshman 15, the excess pounds so many first-year students unwittingly find themselves saddled with.

It’s not hard to see why. For most students, college is the first time away from the regular meal structure enforced by eight-hour school days and the relative wholesomeness of home cooking.

Also, um, there is literally endless food in the dining hall.

But you don’t have to resign yourself to graduating with a wider waistline -- or an empty wallet.

Really.

First Things First: You Need a Budget

Whether you’ve been working as long as you can remember or have never had your own money to manage before, the key to not totally blowing your future finances while in college is creating and maintaining a budget. Now.

Otherwise, you may find yourself whiling away those hefty loans on… well, less-than-studious choices.

So sit down and make a list of all the things you absolutely must pay for regularly -- each semester, quarter and month. That might include tuition, your room-and-board fees or rent. Maybe you also pay for car insurance or your mobile data plan.

(You can make this process easier by digitizing your financial life with a budgeting app, like Mint.)

Then, compare all your regular expenses to you income, be it through a job or, if it’s your only source of cash for now, your student loan checks.

The difference -- the leftover money -- is what you have to spend on everything else in your life, including food.

Obviously, there are other things you’re going to want (or need) to buy while you’re in college. And there are ways to maximize your discretionary income, like getting your Netflix subscription for free.

But when push comes to shove, all the food you buy must fit inside that figure -- a number that, depending on your existing eating habits, may look troublingly small.

Fortunately, you came to college to learn new things (right?), including how to stretch those food budget dollars as far as they can possibly go.

Here are our 10 best tips for eating healthy and affordably while you’re in college, both on campus and off.

Eating Healthy in College Dining Halls

Not sure how to eat healthy while you live on campus? I promise, it’s totally doable! (Hint: Walk away from the fro-yo machine slowly…)

1. Cook in Your Dorm.

You may be limited to a mini fridge and a microwave, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make delicious, healthy and super-cheap meals at “home.”

To help, we put together a list of 15 awesome dorm-friendly recipes for less than $5 each -- and most are a lot cheaper than that.

Plus, many dorm halls come equipped with a full-sized community kitchen, which gives you absolutely no excuse. Get your butt in there and start cooking!

2. Take Advantage of the Buffet -- but Do So Wisely.

If your buffet-style dining hall allows you to carry out food, you should absolutely do so, but you need to have a strategy. (No, bringing back three dozen donuts from breakfast isn’t a good idea.)

Prime candidates for dorm-room stockpiling include pre-packaged yogurt, handy pieces of fruit or hard-boiled eggs. If you’ve got fridge room, maybe you can heap up a box with mixed veggies, plain brown rice and lean meats to heat up later.

3. DON’T Use the Endless Buffet as an Excuse to Save Money.

As I and my new, bigger pants learned, it’s actually not a good fiscal choice to eat as much as possible whenever you can. And you won’t just blow money on your enlarged wardrobe.

Stuffing yourself with unhealthy foods could also lead to health problems down the line, which might also mean a host of hefty medical bills.

Trust me. If you’re already going into debt to attend college, you don’t want to add in the cost of a trip to the emergency room, nevermind the physical misery.

4. Load Up on Veggies.

No matter what school you go to or which dining hall you choose, there’s almost always a salad bar. So go ahead and fill up on fresh veggies before you take the bulk of your meal.

Not only will you get a helping of necessary nutrients without having to go out and buy expensive produce or supplements, but you’ll also decrease your chances of overeating the richer, more-calorie-dense main meal, creating automatic mealtime balance.

5. Ditch the Soda Fountain.

Even if you’ve been drinking soda your whole life, there’s no time like the present to break the habit.

Soda is a super-easy way to waste boundless empty calories and ingest a truly disturbing amount of sugar without even thinking about it.

Your body will be happier, and your head will be clearer if you switch to water. Heck, it might even improve your grades. Nobody does well at a 3 p.m. exam while experiencing a sugar crash.

Incidentally, water is also available for free out of your tap, unlike Coke.

Eating Healthy Off Campus

If you’ve already moved out of the dorms, it’s a lot easier to eat healthy, but it’ll take a little bit of planning and commitment on your part.

Here’s how to take control of your food budget and your health -- you adult, you!

6. Make Your Meals at Home!

Yes, this is the first piece of advice in pretty much everything ever written about how to save money on food, but it’s especially pertinent for students.

College towns are always filled with a ton of tempting and convenient restaurants. And when you’re balancing work, studies, sports, friendships and the occasional hour or three of sleep, it’s an understandable temptation to give in to.

But although it’s easy to just go to Chipotle for the fourth time this week -- and yes, $8 might seem like a decent deal for what you at least plan to parse out into two meals -- you can make an even-bigger, equally delicious burrito bowl for a fraction of the price at home. I promise.

And don’t forget. when you’re the chef, you have complete control over the ingredients, including how much fat and sugar goes into your dish. Even “healthy” restaurants likely add more oils and additives than you would in your own kitchen.

Plus, if your town’s Chipotle line is anything like mine was, cooking at home probably won’t even take you that much longer.

7. Strategize When You Do Go Out.

Of course, you’re going to go out to eat occasionally -- and you should. Even for the frugal, socializing is an important part of the college experience.

But don’t blow your restaurant dollars on crappy mozzarella sticks and beer you can buy more cheaply at the grocery store.

Hit a restaurant that serves big portions of nutritious, high-quality food. As America becomes increasingly health conscious, there are more and more of these cropping up. Think make-your-own-salad stations or light Asian and Mediterranean fare.

Then, instead of stuffing yourself, eat until you’re comfortable and take the rest home for later. You’ll save money and keep those extra pounds at bay.

8. Keep it simple.

This might be the first time you have a kitchen of your “own,” so it can be exciting to get creative and make all the extravagant dishes your parents would scoff at.

But if a recipe calls for just a pinch of an expensive ingredient that spoils quickly (i.e., every fresh herb ever), your kitchen experiments can easily become a drain on your food budget. And maybe there was some method to mom’s madness in not making deep-fried bacon macaroni and cheese sandwiches every single night.

Base your meals on simple, affordable, and healthy basics, like chicken breast and fresh veggies. Keep a small, but solid, arsenal of spices at hand, and you can easily infuse your meals with exotic flavor profiles with just a simple sprinkle.

Because, listen: Unless you become mega-wealthy, you’re going to be cooking for yourself for the rest of your life. You can wait to become a gourmand until after you have to pay for college textbooks.

9. Get Smart About Grocery Shopping.

The way you approach grocery shopping can have an incredible effect on how much you end up spending and how healthy you’re eating, so it’s a good idea to have a plan.

But don’t worry. Since you follow The Penny Hoarder, learning to save money on groceries doesn’t have to take up a whole credit hour’s worth of your time.

Check out our existing grocery-saving guidelines, like these and consider running your very own supermarket comparison -- here’s a worksheet to make it easier.

And we know you’re busy, but if you have time, consider making multiple stops on your grocery trips. You might be surprised at how much you could save!

Finally, don’t dismiss couponing and always check for rebates on Ibotta. The app is simple to use and has great cash-back deals, often even for super-healthy foods like fresh veggies. All you have to do is snap a quick pic of your receipt!

10. Team Up With Your Roommates.

If you share your apartment with roommates, you have a whole host of savings opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise.

Buying ingredients in bulk can be much cheaper, and planning and prepping meals ahead of time saves money, energy planning and time during your busy week.

But if you live alone, you’ll likely be mighty sick of whatever you’re eating by Thursday, even if it looked divine on Sunday.

If you can split the task of meal planning -- and the cost of the groceries -- with your roommates, you’ll avoid that problem. Try having each member of the household make a cheap, but delicious, batch meal at regular intervals throughout the week.

For instance, maybe you make chicken and wild rice on Sunday, Jill throws a roast in the crock pot on Wednesday, and Nathan pulls together his famous jambalaya on Friday. Everybody shares everything, including grocery costs, and no one is deathly sick of any dish after 15 servings.

Another option open to you if you have roommates: You could even go in for a warehouse club membership together, which can help you save on healthy staples like grains or bulk servings of frozen veggies and meat.

Just make sure to read the fine print and make sure the membership will work for non-familial households.

There you have it, Penny Hoarders, a crash course on healthy eating! Was than a easy A, or what?

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere.

Whether you’re trying to manage diabetes, lose a few pounds or simply take on low-carb living as a lifestyle choice, missing out on some of your favorite comfort foods can be a bummer.

I mean, sure, bacon is great and all… but pizza, though. Not to mention mashed potatoes. Or macaroni and cheese.

What was I saying?

You Can Make Low-Carb Comfort Foods Without Going Bankrupt

Fortunately, you can recreate many of your favorite carb-laden comfort foods to fit low-carb diet plans.

And, as someone who’s been eating this way for several years, I can tell you from experience that many of these recipes are pretty freaking solid. I mean, cauliflower will never actually replace potatoes or bread, but add enough cheese to anything and you’re gonna walk away happy. I promise.

But when you start pricing out the fancy-pants ingredients you see in those scrumptious-looking recipes for low-carb cakes, cookies and pizza doughs, you might feel a secondary wave of despair.

Almond flour costs how much? What the heck is erythritol? And where are you supposed to find xanthan gum?

But you don’t have to go broke trying to recreate your favorite comfort foods for your low-carb diet -- or go bananas trying to figure out what aisle monk fruit powder is on.

Here, I’ll show you.

How to Save Money on Low-Carb Recipe Ingredients

A quick note on pricing before we dig into the good stuff: I pulled all the prices in this post from the my local grocery stores and Walmart, with the exception of shredded cheese (which, as you’ll notice, makes an appearance in a whole heap of carb-replacement recipes).

Cheese, if you don’t go about it the right way, can be really expensive. I’ve seen a 1-pound bag of shredded mozzarella for well over $5 at Publix, and even the cheaper $3.50-per-pound price at Walmart isn’t great. And no matter where you get it, certain cheeses, like Parmesan, are always expensive.

But you can buy shredded mozzarella and cheddar from Sam’s Club and other warehouse stores for about $12 per 5-pound bag, or 15 cents per ounce -- and if you want to make these sorts of recipes often, you really should.

Cheese is part of what gives low-carb crusts and breads their texture, so you need lots of it. The cost will add up quickly if you’re not careful!

1. Low-Carb Pizza (Yes, It Exists!)

[caption id="attachment_58406" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]low carb recipes Photo by Jamie Cattanach[/caption]

So, listen. I’m not going to pretend that low-carb pizza is less expensive than regular pizza, because it isn’t.

That’s because pizza is crazy cheap, even before companies start going bonkers and giving it away for free. You can get a whole frozen pizza for less than $6 or score a deal for takeout ‘za for less than $10.

If you’re assembling your pie at home, it’s even cheaper: Walmart offers Betty Crocker pizza crust mix at just $1 per pouch, and all you have to add is water; even fresh-made pizza doughs from fancy grocers are usually less than $3 apiece. Obviously, that’s before the cost of toppings -- but I find it hard to imagine a homemade pizza with more than $10 worth of goodies on top.

But hear this: Low-carb pizza is possible, and it’s really not that much more expensive.

It’s also pretty simple to make, considering it’s a gosh-darn miracle.

Take, for example, this recipe for low-carb pizza crust from Cooky’s Creations, which weighs in at just 7 grams of net carbs for the entire thing (before toppings, of course). Even with its inclusion of expensive almond flour, it’s pretty affordable:

  • 12 ounces shredded cheese: $1.80
  • 1 egg: 25 cents
  • 1 ounce cream cheese: 28 cents
  • 6 ounces almond meal: $3.72 (Yikes, right? That’s less than a cup!)

So we’re looking at a $6.08 pizza crust, plus the cost of your favorite fixings -- maybe a $12 or $13 pie. Not bad, right?

You can also forgo the recipes that call for fancy nut flours and instead use cauliflower as your main carb replacement, and things get even more reasonable.

Layla Atik of Gimme Delicious offers this thin-crust, food-processor pizza dough recipe. Cauliflower is a little bit more carb-heavy than nut flour, but it has far fewer calories -- all told, this “dough” has 17 net grams of carbs. Here’s the price breakdown (not including the marinara and cheese on top):

  • 1 head cauliflower: $2.50
  • 4 ounces shredded Parmesan: $3 (See? Crazy.)
  • 4 ounces shredded mozzarella: 60 cents
  • 1 egg: 25 cents
  • Salt and spices: 12 cents

That comes out to $6.47 for a crust, and that’s mostly because of the expensive Parmesan cheese. If you replace it with 4 ounces of shredded mozzarella, the total cheese cost comes down to $1.20, or just $4.07 for the whole recipe.

Not terrible, when we’re talking about totally circumventing one of the main drawbacks of low-carb living. (And while we’re on the topic of cauliflower, you can also use it to recreate “mashed potatoes” for shepherd’s pie or even tater tots, or “bread” for your favorite grilled cheese.)

You can also try a “deconstructed” pizza or a pizza casserole, like this one from Kalyn’s Kitchen. Since it’s based on sausage, you’ll spend a little bit extra on meat, but you won’t have to worry about creating a fancy fake crust.

Plus, your only carbs will come from the veggies and tomatoes you choose to put in it and any trace amounts that might show up in processed meats. In Kalyn’s recipe, that comes out to about 20 net grams carbs total, which is just 3 grams carbs per serving.  Here’s the breakdown:

  • 1 can diced tomatoes: 98 cents
  • 19 ounces Italian sausage: $3.50 for non-turkey
  • 4 teaspoons olive oil: 16 cents
  • 8 ounces fresh mushrooms: $1.74 (and totally optional)
  • 12 ounces mozzarella cheese: $3
  • 15 slices pepperoni: $1.67
  • Salt, pepper and oregano: 5 cents

The total cost comes to $11.10, which is a bit less than an assembled low-carb pizza. This recipe makes six servings.

2. Crazy-Easy Low-Carb Nachos

Remember what we were talking about with all the crazy ingredients?

People have gone to some serious effort to recreate their favorite chips. For example, this recipe for low-carb chili Doritos looks pretty tasty, but it calls for three ingredients you’re unlikely to have in your pantry.

Fortunately, there’s a much simpler solution.

When I’m craving tortilla chips, I just cut and fry a pre-made low-carb flour tortilla. At the bulk price, these tortillas cost just 50 cents each, and each has only 5 net grams of carbohydrates. For comparison, there are about 17 grams of carbs in a serving of corn tortilla chips!

Simply cut a tortilla into triangles and fry them on your stovetop in a tablespoon or so of coconut oil. There you have it -- a serving of delicious, warm low-carb tortilla chips ready for your favorite dip or topping.

Best of all, it couldn’t be cheaper:

  • 1 low-carb tortilla: 50 cents
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil: 13 cents

Total cost: 63 cents, plus toppings -- and I defy you to find sour cream and salsa that will set you back more than a buck.

Then, load ‘em up with your favorite cheeses, sour cream or low-carb chili.

Or, you know, just dip them in salsa. (I’m always too impatient for much more than that.)

3. Low-Carb Taco Shells

The good news is that almost every part of a taco is already naturally low in carbohydrates. The bad news is that the taco shell is not. What to do?

You guessed it: Cheese is the answer.

  • 8 ounces shredded cheese: $2.20
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin (optional): 1 cent

Total cost: $1.21 (about 30 cents per taco shell) at the bulk price for cheddar, which is a good option for mexican flavor profiles.

Of course, the crunchy shells from Old El Paso run closer to 12 cents per shell at Target, but they also have 6 grams of carbs each. And they’re not made entirely of cheese, so there’s that.

Plus, these rich cheese “tortillas” are likely to satisfy you well before you’ve accidentally packed away upward of five tacos without thinking about it, which may save you money after all.

Also, again -- they are literally. Made. Of. Cheese.

4. Low-Carb Pasta -- That Isn’t Spiralized Vegetables

This one’s big. So many people tell me they could never live without pasta, even if their continued noodle consumption meant they’d surely fall over dead tomorrow.

And pasta can be a pretty tricky carbohydrate to imitate. After all, the only ingredient is dough, and that’s the ingredient you can’t have. (And as much as I love you, spiralized zucchini, you’re not pasta. And what I have with pasta is something special.)

But since Sarah at The Primitive Palate came up with this ingenious recipe for low-carb gnocchi, you don’t even have to sacrifice that.

No, they’re not noodles, but who doesn’t prefer gnocchi anyway?

  • 16 ounces shredded mozzarella: $2.40
  • 3 egg yolks: 75 cents (actually a bit less since you’re ditching the whites)
  • 1 teaspoon granulated garlic: 1 cent

That brings the total cost of this zero-carb recipe to $3.16… which is only 66 cents more than you’d pay for a pre-made package of the normal stuff at Walmart.

Plus, it’s fresh and, according to Sarah, crazy-easy to make. No brainer, right?

The Key to Saving on a Low-Carb Diet? Simple, Fresh Cooking

No matter what diet or lifestyle you follow, one of the best ways to save money on your grocery bill is to stick with simple, fresh recipes with as few ingredients as possible.

If something calls for a spice or sauce you’ve never heard of before, you’ll likely use it once and let it languish in the back of your pantry forever. Not only does that contribute to our national food waste problem, but it can also be a drain on your funds.

Of course, trying new recipes is a fun way to keep mealtime interesting. It can also help you eat healthier more often.

So our best advice? Don’t be afraid to improvise.

If a recipe calls for an expensive ingredient you know you’ll never touch again, don’t feel obligated to run out and buy it.

Experimenting in the kitchen is one of the best ways to get better at cooking -- and after all, most of these “carby” comfort-food recipes wouldn’t exist without some chef’s curiosity and inventive drive.

So get creative -- no matter what your diet and budget require.

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere.