Browsing posts in: Money & Personal Finance

Say “Yes.” How my mom inspired and changed my life.

This is a photo from my mom's surprise "Bon Voyage" retirement party we threw in 2012. (Please excuse her casual outfit, her friend that brought her to the surprise told her they were going to the greenhouse so she's wearing her work-in-the-yard clothes. There is no excuse for my brother's outfit though.)

This is a photo from my mom’s surprise “Bon Voyage” retirement party we threw in 2012. (Please excuse her casual outfit, her friend that brought her to the surprise told her they were going to the greenhouse so she’s wearing her work-in-the-yard clothes. There is no excuse for my brother’s outfit though.)

One of the people to make the largest impact and influence on my life has been my mother and her focus on always saying, “Yes.”

This may sound like a small or simple thing, but it’s made an exponential impact in my life. It’s really easy for people to say “no,” or be negative and put up barriers in their heads, make up excuses on why they can’t do things, but her focus and indomitable spirit has made me who I am and often opened me up to new adventures and opportunities that my peers passed over.

There’s so many reasons she has been an inspiration to me, but I keep coming back to this key value she instilled in me, along with all the tertiary values of sacrifice, focus, indomitable spirit and hard work that help make saying, “yes,” a possibility.

Her focus on frugality (almost to ridiculous levels) and living well below your means allows you to save and prepare for saying “yes” when the right opportunity presents itself. She raised me to appreciate people and our time with them, not material goods or fancy clothes.

She always said yes to doing things herself, from DIY projects to always taking great care cleaning/maintaining/fixing the things that you do have around things around the house, to gardening and enjoying nature’s bounty, to almost always cooking at home and only going out to eat on special occasions (which is a polar opposite to how most people live in DC, and it still feels weird to me). Even when I go home now, she puts up a fight when I want to take her out to eat. …maybe that’s swinging too far in the other direction, but it’s this mindfulness with her money that has made her financially secure on a public school teacher’s salary. She did her best to learn early about the stock market and how to make your money work for you, by founding an investment club with other teachers, and she passed these skills on to me.

Even when she didn’t want to say yes, she stepped up and did her best at whatever she tried. She didn’t set out to be a teacher, she originally wanted to be an entomologist but back in her day there wasn’t many opportunities for women to do much besides teachers or nurses, especially in the sciences. So she buckled down and became the best teacher she could be, with many awards, degrees and generations of glowing and thankful students. In doing so, she taught me to be the best at whatever you do no matter what it is. Similarly, one of my photographer mentors in Chicago, John H. White always relayed this story from his father:

When John H. White was nine years old, a teacher told him that he would grow up to work on a garbage truck because he was slow in math. At home, his father told him to grow up to be his best, to look for the best in others, and if he were to work on a garbage truck, fine—just be sure he’s the driver. White has said that this was a turning point in his life.

Her focus on public and community service and giving back through your life’s work, spending more than 40 years teaching generations of children also had a huge impact on me as I’ve worked through journalism helping the public good and now in government service. She has been a giving tree her whole life and gave that trait to me.

She also inspired me in saying “yes” to embrace travel as much and as frequently as possible and to seek out interesting and diverse people and events to learn about. In high school, I had a crazy eclectic group of friends from preppy jocks to metalheads to rustbelt gear heads to computer nerds to poets and artists, and looking back on it, I think part of that was founded by her always fostering me to embrace all sorts of different people, places and things to explore the world and understand more.

She seeded in me the intensity and indomitable spirit to say yes and chase my dreams and make them a reality. She also sewed a frank and sometimes cynical/realistic (depending on your perspective) view of the world, but always looking to find the best in people and life.

While she’s a bit more of an extrovert and social butterfly, people often say that we share the same laugh — loud, jovial and infectious; you can always pick us out in a room. I’m proud to carry her likeness, legacy and hope to instill the “say yes” values into the people in my life.

A handy tool to compare if you should invest your spare cash or pay off loans earlier

I hate debt and always try to pay off everything as soon as possible, but sometimes it might be best to sink some of that money into the market if you have a low-interest loan. This week has been a while ride on the stock market and a good reminder that if you can sack away money, it’s always nice to have a little chunk liquid to invest in market freakouts like Black Monday with some stocks swinging 20-30% in a 48 hour period.

This handy tool is great for comparing your loans and what your market investments are yielding to see if you’d end up in a better position investing than paying off the debt prematurely. It sounds crazy, but it’s possible. Give it a try.

Periodically do the discount double-check and see what discounts you can get from your corporation and industry

Discount Double Check

If you work for a corporation or a certain industry (especially government or military), you’d be surprised how many barely-publicized discounts you might be able to get — especially on things like monthly mobile phone plans! Every organization I’ve worked for since the 2000’s has had some sort of discount plan on cell coverage. All you have to do is Google/call and you could save usually 10-15%; it takes minutes and can save you hundreds of dollars a year.

I must admit, I didn’t think about this as a federal employee, but was reminded to check this week by some co-workers and found that there are tons of discounts and special offers available for Govies, including discounts on monthly phone bills from AT&T and Verizon, as well as a bunch of travel and moving companies, Apple computers, and much more.  Here’s a handful of handy sites tracking discounts:

It doesn’t hurt to do a quick discount double check before making a purchase to see if you could save a little. Also, as previously mentioned on Kaizen Will, you might be able to earn airline miles buying things online through most major carrier’s referral stores.


Road trip rebel: Get your electronic toll E-ZPass transponder from a different state to save money



The U.S. Toll Road system uses a uniform electronic standard for it’s digital transponders called “E-ZPass” but each state seems to have different monetization, discounts and billing models, so if you travel on a lot of toll roads (or never at all) you could have end up paying much more for getting and registering your E-ZPass in your home state. Check out Wikipedia for an awesome chart detailing all the fees, charges, minimums and discounts on the various state E-ZPass transponders to see your options.

The most notable difference to pay attention to: *Many* states charge monthly operator fees, regardless of if you use the pass. So if you’re like me and don’t make a ton local trips on the toll roads (unless my GPS fails me and I get lost) you could burn through your balance without doing anything.

Even though I don’t use it locally, I bit the bullet and got one for when I head home to visit family for a few reasons:

  1. There are several preferable/faster toll roads (and traffic on toll roads tends to be moving faster, less big trucks and less police, imho.)
  2. Paying cash at the toll booths almost always cost significantly more than using the E-ZPass (even before the state-based discounts)
  3. Using the electronic system also saves you time and gas because you don’t have to slow down, wait in line and pay — and at some toll booths especially in metro areas this can mean significant delays

For my needs, Illinois and Massachusetts seem to have the cleanest options, but ‘your mileage may vary’ ::rimshot:: depending on discounts you could get locally with your state’s option, so chose carefully.

Watch this: Inspirational and transformational management strategies from The Profit

The Profit

I’m not a reality TV junkie by any means, in fact, I avoid almost all of them (and most TV in general). But one show I’ve been hooked on over the past year has been The Profit, a CNBC show about turning around failing businesses with investor and consultant Marcus Lemonis who invests his own money, sweat equity and expertise to right the ship.

What I love about this show:

  1. As someone who’s dedicated his live to trying to fix, improve and impact legacy organizations from media to the government with varying levels of management, process and product issues, I really enjoy seeing Lemonis’ process and how he drops in to any type or size of organization– from Key Lime Pie bakers to car dealerships to a custom furniture family business — and applies a simple formula to fix it. And most of the time, he seems to pull it off.
  2. His simple formula is fantastic. Focus on improving: People. Process. Product.
  3. It’s real. Sometimes the deals don’t always work out or things explode and then end up in litigation after the business backs out of agreements or didn’t disclose debts or other issues. One of the things that drive me nuts about most reality shows is their predictable story arcs that make them seem scripted (and without a doubt, some are). The Profit doesn’t always have a happy ending and I appreciate the realness of that.
  4. Lemonis’ interpersonal skills have been really inspirational to me. The way he drops into these organization, finds allies, champions and diamonds in the rough, then raises them up and helps them rebuild were instrumental in my leadership strategy in the last year at the BBG. Most of the time, the core issue with the business is the people. Process and product are generally easier to fix. People are often the hardest thing to change in failing businesses, especially changing a culture or a hard personality (without just firing away the problem which sometimes you can’t). Often in the show (and in real life at these kind of flailing organizations) issues are caused by people who refuse to give up control, refuse to try a new way or hand over control to the next generation of leaders. So learning his tools and emotional intelligence strategies has been incredibly helpful for me as a manager.

Check it out on CNBC prime time, the web on Hulu (how I watch it).

All Men Must Die — Here’s an easy tool to help you get your house in order before you buy the farm

All Men Must Die

One of the best blessings/burdens of my father’s early death when I was still a teenager was a firm understanding about our mortality, which I think about fairly frequently and which also motivates me to achieve my best and live with the kaizen will.

In preparation for when your time comes, there’s a new handy tool for tying up all the logistics needed when/after you die for your survivors:
(Don’t go to the .com, btw.)

This website has sample templates for all sorts of logistical info you or your family will need when someone dies, including checklists of account info, Will and Power of Attorney forms. It’s a lot of chomp through, but spending a few hours one weekend to knock it out could save a lot of headaches down the road during a very stressful time. Share it with your family and make sure that everyone is set up to help each other out.

The creator explains the motivation for the site:

There are a few simple things I wish I had taken care of before my life went sideways, like a will, living will, and some details jotted down. Should the ground fall out from under your feet—plan now for a softer landing. In fact, it’s easy to finish the planning and basic papers your life needs.

In 2009 my husband was killed in an accident. In the following hours, weeks, and months I was shocked by the number of things we had left disorganized or ignored. Critical documents you can spend a fraction of the time doing now. Here are those core items, streamlined.

Get your shit together now and breathe a huge sigh of relief. You can do it.

Bonus Pro Tip: After you finish filling it out, set a calendar reminder to check and update it as needed when you do an annual file backup, transfer and computer cleaning. (I usually do these over the Christmas holiday break and in July.)

Nine metrics to use to evaluate if you should take on a side-hustle project


Back in 2011, I hit at a breaking point in my life and needed to make a change. I’d took on too much across all my professional work, a fellowship studying mobile tech, co-directing the Society for News Design’s St. Louis convention, co-directing the NPPA Multimedia Immersion, working on the board of the Online News Association including several committees and as Secretary of the executive board, freelancing, plus more than two dozen speaking and teaching engagements. My health, stress and general well-being was way out of whack and I had to start making life changes and being more selective about what I take on, saying “no” to some opportunities. It took a couple years to wind things down and become much more selective (and I still fall back to my old ways and overload myself) but I developed a checklist system for evaluating projects.

I was reminded of this list last week at the 9th annual Multimedia Immersion (yes, this is one of the few things I didn’t wind down, yet) when the amazing, humble and world-famous photographer Greg Heisler was speaking on stage during our freelance/career discussion. He said he had a handful of tests/motivation points for making decisions about when he would pick up work and relayed some stories where he took less than the money he should have received for the opportunity to work with cool people or for future gigs.

Here’s my list that I developed (in no particular order) for deciding if/when to take on extra side-hustle projects:

  • Skills — To learn new skills.
    (It’s important to be constantly evolving your skills, living the kaizen way.)
  • Impact — For the impact it makes on the world, to do good.
    (I’m starting to be much more critical about what real and exponential impact some work can have and trying to find bigger/harder/more impactful things to take on after reading “Bold.”)
  • People — To be around and work with amazing people.
    (As many people say, ‘You are the average of your 5 best friends,’ so finding more awesome people to influence you and raise your awesome average is always good.)
  • Money — For the substantial money.
    (As in $100/hr rates or as an investment that will likely have exponential returns.)
  • Challenge — To be challenged, solve interesting problems.
    (This can take many forms and be a dangerous one because some challenges can consume you if you take them too far, but accomplishing difficult things can be very rewarding.)
  • Pleasure — For the pleasure/calling of doing the work.
    (Some things like maintaining a garden or brewing your own beer, may not be lucrative or extremely productive uses of time, but there’s a personal pleasure you can derive from the experience.)
  • Resume — For the future career opportunities that will grow from this.
    (Sometimes this is hard to gauge since it’s hard to know when a connection to make helping with a conference could lead to a job, but the line on your resume is a little easier to quantify.)
  • Reputation — To build character and status.
    (Especially building a reputation of serial start-up successes, so that when people think of you they know you’ll deliver and are good to your word.)
  • Appreciation — To feel appreciated.
    (Although this frequently doesn’t happen easily, openly or very clearly, so this should not be the primary motivator.)

Not everything I decide to take on has to hit all these points to get the green light, and some things might just be incredibly high value in one or two, but ideally, I try and only take on work that fulfills at least half of the items on the list.

If I work through this list and I’m still on the fence, I sometimes consider what a (soon to be former boss) Rob Bole, said something at a BBG staff meeting encouraging us to innovate and push the boundaries (which I have had scribbled on a Post-It note on my desk wall since): “When you have the choice between two different options, choose the most dramatic.” New adventures stretch and grow your character and experience more than doing lots of the same thing year over year over year.

Relocation & travel pro-tip: Where to get free, easy and high-quality moving boxes

Banana Boxes

During the first decade or so of my career, I moved around a lot climbing the industry ladder, accepting fellowships, buying houses and condos and working my way from the bottom-up in the industry. In the first 15 or so years of my career I had more than 12 significant moves from Toledo-Chicago-Sydney-Toledo-Stuart-St. Pete-Stuart-West Palm Beach-St. Louis-Columbia-St. Louis-DC. Throughout all of them one faithful companion has helped me move every step along the way (No, not my trusty 3-in-1 cart, at least not in the first 10 moves):

The basic grocery store banana box.

This is a Sullivan family pro tip passed down through generations; as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve had memories of my grandmother and mom lugging around banana boxes of junk to sell at the annual family garage sales. In my older age and many, many moves I’ve found their brilliant design, versatility and thriftiness to be an indomitable ally for transporting things from point A to B.

Here are more than 10 reasons why I’m B-A-N-A-N-A-S for banana boxes: 

  • They’re free and reusable. Go to any grocery store and ask and they’ll gladly give them away. And you’ll save a stock boy hours of box crushing and bailing these.
  • They have fixed, strong, built-in handles!
  • The top easily stacks inside the bottom so they don’t get lost.
  • They’re uniform in size so even if you mix up box tops/bottoms you’ll be able to fit everything together
  • They’re very study, hard and often waxed cardboard so they can often survive getting damp or wet.
  • There’s two thick cardboard layers, the top and bottom, glued and fixed, so they don’t crush and crumble like standard moving boxes from Home Depot or elsewhere.
  • There’s no packing tape and tape gun/scissors really necessary since they are already glued and fixed and the suction force of pulling the lid/bottom off of each other keeps them very firmly together.
  • Their size makes them ideal for carrying a reasonable physical size and weight load — it’s hard to fill a banana box to the point that it would be too heavy to carry. Even chocked full of books or magazines they’re still carry-able for a moderately healthy person a moderate distance. And a bunch of them filled with light materials like clothes or blankets can be easily stacked for quicker loading, less trips.
  • Their shape makes them basically impossible to accidentally tip over (compared to Home Depot moving boxes which tend to be taller than they are wide at the base).
  • The uniform and consistent size makes it easy to Tetris them into your moving vehicles, stack on any side or even upside down.
  • Because of their rigid shape and design, They can be stacked very high and hold a lot of weight without crushing. (I’ve stacked them 8 high, which is almost taller than I can reach and load safely.)
  • In a pinch, banana boxes can also double as a free or second suitcase (for souvenirs and gifts or if yours gets shredded somewhere in an emergency) since they’re pretty standard sized around the world and available at most grocery stores in most developed nations. They’re also under the normal check-in luggage size and with some tape can become secure enough to easily endure the luggage throwers and conveyor belts of the airports.

Pro Tip: Grab a Sports section of newspaper and throw them in each of the boxes you collect, this acts as a cover/filler for the hole in the center of the box if needed, but also can easily become packing material to protect the objects in the box.


Get free frequent flyer miles for online purchases places you probably already shop


One of my other frequent flyer mile travel hacks to keep the airline miles you’ve earned (since they usually expire after a year or two) AND earn new airline miles on purchases you were already going to make through websites, is buying things through one of many airline Online Shopping Frequent Flyer portals. (I know, I know, this sounds spammy or like a pain, but it’s actually really quick and fairly painless.)

A bunch of the major airlines have these affiliate programs that give frequent flyer rewards when you purchase something after being directed from their airline portal. It takes 10 seconds extra and gives me hundreds of thousands of extra miles each year on things I was already buying from Groupon, Living Social, Dell, Verizon, Kohls, Home Depot, etc. There’s thousands of sites included with at least $1 to 1 point earnings (and many higher than that). Pair that with an airline credit card and you could double all your mileage earnings!

The process is simple:

#1 – Before making a purchase, I’ll check my preferred airline’s Online Shopping Frequent Flyer portal (this appears to be the same white-label company that manages the portal for all airlines, so the same stores for Southwest are available for Delta, etc.) and I also know pretty well what stores I frequent that are included so I don’t check every time:

#2 – I’ll hit the store link through the Airline portal I prefer to earn miles on (usually Southwest).

#3 – I’m briefly prompted to log into to my frequent flyer account (which all the password info is automatically filled and saved using LastPass):

#4 – It redirects me to the store I was going to shop and and I make my purchase as I normally would. After the purchase (and some processing time, the points get posted to my Frequent Flyer account).

That is it!

These airline portals also sometimes have increased earning rates and specials, but I don’t pay too much attention to that. If I make a purchase at the right time and get extra points, that’s awesome. I don’t watch the portal like a hawk or anything.

Pro Tip: The time it takes for miles to get posted to your account varies WIDELY from the companies and airlines, so buyer beware and maybe check in a month after purchase if you’re using this as your primary means of keeping an airline frequent flyer account alive or if it was a big purchase with big rewards.


How to use frequent flyer miles to get basically free magazine subscriptions

Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Medium)

My Notorious RBG Time cover, well worth 500 miles on some random airline I never use.

For those of you who don’t travel frequently or use a specific airline regularly, you might have some frequent flyer accounts with a few hundred or thousand miles on them. I had a couple accounts with this since I tend to fly on a few specific routes/airlines.

A few hundred frequent flier miles are often too low a number to get any free flights or upgrades, not worth any substantial value to try and transfer to someone else to buy/exchange and if you don’t have regular activity with the airline for over a year or two, the miles will often expire and you get nothing — and often no warning. (Delta is the exception currently, where they don’t expire.)

One solution to get *some* sort of value out of these lonely and small amounts of miles is to cash them in on, where you can exchange a few hundred miles (or sometimes a thousand for weekly publications) to get basically free newspaper or magazine subscriptions using something you’d lose anyway. By posting the activity in your frequent flyer account, you can keep it active and not lose everything completely and you get a free subscription in return.

I’m not a print guy, at all… even though I worked for print organizations expediting their shift to go digital, I try to do everything digitally and inexpensively/freely/quick/easily/no subscriptions, but this program gives me a chance to have 2-3 new publications a year on different topics I might not come across in my daily, focused reading and consume them for when I have down time to relax on the porch. They’re also good coffee table or bathroom basket material for the house, and sometimes you’ll find some gems of information, photos and collectible covers.

I’m currently subscribed to Outside, Fortune and Time — and the 500-some miles spent on Time was worth it to get this Notorious RBG cover (pictured). In the Winter, I will probably add Inc. and Fast Company soon (although I read those two online frequently so the print subscription is of little added value to me).