It’s tough out there. Our bank accounts are never as flush as we'd like. Our waistlines won't stay put. And, let's be honest, don't we all wish we were just a little bit smarter?
Here’s the good news. There are ways to fix these things, and they don’t involve five easy payments of $29.95. All it takes is some expert guidance on how to be better about the big stuff.
The Alibi has culled together the best words of wisdom from a master of intellect, a financial advisor and a registered nurse. Whether you’re cruising for a little personal enrichment or starting a whole new career path, these pointers should help you on your journey. Here’s to health, wealth and wisdom in the new year.
You don’t have to be the college type to exercise your brain. In addition to his role as an associate dean (or as he calls it, “firefighter”), Shank has a master’s in philosophy from UNM and is working on his doctorate. He also teaches a number of philosophy classes at CNM and has a few thoughts on the best ways to be more intellectually stimulated.
• Get involved in group discussions. For some people, this happens in a classroom. But another good way to open your mind to other opinions and challenge yourself is through book clubs.
• Learn a new skill or activity. In addition to teaching and studying, Shank likes to rock climb and spends a lot of time in the climbing gym. “It’s a physical activity,” he says, “but it’s also very much a mental sport. You have to think through the route and the problem, and you have to do it without falling or pulling a muscle.” He says anything that grows new dendrites in your brain (the things that help nerves talk to each other) is a good thing. Shank adds that some philosophers are starting to look at what causes happiness, and they’re determining that “a focused engagement in a challenging activity is one of the key factors in promoting a sort of happy sense of well-being.” That task can’t be so difficult that you continually fail, he says, but it also can’t be so easy that it’s unchallenging. Lately, Shank’s been growing dendrites by learning how to cook.
• If you’re not on a degree path, you can still take individual classes that interest you. CNM has open admission, which means you don’t have to worry about getting in. If you sign up for a class, it only costs $44 per credit hour. In addition to traditional college courses, you can sign up for classes in the technical side of the college, like welding or culinary arts or respiratory therapy. CNM also has a Community Education program, which teaches everything from how to make better barbecue sauce to how to use your digital camera. Similar classes are available out of UNM’s Continuing Education.
• Exercising your brain isn’t just about school and study groups. Humans need to “find or create meaningful projects for ourselves,” says Shank, “that test who we are and what we’re capable of and that call to us to sort of become better than who we are right now.” Whether that comes in the form of traditional education, learning new skills or forming a new relationship with a friend or romantic partner doesn’t so much matter—it just matters that you’re challenged to grow. “In philosophy, it’s called the existentialist movement,” says Shank, “to find those things in life that are meaningful and promote individual human flourishing.”
Deep into the recession, most people could use some extra help with their checking accounts. Lichtenberger has some solid advice on how to get your red back to black.
• Lichtenberger’s golden rule for getting a grasp on finances is simple: Spend less than you make. “It’s the first step in having any kind of financial success,” he says. “Whether you make $8 an hour or $800, try to save 15 percent of whatever you earn.” Even if you’re only putting that money into a savings account with a fairly low rate of return, you’re still getting in the habit of putting money aside.
• If you have several different debts to pay off and aren’t sure where to start, pay down the debt with the highest interest rate first. Lichtenberger says he sees a lot of people make the mistake of trying to pay off the largest debt first, regardless of interest rates. But in the long run, he says you’ll save money by paying off that $5,000 credit card debt with an 8 percent annual percentage rate. You can worry about your $50,000 student loan with 4 percent interest later—just be sure to keep paying the minimum.
• As long as you have the willpower, Lichtenberger recommends getting a credit card with a limited-time 0 percent interest on balance transfers; then move your debt from other cards onto it. If you can keep yourself from buying more stuff with it, getting a new card with that incentive (and then transferring the balance whenever the deal is about to run out) can save money in interest. Other cards like American Express will oftentimes offer balance transfers at low rates for the life of the loan.
• When trying to negotiate with your credit card companies or other loan holders over the phone, if you don’t like what you hear, hang up and call back until you talk to someone who tells you what you do want to hear. Then write down his name, the name of his supervisor and the time you called so you can hold him to his answer.
• If you’re considering buying a home, now is the time. Lichtenberger says interest rates on mortgages may not be this low again anytime in the next decade. If you act fast, you can find 15-year mortgages for as low as 4.5 percent.
• Generally speaking, it’s better to invest your savings than to keep it in your bank’s savings account, most of which have low rates of return. Safe options are CDs (short for “certificates of deposit”), which come with a set rate of return, and money market accounts, which are similar to an interest-bearing savings account. At the very least, they’ll make sure your nest egg rises with inflation. You can also find checking and savings accounts with higher interest rates. Visit depositaccounts.com to find the best deals in any state.
• A lot of people are still worried about losing their jobs. To make sure you’ll be covered in the worst-case scenario, Lichtenberger says it’s a good idea to always save at least three months’ worth of your fixed expenses—including what you need for groceries.
• Keep track of your retirement savings. Lichtenberger offers a good strategy for doing this if you bounce from job to job. When you transfer to another employer, roll the money from your previous company’s 401(k) into a Roth IRA. (Roth IRAs are retirement investment accounts that anyone can open. Money is put in after taxes, but withdrawals are tax-free.) If the next company also offers a 401(k) and you leave for another job, roll the money from that account into the same IRA. Do this every time you change employers, so the IRA can hold funds from all your past 401(k)s while the one at your current job is still active.
• While on the topic of 401(k)s, it’s best to take full advantage of what your company will match. But Lichtenberger says anything above the match mark should go into an IRA.
You know her as the Alibi’s Miss Diagnosis, guru of all that ails, aches or inflames you. Here are a few tips she has for general health and getting your year off to a good start.
• Whether you want to eat better or exercise more, Doyle says when you set a goal for yourself, the first step should always be research. “In order to come up with a good goal for yourself to work toward,” she says, “you need to have enough information to set a reasonable goal.” As an example, she says people who want to eat healthier will often do things like start drinking fruit juice for breakfast because they assume it’s good for them. However, fruit juice has the same amount of sugar as whole fruit but not the added benefits of fiber. Gathering information from reputable sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health can go a long way.
• Start by setting achievable goals for yourself. If you never exercise, don’t tell yourself you’re going to run a marathon in two months. Instead, start with walking for 20 minutes three times a week.
• One of Doyle’s favorite programs to recommend is the “5-2-1-0” public education campaign instituted in New Hampshire. Here’s the breakdown of things you should try to do every day, according to the program: Eat fruits and vegetables at least five times; reduce the time you sit in front of a screen to two hours or less (although this obviously isn’t possible for some adults, the point is to minimize it as much as possible); engage in at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity; and have zero sodas and sugar-sweetened sports and fruit drinks.
• Doyle says oftentimes it’s easier to add healthy habits than it is to take away unhealthy ones. So if eating well is hard for you, don’t cut out all the junk food and try to eat nothing but “good” food right away—just add the good food to your diet. As you get used to eating more whole fruits and vegetables with leafy greens, eventually your tastes will start to change. Cutting back on the junk food will happen naturally.
• See your doctor or nurse. “I’m kind of a purist,” says Doyle, “but I think every person in America should have a checkup at least once a year,” because preventative care is the best thing you can do for your body.
• If you can, see the same medical provider consistently so she’s familiar with you and what’s normal for your body. Having a long-standing relationship with a provider increases the chances that a problem will be caught early.
• When you see your provider, make a list of priorities to discuss. Doyle says most doctors and nurses wish they had an hour with each patient, but in reality they have closer to 10 or 15 minutes. While it’s fine to bring the whole laundry list, you’ll get the most out of your time by knowing what issues are most important to you and making sure they’re covered.
• Bring a list of all your medicines—not just prescriptions—to your appointment. Or just bring them all with you in a bag.
• Ask whether you’re up-to-date on your immunizations. It’s easy to check, but most practitioners forget to do it at every appointment.
• Make sure to remind your practitioner about allergies you have.
• If you have a family history of illnesses —diabetes, heart disease or high cholesterol, for example—make sure you bring it up, and it’s always appropriate to ask to be screened.
• If you don’t have insurance, a good option for you might be UNM Care, which is for people who can’t afford insurance. It doesn’t include a monthly premium and it offers low co-pays, but there’s not as much choice about who you see.
• There’s no silver bullet for health, says Doyle, and everyone’s body has different priorities. If you job is at a desk, the most important thing you can do is walk, she says. If you eat fast food, it’s adding fruits and veggies to your diet. If you smoke, it’s quitting. And if you’re isolated, it’s becoming involved in social activities, because emotional well-being affects your physical health, too.