(Source of image: Media Assets Repository System)
I'd like to begin this blog with a story that I frequently remind myself of. There was a religious guy who always relied on his god for his well-being. One day, due to a flood in this area, he was about to get drowned. A rescuer team in a helicopter arrived at the scene, lowering a rescue cord that he could grab. To their surprise, this guy refused to take it. "God will save me from this disaster soon. I don't need to hang on to this cord right now.", said this guy. Unfortunately, the flood eventually took his life. Having been a good person, the guy went to heaven and ran into his god. He asked the god, "How come you did not save me from the flood? I trusted that you would show up in time." The god replied, "I did. Did I not send you a rescue cord from a helicopter?"
Seemingly small help shows up at our door more often than you may realize. To be able to recognize the help on our way, we need to be diligent and open-minded about what we can do to improve our situation in the long view. I hope that what I'm sharing in these blog posts can be a helping hand to your finance by nudging you to focus on what you can control NOW.
We cannot go another day without hearing about the public fear of an upcoming (or current) recession. However, there is little we can do about macroeconomic circumstances: war-driven spikes in energy prices, high inflation, and a rapid increase in interest rates during quantitative tightening. Sky-rocketing mortgage rates are pushing potential home buyers out of the housing market while low- and middle-income-home owners are struggling to pay for their mortgages.
So, a logical thing to do is to focus on what we CAN control to decrease the magnitude of the economic turbulence we must pass. When it is difficult to grow your assets due to their depressed prices, preserving them as much as possible can be the next best thing to do. To achieve this goal, we can focus on two areas: reducing expenses and increasing extra income.
In Part I of this blog post series on how to fight inflation, I covered the following five topics:
- Community solar projects that even renters can take advantage of.
- Pay-per-mile car insurance
- The most economic cell phone plan
- Free or discounted ebooks
- Free productivity apps
In Part II (this blog post), I will share more tips to help you come up with extra cash via
- Cashback rewards from credit cards and online shopping
- Smart grocery shopping
- Sustainable meal planning that promotes your health
- Saving long-term healthcare costs
- Turning your hobbies into freelancing
Let's dive in!
Hack 6. Cash-back rewards from credit cards
One of the most common pieces of advice that I hear from well-meaning financial gurus is that we should stop using credit cards to avoid carrying too much credit debt. It makes sense for those who are paying high interest on their credit card balances. However, if you are careful about what you buy at reasonable prices within your budget and always pay full balances of your credit cards, strategic uses of credit cards can give you extra cash that would soften the blow of high inflation.
I use seven credit cards that come with no annual fee to pay for everyday items: Citi Custom Cash Master card (5% cash back on my top spend category up to $500 spent in each billing cycle), US Bank Cash+ Visa card (5% cash back on two chosen categories such as internet, utility, or cellular phone bill), Bank of America Cash Rewards Visa card (3% cash back on online shopping), American Express Blue Cash Everyday card (3% cash back on grocery shopping and gas), Fidelity Visa card (2% cash back on every purchase), Capital One Master card (5% cash back on online shopping at Walmart), and Bank of America Better Balance Rewards Master card ($30 cash back bonus every quarter just for fully paying your bills on time every month).
To my knowledge, the cashback bonus from the Bank of America Better Balance Rewards Master card is the most generous in the banking industry. How much cash should you keep in your savings account to earn $120 a year? At 4% interest, you will need $3000 parked at an online bank for a year. In this regard, using the Bank of America Better Balance Rewards Master card to buy something small every month is worth at least $3000 a year in terms of earning safe passive income.
American Express Blue Cash Everyday card also provides special cashback bonuses from rotating categories on top of its 3% cashback on grocery shopping and gas. For example, I'm getting a 5% cashback bonus on auto insurance payments until the end of 2022. If you apply for an American Express Card with this link and get approved, you could also earn a $200 welcome bonus.
I make notes for these cash-back categories and keep them in my wallet. Before making purchases, I always refer to these notes so that I can use the credit cards that will provide the highest cash-back rewards for each purchase. You can think of 2-5% cash back for your expenses as another source of fixed income. Given that I'm getting 4% interest a year from my savings account, 5% cash back is nothing to sniff at. You would feel half of the inflation if you maximize the cash-back rewards from credit card purchases.
Quite a few credit cards come with roughly $200 sign-up bonuses when you spend $500-1000 within three months of account opening. I apply for one or two new credit cards a year to take advantage of these sign-up bonuses. If you maintain a good credit score by fully paying bills on time and spending much less than your credit limits, you can easily get approval for credit cards. So, these sign-up bonuses should be on your radar. If you keep track of your expenses and income, you will be pleasantly surprised to see how much these cash-back rewards and sign-up bonuses amount to. I have been getting $1200 a year on average from the cash-back rewards and sign-up bonuses, which cover 10% of my living expenses. Not bad, right?
Hack 7. Cash-back rewards from online shopping
I love online shopping. I prefer buying things online except for fresh groceries because I can always get the best prices and be quite confident about the quality of the item, based on customer reviews. Plus, it is easy to take advantage of sales by saving your items on "Save for later" lists. Popular clothes of your size may disappear very soon, but I always buy organic whole grains and specialty flour at 20-30% sale. If you enjoy the convenience of online shopping as much as I do, I have a great tip to help you save even more.
The most convenient way to receive cash-back rewards from your online shopping is to install the Rakuten app into your Chrome browser and open a user account with Rakuten. This app lets you know when cash-back rewards are available on the eCommerce website that you are visiting. Once you agree to use Rakuten, which is the same as providing a sales lead (you) to Rakuten, and purchase something during this visit, you will receive the promised cash-back rewards in your Rakuten account, following the confirmation of your purchase.
Rakuten gets referral fees from the participating merchants and gives back a part of the referral fees to the Rakuten users. The size of the cash-back rewards varies, depending on the seasonality and popularity of the merchant websites. I usually get 2-10% cash-back rewards from Rakuten. I have been getting $30 cash-back rewards a year on average, which is not much for sure. However, you can earn a lot more for big-ticket online purchases. If you stack up a 20% discount at an online store and 10% cash-back from Rakuten, you get a 28% discount in total. It is like receiving additional discounts for the things you buy anyway. Why not take advantage of it?
Plus, if you sign up for Rakuten using this link and spend $40 for online shopping at Rakuten's participating merchant websites, you will receive a $40 sign-up bonus at no cost to you!
Hack 8. Cash-back rewards from grocery shopping
Did you know that you can get cash-back rewards from shopping at your good old grocery stores? That is right. Just by adding your favorite snacks, toothpaste, etc. that come with discount coupons to a shopping list on the ibotta app and scanning your receipts as a way to confirm your purchases through the referral of ibotta, you get cash-back rewards.
I have been getting $60 a year from my grocery shopping through ibotta since 2017, which is not much for sure. But I spend less than $100 a month on grocery shopping and it is like getting an additional 5% cash-back reward for my grocery shopping on top of the cash-back reward from my credit card purchases that I mentioned earlier. If you have a big family to feed, cash-back rewards from grocery shopping can amount to a significant amount of money. When food prices are increasing at a dizzying speed, additional discounts for the things you always buy can help you get by during this never-seen-in-50-years inflation.
How does this cash-back reward work? Ibotta is a middleman who refers consumers like us to its participating stores by letting us know which items are on sale. In return for the referrals, thus increasing the sales of its participating stores, ibotta receives fees for the items that you have purchased through ibotta and shares a part of the fees with its users, which comes as cash-back rewards.
Because ibotta can effectively promote new items or increase the sales of discounted items through its network of users, the number of stores available on ibotta has been steadily increasing. You can easily find your favorite stores on ibotta. I use ibotta for my shopping at Walmart. You can also receive cash-back rewards for online shopping through ibotta. But I prefer using Chrome-integrated Rakuten for online shopping because it is more convenient for me to use a laptop for online shopping (yes, I'm old-fashioned 🤫).
If you sign up for ibotta using this link (referral code: sttlsuw) and redeem your cash-back rewards after purchasing eligible items, you will receive a welcome bonus (it is unclear to me how much welcome bonus they give out these days). Plus, you will receive generous cash-back rewards (just by scanning a receipt) at the beginning as ibotta's algorithm encourages you to use ibotta more often until you get used to it.
Hack 9. Smart grocery shopping that reduces cost and food waste
How much of your fruits and vegetables go wasted just because you don't get to consume them in time? According to the USDA, 30% of the food is wasted at grocery stores, restaurants, and consumer homes in the US. The ramifications of this much food waste are many-fold: less food available for the food-insecure, waste of limited resources such as land, water, and energy, negative impact on our efforts to slow down climate changes, and an economic loss, of course.
I have suggestions to minimize food waste at your home, thus saving more money and stretching our planet's limited resources: plan your meals and grocery shopping ahead of time. First, we need to understand how long we can keep fruits and vegetables in a refrigerator (see the table below). Second, buy long-lasting fruits and vegetables in bulk when they are on sale. Third, plan your meals to create opportunities to use up the vegetables that are expected to go bad soon and take advantage of the discounted items at your grocery stores.
Did you know that you can keep certain fruits and vegetables fresh from two weeks to several months in a fridge? My go-to vegetables are potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, garlic, radishes, tomatoes, avocado, bell peppers, eggplants, and cabbage. You can keep onions in a cool, dark place like a basement. The other vegetables and fruits can be kept in a refrigerator. The holes in a bag release ethylene, the ripening gas produced by fruits and vegetables, which would keep them fresh for longer than otherwise. On the other hand, the paper wraps absorb extra moisture around the vegetables, which would slow down fungal growth on them.
Of note, because leaves start to get moldy fast, we need to remove leaves from radishes and celery before storing them in a fridge. But don't throw the leaves out! You can make delicious and nutritious side dishes, using these leaves. Just make the following sauce to marinate these leaves:
A simple savory sauce for celery or radish leaves:
Garlic and ginger
Red pepper powder (1 teaspoon)
Perilla seed oil (1 teaspoon)
Soy sauce (1 tablespoon)
At Lidl, my favorite grocery store, I can usually buy certain fruits or vegetables at 20-50% sale over the weekend. To my knowledge, it is common to run into similar sales at grocery stores. So, it is worth waiting for these sales, especially for durable goods such as bathroom tissues. Grocery stores run sales for various reasons:
They want to sell certain items quickly because they had bought them in bulk cheaply (e.g. freshly picked small apples; for some strange reason, apples have to be big enough to be sold at grocery stores although freshly picked small apples are more delicious than big ones that have been sitting for a long time) or fruits/vegetables are about to go bad.
When people come to a grocery store for the items on sale, they also buy others at regular prices because it is more convenient to buy everything at one store if prices are comparable between the stores they usually go to. For example, when I go to a Lidl to buy fruits and vegetables on sale, I may also buy pastries.
A new store wants to increase its market share where they operate. When a new Lidl store opened in Bayonne where I live, they distributed two $10 coupons to the residents in the area so that they would come to the Lidl store every week for the first month following the grand opening. Because Lidl was competing with a Walmart Super Center nearby, it was a brilliant move. Once customers notice the high quality of certain items at good prices, they will visit the store regularly. That is how I have become a Lidl's loyal customer.
Vegetables or fruits
Maximum storage time in a refrigerator
Instruction for care
Wrap a clove of garlic in newspaper first before storing it in a mesh bag
Wrap individual potatoes in newspaper first before storing the potatoes in a perforated bag
Wrap carrots in newspaper first before storing them in a perforated bag
2 months in a cool place (e.g. basement)
Wrap individual onions in newspaper first before storing them in a mesh bag
Store in a perforated bag
Store in a mesh bag
1 month (without leaves)
Remove the radish leaves and store the radish bulbs in a perforated bag
3 weeks (without leaves)
Remove the celery leaves without breaking celery sticks and wrap the remaining celery in newspaper first before storing it in a perforated bag
Store in a perforated bag. When ready to use, ripen a tomato in a paper bag at room temperature for a day.
Store in a mesh bag. When ready to use, ripen an avocado in a paper bag at room temperature for a day.
Store in a perforated bag
Store in a perforated bag
Wrap a whole cabbage in newspaper first before storing it in a perforated bag
Hack 10. Sustainable meal planning that promotes your health
I do my best to use perishable vegetables first so that I can finish them before they go bad. Because Mediterranean salad goes well with a fried egg on multi-grain bread avocado toast, I always have enough tomatoes and avocados (and sometimes cucumbers) that last me up to two weeks. Mediterranean salad is super-easy to make: it only consists of Roma or cherry tomatoes, seedless cucumbers, and onions. I season this salad with salt, freshly ground pepper, and extra virgin olive oil. The acidity of tomatoes can replace lemon juice in this Mediterranean salad. You can prepare this salad ahead of time and keep it in the fridge for several days.
For a hearty breakfast, I also eat an apple and a banana in yogurt (sprinkled with flax seeds) together with salad and a fried egg on toast (smeared with sunflower seed butter and topped with pumpkin seeds and avocado; see the picture below). I find eating fruits and uncooked vegetables for breakfast easy on my stomach and deeply satisfying. This meal is rich in fibers, vitamins, and antioxidants without lacking protein (from an egg and yogurt) and good fat (from olive oil and avocado). After having this breakfast, you will not feel hungry until lunchtime.
For those who may be worried about potentially raising your blood level of cholesterol from eating an egg, I can tell you that this concern is overblown. Only 20% of our cholesterol comes from dietary cholesterol whereas the liver produces 80% of our cholesterol. Given that the majority of our cholesterol is generated by the liver, the best way to keep our cholesterol level from reaching a danger zone is to push excess cholesterol out of our system. Dietary fibers and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) can accomplish this goal: soluble fibers trap excess cholesterol when they exit our intestine in stool and HDL transports excess cholesterol from the blood back to the liver for destruction. Unless you have a high level of blood cholesterol, it is safe to eat an egg a day together with fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.
The other two dishes that I make often are cabbage salad and vegetable stir-fry over rice or noodles (spicy cauliflower over rice, Mexican bibimbap, Korean bibimbap, stir-fried kimchi over rice, curry over rice, Pad Thai, and japchae).
The beauty of vegetable stir-fry is that you can make the best use of what is in your fridge at the time. I use onions, garlic, and ginger as a base savory seasoning, together with several combinations of potatoes, carrots, celery, eggplants, kale, cauliflower, asparagus, bell peppers, mushrooms, cabbage, seafood, and avocado. By pairing different combinations of these vegetables with several sauces (Korean red chili sauce, ancho chili, guacamole, curry, peanut sauce, or soy sauce), you can enjoy a variety of flavors that originated from different parts of the world! The best nutritional profile rich in fibers, minerals, and vitamins is a bonus that comes with these plant-based dishes.
What about cabbage salad? Not only is cabbage salad easy to make, but it is also highly nutritious. Cabbages start to get fermented in two weeks when kept refrigerated. These fermented cabbages add distinct flavors and nutrition to this salad (like Kimchi and Sauerkraut). So you can make a big batch once and enjoy this salad for up to 3 weeks in a refrigerator.
All you have to do is to cut cabbages, onions, and red bell peppers into match sticks and season them with salt, freshly ground pepper, ginger, mustard, horseradish (you can use powders to replace ginger, mustard, and horseradish; optional), and vinegar (or lime juice). Because the vegetables that go into this salad taste sweet when you bite them, you won't need to add sugar to this salad. I like to add yellow corn kernels to this salad for their bright color and delicate texture (see the picture of the cabbage salad below). This cabbage salad is delicious by itself and goes very well with buckwheat noodles.
I have been making this cabbage salad for a couple of years. Now that I have a much lower tolerance for spiciness, compared to my twenties and thirties, I eat this dish as a replacement for Kimchi.
Cabbages are low in calories while boasting high content of fibers, antioxidants, and vitamins C and K. Vitamin C, in particular, is required to make collagen that gives structural support to our skin. It also reduces the level of free radicals that accelerate the aging process of our body. Thanks to their fibers, antioxidants, and vitamins, cabbages promote digestion, clean our intestines, keep our gut bacteria healthy, and may slow down aging.
Why don't you try this simple dish to stay healthy?
Hack 11. Saving long-term healthcare costs by adopting a healthy lifestyle
The importance of prioritizing my health hit home for me as I witnessed a rapid deterioration of my mother's health when she reached 80. She had enjoyed good mobility and overall health most of her life. My mother ate healthy except for her love for instant noodles and often walked a lot, too. However, she lost all of her teeth a couple of years ago, which prevents her from taking dietary fiber from food as she needs to completely rely on a food processor before eating anything. I have been begging her to get a denture, but my mother had too much fear to see a dentist (or any doctor).
Although I cannot establish causation in this case, I suspect that the deficiency of dietary fiber in her diet may have contributed to my mother's hypertension. As her blood pressure stayed high, she started having trouble seeing things clearly and suffering from severe headaches and dizziness. Now it is difficult for my mother to get up and move around. Sometimes I fear that she may not have many good days left.
Did you know that a patient with chronic diseases spends roughly $6000 a year in the United States, which is five times more than a patient without chronic diseases? Several chronic diseases such as hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and type II diabetes can be prevented by keeping our circulatory system clean. Healthy diets and daily exercise can get this job done. So, healthy lifestyles can hit two birds with one stone: they improve the quality of our lives and save us healthcare costs as we age.
Plant-rich diets can provide you with enough soluble fibers and HDL, keeping your arteries clean. For soluble fibers, you can incorporate oats, legumes (beans, lentils), avocados, apples, and flaxseeds into your diet. To increase your HDL levels, you need to make time for daily 30-minute exercise, limit your consumption of saturated fat, and manage your stress.
Stress management is often an overlooked, must that makes up a healthy lifestyle. Chronic stress narrows the blood vessels, raising our blood pressure. It also jeopardizes our ability to digest food and fight against harmful microorganisms. My favorite routine that reduces my stress to a manageable level includes deep breathing and aerobic exercise.
Deep breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system to bring back our attention from flight-or-fight responses to here-and-now, calming us down. Every morning before having breakfast, I sit down on a chair and engage in deep breathing: inhaling air through my nose for 5 seconds and exhaling with my mouth slightly open for 10 seconds while pulling in my stomach as much as I can. I repeat this cycle 10 times in one seat. This is the best way that I know of to keep my emotional balance.
If it is difficult for you to do exercise, go for a 10- or 20-minute walk after a meal. You can go alone or catch up with your family while enjoying the sunset (see the picture below) and blossoms, changing leaves, or petting a dog in your neighborhood. I also run a stepper at home, which is convenient when the weather does not support outdoor activities. Two thousand revolutions a day strengthens my heart and keeps me warm over the winter without burdening my knee joints. If you are just starting out, you can aim low first and up your goal over time. I used to run out of my breath after making 500 revolutions on my stepper. What matters is your DAILY engagement with physical activity no matter how small it is at first. You will feel so refreshed after a walk or aerobic exercise that you will not want to go a day without it!
I also do a series of muscle-strengthening exercises, using resistance bands, while watching my favorite episodes in the evening. We tend to lose more muscles with age and it is important to maintain muscles for two reasons: strong muscles support our mobility and metabolic health, keeping us active and away from becoming diabetic.
You don't have to go to a gym to reap the benefit of regular exercise. The easier it is for you to move your body, the more likely you will stick to daily exercise. I use two cues to make sure that I go through my exercise routine: I run a stepper after lunch and perform muscle-strengthening exercises at 7 pm when I can watch one of my favorite talk shows.
Hack 12. Turning your hobbies into business opportunities
It is quite easy to do freelancing these days thanks to many online platforms (e.g. Fiverr, Upwork). Occasionally, I translate scientific documents written in Korean into English. I get paid $20-30 per hour at my current translation speed. Although it is not a significant source of my income, compared to my salary, I can easily make over $100 if I decide to put several hours into a translation job. Moreover, I get to learn about the latest development in various scientific disciplines and common errors made in scientific writing while honing my writing skill.
I think of my translation freelance as an investment for future business opportunities. Since I'm planning to write books on the science of well-being and run life science publishing consultation services, I can include Korean-to-English translation in my service repertoire, expanding the range of my target customers.
If you have favorite hobbies, it is a great idea to turn them into freelance jobs. You can google-search freelance platforms in your niche area and apply for a freelance position. That is how I found my freelance job online. You will have to pass the HR desk and multiple tests to demonstrate your skills. But once you are in, it can be flexible when and how much you want to do your freelance work. If you don't go through a freelance agency, you may start by volunteering on your website (or YouTube) and scale up slowly once you accumulate good customer reviews and followers. I hope to share with you my own success stories in the near future!
We are living in a time of great financial uncertainty and high volatility in the stock market. I suggest that you move your close attention from the balance of your investment accounts, which can often make you feel frustrated, to the incremental progress you are making in your journey of leaving your mark in this world. I'm not talking about a making-a-dent-in-the-universe kind of impact. If my work helps others live in better conditions, that is my contribution to this world. Knowing that my time in this world is limited, every creature holds its importance in the universe, and we are all connected, framing my work in this context keeps my eyes on the horizon and away from daily noises.
I hope that this blog post series helped you think about new ways to cope with financial stress and zoom out, making long-term investments to improve the quality of your life. Now it is your turn to share your wisdom with others:
- Which hack item mentioned in this blog post series are you going to try first?
- What are your tips to survive during high inflation?
- How do you deal with stress?
- How did you turn your hobbies into thriving business opportunities?
I believe that sharing good information can make this world a better place and would love to hear from you!