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Apt2B: L.A.'s Local Resource For All Your Home Needs

One of the things I really struggled with in my career, especially when first starting out, was figuring out how to handle all of the different personalities and communication styles. It took me a long time to learn that the only person I could control was me, and that often I was part of the problem. (Unbelievable!)

Realizing that I was not as lovable and easy to deal with as I thought led me to search for a way to change my prognosis. Learning to think more strategically about my interactions changed the game for me. Almost everything I learned came from one of the best-selling self-help books of all time, thanks to the practical and easy-to-apply advice. 

Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" was originally published in 1936, and I've been amazed at how effective the advice is eight decades later. After testing it out for myself over the past year, I've been equally amazed at how every step in this book seems to be "common sense," yet so few people seem to take those steps (myself included, prior to reading it).

You know that old adage that 80% of success in a job is your ability to deal with people? Applying the tips from this book proved to me it's true not just for the workplace, but for life in general. For those of you who don't sit in airports with your Kindle for several hours every week, I've synthesized Carnegie's tips below.

#1 Be genuinely interested in other people

If you want others to enjoy your company, you must enjoy theirs. This means develop real friendships. Ask questions. Get to know people. Remember their names! Encourage others to talk about themselves. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking. This one was a struggle for me, so I started focusing on asking continued follow up questions and it's amazing how much you can get to know about someone when you just ask. My friend Jocelyn told me that when she first started interviewing, her dad told her: "If you walk out of there and they did most of the talking, you've got it." It's so true! 

#2 Give people honest appreciation

Sigmund Freud argued that almost everything that we do stems from a desire to be important. Instilling in others a feeling of being appreciated is the fastest way to feed that desire to be important, and most people are starving for that feeling.

Carnegie notes that giving honest appreciation should not be confused with flattery, which is insincere. Genuine appreciation is specific, and true. The person receiving it can sense the difference.

#3 Talk in terms of the other person's interests

With the exception of your friends and family, most people don't really care what you want. They care about their own interests, what they want and need. Re-frame your interactions to consider what the other person wants, and figure out how to tie up what you want with what they want. This is sort of Sales 101 but works in so many different settings, because it makes the other person happy to do what you suggest.

#4 Give people a fine reputation to live up to

In addition to some of the basics of making people feel like they matter (such as learning and remembering their names), Carnegie suggests that you make the effort to give people a fine reputation to live up to, meaning that you treat them according to their ideal reputation. When someone makes you feel like you're the best-of-the-best, you feel the need to prove them right.

When I was in eighth grade, my language arts teacher pulled me aside after class to talk. She must have sensed how awkward I felt, too skinny with big feet, a bowl cut, glasses, and braces;  entrenched in decidedly uncool hobbies that required me to lug around a violin case and a toolbox of all my paint supplies. She told me that I was smart, and someday that would be cool - and told me she would place me in the advanced language arts track for high school if I committed to continuing to work as hard as I did in her class. That conversation that she probably doesn't remember kept me going for years.

#5 Begin all conversations in a friendly way

Even when those are tough conversations or discussions. As Lincoln said, "A drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall." I've personally tested this one on tough clients and even at the airport.

Once, I mistakenly booked my return flight from Nice to Chicago for the wrong day (!) and realized it at the airport. British Airways was in the middle of a strike, and the line at the check-in counter was filled with angry travelers. I approached the counter of an extremely agitated agent, and said to him in Kindergarten-level French: "Hello! I need to change my flight. It is all my fault, I booked for the wrong day. You have so many other concerns right now, and I am so sorry to be another bother to you! If it will take too much of your time to fix my mistake, I understand."

Beaming, he replied in English: "No problem at all! Let me see what I can do for you!" I flew home an hour later, in first class. (And wrote to British Airways thanking that agent by name.)

#6 Don't criticize, condemn or complain

At least when at work, or in public. When something isn't going your way, pause instead of allowing your negative impulses to take over. Make an honest attempt to understand where the other person is coming from, and why they do what they do. Finding a way to see things from the other person's point of view helps to diagnose their bad behavior and potentially resolve the problem. Remember that criticism, condemnation, and complaints are essentially unproductive - nothing kills ambition to change faster than these three.

#7 Assume positive intent 

In contrast to criticizing, condemning or complaining, assuming positive intent and appealing to nobler motives will never, ever fail. This is one of the hardest to do, but one of the most effective. Carnegie gives so many examples of daily interactions we can improve by drilling this assumption into our subconscious minds.

#8 Understand that you can never, ever "win" an argument

The only way to win one is to avoid it entirely. When someone disagrees with you, don't argue. Instead, follow Dale's tried-and-true steps based on Socrates' 'yes' method:

  1. Welcome the disagreement

Express thanks that it was brought to your attention. Acknowledge that the disagreement may be an opportunity for you to prevent or correct a serious mistake.

  1. Distrust your instinctive first impression

Which is to become defensive. This is another area that I struggled with for far too long. Be careful, control your temper, stay calm, and quiet your first reaction. They say you can measure the size of a person by what makes him angry.

  1. Listen first

Give whomever is disagreeing with you a chance to speak, and let them finish. Don't interrupt, resist or defend yourself as this just builds further disagreement. Remember that you're trying to build a bridge of understanding

  1. Look for areas of agreement, and be honest

After you've heard the person out, actually say out loud the points that he or she mentioned with which you agree. Look for opportunities to admit your own error and apologize. It will disarm the other person.

  1. Promise to think over the other person's ideas

And mean it, because they may be right. It's a lot easier to think over their points than to ignore them and then realize they were right down the road.

  1. Thank the other person sincerely

Anyone who takes the time to disagree with you is interested in the same things that you are interested in. Thinking of them as people that want to help you makes things easier.

  1. Postpone action to give both of you a chance to think things through

Suggest a follow up meeting the next day, and prepare for it by asking yourself hard questions.

#9 Show respect for other people's opinions and ideas

Even if they are terrible ideas, never say "you're wrong." Instead, be sympathetic with the other person's ideas and figure out how to get them to say yes to what you both agree on. Begin with praise, and call attention to mistakes indirectly and privately where possible to let the other person save face. Use encouragement, and make any fault seem very easy to correct.

Calling attention to your own flaws and mistakes before calling attention to other's is also effective in demonstrating respect. One of the best nuggets of wisdom I've gotten from my mom was to consider what Wes has to put up with about me before I judge or criticize him. Hard pill to swallow, but it works.

#10 Admit when you are wrong

And do it quickly and emphatically. Pride does not make you likable or influential, quite the opposite.

Once, I was late submitting a critical report because I was waiting on a (higher-ranking) colleague who didn't give me his inputs despite repeated reminders. I was FURIOUS, then entirely shocked that he admitted fault, cc'ing our boss to admit the blame was on him. Proof enough for me that honesty is disarming; I'll follow him anywhere because of that!

#11 Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers

I once heard an expression that you can accomplish anything on Earth if you don't care who gets the credit. This has been proven to be true over and over again in my career! Carnegie provided a great example in the book, about a colonel named Edward House who is famous for having enormous influence over President Woodrow Wilson.

The method House used on the president was simple:

"After I got to know the President," said House, "I learned the best way to convert him to an idea was to plant it in his mind casually, but so as to interest him in it - so as to get him thinking of it on his own account. The first time this worked was an accident. I had been visiting him at the White House and urged a policy on him which he appeared to disapprove. But several days later, at the dinner table, I was amazed to hear him trot out my suggestion as his own."

#12 Ask questions instead of giving direct orders

Instead of pushing people to accelerate their work and rush to accomplish your objectives, ask them questions: "Is there anything we can do to handle this in a faster way?" or "Can anyone think of a different process that would make this simpler and easier?"

One of my high school best friends, Michelle, has worked as a reporter for years. She once told me a story about this proud but cranky old cameraman who refused to take suggestions from reporters on anything related to the video, which is a huge problem if you want to do a fresh angle or a creative shot.

Michelle approached this cameraman, and asked him for advice: "I know you've been doing this a really long time, and one of the best in the business so I'm hoping you'll give me your perspective. I'm not sure if we have the ability to do the shot this way, but thought you could tell me if it's possible"

His response? "Of course it's possible! Here's what we need to do…"

If you've made it all the way through this post, congratulations and thank you so much for reading! I'd love to hear your thoughts on this list of tips, examples of what's worked well for you when it comes to winning friends and influencing people, or other great books on the topic. Let me know in the comments, or feel free to shoot me an email.

This navy silk dress (an eBay replacement of the original Fluet verison I've had for years) is one of the most comfortable dresses I own: it's a breathable washed silk, a super loose cut, and covers my shoulders. It's on the short side, so I've only ever worn it casually with flats and never considered trying to spice it up to wear for a dressier occasion.

That is, until complete closet boredom set in. Lately, I've been overcoming that kind of rut with some good old fashioned outfit planning, and this time around forced myself to rethink some of my tried-and-true basics. Breaking some of my own style rules and attempting to make this basic dress appropriate for a wedding was a stroke of genius that made me fall back in love with it all over again. 

There's a section of my closet that still has a few under-utilized items, including this pair of fancy Italian black suede t-strap sandals that I've been saving for dressy occasions (which are few and far between in my life these days). Pairing this dress with fancy shoes and a simple leather baguette clutch made me feel like that scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts becomes classy. And it felt kind of wrong because I normally never wear heels with short hemlines but the sleeves, high neckline and loose fit convinced me it was just wild enough. (It also passed the Catholic schoolgirl test: hem must be minimum of two inches longer than fingertips.)

It worked equally as well with some old leopard sandals that I rarely wear, a vintage patent leather Gucci bag, and an 80's door knocker necklace that normally decorates my dresser. Breaking my own rule about wearing only one vintage thing at a time and then realizing that I was all wrong about that rule made me seriously question my judgement.

Try it, I dare you, the next time you feel like you're out of things to wear. Here are the highly scientific steps:

#1 Select a casual dress you love but kind of bores you.

#2 Unearth your favorite pair of fancy heels and put them on.

#3 Add a coordinated bag.

#4 Apply bright lipstick.

#5 Dance around your house, take a few selfies for reference purposes. 

Voila, instant wedding outfit you already own. I guarantee you'll be wearing it to a dinner party soon. If you're like me, all that excitement and newfound ability to change the lens with which you view your closet will cure your hunger to buy a new dress.

Ok, that's all for now. Please forgive my radio silence, it's been a crazy couple of weeks. (It's currently 9:35 p.m. on a Tuesday night and I'm sitting in a Marriott eating a Chipotle carnitas bowl with a plastic coffee lid because I was so distracted I left without silverware. If you're wondering whether to feel bad for me or admire my resourcefulness, I'm also pondering that question...)

Anyway, back to the topic on hand: I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you breathe new life into the old favorites in your closet. (I still have four and a half months to go on this no new things experiment and need all the ideas I can get.)

When I started my first job in consulting, I went in with soaring expectations and a shiny new collection of Brooks Brothers suits. I'd studied hard for my case interviews, researched the firm at length, and knew in my soul that it was the ideal place to build my career.

I utterly despised it within a week of my start date.

And by 'utterly despised,' I mean sleepless nights, mid-day tears in the bathroom, and an unshakable urge to flee. And, if I am being totally honest, a confidence-shattering case of doubt in myself and my ability to make big decisions such as choose a career path. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was that drove such a deep emotional response in me, but I didn't want to suffer through the time required to reflect. I wanted out, ASAP.

I began frantically applying for jobs, ranging from Starbucks barista in Chicago to operations analyst for a company in Japan. One day after I accepted a role that would take me far from Washington, D.C., my friends and my relationship with my now-husband, I met a woman at my firm's office who sensed my distress and gave me the best career advice I've ever received:

"Colleen," she said, "Never run from, only run to a position. You need to figure out what you want, and then take logical steps to get it." She asked me to slow down and take time to complete a simple exercise in structuring my thoughts, and if I still wanted that job afterwards, I should be confident moving forward.

Taking her advice helped me to make the right decisions to design a life that I really wanted, and I'm convinced that my life would be dramatically different today if I hadn't completed this honest assessment of myself. In fact, I saved my original notes and revisit them periodically to see if I need to refine anything. It's strangely comforting how little has changed.

So, without further ado, here's the simple method I used to design the life I wanted:

#1 Get three sheets of plain white, eight-and-a-half by eleven inch computer paper out of your printer.

#2 Label one page "Things that I dislike."

#3 Set a timer for 60 minutes.

#4 Without judgement, list every possible thing that comes to mind in that hour when you think of your dislikes.

These can be aspects about a job, a boss, a city, an apartment, relationships, you name it. If you feel like you can go for longer than an hour, feel free to keep writing.

My list included things such as "Sitting in traffic," "Being micromanaged," "Laziness," "Negative attitudes," "Downtime and boredom," "Making pivot tables," "Sitting in a cubicle all day long," "Talking on the phone," and "Feeling like I need to fit a mold."

#5 Set that list aside, and take a second clean white page and label it "Things that I love."

#6 Set a timer for 60 minutes.

#7 Same as with your dislike list, absolve yourself of judgement and list every possible thing that comes to mind in that hour when you think of things that bring you joy.

Again, if you feel like you can go for longer than an hour, feel free to keep writing.

My list included things such as "Having time to spend with Wes every day," "Interacting with positive, thoughtful people," "Exploring new places," "Being challenged and pushed to my limits," "Feeling like the work I do matters," "Bikram yoga," "Helping clients to solve their problems," "Being friends with my co-workers," and "Making lots of money." (She said don't apply any judgement!)

#8 Set that list aside, and take a break from both lists for a day.

#9 After taking some space, get your "dislikes" list and a red pen.

Go back through each item on your list, and ask yourself: "Is this non-negotiable?" If yes, circle it in red pen. This is something you absolutely CANNOT have in your ideal career/life/relationship. It's a subjective assessment, but be as honest with yourself as possible and pay attention to how you're feeling when you're making that call.

For example, "Being micromanaged" is something that I absolutely cannot stand and would not be able to tolerate in a job. That's circled on my list. "Sitting in traffic" is something that's negotiable on my list, because I don't have the same abhorrence towards it. (Thanks largely due to books on tape and really great coffee travel mugs…)

#10 Next, get your "loves" list and a red pen.

Go back through each item on your list, and ask yourself the same question: "Is this non-negotiable?" If yes, circle it in red pen. This is something you absolutely MUST have in your ideal career/life/relationship.

For example, "Being challenged and pushed to my limits" is circled on my list, as is "Feeling like the work I do matters," and "Interacting with positive, thoughtful people." These are all aspects of a career and life that I absolutely needed.

#11 After identifying the non-negotiables on each list, take your final sheet of paper and label it: "My Life Filter."

Draw a line down the center of the page. On one side, write "NO" and on the other side write "YES." Copy each of your non-negotiable items from your "dislike" list into the "NO" column. Each of your non-negotiable items from your "love" list goes into the "YES" column.

This is your life filter, the facts that you'll use to evaluate any step in your life that you're not quite sure about. It's a structured way to understand yourself, your needs and wants, and eliminate some of the noise that tends to distract us into decisions that might not be quite right.

I took my filter and applied it to the job I'd verbally accepted, and realized that it would lead me to a position that had many aspects listed in my "NO" column and just a few listed in my "YES" column. So, I turned the job down - confidently. This filter helped me to not only have the resolve to stick it out until I found the right fit (the firm and group that I'm still working for, years later), but has helped me to make many big, life-altering decisions.

My career, my relationships with husband, my family and friends, the city I am living in, and many other aspects of my life have been impacted by this simple exercise. The "Life Filter" might not be right for everyone, and I'm sure there are a lot of methods out there that people use to help design their lives.

If you've had a similar struggle, I'd love to hear what helped you through it and the methods that have worked well for you!

P.S. The "life inspiration" cards pictured are by one of my new favorite artists, Oorn. Her work articulates some of the themes on my life filter!

Maybe it's just me, but I tend to get stuck in wardrobe ruts that conjure that all-too-familiar feeling of "closet full of clothes but nothing to wear." Getting in a rut with my closet makes me doubt my taste and purchasing decisions, and inspires the need buy something new.

Since I've cut myself off from retail therapy (the cure for that sort of wardrobe ailment), I've started to find new ways to overcome boredom and get my creative juices flowing. These ideas might make me sound a little crazy (if I didn't already...), but they really work for me:

#1 Organize your accessories into cliques

If you follow my Instagram account, you know about my tried-and-true "bag and shoe of the week" strategy for traveling. Well, I've expanded that strategy to include accessories beyond just the basics. Creating coordinated accessory cliques consisting of bag, shoes, sunglasses, hat, scarf, etc. based on commonalities such as complementary colors, diverse fabrics, and similar metal tones was a game changer for me. 

In the photo above, I put a lot of thought into black-and-white straw hat, black-and-white silk scarf, nude leather tote and simple unadorned rubber sandals. They are my Switzerland clique, perfectly neutral of color and guaranteed to play nice with whatever items of clothing I introduce to the combination, be it a black silk shift dress or a shapeless green potato sack of a dress.

My group of structured orange leather tote bag, purple suede sandals and Lucite earrings, on the other hand, would not play nice with all items of clothing and require more thoughtful selections.

Creating these cliques in my closet has established easy foundations for building a variety of outfits and opened new possibilities for certain pieces of clothing I wouldn't have pulled otherwise. Of course, cliques have certain members that float between them and are just frameworks for organizational purposes such as when you need to quickly pull together a dinner party (or an outfit for a dinner party).

#2 Speaking of cliques, befriend the weirdos in your closet one at a time

One weirdo in my closet is the pictured and aforementioned shapeless potato sack of a dress. It's French and I've always loved it, but avoid wearing it due to it's controversial and hard-to-style nature. I made a commitment to wear it this summer after it spent a few years sitting dormant in my summer box. Combining it with the Switzerland clique added some simple-yet-much-needed class, and made me feel fabulous wearing it. I added bright red lipstick, wore it out for a Saturday, and got compliments all day. It was sort of like a Princess Diaries success story for my potato sack.

#3 Hide your favorite things from yourself

Psycho, yet effective: if I have my go-to items within arms reach in my closet, I'll wear them over and over again. So I packed up my favorite items and put them in the back of our foyer coat closet. This helped to refocus my attention on less worn but equally amazing pieces. I rediscovered a few old pairs of shoes this way and have been getting a lot more creative with my work wardrobe when packing.

Added benefit is that the same exact feeling of excitement you get when buying a great new piece is conjured up when you find those forgotten items you hid from yourself a few months earlier. I know this for a fact out of the sheer excitement I had when I found my favorite blue silk Tibi shirt while searching for my feather duster a few weeks ago.

#4 Choose a theme for the day, week or weekend

One theme I've been choosing lately is "I'm going to the beach" when I actually have no plans to do so. This helped me to wear an amazing but very short LaRok dress that I love but never wear out in the city. Instead, I resign it to being a beach cover up. A couple weeks ago, I put it on with my swimsuit and wore it running errands and meeting friends for lunch. Shocker was that no one was shocked: I got over my mental hump and now comfortably wear it for many occasions.

Other themes I choose include "I'm going on a first date" when I have dinner with my husband, or "I am a high powered CEO" when packing for my work trips. 

#5 Rearrange your closet in the order you get dressed, and by "like item" and color

This took a few tries, but I realized that the way I was organizing my closet wasn't conducive to the decision-making required to have great style. I follow a structured process when getting dressed, starting with selecting shoes and coordinated bag appropriate for my day's activities, and then select bottoms, tops or dresses afterwards. I arranged my closet in the order I get dressed and it changed my thinking: I have shoes and bags right up front when I walk in, then have sections for skirts, pants, shirts, and blazers. Each section is sub-divided into like item and ordered by color, resulting in a nice little ombre balance to all of my things. Taking this strategy with organizing my closet helps me quickly assess what will go with whatever item I have on hand to wear.

Of course, I am not perfect and have to spend a little time every week keeping my system organized. A few minutes each week to get everything in order has paid dividends for me and I truly think that I'm getting so much more wear out of the things I own because I can so quickly identify and find them with this system.

Alright, that's all for now, hope you find some of these ideas helpful in getting more use out of your own wardrobe! If you have any ideas that work well for you personally, I'd love to hear them (and use them)!

One of the secondary reasons that I embarked on this 'no new things for a year' challenge was to dial back my spending and make a change to my lifestyle to test whether I could walk away from high-salaried corporate life for a freelance creative venture of my own. 

No matter how much money you make, there's a sense of freedom in questioning how you spend it and realizing that you can do less and get better results. Although this is a concept that I intuitively understood, I knew that long term success required me to learn more about personal finance: it's a topic that makes me incredibly uncomfortable for a number of reasons but not least of which is my utter lack of thought, planning and strategy in that arena.

For years, the extent of my personal finance strategy was to simply make sure I was living within my means, paying my bills on time, and saving a little every month. Obviously, I knew there was more I could be doing, but the topic bored me, long term plans scared me, and I didn't really understand investing.

When I started thinking about what I really needed to live a comfortable life, I did some research and came across "I Will Teach You To Be Rich," Ramit Sethi's simple guide to accumulating wealth. It's sort of a "get rich slow" scheme. In addition to describing the most pragmatic perspective on how to think about money I've ever heard, Ramit outlines very simple steps you should be taking with your money to make the most of it.

People, I took copious notes. As in, disregarded the guy sitting in seat 4C and just kept elbowing him as I furiously scribbled away in my notebook. Then I researched them, talked to my husband and have implemented in full. Although I highly encourage you to read the book (arguably the best $7.13 I've spent this year), here's a summary straight from my plane seat…

Key takeaway: You don't have to change your lifestyle to improve your financials

When I think about saving money, my mind wanders to an image of me sitting forlorn on an old futon in windowless room, eating lukewarm ramen noodles out of a Styrofoam cup. When I think about making money, I imagine scenes from Wolf on Wall Street and feel a sense of shame that my ability to decipher the NASDAQ ticker is somewhat reminiscent of my ability to decipher my 6th grade French textbook.

Ramit argues that becoming wealthy doesn't require a lifestyle overhaul, and has NOTHING to do with investment strategy. Your personal finance strategy should enable your lifestyle. With small adjustments and some thoughtful planning, you can actually spend more on what you care about in the long term. But first, you need to establish the right foundation and set up a system to manage your finances… and it's simple to do. Here's the short, step-by-step version:

#1 Stare your finances in the face

Gather the facts on your current financial position: this includes debts, expenses, savings, what you have coming in, and where you're spending your disposable income. This is your current financial position.

#2 Figure out your 'non-negotiable' expenses

If you want to improve your financial position, you need to consider what expenses are important to you, be it a beautiful apartment in a desirable location, designer bags or traveling the world. When I sat down to really think long and hard about my non-negotiables, it was a surprisingly short list.

#3 Scale back on 'negotiable' expenses

Cut back on every possible expense that does not support your top priority or priorities. For me, that meant cutting out things like coffee shops, frequent fancy dinners, manicures/pedicures and Sephora runs which sometimes ended up costing hundreds of dollars in the course of a month. And that outrageous cable package for my husband… Netflix it is, folks!

#4 Pay off debt

This should go without saying, but paying off any debt should be priority number one.  There's a lot out there on debt payment strategy, but fundamentally you want to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

#5 Set up auto-pay on all of your bills

You'll never miss a payment or pay a fee again. Those cute little fees add up.

#6 Decrease your APR payments

If you're paying for anything on an installment basis (a credit card, a loan, a car, etc.), you can sweet-talk your way into a lower annual percentage rate (APR), or what you are charged for the full year for that loan. Just pick up the phone, and politely ask them to decrease your APR by 50%. If they say they cannot do it, continue asking for a supervisor until you find someone who can grant your wish.

#7 Increase your credit score

Assuming you've paid off debt and are paying all your bills on time, the easiest way to increase your credit score is to ask for a credit increase on all of your cards and DON'T SPEND ABOVE YOUR CURRENT CREDIT LIMIT. This is actually genius: 30% of your credit score is your credit utilization, meaning how much of your credit you've spent. If you have credit increases, but aren't spending it, your score goes up. And your interest rates go down. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-bang. It's that simple, people.

#8 Open a high-interest online savings account

Ramit recommended CapitolOne, I researched it, and it's the best interest you can earn on money that's just sitting in savings (between 0.6% and 1% depending on how much you've got saved). And there are zero fees. None.

#9 Open a Schwab online checking account

Read my lips (ok, read my typeface): no ATM fees, free checks, free bill pay, and 0.6% interest earned on any balance. It cannot be beat. You have to open a brokerage account with your checking account, but it's free and you don't have to use it. Downside is that there are no Schwab brick and mortar banks if you like getting the free lollipops, and it takes a couple of business days to access your money should you need to make a large payment beyond what can be offered by your billions of now-free ATMs.

#10 Automate transfers

Between your sparkly new Schwab checking account to your high-interest savings account, and any other accounts you might want to set up. CapitolOne will let you set up as many savings "accounts" as you want, so you can earmark for things you want such as a kitchen renovation or a $4,000 purse (see 'non-negotiable expenses' in #2 above).

#11 Max out your 401k

Sadly, I hadn't been doing this and have lost a lot of free money. If you've got a corporate 401k, figure out what your company will match, and max out that percentage. Then sit on it and watch the dollars roll in. Your 65-year-old self will thank you (in addition to judging your 25-year-old self for wasting what could have been 401k match dollars on TJ Maxx shoes). Live and learn.

#12 Open a Roth IRA at a discount brokerage

It doesn't matter what brokerage, as they are all the same (no offense to any brokers who may be reading this). Ramit says that playing the stock market gets you no real returns in the long run. So open one, max out your contributions, and don't touch it until your anti-wrinkle cream routine becomes a fruitless venture.

#13 Create a spreadsheet to keep everything in one place

Make it an extremely simple document so you can manage it over time. Put all of your financial accounts (banking, credit cards, loans, etc.), login/passwords, interest percentages, monthly contributions, etc. into one place so you've got the ability to check in and keep your system working seamlessly. And obviously store it in a safe place.

That's it, now you can sit back in your La-Z-Boy recliner and watch the money build up. I'm kidding, of course, because no reader of this blog would voluntarily own a La-Z-Boy nor would just let this passive personal finance system be the end of the story. The whole point of this is to set up reliable structure that enables savings to become automatic, and also focuses your disposable income on what you actually care about. I really love Ramit's tip for having separate, labeled "accounts" to save for the things on your non-negotiable list. Imagine how much more free you'd feel traveling, knowing that you've earmarked and already have saved the thousands it's going to cost!

As you increase your income over time, this system can also flex to accommodate additional accounts and investments.

If you have any other tips for making the most of your money, please let me know in the comments!

(And, last but not least, special thanks to my friend and cousin Becky Howe for the artsy photo above...)

Tomorrow, it will be six months since I set out on my self-induced "no new things for a year" challenge to be more thoughtful about how I spend my money and be more creative in how I style myself every day.

Since I'm officially at the half-way point, thought I'd take an intermission to write this post reflecting on the lessons I've picked up along the way. I'd also love to get your perspective on how to focus going forward.

*WARNING: This is a super long post, you should probably get a drink and a snack before diving in.*

Every Saturday morning at 9:15 a.m., I meet my personal trainer Vern at a gym in Lincoln Park and leave 45 minutes later pouring in sweat with renewed inspiration to eat well and take care of my body. This weekly appointment keeps me accountable, helps me to make better decisions, and is the only reason I have any muscle tone whatsoever. ("Build lean muscle" was on my 2015 goals list, jotted down in permanent ink after completing thorough research on tactics for maintaining metabolism, managing weight and staying young forever.)

Personal training is hands down the best investment I've made for my health, an expense that reaps long term benefits that is much cheaper than a wasted gym membership or prescription drugs for health ailments. The benefits I've enjoyed from working with Vern once per week for the past 15+ months include those I touched on in the first paragraph, but the best thing I've taken away from my sessions has been a minimalist fitness plan that fits my lifestyle.

Since getting fit with minimal time is what this post is all about, here's exactly how to do it: