How to Get the Benefits of Organic Foods... Without Paying Organic Prices and more...

 
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How to Get the Benefits of Organic Foods... Without Paying Organic Prices

Once again, thanks for indulging me as I take what's turning out to be a *ridiculously* long break from writing to work on other projects.
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All frugal cooks wonder whether organic food is worth the extra money. But did you know that you can capture almost all of the benefits of going organic without having to pay inflated organic food prices? All you have to do is make a few minor changes in how you purchase and handle the produce you already buy. Here’s how:

1) Don’t think organic, think local.

When we think about the benefits of organic food, the environmental impact of pesticides usually comes to mind first. However, there is an even bigger negative environmental impact embedded in your produce that most shoppers don’t even consider: transport costs. Transport costs drive up the both the price and the carbon footprint of your food. If you can source a meaningful portion of your food from farms within a reasonable distance from home, you’ll save money and help the environment at the same time.

2) Don’t assume food lacking an organic label is grown unethically or unhealthily.

Many farmers find it extremely burdensome to meet all the government requirements to qualify for organic labeling. If you take a bit of time to visit with the growers and vendors at local farmer’s markets in your area, you may find they grow their food more sustainably and responsibly than the letter of the law.

On the other hand, if you insist on having an official-looking little “organic” sticker on your produce, you’ll quite often pay a 50-100% premium, and yet your food may still be trucked in from thousands of miles away with a significant and unnecessary carbon footprint. There’s no need to fixate on a little magic sticker. Instead, find opportunities to buy local and support responsible food growers in your region.

3) Local means in season and cheap.

Everybody knows that the cheapest produce is whatever's in season at the time you buy. Which brings us to an enormous and underappreciated advantage of going local: when you buy your produce locally, you’re guaranteed that all your fruits and veggies will be in season–because that’s the only time they grow! Best of all, your produce will be at its cheapest and most plentiful.

Consumers are fully conditioned now to see tomatoes, apples, citrus and many other fruits and vegetables in grocery stores all year long. And consumer who fixate on magic organic stickers and insist on buying out of season produce are simply asking to be separated from their money.

Don’t get fooled by the artificial reality of your grocery store. It’s not normal, quite frankly, for a North American shopper to buy apples in the spring and grapefruit in the late summer. It shouldn't need to be said, but it's completely acceptable to eat some foods only at certain times of the year! Humans have been doing it for millennia.

Take advantage of your community’s seasonal foods as they occur over the course of the year. You’ll pay a lot less and enjoy healthier, higher quality food.

4) For many fruits and vegetables, the benefits of going organic are negligible.

Many fruits and vegetables are equally healthy whether they’re grown organically or not. Fruits and vegetables with thick rinds or peels (melons, grapefruits, oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, etc.) will be well-protected from any pesticides because you remove the rind before eating. Likewise, fruits and veggies that you peel or husk (potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, corn, onions, garlic, etc.) will have several layers of protection between the food and any pesticides. You can eat these types of fruits and vegetables without worrying about ingesting any toxins.

Furthermore, many sturdy vegetables (turnips, beets, collards, kale, parsley, etc.) don’t require much in the way of pesticides, simply because they taste so terrible that insects refuse to eat them.

Whoops, wait! That was my inner five-year-old talking there for a second. What I meant to say was these veggies are already bug resistant and extremely hardy.

Finally, with fruits or vegetables where you eat the skin (apples or green bell peppers, etc.), just take care to wash the produce thoroughly with a scratchy sponge and warm soapy water. This will eliminate any potential pesticides from the food, allowing you to eat it entirely safely.

Don’t buy organic just to buy organic! You can get most of the benefits–and avoid all of the extra costs–by following these four simple tips.

Readers, share your thoughts!


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!
    
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How to Be a Biased Consumer

Readers, thanks for indulging me while I take a break from writing to work on other projects. Today we're featuring another popular post from CK's early days. 
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I want big companies to compete intensely for my readers' spending dollars. I don't want them to get those dollars by default because of our preconceived notions. But when we make purchasing decisions based on our biases and preconceptions, we give away all our power as consumers.

Read the following three statements:

1) I only drive American cars.
2) I only buy organic.
3) I never shop at Wal-Mart.

Do any of these sound familiar to you? I'd bet most of my readers have made at least one, if not all, of these statements at some point in their lives.

My goal in today's post is to show that statements like these hurt us more than they help us. In fact, many widely held shopping- and purchase-related biases, despite sounding reasonable or ideologically agreeable, actually do considerable damage to the average consumer's choice and power.

All people have biases--it's fundamental to the human condition. But when our biases become unthinking, we hand over our consumer power before we even walk into a retailer's place of business. Let's go over each example:

1) I only drive American cars.

I heard this statement regularly in Syracuse, NY when I was growing up. And if I had a nickel for every gas-guzzling, rusted out American car on the roads up there during the 1970s--well, let's just say I'd have a lot of nickels.

People back then who held this ideologically comfortable bias thought they were being loyal to American automakers (uh, oh--there's that dangerous word "loyal" again). The awful irony, however is this: because they refused to consider other products on the market, not only did they limit their own choices, they also wasted money, energy and environmental resources. Worst of all, they rewarded Chrysler, Ford and GM for making substandard cars.

Those of you too young to remember, watch a classic 1970s-era movie like The French Connection or Taxi Driver to get a sense of the monstrously large cars everybody drove back then. And if you want to imagine what we all drove in Upstate New York, imagine those same monstrous cars covered in rust and falling apart.

The new competition from international automakers actually helped everybody. The US automakers had no choice but to respond to the superior Japanese imports, and they grudgingly improved their product lines, finally making cars that had fewer defects, ran better and got far better gas mileage. Foreign automakers built plants and dealer networks here, providing hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Best of all, American consumers had more choice, and they ultimately ended up getting better, safer and more fuel-efficient cars for their money.

2) I only buy organic.

Let's set aside for the moment all the recent questioning of the nutritional and health benefits of organic food. Do you realize that paying to meet all the government requirements to qualify for organic labeling can be onerous, especially for small farmers? It's quite likely that you have local farmers in your community who grow all of their food responsibly, yet they can't label their foods as such because it's too expensive or time-consuming to follow national organic standards to the letter of the law.

Don't assume that food lacking an organic label is by definition grown unethically. By holding that assumption as an article of faith, I guarantee you will miss out on the opportunity to buy local and support many ethical food growers in your community. Is this any different from thinking a Givenchy bag is superior just because it has a label?

One more thought, a highly counterintuitive one. When the government sets onerous rules and regulations on any industry, it usually has the perverse effect of limiting competition. A particularly painful recent example: Altria Corp. (the former Phillip Morris tobacco company) was happy with the recent FDA decision to expand its authority and regulate tobacco. Why? Because heavy FDA regulations meant significantly increased costs for the competition.

The largest players in a market can always bear new regulatory requirements. But those extra requirements typically create gigantic barriers to entry for potential new entrants, and they increase the cost of doing business for smaller, marginal players to a point where many will give up and exit the market. This means fewer choices for consumers... and maximum market share for the big guys. Don't get me wrong: I support intelligent regulation, but not when those regulations create outcomes that hurt the consumer.]

3) I never shop at Wal-Mart.

This one is going to get me in trouble, I know it.

There are lots of things I don't like about Wal-Mart, but their pro-consumer pricing strategy isn't one of them. This company simply decided to build a business based on lower operating margins than other retailers. Excuse some finance-speak for a moment: Wal-Mart's operating margins tend to be in the 2-4% range, while most other department store retailers charge higher prices so that they can achieve 5-7% operating margins. Those higher profits come directly out of consumers' pocketbooks.

Granted, there are plenty of other issues Wal-Mart faces, a discussion of which is far beyond the scope of this post. But few people give Wal-Mart credit for this highly pro-consumer strategy, a strategy many other retailers could also follow--if they chose to be equally pro-consumer.

Readers, what are other biases that hurt our consumer power and limit our choices? What else did I miss?

READ NEXT: Why Spices Are a Complete Rip-Off and What You Can Do About It

AND: Stacked Costs and Second-Order Foods: A New Way to Think About Rising Food Costs


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

    



Eight Shocking Myths About Vegetarians

Readers, thanks for indulging me while I take a break from writing to work on other projects. Today's post comes from WAY back in Casual Kitchen's archives.
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Long-time readers know all about Casual Kitchen's predilection for what we call part-time vegetarianism. Since vegetarian cuisine is typically very inexpensive, one great way to stretch your food budget and make your diet healthier is to replace two or three meat-based meals each week with vegetarian dishes.

However, since we straddle the world of meat-eaters and meat-avoiders, I'm often shocked by the many misconceptions that otherwise perfectly normal people hold about vegetarian cuisine. This post is an effort to put these myths to rest once and for all.


Myth #1: You can't get enough protein eating vegetarian food.
Nonsense. The standard Western diet contains several times the amount of protein the human body needs, thus those of us who embrace part time vegetarianism and eat two or three veggie meals a week have absolutely nothing to worry about. Moreover, full-time vegetarians only need to eat a well-balanced diet with a serving of dairy or eggs every day or so to meet their protein needs. Vegans have a bit more work to do here to get enough protein, but a diet containing generous servings of grains, legumes, and nuts will easily do the trick.

Myth #2: There isn't enough fat in a vegetarian diet.
Anyone who's ever met up with a big tub of delicious guacamole knows that fat is hardly limited to meat-based meals. And the standard Western diet is so fat-laden that we can easily ingest far more fat than we need. The fact that most vegetarian meals contain much less fat than most meat-centered meals is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Veggie cuisine makes eating healthy a lot easier.

Myth #3: Vegetarianism has to be all or nothing.
Here at Casual Kitchen, we embrace and enjoy vegetarian cuisine, but we are not--and probably never will be--vegetarians. Nobody says you have to make a one-way, Do Not Pass Go, permanent-for-all-time conversion to vegetarianism. Try veggie cuisine with an open mind once in a while, enjoy the health and cost benefits, and just see what you think. And then feel free to go right back to your regular meat-based diet.

Myth #4: Vegetarian diets are limited and boring.
Actually the exact reverse is true: so many meals depend on meat that cutting it out as the centerpiece of your diet literally forces you to vary your diet more. In my experience, vegetarians and partial vegetarians generally eat a much wider range of foods than the typical meat-eater.

Myth #5: You can't eat junk food on a vegetarian diet.
Heavens no. Not even close. Remember, Oreos are vegetarian. So are Doritos, potato chips and ice cream. Heck, so are Krispy Kreme donuts. You can eat a hellaciously bad diet and still call yourself a vegetarian. If you want to.

Myth #6: Vegetarian food never fills me up.
Count us among the people who used to think this--until we tried some amazing, mind-opening recipes like Groundnut Stew from the amazing Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, or Smoky Brazilian Black Bean Soup, or Spanish Chickpea and Garlic Soup. Try out these recipes in your home, and when you find that you can't get up from the dinner table, you'll also change your mind about how filling vegetarian food is.

Myth #7: Vegetarian culture is too weird. And I don't want to wear tie-dye.
You'd be surprised how much the demographics of vegetarianism have changed over the years. Sure, thirty years ago, back when vegetarianism was a smallish clique of crunchy communities in places like Berkeley, CA and Ithaca, NY, you could make the argument that crunchy behavior and tie-dye clothing used to be the standard. But the typical vegetarian today is more Sex and the City than crunchy--in other words, the modern vegetarian is the type of person who wouldn't be caught dead wearing tie-dye. Unless it was some kind of ironic statement.

Myth #8: Vegetarians are freakish militants intent on banning all meat.
If you took the time to actually get to know some vegetarians, you'd find the vast majority of them are quite peaceful, and they certainly don't lie awake at night worrying about what you just had for dinner. Yes, you'll find a few proselytizers here and there, but you can usually scare them off by waving your leather belt in a threatening manner. Most vegetarians quietly go about their business eating a healthy and perfectly satisfying diet, and they are okay with you eating meat if that's what you choose to do.

Readers, what other myths did I miss?


READ NEXT: What's Your Take On Going Vegetarian? A Poll of Meat-Eating Bloggers

AND: 41 Ways You Can Help the Environment From Your Own Kitchen








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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!
    



When Hipsters Can't Get Their Raw Milk

Readers, thanks for indulging me while I take a break from writing to work on other projects. Today's post, from two years ago, illustrates an unexpected (and ironic) result of wanting a much more heavily regulated food industry.
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From a food debate standpoint, raw milk is an utterly fascinating topic. Why? Because it shows how certain food industry issues simply do not line up into a clean political matrix, with a clear "left side" and a clear "right side" telling us what default opinions to hold.

In fact, holding a generalized position on the overall food industry can put you on the wrong side of an issue when it comes to a specific food product.

Raw milk is one such product.

To illustrate what I mean, imagine a Brooklyn-based foodie who dislikes and distrusts Big Food, Big Ag, Big Corn and Big Soda and anything else with a capital B, including Wal-Mart and Monsanto. In her view, the food industry clearly puts profits before people, and it should therefore be more heavily regulated by the government. Probably much more.

Further, this idealistic foodie thinks we need to change the default food environment, which she believes contributes heavily to society's obesity problem. This is why she strongly supported New York City's "large soda" ban, and it's why she also believes we'd be far better off if the government went ahead and just banned HFCS too. In her view, strict policies and regulations like these are good things: they are for our benefit and for our protection.

Now, we may not agree with all of her views, but I think we can at least agree that, in general, her positions are consistent. And please note: we at Casual Kitchen are not passing judgment on her views in any way! Reasonable minds can disagree reasonably.

One day, however, this Brooklyn foodie learns about all the incredible merits of raw milk. She discovers, in her research on the topic, that raw milk is delicious, healthful, and far superior to pasteurized milk. She can't wait to become a regular raw milk drinker.

But to her horror, she discovers that her government is as strict with raw milk as it she wishes it would be with HFCS! In fact, the federal government mandates the pasteurization of milk and milk products--for our benefit and for our protection.

Worse, many states strictly prohibit the sale of raw milk under any conditions--including her neighboring state of New Jersey. And even in her home state of New York, raw milk is strictly regulated. In New York it is entirely illegal to sell raw milk at retail stores--again, for our benefit and our protection. Raw milk can only be purchased at specifically licensed and regulated farms, and there are strict rules that these farms must follow, including prominently posting signs warning consumers that this milk does not have the "protection" of pasteurization.

"Wait a minute," she thinks. "Why does the government force pasteurization on us? Why do they make us cook our milk? And how can the government possibly decide it's illegal to buy raw milk? This makes no sense at all!"

Our Brooklyn foodie's confidently-held, generalized position on the overall food industry plopped her on the exact wrong side of the debate over raw milk. She's discovered, to her intense confusion, that she wants a more heavily-regulated food industry--except when she doesn't. Here's to hoping she'll learn from the irony.

Readers, what do you think?


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

    


Here's How to Kick Inflation's Ass, Part 2

Readers, thanks for indulging me while I take a break from writing to work on other projects. The following post was one of the most popular and widely-read of anything I've written over the past several years.
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Last week we discussed expanding our thinking about competition and substitution to defeat inflation and shift power back into consumers' hands. Let's pivot now from the spending side of the ledger to the savings and income side of the ledger, and try to think creatively about attacking inflation on a second front.

Labor markets: tightening
One fortunate aspect of inflation is it tends to coincide with lower unemployment and an improving economy. Remember last post when we talked about making companies compete to sell to us? Well, this happens in labor market too. When labor markets tighten, it means employers have to compete more aggressively for workers.

This means two things. First, enterprising workers who are valued by their employers and willing to ask for what they want will get more money for the jobs they already have. Second, other opportunities are likely be opening up for you, right now, for a superior work situation. Start looking.

Both employment and wage increases tend to lag a recovery, which means now is the time to start taking advantage of the most direct way to beat inflation: get more money.

Side hustles/additional income sources
Last week we talked about monopolies in the consumer marketplace. Here's another way to think about a monopoly: if you have one job, your employer is a monopoly provider of your income. Your employer has total power over you, and it can "substitute" you right out of a job under the flimsiest of pretexts, whenever it wants!

To borrow a phrase from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's must-read book Antifragile, this makes you "fragile" to the loss of all of your income. Not good.

You cannot consider yourself to be truly robust financially if a) you have a monopoly income provider and b) your monopoly income provider can, by terminating your job, spontaneously shut off all of your income. This is why all households ought to be thinking, Wall Street Playboys-like, about what kind of side hustles they can run to supplement income from their primary job.

My domain of expertise is stock market investing, thus that's where I try to drive incremental income for my household. But there is no shortage of ways to earn extra money on the side, and plenty of resources that cover this topic better than I could. Once again, remember our primary heuristic: the more broadly we think about competition and substitution (and monopoly providers of things like our income!), the more we can eliminate various fragilities in our financial lives.

Turning an expense into an income source
One major insight from Jacob Lund Fisker's book Early Retirement Extreme is to look for ways to "monetize" your hobbies: Fisker loved bicycles, taught himself how to fix them, and gradually fell into a modest income source repairing them. Recently, I taught myself how to string tennis racquets. Now, not only have I dramatically reduced one of my largest tennis-related expenses, I'm now in a position to string other peoples' racquets for additional income!

In both these cases we've taken an inflation-prone expense and not only neutralized it, but turned it into a source of funds. I'll leave it to you to figure out where in your life you can apply this important insight.

Low overhead, low fixed costs
The late publisher Felix Dennis, in his useful book How to Get Rich, used to say "overhead walks on two legs."

I gotta be honest: that phrase makes absolutely no sense. But, well, he's from England.

What he's getting at, however, is this: never, ever, ever get yourself in a situation where you have high fixed overhead costs. Felix Dennis kept his organizations lean, mean and flexible so they could withstand anything--any kind of financial stresses. And whenever a windfall came in, rather than getting spent covering expenses and overhead, that income dropped right down to the bottom line.

Why can't we keep our households lean, mean and flexible too?

Debt = Fragility
The first and most obvious step most families can take towards making their households lean is to pay down all debts. Debt makes you fragile. It saddles you with non-negotiable monthly fixed costs that swell up your expenses, limit your flexibility, and crowd out your ability to manage inflation.

But believe it or not, debt can be an inflation fighting tool. Let me explain how.

Here at Casual Kitchen, we carry a modest mortgage on our townhome. When we first started seeing a few too many "non-beat-backable" examples of price inflation, like our auto insurance bill, our property taxes and some of the other examples I discussed in Part 1 of this post, we put a plan into place to accelerate paying off our mortgage entirely.

Our plan is to get this cost item paid off and eliminated from our household ledger for good by the end of 2018. This will create significant room in our budget to compensate for quite a bit of other sources of inflation in areas where we have less control.

A quick sidebar. Traditional economic "logic" says that borrowers benefit from periods of inflation. If you borrow money today (assuming you can do so at attractively low interest rates, a not-always-true presumption) you can then pay it back with lower-value dollars in the future. That's what the economic textbooks say at least.

The truth is debt is a fixed overhead cost burden that you are better off not having at all. The money you vaporize to service your debts could can be far better used to fund a huge savings buffer, or to fund investments in long-term, inflation-protected cash flows. Unlike a large debt load, these protect your family, making you more financially robust.

Nearly every household in our country carries a significant level of debt, which means nearly every household lights a meaningful portion of their money on fire, every month, just so they can use someone else's money to buy things they likely never even needed in the first place.

Eliminate all debt. Overhead walks on two legs. Eliminate that overhead and you'll free up room in your budget to handle all sources of inflation and then some.

Now, let's move on to our final and most powerful tool for defeating inflation.

Income generating investments
A detailed discussion on investing is beyond the scope of this post and likely beyond the scope of this blog.[1] But we'll make room here for a few general heuristics you can use to diversify your sources of income using the amazing vehicle of conservative dividend paying stocks.

Remember in last week's post when we were talking about companies with pricing power? Those are the types of companies you'll want to consider for investments. Or, as I phrased it in another post here at Casual Kitchen: "Wherever you find a highly profitable company charging prices well above intrinsic value, forget buying the product. Buy the stock instead."

I'll share a couple of examples from my personal investing activities: my dividend on my Coca-Cola stock has more than quadrupled since I bought my first shares in 1999. Since the financial crisis in 2008-2009, JP Morgan hiked its dividend from a post-crisis low of 5c a share to 56c [ed: now 80c] a share, an eleven fold increase [ed: now a sixteen fold increase].

I have yet to see a product in the consumer marketplace inflate prices at that kind of rate, not even status-signalling iPhones.

Which reminds me! Apple stock paid its first quarterly dividend in 2012, a modest 38c a share. In the five years since, the company has nearly doubled the dividend, a growth rate of some 15% a year.

I don't know if we can expect these types of dividend growth rates going forward, but you can put a relatively high level of confidence on all of these companies, and many others like them, increasing their dividends over time at rates equal to or exceeding inflation. Thus dividend paying stocks should be one of the pillars of your overall investment strategy.

Conclusion and review
Once again, let's return to Galbraith's "at-risk" households: those with no control over their income, no control over prices they pay, and "no capacity to protect themselves by increasing their own returns." While we can't control everything--here and there we will have to eat a price hike--we now have several tools we can use to increase our "capacity" to protect ourselves and our families from inflation:

* Think about competition and substitution as broadly and as empoweringly as possible
* Improve your brinksmanship: increase your ability to say "no" to more and more products and services in the consumer marketplace
* Avoid monopoly and oligopoly providers in as many forms as you can
* Ruthlessly strip out overhead ("overhead walks on two legs")
* Relentlessly pay off all debts (debt = fragility)
* Save more, both into a large emergency fund and into income generating investments
* Don't let your job be a "monopoly income source"--diversify away from it now, even if you do so in small steps at first.

Good luck and get started!


[1] Footnote: Resources for further reading:
For those readers interested in more articles and resources about investing, see:
1) Consumer Empowerment: How To Self-Fund Your Consumer Products Purchases
2) Synergies of Being an Investor AND a Consumer
3) Money Sundays: The "Stoplight Rule" For Creating An Emergency Fund
4) Ask CK: More on Emergency Funds

And, be sure to see my chapter-by-chapter analysis of Your Money Or Your Life, [full archive here], and in particular,
5) Becoming a Sophisticated Investor: Six Steps
6) The Official "Your Money Or Your Life" Reading List
7) Ask Casual Kitchen: Best Investing Books




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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

    


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