Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions. In this episode:

Apply lessons from physical fitness to improve your financial fitness. Plus: how to manage money in your relationships.

This Week in Your Money: How can you achieve both financial and physical wellness? How can you stick to your goals when you face setbacks? Hosts Sean Pyles and Sara Rathner discuss achieving financial wellness by borrowing lessons learned from people working to achieve physical wellness. NerdWallet UK writer and spokesperson Amy Knight joins Sean and Sara to share tips and tricks on setting realistic goals, developing sustainable habits, and being patient with your progress. She offers actionable takeaways on how to achieve your financial goals, whether you’re hoping to create an emergency fund, clear credit card debt, or increase pension contributions.

Today’s Money Question: How do you talk about money with your romantic partner — or your friends? Why should you try to build a financially interdependent relationship? Personal finance journalist and podcaster Nicole Lapin joins Sean to discuss the delicate balance of finance in friendships and romance. They explore the importance of being cautious while open to trust, handling financial disparities among friends, and the significance of being financially interdependent as a balance between codependence and independence. They cover topics such as financial conversations evolving with the relationship stage, managing differing financial priorities, and supporting friends through financial challenges.

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Episode transcript

This transcript was generated from podcast audio by an AI tool.

If you’ve already abandoned your exercise resolutions for the year, fear not, you still have what it takes to get financially fit. Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money Podcast. A podcast where our goal is to help you make smarter financial decisions one money question at a time. I’m Sean Pyles.

This episode, I talk with personal finance journalist and podcaster Nicole Lapin about how to manage awkward money conversations in relationships.

But first, in our This week in Your Money Segment, we’re all going to revive our fitness journeys, at least when it comes to our money, unless you are listening to this podcast while taking a walk, which sounds lovely. We are joined by NerdWallet UK writer and spokesperson, Amy Knight, who’s here to be our money coach for the day. Welcome to Smart Money, Amy, how’s life across the pond?

Thank you for having me, Sean and Sara. Nerdy life here is pretty good, although I’m definitely ready for spring now. I’m just longing to go for a run in the sun.

I can relate to that. It’s pretty rainy up here in the Pacific Northwest in the US and I’m getting out for runs, but I’m pretty soggy by the end of them. So Amy, you and I were recently talking about how there are a lot of parallels between physical fitness and financial fitness. Can you explain the similarities for our listeners?

Yeah, I’d love to. We all know that our wellbeing is so important and many of us will have made a commitment to ourselves recently to improve our health in some way, perhaps in quite a few ways. But here we are in the real world and inevitably life happens and making those changes can turn out to be much harder than we thought. And if we’re not making the progress we wanted to or feel like we may even be going backwards away from our goals, that experience is so demotivating. And this can happen whether your goal is to get physically fit or financially healthier. So I’d love to help listeners break that cycle and reframe how they approach their financial wellness goals in 2024. And I think really it’s about creating healthy money habits that are sustainable.

So what kinds of changes do you think folks can make to better their financial wellbeing?

The kind of changes I’m referring to would be things like clearing your credit card debt, creating an emergency fund of savings, perhaps increasing pension contributions if that’s something you’re able to do, and then looking at other financial goals that you might want to work towards, such as buying a home. And when we’re trying to overhaul our lifestyle, it’s really difficult to tackle lots of these big goals at the same time.

So to give a fitness example, it would be really difficult, perhaps impossible if you’re not in great shape at the moment, to suddenly train for a marathon, cut out all the junk food from your diet, kick your caffeine habit, get more sleep, and don’t forget to meditate every day. Those are all really valid wellness goals, but for most people it is unrealistic to make all of those changes at the same time. And personal finance can be similar. You set goals and you begin working towards them, but our lives are constantly interrupted by the unexpected. Jobs change, families need our help. Unexpected costs crop up that can just throw your budget and your savings off track. So picking one wellness goal to focus on first can increase your chances of success, whether that’s cleaning up your diet or your debt.

Yes, definitely taking on way too much in any goal is a recipe for disaster. Absolutely. If you take on too many fitness goals at once, you might injure yourself. I’ve definitely done that. And if you try to take on too many financial goals, you get bogged down by how administrative it can be and it’s so much easier to do nothing than it is to do something. And I totally agree that taking one small step. “This week, I’m going to do this one thing. And then next month I’m going to do this other thing for my money.” It makes it so much more realistic and be gentle with yourselves. I love that. It can also take a long time to ramp up a goal. Like if you wanted to train for a marathon or something like that or accomplish a big financial goal, you do need to give yourself a while. You’re not going to accomplish this stuff inside of a week or a month necessarily.

Yeah, definitely. Change can take time. And as human beings, we are creatures of habits. It can take a long time for us to change our routine behaviors so we do need to be patient and be kind with ourselves and be prepared to chip away at some of these goals slowly. And in the same way that we can’t expect to leap off the sofa and run 42 kilometers, that’s 26 miles if you don’t think in kilometers, you’ve got to know that future you is going to appreciate the effort you’re putting in, but it’s going to take you getting off that sofa every day to make the change. And anyone who’s made a big shift with things like diet and exercise will appreciate that you have good days and bad days.

A bit like investments going up and down, our progress towards wellness goals isn’t necessarily going to follow a straight line and that’s okay. We have to be kind to ourselves in order to stick with it. And if your health and finances are generally going in the direction that you want them to, then the occasional snackcident, love that word, or going a little over budget on a purchase, it doesn’t mean you have to write off your whole plan. It doesn’t mean the whole thing is ruined. You just get up the next day and you keep going.

I don’t know about you, but my snacks are always on purpose.

Giving yourself grace and patience with something like a financial goal or a wellness goal is really important because while it can take time to see progress, there’s actually a bit of a zen quality that comes with that. You know that you’re taking small steps that build up a lot over time. And going for a run for that first mile might be excruciating. Just like pulling some money from your checking account into a savings account, that first month might be difficult to not have that cash on hand. But when you see your savings build up, when you see that you’re able to run two miles, three miles, eventually 26 miles or 42 kilometers, it is so rewarding to see that momentum be built up over time.

So Amy, what other parallels do you see between working on your financial wellness and your physical fitness?

I think there were loads actually. But if we pick sleep as a bit of a key theme because in physical wellness, people are often talking about fixing your sleep as a way to underpin success in other areas. And if you sort your sleep out, we know if you’ve done a long haul flight, if you’ve had small children that wake up in the night, you’ll know how much harder life is when you’re tired. Whereas if you are well rested, you are really setting yourself up for success. You wake up and you’re less likely to eat sugary snacks, you are less likely to overdo it on the coffee and you’ll be more likely to have the energy to exercise because you’re not starting from a baseline of exhaustion.

And similarly in personal finance, it can be exhausting to be in debt. Emotionally and psychologically it’s draining to have that weight on you. And being in debt makes it much harder to make progress towards those other financial goals. So that’s why for many people, tackling debt first is the first step. It’s the right thing to focus on before you pick another money goal.

Another parallel I think we could draw with physical fitness is that if you get sick or if you get injured and you need to pause your training plan, you might need to seek professional help. You might need to go and see a doctor or a physiotherapist about your injury. And if you are financially struggling and that’s having a negative impact on your life, you may want to consult a professional about that too. You might like to see a qualified financial advisor or speak to a debt charity who can help you get your finances back on the road to recovery because suffering in silence is rarely the way to deal with any sort of pain.

That is great advice, seek help because not only will you hopefully get a resolution to your situation, but you might be able to solve your problem a little bit more quickly with the help of another person who has expertise than you would be able to solve it on your own. So yeah, suffering in silence is also a way to prolong your suffering in some cases. So that is really, really helpful guidance. Do you have any final advice for anybody who wants to get out of their rut and improve their financial fitness this year?

I think talking about it is so helpful, opening up about your financial goals. You don’t need to share the details of what’s in your bank account, but talking about what you are aiming for. And again, we can liken this to our health choices. If you are trying to lose some weight or you want to drink less alcohol, making your friends and family aware of these goals should hopefully mean that they’re not going to turn up with chocolates and wine when they come to see you and accidentally undermine where you’re trying to get to.

And similarly, if you’ve committed to save for a deposit on a house, you might need to cut back on meals and trips to the pub. But your financial goals don’t have to be a secret. So rather than making excuses or dodging social invitations, talking to your friends about what it is you’re trying to achieve is a good way to get them on side. They’re likely to be supportive. They may even be really inspired by your dedication to becoming financially fitter.

Well Amy Knight, thank you so much for joining us on Smart Money.

Thank you. Anytime. Always happy to chat health, and finances are a really important part of that.

Well, before we move on, a couple of housekeeping notes. First, listener, if you are feeling pumped up from that conversation and want to better your finances but need a little bit of help, reach out to the Nerds. We will spot you.

Send us your money questions by leaving a voicemail or texting us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD. Or you can email your question to [email protected].

Also listener, I want to remind you that here on Smart Money, our goal is to answer all of your money questions, even those you didn’t realize that you had. Questions like, “What’s happening in the world of finance and how should I manage my finances if I’m self-employed?” Well, like I mentioned, we have the answers here on Smart Money. Check out our weekly Money News episodes to stay up to date on all things money and listen to this month’s Nerdy deep dive series about self-employed finances to brush up on how to manage your cash when you are your own boss. All right, let’s get on to my conversation with Nicole Lapin.

We’re back and I’m joined by Nicole Lapin, personal finance journalist and host of the Money Rehab Podcast. Nicole and I are going to talk about money and relationships, including how to navigate money talks with friends and significant others and why we all might benefit from a little financial interdependence. Nicole, welcome to Smart Money.

Thanks so much for having me, Sean.

Let’s start by talking about money and romantic relationships. A lot of people might have a hard time bringing up money in a relationship for a variety of reasons. They might not have the right vocabulary for a money conversation or a money conversation can quickly become a highly emotional situation. How do you suggest people have more productive financial conversations with their partners?

I think there’s never really a good time to have this talk. I would just say make some time and get it done. Don’t make it like an IRS audit. Be casual about it. You can sit in a comfy, cozy, private place, talk it out, pour a drink, pour a glass of wine if it makes it easier for you. It should be aspirational, right? So part of this talk I think should be finding out what’s really important to you and your boo, your significant other. These talks should change at every step of a relationship. So they’re going to be different when you’re just starting to date versus when you’re getting engaged and married and living together. You want to talk about whose names the bills are under, things like that. When you have kids, it’s going to be more of an advanced money talk like wills, advanced directives, all that kind of stuff. So I think it’s important to figure out the life you want together and then reverse engineer to figure out how to get the money to live that life.

And that’s exactly it, because it’s not just here we are talking about dollars and what bills we’ll be paying. It’s, “Here we are as partners who care about each other, who are working towards shared goals and money is the means that we are going to use to achieve these goals. I think that is really important to keep in mind, is that you’re in this together to support each other.

100%. I think that part of the talk is what’s your current situation. Honestly, it gets uncomfortable because money comes with so many loaded things that you bring from your childhood or other financial trauma of course. Maybe you have to admit a bunch of bad money habits. Maybe your partner does. Maybe you have to point out those bad money habits to them, which is probably the most difficult part of this talk. So whatever the situation is, Sean, I think confronting it head on the earlier, the better. As tough as it seems now, it’s only going to get harder. It’s only going to get tougher if you just sweep this kind of stuff under the rug. Ask the hard questions, be honest with yourself. And go first. If your partner is nervous about having these talks and you want to have the talk, you have to go first. With any hard discussion, it’s always easier when somebody starts, so let that be you.

Yeah, and I think that’s a good point too because in relationships, a lot of people want to think that things will be perfectly 50/50. “Oh, I’m going to unload the dishwasher and you’ll load it and we’ll have this perfect harmonious relationship.” When in fact it always ends up that someone does a little more of the housework than the other person, and it might be that one person ends up being the money person in the relationship. That doesn’t mean they should shoulder everything on their own, but it might be on them to bring up these conversations partially because the other partner might not even be thinking about this, right?

Totally. And it doesn’t matter what other people do in their relationship. And maybe it’s not 50/50 for you, maybe it’s some other variation. The point of this is figuring out what works for you guys and sticking to that early on. A lot of couples go through hard times or even breakups and divorce because of financial infidelity, which is just like infidelity. Hiding things with money can be just as detrimental and harmful to a relationship as infidelity is in an emotional or physical way.

Well, let’s talk about times that might be a little more complicated. Maybe when you and your partner disagree about how to manage your money, like one partner might want to save up, be really disciplined and build up a nest egg to buy a house. The other doesn’t care about homeownership, wants to go on more vacations and wants to put their money into that. What do you think are some ways that couples can live with financial differences of opinion and priority and not let it tear them apart?

Understanding where you personally rank in order of importance is a key to solving whatever disagreement that is. So if I say, “Hey Sean, this issue about buying a home is a 10 for me.” I like to rank it from 1 to 10, so I have couples say, “This is a 5 for me.” And maybe to some other person they had housing insecurity or they have a lot of trauma around that type of stuff and this is a 10 for them. I think in that situation then, the person with the 10 kind of wins. And you can’t use it recklessly and say that everything is a 10 of course, because hopefully you have a better foundation as a couple there, but I think it’s important to say like, “Hey, this is an 8 for me” or, “This issue of vacation or cars or whatever, that’s a 2 for me.” And so I would just go back and forth as a couple and rank the order of importance for you for whatever reason that is.

And a lot of these financial decisions, as you know Sean, are not about numbers and math and IRA statements and bank statements and things like that. They’re very emotional. For me, housing is really important because I saw my house get foreclosed on when I was a kid. Or some people might have gone through the housing crisis and had some issue there. Or I think that this unearths a lot of the reasons that people act the way they do when it comes to money, which can only bring you closer as a couple.

And I think there’s also room in that ranking to say, “Hey, you really care about this thing. I am never going to care that much about it, but I want to find the middle ground between supporting you and whether it’s going on more vacations or something more substantial like becoming a homeowner and letting you do your own thing. I realized I’m not going to be part of that as much.”

So with my partner and I, he really wanted to buy a house pretty early on in our relationship. And for me, I didn’t have the savings, I didn’t have the priority, but he had both of those things, and so he was able to buy a house. And that meant that when he was saving up money for that down payment, we didn’t go out to eat for dinner as often because I knew he wanted to save more money. So I made smaller changes that allowed him to meet his goals while I knew that it wasn’t something that I was personally going to be working on in the same way.

It’s about coming together as two whole complete people and being stronger together. This is a situation where you hope that 1 plus 1 equals 3.

But I think that going back to the idea of money conversations, it’s only really possible to get to the point of supporting someone in their own ventures and giving them space to do that, realizing it might not be totally for you, but still being with them 100% in terms of being their partner, you can only really get to that through many conversations.

I totally agree. And I think that coming together and sharing those stories is really important because it’s not just the what or the how, it’s the why. And the why is also where you can become closer as a couple.

Well, building on that, let’s talk about shared goals. What’s a good way for people to map out and really achieve these big life goals as a couple, whether it’s getting married and funding that themselves or buying a house together?

Yeah. And again, what works for your relationship or my relationship doesn’t have to work for everybody’s relationship. But I would say if you want to divide and conquer the financial chores just like you would the household chores, maybe nobody’s dying to be a bookkeeper, likely neither of you wants to be in charge of going through the statements or paying the bills, but you need to delegate and divide and conquer just like you would have transparency across the board. If your significant other is paying utilities bills, you should know that account information. Ultimately if you’re living together, that’s going to affect your credit score. We’ve seen situations where the bills were under somebody else’s name, so they were accumulating credit or the bills were under a person’s name and the bills weren’t getting paid, so that was screwing their credit.

So I think if you are not paying the bills, you should know that information regardless. You should be able to step in if that significant other is, God forbid, sick or something happens to them too. If they’re paying the bills and therefore whatever reason not able to, you should be able to step in and still do it seamlessly.

And that brings to mind the idea of making sure that you’re there for each other even if something happens and you can’t be there for each other like if one of you gets sick or passes away. My partner and I are long-term engaged. We’re planning on getting married on our 10-year anniversary, which is still a couple of years out. So we in the meantime have set up things like our advanced directives, our wills, our beneficiary designations on various accounts, which is one of the most important things that people really should set up.

How are those conversations about advanced directive?

Honestly, fine. We talk about this stuff so frequently, given my job, I talk about money all day long, so he’s kind of gotten used to it. It used to be more difficult. I remember I used to have to put on this very specific Erykah Badu album to get me into a chill state where I could feel like I could talk about money and not have it really tense me up and make me feel really uncomfortable. But for me, it was a matter of practicality.

I love that. And it’s funny that you mentioned the Erykah Badu song because I have a similar song that gets me in a chill mood. It’s Into the Mystic by Van Morrison.

Oh, I’m not familiar with that. I’ll look it up.

Fun fact, it just makes me happy. I don’t know.

But you’ve got to know what makes you feel like you’re in a safe space to be vulnerable, right?

Absolutely. I think that ultimately it’s not about being perfect, it’s about being vulnerable and transparent. That’s the way to build a long-lasting relationship. And when you’re first starting out, it’s not about, “Hey, what’s your credit score?” on the first date. It can feel like an STD conversation, right? And it doesn’t have to be a huge interrogation. Sometimes I see this with people who have been burned in previous relationships, they overcompensate if God forbid they were lied to or cheated or something like that, they end up being ultra vigilant. And so it’s a balance. It’s not about being jaded. Not everyone is bad financially. And some people, I think understanding from their own journey where they can learn, grow and improve, doing that together, rinse, repeat is what makes for a great long-lasting couple as it sounds like you know.

Switching gears, I want to talk about money conversations when you are just friends with someone. I have these really rich, long-term friendships with a handful of people that mean the world to me. And money is something that we have to navigate. We all have different financial backgrounds, different earnings levels, different goals and priorities. So I’d like to hear from you some ideas about how friends should approach getting on the same page about their finances.

Well, I think just like in a romantic relationship, there are roles and contributions that you can make that are not only financial. If you want to take on the role of being the planner, because you can do that if you’re an expert in Excel or if you’re great at figuring out how to plan and control activities, you can also plan and control how expensive they are. We all go through these conversations of like, “Where do you want to eat?”

“No, where do you want to eat?” And if you’re really sticking to a budget, I would suggest the place. We go in this little dance of like, “Where do you want to go?”

“No, no. You.” And I think that it’s important to, if you’re sticking to a budget, say, “This is the place that I would love to go.” And chances are they’re going to go along with that because it’s not really, hopefully in good relationships and good friendships, it’s not really about what you’re eating. It’s not what’s on the table. It’s who’s at the table.

Carrying cash is another good way to go. I know that it feels like nobody carries cash these days, but when the cash is done, the party’s over. You can kind of tell your friends casually, “Hey, I’m being really strict about a budget.” This is a vulnerable conversation. But you can say, “I only brought 20 bucks with me and that’s what’s up. If you guys want to spend more, totally here for it. I am not the fun police. I can’t personally spend that because this is literally all I have.” But that’s another way that you can have the conversation with your friends who hopefully, again, if they’re good friends, they are going to not only understand but support you in it.

Yeah. And I’ve been on both sides of this dynamic. I’ve been the person who has made a lot less, I’ve been the person who has made more in friendships. I try to be more proactive and I try to think about what is the person who I’m going out with capable of doing, and how can I make it so that they don’t feel uncomfortable or pressured to spend more money than they really have at their disposal.

I also have a hypersensitivity to friends who are going through a challenging time. I had a friend live with me for a couple months in New York. She was shutting down her business. She didn’t have to ask. So you can preempt those hard conversations because you know what’s going on. Or just offer, if you’re in a better position, to pick up the check, then do that. I’m particularly sensitive because I know what it was like to not have a place to stay, so I’m always very aware if I can tell a friend is going through something. Like I invite them before they even have to ask to stay over or stay with me or save on a hotel or whatever that is.

And so I think it’s just an extension of what you would do in other emotional parts of a relationship. In any good romantic relationship or friendship, you should be attuned to their needs and give and take and give where you can. And especially if you know what that’s like to not have money or a place to stay, it sounds like you are in a position that you weren’t before, it’s awesome that you are paying it forward and being hypersensitive and aware of that.

Yeah. And also I would say if you are the friend who makes more money and you really want to do something and you know that one friend can’t do it financially, just treat them. Just pay for it, if you really want to do it. They don’t owe you anything. Don’t make it a thing where they have to pay you back. Maybe don’t make it a habit, don’t make it so they expect things from you. You’ve got to have some sort of boundaries there, but I know that it makes it so we have more memories together.

Absolutely. I think it’s important that you mentioned boundaries. It’s something that I’ve struggled with after I got out of a challenging situation and I was in a more fortunate situation. I think that having those boundaries too, it became the pendulum swings to the other side where you’re always paying for something, which is something you want to watch for. So there’s a sweet spot for sure. And I think that having that compassion not only for your friends but for yourself is important.

So Nicole, zooming out a little bit beyond friendships and romantic relationships, I know that you are interested in the idea of financial interdependence. So can you explain what this is and why you think it’s important in relationships?

Well, I think there’s two ends of the spectrum. There’s being codependent and being independent. And the balance there is being interdependent. It can be really challenging to be financially dependent on someone in a relationship because that can be a source of control, financial abuse even, or a reason to not leave a bad relationship. So if you’re dependent financially on someone, it becomes harder to leave a bad or abusive relationship. But financial independence isn’t always positive either. So that’s completely living on an island, not having any help, not having any contribution from somebody else. So I think interdependence is wanting someone else to share in your financial life, not needing them to do anything, but wanting them to share in your financial life and the experiences that come from that. So I am bullish on interdependence, financial interdependence.

I think that’s great because that actually connects to a lot of the themes that we’ve been discussing so far in this relationship. It’s about connecting with people, using your money as a way to deepen your relationships, but also having very clear boundaries about what you will and won’t spend money on. And what I always go back to is that money is just a tool. How can you use money as a tool when it comes to your relationships to get what you want out of your time with this other person and what you have with this other person? So I think that that is a great idea. And I think people should think about ways that they can become more interdependent with those around them. Maybe it’s you get your friends coffee one morning just to treat them or saying, “Hey, sorry, I really can’t go out tonight. Let’s save some money and just play a board game.” And that’s a way of being financially interdependent as well, because you’re helping each other save some cash and enjoying your time together.

Yeah. And if you’re struggling, I think that suggesting the board game is important too, and having support from your friends and your romantic partner wherever you are in your financial journey because the only constant, Sean, is change. The only certainty is uncertainty. So what’s true today is not going to be true tomorrow. And I think you’re really smart to remind listeners that money is a tool. Just like a hammer, it can be used to build a house or tear it down. So thank you for empowering people to build that house together.

Yeah. Well, thank you for joining me in this conversation to talk about it. Is there anything else you would like listeners to think about when it comes to navigating money in their relationships, when it comes to the whole spectrum of the relationships that they may have in life?

I think that going first in any hard conversation is really important. I experienced this when I was younger and my father died. And I remember being the one in my friend group as I went to college and I moved away and the rest of it to, first of all, I was really embarrassed by a lot of my upbringing, but I would bring it up first. And then it almost gave license to other people to do the same thing. It was like, “Oh, well my…” Somebody died. Or “I experienced alcoholism or drug abuse in my family too. Thank you so much for opening up about that.”

And so I think it’s about finding comfort in your own story, in your own skin, financially or otherwise. The most emotionally charged conversation and the most vulnerable conversation we can have is around money. So I think it’s about taking control of your own story first. It’s not expecting anybody to do that for you. There’s a lot of self-work that you have to do. The most important financial relationship ultimately is the one you have with yourself. Till death do you part, it’s you. And so I think it’s about being comfortable in your own skin financially, before finding strong relationships in friendships or romantic ones, make sure that you put your oxygen mask on first.

Well thank you for sharing that with us and thank you for taking the time to talk today.

And that’s all we have for this episode. If you have a money question for the Nerds, call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected]. Visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode. And remember to follow, rate, and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast. I produced today’s episode, Sara Brink mixed our audio. And a big thank you to NerdWallet editors for all their help.

And here’s our brief disclaimer. We are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances. And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.

Sean Pyles

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