Under Construction

Hey everyone! OSG is undergoing some major renovations–new design, new content, new hosting… But I have a lot in drafts and up on the temp site ready for when everything gets switched over. Please be patient!

Preview: How to Find Local Events

I have a draft tentatively titled How to Find Cool Stuff to Do When You Move to a New Place that covers the ins and outs of finding events, businesses, and city services in your town.

When in doubt, just ask yourself: “What would Leslie Knope do?”

Orphan Survival Guide - What Would Leslie Knope Do? -- How to Find Local Events

My townie masterpost is scheduled for posting on Friday but one of my classes has a story pitch due today and I’m a Helper.

[ETA Sunday: My tumblr went viral in the studyblr/smartblr/adultblr communities last week and so I spent a lot of time working on that. Full post will be up this week.]

So! Here’s a teaser with two quick tips for finding things to do in town–with some resources specific to Iowa City.

Orphan Survival Guide - How To Find Local Events

Find Local Event Calendars

This is my first stop for finding things to do on the weekends, and Iowa City has many calendars of events curated by libraries, blogs, newspapers, and even the city.

Download Event-Hunting Apps

I’ve tried some of these out but also read great things about others. Most of them have a social networking aspect where you can see who’s there so you don’t have to be a wallflower.

Meal Planning for Commuter Students

So I mentioned before that the semester is keeping me pretty busy. I pull 12- to 14-hour days during the week, and with the exception of the past couple of weeks, I work through the weekend too.

Keeping my schedule straight is a struggle, but I’m managing thanks to my planner. I included a meal section in it because I wanted to use it to get me in the habit of meal-planning.

The one upside of having jam-packed weekdays is that I’m starting to get in the habit of prepping all my meals for the week on Sunday nights. I did this on a smaller scale last semester when I had two 10-hour days each week, but now that I’m going to class at 8:30 a.m. and coming home from work between 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. with brief (we’re talking half an hour) breaks, I needed to step up my game.

I don’t have time for blogging during the week (I wrote this over several weeks), let alone cooking, so I stocked up on containers and freezer bags, bought a lot of bulk food, and cleared out my freezer.

This post is broken up into three sections:

  • the meal plan I made for this week and why I chose the things I did
  • what you should consider when making your meal plan
  • and the kinds of foods that work well for various meals throughout the day

Orphan Survival Guide - Meal Planning for Commuter Students

This Week’s Meal Plan

I should probably make a printable for this, but I usually just write things out on sticky notes and cobble together food based on what’s on sale at the grocery store or what’s about to go bad in my fridge.

This week I stocked up on Cheez Its and cereal because they were on sale, and I have some salsa and mushrooms that are probably getting funky soon. And I needed to clear out room in my freezer for frozen meals and bags of pre-cut produce that I want to use later, so I cooked up a lot of chicken and bacon to use for meals in the future.

Orphan Survival Guide - Meal Planning for Commuter Students

Shredded chicken and bacon for freezing and adding to things.

Orphan Survival Guide - Meal Planning for Commuter Students

Bags of snacks to take on the go: cereal, cheez its, nuts, granola, and chocolates.

Orphan Survival Guide - Meal Planning for Commuter Students

Fruit ice to throw in gross campus water, superfood salads in bags to throw in my purse and shake with dressing on the go, and containers of kale-spinach salads for work.

And here are the meals I prepped for this week:

Breakfasts: muffins and fruit+yogurt+granola parfaits

Morning snacks: cereal, fruit cups, and granola bars

Lunches: BLT sandwiches, chicken and roast veggies, salads

Afternoon snacks: no-cook oatmeal cookie bites, Cheez Its, broccoli, cashews

Dinners: PBJ sandwiches, frozen pasta & veggies, salads

Late snacks: popcorn, tuna salad and crackers

Commuter Meal Requirements

These are just the requirements for my schedule. You may have access to a fridge and microwave all day, but I’m in transit a lot of the day so I need portable things that won’t spoil while I’m running around.

primarily meat and dairy-free — you want things that will keep for the entire day (the exception being if you froze things)

small, portable portions — your backpack probably weighs 50 pounds with textbooks and binders alone, so you don’t want to carry much more and you definitely don’t want to have to carry around leftovers

filling and energy-boosting — when you’re on the run for 14 hours straight, you need something to keep you going

minimal cook time — there are no microwaves in 300-person lecture halls

containers — have a good insulated lunch bag/box and get a nice partitioned tupperware to store things in, and stock up on plastic baggies even though they’re not that eco-friendly

Orphan Survival Guide - Meal Planning for Really Long Days

Meal Prep Steps

1. Make a Plan

Assess your ingredients, containers, and your schedule for the week. Then make a list of things to start prepping.

See the last half of this post for ideas!

2. Know What You Can Carry and Cook

This is what I struggle with the most. It was -8F when I was waiting for the bus this morning, so the last thing I wanted to do was carry yet another bag of stuff.

This is when things like wraps and bagged snacks come in handy, because you don’t have to lug around a separate bag for them; you can just put them in your backpack.

3. Prep Things Concurrently

While your tortillas are cooking, fry some bacon and eggs. While your rice is steaming, make some sandwiches.

If you can cook two things at once, you’ll cut down on a lot of your prep time. This requires having a good sized work space–I use my coffee table because my kitchen is literally just a 3-foot corner–and clean dishes and containers.

4. Use Compact (Even Collapsible) Containers, Mason Jars, and Freezer Bags

There are really neat collapsible plastic containers out there, and cute partitioned bento boxes.

I personally use the cheapest store brand entree and salad sized containers that average about $2-2.50 for a set of 5. I won’t cry over it if I lose it. And I make my homemade ramen in Mason jars.

Also stock up on quart and snack sized zipper bags, paper towels, plastic wrap, and tin foil. The baggies are great for snacks like sliced fruit and nuts, and the paper towels, plastic wrap, and foil are good for things like breads, muffins, sandwiches, and wraps.

5. Don’t Forget the Snacks

Some days I don’t want to carry a lot of stuff around or I’m feeling burned out on yet another pesto chicken wrap. Instead of stocking meals in my bag, I throw in all my snacks: granola bars, cashews, fruit leather, applesauce cups.

I’m a grown-up now. Popcorn is a meal if I say it’s a meal.

Meals On The Go

I am usually in transit for class around 8:30 a.m. and then in class until around noon. Then I’m in transit or at the office until around 9:30 or 10:30 p.m.

By the time I get home, I’m hungry again, so I always have pre-prepped meals in the freezer or fridge. But most of the prep work goes into things I can take with me to eat either in class, at my desk, or on the bus somewhere.

Orphan Survival Guide - Meals on the Go

 

Breakfasts: The most important meal of the day! I try to pack the heaviest ingredients in my breakfast to keep me going long-term and to lighten the load throughout the day.

Lunches: When I say I want mostly meat and dairy-free meals, this is because meat and dairy aren’t really safe to eat after being left out for several hours. If you have a good ice pack and insulated lunch bag, your lunch should still be safe when it’s lunch time–and if you freeze things until the day you want them, they can stay fresh even longer.

Snacks: Mid-afternoon is when I’m just getting to work and all I want is a nap. Skip the energy drinks and Addy, and load up on some protein-packed snacks instead. Or chocolate, because you should be able to eat your feelings even when you don’t have time to eat a meal.

Dinners: I can usually get access to a fridge and microwave in the early afternoon so a little frozen meat or dairy might still be okay for dinner. On the safe side, try having vegetarian dinners if you’re out for 12 hours at a time!


Do you have long days that require bringing all of you meals with you? What are some of your favorite (or most convenient) things to eat on the go?

Here’s my Meal Planning board on Pinterest, which has tons of great resources and recipes for meal plans!

Life Lessons from Glee

I’m a grown woman. I have responsibilities, I know how to prioritize fun stuff and being an adult. I take things really seriously and for the most part I think people take me seriously.

But I am devastated that tonight is the end of Glee–even moreso that I’m missing it because of my job.

Orphan Survival Guide - Goodbye Glee

Most people gave up on Glee before I gave in to it, and so this probably seems absurd. But I found Glee at exactly the right time in my life when I needed it.

I fought it for three seasons (I was convinced it was awful because by then, everyone said it was awful) but one choice fanfic led me into a spiral that I can’t take back, for better or for worse.

And I’m glad for it. Glee has given me so much.

Orphan Survival Guide - Farewell Glee

1. Own Your Ambition

I found Glee when I was starting therapy and a really unhappy middle management job that I thought was the best I could do.

Glee was, and still is, my refuge from the stress of being an adult doing everything on my own.

It tackles grief and solitude a lot, in ways that are obvious given its after-school-special nature sometimes, but mostly it’s a story about resilience and drive.

Glee gave me permission to be ambitious in a world that tells me to sit down and be quiet. And that’s so powerful.

It’s more than just a go-after-your-dreams story. It’s about never backing down, never apologizing or compromising. It’s a story about surviving and cheating the system.

It taught me how to balance my need to be liked with my drive to be better.

It helped me hone the act of faking it, not just until you make it but until you can convince yourself that you deserve it.

Side note: Glee also introduced me to the most terrifyingly relatable stories I’ve ever read, Chris Colfer’s YA novel-slash-indie film Struck By Lightning. It turns ruthless ambition up to eleven and throws likable protagonists out the window. The fear of dying without accomplishing what I have worked so hard for is what pushed me to go to college and start making concrete plans for the future.

2. Demand Recognition

Hand in hand with ambition, Glee taught me that I can command the attention and acknowledgement of others. That I deserve it.

Pop psych articles written by boomers love to lament the narcissistic selfie culture of millenials because we’re not afraid to force you to notice us and give us the attention we know we deserve.

Glee made that okay for me. It taught me to never apologize or back down when you really want something–because if you put the work in, then you damn well deserve that attention.

3. Screw Expectations

Everyone has an opinion about how awful and inconsistent and soapy and preachy and offensive Glee is.

Glee knows that.

Glee is not afraid to confront those expectations just for the hell of it, to say, “Yeah, I heard what you said about me.” And sometimes it turns into a beautiful slap in the face as Glee does the opposite of what people say about it.

Or it does exactly that thing that you hate, just to piss you off. Joke’s on you, haters–you thought that storyline was ridiculous? Just wait.

Orphan Survival Guide - Goodbye Glee

For a while I was happy if I enjoyed 15% of an episode. But then I grew to appreciate the things that people hate about Glee because I knew that those things were deliberate choices, often because the writers knew people would hate them.

A few weeks before my high school graduation, one of my middle school teachers told me that she was surprised I’d made it that far–that everyone had expected me to get pregnant and drop out and maybe go to community college one day.

I wasn’t allowed to read romance novels or watch racy movies like The Notebook for fear it would turn me into some kind of sex-crazed maniac–or maybe because it would lead me down that path of a pregnant dropout, who knows.

But I turned those expectations on their heads. I graduated. I got out of the hellhole where I grew up. I dropped out of college, but I went back.

I’m taking steps to make the life I want for myself. And if that means being the slutty pornographer people assumed I would turn out to be, well… that’s just a bonus.

4. Express Emotions

Glee does this thing where a lot of characterization is revealed in a single line of dialogue, and whatever happened is never addressed again.

A lot of people think this is poor writing, I think it’s giving you the opportunity to connect the dots yourself–if you want to. Glee doesn’t tell you what to think or feel, it lets you do those things yourself.

It’s also the ideal setup for speculative fanfic.

Since I started watching it when I was in therapy, it came at a time when I was learning how to acknowledge and verbalize a lot of difficult feelings. At the time I was reading roughly 500 pages of fanfic a day, pretty much only leaving my bed to go to work or therapy. I read hundreds (if not thousands) of Glee fics, and so many stories were painful to read because of how raw and deep the emotions were.

Glee made me more introspective and conscious of my emotions than three years of cognitive therapy ever did.

Orphan Survival Guide - Goodbye Glee

And it made me realize that it’s okay that I’m screwed up. I can still accomplish a lot and feel like a success and still get the things I want, even though I have a lot of work to do.

While most people were groaning at the over-the-top double gay wedding on Glee a couple weeks ago, I was crying over “I’m a work in progress.”

Glee shines a light on those little moments that are full of big emotions, in ways that a lot of media just… doesn’t. And I appreciate and need that so much.

5. Be Critical of the Things You Love

I mean it when I say that Glee fandom is wicked smart. Gleeks–with their CSI-like eye for tiny set design continuities and knowledge of obscure 50s queer trivia and character analysis PhDs–were a major force in my decision to go back to school.

I’m not that smart. I went to school in Florida. I’ve been lucky, and I’ve made smart choices. But Glee made me want to be better, to learn how to begin making a post like this.

With previous fandoms, I just soaked up the fun and made friends. But with Glee , I learned how to be critically engaged with something I loved, even when it wasn’t perfect.

Glee is not perfect. It tries to be a lot of things–and fails at a lot of them, depending on who’s watching–but it was still groundbreaking in a lot of ways. It started things, and left it up to us to finish them.

It’s not the greatest work of art I’ll ever engage with. But it’s a beginning. And I’m so grateful for the conversations and decisions it started in both my own life and in television.

Thank you, Glee.

I’m not ready to see you go. I don’t know what will replace you.

Orphan Survival Guide - Goodbye Glee


10 Favorite Klaine Fics

This is not a fandom blog, so I’m not going to make this a separate post. There are a lot of things I could say about women reading slashfic, specifically Klaine fic, but that’s something for a different blog.

Fanfic is something I turn to when I’m depressed, whether I need something to cry over or if I just need something to make me smile. I’d read tons of fanfic in the past, but Klaine was the first fandom that felt right. “Oh, there you are. I’ve been looking for you forever.”

Here are the 10 Klaine-centric fics that I compulsively read when I need to feel feelings. I hope you like them too.

  1. The one that started everything: Little Numbers
  2. The one that matters most: All The Other Ghosts + Grey
  3. The one about intimacy: In The World of Silence
  4. The one about polyamory: Fidelity
  5. The one about the ’90s: Like a Toaster
  6. The one about family: Angel in a Red Vest
  7. The one about college: Near Misses
  8. The one about growing up: Unscripted ‘verse
  9. The one about religion: Singing the Journey
  10. The one about amnesia: Everyday

Self-Publishing Erotica 101

Hey y’all! I know I’ve been a really inconsistent blogger now that the semester started again, but hopefully I can get some great stuff finished up for you over spring break. I have some drafts saved for tips on finding things to do in a new town and meal-planning for 12-hour commuter student-worker days and how to coupon when you’re busy or just plain lazy.

I have been very busy and I’m very sorry I’ve neglected you.

But taking 14 credits and working 40+ hours a week just isn’t enough responsibility I guess, because I decided to pursue a new career that I’d actually been considering for a few years now: self-publishing ebooks.

Specifically, erotica ebooks.

Orphan Survival Guide - Self-Publishing Erotica 101

Part of my mini-bio has always said when I was a young girl, my parents would not let me read romance novels, so now I write them out of spite.

For the last two years, I’ve joked with my bestie (and now writing partner) that I should quit my jobs and just write dinosaur porn. I figured it would be easy to do, because most of the books we saw were not really well written, and I spent most of my adult life reading nothing but fanfic and romance novels.

I should have this stuff locked down, right?

Every so often we’d challenge each other to finish a story by a specific date–the first week of classes, our birthdays, the end of NaNoWriMo…

When the Fifty Shades movie came out, we knew we had to get started so we could capitalize on that. So we published our first stories on February 13. We’ve each made maybe $10 off those stories, but the rush of publishing and knowing we made Real Money inspired us to keep going.

And going.

And now we each have several stories published, and steadily climbing sales.

We made a lot of mistakes getting to our first $100. But we’re learning the realities of self-publishing erotica and I think we’re doing pretty okay.

We’re no experts, but we’ve found things that work for us.


This is not a comprehensive walk-through but I hope that it makes a good starting point.

There are lots of great how-to guides and resources out there with details on how to go through each step successfully–and I link to some of them here–but with the industry constantly changing, a specific instruction could become outdated in a week.

1. Research

The very first thing you should do before ever putting pen to paper, is sign up for a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

It’s $10 a month and once you start making money you’ll definitely make that back–plus you’ll be able to write it off on your taxes–and almost all of the successful authors put their books in the KU library so it’s a good way to get acquainted with the market.

You need to research your niche and Kindle Unlimited is the cheapest way to do so.

My writing partner chose to go the monster route and I went with the tried-and-true BDSM erotic romance, hoping to really cash in on Fifty Shades. We each spent a couple of weeks writing and polishing our stories before sacrificing them to the Kindle gods.

But it didn’t take long for us to realize that not only had we been really shortsighted in our marketing but we picked supersaturated niches. We just got lost in the crowd.

We never would have made this mistake if we’d spent the time researching the market through reading popular books.

Other great places to research are self-publishing forums for erotica writers and how-to books you can find in the Kindle Unlimited library.

The eroticauthors subreddit is like an ongoing 101 class for erotica publishing, and it’s a great way to get your feet wet in the industry. But be careful: there are some successful authors in there who can point you in the right direction, but they may give you bad advice to keep you from encroaching on their territory. A lot of this job is trial and error.

There are two how-to manuals in the KU library that I’ve found to be pretty solid, albeit outdated (or deliberately misleading) in some areas: Dalia Daudelin’s How To Really Self-Publish Erotica and Jade K. Scott’s The Six-Figure Erotica Author.

These books are great places to learn the ins and outs of publishing, but the industry is constantly changing, from the ever-growing Kindle Unlimited market to the list of words that will get you stuck in the adult dungeon.

Amazon is by far the easiest distributor to work with, both as a writer and a reader of self-published erotica, and they revolutionized the self-pub world. So be sure to learn the rules of Amazon. Know what gets your book blocked and filtered, whether it’s a too-sexy cover or a word that triggers their prudish reviewers.

2. Experiment

Throw things at the wall and see what sticks.

Chances are, your first book–and even your first five books–won’t be breakout bestsellers. Amazon’s algorithms seem to change every day, so try out different marketing approaches and cover designs, maybe test out a few niches.

Find your niche and run with it. 

Finding your niche–the kink or trope you’re going to focus on–is the first, most important step in research and writing.

Once you find the one that works for you and works for your sales, stick with it and experiment to see what all you can do with it.

3. Publish or Perish

You need to have a frequent publishing schedule to see real money being made. You won’t be able to quit your job in the first six months, so don’t be discouraged if you haven’t cracked $100 after three stories.

I aim to publish at least one 3500-5000 word story a week. I like to think I’m a pretty good writer, but I know that isn’t the most important factor in a book’s success. As long as it’s coherent, it has some dicking, and the formatting is done right, you don’t need to spend a lot of time making it pretty. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

It doesn’t have to be a Pulitzer winner. It just has to be done.

4. Metadata

In a lot of cases, your frontmatter (title page), backmatter (final page) and keywords are the key ingredients to your success as a self-publishing erotica author. Covers are helpful, and you want them to look good because there are people like me who will skip over a potentially great story if I can’t even read the title. But they’re not what’s most important.

Keywords

Keywords are the words that get you in the search listings. There are a lot of theories about how they work, but the consensus is: they’re pretty damn important.

Blurbs

Your blurb is what draws the reader in. It’s a quick summary and/or teaser of your story–and a larger teaser is found in the Look Inside feature of Amazon, so be sure that your first few pages are enticing.

Frontmatter and Backmatter

The front and backmatter are important for guiding readers to the rest of your catalog once you have more than one book up. Always include a link to your Author Central page in the front and back of the book, and include teasers and links to some of your books in the backmatter. This is especially important to include in books you have up on free promotions.

Covers

Your cover doesn’t have to be jaw-droppingly gorgeous or super high resolution, but it does need to fit the theme of your niche. Scantily clad ladies with titles that can be read in thumbnail size are your best bet for a good cover. If your cover looks like a hipster band’s latest album cover… take a look at other books in your niche and try to emulate them, or just pay someone from fiverr.com to make you a cover for $5.

Titles

Don’t be coy with your titles. Someone’s getting banged. That’s what people want to read about. Romance writers can get away with song lyric titles, but for erotica? You want to stick to the formula of someone getting banged, and use as many keywords as you can. Taken by the Man of the House. Punishing His Disobedient Brat. Well-Hung Carpenter Nails My Husband While I Watch.

5. Be Realistic

This is not a get rich quick scheme.

This is a job.

One of the biggest mistakes I continue to make is that I let myself get discouraged when I have a bad sales day. Or I let an ungraded class assignment take priority over writing about dicks and go a week without publishing.

Stay focused, and keep working.

Set a goal, and do everything you can to reach that goal. It could be $50, it could be your 50th story, it could be the ability to quit your job. Having something concrete to work toward will help you stay focused on writing and doing well.

One of my professors this semester said that there are two keys to success in class: you have to care, and you have to try.

Be invested in your success and in your industry, and don’t shy away from putting a little effort into it. The ROI will surprise you.

Stick to your publishing schedule. Keep your quality consistent. Stay relevant. Keep learning and experimenting.


If you made it this far, you deserve a reward. I lied when I said I wouldn’t give you specific advice. Here are 5 tricks to keep in mind when self-publishing erotica.

  1. Use as many organic keywords in your title and blurb as possible.
  2. Price your single titles at $2.99 as a general rule and enroll everything in KDP Select.
  3. Link to your books in your backmatter to encourage clickthrough impulse buys.
  4. Publish at least once a week.
  5. Emulate the stories already published in your niche and push the boundaries by blending niches together.

You can do this. Trust me. I have three jobs and a full courseload–with a B average–and I’m doing this.

And no, I won’t tell you my pennames. A girl needs some secrets. 😉

How To File Your Orphan/Student Taxes

If you haven’t filed your taxes and FAFSA yet, go do it now!

The longer you wait to file your taxes, the longer it’ll take for them to process!

I have friends who filed in January and got their returns in less than a week. I had to wait for about a dozen tuition statements, 1099s, and W-2s this year, so I filed later than I wanted to and I still don’t have an estimated return date. I filed on the 8th and my return showed up on the 17th.

And the longer you wait to file your FAFSA, the less financial aid you’ll receive!

A lot of financial aid is first come, first serve. Even if you can’t file your taxes yet, at least file an Estimated Income on your FAFSA so you can get your app in before it’s too late.

There are two great resources to file your taxes when you have basic returns: free help from accountants in training, and online services that walk you through everything.

I checked out the free tax assistance this year to see what it was like, but ended up going with the tried-and-true online filing system I’ve used for years, which creepily greets me now.

Orphan Survival Guide - File Your Taxes

Calm down, TurboTax.

Free Tax Assistance

If you’re a broke college student, you (probably) qualify for free tax preparation!

In a lot of cities, accounting students and recent grads work with a program that offers free tax preparation. My public library hosts this every year, and even though they offer it two or three times a week for months at a time, there are always hours-long waits because so many take advantage of this. (Be sure to bring all your paperwork, a book, and your lunch. You’ll be waiting a while.)

I went to the VITA people last weekend but after waiting a while they told me I was disqualified from receiving free tax assistance because I work from home.

If you were considering having tax preparers file your forms for free, be sure none of the following applies to you:

  • single with income more than $55k
  • married, filing joint, with a total income of more than $55k
  • self-employed with inventory/expenses greater than $10k or a business loss
  • using your home for business and declaring part of your home as a business expense (i.e., declaring a home office)
  • a farm owner with a farm that generated income
  • in the military and had moving expenses or non-taxable combat pay

I worked from home for about 70% of my income last year and I had to declare self-employment income (which makes you owe so much precious money), so I wanted to capitalize on those home office deductions this year. However, that disqualified me from getting free tax assistance.

You can file your taxes on paper and mail them in yourself, but the calculations get complicated for me so I like to have a little guidance.

After being rejected by VITA, I did what I do every year: I filed online by myself.

Filing Taxes Online

TurboTax charges a lot of weird fees–and they seem to change their fees daily so this post is probably already outdated–so I thought I’d see what the other online tax softwares offered.

PCMag has a chart that shows which features each software offers, from which forms you can file on your phone to how you can receive support. The Simple Dollar breaks down each of the sites and gives more background information to help you make decisions based on what you need to do. It also has a chart telling you how much each one costs.

TaxHawk

TaxHawk lets you file federal for free and state for $13, and I used it a few years ago when I didn’t feel like paying the TurboTax fees. It’s nowhere near as high-tech as the others–it is almost exactly like filing with paper, but you’re typing in a form instead of hand-writing.

It’s meant for simple returns. I couldn’t file with Tax Hawk because I entered a form number that it just wouldn’t accept and I couldn’t move on.

TaxACT

TaxACT is a cheap option, offering a free federal filing and about a $15 state filing. It’s great if you’re filing a simple return with W-2s and tuition statements. It didn’t fit my needs because I had a lot of self-employment things to enter.

H&R Block

H&R Block has an online filing option, but I didn’t try it out this year because I’d wasted enough time on the first two that I just wanted to get it done and over with. From what I’ve read, it’s got a lot of great features, which is good because they’re one of the pricier options. The feature that stands out the most about the H&R Block option is that you can get in-person assistance at any of their offices.

TurboTax

Ultimately, I went with TurboTax just like I have every other year. It’s really intuitive and walks you through everything. It’s the right fit for me because it covers all the items I need and They also have a lot of features built in to make filing go quicker. When I started my current job, it pulled my statements from ADP and it keeps track of what you’ve filed every year so you don’t have to re-type everything over and over again.

When I say TurboTax walks you through everything, I mean it. Every step has a help guide and each page is in simple language to help you understand why you’re seeing it.

Why You Shouldn’t File Your Taxes On Your Own

By which I mean, don’t just get the paper form and do everything by hand. There are a lot of places I got stuck this year because I had so many forms to enter, and it was really helpful having something (or someone) guide me through what I needed to do with them.

Home Office Deductions

This was what disqualified me from VITA help. Because I work from home, I can claim my workspace–which is great because it gets me a few deductions that help offset all the taxes I owe for self-employment income.

Orphan Survival Guide - File Your Taxes

Textbooks

This is one that may trip up a lot of students: can you count your textbooks? And if so, how much of it can you claim? Since all of my fees are included in my tuition statement, I have nothing left to claim for my education. I can’t claim any of the textbooks I bought for classes, which is yet another reason to spend as little as possible on textbooks. Check out my textbook shopping guide to see how you can save!

Orphan Survival Guide - File Your Taxes

Education Credits

This is my favorite part of being a student. As I went through my taxes, my return started dipping lower and lower until I started owing money. I was ready to quit freelancing because how on earth could I not get a return even though I had extra taxes taken out of my day job?

Orphan Survival Guide - File Your Taxes

(Forgive the poor quality; I couldn’t capture the whole screen so I pasted the text into Word.)

Thankfully, TurboTax listed the education credits I qualified for and helped me pick the one that would boost my return. Only then did I actually see my return pull up out of the negative.

When You’re Done, File Your FAFSA Immediately!

Seriously, the longer you wait, the less money you’ll get. Head over to FAFSA.gov and apply for financial aid.

Orphan Survival Guide - Ultimate Guide to Textbook Shopping

Remember,this is the FREE Application for Federal Student Aid. If you’re on a website that’s charging you $80 to file your FREE application, then you’re being scammed.


Next year I’ll have even more 1099 info to fill out, so it may be time for me to move on from TurboTax and start using an actual accountant. What’s the worst part about filing your taxes?

Free! College Assignment Sheet Template

Last month I shared my new planner, which is part of a larger accountability binder system that I use to keep track of things I need to work on and places I need to be.

One of the pages was my assignment and project sheet where I wanted to keep all of due dates. I have pretty small handwriting so I crammed in two 40-line tables on the page: one for classwork and one for writing projects.

I greatly underestimated how many things I would have due this semester. Not counting the surprise projects that have sprung up since the semester started (thanks a lot, j-school), I have over 150 items in my class assignment list.

By comparison, I have about 10 anthology deadlines listed in my project sheet for the entire year.

I obviously need something a little more heavy duty for tracking classwork.

Inspired by this post on Organized Charm, I made a Google Sheet specifically for class assignments.

Orphan Survival Guide - Free College Assignment Tracking Spreadsheet Template

The Spreadsheet

The spreadsheet has columns for the semester week, the specific due date, the class it’s for, the assignment name, and the four potential statuses I may be stuck on: reading, taking notes, writing an initial draft, and completion.

The grey and white backgrounds really help me keep track of what’s upcoming that specific week, and on my printed sheet I use a yellow highlighter in between each specific day so I can prioritize.

Orphan Survival Guide - How To Make A College Assignment Tracking Sheet

Status Columns

The status columns help me to isolate and organize things within the spreadsheet, usually by ordering an entire column.

I use the status columns as a checklist to keep track of what I’ve done and what still needs work.

If you want to track things just with the spreadsheet, you can use drop-down menus in the status columns to check off items when you’re done.

I like using a paper system, so I manually check off when I’m done with a step–and when I’m totally finished, I use a highlighter to strike through the whole line.

The downside to using a paper version rather than an electronic version is that my professors have changed due dates several times so far, so I have to re-write them in the printed copy or re-print it if I’m feeling particularly fussy over it. Having a shortcut on a tablet or laptop may end up being a better option, even though I like having physical tracking sheets.

Orphan Survival Guide - Free! College Assignment Tracking Spreadsheet

Download

Click here to use the template!

[One day I’ll figure out how to make the embed code work. Today is not that day.]

Coming Up Next…

Hey friends, I’m so sorry I’ve been MIA! The new semester and new job have kept me super busy the last two weeks. 14 hour days are no fun.

I have some great stuff I’ll be working on this weekend including weekly meal plan tips and how to file your FAFSA and taxes for free. I might also do a Day in My Life post to show all the running around I do every day (hint: it’s a lot). Stay tuned next week!

In the meantime, please follow my Tumblr! I queue up reblogs while I’m on the bus so there’s lots of new stuff every day.

Have a great weekend!

The Ultimate Guide to Textbook Shopping

There is no reason anyone should go to the campus bookstore. Ever. For anything.

Not for a book, not for a hoodie, not even for pens. Everything there is marked up beyond belief, and you can easily get the same items for huge discounts–or even get them for free.

You don’t have to be an extreme couponer to get a better deal somewhere else. I will show you the easy way to save hundreds of dollars on textbooks each semester.

Orphan Survival Guide - Ultimate Guide to Textbook Shopping

I’ve never purchased a book from the campus bookstore. When I was a bright-eyed young freshman, I bought my books on Amazon because that’s the only online retailer I really knew of.

But I stepped up my game when I went back to school as a grownup.

  • Fall 2013: 27 books. $693 at full price. I spent $75. A 90.2% savings!
  • Spring 2014: 28 books. $515 at full price. I spent $57. An 89% savings!
  • Fall 2014: 8 books. $375 at full price. I spent $38. A 90.9% savings!
  • Spring 2015: 11 books. $277 at full price. I spent $16.  A 95% savings!

If I’d bought all of my books at the campus bookstores, I would have spent almost $2000 total. Instead, I paid less than $200 for two years’ of textbooks!


tipsThis is a pretty involved process, but it’s saved me almost a thousand dollars so far. Set aside three or four hours when you’re ready to start shopping.

I promise, the work will be worth it.

You can read through this entire guide or skip to the sections that are most useful for you.

FRIENDS, LIBRARIES, AND FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY: borrowing books for free with the intention of one day giving them back

FORMER STUDENTS AND CLASSMATES: borrow, share, or buy books from people who have been in the class before

READ LIKE A PIRATE: downloading ebook copies from places that may or may not get you into trouble with your internet provider

BOOKSTORE AGGREGATORS AND RENTAL SITES: if you have to pay real money, you should get the best deal possible


STEP 1: MAKE A DETAILED LIST OF ALL YOUR BOOKS

Novels are super easy to find for free (or cheap) but actual textbooks are a beast. You’ll want to make sure you have all your information right. I have a spreadsheet in Drive to keep myself organized, and a separate list of places to start my search.

When you make your list, get the full title, authors, and the ISBNs for all formats: paperback, hardcover, and e-copies. You will use all of this information in your search to find the cheapest or freest copy. Also note if there are multiple editions of the same title. Older editions are often tens if not hundreds of dollars cheaper than the latest version.


tipsYou probably do not need the latest edition of the textbook!

New editions rarely have significant changes unless it’s a tech-centric or current events-related book. Let’s be real: the AP Style Guide has changed a lot in the last 5 years, but Antebellum American History… probably hasn’t.

Look for the last edition published before the current one, or better yet: find instructor editions.


Some professors get kickbacks for requiring the latest (or university-specific) edition purchased solely from the campus bookstore, so don’t automatically take them at their word if they say you need a specific edition of the book.

If they say you have to buy this specific book, ask them what the differences are between the current and previous versions, and if they can’t tell you, you’re safe with an older edition. Also ask them if they will be using the quizzes and practice tests in the book–if so, you’re stuck with the current edition. Sorry.


tipsRead the book. Pull up the book in Amazon and Look Inside multiple editions and determine whether you really need the most recent edition. Compare the Table of Contents and see if there are any huge page number discrepancies or phrasing differences.


I always recommend using an older or instructor edition of a textbook and then making friends in class so that you can use their copies if you absolutely need a specific piece of information that’s only in the latest edition.

Here’s a glimpse of my spreadsheet showing how I got my books and what my options were. Click the images to see them in high res legibility.

Orphan Survival Guide - Ultimate Guide to Textbook Shopping

Orphan Survival Guide - Ultimate Guide to Textbook Shopping

STEP 2: FIND FREEBIES FIRST

When you’re a broke college student racking up $45,000 in loans, you want to save all the money you can. A free book is a lot nicer than a cheap book.

Orphan Survival Guide - How To Find Free Textbooks

FRIENDS, LIBRARIES, AND FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY

Being an older student, I have a lot of friends who managed to graduate on time, some of whom are in my program. That $90 book I needed last semester that could only be bought from the professor’s website? One of my friends took the class the year before and let me use her access code.

Making friends with people in your major who are ahead of you or who’ve already graduated, is a great idea–not just for sharing textbooks, but for other networking purposes. They can hook you up with jobs and internships, and they can be the shoulder to cry on when you have 7 assignments due in the same week.


tipsNever underestimate the public/university library’s collection, whether it’s the deadtree books on the shelf or their online services.


Your university library should have a copy of all of your books—and you may be able to check them out for a few weeks or even for the entire semester. The library may also have books on reserve, that are not allowed to leave the building: pretty much a guarantee that you can read your required books for free if you have an hour or two to spare at the library.

Awesome library features:

  • everything is free!
  • books on reserve so no one can check them out
  • or you can check things out for a really long time
  • ebooks you can check out
  • ebooks you can read without having to check them out
  • inter-library loans
  • helpful and nice librarians (probably)
  • free!!!

Helpful Resources:

FORMER STUDENTS AND CLASSMATES

If you’re taking the class with a friend, share your textbooks! Before I found the free copies through Ebrary, I decided to split the cost of some of my books with someone in my class.


tipsMake friends with people in class, and you can arrange to share the cost of your books. If you don’t want to hang out with people in real life, seek out your classmates online–through forums and official university resources like Blackboard or ICON, major-specific and textbook swap Facebook groups, or through student-focused social networks like Clusterflunk.


Most universities have some kind of forum or bulletin board where students can swap or sell their books to each other. It might even be a Facebook group—or the department could have a Facebook group full of students who’ve already taken the class.

Helpful Resources:

  • Facebook Groups — look for department groups and textbook swap groups
  • ClusterFlunk — connect with people in your class and university
  • Your School’s Online Course Management System

READ LIKE A PIRATE


tipsUnless otherwise stated on the download site, on the copyright page of the book, or in the author’s personal statements, downloading free copies of your textbooks is illegal.

Follow this step at your own risk. If you decide to use a torrent, use a VPN or proxy, or go to a public wireless connection like a public library computer or internet cafe.


If you’re committed to paying for your books or you’re terrified of getting a DMCA notice and your internet shut off, skip this step and move on to the textbook listing aggregators where you can purchase books for cheap.

“How can you justify pirating ebooks when you want to write books?!” I hear you cry. I pay for all of my school expenses with student loans and paychecks. I have $5 in savings and live paycheck to paycheck. Most people don’t have a cache of money to spend on books.

Yes, downloading books for free that are not provided by the author or a library is illegal–but for those of us on limited incomes, jacking up the price of a textbook’s new edition after giving it nothing more than a new introduction and cover should also be illegal.

There are so many great resources and databases curated by students and people who work to make books more accessible to people with limited incomes.

An easy way to do a search for uploaded books is to simply type in the title followed by free, torrent, download, pdf, epub, mobi, or doc. You’d be surprised at the weird sites you’ll find that turn up with textbooks when you do this search. I found an entire textbook uploaded as a PowerPoint.


tipsThis is customized Google search that targets ebook-hosts. Here is a collection of textbook-related subreddits.


Below, I have embedded a masterlist of places I’ve used or seen referenced in textbook-hunting Tumblr posts, which are dedicated to sharing books and textbooks.

(Please note that this is an image with a list of addresses and not actual links to the sites, because, as stated above, downloading books is illegal.)

Orphan Survival Guide - Download Free Textbooks

STEP 3: YOUR LAST RESORT: BUYING BOOKS ONLINE

Amazon is not the be-all end-all of cheap used textbooks!

BOOKSTORE AGGREGATORS AND RENTAL SITES

There are a lot of marketplace aggregators, some of which are specific to textbooks. The tricky part is that they all search different sites at different times, so they come up with different prices. As a rule, I like to look through at least two or three of them before settling on a book.


Orphan Survival Guide - Ultimate Guide to Textbook Shopping

Keep an eye out for coupons! A lot of the websites that display in the aggregator results have coupons, especially Alibris and Abe Books–I get coupons for them all the time, usually for $1 off or 25% off.


 Helpful Resources:


Honorable Mentions

Book Swaps

These are hit-or-miss in terms of finding your textbooks. But if you read a lot of fiction, book swap sites can help you get free or cheap paper copies of books. Swap Trees has a list comparing the major book swap sites here.

Helpful Resources:

Book Subscription Services

This is a growing market. I did find a few of my actual sciency textbooks on Kindle Unlimited when I started the free trial last semester, but I don’t have enough free time for the paid service to be worth it right now.

Romance novel review and industry news blog Dear Author wrote a great summary comparing Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, and Oyster, the three major ebook subscription services out there right now.

Time will tell if ebook subscriptions add more textbooks and become more accessible to students, but I think they’re notable if your booklist includes a lot of fiction or bestsellers.

Helpful Resources:


If you’ve made it this far, congrats! You now know basically everything there is to know about textbook shopping! If you have any other suggestions for places you’ve found great deals, let me know!

Free! Student Planner Printable

I am a hoarder. This is not really a secret. I do a pretty good job managing it these days, but I am constantly plagued by the thought of but what if I need this? whenever I’m shopping, walking out the door with a small purse, or throwing things away.

Naturally, I carry everything I could possibly need in my backpack. Notebooks, textbooks, headphones, my iPad and keyboard, pencil cases, snacks, knitting projects. I’m prepared for every activity I would want to partake in while on campus.

Being hoarder-prepared, however, means carrying too much stuff.

Orphan Survival Guide - Free Student Planner Printable

Last semester, I scheduled all of my classes for Tuesday/Thursday, so I was on campus from 8:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. twice a week, with no time to go home and switch out bags. I carried a lot of things I really didn’t need, for almost 11 hours a day.

I wanted to keep organized, so I made a school binder using some printables I found on Pinterest.

But I also wanted to start blogging and writing regularly, so I also made blogging and writing binders using a hodgepodge of printables.


tipsSee the bottom of this post for other printables and planners that I’ve used in the past or drawn inspiration from when creating this one!


After a while, I had too many things to fit in my one school binder so I ended up with two 1-inch school binders–one of which I carried all the time, and one I carried with me everywhere. Add to that the two 1-inch blogging and writing binders that didn’t get much use, plus all the other things I carry around.

Something had to give, and for a while I thought it was gonna be my back!

I still have all of these binders on a shelf at home, ready to be picked apart and recycled, but I’m learning to control my hoarding tendencies. I now carry one life management binder filled with the essentials I need for that week and it’s working out pretty well.

I learned what I did and didn’t need to carry around, based on how I used everything I carried during fall semester. And now I’m happy to share part of that with you!

Here is my super-condensed daily management planner, tailored to fit a college students needs (but still customizable).

download

There are a lot of really pretty and fancy printable planners on Pinterest, but this design is minimalist and utilitarian because I wanted to focus on the content. Plus I need lines because I can’t write a straight line to save my life.

How it fits in my binder: The full planner for the semester is about 30 pages printed double-sided, that I keep at the front of my binder before blogging, fiction-writing, and class dividers. I also keep a zip pouch of sticky notes and page flags clipped in there, and I carry a pencil case that has my highlighters and pens.

checklist

My first page includes my daily and weekly checklists of things I know I am forgetful or lazy about: things like drinking enough water, doing yoga, doing the dishes, printing my coupons. There’s also space to put a couple of reminder sticky notes for goals I want to keep in mind, or things that absolutely must be remembered.

assignments

On the back of my front page, I have my due dates sheet: this includes a section for an assignment planner as well as a project and ideas planner for things like story deadlines and a blog editorial calendar.

month

Next is the monthly calendar. I have this vaguely color-coded with the pens and highlighters I tend to carry with me. I included some lines near the bottom for reminders.

I use a lot of lines in this design because I cannot write straight. It’s just impossible, I can’t train myself to do it. The lines are also narrow-ruled (between 8 and 10 pixels tall) because I have small handwriting. You can easily bump the size or remove the lines yourself in the editable document.

The calendars also have an inspirational quote in the empty day spaces, because why not?

budget

On the back of the monthly calendar is the monthly budget. I want to be better about my budget, and I’m trying to train myself to hand-write every transaction to keep myself from splurging or compulsively buying bottles of Vitamin Water. (So far I’m not doing so hot.)

There are also spaces to note upcoming big bills like tuition and loan payments, as well as to keep track of groceries and items you don’t necessarily have to factor into every month like toothpaste or textbooks.

I keep the months bunched together (but not the entire year), so that I can see what’s due in the coming weeks and how I need to pace myself through the semester.

week

The most important part, and the pages I use the most: the weekly planner. I thought about what I did and didn’t use with the planners last year, and what I wish I’d had. A lot of weekly planners had space to write, but didn’t have tasks tiered out or hourly breakdowns of each day–something that is usually reserved for day planners instead of week planners.

To make sure I remembered the most important tasks, I set a bright red section for the things that I absolutely needed to do that day: exams, project due dates, story publishing dates.

I also want to keep track of things that I should do but aren’t necessarily the top priority that day, so I broke down reading and writing sections for things I should study and work on but aren’t necessarily immediately due.

And because I want to start budgeting better and eating out less, I put in a meal planner section, which will hopefully inspire me to plan my meals for the week? So far it hasn’t seen much use, but hopefully when I’m a little more disciplined after school starts, I’ll use it more.

I have about 20 copies of this page printed, so I use paperclips to keep my place so I can always turn to the current week. Once classes start and I have some bigger due dates, my weekly pages will have color-coded page flags to let me know when I have upcoming projects, papers, and exams due.

Since I use a lot of sticky notes and Google Calendar reminders, and I don’t have any looming academic deadlines for another week, I’m still getting in the swing of using my planner regularly. I’ll update this post when I have more substantial snapshots of how it’s used.


Download the full printable:
PDF

Download just the checklist page and assignment sheet:
PDF or Publisher

Download just the monthly calendar and budget pages:
PDF or Publisher

Download just the weekly pages:
PDF or Publisher

I’m including a printable PDF as well as the Publisher templates so that you can edit it yourself–feel free to change the font, swap out a blog section for another meal planning section, use colors that fit your binder, or tweak it however suits your purpose.

I’d love to see what changes you make!


If this planner doesn’t fit your needs, here are some of the ones that inspired me to make it. Maybe one of the prettier or more comprehensive life management printables here will be what you need!

The 2014 and 2015 planners from The Handmade Home were what I used when I first started keeping a paper planner. They were cute and had a lot of space for me to stick my alert flags.

I also laminated the Get It Done and This Week pages from The Harmonized House Project last semester to keep track of things that were high priority—although I ended up using regular-sized Post-Its which were too big for the spots. Their Home Finance Printables inspired the budgeting and finance pages I made, which I’m hoping will help me be more responsible with my money instead of being a compulsive shopper/eater.

The Passion Planner and the Planner Pad inspired the minimalist and priority-focused design of my planner.

The Mini Accountability Binder from Thirty Handmade Days inspired a lot of my reminder and list pages.