Breathing Again

Over the past two weeks, I’ve gotten rid of a great many books, mostly technical books that either duplicated content or covered technologies I don’t need to know. My relationship with books is long and complex, but the gist of the story is that I have, for over a decade, been addicted to books. In a strange twist, owning books has been psychologically terrible for me because of the pressure I put on myself to finish reading them. This is the first time in probably six years that I haven’t had something to read through. I probably own between 20 and 30 books now, only four of which are related to programming. Quite frankly, they’re the only four that are truly useful at this time.

It was kind of a brutal process. Some books I literally kept because I was afraid I would need them. $30 books. Fear. It’s ridiculous. It first took admitting that, “I hate this book”, then it took actually stepping out and saying, “I’m getting rid of this book”. So many people complain about being busy, but they’re afraid to cut things out, afraid to say “no”. My situation is a bit weird, I don’t know anybody else who tortures themselves over unread books, but I’m willing to bet many people can identify with suffering due to their inability to say “no”.

It’s like breathing again. I haven’t been staying up late feeling I need to read or learn more. And, oddly enough, I’ve been incredibly tired. This could just be my imagination, but it feels like the stress of all those years has started to collapse, and now my body is trying to make up for all the lost years.

A decade of striving. What do you even do with that?

I can feel that this is a year of great change, and I’ve been wanting to explore some deeper things in my life with God. Lately, I’ve been re-reading my old journals. They’re insanely boring, but give me some perspective on just how far I’ve come. Last year I shredded Journal #1, and today I shredded Journal #2, which was written around 2011 and 2012. One of the most frequent subjects in #2? Having too many books to read! Can’t believe it’s taken this long. We’re all works in progress.

I’ve been watching hockey again. I haven’t actively watched hockey since high-school. But that was about the time I started turning to knowledge for all of my answers. That was when life lost a lot of its magic.

I have many friends I’ve been meaning to hang out with, but I’m giving myself the liberty to just rest. Some days I skip church (like today). I used to get lunch with friends every single Sunday, but lately I have just gone home and bought something special from the grocery store.

I don’t plan to keep this up forever, I am a social introvert, but I can’t explain how nice it is to just rest. To breathe. I’m a competent programmer and I don’t have to worry about my career. I didn’t have to before, either, but I chose to. I have friends who care about me, I don’t have to see them all the time, and before too long I will get back into the swing of sociability. I know who I am, and I don’t need to hold onto old journals to remind me. It may be different for other people, but for me it’s time to move on. One last read-through and it’s to the shredder they go.

There are things to do Tuesday nights and Thursday nights and that’s it, I’m done, I’m not making anything else a priority. Even Sunday mornings are lower priority. I’m done with that ‘busy’ crap.

I’ve wanted to write more posts on here but they haven’t been working out. Part of this goes back to my post about being financially bored, where once that savings rate is set, you just have to keep showing up and everything else is automatic. I could follow some obnoxious list of frugal tips, but that really won’t do anything for me at this point. Shaving $50 or $100 off my spending every month just isn’t worth the struggle of living by the letter, so to speak.

Honestly, one of the biggest things on my mind right now is Nepal. My personal savings is very nearly enough to start taking my plans to go there seriously. I think the goal is to spend two weeks there. Soon I plan to start mapping out what that visit will look like. Since books aren’t really around to distract me anymore, I may even spend a little time in the evenings re-learning the Devanagari script.

I need this post just to express these personal things that are going on in my life right now. This isn’t a financial post but one that I still very much have wanted to write. Once the journals are done, I’m hopefully going to be doing a lot more snowshoeing, and there are several movies I’d like to check out from the library. I think there are many good things in the works, so I’m pretty excited for this year.

Updates and Reflections on 2018

It seems a bit odd to be writing this on Christmas Eve, as I have really nothing to reflect on about Christmas itself. But I am sprawled out on my parents’ guest bed in my old bedroom and I felt it was fitting to write here what’s been on my mind this past week.

Updates!

Since the key purpose of this blog is to write about money, I suppose I should say something about it. I suppose. Seven days from now, as long as I’m not laid off or fired, my final HSA contribution will pass and I will hit the golden trifecta of maxing out my 401k, Roth IRA, and HSA. Holy heck has it been a crazy ride. You’d be surprised how fast those pre-tax 401k contributions add up, too. Yeah, yeah, markets tanked in October, people are freaking out, I’m not worried about that. In fact, I’m kind of hoping it drops a little more so that when my limits reset in January, I’ll be buying in a down market.

The G-IRA is complete; I’ve hit my giving goal. My big G-IRA “distribution” was a huge success and the target individual (TI) was completely caught by surprise. Bam! Probably the most fun I’ve ever had giving. Not easily replicable, however. With that done, I originally wanted to spend the rest of the money on some attempts at prophetic giving (taking expensive stuff to strangers, listening to God to hear who to take them to), but for whatever reason that felt really off this year, it just didn’t feel right for the time, so I spent the rest on Christmas gifts for my family. No regrets. And I mean, TI could have taken a fraction of that money and bought a really great [thing] instead, but the real power of the G-IRA is that you have no reason not to go big for someone else. I wish I could say it was purely from the love of my heart, but really what made it easy was just the fact that the money was going to be given to someone anyway, so it may as well have been spent going big for TI. Go big or go home! I think I will be doing a G-IRA next year, too, but I feel like God is giving me a larger target, and that scares the crap out of me. I mean, it’s exciting, but it’s also like, “Nooo! Why?” We’ll see. I mean, this is voluntary after all. But that push, man. God’s all about pushing those boundaries.

On a side note, my church is pretty awesome about giving. They just gave 20g’s away to people in need yesterday. I like this church. Anyway, I’ve got a post I want to write on that soon.

I did finally buy a Playstation 4 for $200 during Black Friday, which is half of what I was thinking about paying back in the Spring, when I wrote my anti-lifestyle inflation post using the PS4 as an example. I think waiting to get 50% off was totally worth it. And I am happy to have a PS4. You can have your cake and eat it, too.

Reflections!

Two periods really stood out to me this year. The first is when I changed the water pump on my car. It was unplanned but I ended up here at my parents’ place while they were out of town. The job was relatively simple, but was temporarily full of despair when I sheered the de-tensioning bolt (I don’t know what else to call it) off my drive belt tensioner, which sucked but really only meant one thing: I had to buy another tensioner and change it myself. The job was slow but otherwise went smoothly. I had a decent amount of peace about it, and two nights in a row, I slept like a baby, right here in this bed that I’m sitting on. I didn’t have a Bible with me and I hate reading the Bible on my phone, but my parents have a few old topic-specific Bible verse books on the bookshelf, so I browsed those. I watched several Disney VHS tapes from when I was a kid. I don’t know how to describe it all. It was probably the most peaceful weekend of the year. It’s like God was here in a profound way. It took me away from my normal settings, just lead me to a place of rest. And there hasn’t been the slightest of leaks from that water pump since ๐Ÿ˜‰

The second was hanging out with my sister’s family. I got to spend time with my oldest niece, who is growing up way too fast, and got to see my new baby niece, who is the smiley-est baby ever and really warms my heart :). And I got to pet the cat. And hang out. Have long conversations, watch my brother-in-law beat this cool, kinda-eerie side-scroller video game, eat good food, and see life outside of Denver, which is starting to boil with overpopulation and insanity. It was also the first time in many, many years that I’ve been on a plane, and I really, really miss flying. So I want to add a part 2 to Thoughts on Travel someday. That was overall just a great week, and much needed.

And yes, 2018 has brought many changes. Whereas 2017 was the year of carnage and death and good friends being complete retards and following God’s call to move out of state, 2018 has, in fact, been the water in the desert. I was keeping a foot in my old church because I still care about people there, but I always knew I was never going to fit into the ecosystem at that church, no matter how great the leadership was or how welcoming the setting. Instead, I now spend that night of the week as part of a rag-tag group of crazy dreamers who get together once a week to seek God through dream interpretation. Oh, I know. Sounds crazy if you’ve never read the Bible ;). But it’s pretty amazing what God is doing in people’s lives.

Spiritually, God has been doing a lot in my life through identity this year. This is good, because when people are truly grounded in their identity in God, they are rock solid, and they have space for others. They can also let go of old friends and move on. 2017 really shook me to the core. I think that’s the closest I’ve ever been to true depression. I’m actually of the suspicion that my community life is not as deep as I would like because that is simply the season I am in, and there is great room for growth in fostering new community.

It has been a date-less year, stacking onto the others, and I think maybe for a reason. Hey, I know some great girls, but sometimes it just doesn’t make sense emotionally or logically, and sometimes the door is simply closed and you can tell. There hasn’t really been anyone to ask out. Sometimes I’ll meet a girl and think, “Hey, God, what about this girl?” And I get a dream that’s all about my identity, instead! In general, it’s a painful topic for me, but I think that’s what the message of identity is about. People who are grounded in their identity are truly safe people who have space to see and address the blessings in other peoples’ lives. And in their own. You can’t confuse your core identity with the various facets of your life. Your job is not your identity. Your friendships are not your identity. Your wealth is not your identity. You love-life is not your identity.

Actually, fun story. Only once this year, as far as I’m aware, has God answered a question about a specific girl. I had a dream one night in which I was in a location owned by friends from an old friend group, and I think it was the only dream I’ve ever had in which that girl was present. But when I looked closely in the house, and I had to look closely, I could see fine white spider webs all over, like fuzzy mold. I got the vacuum to clean up the webs (I am a bit of a cleaner in real life), but it wasn’t working, and the vacuum broke down. I kept trying to fit different mechanical pieces inside to fix it (perhaps different arguments as to why I should pursue her), but nothing worked. Later I got dragged into this zombie game by a family member of one of the friends, and then I woke up.

I don’t recommend bootstrapping your dream interpretations if you haven’t done it in a group, and non-Christians (or some Christians) will think I’m insane, but really the larger message of the dream was that in that girl’s life there are a lot of spider webs, which might be thought of as snares or as neglected spaces into which undesirable things have moved, and, most importantly, I was unable to clean up those spider webs. In other words, I’m not capable of dealing with her issues. Being involved in that location only got me stuck playing games. (“You’re playing love games with Old Gregg?!”) That was crazy. The message seemed pretty clear to me. And if you’re still skeptical, well, let’s just say that’s not the first time God’s answered a question about that girl telling me ‘no’. But this all lead to an interesting extension question: so what are the spider webs that I have in my own life?

Just a little dream nugget for the blog. If you don’t keep a dream journal, you might consider doing so ๐Ÿ™‚

As mentioned last post, I have also learned this year how to change lug bolts, which makes me feel pretty bad ass. It’s still tough to recommend, but it’s a great feeling when you pull off a new job on the car and now have that much more skill and ability.

Huge progress on my open source inventory system. Oh, man. It’s so close. I’ve been working on this for two years, but only this past year has the technology clicked. A lot of great blessings through this, so praise to God. I feel like a real developer now and orchestrating the whole project has been a huge lesson in perseverance and humility. Engaging, though, I’ll give it that. Really excited to see what this can do for the company I’m volunteering for.

Times are changing again. I may no longer be in the desert, but the change isn’t over. I may be losing some friends to another dumb state, and I’ll be seeing two friends much less since they just became parents. But tenacity! I still very much care about my old friends, but there is a way forward and going backward isn’t an option.

Thoughts on Cars

There’s one ideal way to own a car: Pay $0 for one that never breaks down. Wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t that be one of the best deals ever?

Yeah, well, too bad. Every car decision is some combination of risk. You can pay a ridiculous portion of your net worth for a new car, which saves you from repairs for a few years but is otherwise a rapidly depreciating asset, or you can pay very little for a used car that just might blow it’s head gasket next week. Pick your poison. You will find any number of suggestions about what you “should” do. Some people think you should always buy new cars and sell them before the warranty ends; others think you should always buy used cars and save yourself the depreciation. But if everyone bought new our world would be trashed even more than it already is, and if everyone bought used, well, eventually there would be nothing left.

Personally, I always buy used. I look for models with the fewest complaints against them and specific cars that preferably have only had one or two previous owners. I thus far have preferred mid-size sedans with front-wheel drive. My target range has been $3000-6000, but I have considered cheaper cars, and I have also thought it would be really nice to be able to buy a $10,000 car in cash. Ideally, I’d have 10k sitting in the bank for another car if/when that day comes.

But here’s the kicker. I’m comfortable buying older cars because I do most of the work on my cars. I’m a fairly outspoken proponent of understanding how cars work and doing the work yourself, but my faith in this latter position has been shaken on several occasions. And this stems from the fact that working on your car can really, really suck.

Earlier today, I was engaged in fierce battle with my Camry. I had needed to change the tie rods for awhile, so I decided to finally get things rolling. This was one step in a series of things needing to be done. I needed to replace a lug nut, change the tie rods, get the tires rotated and balanced, wash the car, and then get an alignment. My tires have started to feather a bit and the steering wheel has been off ever so slightly since the last rotation (a sign that the tires may be wearing unevenly).

So Saturday I decided to go to my parents’ to change the tie rods, which had been leaking grease a tad and had started creaking more. It’s a fairly easy procedure. Loosen the lug nuts, put the car up on jack stands, break tie rod the lock nut free, take the castle nut off, use a device to pop the tie rod free of the steering knuckle, then unscrew the tie rod. Reverse with the new tie rod. It’s one of the easier jobs.

I swapped one side in less than half an hour, then went to the other side. Everything was going fine until I tried to back the lock nut off: it ended up twisting the entire inner tie rod, though it did “break free” of the outer tie rod. This is not good, because that nut needs to move freely for proper alignment. So I spent a large portion of Saturday dousing it in PB Blaster ,hoping this would soak in and free the rust, then taking the impact driver to it while holding the inner tie rod in place with an adjustable wrench. I even took a propane torch to the nut. I then talked to one of my mechanic friends to get some more ideas and see if I was crazy or not. Nope, it happens. There are more effective torching methods, but I didn’t have those. “Letting it soak” is something I keep coming across, too, but I couldn’t believe it was having so much difficulty. (My suggestion for avoiding this problem is to soak any suspension part you may be planning to change in PB Blaster, and do this a day or two ahead of time!)

Inner tie rod and lock nut, post freedom. That inner tie rod’s a bit rusty, huh?

So I put the old tie rod back on, torqued everything down, and went home, frustrated beyond belief. It’s just tie rods, what the hell?

So after waiting for a day, my hope was to finish the job. I went to my parents’ again, put the car in the garage, and started to loosen the lug nuts. But there was a problem: two lug nuts were not coming free. They had been just fine the day before. I didn’t know what else to do – it didn’t make sense. Using a breaker bar, I kept unwinding one of the lug nuts. And then…it completely sheered off.

Dayyyym!

So now I was miserable. I had a great many choice words and slunk into a garage floor catastrophe coma. Was this really happening? How had what should have been a simple job turned into…this? What was I going to do? I could still tighten the other stuck lug nut down, since THAT one hadn’t sheered off yet, and with four lug nuts, I could (somewhat) safely get my car to a shop. If I took a risk on the second one and it sheered off as well, I’d be looking at getting the car towed, or replacing the hub, which could easily be it’s own nightmare, and would definitely require me to stay the night at my parents’ and probably take the next day off work.

Now, deep in the recesses of my mind, I remembered knocking a few lug bolts out of their hub. At the junk several years ago, I had found a freed knuckle assembly lying in front of an old Corolla and had bought it to test on my new press. At some point I had needed to remove the lug bolts before I could press the bearing out. So as I looked online today for answers to my situation, there was suddenly a light at the end of the tunnel to realize that individual lug bolts can in fact be replaced with removing the hub. Of course. Sweet!

At a few bucks a pop, I bought three new lug bolts from Napa, as well an inner tie rod, boot, extra lug nuts, and then an inner tie rod tool from another shop. I’m not saying I wanted to change the inner tie rod, but there was no guarantee that bolt was coming off, and I was not taking any chances!

I don’t have a picture, unfortunately, but it turns out that when you take the rotor, caliper, and caliper mounting bracket off, there is a divot in the knuckle specifically designed for the removal of lug bolts. I actually knocked the first one out with a hammer when it was on another side, since there’s just enough clearance. The second one I aligned to the proper location, and I used a special tie rod puller (oddly enough) that forced the bolt out smoothly and without the jarring effects of the hammer. You get the new lug bolts in by pushing them through the back as far as you can, putting a washer around the front, then torquing a lug nut down so as to pull the lug bolt into place inside the hub. Very fortunately, my impact driver (not to be confused with an impact wrench), was up to the task. Really wish I’d taken a picture of this, but oh well. Also, I should definitely buy an impact wrench.

Also, the lock nut did actually come off the inner tie rod. This was such a relief! There’s definitely something to be said about soaking suspension parts in penetrating oil and waiting a day or two before attempting to remove those parts. I could have changed the inner tie rod while I was down there, it probably would not have hurt anything and the car is getting an alignment anyway, but those can be tricky as well, and more work was the very last thing I wanted to deal with. I put a lot of anti-seize grease on the inner tie rod before putting the new outer tie rod into the place. (Trick: if you put a few beads of anti-seize on the tie rod, the lock nut and/or outer tie rod will spread the anti-seize along the threads for you)

So it all turned out, and tomorrow I’ll get my rotation and alignment figured out and probably drop the car off at a nearby shop that I can walk home from. I can always get alignments from my friend, but I think he’s a bit busy right now :).

Great, but what does this have to do with working on cars?

Well, like I said, sometimes it really sucks. Today really sucked, except that it worked out and I learned something new. I’ve had tie rods go very smoothly, I’ve even had axles go very smoothly. But other times I’ve collapsed on the floor of the garage in mental agony. I’ve also made some mistakes that could have been extremely dangerous. It takes the right conditions, the right tools, and a certain level of grit to pull some of these repairs off. It takes money, too. Shops aren’t cheap, but tools aren’t either. I would argue that tools are cheaper than shops, but you also have to consider the value of your sanity.

Once again, there is no conclusion to this post! I still think people can only benefit from understanding how their cars work, but for all the work I’ve done, I still come across awful little situations like this past weekend. I’m struggling to know what to recommend, honestly. For one, it’s worth having tools for those “oh, shit” moments, and I think it definitely helps to be over prepared for the job at hand. I may follow this post up with some suggestions on how to go about these DIY repairs. Half the battle is just knowing what you’re truly up against, and that’s the problem with recommending people do the work on their cars. You simply can’t predict what you’ll be up against. Doing it yourself only makes sense under certain conditions.

Personal Returns on Education

One clever life strategy is to carefully select your post-secondary education to maximize its ROI in your personal life. I’m not talking so much about monetary earnings as I am about the utility of specific skills in your life when they are used for you.

For example, my degree is in Anthropology. This was a highly intellectually stimulating subject for me, so I really loved it. But it does not translate into high pay (or much of any pay at all), and it’s unlikely to save me any costs. How it is likely to affect my life, in the sense that I mean in this post, is that it has given me broad-based cultural awareness that will likely help me to adapt to life and potentially earn money in foreign cities, something I hope to capitalize upon some day. Mostly, it’s still an intellectual subject ๐Ÿ™‚

One subject I’ve been interested in studying is Appliance Repair. My parents’ refrigerator has crapped out twice now, but I was able to directly solve the problem the first time and made an informed guess that turned out to be accurate the second time. This has saved them the hassle of paying for a brand new refrigerator, probably in the range of ~$1400, and in the first case, it saved them from the lie of the repair guy that the compressor was bad and would cost $800 to replace. That’s substantial savings, but let’s think about this more. Your value as an Appliance Repair person comes from your work on many people’s appliances. The chances of your specific refrigerator dying are fairly small in any given year, but let’s say that over the course of your life, your refrigerator dies three times and you replace it each time. If you love what you do, that’s fine, but as far as personal ROI goes, you may be lucky to be saving yourself $5,000, maybe a little more if you consider other appliances and maybe rising prices or refrigerators with more features. HVAC training would have a higher personal ROI, but even then, a few water heaters and maybe a furnace are not going to save you a tremendous amount of money as a factor of your earnings over the course of your life.

Programming, surprisingly, is only marginally better. You could potentially design your own website, and if you are a crazy beast you could even build an e-commerce platform, but in the case of the latter, you’re still likely to hacked into oblivion because programming and security are done in teams, and solo programmers are rarely able to do everything themselves. In the former, you need specific technical skills that may not be a part of your “stack”, or base of knowledge. This blog that you are reading right now is built on WordPress, which is written in the PHP programming language. I don’t know PHP. I’m probably capable of hacking through it, but it wouldn’t be fun. There are tons of sites that have all of these pieces already put together for you, and they are very often a better use of your time and money than going solo, even if you are a professional programmer.

If you can see the trend, it’s that in order to make money in a particular occupation, you have to be highly specialized in that occupation, which has the side effect of being less useful to you, in person.

Accounting is not bad, but you don’t need a degree in Accounting to keep a budget. I have no training in Accounting, but I did go full geek last month and learned how to calculate my paychecks, taxes and everything. It took some reverse engineering of last year’s tax return to double-check my logic, but it was pretty fun for a few days. Likely, Accounting WOULD be extremely useful if you owned a small business.

Art is interesting in that art is expensive, so if you can do your own, you can likely style things exactly as you want for much less. With graphic design, you can make your own business cards, do your own photo retouching, etc. As for design, I have a distinctive international style I use for decorating the living room, and I’ve always thought it would be sweet if I could hammer and cut metal to keep that style going. This will scale with your needs, though, so it only saves as much as you were determined to have in the first place. I also suspect if you love artsy things, it’s easy to find and love cool things made by others, but that’s sort of beside the ROI discussion ๐Ÿ˜‰

I would argue Nursing has high ROI as you become highly trained in many subjects of general health, you can perform your own bloodwork, and especially if you have kids, you will better know when they really need to go to the hospital or when they will be fine without special treatment. These savings can add up significantly over the years, and the knowledge does not require the extensive education that becoming a doctor does, which again, requires a great deal of specialization that may not be directly relevant to you or your family.

Probably the highest personal ROI of any occupation I can think of at 1:00am is Auto Mechanical work. Since most people own a vehicle and enjoy doing so, it makes sense that a mastery of automotive knowledge will help you save tremendous amounts of money keeping your cars running or finding good deals on used cars. Since maintenance is routine and parts can and will fail, this provides a steady stream of work which will create a higher ROI for your knowledge each time. I pride myself on doing most of the work on my car, but I don’t have the special training (or some of the gumption) to do everything, nor the experience to feed my decisions when I set to work. If I were financially independent, I would seriously consider doing an automotive program, and would love to rebuild my own engine some day. The ROI would be lower for mechanic work on heavy machinery, since you are not likely to need knowledge of heavy machinery maintenance for your daily life.

I also suspect that an Associate’s Degree in Business is one of the highest ROI degrees. You learn some accounting, some finance, some law, some communication, all in one package. It may not have the prestige of a Bachelor’s degree, but dollar for dollar, you’re getting a lot of great knowledge for very little time and money cost. Even if you never used the degree in a job setting, the knowledge would probably pay for itself many times over.

Carpentry would also be very high on the list, especially if you own a house.

 

There’s no science to all this, just some perspectives. There are many, oh so many, occupations that we could sit down and talk about. I especially like the Occupational Outlook Handbook, but the sort of analysis I’m doing here is fairly rare. Typically, people only look at either compensation or personal reward (e.g. intellectual stimulation, as with my degree). These are really great to consider, but don’t be ashamed to be strategic with your education ๐Ÿ™‚

 

 

Comfort and Boredom

My favorite weather is “impending doom”. I use this term to describe the approach of massive storms, such as when thunderheads are rolling toward Denver over the eastern planes, or when a snowstorm is approaching and the plows are out in unison, preparing for the battle ahead. It’s exciting. A small part of me comes alive. It’s the challenge, the fight.

But rarely does the challenge or the fight materialize. Sometimes there’s only 10 minutes of rain, or a dusting of snow. When I drove up to Wyoming for the 2017 Solar Eclipse, I bought a pack of Bud Light hoping I’d have some cool story of trading it with a local for a good spot or private road access to escape my vision of an insane mass of people. I got some good pictures of traffic on the way back, but no cool beer exchange story. Ultimately, the traffic was not that bad. At least I still get to tell my story of hauling five hours overnight to Riverton. I wanted a struggle, and I wanted to overcome it. Is this why people love zombie movies and television shows?

The Middle Class? Man, I hate the Middle Class. Sometimes. It’s always the story of ridiculous consumption, riding lawnmowers, woo-dads and gizmos. Kitchens full of tiny little gadgets to help with every culinary action imaginable. “More comfort! More comfort!” should be the slogan of the Middle Class. Drive the car to the grocery story, then drive to the gym, instead of simply walking to the grocery store and saving money on two fronts. Complain about how busy you are. I don’t get it. Well, I do, but I don’t like it. More comfort! More comfort!

When I first moved into this house, there was one day where it was extremely hot. I was working from home that day and was sweating like crazy. I turned the fan on, wanting to avoid using the AC, but the settings activated the AC anyway and it got nice and frosty without my noticing. When my friend who owns the house came home he mentioned we should “talk about” and “agree upon” a setting if things are uncomfortable. So the next day I didn’t touch the thermostat at all. I was, I admit, being extremely passive aggressive, but I also was curious to know, “Hey, what can I actually handle?” It got up to around 80 degrees inside, and my back was sweating pretty good. But I survived. Obviously, but some people never get to realize that they can actually live indoors when it’s 80 degrees. My friend came home, briefly went upstairs, and immediately came down. “Hey, can we agree that 75 degrees is pretty reasonable?” Oh, you like that, huh? It’s pretty hot when the AC isn’t on, huh? We should turn it down, huh? Anyway, my experiment was actually enjoyable. I suspect that after enough 80 degree days, my body would probably adapt. I kind of want to test this next year. (and for the record, we all get along really well here, I am just occasionally mischievous ๐Ÿ™‚ )

A lot of well-off people have nothing better to do than renovate their kitchens. Or garages. Or man-caves. O, renovation. It becomes the only excitement some people ever experience. I suspect they are simply bored, and in our culture, it seems the only appropriate way to counter boredom is to be “productive”. So people set their minds toward being more and more comfortable. Buy the extra kitchen gadget. Buy a “time-saver”. Optimize. But really, they have to scramble to find challenges because they’ve already given themselves every solution they can. They live with central AC or central heating. They have fast internet. They drive cars everywhere. They order food online, or pre-made, or get their ridiculous refrigerators to order eggs for them. Nothing is truly a challenge. So they focus their existential angst on gas prices, on why they don’t earn more money, or on their spouse.

I’m still working on challenging myself. Two winters ago, right after a snowstorm, I walked about 15-25 minutes through the snow to my closest grocery store, bought a 20lb bag of rice, and carried it back through the snow. It was intense. It was great. I was sore as hell. It helped that the burlap bag around the rice had handles, but I mean dang. That’s a big, slippery hill when you are hauling rice. But it’s a fraction of what some people in the world carry on a daily basis. Human physiology is not so radically different that we here in the US can’t do the same. Why not try it out? We’re probably just not in as good of shape as those people, plus our mindset prevents us from living that way. We’d rather pay $100/month to attend a specialty gym where we can do things in a controlled setting because we don’t have any actual need to do those things in an uncontrolled setting. Specialty gyms have their place and they can be fun, but do you get what I’m saying? Most fitness is just effective showmanship. Very few people actually have a physical application for their conditioning. But I know one guy whose gym is the Colorado 14ers and any run-able road he chooses. He may not have bulging muscles, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t kick your ass or run circles around you if he really wanted.

Last week I hiked Waterton Canyon to the Strontia Springs Reservoir…in drizzle. I hadn’t planned on the weather, but Friday night I decided to do it the next day and I stayed true. With the right shoes, a water-proof and breathable jacket, hat and gloves, and a rain-fly for my backpack, I was fine. Dang that was a long hike. Easy terrain, but long. The rain really wasn’t an issue at all, and I got a great view of the giant dam face with water coming out below while fog capped the sides of the canyon. Totally worth it. If you push yourself, you may be surprised what you can accomplish.

People will think you’re crazy for living with less comfort than normal. Some people thought I was crazy for living off half my income. Either that or they just assumed I was loaded with dough, which isn’t the case. It’s not that hard, you just accustom yourself to saving more and spending less. You can do this in one swoop, or you can work up toward it overtime, as I did. I’m happy with where I’m at now, but there is that little wondering of what I could handle if I just pushed myself a little more. I might be surprised.

I also think the general boredom of life is what causes video game addiction. Video games have really perfected the art of reward systems, and there seem to always be new challenges. Starting with the PlayStation 3, Sony introduced “Trophies”, little rewards you could earn by doing certain things or achieving various statistics in the game, and they haven’t disappeared. These tap into your reward system and keep you playing more. Rewards in video games are more cleanly defined than rewards in real life, and this makes it easy to stave off boredom by focusing on the next objective.

Yes, we’re talking Sisyphus here. But I think it’s critical to understand that this is real. We want challenges to overcome, but at some point we make our lives so ridiculously comfortable that there are really no challenges to overcome. I almost wonder if this related to the extreme prevalence of depression in Western or otherwise industrial economies. We really already have everything we need, and we’ve lost the art of being challenged.

Low Paying Jobs

New England Factory Life, 1868

Michael: “Francesca is my oldest brother’s daughter. He died many years ago, and ever since I’ve felt much more of a father than an uncle. I love her very much. I’m pleased and impressed that you had the thought to come to me before going on with your plans. It shows me that you’re a considerate man, and will be good to her. What are you studying in college?”

Gardner: “My major is Fine Arts, sir.”

Michael: “How will Fine Arts support your new wife?”

Gardner: “It’s embarrassing to say, sir, but I’m a major stockholder in the family corporation.”

Michael: “Never be embarrassed of your wealth. This recent contempt for money is still another trick of the rich to keep the poor without it. Of course I give you my blessing. Let’s set the wedding soon…it will be my pleasure to give the bride away.”

 

So what happens if you find yourself in a low-paying job? What happens if God calls you to a low-paying job? The above quote is from the Godfather Part 2, and the words of Gardner always stuck with me. He was choosing a career track that pays very little, but had another source of income to help with that. I love Michael’s response. But there are definitely two sides to this coin, so you’ll have to hear me out before judging what I have to say.

Back in high school, I was part of a cohort of Christian “smart kids”. We were the non-partying folk, the cross necklace folk, the goody twoshoes folk. We studied, did our homework, were academically inclined, and could be real asses from time to time. But you see, something was odd. We all chose low-paying professions. I wanted to be a writer. Our Valedictorian wanted to be an English teacher, and our Salutatorian went to any ivy league school to become a Latin teacher. Both were a part of the cohort. I could give you many other examples. Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with being a teacher, but there was a distinct lack of wealth-chasing by all the Christians. One non-Christian guy in several of my AP classes liked to party and hung around that crowd of people, but he had started taking Cisco networking classes, and could probably have walked into a high-paying job out of high school. I woke up to this several years into college, where it was like, “Hey, if I’m such a ‘smart’ guy, why am I not the one making good money?” Well, sometimes smart people can be stupid, and I had an inflated ego from my academic work. I had really strong aptitude for web design, and a few years later entered software development.

There is so much anti-wealth bias among Christians. It’s horrible! One friend on facebook asked how he could earn a six-figure income. The first people to respond had only sarcastic responses. This was so sad for me to read. Drug dealer, corrupt politician, evil business owner. I’m thinking, “Spend ten years in software development? Become a CPA or corporate Accountant? Be a small business owner? Pastor a really large church? Become an engineer?” There are so many ways to make large amounts of money, if you really need to. But those friends of his I think were a small snapshot of how many people see the world: only the evil have money. Everyone else is a victim. I get so incredibly tempted to reveal my own salary because people might be surprised how not impressive it is. It is probably more than what most people I know earn, so I really don’t want to create a game of comparison, but I also know so many who, if not individually, then as a couple, make way more than I do. I just want people to know how easy it is to build wealth when you’re making decent money and living below your means. Sometimes I’m afraid of sounding arrogant, but I have to keep pushing forward. I’ve always needed a bit of “tough love” in my life to get the real message across, and it spills out in how I write about these things. “Wake up, dumbass! Stop pissing your money away!”

So now, there’s the other side of the coin. Some people are called to low-wage jobs. If God is calling you to a low-wage job, there’s usually a really good reason. It also may require a considerable amount of faith. One of my close friends was a missionary kid in the South Pacific. His dad left a well-paying software development job to become a missionary, and their whole family lived exclusively off the support of others during that time. The founders of the company I am writing open source software for left the United States to work in one of the poorest countries in the world (Nepal), where even their successful business venture is probably not making nearly as much money as they could be making here. I have tremendous respect for what they are doing, and their business has been God’s light to a whole host of employees who have suffered many things in life.

One friend at my last job was forced by his parents to get a bachelor’s degree in Business. He hated it. Every bit of it. He got into computers and began to love programming, and really wishes he had done Computer Science instead. But his parents were of the snobbish sort who refused to let their child go into anything that didn’t have “the highest” of returns. Screw those people. His hatred was evident, though, and they changed their position after that, but it was too late for him to major in something he actually enjoyed.

I do believe there are a lot of misguided kids going off to college with completely unrealistic expectations. I got my degree in Anthropology and I loved it, but you can basically get the same education with $500 worth of books and access to intelligent friends who enjoy talking.

It’s usually people who are making good money but don’t know how to save any of it who look down on low-income workers. They have this idea that “those people” must be impoverished to survive, but really, many low-income earners are damn smart – that’s how they survive on a low income. Duh! You could even potentially argue that higher incomes exist to compensate for lack of intelligent behavior. Instead of understanding their problems (fixing their cars, cooking their own meals), the rich often just throw money at these things to make them go away, because they can’t do so themselves. I think Jacob Fisker of ERE fame would actually take this position. I’m not saying I necessarily believe this, but I do believe there is something compelling about this argument. The rich often become rich because they need to be rich. The wealthy often become wealthy precisely because they don’t need to be rich. Riches and wealth are different. Rich is about quantity, wealth is about mindset.ย  It’s probably not necessary to adhere too strictly to these definitions, but you get the idea.

I don’t believe that God has an opinion on economic systems. I believe God has operated throughout history and continues to operator through any and all economic systems. It’s not like our current form of capitalism is “the chosen one”, and therefore, hearken ye toward production! I believe there are some really great things about capitalism, but it obviously has flaws because *gasp* it’s human. So it happens that some “jobs” are very much “underpaid” because economic values will never be able to match God’s values. We are not worth the sum of our productivity. We all have value based on Jesus’ actions on the cross. However, this is not, and cannot, be expressed economically. It’s a completely different value system. But what this means is that there is nothing wrong with not making much money.

“But! But! Aren’t we supposed to provide for our families?”

This is why I love having majored in Anthropology. Everything can be compared to indigenous life. Way back in the day, there was no expensive childcare. There were no realtors to suck your money away when you buy a dwelling, no fancy gadgets, no ‘how-to’ manuals, no cars to take you to your job so you could earn money and buy everything else. Groups of people took care of each other, and you learned your natural surroundings to extreme competence. Sure, there was higher infant mortality, fighting, and lower life expectancy. But the point is that all of these things were possible, and human physiology has not dramatically changed, so all of these things are technically still possible.

<rant>

Live close to work. You could bike. Or cook your own food. Or grow some plants in your backyard. Walk to the grocery store and forego the gym membership. Don’t have the money to send little junior to soccer camp? Then don’t send little junior to soccer camp! This doesn’t make you a bad parent, what makes you a bad parent is setting a poor example for your kids by buying things for them that you can’t afford. For fuck’s sake, people. You can play soccer in an empty field with a pig’s bladder and some street friends. Everything has been commoditized, and everybody believes they need these commodities.

“I need a house!” I get it, I feel the same way. So learn how it was assembled and learn how to maintain it. “I need a car!” I get it, I feel the same way. So learn at least the very basics of how it works. Set money aside for repairs instead of buying a new iPhone.

You don’t need granite countertops. You don’t need a third garage space. You don’t need a 60″ plasma screen. If you have a ton of money and want these things, sure, go for it. But you don’t need them. For me, personally, I decided I’d rather “get ahead” in life by building wealth instead of treating myself to all of things under the sun. I treat myself to a few things, but I know the excitement from everything would wear off quickly and leave me stranded with nothing to show for all of my work.

What people mean when they worry about having enough money is that they want enough money to buy ALL OF THE THINGS. This is human nature because we’re raised believing we need these things. We don’t.

</rant>

Now, I do think “getting ahead” is more difficult when your base expenses are closer to your earnings. The more money you make over these basic expenses, the more opportunity you have to build wealth. It’s insane how much of a difference $10k/year can make here. Most people just inflate their level of spending when they earn more, but there’s still no arguing that the opportunity to build wealth is greater when you make more, the only difference is that you just have to deliberately decide to live below your means. It’s not so fun when this isn’t an option.

I have a lot of sympathy for my other friends here in Denver because housing and rent are through the roof, and this is the greatest cost and the greatest barrier people face toward living a normal life. But this doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to chose a career path that doesn’t pay much. I don’t believe in glorifying the low-paying career, or thinking of yourself as better (as I once did when pursuing a writing career) for choosing something “noble” over something that “pays”, but there isn’t some moral requirement for you to make as much money as possible. There also isn’t some moral requirement to spoil your children with middle class baubles.

 

The Role of Strategy

I used to play a game called Xenosaga. I love Xenosaga. In fact, I’ve been going back through it for the first time in ages. If you know the game well, there are certain key points where you can strategically “grind” and dramatically boost your main character Shion’s stats, giving you an advantage in pretty much every battle. You use tech points to level up, and by being the only character during certain parts of the game, the tech points earned in battle are not divided among other characters. So you can essentially max Shion out with a fraction of the effort required during the other parts of the game.

Oh, RPGs. This is so much like real life, where strategy can get you way ahead of the game. Most people are not shooting for strategy, they just want to brute force everything. Go to college, get a job, get married, have kids, buy new cars, send your kids to expensive colleges so they can get “good” jobs and then brute force their own lives. Some people win various lotteries (genetic, familial, upbringing, natural talents) that allow them to easily brute force the various levels of life. But when people don’t win these, they are often still trying to follow the brute force path recommended by society. I say screw that. I’ve got better things to do than full-time grinding.

Your Personal Level of Risk

Not my type of risk.

There is risk to everything. Even the things we believe are low-risk have an opportunity cost, which is just another type of risk.

Your personal level of risk is a huge determinant of your financial behavior. Here are some places you can put your money, starting with the least-risky to the most-risky:

  • in-house
  • checking account
  • savings account
  • money market account
  • US treasuries/CDs
  • bond funds
  • stock funds
  • individual bonds
  • individual stocks
  • leveraged assets

Now, clearly keeping money on-site is subject to theft and fire, but at least it can’t be seized or frozen by the government (easily) if the US ever turned Greek on us. And you wouldn’t think of Savings Accounts as very risky, because they aren’t, but they sometimes have withdrawal restrictions, such as X number of withdrawals per month, or $Y per day.

But without diving into all of these things or defending the somewhat loose positioning I’ve given them, how does risk affect human behavior?

First of all, we typically avoid the things we don’t understand. Most people do not understand investing well, or at least they do not understand how to set up a brokerage account and how to buy securities. Several years ago, I used to think that investing HAD to be done through a broker, so I completely avoided it because I didn’t know who to trust and, as an introvert, I really didn’t want to set up an appointment to talk with a stranger about my finances. It turns out that setting up an account online with Vanguard was as easy as setting up an online checking account. Setting up a Roth IRA online is also hella easy. So now I invest in mutual funds.

Every person’s natural level of risk will be different, so it doesn’t make sense to recommend the same thing for everyone. I have one friend who has substantial amounts of cash saved up, but he has alluded on several occasions (intentionally or not) that all of this sits in the bank. Partly this kills me because if he had begun investing 5+ years ago, that money would have grown enormously. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and there was never a guarantee of that growth. Being a risk-averse person, he just chose to keep it in money. Even a Money Market account would have grown a little! But this doesn’t really matter: he chose what was comfortable to him. Even though his money has technically lost value due to inflation, he’s still a lot better off having the money than not. Let’s just imagine he has $100,000. I’d rather have that $100k than $0 today, and I’d rather have that $100k ten years from now than $0 ten years from now, even if the purchasing power is less. Does that make sense?

Oh, and a word on inflation: you only have to be concerned about inflation if the things you buy are subject to inflation. There’s a lot of fear mongering over this, but it’s not like, come January 1, everything you buy in the store has suddenly gone up 2.5% or 3% or whatever the Fed tells us was the inflation for the year. It doesn’t really work that way. Contracts happen, price negotiation happens, process improvement happens. Some things adjust faster than others. People don’t like spending $60 on a video game today, but video games were often $60 ten years ago! Technically, they have gotten cheaper. Books on the other hand, well, a normal paperback is around $15-18, while a hardback is typically around $25-30. This seems insane to me because I remember when paperbacks were $8 and hardbacks were $12. But inflation does take it’s toll on these items. Plus, there are fewer economies of scale as digital downloads have cut into the market for physical books, so I would imagine higher prices have to be charged to offset the cost of printing.

We also tend to avoid investments that we ourselves or others we know have been burned by. My parents lost their house in 2007 due to a really bad combination of things both inside and outside their control. So when people tell me I should buy a house because “housing always goes up!”, I kind of want to punch them in the face. They won’t lose many memory cells because they clearly don’t have any that go back 10 or 15 years. I’m kind of kidding, but I’m also not. So I’m very cautious about housing, and I also realized it just isn’t the place I want to park my money at this point in time. This could be similar to people who avoid the markets because they sold at a historic low and lost a ton of money. There could be people who swear off starting a business because they once got burned by a bad business partner.

It’s perfectly rational to avoid what has hurt you in the past. There’s a bulk of psychological research on this very subject. But I haven’t completely sworn off home ownership. I think it’s important not to swear off the things that have hurt us or others we know. Especially with financial systems, what hurt others won’t necessarily hurt us, and what helped others won’t necessarily help us. This is why ‘finance’ isย  such a huge and messy subject. I also believe that the more education people have about personal finance, the more likely they are to accurately assess their own levels of risk. Hence, why I talk so much about money. Knowing how money works is very empowering.

So what do we do with all of this?

To start, I highly recommend people to have an Emergency Fund. I first encountered this through Dave Ramsey, who put together Seven “Baby Steps” to financial peace. I’m not a huge follower of Dave these days, but I’m a strong supporter of the first steps, and Step 1 is to have $1000 in an Emergency Fund. Step 2 is paying off all non-mortgage debt, and Step 3 is funding the emergency fund to 3-6 months of expenses.

I’m a fairly risk averse person. I had about $3,000 in my emergency fund before starting to tackle my student loans, which were my only form of debt. I had just started my career in software and was scared to death I wasn’t cut out for it. But it turns out that I really was. And how much you have in your emergency fund really should reflect a consideration for how secure your job is. Is your job cyclical and unpredictable? Pack that emergency fund pretty high. Is your job cushy, difficult to get rid of, or are you highly skilled in your field? You can probably keep a lower emergency fund.

I tried to put a cap on my emergency fund once it was high enough. If you’re familiar with the Enneagram, I’m a total 6. Security is a big deal to me. If I had the option, I’d have $50k sitting in a money market account, causing security. But the reason for the cap was largely a faith-based decision. It came from realizing that I can’t save myself with money. Money has tremendous power and it’s important to have it set aside from life’s many requirements, but I knew that if I left my desire to decrease risk unchecked, it could easily turn into a black hole, and no security would ever be enough to fill that. So the rest went to investing, which is riskier. Now, I do plan to increase my car savings, which is a separate account I use for car repairs and the next car, but I’m hoping I won’t actually need that for a long time. And one day I will increase the emergency fund as well, but the message is that I’m deliberately holding back on this to keep in mind where my real security comes from.

But you’ll notice that no matter how high or low you set your emergency fund, your resilience as a person is dramatically affected by your savings rate. Sometimes I think people are terrified of bad things happening to them financially because they think that there’s no road back up from that. This is a form of poverty thinking. This is only true if the responsible handling of money isn’t part of your character. I have high savings, but even I fear this at times. If the responsible handling of money is part of your character, you can always rebuild. The voice inside of us saying that we can’t rebuild is the voice of victimhood. I get it, I really do. But we don’t have to be victims. If you build the habit of not spending all of your money and savings as much as you can, a lower paying job is not going to beat you down, and a higher paying job is not going to make you soft. Empires rise and fall, currencies rise and fall, but what you can consistently do is choose how you handle the ‘value’ that has been made available to you.

This is a long process, but is totally worth it. In lieu of making more suggestions (and in the absence of better things to say…), here’s a breakdown of my own money buckets, from least risky to most risky, that might help others to formulate their own strategy:

  1. One month’s worth of grocery money, denominated in physical cash on-site
  2. $1,000 in a savings account (kept there at all times for quick access)
  3. HSA, full health insurance deductible available in cash via debit card, the rest is invested
  4. 5-6 month emergency fund in Vanguard money market account
  5. Roth IRA (maxed out for 2018)(contribution money can be withdrawn tax and penalty-free)
  6. 401k, mostly taxable if withdrawn
  7. employee stock grants

By the way, the title of this blog doesn’t actually refer to financial risk ;). That’s a story for another day.

The Ubiquity of Cyclical Spending

In a theoretical economy, the wages individuals earn through the value of their labor would be spent on the labor of others. A lawyer would use the wages he earns practicing law to purchase groceries from one who distributes groceries, he may also use part of his wages to make car payments to another who distributes vehicles. In theory, his earnings enable him to purchase the labor of others both as he needs and as he sees fit, and each person, adequately specialized, would do so in turn. One’s consumption would be in proportion to ones production, so to speak.

Of course, the real world does not work this way. Jobs are lost and found. Skills become outdated and new skills must be acquired. Decay happens unevenly and perhaps unfairly. Moreover, not all labor is needed or even desired, but ever the chase remains to make one’s specialization valuable to others in order to convince them to purchase your labor. Everyone wants their “pound of flesh”.

The most obvious and ubiquitous persuasion occurs in the context ofย cyclical spending. For example, the desire for food is cyclical: when we, as humans, are done eating, we undeniably must eat again at some point. Grocers stay in business rather easily, at least from this perspective. They must compete with prices in order to retain an adequate market share, but there is never the fear that the demand for food will renders one’s specialty as a grocer obsolete.

In the past, it was enough to produce a good or service and to sell it to a consumer for a profit. But especially during the 20th century, it was learned en masse that this was not the most profitable of strategies. It was discovered that if consumers could be locked into cyclical spending, either through perceived demand or dependence, then the great fear of inadequate demand could potentially be eliminated from one’s business. At first, straight razors could be resharpened with a lathe, and the one-time purchase of a good straight razor practically guaranteed one a shaving utensil for life. Gillette discovered that by making disposable blades, he could lock consumers into cyclical spending since the blades would eventually all wear out and the consumer would be forced to purchase new blades. This happened in the early 20th century, but we have seen this get even more ridiculous as the blades have gotten more expensive and clever marketing even sends a free razor and spare blades to young men when they turn 18, with the intent of inducing brand loyalty.

Several years ago, Adobe famously switched from selling stand-alone licenses to selling “Creative Cloud” licenses, which have set expiration dates and typically require monthly payments to continue access. As with most software, you hit a point where additional features affect a diminishing number of customers, so many prior customers find that they no longer need to upgrade, as every feature they needed was already included in older versions of the product. This decreases market share and diminishes revenues from new product sales, so the solution must be to force all customers into monthly or yearly payments.

As producers, we love cyclical spending. It keeps us in business. It pays our salaries. But as consumers, cyclical spending is the quickest way to waste our earnings and prevent long-term wealth.

I don’t have any answers to questions about how to balance this. All I can say is that it is not our responsibility to buy products we do not want or need, or to spend money at the sacrifice of what we truly want in life. There are a great many desires in the world and we are largely free to choose from which we please, and this is the great part about a free economy. But make no mistake, everyone wants your money and will try every trick imagined (and then some) to deprive you of it.

Common Cyclical Expenses:

  • streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, satellite TV) {monthly}
  • car payments {monthly}
  • mortgage payments {monthly}
  • food {variable}
  • vacations {yearly}
  • cell phones {release-cycle dependent}
  • gasoline / diesel {variable}
  • utilities {monthy}
  • credit card payments {monthly}
  • vehicle registration {yearly}

Basically, if it’s a specific budget item that gets paid every month, it’s a cyclical expense.

Producers are very savvy at persuading people their products are necessary. Insurance has mastered the art of fear. Automotive companies have mastered marketing new cars as a the only “safe” option for children and families. Internet companies make commercials showing you how much your life would suck without fast speeds. Not too long ago, cell phones didn’t exist. Now we can’t go more than a few days without a handheld computer [guilty].

So although our productive power has dramatically increased over the years, it seems everyone is struggling under the weight of our own expectations. Going car-less in America is for weirdos, having a flip phone is laughed at. Everyone assumes you have Netflix. Many people still believe that they will always have a car payment. Some couples spend $800/month on “healthy” food that they “simply must have”. It happens.

Although it’s impossible to eliminate cyclical costs, I think it’s wise to delay the cycles, and I think this works to our advantage. Many people will immediately buy a brand new car because they fear a $1,500 repair. That’s insane. Your new car probably loses $2,000 off the lot. But the psychology is different; it’s easier to imagine a monthly payment in more manageable doses than $1,500 all at once. This is how you can spend $4,000 per year for 7 years so you “don’t have to worry about repairs”. In the vast majority of cases, this does not work in your favor, unless you’re the car dealership, of course.

And spending $150 on software may hurt in the short run, but it should still be running for you five years later, at which point maybe you need to replace your computer and the new computer isn’t compatible with the old software. You decided against a monthly cycle and pushed for a five year cycle, potentially saving yourself $500 in the process.

Merkur safety razor on stand, with badger hair brush

I own a Merkur safety razor that I purchased about 8 years ago. I think the blades cost me $15. I have purchased a few “cakes” of shaving soap over the years, but the razor itself could easily last me the rest of my life, and unless I decide to nix the beard, I will probably be going through the blades for the next decade.

Instead of spending on new blades at $25 a pop every two months, I’ve gone to once-per-decade on the blades. Guess which one I prefer.

Now, as people, we change. Styles change. Fun changes. There will always be cyclical expenses. But the people who waste the most money are typically locked into the lie that they are slaves to all of these expenses. This is something I’m passionate about trying to break off.

Delay is a valid tactic for saving money. I used to keep a sheet of paper with all of my wants on it. At the end of the month, I’d see which of those wants I could afford. Consequently, I rarely saved that money. But what was amazing was that when I stopped recording my wants, I often forgot about them, and it turns out that if you keep forgetting about the things you want, you probably don’t want them that much after all!

A similar principle applies to delaying your spend cycles. When you have tons of monthly expenses, it produces what I want to call a “chaos” effect. THIS needs to get paid, and THIS needs to get paid, and oh, don’t forget THAT. It’s easy to focus on paying those “bills” and it’s easy to forget that many of them you could easily do without. By waiting, you test what really matters to you. Maybe the cycle doesn’t even repeat for some things, maybe you find that your purchase was one-and-done. Great. But the more urgent the feeling, the less hesitant you are to throwing money out to make the bad feelings go away.

I do this with groceries a lot. I write down every little thing that is getting low and put it on the list. I did this several weeks ago with a favorite hot sauce. In reality, the current bottle still has a long way to go before it’s empty, so it really just tacked an unnecessary $5 to my costs. And guess what? If I’m out of the ingredients for one dish, there are usually plenty of ingredients for another dish! I always get caught up focusing on the “lack” and not focusing on the “abundance”. Hence, it’s probably been over aย  year since I hit my grocery budget goals. I’ve considered challenging myself to eat everything I have before buying more.

There’s something to be said for buying higher quality things at a higher upfront cost than buying lower quality things at lower upfront cost. But this is a complex topic because measuring quality is extremely difficult. Some things are easily broken or lost, too, and price truly is not a great discriminator. Case in point, the expensive towels I bought last year are already starting to undo themselves at the seems, which really sucks. Perhaps a little sewing kit could save the day, but for the price I paid, I shouldn’t be dealing with that crap one year later.

I may have mentioned this before, and it won’t be the case for everyone, but when I axed Amazon Prime last year, I magically found myself spending less money on Amazon. By NOT having access to free two-day shipping, I was, unbeknownst to myself, putting my desires to the test. “Do you really want this if it’s going to take 5-8 business days to arrive?” Turns out the answer was usually ‘no’. I’ve saved a ton of money because of this. You don’t think there’s a catch? They wouldn’t do the free two-day shipping if it didn’t make them more money. In this case it feeds off of the spending cycle, and human impatience, to increase purchase frequency. Good for them, unlikely to be good for you (unless Amazon is like your substitute grocery store, or something like that).

One more note on rushed spending: it has become very, VERY popular this past year for companies to ask you if you’d like to “round up” your total to the nearest dollar for XYZ organization or non-profit. I hate this. I always tell them no, because I don’t have the time or the desire to research whether XYZ is full of crooks or not. They feed off of the “rush” to finish the transaction, and they also feed off the assumption that people don’t value their change. I do. That’s why I have $80 worth of change in my coin counter right now.

Anyway. Pay attention to cycles. I think there’s a tremendous amount to learn here, and I feel like there’s a lot I’m missing.

$80 of change

Financially Bored

Bored or plotting world domination?

So I hit my target savings rate. Then I maxed out the 401k. Then I started working on the Roth IRA. Then I started working on my giving fund, the G-IRA. Then I finally waded through the garbage dump of red tape required to invest some of my HSA. But then what? And then what after that?

I log into my Vanguard account for the lulz. Up, down. Up, down. It used to be fun to see the value of my investments. But just like Pavlov’s dogs, I still log into the account even though I know it doesn’t matter, even though it’s hella boring. Ooh, maybe something exciting today? Nope. There never is.

The truth is that money is not very fascinating. I enjoy personal finance and this past year has been exciting as I’ve pushed, prodded, and challenged myself on the path to the venerable 50% savings rate. But once you hit that goal, whatever yours may be, who cares? You’ll either hoard your scraps beyond that, you’ll throw it out and feel guilty, or maybe you’ll just spend it and not care. Who knows? Really it doesn’t matter, no matter how hard I try to believe otherwise.

The only thing for me to be financially excited about is the fact that I’m one paycheck away from from my first big G-IRA “distribution”. That’s cool, but consequently there’s really no movement in my own savings. Maybe I can cash out the $80 worth of coins in my coin bank and use that to round out my IRA? Sure. Woohoo. Otherwise it’s the longue durรฉe from here, and for years to come. January will reset the clock on 401k and IRA contributions, with a estimated limit increase for IRAs, but that’s then and this is now.

I just feel like calling attention to this. There’s a lot of great things about saving lots of money, but ultimately you do get used to it and it stops feeling special.

Do you love me?

I’ve contemplated having a budget line-item for anime. I’m not even kidding you. Just once a month, pick something completely new. There’s probably a service you can subscribe to for that, but I like hard copies. My brain is slowly toying with the idea of returning to my more artistic endeavors, the stories rattling in my head, the world-building, the general enjoyment I get from writing in general. How some of the key pieces to my E.S. Asher Lego project are falling together. My not-too-sucky drawing skills even came out a few weeks ago on my roommates’ refrigerator white board.

I miss economic theory. I have a notebook at home that I once used for recording my odd and sometimes disjointed pet economic theories. Some of them I thought were really good, but the only one I have included in this blog was one on the initial, inherent, and extended costs of things, very likely subconsciously lifted from something I read in the past. The others are all in there somewhere. I saw a few books on minimum wage that may be fun to read, and not those crappy political types of books you find all over the place, like books that really investigate the issue. I miss that.

On the list of subjects I’d like to explore in this blog is the psychology of money. It’s one thing to tell people to stop pissing their money away, it’s another thing to understand why humanity is so inclined to piss their money away in the first place. But even though there will always be something to say about money, I’m pretty interested in talking about other things, too.

Poverty Thinking

I’ve spent a lot more than I planned these past two months. It started with a phone and a refurbished laptop, then continued with a pair of blu-tooth headphones, several television blu-ray sets, and finally ended with some gifts for family and car parts.

Spending large amounts of money usually makes me feel a bit queasy inside. On the one hand, my aversion to pissing my money away has been a blessing, since it allows me to refocus that money in better ways, such as saving and investing. On the other hand, it often feels laced with fear and the faulty, if only subconscious, belief that spending large amounts of money is for fools, which simply isn’t true.

The other day I listened to a few sermons on money, and I encountered one term that really captured my attention: poverty thinking. I’m sure there’s plenty of sociological literature on this subject, but poverty thinking seems to describe false views of victimhood, fragility, defeatism, and unworthiness with respect to money. It is a state of mind at the same time it is a system of thinking and habitual behavior.

I paid $130 for those headphones, and it kind of left me reeling. I’ve been using a pair of $10 Gummy headphones for the past five or so years, so just the reality that I could spend $130 on headphones kind of knocked me back. I don’t even listen to music very much, so I felt this powerful sense of…guilt. It seemed like such an odd thing for me to buy, forget spending a significant amount of money on. Two days in, I seriously considered returning them. But I didn’t. I think for the first time I realized that something didn’t feel right about freaking out over that much money. I seemed too focused thinking about the people who can’t afford that. Sometimes it’s like I’m suffering from some sort of twisted “survivor’s guilt” over not being in the position I was five years ago: jobless, loaded with $28k in student loans. Like buying something frivolous was an insult to the struggles that I remember and that others go through. It was like guilt for not actually having to care about that sum of money.

I think that fits well under the category of “poverty thinking”. In some sense, still feeling mired in the past. Knowing that my circumstances are very different now, but living with the fear of some sort of karmic retribution to be repaid severely in the event of a layoff or major emergency. Tough times. Et cetera.

Of course, just because God has you in one place now doesn’t mean that is the final goal. If you take the verse as referring to more than just Israel, the ever-popular Jeremiah 29:11 reads, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'”. It’s very typical of poverty thinking to believe one’s lot is fixed, that systemic forces, even God, are somehow bent against you. It often views the wealthy as evil and believes that the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor.

On the opposite side of poverty thinking, you have the people shouting “carpe diem” from the rooftops, or partying it up YOLO style. These people often have a defeatist attitude toward saving large amounts of money (“you can’t do that!”), or they think that life must suck if you are not blowing hundreds of dollars frequently. “God wants me to be happy!” There’s really nothing to admire there, either.

Is the answer “balance”? No, because “balance” will always be skewed. As I go through life, I appreciate more and more the value of paying more for quality, but it’s absurd to buy everything quality. And at some point, you have to realize that the $5,000 chair is not significantly nicer than the $4,000 chair. I’m exaggerating because I don’t know anybody who actually wants to spend that much on a chair, but I hope it makes my point clear. “Balance” is an amorphous god people invoke when they know you’re being smart with your money ;). I don’t really listen to appeals to balance, I think the core is your mindset. Making a software developer’s salary and feeling guilty for buying a one-off $130 pair of headphones? That is stupid.

I think one of the most significant changes I’ve experienced in regards to money this past year is realizing that being able to buy nice stuff for myself means I’m also able to buy nice stuff for others. If you are always concerned about the expensive stuff you want, you may never get the chance to give anything away. This is also why I believe it’s so important to regulate your appetite for things. An uncontrolled appetite will jack you up no matter how much you do or do not earn.

I’ve also seen poverty thinking in my life through working on my car. When I bought my first car, it had lots of minor problems with it. The costs soared because these little problems had to be diagnosed first, which often cost money, and the shops often sold me on more than I actually needed. I learned how to work on cars through risky trial and error. I remember my savings being wiped out several times, so I resolved in my heart to avoid ever taking my car to a shop if I could help it. This lead me to make stupid decisions with repairs, even when I had the money to pay the professionals. Yes, partly I just enjoy the satisfaction of doing the work myself, but the fear of spending money is very much poverty thinking at work.

Anyway, this post is just to be vulnerable and share some insights. Poverty thinking should have no role in your life! I’m going to have to look deeper into some of my thoughts and attitudes on this.