I procrastinated on finishing this book for ten years. This is even worse than it sounds. Not only did I quit reading a book subtitled "Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny," but it was a signed copy. I found out that Suze Orman was coming to my area to do a reading, and I physically ran out the door after work to try to make it on time, driving through Napa County like a madwoman. I MET HER. It's true, I actually met Suze Orman and spoke to her in person! She was incredibly gracious and charismatic. I felt that she really looked at me, really saw me, and in that moment, I saw myself. I saw myself as a young woman, trying hard, but not reaching her full potential. I saw myself in the context of Women & Money. That changed everything.
Going back and reading a personal finance book ten years later was really interesting for a lot of reasons. One was that everything in the book still very much holds true. Another was that I could give myself credit for actually doing everything that the book recommends! I even have an advance care directive. I'm quite comfortable picking stocks and managing my own investments. My FICO score finally passed 800. The young woman who bought this book - a young woman who could barely follow a recipe - had so much hope and passion. All of it came true. Thanks, Past Me, for trying so hard.
It was also intriguing to see that I had left a sticky note in the book as a bookmark. It had a few days' worth of expenses, all for amounts under $14. I was still tracking every penny I spent back then, in a little spiral notepad that I kept in my purse. All of my focus in those days was on paying off debt and trying to follow a lockdown budget. I felt like I would be broke forever. Fourteen dollars felt like a big deal to me at the time, and definitely the $25 I spent on a new hardcover book felt like a big deal. Why, then, did I drift off and quit reading it?
The reason I write about my procrastination is that I believe it's a near-universal reaction when it comes to personal finance and retirement. We go blank. We vague out. We dislike doing System 2 thinking anyway, but when it comes to learning about money, most of us are too intimidated. An octogenarian acquaintance of mine goes around saying, "Nobody PLANS to wind up in a trailer in their old age." That's exactly right. We put it off, we let it bore us or scare us, and then decades go by and suddenly we realize that there's a big blank spot in our lives where RETIREMENT was supposed to go.
Sometimes we realize that we wouldn't have stayed with someone if we'd had more of a sense of financial security. I would never have married my ex if I had been earning more (not that I understood that at the time). There's a crushing sadness there. Only when I took charge of my own career and my own finances could I stand toe to toe with the man I love today, knowing my choice to love him comes from a place of power.
I let my focus wander at the Retirement Investing chapter. This was super-dumb because I lost out on a free $100 because of it. The book came with a limited-time offer to deposit $100 in your brokerage account after you deposited $50 a month for 12 months. I want to beat my head on the wall when I think about this. I was so fixated on becoming debt-free at that time, but I absolutely could have afforded $25 per paycheck. It's not so much about the free $100, but about how much money I would have made by going into the market at that time. ARRGGGHHHH! Past Self, Past Self. What were you thinking? I could have been fully funding my IRA all that time. All I got out of paying attention to other things and delaying was lost opportunities and less money.
Explain to a 32-year-old that she'll eventually be 42, and 52, and 62, and 72. Go on, explain it.
I met Suze Orman and she changed my life. I listened when she spoke. I paid attention to her story of coming from a poor family and starting out as a waitress. Simply seeing the polish of wealth and prosperity on someone I admired made something click in my head. I was wearing clothes that were three sizes too big and I had a hot chocolate stain on my shirt. My haircut wasn't doing me any favors. I decided to invest in myself and push forward. I was still in scarcity mindset, but I was starting to make the shift.
Women & Money is a great starter guide, a book for confused beginners as well as women whose financial issues do not stem from lack of knowledge. It's about setting boundaries, communication, and managing relationships in which money plays a part. It's about confronting the blocks we have around taking charge of our own money. It's about personal power. This book is easy to read, but it has the potential to blow the roof off your life. In the world of self-limiting behaviors, avoiding the role of money is a great place to start.
Decisions are everything. The more I make them, the more I realize it's true. Being strategic means that we periodically have to go back and revisit our earlier decisions, checking in with ourselves, examining our results, and making sure these decisions are still what we want. Revisiting decisions may mean canceling them, sustaining them, or redoubling our commitment. Cutting off expired decisions frees up energy and focus for those that we find significant today.
Most of life should ideally consist of routines, systems, policies, and any other ways we can find to put the boring stuff on autopilot. You only decide to brush your teeth once. After that, you just do it. You brush your teeth because you know how, because it's easy, because not doing it feels gross, because nobody will kiss you otherwise, because walking around with stuff in your teeth ruins your selfies, because honestly you don't even think about it any more. The more basic things you can treat the way you treat your dental hygiene, the more mojo you will have for making the fascinating, cool decisions.
Routines would include your job, your commute, your morning and bedtime rituals, your housekeeping, your bill-paying, grocery shopping, exercise, and anything else you want to make sure you do on a regular basis to make your life easier. Please don't waste decision-power on whether to unload the dishwasher or take out the recycling.
Systems are for anything you need to streamline. That might include packing your luggage, storing stuff, figuring out when to delegate certain things, planning your goals for the year, and anything else that doesn't necessarily happen on a routine basis. Anything that takes more mental effort than folding laundry probably needs a system rather than a routine.
Policies include the social, ethical, and moral realms. You might have a policy about not hurting animals or dating married people, a policy about littering, a policy about distracted driving, a policy about whether to vote in mid-term elections. Policies are how we behave consistently with our values. Setting an internal policy about something makes it more likely you'll be proud of your choices, without arriving at the choice point unprepared and making a willpower-depleting decision.
I don't have a policy of eating cake for breakfast; I DECIDE to eat cake for breakfast.
Now we circle back to revisiting decisions. We can revise our policies, we can revamp our systems, we can reset our routines. But then it's set-it-and-forget-it. I only need to set a policy once to avoid cannibalism or choose whether I think tights are pants. Decisions are for the one-offs. A decision should be for a special circumstance.
Often, decisions did not appear to be decisions at the time that they were made. I could list off a bunch from the land of squalor and chronic disorganization that would be pretty surprising. For instance, I don't think anyone *decides* to cover half their own bed with dirty laundry and food packaging. I think it "just happens" in a headspace of distraction that does not include decision-making, and usually does not include memory formation either. It's the sort of thing that happens when we experience ourselves as floating brains that do not truly exist on the material plane in the time dimension.
We don't need to forgive ourselves for this. There is nothing to forgive. We simply notice, Hey, I actually think of myself as a floating brain, and then we try to pull on the balloon string and get the head to come back. Come back to the room, to this moment in time, and try to pop back inside this body. This is really really hard with a helium balloon because it keeps wanting to float back up and out. Also, the room and the clock-time and the body may feel uniformly terrible. This is a place from which any decision at all will probably be an improvement.
Decisions are where change comes from.
The first step in revisiting decisions is to canvas yourself and your situation. Where are the pain points? What around you have you chosen, and what just sort of happened, and what do you feel was chosen for you by someone else? Where do you feel that you have the power to exert your gift of free will, and where do you feel that you do not have free will at all? Are you correct?
The second step is to pick at least one area and ask yourself, Hey, Self? WHAT DO I WANT?
In my professional experience, most people don't know what they want. It hasn't always even occurred to them to want anything at all.
What do you want? More sleep? A vacation? Lots of money? Side abs?
Usually when people start trying to figure out how to want things, they can only come up with things they DO NOT WANT. This is a great start, a way to tune in and check with yourself. It's only a starting place, though. Don't think about a polar bear. Tell your cat you want it to stop doing bad things to your carpet. See, it doesn't really work. Think of what you DO want, always what you DO WANT. Sometimes the opposite of what you do not want is still not the thing that you do want.
The next step after figuring out what you want is figuring out how to make that happen. Sometimes you'll find that you're still stuck on figuring out what you want. Sometimes this is because you've been focusing on the wants and needs of other people for so long. You have to differentiate for yourself what you want versus what they want, and understand that these things are not mutually exclusive. It's not zero-sum. Nobody has to lose out on anything if you start getting more sleep or paying your debts down. If you want side abs, you can even keep them private and just flex them when you're alone. Allow yourself to want things and to have ownership over your own life.
It's the midpoint of the year. This is a fabulous time to revisit decisions. If you're in the habit of planning the New Year at the end of the calendar year, you can just schedule it and do it now. If not, you can use the momentum of others and experiment with it, just this one time. That's an example of a decision you can revisit. Are you living in harmony with your own values? Do you approve of your own behavior? Are you proud of the results you are getting in your life? Do you feel close connections with the people you love the most? Are you excited about your contribution to the world and the new things you are learning? What can you change to remove the most annoying three things in your day? What can you change so that you are enthusiastic about something? Revisit your decisions and find out.
Flash of insight: the humble fork is often used to symbolize our eating habits, but it's probably not stuff that we eat with forks that causes the problems. As far as synecdoche, the spoon is a more likely stand-in, because we use spoons to eat all kinds of goodies like cereal, yogurt, ice cream, pudding, and other sweet treats. It's probably what we eat with our hands that gets us into the most trouble. Forks tend to be the utensils we use when we're sitting down to a proper meal. I think fork-based meals are the sort of nourishing, emotionally fulfilling meals that can really help us get straight with our relationship to food.
I sit down for meals because I love it. I love having a table in front of me to hold everything. We have a little bistro table in our tiny apartment, and to me it's the exact size of most restaurant tables built for two. When I sit there, it speaks to my brain. It says, this is going to be a leisurely meal, just like all the times you went out with a friend and talked for an hour, almost forgetting to eat before your food got cold. Usually I eat alone, but I still have that special restaurant feeling when I sit at the table, whether it's my bowl of instant oatmeal, a sandwich, or dinner with my honey.
My least favorite way to eat in all the world is sitting in a car. I always get crumbs all over myself, and inevitably I spill something greasy on my shirt. No matter where we're going or how long the trip is, I step out of the vehicle looking like I slept in my clothes and then spent the day running a preschool. I think cars should have tray tables just like airplanes do. Why is this not a thing? Many of us are eating most of our meals in our vehicles. Cramming down some kind of baked goods or cereal bars while rushing to work or school drop-offs, hitting the drive-thru while running errands, or just feeling too hungry and burnt out at the end of the day to even think about cooking. How many of these meals eaten behind a steering wheel actually come with a fork? How many of them come with cruciferous vegetables or a nutrition label? Do we even really know what we're eating while trying not to drip on our seat belts?
Another area where we may have little or no idea of what we're eating is with snacks. I lost 15 pounds in the year after I quit my office job, I suspect mostly because I don't buy snack food at home. I was no longer subject to the easy availability of all the sodas, chips, nuts, candies, office potlucks, birthday parties, and barbecues lurking in my workplace nearly every day of the week. I knew almost nothing about nutrition or weight loss at that time, and now I realize that I could easily have been eating an extra 500 calories a day without thinking about it. I also would have had no idea what "500 calories" means in context. That's the amount I eat for dinner, or sometimes less if we're eating a very high volume of vegetables that night. Eat an extra dinner every day and yeah, you'll probably gain some weight!
The thing about this "extra dinner" of unintended caloric consequences is that it is not satisfying. A handful of cashews here, a soda there, a slice of lame supermarket bakery birthday cake here... I don't really feel like I've eaten anything. I hardly feel like I've had some kind of peak experience. It just blends into the background, part of the beigeness of the cubicle world. I might not even remember how many times I've mindlessly popped handfuls of this or that into my mouth.
An alternative might be carrying a fork around and insisting on eating everything with it, as a sort of consciousness-raising exercise. Once people see you eating a bagel or a handful of tortilla chips with a fork, their reactions may stop any kind of unconscious, unintended snacking from ever happening again!
We talk a lot about "comfort food" and "emotional eating." I think food should be comforting. It's building our cells and all our body parts and systems, after all. With each bite, I can think, "I have everything I need. There is plenty and there will be plenty more." I wonder about emotional eating, though. Food can be an incredible artistic and creative outlet; sharing meals can be warm and lovely times for connecting and communicating; pausing at least three times a day can give us time to remember who we are in the midst of the daily bustle. Are we using food to manipulate our neurochemistry, though? Is food the highlight of the day in a boring and unfulfilling life? Are we feeling any kind of guilt or shame or disappointment about our lackluster mealtimes or a disconnect between the reality and our ideal? Is emotional eating really providing any kind of comfort in the long term?
I used to hate cooking. I didn't really know what to do. It would take me like twenty minutes to chop an onion. I would start recipes without realizing that I was missing ingredients, or that I should have prepared half a dozen ingredients before I turned the burner on. My cooking was dreadful. Then I decided that if illiterate medieval peasants could cook a decent pot of soup, I could figure it out. Somehow! By the power of the Internet! I would do it, for literacy! It turned out that I was able to turn around the worst of my cooking blunders with one decision, simply to read the recipe from start to finish before trying to prepare anything. I started to make things that actually tasted good. Every now and then, something I would make would be surprisingly awesome. Just a couple of years later, everything I made was good, with a 'blah' exception maybe once every month or two, and we could handle that. Now, we'd usually rather eat at home than go out. I have the Hogwarts-power of being able to make yummy meals on command. If I really did have the ability to cast magical spells or make potions, what else would I use them on other than great dinners?
My husband and I have never ordered pizza delivery in our entire relationship. We've been friends for a dozen years now. Why don't we order pizzas? It's the 30-minute delivery window. By the time we would have decided to get a pizza, chosen what we wanted, called in the order, waited for it, and opened the box, I could have cooked an unusually fancy dinner. Almost everything I make takes under half an hour. Several things take 20 minutes, and a few take fewer than 10 minutes. If we were really that super-tired and neither of us could bear the thought of cooking a "real" dinner, we are perfectly capable of microwaving some soup and making some toast. No pizza could get here that fast. Granted, we wouldn't be using forks for either the soup or the pizza, but with the soup, we're making our considered nutritional decisions in advance.
I think that soups and casseroles and artfully plated dinners are the missing piece in most people's concept of "comfort food." What we really want, deep in our souls, is a real sit-down dinner. This is part of this abstruse concept known as "adulting," though. It seems like too much of an uphill climb. If more of us realized that we can microwave a vegetable in 4 minutes, and how little time it takes to make most simple entrees, maybe more of us would take the ladle into our own hands. We can provide this comfort for ourselves.
Coming home to a paper stuck in your front door can be chilling. I always think it’s an eviction notice, even though there is no rational reason for me to think this. This time, it was a notice that we are having our bi-annual apartment inspection. It was dated the previous day - clearly false - but it probably was left within the 24 hours mandated by law. The trouble was, we didn’t see it until the end of the workday. Someone would be coming between the hours of 9 and 4:30.
It’s 6 PM and an inspector is entering your home tomorrow at 9 AM, whether you’re home or not. Are you ready?
What do you suppose I did when I came home at 6 and saw this notice?
Some of my people have been evicted due to squalor and hoarding. A couple of them have had it happen more than once. It’s extremely shaming and traumatic. Games have rules, though. If you enter into a contract with someone, you either uphold your end of the contract, or you break it, and if you break your contract, you pay the penalty. It is a simple and harsh truth. If you want to be free to live how you want and interact with your stuff however you want, you have to own your own place. Even then, there are community standards.
This is me we’re talking about, though. I saw the notice, and this is what I did.
Start the Roomba in our bedroom, because that was the chore of the day
Start a load of laundry
Finish making dinner
Put Roomba back on the charger
Sit around relaxing with my husband for three hours
Put the fresh sheets on the bed that I had washed that morning
Go to bed at 10
Wake up at 7:30
Clean bathroom, because that was the chore of the day
Take out the garbage and recycling
Wash my breakfast dishes and wipe out the microwave and sink
Then it was 9:00 AM. What did I do next?
Start another load of laundry
Dust the entertainment center while making a business call
Note that it was 9:30 AM
Sit around for the rest of the day waiting for the inspector to show up.
What would have happened if I hadn’t done any of those chores?
Well, we would have eaten dinner and breakfast regardless. We would have made the bed together, because sleeping on a bare mattress is not our idea of fun. If I hadn't done any of the chores, there would have been a full laundry basket, the garbage and recycling containers would have been full, there would have been dust on the toilet tank and hairs in the tub, the entertainment center would have been a little dusty, and the inside of the microwave would have had some food splatters. All of this would have been acceptable. Cumulatively it would have been acceptable!
The worst-case scenario would have been a dirty, sticky oatmeal bowl sitting in the sink. But why would I ever leave a crusty oatmeal bowl as a booby trap for Future Me to clean up? Past Me has washed several thousand oatmeal bowls over the years. It’s about 10% of the effort to just do it right away.
The point of this anecdote is that doing a few chores every weekday pays off. Our place never really gets dirty. The laundry and dishes and garbage never really build up. There are never really stacks or snowdrifts of papers piled up. I spend about 40 minutes every weekday doing chores, so I always have weekends free, and when we leave for a trip, it’s not a big deal. I don’t like coming home to a messy house; it’s a lame ending for a vacation!
Also, legally, our property management company can send an inspector or repair person inside our apartment with 24-hour written notice. Even if we’re not here to see the notice. This is what I would want if, say, our upstairs neighbor left the tub running and the water burst through our ceiling.
We have a week-long trip planned next month. Our pets will be boarded, so we wouldn’t have to worry about our dog being surprised by a man in uniform, which would presumably entail a lot of barking. We wouldn’t know to get ready for an official representative of the landlord, though. However we had left the place would be the way it looked upon inspection. That means JUDGMENT AND CRITICISM with potential legal and financial ramifications.
I clean my house because I know how, because I don’t think it’s a big deal, because it doesn’t take very long, because my husband and I both like it better, because I was taught to believe that it is a form of hospitality and welcome to guests, because happy people don’t live in a big depressing mess, because my reputation is involved, because it’s faster than leaving things to wait, because it makes my life easier, because I choose not to live the alternatives, and, lastly, because not cleaning my house could cause me significant hassle and inconvenience. These hassles include eviction and losing my cleaning deposit, among who knows what else.
Someone known to me wound up on the local news due to squalor. It happens. If I wind up on the news (again), I would hope it would be for something positive I did. Never go viral for the wrong reasons.
I freaked out a little when I saw the inspection notice, even though I know that I didn’t really have anything to worry about. I had no idea what to expect or what the inspector would be inspecting. Inside the cupboards and cabinets? Inside the appliances? Under the sinks? Would they be looking for specific things like water damage or insects, and would I have any idea what kind of inspection that would involve? What was bothering me was WHAT I DIDN’T KNOW, which is always a trigger for thinking I CAN’T HANDLE IT.
The truth is that we can all handle just about anything except for uncertainty. The Place of Uncertainty is not supposed to create a mini-vortex inside my own apartment!
What really happened was that the inspector knocked at 3:10. The dog barked and I put him in his crate, and then I opened the door. The inspector asked to come in. He went straight to the smoke detectors, checked them, and left.
I’m not even sure he was here for a full 60 seconds.
It’s possible that if our place had been fully hoarded, the inspector might have said something. I talk to a lot of repair people, delivery people, construction workers, landscapers, movers, and first responders, and they all say they’ve seen it all. They definitely do notice. In the case of apartment dwellers, it’s a question of whether they are asked or required to report anything like that to the property management company. Probably not. There is an extremely broad range of mess that is just considered standard in our culture, and that’s fine.
As for me, I’m relieved that my biggest annoyances with the inspection process were the false date, having to wait around, and having my dog bark. I can go back to chilling out in my nice clean (and tiny) apartment for the next six months.
Just for laughs, I pulled out my phone and looked up property values next door to our new apartment. My husband and I decided early in our marriage that we wouldn't bother with home ownership. This has gotten easier in our local housing market, because you can buy an entire neighborhood in some places for what it costs to get a little shack here. When I say 'shack' I'm not even exaggerating. We got our apartment because one of the three available rental houses in our city literally did not come with a heater, much less air conditioning. There are "houses" here with bedrooms that can't physically accommodate a king-size mattress. Originally built as vacation bungalows, they now cost more than what would qualify as a mansion in other markets. Now that I've set the scene, do you want to know what the houses near us cost? Do you? Do you really?
One point eight million dollars for a two-bedroom. Just over 2000 square feet. The estimated mortgage is $6700 a month. This is the single-family home closest to our apartment.
The two next door to it cost four million and eight million, respectively. It's like a Monopoly board over here! Of course, that's because we literally have a boardwalk, because we live on the coast. These million- and multi-million-dollar homes look directly on the Southern California beach, with yellow sand close enough to have in your carpet and your sheets at all times.
Why should I care how much some rich person's house cost? I know that lifestyle is out of my reach. I also know it's totally irrelevant to my interests. Anyone who comes to our place to socialize is presumably more interested in our conversation and our charming pets than our comparative wealth or networking abilities. Visiting the Denham Ranch isn't going to get you any introductions to famous people or a chance to get your screenplay read. Check that. Of course I'll totally read your screenplay. I just don't know anyone useful to whom I can give it next.
I care about how much the houses near us cost, because we're benefiting from the same neighborhood, the same geography, the same climate, the same restaurants, the same delivery options, the same customer service, the same public infrastructure, and all the other amenities that they have. We're just doing it at a far lower cost.
Oh, but equity! you say. You're throwing your money away on rent! This is exactly what your realtor wants you to say. Excuse me, Realtor. You have to capitalize it to show that it's a real profession, in the exact precise way that a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, a surgeon, or an astronaut never do. For legitimacy. I don't doubt for a moment that a Realtor can tell me all sorts of things about the housing market, and help me to find a house that's perfect for me. One that will develop just as many wiring problems and plumbing problems and roofing problems and extermination problems and mold problems and slipped foundations and cracked walls and loose windows as every other house. Now that I'm to be a homeowner, all of these expenses can be my responsibility - the American Dream!
I'm just as comfortable allowing my landlord to cash in on that particular Dream. Reason being, the stock market out-performs real estate as an investment.* If making money is what I want to do, there are tons of ways to earn a higher return than there are in speculating on a primary residence. If I want to own something that gives me pride of ownership, I can own my own business, and the bar to entry is much, much lower than the down payment that would be necessary where I live.
The cheapest property for sale where I live is a mobile home that costs over $400,000. Nearly half a mil for a trailer!
Why not just live somewhere less expensive? Somewhere where I don't want to live and don't know anyone? Somewhere that lacks the career opportunities we have here? My husband is an aerospace engineer, so surely we'd be better off in a cheaper housing market nowhere near space industry firms? High rent is the price of the ticket. Sure, we'll move somewhere cheaper, when he decides to retire. Somewhere where a fixed income will stretch farther. In the meantime, it makes sense to chase down the highest income possible, putting away more cash at the same savings rate, possibly earning a higher payment if social security survives another twenty years.
We live in a stupidly expensive area. Price per square foot is, I think, around that of my parents' and both of my brothers' homes put together. It has its advantages, though. We were able to ditch our car (and accompanying payments) because transit is so good here and because everything we need is within walking distance. A bunch of stuff is weirdly cheaper. Our internet is half what we were paying in our last place, and our dog's expensive monthly shot is also half-price. Our entire monthly utility cost is under $100 a month. My husband gets his bus pass reimbursed at work, so his transportation cost is zero. Due to his schedule, we get a three-day weekend on alternate weeks. Since our place is right on the beach, we're essentially on beach vacation all the time. We refer to our tiny apartment as "the room" because it feels better to think of it as a big hotel suite than as a micro-apartment. A 680-square-foot room can be either big or small depending on how you look at it. We're starting to understand why retirees who downsize are so relaxed - they don't really have to do any housework.
Walk out the front door. Turn left and go down the hallway. Open the outer door. Now you're on the staircase landing. From here, you can watch the sun set as the sailboats and rental canoes come in to harbor. Often you can hear the sea lions from out on the rocks. Walk down the stairs and along the path for a few yards. Go down the stairs. Look, you're on the marina! Walk south another couple hundred yards and check that out. Sandy beach sand. People come here on vacation, and it's basically your yard. This is what we can access with our monthly rent, and all we had to give for a down payment was a month's rent, rather than, say, $200,000.
Figuring out whether a house is a good investment for you is a mathematical exercise. It has actual numerical, objective answers. There are handy calculators* out there where you can put in various factors and learn whether this little building you're looking at really qualifies as a sound investment. It wouldn't for us, even if we knew we could stay for more than five years, although I haven't lived in one home for more than five years since 1990. We understand the stock market. Honestly, we can outdo the housing market as an investment just by striving for raises and bonuses at work. Other people may get a warm and fuzzy feeling from "owning" a house, which is the shorthand we use for "the bank owns this house and I pay them for the privilege of pretending it's mine." We'd rather collect on the experiences of living in a particular place than in a particular building, especially when considering the cost per square foot.
The only thing I knew about Kyle Cease when I picked up this book is that one of my friends adores him. The next thing I learned was that the book includes a picture of a taco. Color me impressed! You have my attention, taco. I mean, Kyle. I read along, giving the benefit of the doubt to this funny little thing called I Hope I Screw This Up. Then something happened. Somewhere near the end of Chapter Three, I started bookmarking things. I started bookmarking more and more as the book went on, and then I knew he had me. Kyle Cease, you have completely, utterly failed to screw this up. I mean, what were you thinking, seriously. Santa is not going to put any failure in your stocking this year. Back to the drawing board.
I Hope I Screw This Up is a tricky book, a lighthearted and approachable introduction to some very deep spiritual work. Study went into this. Apparently Kyle Cease does two-day workshops, and I can easily see that he has tons of material to draw on. One brief book really isn’t enough for a complete, encyclopedic treatise on these topics. Learning to recognize our inner hater, tapping our passion and creativity, letting go of old outdated stories about ourselves, figuring out what meditation is for… These are really just the beginning.
Who am I if I’m not my body, my beliefs, or my emotions? This is a lifetime-level question. As Cease asks, “Will I risk letting go of my old limiting story to leap into my infinite potential?” Oh dear. Will I? Will I?
I loved this book. In many places, I felt that it was written specifically for me, which is not a feeling I have often, especially if I’m reading a book with a lot of car chases and people hanging out of helicopter doors. Fortunately this isn’t that kind of book. It’s one of the rare few that has had me typing out quotes in all caps, which is my signifier for PUT THIS ON YOUR LOCK SCREEN WHERE YOU’LL SEE IT EVERY DAY. Kyle Cease, if you’re reading this, the only way you can screw this up is by writing another book with no tacos.
“When I’m happy, things will happen.”
“Very often we keep things that we think will get us what we want, but they’re actually keeping us from getting what we truly want.”
“…when you’re justifying or explaining something, you don’t actually want to do or have that thing in your life.”
This is for all the people who get worked into a tizzy when it's time to pack.
That used to be me. I get so starry-eyed about traveling anywhere, including a run to the town dump, that my first impulse is to start running around and trying to get ready. In my mind, my packing list includes every single item I own, subtracting only the things that won't fit, like my bed and my stove. Stuff I have hanging around that I never use suddenly seems to be a prime candidate for cramming into my suitcase.
Dumb things I have packed on multiple trips even though I never, ever used them: plus-size Super Scrabble board; buckwheat travel pillow that I finally realized I hate; eye mask that always winds up turning into a headband; luggage theft siren; hardcover travel journal I never wrote in; entire cookbooks; money belt; phrase books; luggage locks. There's something so bewitching about travel doodads and travel gadgets. It's almost as bad as the kitchen widgets aisle.
The more experienced a traveler I become, the more I realize that you really just need yourself, enough ID to get through customs, enough clothing to not die of exposure or violate local sumptuary laws, and enough money or credit to get yourself from here to there, and possibly to get out of trouble. I think it's possible to go anywhere with just the clothes on your back, your phone, your passport, and a credit card (hopefully one with travel rewards). In a few years, you won't even need the passport OR the credit card; you'll just walk through various doorways, and you won't even need to blink or wave your hand.
Ah, but we live in the now-future, not the then-future. In the now, we still need a certain amount of STUFF. We still WANT a certain amount of ADDITIONAL stuff, for comfort and for emotional security and to quiet the demands of the anxiety-gnomes that live in our bellies.
I'm going on a trip, arriving past bedtime Friday night and getting home at dinnertime Monday evening. That's three nights, two event days, and two travel days. In the world of logic, this implies pajamas, toiletries, and three changes of clothes. Even a tiny child can count to three outfits. They may not match, but even a child can put together three pairs of underpants, three pairs of socks, and three sets of tops and bottoms. Why is this so much harder for adults?
It's hard because when we feel anxiety, we pay attention to it. We listen to the anxiety-gnomes. We let the anxiety-gnomes start making the rules. Every single weird idea that pops into our heads, fed to us by these mischievous creatures, suddenly seems brilliant. The later at night or the closer to departure time, the more compelling these anxious thoughts will be.
The visceral cord is pulled at midnight. "HEY! You know what would be the best idea? Find 18 more things to put into that suitcase that you already had to sit on to zip shut!"
The sooner I start packing, the more stuff suddenly acquires a magical, numinous glow, practically demanding that I bring it with me. I won't just cram it into my suitcase; I'll cradle it in front of me, like a capybara I've dressed in a cunning little outfit. Look at all my extra shirts! Look at all my extra jewelry! Look at all my extra shoes! I have packed multiple backup redundancies, but they are the best ones!
WHAT IF I get invited to a totally unexpected social occasion at the last minute?
WHAT IF I change my mind and want to wear something I didn't bring?
WHAT IF the weather is completely different from the forecast?
All right, what if? What happens to you when these things pop up at home? You HANDLE IT. You DEAL WITH IT. You GET THROUGH IT SOMEHOW. Or, nobody even notices and it's totally not a problem and you can't believe you went through such a big fuss.
The reason I can pack lightly with little to no packing anxiety is that it's the confluence of multiple systems, created carefully by me for this precise reason. I live lightly with few possessions because I desire to remain mobile. I want to be flexible enough that I can do those last-minute social occasions. I want to have enough grit to deal with emotional challenges. I want to be decisive enough that minor kerfuffles don't distract me.
Big stuff: critical, urgent, emergency. These things tend to involve first responders. My job in these situations is to avoid being the cause of the emergency, help if I can, and stay the heck out of the way if I can't. Nothing of this caliber has ever happened to me or any of my companions on a trip.
Medium stuff: My brother constantly seems to sprain his ankle when we go on vacation, and then he stubbornly limps around on it. This is concerning but not trip-canceling.
Minor stuff: I once got billed over $400 for a casual meal for three, and it took 20 minutes to straighten out. Annoying, but not even worth Facebooking.
Beneath notice: Minor stains and clothing repairs; being put on hold; having to change rooms; long waits in restaurants; loud neighbors; socks don't match; run out of shampoo; etc. etc. etc.
Back to the systems. I have a capsule wardrobe. This means that I only own clothing that fits today, that I like wearing, that I wear often enough that I know exactly how functional it is. Almost all of it is washer- and dryer-safe. Everything I own has to go with at least three other things in my wardrobe. I basically wear six colors (black, gray, navy, white, red, and purple). I can fit an entire seasonal wardrobe in my larger suitcase. Packing clothes is easy for me because I'm just bringing stuff I wear at home.
Also, I don't really care what other people think about what I'm wearing. If you don't like how I look, I'm sure you'll get over it eventually.
Other systems that I have in place undoubtedly include a few I don't recognize as systems. I plan my wardrobe before I go to the store. I have a chore rotation, so my laundry is always caught up and my apartment is clean, one room per weekday. I have a grocery system, so there's always something in the kitchen that I can eat on my trip. I have a cash flow system, so almost all of my travel is paid for by reward points, and I can afford to pay for the occasional travel snafu. I have a fitness and nutrition system, which is why I've remained in the same clothing size for the past three years, and I don't have to maintain a buffer of larger and smaller clothing sizes. I have a sleeping system, so I can handle occasionally waking up at 4 AM to make a cheaper flight. I have a system for getting ready, so I know I need 40 minutes. For all the anxiety that we feel when it's time to pack, there are equal portions to feel for scheduling, money, meals, getting the house ready, and generally feeling like we can handle a greater load on our mental bandwidth.
Anxiety is cumulative. Every system we put into place creates a thread of reliability, something that can ease a fevered brain when it's time to sleep. Organizing our thoughts also organizes our emotions. Knowing what we want helps us to make firm decisions, and those decisions help us to focus on experiences and logistics rather than equipment. We can call those nervous feelings by name, bringing them forth from the shadows, and get down to the business of simply packing one outfit per day. We can remember that we're traveling for a purpose, and keep our attention on that purpose and nothing more.
I decided to start running again. What 'again' means is that I had to quit 2.5 years ago due to an ankle injury. It took approximately a million years longer than I thought it would to wear an ankle brace, rest it, go to physical therapy, ice it for 20 minutes at a time, eat buckets of anti-inflammatories, work with a personal trainer, and finally discover the magic of shiatsu massage. Other stupid things happened, from ripping my knee open to losing a toenail on a hiking trip. Now I'm about to turn 42 and thinking more and more about how long I can refer to myself as a "marathon runner" if I'm not actively running. Sort of like whether I can think of myself as "young" anymore, or whether I could think of myself as "employed" if I don't have a job. What am I, really? What is the nature of the universe?? How old is the ocean???
Having left a bunch of skin in the sand, and probably a bunch of sand in my skin, I am now a part of the ocean and the ocean is a part of me. Think of that the next time you accidentally ingest seawater.
I had it all planned out. I bought an app called Tides that is sort of like Dark Sky's cousin who lives in Hawaii. It has all the stuff I've learned to obsess about as a distance runner: the projected high and low temperature, chance of rain, cloud cover, wind speed... and also the phase of the moon and tide charts. I never knew until I started playing with this app that the tides are different every single day. Not in a predictable manner like sunrise and sunset, either. WHAT SORCERY IS THIS? I cannot for the life of me understand how someone could predict the tides in advance. It is seriously messing with my mind. I asked my husband to explain it to me, which he could, since he is an aerospace engineer and he has a master's degree in this kind of thing. I still don't get it. The more I think about the moon hanging out there in space and moving water next to my apartment, the more it wigs me out. I try to ignore all of that and just treat it like a cool wristwatch I got in Diagon Alley. Low tide: 10:24 AM. All righty, then, sandy beach, I'm coming atcha.
I read about a dozen articles on running in sand while I was planning this whole escapade. That's how I roll. I was reading marathon books before I could finish a 5k. It turns out that the main trick is to run at low tide, because otherwise you wind up running on a slant, with one leg uphill and the other leg downhill. This is exhausting and not all that great on your knees or ankles. The books all say to run on the nice hard-packed wet sand, because the dry sand slides out from under your feet. Got it. Run on the wet sand where it's flat near the waterline. I can do this!
I knew to expect that running on sand is more tiring. That was sort of the point. My mission in life is to develop more grit, which, what could be more perfect for being gritty than something that is literally gritty? I set out to do demoralizing, dirty, and exhausting things now and then so that I'm better able to handle terrible things like putting my laundry away. I have an affinity for sand; when I was working on losing my weight, I would go on extended rants about how I would do WHATEVER IT TAKES! IT'S COMING OFF!!! I'LL WRAP MYSELF IN BARBED WIRE! I'LL EAT SAND IF I HAVE TO! Then I would go on the elliptical for 90 minutes and think about curly fries. I lost the last 25 pounds, and I didn't have to eat sand after all.
Given a choice, though, eating a little sand is probably easier than trying to slog through it while the tide is coming in.
The thing about tide charts is that they are probably intuitive to people who are familiar with the beach, but maybe not so much to people who are not. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's ignoring the obvious. I had this idea that low tide would mean the ocean went out for a lunch break, and I could have my run and be back home before it flipped the 'OPEN' sign over and unlocked the door. What I didn't realize, because I grew up 90 miles from the ocean and only visited for a few hours once a year, was that low tide is the minute the tide starts rushing back in.
I actually made it a few yards before the waves started lapping over my feet.
A few minutes later, it was coming in up to my knees. I started angling up toward the dry sand.
Running in sand with the ocean on top of it is nothing like hard-packed sand, which I figured would be a lot like pavement. It's not even like running on mud, which is quite nice until you start to skate sideways on it. Running underwater in sand is more like running in... pudding. Like, pudding with minced pistachios in it.
I started doing high-knees, which is great for the hip flexors, but quite tiring for a brief intro run. The sand kept slipping and sliding under me, and my feet would plunge in ankle-deep. I could feel the abrasive pull of the sand roughing up my skin. Then I came to the section where all the pebbles and shells wash up.
By the time I made it to the jetty, I was trashed. My heart was pounding and I had a stitch in my side. I checked my Watch.
POINT FOUR SEVEN? THAT'S NOT EVEN HALF A MILE!
I stood there and collected myself, by which I mean that I waited until my chest quit heaving and I was no longer thinking about flopping over like a sea lion. I watched a young woman on a surfboard, wearing nothing but a bikini and a long-sleeved t-shirt, and I thought, "If my butt looked like that for one single day, I could take over the world." I thought about how fit I would have to be to stand up on a surfboard. Then I watched a grinning man of my own age blunder out of the water in a swimming cap and a tiny Speedo patterned with the California flag, the sort of swimsuit a woman of his size would never dream of wearing in public. I thought randomly of body image and self-acceptance and strength and aging and bucket lists and fitness goals. I recalled that I had already run farther than I did on my very first day, aged 35, and how proud I would have been to have made it nearly half a mile without stopping.
I turned around and "ran" back to where I started. According to my stats, I ran about a 15-minute mile pace, which is a tiny bit faster than my walking pace. Ahem. I also burned... 89 calories. So much for that protein bar I ate to fuel my run, coming in at 270 calories. Another way to put this is that my energy needs were completely covered by my morning oatmeal, and that if I were making an attempt at weight loss, I would have been better off skipping both the run and the glorified candy bar. Fortunately, my goals are simply to rebuild my fitness level and to avoid gaining back the 35 pounds it took me so much effort to lose. These are things I know how to do.
I'll just wear socks and shoes and stay on the pavement. Running on the beach is a beautiful fantasy I can use to threaten myself if I ever have a lazy day. Better hit that sidewalk or you're running on sand tomorrow!
I was talking to myself on the bus, and this lady got up and changed seats. Oh, neat! I've reached the stage in life when I am virtually indistinguishable from either a crazy person or a person in an advanced state of inebriation. Another interpretation would be that I was quietly rehearsing a speech. I'm drunk on public speaking! I'm crazy about... oh, never mind. The point is that talking to yourself can be useful, and even more useful if you do it in the privacy of your own home. If you're not already into talking to yourself, it can help to learn the difference between different types of self-talk.
The most common type of self-talk is hateful, sarcastic, critical self-talk. "Nice job, idiot!" If you talk to yourself like that, I have a suggestion for you. Get some broccoli. Take the big, thick rubber band off of the broccoli stalk. Eat the broccoli, obviously, but then save the rubber band. Put it on your wrist. Every time you hear yourself saying something to yourself that you would never say to anyone else, pull the band as far as it will stretch and then let it go. SNAP! If you're going to hurt yourself, might as well make it physical. When you see how much your skin gets marked up, you'll have a graphic representation of what you've been doing to your own heart and spirit.
More helpful is motivational self-talk. "You can do it! Great job!" Research indicates that motivational self-talk is the most helpful for endurance athletes, like marathon runners and cyclists. I can speak from experience and say that this feels true. I give myself motivational speeches when I run all the time. "You got this, you're crushing it, up up up up that hill!" Of course, I also mix the motivational self-talk quite freely with self-insults and boot camp-style smack talk. "Are you quitting on me, Private Pyle? Are you quitting on me?" This serves three purposes: distraction, humor, and reminding myself that I COMMIT, NEVER QUIT. I guess it also serves the purpose of inuring myself to rude language, so that when I chance to overhear it, it doesn't bother me as much. I might hear an insult from someone and think to myself, "Oh, good one. I can use that later." The important point is for me to keep going, keep going, develop more grit, and keep going. The less I like doing it, the more important it is for me to do it, whatever it is, because it builds the "don't feel like it" muscle.
What we're going to focus on now is instructional self-talk. This is when you explain what you're doing to yourself in technical detail. Many of us may have turned to this type of self-talk while learning to drive, reminding ourselves to check the mirrors, release the parking brake, etc. Research shows that this type of self-talk is helpful for sports with intricate physical skills, such as tennis or golf. "Roll your shoulder forward." As I learned this, I realized that I talk myself through things all the time, especially when it's something I don't like doing or when I'm trying to focus my mental bandwidth. "I'm checking that the dog door is closed and the heater is off and I'm putting the tickets in this pocket and my keys are going on the clip" and on and on. A recording of me might sound like pure lunacy, but it would also be a good transcript of exactly what I was doing on the small stage of my tiny apartment.
Working with chronic disorganization, hoarding, or squalor requires learning a lot of new skills. Fortunately or unfortunately, these are very repetitive skills, and thus they're ripe for instructional self-talk. I am holding my breath and I am picking up this dripping bag of trash and I am walking it out to the curbside bin and I am throwing it away and I am patting myself on the back and GASP breathing fresh air! I am folding this shirt and I am folding this other shirt and I am folding this shirt and I did not actually die and my arm didn't fall off. Good job, me. You're welcome, Future Me, you ingrate. It's boring and I hate it but I'm doing it and I'm getting it done and look at that! It was the longest 12 minutes ever but now I'm done and I can go watch otter videos.
Sorting and letting go of excess clutter requires its own motivational and instructional self-talk. I am looking at this and remembering that I really, really liked it when I brought it home, but I never use it, and even though it's cute, it doesn't look cute ON ME, and I'm ready to pass it on to someone else. I want to be able to use this room and fit everything in this closet and only one dresser, and that means half of this stuff has to go no matter how much I like it. I'm trying this on and acknowledging that it isn't doing me any favors. I am reminding myself that I care more about my friends and my pets and reading and listening to music and eating nice meals than I do about some old shirt. I am not my stuff, and my stuff is not my personality. I'm talking myself through this awkward, time-consuming process of releasing myself from my emotional attachment to mere material possessions. There will always be plenty more in my life and Future Me will be just fine if I let this go today. I am not losing anything and I am not missing out - I am using my imagination and working to make a more inspiring space. I am focusing on all the things in my life that are more important than a bunch of old stuff.
Not everyone is going to get much use out of verbal, out-loud self-talk. Some of us are more suited to journaling, which is really self-talk on the printed page. The process of writing in longhand seems to do something positive in the mind. We talk our way or write our way to a new way of thinking, convincing ourselves as we go. Some of us, the rare few, will simply be able to sit back with an epiphany, a new realization that everything is different from here on out. Now that I've seen a different way of seeing, I can never fall back to sleep and start seeing things the old way any more. I've taught myself how to change, and I've changed.
There are a million parallels between money and body weight (and clutter, when it comes to that). Anything we learn about one usually works as a useful thinking tool for the other. One of these tools is to use our metrics to calculate a trend line, using our past behavior to predict our future results. When we want to take better care of Future Self, it is helpful to evaluate by the month, not the day.
Why by the month and not the week? Most of our bills occur monthly. Rent or mortgage, car payment, student loan, electric bill, gym, internet, cable, storage unit, phone bill, all that stuff shows up monthly. We can break down our quarterly or annual bills, like car insurance or roadside assistance, and plug in a monthly cost for these as well. It gets tricky when we have to work out an estimate for our variable weekly and daily expenses over a month, because we usually don't like the answer.
I think some of this attitude comes from having an allowance as a child. We want to feel like we can have fun with as much of our money as possible. We work so hard and we're so tired so much of the time, and we have to drive in traffic and follow a dress code... surely we're entitled to splurge and have a treat from time to time? This is all well and good for Present Self, but not very kind to Future Me. We don't realize how much we're sacrificing to preserve that sense of fun and freedom.
The emotional comfort of having "enough" savings is something I wish I could bottle, so people could get spritzed and have a whiff. One waft of that fragrance would be a major motivating force. There is such a huge psychic difference between having a major, unexpected expense with no savings, or having a savings cushion and then having an extended run of good luck. It starts when you realize that you already have enough in your checking account to pay all of your rent and bills this month and next month, with some left over.
There's always something. I personally have been laid off, had major medical expenses while uninsured, received erroneous tax bills, been billed for equipment I had already returned, had engine failure on road trips (more than once), had the primary vehicle die, and I don't even want to talk about how many veterinary emergencies. There is a guarantee for expensive disasters that is much stronger than the guarantee of finding cute shoes or a "can't miss" sale. It feels so unfair and boring, when what we want to feel when we spend money is the internal fireworks of delight and dopamine.
The trouble is that spending money in search of that fun, exciting feeling doesn't always deliver the desired emotional payoff. That's true even today. Then there's the deferred sinking feeling of dread when we realize we've been overspending. We never see it coming, because the last thing most of us are going to do with our free time is to estimate our monthly spending on a graph.
I know exactly how I would do it. I'd start out with a $5 green tea soy latte and a $3 pastry, plus tip. Then I'd have an $18 lunch, sometimes more because I really should be eating more salads. Then I'd do a little shopping and spend $70 on books, plus tax, and maybe a new top. Ooh, I'm so busy, better text my honey and convince him to take a Lyft over to meet me for sushi and a movie! I could happily spend every day like this, much less spreading it over a week or two. It would feel so natural and easy, I wouldn't even realize that my burn rate was roughly $200 (a week? A day?), not including rent, utilities, vacations, gifts, debt maintenance, or special occasions. My daily splurges almost automatically become routine daily requirements. Then I'm chasing my tail, trying harder and harder to get that feeling of luxury and sparkle. I feel deprived when I have to "skip" what I can't afford in the first place. This is why scarcity mindset is so much more expensive than abundance mindset.
Planning for the future is a gift to myself. It takes imagination, especially because most people don't bother to do it, but I can get emotional juice out of putting money aside for Future Me: Next Year and Future Me: Age 60 and Future Me: Age 80 and Future Me: Who Even Knows. It also takes imagination to find comfort and excitement in the routine. There is no specific price tag on a sense of abundance, just as there is no upper limit to the amount that still will not satisfy a sense of deprivation. I can be cheerful eating homemade lentil soup, and bored and resentful at a five-star restaurant. I can sit with the realization that none of the tinsel and glitter I see are really going to satisfy me the way the actors in the commercial look satisfied. Nothing I have ever bought has ever made me jump into the air with my knees four feet off the ground and my arms in the air, I can say that much for sure.
Extrapolating my habitual activities over a month prevents me from fooling myself about "unusual" days or weeks. It's harder to write off my behavior as anomalous or claim it doesn't count for some reason. All the birthday cake and candy I had this month counts, just as I probably don't eat broccoli or cabbage as often as I mentally tally it. All the trinkets and treats I buy count, just as all my unfair bills and fines do, and I probably don't save money at nearly the rate I'd like to believe. I'm just trying to live in reality, to understand my own proclivities, and to make sure I'm really living up to my own standards and preferences.
An underrated advantage of estimating our monthly expenses is that it enables us to estimate our annual expenses. The reason we do this is that we can then estimate how much we would need to maintain our current lifestyle if we were financially independent. What seems impossible today can, with sufficient data, seem nearly inevitable four or ten or fifteen years down the road. Extrapolating into the future induces optimism.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.