This is a window into possibility. There are infinite ways to think about money and to talk about it. This is ours. Maybe our way will make you feel cheerfully smug about how much better your way is working. Maybe it will boggle your mind. Either way, please accept this invitation to have your own strategy session.
We started talking about money together at the very beginning of our friendship, long before dating each other had ever crossed our minds. It was how we bonded. We were both stressed out and feeling broke and victimized, both recovering from divorce. I was sleeping on an air mattress at the time and he had two metal folding chairs at his dining table.
Part of what we both had in common was that we didn’t trust our exes about money. Both had been secret spenders and both resented us for wanting to save money or make financial plans for the future. We both resonated with the feeling that total transparency is good. It feels easy and light and clean to us.
We like talking about money and strategizing together. It makes us feel like a team and it makes us feel smart.
Not everyone is going to feel this way, and that’s good to know. If you’d like to avoid these kinds of discussions because your partner is not as focused on financial security as you are, then you can. You can just plan your own finances and set a good example. Maybe try to find a way to make the discussion lower-stakes and less tense. Or, like we eventually did, you can come to the hard realization that the two of you simply are not compatible.
Sometimes someone just can’t give you what you need.
No matter what you say or what you do, no matter how hard you try, another person may never fit with you. They have zero ability or intention to change because they are who they are. Their values are not your values, and they never will be.
The tough thing to realize here is that in this kind of situation, I may be the villain! My desire to change another person may make ME the bad guy. This other person never claimed to be any different, never agreed to change, never endorsed my values, and never signed onto my plan. Maybe this other person will have a difficult life because of this, but that is their right. Autonomy is their right. Why waste my time and life energy on this person, out of seven billion possible partners, when they don’t want what I want anyway?
On the other hand, maybe I’m the sloppy one, maybe I’m the one with no plan. In that case, it’s my job to figure out what to do, because it’s my responsibility no matter who I’m with, whether I’m single and alone or in any kind of shared situation. Trusting someone else to figure everything out for me means trusting in the illusion that that person is immortal, omnipotent, and immune to change.
The bedrock of financial strategy is asking, “Can I handle it?” In response to a list of scenarios, what would I do if that happened? If there is a way for money to fix that type of problem, do I have that money? If not, could I get it?
This is why we keep some small, crumpled bills in our go bags. We start with the assumption that in a major crisis, the internet may be out for at least three days and we may not be able to access any of our accounts. We need food and water and we need a way to pay for transportation. A gold brick would be useless in that kind of scenario, and so would a ten million dollar house or a fat stock portfolio.
After the emergency cash comes the default strategy. What if everything is basically fine and crisis-free for the rest of our lives?
We make sure our expenses are lower than our income, that we’re on track. If we kept doing what we’re doing, and we ignored our finances for several months, what would happen? Would it be okay or would it be a disaster?
Next is the part that takes actual concentration, and that is tax season. We sit down and do a little research. As time passes, our ages change and regulations do, too. Can we put more away for retirement? Have the contribution limits changed for our IRAs or our 401(k)?
There was definitely a time in my life when I felt like this type of question did not apply to me, and never would. I felt so broke that I could not imagine a different future. As a result, I missed a lot of opportunities to apply for better jobs, build credentials, or even make a new and improved financial plan.
Assuming I would always be broke almost guaranteed that I *would* always be broke.
There are two things that my husband and I do that most couples do not do. One is that we have a weekly Status Meeting when we talk about our finances. The other is that we took a financial workshop together a few years ago, and as a result we are living on about half our income.
We’re able to talk about our shared accounts cheerfully and with enthusiasm, because we have a working plan. Since our expenses are so much lower than our income, we have a lot of leeway. We can handle surprises (which, financially, are almost always the bad kind of surprise) and we can also “afford” vacations and treats. We live radically, in a tiny home, with no vehicle, and because of that we have almost no financial worries or stress.
Talking financial strategy raises a few extremely salient questions. Can I have that kind of discussion with my partner? Am I at least as focused and prepared as I expect anyone else to be? Am I ready to make changes to my core lifestyle? Do I have reason to feel optimistic about my situation and the future, or is this more of a time for brutal truths?
Financial strategy means caring for Future You, both yourself as an individual and “you” as future partners. It can be a loving gift that leads to long-term contentment. Eventually. And maybe with someone else?
There are probably a bunch of couples around the world who happen to be named “Harry and Meghan” - particularly because I doubt anyone refers to them as “Heghan” or “Megry.” There is, though, only one celebrity couple so I’ll assume everyone knows who I mean.
I asked my husband what he would do if he were Harry in this situation. Basically “paparazzi killed my mom, this is the most boring job on Earth, I never liked it anyway and now everyone is completely terrible to my wife, BYEEEEE.” What would he do if he were about to celebrate his first day as a free man?
Probably watch some sports and drink a (warm) beer on the couch.
We agreed that most guys would just do whatever their “thing” is, but that Harry probably never had a chance to even figure that out. What kind of guy is he? What would he do if he were born ordinary?
This is a man who may never have played a video game, stood in line at the movie theater, or made his own sandwich. What would it be like to have no idea how much mustard you like? Or what kind? Or if you even like mustard at all?
It’s fairly easy for me to imagine what I would do if I were Meghan. That’s because I live in Southern California. A lot of extremely famous actors, musicians, models etc have homes within ten miles of my apartment, and apparently there are several in the two-mile range.
This is the crux of the problem for royalists. Clearly the “wealthy California celebrity” lifestyle is preferable to the “British aristocrat” lifestyle. It must burn their collective bacon.
There’s something about the fantasy of aristocracy that really appeals to a lot of people. Note how many princess movies we have, both for kids and for adults, both animated and live-action. Gee, imagine, you get to have servants! And whatever gowns and jewels you want! And you get to have perfect hair and makeup all day every day! And live in a palace! Plus you’re in love with a handsome prince! *sigh* *swoon*
I mean, I got to live the princess fantasy in some ways. I threw a shoe at my current husband, making him fall in love with me, and he elevated me to the middle class. (I was on my way to doing it for myself, but it would have taken me several years longer to make it alone). We danced at our wedding and all that.
Then we won the game. We’ve had the incredible good fortune to be both married and able to live in perfect obscurity.
We can go anywhere we want, do anything we want, wear whatever we want, and behave in whatsoever manner we choose. The press never reports on us.
I don’t think people give enough consideration to this. We have something that money cannot buy, something that every celebrity wants, something truly enviable.
We have liberty.
If I were Meghan, I know what I’d do. On my first day of freedom, I’d wear my hair pulled back in a low ponytail. No makeup. I’d wear yoga pants and walk around barefoot. I’d read a book. Later, I’d go to the store and load up my cart and then I’d come home and put a tray of tater tots in the oven. Heck yeah!
The great thing about this particular dream of freedom is that I can literally live it every single day, and nobody is stopping me.
Nobody speculates about whether I’m pregnant, or takes pictures of my cellulite, or follows me around town, or suggests that I should wear high heels with jeans. I don’t have to read rumors about my marriage in the tabloids. Gossip about me and my life would be pretty low-caliber, and that’s okay. Amazing in fact.
What I dislike about the aristocratic lifestyle is... everything. All these highly posed group photos and extreme fashion guidelines. If part of the job of duchess is to wear pantyhose and pumps on a regular basis, I’m out. Everything royals do is in the public eye, and those public things they do are not things that interest me. At all. Nary a one. I’m not into that style of architecture, landscaping, or interior design either.
I have everything I’ve ever wanted. Aside from privacy and freedom from constant scrutiny, what I’ve wanted has always been BOOKS, comfortable shoes, and access to a wide variety of multicultural foods. Secret love affair with the interesting, mostly ordinary man whom I call husband. Messy pets. Ability to hang out with my wacky family, filters completely off, no dress code, and laugh until I snort.
My life is mine, not the community’s. I’m not public property. I have no concerns about Duty or Legacy or Heritage or whatever the heck those people talk about. Nobody follows me around with a gilded clipboard or a little bound ledger, reciting rules and regulations at me, and I don’t have a style guide. The only protocol in my life is dictated by my parrot, who has her own elaborate ways.
There seems to be a broad consensus, outside of SoCal anyway, that celebrities deserve whatever they get, that once you’re in the public eye then total loss of privacy is the price. Here, we understand that even famous people want to walk down the street, go to the airport, or have dinner with their families in peace and quiet. We know what famous life looks like, and that gives us sympathy.
History always comes around, and around, and around. Eighty-ish years ago Edward VIII abdicated so he could be with the woman of his choice, a decision that gets less and less romantic the more one looks into the details, but it was his basic right as a human being. A baby does not choose to become a family brand ambassador. All Edward and Harry wanted was to be in love and have jobs, to make their own money in the ordinary way.
All they wanted, in other words, was to have what we have. An ordinary life, an ordinary love, an ordinary job, an ordinary home. Just for a moment, let’s all pretend that we are abdicating royalty and that we’ve chosen this homely mess for ourselves.
Talking about money makes a lot of people stressed out and upset. This is sad, because ignoring financial problems only makes them worse. Money is the best solution for money problems!
It doesn’t take much to completely change your financial situation. It can be done in a surprisingly short time. The tricky part is that the rules that work at one level don’t even make sense at another level. It’s not so much learning these rules or putting them into practice, it’s believing that they are true.
“What got you here won’t get you there.”
One of the biggest of these is the mindset behind paying off debt. It can be such a major goal for so long. When it happens, though, you never have to worry about paying off debt again. You’ve done it and you’ve learned how to live on less than you earn. Debt will only come back into your life if you fall back on old habits or something unexpected happens. So then what?
If PAY OFF DEBT is no longer your big long-term financial goal, then what is?
When you’re broke, it makes sense to go on an austerity plan and save as much money as possible. I can tell you a lot about that if you haven't already tried it. Renting a room, not owning furniture, riding the bus, skipping meals, clipping coupons and going to the thrift store on half-off day. Delaying everything from medical and dental care to haircuts.
When you rise in your career, though, it actually hurts rather than helps to “save money” in these ways. More and more of your employability revolves around your external appearance. Cut your own hair and wear stuff from the thrift store bins, and you’ll quickly find that less qualified people are moving forward before you. Spend your time bargain shopping and cutting coupons, and maybe you won’t even realize that those hours could have been spent far more strategically.
Most of us don’t learn these things from our families. The financial lessons we learn come from earlier eras, when the economy was different and the rules of the business world were different, too. We can get jobs now in entire fields that did not exist in our parents’ or grandparents’ day.
Get a solid job with a solid employer, work there until retirement, and buy a house as your major investment. Gee, nice work if you can get it!
The major advancements in my household’s financial life have come, more or less, from the EXACT OPPOSITE advice.
Be prepared for your entire industry to change almost overnight as technology advances. Brace yourself for mass layoffs at least once a year and maybe even once a quarter. Constantly learn new things so you don’t get left behind. Stay flexible because your best opportunity may be in a new city, new state, or new country entirely.
We’ve won specifically because we knew we couldn’t bet on any one employer and because we know a home purchase is only worth it if you’re confident you can stay there at least five years. With each move, we’ve done better.
Another thing that holds people back is fixating on one job, giving everything to that employer, and holding a grievance about why they promote the wrong people, make bad decisions, or still haven’t given back the recognition and appreciation that the right people deserve. It’s emotionally the same as staying in a disappointing love relationship out of misplaced loyalty.
The answer for a lot of people is that they’ve outgrown their job long ago. They should have put their emotional attachments toward their friends and family, and their mental focus toward looking elsewhere for professional advancement. Most people only get a raise or promotion when they change jobs.
Most people are in positions where there *are no* opportunities for advancement and *never will be.*
The hardest workers keep picturing how all the problems with their job could be fixed, if only someone would listen. All that energy and drive and ambition and talent is going straight down the drain.
Alphas are often in trouble at work, because we don’t “know our place” and we keep sharing our ideas when that is not seen as appropriate to our role. It comes across as a distraction at best and insubordination at worst. Why can’t you just keep your head down and mop that floor?
Yes, I have been assigned to mop the floor at work. I’m not proud. I’ll probably mop a floor later today. The point is that while I do it, I can still run my mouth and share ideas about how to streamline workflow or improve the bottom line. That is, I can do it for a willing listener.
Or I can pause and realize that if I’m going to mop floors at work, I should do it at my own company.
Why work for someone else who doesn’t get it and never will?
The biggest advantage of a lame, boring, dead-end job is that you can do it competently while bootstrapping your own side venture. If nobody there recognizes you as what you are, if nobody cares that you have more to offer, then they probably won’t even notice that your attention is divided. I’m convinced that at least 95% of the people I supported as an admin wouldn’t even remember my name; I’ve passed former coworkers on the street who clearly didn’t recognize me. We owe them nothing but our 8 hours and basic courtesy.
Following the status quo is not “a move.” Do what’s expected and you get what everyone else is getting, namely debt, chronic financial anxiety, long commutes, and a big question mark where “retirement” is supposed to be.
It’s the willingness to acknowledge risk that allows for big money moves. The truth is that the status quo is inherently extremely, catastrophically risky! Ask around. It isn’t working for most people and they will readily admit it.
Is it risky to relocate for a job, to start a side hustle, to live a radical lifestyle that makes your parents nervous? Of course it is. No riskier than everyday reality, though. Allow yourself to at least consider making major changes, since you can test them emotionally before making those big money moves into reality.
Once upon a time, we lived in the worst place of our marriage. It had so many problems, the worst of which was that our upstairs neighbors made noise any time between 4:00 AM and 2:00 AM. We could never get any sleep and our property manager refused to do anything about it.
We wanted out of our lease. We thought we had grounds.
Instead the property manager blamed us for being the bad tenant and causing problems. We were told that if we left, we would be charged 2.5x rent.
Aha, we thought, at this point it would be cheaper just to move out and keep paying the rent.
So that’s what we did.
Before forming an opinion on this course of action, imagine just how thoroughly miserable you would have to be, you personally, before you would pay double rent. Imagine what emotions you would have to have before that would sound like a good idea.
Yeah. That’s pretty much how we felt.
This place was built at some point in the Sixties or Seventies, and it shows. They have to disclose the presence of both lead and asbestos. There is constantly an outage of either the power, or the hot water, or all the water, or the internet. Or the laundry room is closed, or the pool is closed, or one of the parking garages is closed, or an entire building has to be evacuated for a couple of days.
We left our first building and moved to a different unit after watching as no fewer than four apartments on our floor suffered flooding from a burst pipe. Inexorably, every couple of weeks there would be a giant fan set up in a doorway down the hall, then one closer, then one closer, then yet another unit closer. “We’re next,” we thought, and imagined how much of our stuff would be ruined by a burst pipe.
Sure, we have renter’s insurance, but the mess!
This place sucked. The only thing it had going for it was the location, amplified by its luxe landscaping. What hooked us was that you can’t tell by looking at it how many problems this place had with its infrastructure.
We’d been counting the months until our lease was up. Then I realized that I had miscounted, or misremembered, which becomes a chronic issue when you don’t get enough sleep for a year. We actually had about six weeks longer than I had remembered.
No way, we thought. Can’t do it. We couldn’t bear it.
Then we saw that a listing we had fantasized over weeks before was still open. We launched. Somehow we knew when we first saw the photos that we would live there, that it would be ours, and recklessly we signed the papers.
We didn’t say anything when we moved out. I just hired movers and reserved a van, and we were out in, what, four hours? I had our new place mostly set up before my husband even got home from work. He left the Bad Apartment in the morning and came home to the New Place ten hours later.
It really was that simple.
Okay, EXPENSIVE, but simple.
The reason we were able to make this move is that we have been living off only half our income for the past couple of years.
We have savings and we have investments because we prioritize living well within our means.
They call it EFF YOU MONEY and that’s exactly what we did with it. We talked to our [***evil***] landlord and then we internally formed the potent thought EFF YOU, BUDDY and then we effed the eff right out of there.
What we paid in double rent was annoying. It in fact made me really angry for two months.
“That could have been a really nice vacation,” I pointed out to my husband, who is much better than I am at shrugging things off and emotionally moving forward.
“It HAS been a really nice vacation,” he said, shocking me to my core. I hadn’t thought of it that way. What other vacation would we have had that would have lasted for two months? We’d been able to sleep, to take two naps a day sometimes. We could go out on the rooftop patio and watch the sunset and look at the sea, and we did. We had a gym and a pool and a hot tub and a sauna, dated and small, but still available.
What we might have spent on a nice vacation, we instead wound up spending on a semi-permanent lifestyle upgrade.
We’ve met our new landlord, an impossibly cool person who has his own Wikipedia page, and we like him. It is cheering to write our checks to him personally instead of to a property management company that we believe is corrupt.
See, when you stay in a hotel, the hotel management puts guest satisfaction first and foremost. At the slightest issue, they’ll move your things for you to a different room, often a nicer room. We’ve gotten free upgrades, from a room to a suite, from a suite to a penthouse suite, and we’ve been comped meals and drinks basically just for smiling. A hotel trades happiness for cash.
For some reason, a lot of landlords and property managers take the opposite view. They see tenants as parasites infesting and ruining their property. No nail holes, they say, no paint, don’t you dare pretend you actually live here and wreck the place. It’s combative from the first day.
Why, though? Why can’t both hoteliers and property managers see a guest/tenant as an unending fountain of passive income? Why not see a hotel room and an apartment in the same light, as a trade of shelter for cash, and the nicer the more valuable?
The place where we used to live has about fifty units sitting empty. This is why they shafted us for $300 after we moved out, the first time since 1990 that I have ever not had my entire deposit returned, because I always spend days micro-cleaning with a toothbrush and cotton swabs. They’re terrified that they’ll continue to make less and less money, and that scarcity mindset poisons the commercial relationship they have with their tenants. This is why they are untruthful and refuse to disclose so many issues with the property, because they see their tenants as adversaries.
We would have stayed for years if we could only have had a quiet home. They could have made tens of thousands of dollars off us. We would have convinced our various colleagues and casual friends to move in and make the complex into a social hub. Instead we’ll feel obligated to warn people away, to tell the absolute truth about what it was like to live there. Now our cool and nice new landlord can cash our rent checks instead. It’s all the same to us.
That property manager may feel smug that they “won” the negotiation. They got a couple more rent checks. Yay. Good for you, you must be so proud. How good you are at business. They’re thinking in the short term, though, and they have no idea how much this attitude is truly costing them.
We didn’t “break our lease” because our reputation is more valuable to us than money. That didn’t mean we had to actually live in an unlivable situation, though. Just because we continued to pay market rent on the place did not mean we had to stay there ourselves! Nobody can force us to stay in a situation after we’ve decided that we are unwilling. We couldn’t live there anymore, and so we just moved out.
We used to worry about money a lot, but we don’t anymore, because we have a simple strategy. It comes in three pieces, and it works. Anyone can learn it. It goes like this:
When I was younger my eyes used to glaze over when I read lists like that. I didn’t want to have to think about anything with an acronym. I didn’t want to learn new technology. I figured I would think about it when I was older.
Now I AM older and I’m feeling pretty smug that Young Me read so many personal finance books and made the effort to learn these concepts.
It takes about 15 minutes to fill out the paperwork to max out your payroll deductions and put them in a 401(k) or equivalent. You literally only have to do it once per job. That’s the first step, and after those 15 minutes then you never have to think about it again.
The third step, living on less money than you earn, can be tricky. It can be hard to believe it can be done. It sometimes means making radical lifestyle changes, and those can be emotional and hard to explain to other people. Following the plan itself, though, becomes automatic.
It’s the second step, setting up an IRA and putting money in it every year, that trips people up. I knew what it was and how to do it, and I never bothered to get around to it until a few years into my second marriage. When I think back to all the tens of thousands of dollars I would have if I hadn’t procrastinated on this, it makes me want to slap myself.
The reason it’s so easy to procrastinate is that there isn’t an HR person to walk you through it. Nobody sends you an email reminder. You have to find a bank and set up a brand-new account. You have to decide which of two types of account work for you. Then you have to get the money together and remember to deposit it before the deadline every year.
In practice you can do it in an hour, set up a reminder on your phone in one minute, and then spend ten minutes a year moving the money.
It’s not the time, it’s the mental bandwidth.
Now that I know how to do this stuff, and I’ve seen it work, it seems simple and easy. In fact most people I know put more thought, focus, and attention into following the plot of complicated prestige television than I do into investing. It’s just that hump of studying up and learning how something works, especially if nobody you know does it or talks about it.
Setting up an investment account is free. You don’t have to keep putting money in it; you can skip a year if you have to. You can also catch up and do the previous year. You don’t have to have the maximum amount, either. Even if you only have a dollar to put in one year, that’s better than nothing.
This is a conversation I had with my husband when we first met, when we were just work buddies. He was complaining about his expensive divorce, child support, and alimony, and he said he couldn’t even afford to invest in his retirement plan.
“What??” I bawled him out. “You make three times as much as me and I’m maxed out. You’re trying to tell me you can’t even save one percent? I don’t believe you.”
(This is actually why we are married today, because he respects my frugality and I always tell it like it is).
He told me later that he went in to HR and filed the papers. He immediately maxed out his retirement contribution and, of course, it was fine. He could afford it after all. Emotionally, he had just been feeling the divorce drama. Mine had come and gone five years earlier, so I recognized it.
The thing is, there’s no such thing as CAN’T AFFORD. You’ll never be as young again as you are today. One day, Older You is going to have some kind of problem that only Younger You can solve, because Older You won’t be able to work or earn more money. The emergency you have in the future is going to be harder to solve than any problem you have today. Almost definitely.
You can never allow yourself to believe that it’s impossible. You can never give in to the idea that you can’t even find a penny on the street once a year. (A guy at the next table in my cafe literally dropped a penny on the floor AS I WROTE THAT and he still hasn’t picked it up. It’s the second penny I’ve seen on a floor today).
The main advantage of being poor (or thinking you are) is that you know how to live with a low overhead. That means you understand austerity, that you can emotionally handle spending as little as possible on things like rent, transportation, healthcare, heat, and food.
The disadvantage of being poor is that scarcity mindset prevents us from having better ideas about how to earn more money.
I did my husband the favor of snapping him out of his divorce blues and convincing him to start investing toward his retirement again. That paid off for me because now his financial future is also mine... He returned the favor to me, many times over, by painstakingly teaching me how to replace my scarcity mindset with abundance mentality.
None of the rules that worked for my life when I was poor, a broke student, an entry-level career person, none of those rules make any sense in my life as a comfortably established married person.
Another way to express that there are three parts to a financial plan is like this:
Feel that your anxiety and dejection about money is an emotional state, not reality. Understand that the only difference between you and a rich person is that they know things you don’t. Figure out what it takes to kick yourself, to make yourself do things. How do you get yourself to make phone calls or log in to websites or drive to a bank? How do you set up reminders for yourself to do things by a certain date? How do you inspire yourself to learn things you don’t already know? What do you do when you realize you need help; do you ask someone?
Everyone has a financial plan. For most people that is, “Don’t think about it right now.” Please reward yourself by using your imagination, your creativity, and your intelligence to come up with a more interesting plan. Maybe part of that could be setting up an account for your IRA, even if you don’t have any money to put in it quite yet.
We continue our tradition of buying nothing and going nowhere the day after Thanksgiving. It’s going well. Three of us are bundled up in blankets on the couch, and Noelie is sunning herself by the window. Time has no meaning for us today. We’re simply relaxing and doing whatever we want.
Apparently the alternative is to get up early, drive around town, and fight other people for bargains?
We went shopping together on this supposed Black Friday once when we were dating. As we idled in traffic at an intersection, we saw something remarkable: One man kneeling on another man’s chest, hands on his throat, while a few bystanders stood there. Our attention was drawn because two pickup trucks were pulled up to the curb, one at a slant, doors hanging open. A road rage incident.
Ahh, the holiday spirit in action!
We did not feel that adding another truck and more people would bring any clarity to this situation. Instead we drove on, making up new lyrics to It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
“...and punching your neighbor and drinking some beeeeeerrrr...”
Since then, we’ve let go of not just shopping on Black Friday, but owning a vehicle and driving as well. Hanging out at home for Buy Nothing Day has spoiled us.
Bargains are not bargains. Usually a sale or a coupon is the retail price of something, artificially inflated and then “dropped” to make it look cheaper. Sometimes it’s a functionally obsolete item, shunted to the side to make room for the new version that’s about to fill the shelves. It’s never a bargain if it leads to months or years of credit card debt. We know this, right?
Whatever we buy, we add sales tax, and then we multiply by the interest rate that we are paying on credit. Then we subtract that from our post-tax paycheck. The quick version of this is to estimate that we have to earn two dollars for every dollar we spend. That is no bargain.
The pressure is off in my family. We agreed that instead of exchanging gifts, we would put that budget toward visiting each other. We also sponsor a family, bringing them gifts and groceries, keeping them in sheets and towels and that sort of thing. Our family holiday spirit revolves around games rather than piles of packages.
I just challenged my mom to online Scrabble. Do you think she’ll play me?
Shopping is hard for a minimalist. Not that we’re no good at buying things, just that it’s hard for others to shop for us. This is especially true if they’ve seen our apartment.
Nice, thank you for the lovely gift, now where in tarnation are we going to put it??
This is why, when we get a package, it usually consists of a parrot toy and a bag of dog treats. These are things that are guaranteed to get used, and they also have some fun value.
Part of why we’re staying home today is that our dog’s days are numbered. He supposedly had only a few weeks to live as of Thanksgiving 2018, yet somehow, magically, he is still here and having a pretty good day. We are in the existentially fraught situation where we literally have to compare a “bargain” to a snuggle day at home with him.
That’s technically true for everyone, but we forget.
And it’s not just true for our pets, either.
I think of all the times I’ve been out shopping with someone, and we come home tense and tired after fighting traffic, bad weather, long lines, and slow walkers. We’re seduced by an endless stream of marketing material into thinking that buying things will be jolly and spiritually fulfilling. Then we go out and try to do it and discover that the process is hollow and exhausting.
While we were in line, were we getting what we came for? Love and togetherness?
Does the shopping and the debt really translate into caring and affection?
Is this what happiness feels like? Joy and delight?
Honestly I don’t think all of us know the difference. We’re going for dopamine instead of oxytocin. Shopping expeditions are sometimes the only way that families and friends know how to relate to each other, the only way to have a good time.
This is part of where compulsive acquisition comes from. My hoarders may be out shopping with family multiple times a week. Part of the habit is justified by stocking up on gifts, gifts that may pile up for years without actually being given to the intended recipient. There’s always a special pile of gifts received and still in the original wrapping. Sometimes they have the year written on the tag so you can see how far back they go.
That’s where our bargains go, sometimes. They go into a hoarded pile on someone’s dining table or into their closet. All that shopping and wrapping, for what?
This is why it’s so hard for me to find an exchange of gifts very interesting. I can’t help but see all this stuff in the context of thrift stores, yard sales, and hoarding. What was the exciting gift of one holiday season will inevitably be shabby a few years later. The constant churning of consumer preference creates, as part of its nature, tackiness and unwearable colors and dated fashions that cause us to burst into laughter. They were all desirable one year and a complete joke not long after.
That could actually make a fun party idea! Everyone show up wearing a thrift store outfit from an earlier era and wrap up a white elephant gift from a different decade. Throw a potluck using all the dusty kitchen appliances from the back of the cabinet. Make a game out of identifying weird unitaskers, the single-use gadgets that fill so many drawers and closets. Then see if anyone will be willing to take it off your hands.
That sounds like work to me right now, though. I’m going to continue lounging around in my pajamas until noon and then see how much cranberry sauce I can fit in my lunch. This is Slack Friday, after all, and I’m not convinced I’m slacking hard enough.
Financial Freedom is a book about financial independence for those who are ready to look at the numbers. This is a practical handbook. It’s particularly ideal for someone who wants to convince a skeptical partner to give FI a closer look.
As a non-math person, I like that Financial Freedom includes lookup tables of numbers. It doesn’t require a calculator, which is good because I’m the kind of person who can get four different answers for the same math problem. Fortunately, financial independence is possible for anyone, regardless of numeracy.
Sabatier starts the book with a copy of his bank statement, containing $2.26, while he is back living with his parents after a layoff. At one point he counts up how much he had earned at his last job, after taxes, and compares it to the credit card balance he had run up. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but effectively he’s come out ahead by only $2.50 an hour. Whatever was going on with his full-time work/standard consumer lifestyle, it wasn’t working and it sure didn’t look much like financial freedom.
Five years later he was a millionaire.
I’m guessing that part does NOT sound so familiar.
Not everyone wants or needs to be a millionaire, and most people won’t feel that it’s possible for them when they start. Sabatier outlines seven levels of financial freedom, starting with simple clarity, and none of these levels has a specific dollar amount attached. It depends on your personal situation. The author started with no knowledge and a bunch of debt, and one year later he had seven income streams and $100,000 in savings. It can happen fast if you figure out how to do it.
Most people probably spend more time, in minutes, figuring out what movie to watch than they do looking over their accounts or planning a financial strategy. We have the free time, we have the intelligence, we certainly have the desire to be free of stress and struggle. All we’re missing are the role models and the plan, and Grant Sabatier is here to help with both.
No matter how much money you owe, there’s a path out and a path to wealth.
I’m just going to come out and say it—most people who are side hustling, especially when they are first starting out, charge way too little for their services or products.
The next time you think about buying something, ask yourself, Is this worth trading my freedom for?
Six weeks to live, that’s what the vet told us. He was in one room and we were in another, having a surgical consult for our 10-year-old dog. After absorbing all the information and asking a lot of questions, we wept on each other and then declined treatment.
A year later, he’s still here.
There are few emotional moments as difficult as saying goodbye to a beloved pet. Our love for them is uncomplicated and pure in a way that it rarely or never is for the humans in our lives. This is why sitting in a veterinary office can lead us to make decisions that can ultimately be bad for the animal and bad for us as well. It helps when we can set ourselves some guidelines in advance.
It sucks, but animals have lifespans. Most of them are shorter than ours. We love them, and then they get old and die on us. It’s desperately unfair. Why can’t a dog live as long as a horse? Why can’t a cat live as long as a parrot? Our parrot helped raise this dog, Spike, from a 10-week-old puppy. Now she’s still swinging upside down by two toes and singing to Lady Gaga while he’s a stiff old elderly dog. She’s 21 and she could probably outlive five consecutive dogs during her natural lifespan.
It isn’t fair.
It isn’t fair, and yet that’s part of my attraction to parrots. Long life and few health problems.
Comparing one phylum to another isn’t useful in this context, though. What I am going to offer is a comparison between two dog-loving families faced with similar veterinary issues, what they decided, and how it turned out.
First I’ll offer the test case, and then I’ll offer details about Spike’s situation.
I met a woman at a party. She had a lot on her mind. Her household was broke, she was unemployed, and she couldn’t afford the special high-end groceries she needed for her diet. I used to work in social services, so when I hear “can’t afford groceries” I get into “feed this family” mode and start offering options. Then I found that the family was broke partly because they had recently spent over $20,000 on cancer treatments for their dog.
I didn’t meet the dog in question, and we’re not in touch, so I have no idea how this looks a year down the road. The story was that the treatments worked and the dog was cancer-free a year later. The woman at the party didn’t seem to have made the connection between struggling with grocery money and paying the extra vet bills.
This stuck in my mind because only a couple of weeks later, we found out that our own dog had a liver tumor.
Here’s the backstory. Our dog was diagnosed with Addison’s disease when he was two years old. He hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours and he lay in his bed, shaking. I got down on the floor with him and held him all night, certain this pup was going to die. Took him to the vet and found out he has this genetic endocrine disorder which is so serious that most people choose to euthanize rather than try to treat it.
We decided to give him the pills and keep him around. A few years later, that medication quit working on him and we thought he was going to die again, but he responded to a different drug. Now he goes in every month for a shot, and the few days at the end of the cycle, he tends to be shaky and ill. Tough life for a little dog.
Then there was the time he hurt his neck from shaking his toys so much. The vet advised a spinal tap and a long list of other treatments to find out what was wrong. He didn’t do well on the pain medication and quit eating again, and once again we were sure our expensive little dog wasn’t going to make it. We took him off the pain meds and I was able to coax him back into eating solid food by pretending I couldn’t stop dropping bits of my lunch on the floor.
By the time we made it to the Liver Tumor point on the timeline, we had been through a lot as a mixed-species family. Spike had been on countless prescriptions and was on a first-name basis with literally every single employee at no fewer than four clinics. He was a canine celebrity, The Addisonian Dog Who Lived. “Personality plus,” they call him, a great dog with a loving home... and poor health.
It’s like this. 20% of the time, he’s happy and hilarious. He jumps three feet straight off the ground, chases his tail, and does a dozen circus tricks.
20% of the time, he’s curled up in a ball feeling sick and refusing food.
The middle 60%, he’s like any other dog, hanging around sleeping or scratching his ear or following us from room to room.
We’ve known for a long time that Spike probably wasn’t going to get the advanced life span of some dogs. We’ve known for most of his life that his genetic condition would eventually progress to the point that it was untreatable. We had to make the decision early on that when he started suffering more and life was no longer fun for him, we would do the right thing.
Then my mother-in-law died of cancer, her fifth recurrence.
When we decided to decline treatment for Spike’s liver tumor, this was why. My husband couldn’t put his dog through cancer treatment because he saw what it did to his mom. She was a human who could communicate and sign her own forms. Our dog could never possibly understand what was happening to him, what we were doing to him. We knew he might die during the exploratory surgery, much less during radiation and chemo. All that just to buy him another year, a year of constant pain and fear and confusion?
And then what? The same choices again, only with an older dog?
When we declined treatment, the $9100 bill for the exploratory surgery was a factor, sure. It should be for most families. We have an adult child. What if *she* needed help with that kind of money but we had already spent it on our pet?
What if one of *us* got cancer?
Wouldn’t it be nice if veterinary care came free of charge, no matter the animal. Wouldn’t it be nice if they lived forever. Sure, that would be great, but we don’t expect anyone else to work for free, so why veterinarians? The “cost” isn’t a financial cost, though, as much as it is a cost of pain and confusion and dread for the animal. They hate it there, we know that, and when we bring them in it’s often more about postponing our own pain than theirs.
What happened with our dog’s liver tumor, a year after declining treatment? Fair question. It got larger and he developed a second tumor, in his lung this time. He’s still here, though.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that treating our dog for the liver tumor/possible cancer would not have been a good idea. He got this second tumor anyway, and the treatment for the first tumor could not have prevented it. We would easily have spent twenty thousand dollars treating our dog, who is now eleven and a half, and for what?
In the year that we didn’t have to buy him, the bonus year, he’s had a lot of terrible days. He’s also had some great days, where he was so happy and energetic that we just looked at each other with our mouths hanging open. This dog! His vets (he knows the whole team) have no explanation for why he is still alive. We know his day must be coming any time now, and we have the number to call to help his crossing over the rainbow bridge. We’ll do the right thing for him, no question, but why rush when he still wants to jump and play and do tricks?
Did that other family do the right thing by spending $20,000 on cancer treatments for their dog, at the expense of their own grocery budget? They seemed happy about it, and it isn’t for me to judge. Did my husband and I do the right thing by declining treatment for our own dog, partly because we knew it would cost $20,000? Not everyone would agree, and it probably isn’t fair to include the results, because if he had only lived for a month we might have seemed callous and cruel.
We made the choice we did because we felt that it was too much to ask of our dog to tolerate a year of cancer treatments. We also made this choice because spending that kind of money on a ten-year-old dog did not make sense in a broader moral context. If we were going to spend $20,000, why not put it toward a human’s cancer treatment instead?
We’ll say goodbye to our dog sometime soon. We won’t wait for the obvious last day. We’ll make it a party, so his friends can say goodbye too. He can have party foods, even the naughty stuff if he wants it, like fried chicken and chocolate and grapes. We’ll let him go, and it will crush us. But we knew, even when we first held him and he would fit in one hand, we knew he would. We knew that we would love him and he would break our hearts, because we are immortals compared to his kind. We choose this love because it burns so hot, an enormous love for a short life.
Hey, I have an idea. Let’s start off the week with a highly loaded discussion of power dynamics!
When we talk about who makes the money and who does the chores, we tend to frame it in a really dumb way, which anyone who has multiple siblings should immediately understand. Why are chore wars always “husband vs. wife” or “mom vs. kids” when it should really just be “people who share common areas”?
I have two brothers, so in our household chores rotated week to week. My dad’s response to questions about trading chores was:
“I don’t care, just get it done.”
Right. Focus on the goal. Cleanest house with the least amount of effort. In my parents’ view, that meant training the kids to do as much as possible. A charitable interpretation of this is that they maximized our opportunities to learn adult skills.
It’s pretty common, in a traditional monogamous hetero marriage, for the wife to take on more of the housework and childcare. We’ve workshopped this, my husband and I, with groups of other couples. A wife will explain that she does more because she feels guilty that she is earning less money.
This is where the contrarian take comes in.
Power couples look at the division of labor strategically. What can be done so that both parties maximize their earning potential and overall career success? How can everyone in the household enjoy the highest possible quality of life?
This can happen in a million bajillion different ways, arranged over various timelines. Where it doesn’t happen is in relationships where one party is motivated by guilt and feelings of being a lesser contributor. What, one of you is the CEO so the other one has to be the janitor?
(Note: facilities maintenance is an honorable profession, and plenty of people have become millionaires through offering custodial services. Trash is cash).
When one person in a relationship is motivated by guilt and/or shame, the chore wars become about something entirely different than a smoothly running household. They become about earning approval, or avoiding conflict, or demonstrating, what? Fealty? Subservience?
What we’re talking about is not the sort of relationship in which one partner radiates joy and serenity through interior design and the culinary arts, while the other channels their self-expression into career ambition. That’s totally a thing, and if it works for both of you, more power to ya.
What we’re talking about is that other kind, where both parties are dissatisfied or bored or fighting about money or feeling unappreciated. None of those feelings tend to be part of someone’s wedding vows.
To have and to ignore, to annoy and exasperate, from this day forward.
We’re smarter than this. We didn’t marry our houses and we know better than to prioritize our stuff over our relationships. Besides, we have robots now.
The truth is that we tend to magnify the amount of work that “needs” to be done to run a household in four ways:
By having larger homes than we need,
Filled with more stuff than we need,
With no systems in place,
And having power struggles about it all.
My ex-husband and I used to play poker for chores, using a points system that we designed together. He did 95% of the cooking, because arguably he was a much better cook and he preferred it that way. Yes, he earned about 50% more than I did, and that was an issue when we discussed our budget and our savings goals, but it didn’t factor into how we divided labor at home. Rather, we had a plan that he would work while I got my degree, and then I would work at my newly increased rate of pay while he finished his. It was understood that it would be several years before we divided the housework “evenly.”
We never got to that point. I can claim, though, that we kept a pretty tidy home. Out of all the things we fought about, housework wasn’t on the list. Probably because we were minimalists and spent most of our marriage in small apartments. Possibly also because we both had multiple siblings!
Now I’m remarried, and the structure is different, partly because the man is different and partly because we rely on engineering principles rather than poker. What works on the manufacturing floor that would also work at home? We have successfully harnessed professional pride, his in Agile methodology and mine in my work with chronic disorganization and hoarding.
Keep work surfaces and common areas clear. Streamline processes and eliminate unnecessary steps. Don’t tie up capital in excess inventory. Cross-train and share best practices. Continuous improvement.
We have had a LOT of discussions about housework over our ten-year marriage. This has been almost entirely driven by me, because I’m the fussy one. I’ve framed it as a way to view a smoothly running household like an engineering management problem. Rather than make this, How do I convince you to wipe down counters my way?, I’ve tried to make it, What terminology would an engineer use to describe this work process?
Also, What kind of robot could do this particular task? Could you build me one?
This is how I learned that you can clean a greasy oven in ten minutes if you use a drill, and that the question, Can I get my husband to spend three hours kneeling in front of this thing instead of me? WAS THE WRONG QUESTION ENTIRELY.
All of the questions we have about dividing household labor fairly may, likewise, be structured in an unhelpful way. If the framework involves guilt, shame, blame, resentment, grudges, anger, or crying, there are probably other ways to look at the situation.
What if almost all of those feelings were directly related to household labor that didn’t even need to be done by a human? What if we engineered those chores out of existence?
There used to be household chores like churning butter, darning socks, and carrying coal scuttles that most 21st-century households no longer do. (Well, I still darn my own socks, but hey). It’s my thesis that a lot of our 20th-century chores can be canceled, too.
Stepping forward and focusing on a more interesting, challenging, and fulfilling career almost always results in significantly more income. A higher income can do a lot more for a family, like eliminating debt and buying a $200 robotic vacuum cleaner, than anyone can do just by focusing on folding laundry more often. Eyes on the prize.
Let’s find a way to restructure our division of labor so that everyone involved is excited, having fun, laughing, talking, and generally thinking about chores as little as possible. One day it’ll all be done by nanobots anyway.
I finally tried flying on a Basic Economy fare. It was easier than I thought, but still I’d probably do it differently next time. Here’s what it was like.
I planned a last-minute trip with a friend. Because of the time of year and the location, not only was I able to fly on the same days that she did, I was even able to get on the same flights! This is particularly interesting because I booked my trip with reward points.
(The points came from my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and we flew United. This is relevant because apparently United is the strictest with the special rules of Basic Economy).
A regular fare was double the number of points as the Basic Economy fare, or an extra $200+ in cash. This matters to me, and in fact I felt excited that no-frills travel is so much cheaper. I’m an ideal candidate because:
I did my research before packing. I knew from travel scuttlebutt that airlines are strict about this type of fare, that not all carriers offer it, and that the rules vary and change over time. Any deviation was likely to cost me money and possibly also time.
I hate spending more money than I have to, but I also tend to cut my arrival time to the wire. I’m rarely in a situation when I can afford to add even fifteen or twenty minutes to my time cushion. In nearly forty years of flying, I’ve never missed a flight, and I don’t intend to start now.
Especially not due to my luggage, of all things!
My research indicated that under Basic Economy, I couldn’t choose my seat. I literally do not care. I’m that rare creature, a middle seat person, anyway.
I couldn’t choose to sit next to my travel partner(s). Eh. We planned to sleep on the way east, so it didn't matter. We are currently sitting side by side on the return trip, which either says something about boarding last or about the enduring niceness of American Midwesterners. Either way, this restriction doesn’t bother me much because when I’m traveling with someone, we’re already planning to be together on the trip. What’s a brief break when we’re likely napping, reading, or watching a movie anyway?
I wouldn’t get a meal. Eh. Again, I was planning to sleep one way, and we never get fed during the westward leg regardless. I know what types of food travel well.
Most importantly in the list of restrictions that made this fare half-price, my fare would not include any bags! No checked bag (yawn) and no carry-on either! I could bring one solitary personal item, smaller than the original dimensions that were allowed when this type of fare debuted.
If this personal item was too large, I would have to pay not only the $30 checked bag charge, but a $25 handling fee on top. Bags are routinely weighed and measured.
This part interested me. I texted my friend about it and she utterly did not believe me! We went back and forth over it for a while. I offered to pay the $30 to check one large suitcase that we could both share, and that settled the matter.
Under these conditions, paying to check a bag was a good deal.
I’m not in love with the idea of paying $60 round-trip for luggage, but it was significantly cheaper than paying the extra $200 for a regular economy ticket. It was also cheaper than buying new outfits and paying to ship them home.
Some friends, roommates, or siblings might split the cost, sharing the bag and each paying for one leg of the trip. I covered the whole thing, partly because it was mostly my stuff and partly because my friend was covering the rental car. Obviously a romantic couple is likely to be sharing expenses, or figuring out how to do so in a way that makes sense, which fighting over money does not.
The suitcase that I brought was the only piece of luggage that I own that was large enough to share. My husband bought it for a three-week work trip, and it physically holds his entire work wardrobe. It is comically vast and its geometry is such that it comes up to my waist. At its fullest, it weighed 45 pounds, only a bit less than the weight limit for one bag.
This is the main reason why I would avoid paying to check a bag the next time I fly Basic Economy. The bag itself was a monster, an annoying burden that had to be hauled on and off the shuttle twice and hoisted into the back of the rental vehicle.
Going any smaller raises the question of why I couldn’t just make it happen with the personal item.
The current dimensions of the Basic Economy personal item are those of a daypack, a typical school backpack for a high school or college student. I found that packing it too full and putting too much in the front pocket made it expand past the allowed dimensions. Risky!
Depending on the weather and the length of the trip, I’m quite sure I could make this type of bag work for, say, three days. Then I’d have to do laundry. I’d make it work by bringing only one pair of shoes and being very spare with my toiletries, electronics, and snacks. I probably would not pack workout clothes, although if the hotel had a pool I would cram in a swimsuit and flip flops.
Having access to half a large checked suitcase caused me to go a bit nuts. I brought hairstyling implements that I didn't use. I completely forgot sneakers, making my workout clothes pointless. I haven't counted how many points I cost myself for bringing things I didn't use (a personal game), but I believe I set a new record. Not my best showing.
This was a good exercise for me. Ultimately I met all the requirements of the restrictive Basic Economy fare, and saved over $140. That almost pays for a round trip to visit my family. It’s worth it. This was also a good exercise because it reminded me why I despise dragging big heavy bags around, and how distracting and confusing it can be to pack so many items that you lose track of what you do and don’t have.
In sum, I’m likely to be found in the near future, sitting in a middle seat, with my sparse and austere personal item at my feet, counting a thick wad of cash.
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.
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