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.
Quit Like a Millionaire is one of my favorite financial independence books of all time. Not only does it have more specific details about the technical details of FI, it also made me laugh like a sea lion.
Kristy Shen starts by describing her experience as a poor child in China. This is an excellent and attention-grabbing foundation for the book, because anyone reading it in English surely has more resources and ability to earn and save money. If that statement seems challenging, at least agree that anyone reading this is not a little kid...? ...and then actually read the book itself. Shen also describes herself as a mediocre student, struggling with concepts and getting by on hard work rather than brilliance.
In other words, if Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung can do it, anyone can. The book is filled with charts showing the numbers for all different income and saving levels.
Shen goes over the financial principles she used to become financially independent very carefully. One of the most surprising of these is her Pay-over-Tuition score, which shows that a doctor or a lawyer may do only about as well as someone in an arts career due to the high cost of their education.
Something I particularly appreciated was the concept of “eating bitterness” and how Shen makes use of scarcity mindset. I have a bit of this myself, and have actually broken out in hives at the thought of wasting money on certain things. It definitely helps to draw on this attitude when engaging in extreme saving.
Quit Like a Millionaire explains Modern Portfolio Theory, capital gains harvesting, and geographic arbitrage, among other concepts. The section on insurance was enlightening. It can be hard to believe, but becoming financially independent actually eliminates whole categories of spending, and insurance can be one of them.
Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung retired just after they turned thirty, which is nuts, but possible. What is even crazier is that they accidentally discovered they could travel the world for the same cost as living at home. Now they’re at least three years into their retirement and it sure sounds like they’re having a lot of fun. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t mind joining them.
Read this book and Quit Like a Millionaire today... or maybe eleven years from now, but who’s counting?
No one is coming to save you.
My boss didn’t care about my mediocre grades; he hired me because of my insane work ethic.
For them, failure was totally an option.
Since I knew that things could always get worse, the Scarcity Mind-set taught me that money was precious and if I wanted security and autonomy in life, I’d have to earn it.
“The past doesn’t matter. What do we do now?”
If you understand money, life is incredibly easy. If you don’t understand money, like the vast majority of people, life is incredibly hard.
Free isn’t free. It’s better to understand that going in. Anything you take, any object that you handle, has strings attached.
One of the great paradoxes of clutter is that it’s usually harder to get rid of “free” stuff than things that we bought at retail price. Why? No idea, I just know that it’s true.
We had a give-away party after our last move, and one of the items in the pile was our last set of plastic shelving from when we had a garage. We were 100% sure the shelves would go, and we were astonished when they didn’t. The other half-dozen sets had so much traction on Craigslist that we probably should have sold them for cash.
We don’t look at it that way, because we don’t necessarily want to advertise our home as a place full of valuable stuff. (It isn’t). Giving something away attracts gratitude, while selling something seems to activate scarcity mindset in everyone involved. Do I really want to spend my free time dickering over $20? Do I really want a lot of random strangers driving to my specific home address, wondering what else I have?
The thing about shelves in particular is that they have no intrinsic value. They are not beautiful to look at, and their only use consists in storing and/or displaying other items. Nobody just wishes for a house full of empty shelves, and then leaves them that way.
I had a good laugh the other day because one of the apartment units in our building is visible from the pool. What we could see from our perspective was a wall of built-in shelving with about a dozen paperback books on it. There was room for several hundred and they looked a little lonely, all on their own.
This is dangerous, an attractive nuisance. Nature abhors a vacuum and for this reason, empty shelves attract clutter like nothing else.
Once clutter is stored or displayed on a shelf, it never leaves. It merges with the shelving unit and becomes an unremovable part of the whole. It becomes impossible to imagine the object and the shelves separately.
The strangest thing about shelves is that they tend to be inexpensive and easy to find. Yet the people who need them the most never seem to have any. I have a theory about this.
When my eldest nephew was a little boy, we had a conversation about money and stuff. He came running in breathlessly asking to get into his piggy bank because a neighbor kid was willing to sell him a plastic truck for ten dollars. What the heck?? [insert static noise] I told him that sounded way too expensive and that he’d have to ask his dad. Then I gave him a homily about how we save money so we can get something really cool later.
“I like to buy lots of small stuff and then I don’t have to wait,” he replied.
Yeah, you and all my hoarding clients, I thought.
My people, caught in scarcity mindset, all share a knee-jerk reaction that goes NO I CAN’T AFFORD THAT. They are unable to process the idea that a $40 set of shelves costs the same amount as ten $4 items or forty $1 items, which I can clearly see scattered, stacked and piled all over their home.
I “can afford” infinite amounts of $1 and $5 items. Never in life, in no alternative universe, could I even hypothetically afford any item over $X.
That’s the line. That’s how it works. In the scarcity paradigm, there is a permanent cutoff of any price tag over a certain amount, forever and always, for all time, the end.
The other issue with something like a set of shelves is that it needs to go somewhere. Any set of free shelving is virtually guaranteed not to match either the existing furniture or the dimensions of the room. In a cluttered room with a lot of big furniture, it’s never obvious where such a thing could go.
Our utilitarian beige plastic shelving wouldn’t look good anywhere except for a garage, and none of our friends has a garage, because few of the homes in our region do. We live in small apartments or condos because that’s mostly what is available. Who wants to live in a small place dominated by an ugly set of shelves? We all operate under the assumption that our homes should be comfortable and reasonably attractive.
My people, on the other hand, plan everything around THEIR STUFF, what they already have and whatever else they might carry in.
How could I set up these shelves? I’d have to move all these bags and boxes first.
The free shelves that are easy to get are only free because there’s something wrong with them. Either they are rickety or unappealing, or the original owner tried them and found that they didn’t do the job. They’re designed for a purpose. Our shelves are designed to hold medium-sized moving boxes or storage tubs. They work great for that, but they’re too tall for most stuff, either in the garage or indoors. Other “free” shelves might be designed specifically for DVDs or paperback books or some other standard size unit.
A standard shelf will either attract more items that fit it, because it feels right, or it will fill with random clutter that has nowhere else to go. It’s either manifest destiny or lebensraum.
Ideally, a shelf empties and refills. Clean dishes, clean towels, fresh groceries, they’re all supposed to come and go. It’s hard to tolerate clutter on shelves that are constantly in use, because anything that isn’t being used is always in the way. That’s what clutter IS, of course. So what is it that we think we’re doing with any shelf if it’s filled with stuff we don’t use?
The goal is always to be intentional. With something like shelving, it should be clear what is being stored, why, where, and for how long. Then it’s simple enough to find a set of shelving of the right size and dimensions. Maybe sell off some existing clutter to pay for them, thereby solving two problems: too much stuff, and nowhere to put what’s left. Good luck finding any free shelves that will magically do that job.
It comes up a lot. People generally can’t believe that a married couple our age are voluntarily choosing to rent instead of own a home. One of our young ones came over on open house night, and blurted out, “You guys RENT??” Like it had completely violated his impression of us or something!
That’s generally how you know you’ve hit upon a truly contrarian position. Nobody understands it or why you’re doing it. Young or old, rich or poor, artist or business professional, nobody gets it.
You don’t... own... a car?
You... don’t... drink coffee?
You... actually like... the middle seat?
Personally, I do weirder things, like using chopsticks with my non-dominant hand, and nobody notices that stuff at all. Most of the time people are just thinking about themselves, that or their phone.
You can get away with A LOT in plain sight. People may give feedback in one form or another, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay attention or base your major strategic decisions on their opinion. Especially if you think the common denominator isn’t working for most people.
Default: tired, broke, cluttered
To sum up, our strategy is to rent a tiny apartment, use public transport, and max out our retirement contributions. Literally anyone in the world can live in a small space and not own a car. This is not elitist. It’s about the complications you are willing to tolerate.
What are the three basic home-owning strategies?
Ideally we would love #1. We live in Southern California right now, and we agree that it’s paradise. It’s a combination of a beautiful place with a great climate, ready access to fascinating work opportunities, and a culture that suits us. Unfortunately, buying an amazing house where we live costs about 4x as much as the same house somewhere else.
We understand #2, and we know precisely how to do it. We are both tool-oriented DIY types, part of our initial attraction to one another. One of our few continual quarrels revolves around who gets to assemble new furniture. The problem with this strategy is that all your free time, evenings, weekends, and holidays, goes to fixing up the house. It becomes your only hobby, that and accidentally breaking some drywall.
#3, geographic arbitrage, is something else we understand. Pack up and go somewhere else, like... Belize? Our biggest problems with this strategy are 1. Jobs, 2. Our pets, and 3. Choosing one place. Quite frankly we would only go in this direction at the point of retirement, and neither of us really believes in retirement as a thing.
Oops, another hot take! Let’s save that one for a different day.
The biggest problem with owning a house is that nobody wants to talk about the externalities.
The closing costs, the annual maintenance costs, the higher utility bills and other hidden costs, the extra chores of yard work and housework, the risk position, the house becoming a character in your story and demanding things, like extra furniture.
Risk position! There are NO GUARANTEES that you won’t need extensive wiring work, plumbing repairs, and a new roof, just as you find out you have a cracked foundation... and then you get hit with a major natural disaster shortly after finishing it all. When you own a house the buck stops with you.
People will try to talk you into home ownership in the same way they try to talk you into having children, or adopting a cat. They won’t talk about all that stuff like burst pipes, teething, or the cat barfing on your bedspread. “It’s different when they’re yours!” Yep, my point exactly.
The main reason that my husband and I haven’t bought a house is the way mortgages are structured. The loan is front-loaded, and almost everything you pay for the first five years is interest. You aren’t building equity. Due to our strategic position on career growth, we haven’t felt that we could guarantee we would stay in one city for five years. We decided that before we got married, and in point of fact, we were right.
If we had chosen the house over the career opportunities, we would have had to pass up several promotional choice points. We’d be making 50% less money, and, to be honest, I would probably be tired of the house and constantly being in Remodel Purgatory.
It’s my nature. If I lived in the fanciest house on the entire planet, there would be something I didn’t like about it, and I would want to either rearrange all the furniture or remodel something. I don’t have it in me to just fall in love with one specific building and want it to never change.
There are other home-ownership strategies out there, and probably room for more, because anything can be modified or disrupted. For instance, a lot of people live with their parents and save money, and someone could probably do something similar while house-sitting. Another common one is to live in a granny unit or put in a garage or basement apartment, get tenants for the main house, and use their rent to pay down the mortgage. Or get a job that includes housing, like working on a cruise ship or at a fire watch tower, and save as much money as possible.
One day, we might buy a house. We’d do it when we had fallen in love with that city, when we had a sense of knowing about that property, when we had nothing better to do with our copious spare time. When that will be, only time will tell. In the meantime, yeah, we rent. What’s it to you?
I shouldn’t read horror stories in bed late at night, and I know this, but I do it anyway. It’s easier when I have my big strong husband lying next to me. I can usually tell myself “it’s just make-believe,” except for when it isn’t. This time, the story was so scary that I had to share it.
The nightmare that was real? The Wall Street Journal feature of August 1, 2019, “Families Go Deep In Debt to Stay in the Middle Class.”
The subtitle of this piece says a lot for two Gen X people like us. “Wages stalled but costs haven’t, so people increasingly rent or finance what their parents might have owned outright.”
My hubby and I both were raised by frugal Boomer parents. He grew up in a small town that didn’t have a movie theater, shopping mall, or fast food. My parents didn’t get a credit card until I was 14. I was in my twenties the first time they bought a new vehicle from a car lot. We probably have our parents to thank for the fact that we are debt-free and saving half our income today.
This is why we both had an issue with the WSJ article.
To start, we know the economy is hosed. That’s why we save so much. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop and for another market correction/recession to happen. We know that incomes have flatlined and that almost nobody can “afford” housing or healthcare. We’re blaming broader historical currents, not individuals.
There is still room for an individual (person, couple, or family) to buck trends and behave unusually, to live a radically different lifestyle and thus get radically different results.
Default behavior gets default results.
The WSJ article starts by comparing income and various categories of consumer spending and debt since 1987. Then it brings in three couples and shares details of their household budgets. All of them are younger than we are, and it would certainly be interesting to follow up in 10-15 years and see how they are doing.
Otherwise we risk sounding like grumpy old codgers...
The first couple are both 28, they own a home and two cars, and they have a baby. The article includes pictures of them in their home, and my first thought was, Wow, I wish our furniture was that nice! At age 28, I had a college degree, but no dreams of home ownership. I had never owned a car and in fact I still didn’t have my driver’s license.
That’s the difference. I had no expectations of living a middle-class lifestyle in my twenties. My parents didn’t, so why would I think I could?
Blue-collar kids don’t live in that world.
When I told my family I was going back to school, they challenged me and suggested that I become an electrician instead. My brothers invited me to their company picnic, intending to play matchmaker and find me a husband. Nobody in my acquaintance thought that I would graduate into student loan debt and magically be able to afford a home loan and a car.
The no-college plan is a solid plan indeed. Both of my (younger) brothers will retire comfortably in their fifties, debt-free, with their houses paid off. Consider commercial construction and encourage your kids to become apprentice carpenters.
I didn’t go that route. I went into debt to get a history degree at a state school.
Plan A was to pay off my loans and then save for a house. I had paid one of them off six years early and was working on the other when I met my husband. That was when we rejected the idea of home ownership, and eventually the idea of car ownership as well.
He had just started paying alimony and child support. We understood that we could choose either to own a house and a car OR to fund our retirement.
The more research we did, the more it confirmed our sense that home ownership is a luxury and that the game is structured in favor of the bank, not us. Where we live, renting and investing the difference offers a much higher rate of return than the supposed appreciation on a house.
In the 2.5 years since we sold our car and downsized into a studio apartment, our investment portfolio has gained two hundred thousand dollars.
A single-family house in most markets is highly unlikely to appreciate at that rate.
In the same timeframe, my husband has begun applying for patents and is currently working on his fourth. He didn’t have the time when we lived in a suburban house, with its constant lawn mowing, yard maintenance, and repairs. The WSJ article doesn’t talk about being on the hook for roofing, windows, plumbing, electrical problems, pest control, remodels, or fun stuff like collapsing chimneys and cracked or shifting foundations - that’s a whole separate article. The effect of home ownership on mental bandwidth is non-trivial.
Granted, most people are not aerospace engineers and their lawn care does not compete with their invention time. Most people would not be willing to get rid of 80% of their stuff and live in a studio apartment just to save money for retirement. Most people are demonstrably unwilling to live car-free and ride the bus to work, even if it saves them $8000 a year.
The WSJ article includes couples who ran up $50,000 in credit card debt, make minimum payments on store cards for retailers that sell little more than clothing and home decor items, go further into debt to attend weddings, take out dual car loans after a reduction in income, and, unbelievably, cash out a pension to pay off a credit card balance. My husband and I were so astonished by each and every one of these choices that we grimaced and made flailing hand gestures as we read.
What freaked us out the most was the line about someone being “forced... to borrow more” because of a wrecked car. Forced?
We would describe it more as “took out a loan for a second vehicle because it never crossed their minds that two married people can share one car, save in advance, ride a bicycle or take the bus for a few months, move to a smaller/cheaper place closer to work, trade/barter to carpool for a while, or make do with an old beater.”
What we would have liked to see in this WSJ article was a counterpoint, the voice of a certified financial planner, or someone who paid off a large quantity of debt in a short period of time, or someone from the FIRE community. Maybe one of each?
What we’d like to see is empowerment. We cringe to think of young couples and families drowning in debt, fighting or crying about money. We’ve certainly both been broke, both had cancer scares, both been unemployed and unclear about when we’d be gainfully employed again, both been divorced after marrying a secret spender, both struggled and counted pennies. Neither of us were born into the middle class. We put into practice the arcane guild knowledge of frugality that we learned from our economic stratum.
Is it possible to enter the middle class or the upper middle class as a 21st century American? Sure, yes, we’ve both done it from the downlow. Is it possible to do this with a handful of credit cards, a traditional mortgage, and a couple of car loans? Probably not. Proceed accordingly.
I won’t claim that we went to Europe “for free” because nothing in this world is free. We like to say it’s “included.” For all intents and purposes, though, we got our flights and lodging without paying, and that’s kinda free, but we’ll stick to points for accuracy’s sake.
Los Angeles to Heathrow, United miles.
Edinburgh to O’Hare and back to LAX, United miles.
Waterloo Hampton Inn, Hilton points.
Edinburgh Airport Hampton Inn, Hilton points.
There are parts of our trip that we possibly could have paid for with other types of points that we have saved up, but we’re still learning how this stuff works. Sometimes the exchange rate isn’t a good enough value and sometimes we’re a couple hundred points short.
The main thing to note is that I’m not a big fan of providing free advertisements to major corporations that don’t need it. As an historian I’ll just note that in the attempt to attract loyal customers, various branded megaliths will offer increasingly enticing deals in exchange for that loyalty - and the data, of course. If you’re cynical enough to believe that your data are already floating around out there, and we know ours has been hacked at least three separate and distinct times, then you may as well eke some slight gratification out of it.
Rewinding a bit, what did I mean when I said that things aren’t “free” but are rather “included”?
Let’s say someone offers me a paper plate with a slice of pie. Technically it’s “free” but is it? I’m on the hook for being at the event with the free pie, whatever it is, which means I’ve probably either paid to get in, I’m volunteering with cleanup, or at the very least I paid to get there and traded my time for this over any other options. Also, I’ll have to deal with the caloric intake of the slice of pie itself and, in my case, checking the clock because I can’t eat within three hours of bedtime.
Everything is a tradeoff.
In this case, the reward points that my husband and I used for our trip could have come from two sources: his business travel and our credit card usage.
The tradeoff for the frequent business travel is that we often can’t be together. He traveled something like 21 out of the last 50 weeks, sometimes for a week at a time. We haven’t been married so long that we quit liking each other or anything.
The tradeoff for the points cards is that they have an annual fee. They require a certain credit profile, which not everyone can manage, and they require artful juggling to make sure that we don’t carry a balance.
In other words, this trip is not only something that not everyone could do, it’s something that not everyone would even want to do.
Another way that we did not travel for “free” is that we paid for a bunch of stuff that is not available through points, not that we know of anyway. We ate meals, some in restaurants and some from grocery stores. We paid admission to museums and historical sites. We rode all sorts of public transit, from the tram to the water bus. We even paid cash to use the restroom.
It’s a bad idea to imagine that you can travel for “free.” It can be either a form of abundance mindset or of scarcity, and as we all know scarcity mindset spreads like mold. It seems that most people who want to travel on a tight budget will get so fixated on their bargains and extracting value that it prevents them from having a good time.
It’s also rough on the communities.
Let me throw in there that I’ve had occasion to live in a resort area more than once. It’s not my preference. Why? Right now we live on a pier. What people basically do is come to our neighborhood on the weekend to get drunk and leave a bunch of trash and broken bottles, then drag their crying kids around or get into domestic arguments, sometimes within earshot of our living room. Every single one of them is hellbent on sneaking into our parking lot because they don’t believe they should have to pay one red cent toward our personal apartment complex or municipal expenses. Such as trash pickup, parking lots, road maintenance, or policing their drunken butts.
I don’t want to be that kind of tourist, the one who brings a cooler from home and feels like local people are trying to rob them.
I’d rather be mildly interesting, a middle-aged lady with a big backpack going somewhere cool. Want to come along?
The way that we look at our points accrual is that it’s a sort of weird coupon for certain specific consumer habits. My hubby is rewarded for putting in mega-long hours at work and being the designated fix-it guy, the closer. We are both rewarded for committing financial transactions. We use these bizarre consumer bonuses to offset our spending in other areas, such as:
Eating at local restaurants
Shopping at the co-op grocery store
Riding public transit
Buying a book or travel gear from an independent bookstore
Contributing toward wilderness preservation, because birds
Supporting museums and historic sites, because if we don’t, who will?
We’d like to feel that we are contributing in some small way to the places that we go. We’ve seen a lot of preposterously bad behavior from fellow tourists during our travels. Sometimes it’s so embarrassing that we still talk about it years later, like the guy who demanded a guarantee that he would see a blue whale or his money back. Um, sir? They live in the sea, wild and free? They do not answer to thee or to me? Whales they be?
One fine day in Iceland, we were waiting for a tour bus when I saw a young woman drop her glove. I tried calling after her but it was pretty windy. She was walking so fast and that glove was obviously hand-knit, a beautiful fuchsia, days of effort. I ran after her and handed it over. I was rewarded by her thanks and the slight smiles and nods of the bystanders who saw. The GDP technically decreased that day because I destroyed the reason for someone to buy something new. In reality I know that I contributed to the community, not just of “people in the national park that day” but the international community, built on goodwill and mutual trust.
In other words, the foundational concepts of an economy.
No matter how much research you do in advance, there will always be something that surprises you when you travel. This is mostly great, because that’s where delight comes in. Sometimes, though, the things you don’t know can be annoying, expensive, or even disastrous. (A lot of people get in over their heads when they try something new and seemingly innocuous like bungee jumping, snorkeling, or riding a scooter). Here, then, is a random list of things I would have liked to know in advance.
MOST IMPORTANT: A lot of public restrooms cost a coin to get in, and if it’s the wrong currency or denomination, too bad, tell it to the machine. If you are standing in front of a coin-operated restroom, there is not going to be a public toilet anywhere near you for, oh, probably a mile.
Denham’s Law: The less expensive something is, the harder it will be to pay for it and the more you will need it. 20 pence to use a public restroom, 50 cents to pump up your bike tire, $2 or less to wash a load of laundry - it’s probably easier to get a car loan at 9 PM in some cities in the world than it is to find somewhere to pee.
Denham’s Second Law: No matter how much research you do, you will accidentally violate social mores. Probably nobody will tell you.
In general, what worked at one hotel in a chain may not be true at another hotel in the same chain, including how to unlock the door, turn on the lights, use the faucet, change the water temperature in the shower, use the thermostat, open the curtains, or flush the toilet.
The same is true in public restrooms, where you will have to relearn how to lock a stall, find the soap, activate the faucets and hand dryers, or find paper towels time after time.
What floor is the “second floor” is completely arbitrary from one part of the world to another.
You will think you have left something behind, and then find it later in your luggage, and you will also forget to bring things that you were sure you had packed, and you will inevitably lose something. Just hope it isn’t your passport.
What is true at the security line in one airport may be completely different from the rules in another security line in another airport. Therefore, you might as well just expect to go barefoot and half-naked, holding your liquids in one bag and anything that uses electricity in another, while abandoning your civil rights altogether.
If you’re American, use the Mobile Passport app, but be forewarned that you will have to retake your photo at least sixteen times, and it will not be clear what you’re doing wrong, even after you finally submit one that is acceptable.
Your flight will be at a different gate and it will probably be delayed, often at least two or three times.
You will land somewhere at an airport where nothing is open, and you will not be able to buy food or that other thing you really needed, whatever it was. (Eye drops, allergy tablets, a charging cable).
HBO Go, Amazon Prime Video, and probably other apps know your location. You’ll discover that you can’t necessarily use the same apps you do at home, even though you are paying for your subscription in your country of origin.
Likewise, you may suddenly find a paywall on news sites that isn’t there at home.
Terminology will be different for everything and may work completely differently than it does in your home country, or other places you’ve been.
In some places, you pay more if you eat the food at a table instead of taking it with you.
If you buy anything to bring home, you may have to list it on a tax form at the end of your trip.
“Left Luggage” is not the same as “lost and found;” it’s a place where you can pay to drop off your bags for a few hours, aha, but only if you have cash.
Containers and food packaging can be confusing, such as when you think you’re buying juice and it’s concentrate that needs to be diluted 4:1. Surprise! Or you think you’re buying juice and it’s really pie filling. Surprise!
The good news is, a lot of travel surprises are great. Sometimes you find out that one of your favorite products is significantly cheaper where you’re visiting. Or the wifi is much faster. Or you get much more data on the plan that comes with your SIM card. Or people are better at things that annoy you, like taking turns, standing in line, and picking up their own trash.
What I’ve found in traveling is that I generally feel safer on the road than I do at home. Contrary to scare stories, I’ve never been mugged, robbed, assaulted, or scammed while traveling. (At home? Buy me a tea and we’ll talk). I haven’t had food poisoning (possibly because I’m vegan) and I’ve found that my dietary habits are often better supported overseas. People are generally warm, friendly, honest, and kind.
The real secret is that we travel in spite of the annoyances because it’s still worth it. This is a big and often amazing world, and it’s good to go out and see as much of it as possible. The more you know, the better prepared you are, the easier it is to do.
There must be people cooking out there, but who, and where are they? Everyone I know seems to be scrambling between protein bars and stale sandwiches. Who is going to cook a nice dinner when it’s often nearly 8 PM before they get in the door?
This is where I advocate for Dinner One and Dinner Two.
It’s true that nobody has the time for anything. Actually it totally isn’t. Everyone gets the same 24 hours. Good person, bad person, busy, not busy, nobody gets any more time and nobody gets any less. We just use it up while we try to pour it from one bucket into another.
I started to realize how much time I could reclaim when my husband I were first dating. He preferred, over what I always saw as the enticing reward of weekend brunch, actually cooking a hot breakfast at home? Why? Who on earth doesn’t like to go to brunch? He pointed out that it involved driving across town, putting your name on a list, standing around for an hour waiting for a table, finally getting seated, waiting twenty minutes to order, waiting half an hour or more for the food, and then waiting another twenty minutes to get the check.
If he made the breakfast, we could eat, clean up, and take a nap in the same amount of time.
He sealed the deal and proved his point by making massive hubcap-sized waffles.
I started cooking dinners from scratch around the same time. I had grown bored of the selection of frozen dinners available to me, and I also realized that I really wanted two of them. I would always be hungry afterward and round out my meal with a large bowl of cereal. If I started buying double meals, I’d double my grocery bill, and also my trash. What if I tried cooking, making some soup or something?
It took so long, though! I didn’t like having to go directly to the kitchen when I got home from work, and then, because I was new to cooking, have to work for ninety minutes before I could eat.
That was the beginning of Dinner One, Dinner Two.
I would come home and cook something quick and easy, one of the microwave meals on which I had been subsisting. I would eat it, and only then would I get started on the real meal, Dinner Two.
Dinner Two was fancy. Dinner Two would be something I really wanted to try, something I’d look forward to. Since I had already eaten, I could take my time and enjoy myself. I found that I liked cooking for myself as long as I wasn’t hangry!
When you’re only cooking for yourself and yourself alone, it can be miserable or it can be fantastic. The misery is when you just aren’t motivated and you find yourself eating directly out of a can, or shrugging and eating a bowl of cereal and then just going to bed. As a bachelorette, I ate meals alone that I would never, ever feed to a guest.
The fantastic part of cooking for yourself and yourself alone? Actually there are several. One. If there is a mess in there, it’s your mess and you have nobody else to blame. If you keep it clean, it stays that way. Two. You can make whatever you like, and nobody else will complain. Three. You get all the leftovers. If you stock something, it’s still there later.
(The trick to that last, if you have roommates, is to hide special leftovers in ugly containers. Wrap it in foil, use old stained and melted plastic containers, or reuse a frozen okra bag as a sleeve. Hide it behind the spinach. Write up a label reading ‘CABBAGE STEW.’)
It was cooking Dinner Two while listening to audio books that convinced me I could learn to be a good cook. I would eat a small serving when it was ready, because I was never satisfied by my cardboard-encased frozen meals. Then I would portion out the rest in containers, some for lunch and some for dinner.
Depending on the recipe, I would have anywhere from 3-8 servings.
If you have a small freezer, it will fill up with leftovers very quickly. After the third time I did Dinner Two, I didn’t have enough room (or containers) to fit any more. As I ate servings from earlier batches, I would free up more space, and that helped to add more variety. My goal was to have at least six different kinds of leftovers stored in there, which was about the same as the frozen aisle at my grocery store.
Bringing homemade lunch was fun. I would carry it in still frozen, and by lunchtime it would have defrosted. I would heat it up, and people would wander into the break room, sniffing, saying, “That smells good!” A far cry from the microwave popcorn/diet cola “lunches” of my friends. Our office park was too far from civilization to go to a restaurant for lunch, and the cafeteria served the singularly worst sandwiches I had ever tasted. Nothing I made could be had locally at any price. Conspicuous consumption!
Dinner Two bought me time. Every batch meant I traded one evening of cooking and cleanup for roughly two additional dinners and three lunches. In a sense, they pop magically into existence. They seemed to stack up at a rapid rate. A couple of times I even managed to feed a friend who dropped by for a surprise visit.
With time, I learned to be faster at food prep. I invested in better knives, bigger pots, grander glass pans. Not only could I cook more, faster, I also found a bunch of recipes that took less than half an hour. A few dinners in my repertoire can be on the table in ten minutes!
I prefer cooking for a family or a dinner party to cooking for myself alone. It gives me a reason to get fancy. I eat better, and certainly I eat more fresh vegetables. It doesn’t hurt to have extra hands to help with the cleanup, and someone else to trade nights. In that sense, Dinner One and Dinner Two can represent an alternating schedule.
Cooking from scratch and cooking in batches has a lot going for it. It saves money, tastes better, and frees up all the time everyone else is spending waiting in line, waiting for a table, waiting for delivery of what is so often disappointing and unsatisfying. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the more variety you have on hand. In another way, Dinner One, Dinner Two is a form of time travel, a way to send gifts, money, and time to Future You.
I went back to the Twentieth Century today. It was a nice little visit and it reminded me of how much I love living here, 20% of the way through the Twenty-First Century. The dioramas are excellent and the docents really put their hearts into it.
Actually what happened is that I wound up crying in the parking lot of the Department of Motor Vehicles and had a major bummer of a day, but I’m trying to find some humor in it. Maybe some self-improvement, too. Otherwise I fear I shall spend my afterlife in Limbo, in a gray cubicle where I face an endless line of the dissatisfied, disgruntled, and perturbed.
I set out with great intentions. I would wait at the DMV for about an hour, get my drivers license updated before it expired later in the month, and then head to the movie theater. Hooray!
For an orderly person, this should have posed no problem, and I am considered by many to be just such an orderly person. I alphabetize my spice jars, I sort my clothes by color, I’m a paperless minimalist, by Jove!
That’s where everything started to go sideways. I’ve lived in the Future for so long now that I forgot the customs and traditions of the pocket of time where I started, the time of rotary phones and phonograph records and paper calendars.
I had a couple of false starts involving my dog’s peculiar habits - he will only eat if I stand three feet away, facing away from him at a 15-degree angle and studiously ignoring him - and the local bus timetable. I’d made it all the way to the bus stop when I realized that I had forgotten the four separate forms of identifying documents I needed!
By the time I made it back to my apartment, the morning cloud cover had burned off and I discovered I had completely sweated through my shirt. Not only did I have to find my documents, I also had to change clothes, a consequence of trusting the weather app on my phone.
My passport and drivers license were already in my bag. My social security card was in the fireproof safe, like I thought, but it had gotten flipped upside down and buried under another document. I have used it for literally nothing whatsoever in the ten years since I remarried and took my husband’s name. While I was leaning over looking for it, I smacked my head on the wall, giving myself a nice goose egg. Then I needed to find two other paper documents, such as a utility bill, bank statement, lease agreement, or change of address form from the post office.
I had to dig stuff out of the recycling bin, because we do all that stuff digitally and have for a decade.
I finally got my act together, or so I thought, and looked at the bus timetable. For the third time that day, I had missed a thirty-minute bus by one minute, so I elected to call up a ride share. For the first time in the two years we have lived here, I was unable to get a signal on my phone, and spent the next five minutes wandering around trying to load the app. Finally I had to cross the street.
Last century I would have owned a car and driven it. Why would I try to use my phone outside??
When we pulled up at the DMV, the driver started laughing, because the line wrapped around two sides of the building. It was 3:00 PM, though, and I figured I still had plenty of time to do this and catch my show.
*muffled sound, whether chortle or sob to remain unknown*
After fifteen minutes in the baking sun, a gentleman came out and asked for everyone’s attention. He said the day’s appointments were already overbooked and that there would be no time for the non-appointment line. He had all the gravitas of a man who has heard every possible complaint, excuse, and grievance, legitimate or not, and faced them down as a stoic must. Civil service will be the making of you, or the undoing.
Maybe six people left, not including me, because I am an optimist, she cried!
Just because I couldn’t find an appointment slot at any DMV within thirty miles of me within the three-month available booking window, and had just been lectured for a systemic problem that was not my fault, did not mean I should give up!
I checked the movie schedule again, and the bus schedule, and figured I might as well stay another ten minutes. I could make it to the lobby and at least find out what forms I needed to fill out.
A helpful young lady came out with a rolling cart and asked if anyone was applying for a Real ID. As the only one who said yes, I got her undivided attention. She looked at all my documents and approved of them. Then she gave me a slip of paper with a QR code that guided me to an online form. If this sounds like Future Tech, well, welcome to 1994.
This was all looking great! I had my sheaf of pre-approved documents, I had the web form all filled out, the line was moving, I had missed my movie but it looked like I might actually get my stuff done. Not too shabby! I even made it inside the building, where, after 75 minutes of waiting, another employee waved me over, looked through my papers, and gave me... a number!
With seven minutes to spare, I got to the window. The finish line, closing in, oh my gosh I think we’re going to make it...
Then we had a dispute over my lease agreement, that went like this for four bars.
“There’s no signature” [pointing to blank line on form]
“It’s a digital signature” [pointing to digital signature line on the same page]
I fished out another document from my folder, and that satisfied the clerk, much in the manner that Cerberus exhibits a taste for honey cakes.
Time to pay. I put my debit card in the reader and I entered my PIN.
Fail. Oh drat. Fortunately, I carry a backup, so I tried that. Fail.
Who uses a debit card? I realize I haven’t touched either of these cards in at least three years.
It all came crashing down. I don’t carry cash, as a rule, and I didn’t have 38 cents, much less 38 dollars. I got rid of my checkbook several years ago when I realized that my first name was the only correct information on my checks, and my online bank doesn’t offer such a bizarre relic. These are the only three methods of payment that are acceptable, because of course nothing else exists in this, the Twentieth Century.
They don’t accept:
Credit cards or Apple Pay or Venmo or Square Cash or PayPal or... anything.
I call my bank and, of course, they are unable to tell me my PIN. They suggest using my account number and routing number, which are also unacceptable. At this point it’s after 5 and I’m starting to realize that this transaction may not work.
I come up with a Hail Mary. I’m surrounded by fellow time travelers who understand my culture. I’ll break character and ask one of them for help, or the abort code. I’d really like to get back to my ship now.
I ask no fewer than seven people if they’ll cover me and let me Venmo them, on the spot. I’ll even pay them extra for the service. $50 for $38. Every person says No and looks at me like I’m insane, or a scam artist.
Oh no! I’m not just trapped in the Twentieth Century, I’m in a low-trust zero-sum zone!
This is particularly depressing, having just left World Domination Summit, where I’m quite certain every person in the building would have teamed up to find an easy way to resolve this silly and trivial dilemma.
Instead I was sent away empty-handed, to come back and start from scratch another day. Another two hours in line just to start the transaction, where the same papers would be professionally assessed for a fourth time.
I still had stitches in my mouth and I was tired. I had a splitting headache. I had worked so hard to be cheerful and kind, and I had heard so many rude people being rude, and now I’d have to come back and repeat the entire experience, and I cried.
Then I managed to get on the wrong bus (and does it matter if it’s 18 minutes late, if it’s the wrong bus?) and I didn’t get home until 7:30 and I was cold and I had to pee.
What did I learn?
My systems check, much like a gravity check, had failed. I need to find out why there are problems with two of my bank accounts and why I couldn’t use my debit cards. I should probably start carrying cash again. I need to audit my files and my banking data. I need more practice figuring out what to do if I can’t use my phone. I need to practice complicated transactions like this ahead of time because I don’t need to be spending six hours this way. I also need to make sure I have my ducks in a row before I leave for the airport for my first international trip in a few years. I need to remember my history lessons before I go to Twentieth Century places like the DMV or the IRS.
Most of all, I need to appreciate just how great it is to live in the Future.
It’s that time of year again! I’m in town for the World Domination Summit, which is once again sold out. I’ve got party costumes, I’ve got a new day planner, I’ve got exciting plans and a big bushel of anticipation. This has been the event around which I plan everything I do for several years now, and I’m making the most of it.
There’s a lot to be said for using the middle of the year as a planning break. One of the reasons that so many people bag on New Year’s Resolutions is that there’s no built-in checkpoint until the following New Year’s Eve. Another is that a lot of people would rather do nothing at all than be perceived as following a trend. Yet another is that there seems to be a sense that resolutions are about self-deprivation or joyless discipline. There’s also the problem that winter is bogus in and of itself.
I choose to frame it differently. This is my life, and thus it’s also my year. I want to fill every year with awesome things. If I don’t take steps to fit in my own plans, my time will be filled with other people’s priorities. All I will wind up doing is work, chores, errands, consumption of passive entertainment, news outrage, and listening to other people vent. Oh, and gaining five pounds, mustn’t forget that.
This is why I step away and why I do quarterly check-ins, which I could do even if there were no such thing as WDS and even if I had no vacation time and even if I couldn’t go anywhere. Anyone can still pause for breath and a moment to ask, Is this what I really want to be doing with my one wild and precious life? Is all this working for me? Do I have any better ideas?
It helps, of course, to be surrounded by a few thousand people who are doing the same thing. It helps to run around making new friends, taking classes, and listening to inspirational speakers.
It helps to ask, what would this look like if it were fun?
(What if the focus of my budget was travel or retiring early?)
(What if my workout involved hula hoop tricks or acrobatics?)
(What if I really could dye my hair in rainbow streaks and get away with it?)
The first year my husband and I signed up for WDS, it changed our life. We went home, got rid of 80% of our stuff, sold our car, and moved to the beach. We started saving half our income. My husband is working on his fourth patent and I’m about to file the final paperwork to become a Distinguished Toastmaster.
Throughout the year, I think to myself, what am I going to have to say for myself at WDS next year? When people ask me what I do, or what I got out of the event, what am I going to tell them?
This is challenging for me in a lot of ways, because I’m a shy person and I don’t really like to talk about myself. Icebreaker exercises are hard for me and I tend to get vapor-locked. “What is something interesting about you?” “Uhhhhh....” Who would want that in their eulogy, though?
One of the many possible motives for leading a more awesome life is that it proves to other people that it can be done. You don’t need permission. You can change jobs, move, make new friends, set new boundaries in your relationships, change your appearance, and even change your mind, your industry, or the world itself. You can learn new things. You can, in point of fact, change anything you want, and you can do it with delight and intrigue.
Now pardon me, I’m off to playland. Go out and dominate!
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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