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 was in my apartment alone one night when a strange man knocked on the door.
I answered it.
The strange man asked if we had change for a twenty.
At this point in my life, my husband and I live at a pier, a busy tourist area with a lot of foot traffic about ten feet from our front door. Anyone who shows up at our door could be, quite literally, anyone, from a transient to a yacht owner.
The smart thing for any true crime aficionado and student of the martial arts, especially a small female one, would be to ignore a knock at the door entirely. If you know me, text me or call out my name and prove it. If you don’t know me, vamoose.
I’m a trusting soul, however, and I answer my door.
The man introduces himself as my new neighbor and says he needs change because he’s trying to sell a piece of furniture to someone from craigslist.
A likely story!
Surely this dude is trying to convince me of something. He wants to find out if I’m by myself, he wants to know if he can trick me into showing him where I keep my money.
Or, he’s purely honest and he believes that neighbors can approach each other and ask for small favors.
I have the luxury of taking him at face value, for several reasons.
There’s also the fact that this guy fits. He’s from a different ethnic background than me, but he clearly looks and sounds like the software engineer he describes himself to be. He seems like the kind of guy we would hang out with.
This is the funny part. Everyone in this story definitely has twenty dollars, or, rather, the ten dollars needed to make change for the furniture sale.
We just don’t have it in cash.
What, like, bills? From the ATM? Do they still make those?
Where we live, we can go weeks at a time without handling paper currency. We can go days without touching a plastic card for credit or debit as well. Neither of us has had a paper checkbook for several years. Often we can pay for things with our phones, which for people who grew up with rotary dial phones still sounds utterly preposterous.
We have at least three separate caches of paper money, no, wait, four? Five? None of them have anything smaller than a...
The fairy jar!
I have a glass jar filled with money, all of which I have found on the ground since I moved to California. More accurately, I’ve found it in the street, since I don’t take coins if I find them indoors. It has to be “free range,” which my husband finds hilarious. If it’s indoors I put it in the next available tip jar.
Fifteen years of pennies and nickels tends to add up, especially if you walk a lot, especially if you have a dog who likes to stop and sniff every blessed thing.
Whenever the jar has gotten full, I’ve “bought” coins out of it with paper bills. When the wad of paper money gets too big, I’ve bought the small bills with bigger bills.
It turns out there’s nearly two hundred bucks in there now!
You’d think there’d be more, but we don’t really generate our own coins in change because we don’t really pay for things with cash.
Sure enough, there is easily change for a twenty in the fairy jar. Our new neighbor has been patiently hanging out on the porch while hubby and I scramble around looking for small bills. We make the exchange.
Now there’s a new twenty-dollar bill in the fairy jar where there used to be pennies.
More importantly, we’ve met a new neighbor who feels like a kindred spirit. We’ve done a tiny favor for him. Through this transaction, we’ve gotten to learn each other’s names and recognize each other’s faces. When we see each other around the complex, we’ll recognize each other as ‘NEIGHBOR’ rather than ‘INCIPIENT THREAT.’
With the pennies I’ve found on the street over the years, I’ve bought another layer of safety and connection in my neighborhood. I’ve added trust to the world, or my corner of it.
This is abundance. This is how it works and how it feels.
I open my door freely to a stranger because I feel like I can do that without real risk. I’m happy to meet someone new who might be a new friend, or colleague, or an eligible date for one of my single friends.
This person asks me for money (well, kinda) and I have it. I have this specific money because I find it all the time, on the ground, like a walnut or a crabapple or a blue feather.
I find money because I believe that I “have the time” to walk my dog, to walk on errands, to go out and hold hands with my husband while we watch the sun set. I have the identical twenty-four hours as everyone else who has ever lived, and I’m one of the few who feels like I “have the time.”
I put the $20 in the jar, in place of the smaller bills and coins that were there before, and it looks mighty fine.
I’m creating something out of nothing.
I’ve recognized subtle opportunities and taken advantage of them.
I’ve made my own fairy jar and I’ve filled it with coins that other people never bothered to pick up. I’ve made my own bit of whimsy and I’ve used it to work a bit of magic in real life.
You know what’s weird? What’s weird is how much time we’re willing to waste to get a bargain or “save money,” even though time is limited and money is not. We sometimes say that “time is money,” but that’s only true in a very constrained and specific way. Time is the only thing that money cannot buy. Time is the only thing we cannot replace. This is why it can be helpful to think of time in financial terms.
What if we thought of time spent as a tax on our resources?
Which it is, of course!
Being busy costs extra time, and that’s a tax. Extremely busy people feel that they don’t have time to do certain things, such as calling ahead to find out if a store is open or if they have something in stock. Lack of focus on preparation and organization leads directly to wasted time.
I was a witness to this recently. One of those so-busy-we-suspect-drugs people picked me up on the way to a meeting. We were already late. My ride felt a level of time pressure that can only be described as Warp Speed Desperate Frantic Urgent Emergency. The reason? Trying to buy an item that wouldn’t be needed for 18 hours. We made the stop, we asked two employees, we looked all around the store, and the item was not in stock. My ride bought another unrelated product and we stood in line for it.
When we got to the venue for the meeting, half an hour late, it turned out that both items were already on hand. Both the one we were looking for and the one we stood in line to buy.
Not only did we drive around like bats out of hell, showing up late and scattered and frantic, wasting time and money for things we didn’t really need. We also wasted the time of no fewer than eight other people.
Multiply half an hour times ten people (us and the eight others) and that is FIVE HOURS. Five person-hours that could have been used to do other things. What can be done with over half an entire business day? Who knows? We could start, though, by making a list of all the things we “never have time for.” Writing a major report, holding a planning meeting, catching up on email, taking inventory of the supply closet, conducting a training, finally learning to set up the A/V equipment or use an advanced feature in the software... anything other than having eight people stand around waiting on the most chronically disorganized person.
The busy one.
The worst part of this is that a person who is capable of this kind of thing, is capable of doing it more than once. It becomes habitual, as certain as death and taxes.
Having your time taxed by a professional superior, a person whom you can’t disobey, is taxation without representation.
I’m in a situation in which I am often waiting on other people. This is pretty typical in the business world. My dentist is one of the few professionals I know who is always ready on time; my boxing instructor, on the other hand, often starts early. Everyone else, who knows what on earth they’re up to. This creates a lot of predictable time gaps, a tax on my time.
What I do about this is to try to be prepared. This is equivalent to calculating your withholdings ahead of time, so you don’t have to write an unexpected check.
I prepare by keeping a small backlog of minor organizing tasks reserved. When someone makes me wait, it’s not like I’m going to leave for a five-mile run or start watching a movie. I know it’s probably only going to be a few minutes. I can do a lot with five minutes, and every time I do, it makes my to-do list that much shorter.
Do a brain dump and put things on my to-do list
Add something to my online shopping cart
Update my hydration app
Check movie times
Look at my calendar for the week and the month
Unsubscribe from spam email
Delete unwanted email
Read a few messages
Research vacation activities
Read a short article
Curate recent photos, which means deleting most of them
Delete apps off my phone
Honestly, there’s no way I ever feel like I have enough “free time” to do all of these things in a big block. It’s boring.
More importantly, large blocks of uninterrupted time are hard to come by. This is partly because we’re affected by the disorganization of others around us. That, in turn, is why there are so many professionally printed signs on display in businesses around the world that say “Your problem is not my emergency.”
When an uninterrupted block of time does pop up, it can be used for something constructive, like taking a long nap, reading a novel, clearing space for an awesome new project, or going for a walk with a friend.
Time should be ours to do with as we will. It’s taxed at a pretty high rate for the demands of living. Try as we might, we can’t completely avoid the pragmatic needs of eating, bathing, cooking, housework, and dumb administrative tasks. Which reminds me, it’s almost time to renew my drivers license, and hopefully get a much worse photo than I’ve ever had before.
The best we can do is to avoid taxing ourselves. We can be organized enough to prevent that frantic sense of scurrying around, making multiple trips, losing track of things, forgetting appointments, and creating situations where we need to put in double the effort. Every time we have to apologize for screwing up, every time we have to fix problems that we created, every time we have to redo our work, that is a tax we pay for being too busy.
Let’s reclaim our time and focus. Let’s start treating our time like it’s more valuable than money, which, of course, it is. Down with the busy tax!
Let’s spend a day with an expert at the grocery hustle, my dad.
There are lots of strategies to save money on food, and ordering restaurant delivery is not one of them! My brother’s strategy in his twenties was to work at a restaurant on the side, getting free lunch and dinner with every shift. My strategy is to cook at home, avoid having any kind of pantry, and finish off anything in the fridge each week. I have a friend who does extreme couponing. Another friend is part of a neighborhood bulk buyer’s club, invitation only.
These strategies depend on individual living situation, household composition, and whether anyone in the home knows how to cook. My bachelor brother ate quite well at his side hustle steakhouse, and he didn’t have to shop, cook, or do dishes. That’s important for someone with two jobs. My couponing friend is a single mom with four kids, and her strategy allows for a lot of kid-friendly packaged foods. The bulk buyer’s club requires volunteering to drive around distributing everyone’s orders. My husband and I both enjoy cooking, and our tiny kitchen prohibits “stocking up” on anything. Then there’s my dad’s way.
The key factors in a grocery hustle like this are desire and knowledge. It also takes reliable transportation, a flexible schedule, and plenty of storage space. A rural household could probably do it with careful planning, but it’s easier for people closer to an urban area, partly because it includes a range of specialty and ethnic grocery stores.
My dad starts his workday at 3:00 AM. He’s done for the day by noon.
Most days, he does the grocery circuit looking for bargains. He has his chosen stores mapped out and he knows what time they get their deliveries. He may do three stores in a day, and I’ve been with him when he’s done four or five!
This is important, because the grocery hustle is competitive. Just like thrift stores, there are people hovering and waiting to pounce on the best deals the moment they hit the shelves. Some will grab stuff off the rack or cart before it’s even stocked. Someone who shows up the next day, or even three hours later, will see a completely different inventory. It’s different every day and some deals never appear again.
The thing to know about the grocery hustle is that different stores charge different amounts for different items. A deal at that location or in that chain may still be more expensive than what you’d pay somewhere else.
We’re arbitraging between the bulk aisle, the big box warehouse store, 10% case discounts, in-store specials, coupons, international grocers, grocery liquidators, the day-old bread store, produce stands, what we can grow at home or trade with other gardeners, and the occasional freebie. (Many stores will give away spotty bananas for the asking).
Without this contextual knowledge, we may be saving a little money, but not the maximum possible. Because of the time, transportation, and storage space involved, we may be better off spending our resources on something else. We have to be calculating our savings rate per hour. We may also be throwing money away if we can’t or don’t eat everything we buy.
This is why I don’t use this method, because in my region I save a LOT more by living in a studio apartment and not owning a car than I would with a grocery hustle. I know how to do it, I live in a large international city just like my dad does, and I also have a flexible schedule. But he can afford a big house in the suburbs and I can’t. That’s partly due to our belonging to different generations; I was far too young to buy a house in 1990, yo.
My dad has two fridges, two huge pantry cupboards, a large kitchen, a single-car garage, and a pickup truck. Not to mention a garden and some fruit trees.
I live in a studio that charges for parking and I have to keep all my food supplies in my fridge. I barely have enough cupboard space for my pots and pans, much less a can of soup.
It’s not a can of soup we’re talking about, either. It’s cases of stuff, family packs, two-for-one items. The grocery hustle works best when you have the resources to process large quantities of food before it goes bad. A lot of this stuff is on the brink of expiration, and by that we mean: compost quality. Eat it today or tomorrow, freeze it, or I hope you have yard chickens, which my dad also does.
Grocery liquidators are fascinating. They have a mix of utter trash junk food, foofoo high-end luxury items, normal condiments and staples, ethnic groceries in several languages, and both perfectly fine and very very funky produce.
The day I went on grocery hustle with my dad, they had a deal on organic Brussels sprouts that looked great. Why? Because not that many people buy Brussels sprouts! A few feet away was a display of leopard bananas, farther along than what I usually use to make banana bread.
What else did we find?
Mostly stuff we wouldn’t eat. White bread, frozen dinners, soda, meat and cheese, creamy peanut butter, candy, kid food like juice boxes and cereal. Spotty grade-C unfresh vegetables.
Then there’s the specialty stuff that we did buy. Vegan meatballs for $1 a pack. (Dad and I are both vegan and he made us meatball subs for lunch). Cases of strawberry nondairy yogurt. Vegan pepperoni, deli slices, and frozen pizzas. All different varieties of nondairy milk.
SCORE! I bought a giant bag of big vegan cookies for $3.49, mixed in with half a dozen protein bars that went to my dad’s work. These cookies retail for $2-3 and I buy them all the time. I got nine. Do the math. That’s 39 cents each, or at least 80% off, not including the windfall that went to the breakroom treat box.
This particular store often has large produce boxes, taped shut, full of a mix of random treats. Chips, candy bars, nuts, cookies, beef jerky, you name it. You can’t see what’s inside until you take it home. My dad buys these, takes the stuff he wants, and then sells the other stuff for $1 an item. The profit goes toward fresh bagels for all.
Most of the foods at the grocery liquidator are 60-90% off.
You can basically feed the neighborhood on a grocery hustle if you do it right!
When I ran an open house in my big house in the suburbs, several years ago, I had the space, time, and resources to do this. I also had a mini-horde of hungry students. I could have fed a dozen kids. (I did it anyway, off bulk food, but with a grocery hustle I could have done it most days of the week).
A grocery hustle can make a great excuse for feeding a hungry relative or neighbor while allowing them to preserve their dignity. “Please, take this off my hands, look, I got a dozen of them for $2 and my freezer is full.” Elders on a fixed income, families with small kids, students and young roommate households, anyone going through hard times can always use an extra meal. My dad paid the $3 tab of a frail granny who was shaking out her purse. Frugality ripples outward.
Of course you can always try a grocery hustle and just eat it all yourself! Save your money for retirement, buy a new mattress, go on vacation, or replace your bald tires. Spend money where it matters to you and save it where you can.
I grant wishes. It’s a fun way to think about life. This is partly because people are generally bad at knowing how to make a proper wish, and partly because almost every wish is easy to grant.
Here’s an example.
I was at a business event, working with a stressed out and chronically disorganized person who was ready to have a fit because she couldn’t find her business cards.
What do they look like? I asked.
Like, I know what a business card looks like. What I was asking was, are they still in their box from the printer, do they come in a plastic holder of a certain color, are they laid out on perforated printer pages in a folder? What shape of object are we trying to find?
The flustered stress case described a stack of cards held together with a rubber band.
I held up one finger - Wait a moment - and walked ten feet away. I pulled up a tote bag from where it sat between a table and a pillar. I reached into the bag and pulled out - the missing business cards!
My colleague’s jaw fell open. She gasped. “You’re magic!”
She started to turn away. “Don’t be dumb,” I said, “make another wish!”
“Five million dollars!” she blurted.
First off, five million dollars isn’t what you think it is. Shave off about half for taxes and you’ve got two and a half. Invest that conservatively and live off the interest at four percent per annum. You’ve got an income of a little over eighty k. Enough that you don’t have to work again, at least for the next twenty years until inflation starts to erode it, but in our region not really enough to support a partner and children. Just you. And you don’t get a house, a car, or a vacation. Or you could take the house, car, and vacation, and then keep working like normal. That’s... sort of a boring wish.
What I had to offer was something a little juicier.
Due to the nature of our business relationship and my precise skill set, I could grant a number of other wishes. Finding other lost objects? Handling tricky conversations or negotiations with other people on site? Executive coaching? Setting up a filing system? Taking inventory and labeling things before they get crammed back into storage? Running filters on your email?
All of those things?
Say the word and an hour from now, I could permanently lower your stress level. You could Get Organized, one of the great conspicuous luxuries of our era. Maybe you could go on to leverage that into a five-million-dollar business income.
Wishing for money or a lottery win is an indicator of a lack of imagination. Okay, and then what?
Note that many lottery winners wind up worse off than when they started. Bankruptcy, divorce, a parade of con artists, ruined relationships, and the inability to trust most of your friends, neighbors, and relatives. No thank you! Money out of context can be a really destructive force.
Not that I wouldn’t be perfectly delighted with five million dollars. I know exactly what we’d do with it. My hubby and I would start our own engineering firm. How fun would that be?
The trouble with wishing for money is that it isn’t specific enough. It can also be a distraction.
When I was young and poor and crying myself to sleep at night over my student loans, money would have solved most or all of my problems. I wouldn’t have known what to do with five million dollars, though. Not then, not at that stage of my life.
I would have paid off my credit cards and my student loan, and I would have gone out to lunch, and then I probably would have gone straight to the bookstore. I would have assumed that I should probably buy a house, but... Where? What kind of house? How many rooms? I wouldn’t have had the first clue what kind of furniture or window treatments to get, and I know for sure that it really would have stressed me out. I know that because I have more money now, and the idea of buying and furnishing a house still stresses me out!
There are a lot of things that I think are more valuable than money, mostly because they can’t be bought at any price.
Good relationships with your family
A strong marriage
Peace of mind
A high energy level
Education can’t be bought - just access to it. Plenty of people pay for that access and then squander it.
I’ve tried to figure out ways to buy sleep, and as far as I can tell it can’t be done.
Physical fitness can be bought, in a roundabout manner, but it’s easier to do for free. Quit paying for extras like snacks and junk food, then get down on the floor and do a bodyweight HIIT workout, saving yourself both a gym membership and the commute. Boom, done. If you can’t start there, then start by walking and staying on your feet an extra five minutes a day. Surely you’ll agree that you can’t simply hand over a wad of cash and receive defined abdominal muscles in exchange.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want out of life. For instance, if I want to “give to charity,” then which one? If I want to volunteer somewhere, then where, and what do I want to do? The way to get clear on wishes is to imagine what emotional state you want to be in on your ideal day.
‘Excitement’ is different from ‘contentment’ which is distinct from ‘sense of purpose.’ Right?
We like to think that something like winning five million dollars would provide a transcendent emotional experience. We like to think that it would solve all our problems and we could be carefree forevermore.
Really, we could be carefree today if we chose to, if we knew how.
We can solve all our problems with our own ingenuity and dedication, which are the same qualities we would need with or without a giant seven-figure cardboard check.
Would anything have been different if I had known sooner?
I went to a destination wedding with my family. I was about to turn thirty. I was painfully single, at least as broke as I had ever been, and recovering from an illness in which I temporarily lost half my lung capacity. As I sat in a rental car with five relatives, it felt like I had nothing going for me.
Little did I know, in exactly three months I would meet the man who would become my second husband.
I had no way to know that not only would I get my breathing back, I would eventually go on to run a marathon.
I couldn’t really imagine it at the time, but I would also pay off my student loans one day. My credit limit on one card would be higher than my loans ever were.
I didn’t even know that I would one day live with my little love, my gray parrot Noelle.
I couldn’t see three months into the future. It just felt like one day after another, the same the same the same, with this little blip of the family vacation. I felt like I would always be broke and single and ill.
This is why I wonder what would be different, if I had known what was coming.
If I’d known I would eventually be debt-free, would it have helped me sleep better at night?
If I’d known I would get my health back, and fairly soon, would I have started working out sooner? Would I have started losing weight sooner? Today I understand that having an extra thirty-five pounds on my chest wasn’t doing my lungs any favors, but I didn’t then. I would have been shocked and angry if anyone had suggested it. If I had seen the future, would I have taken action?
If I’d known I would meet a future husband in only three months, would I have felt less lonely? Would I have skipped the handful of painful blind dates? Would I have avoided dating the couple of guys I dated in between?
What would I have done? What would I have done with the time that I spent crying at night? The time that I spent writing hundreds of pages in my journal, trying to wring something out of my existential pain?
There were a few things I did that worked very well. These were things I did for myself, comforting actions born of optimism. These things helped set me up when I did embark on the relationship that became my second marriage.
The first of these optimistic actions, the one that mattered the most, was to pay down my debt. My frugality and focus on building financial security helped me to feel stronger and more confident. It also turned out to be the single factor that my hubby found most attractive! For anyone over 35, every decade that goes by makes this even more important.
Any marriage-minded person has to take into account the question: Did I save enough for TWO retirements and can I afford to pay off someone else’s debt as well?
(Hint: probably not)
The second thing I did for myself that paid off in my future relationship was to fight for my health. When my hubby and I met, we were both... well, to put it bluntly, we were both fat, broke, and angry at our exes. In other words, we were on the same emotional wavelength. Getting fit together helped to build our friendship. I was trying to get both lungs back and he was recovering from herniated disks in his spine. Two wildly different problems both helped by increasing mobility and cardio endurance, and dropping body fat.
Now we spend our vacations walking 8-10 miles a day, climbing multiple staircases, and backpacking into wild areas. Old Us couldn’t have had this kind of fun, either alone or together.
The third thing I did for myself when I was single and lonely was to prioritize domestic contentment. This is by no means the only type of love and romance in the world, but it’s a pretty darn good one. I had my own apartment again for the first time since I was 19, and I definitely made the most of it! When I signed the lease and got the keys, I showed my landlords the door, shut it behind them, and started doing the Sound of Music twirl through all the (four) rooms. I believe I even rolled around on the carpet and kicked my feet.
What attracts a friendly kind of romance is that confidence and domestic contentment. If you don’t like your life, why would anyone else? If you aren’t happy by yourself, how could you be happy with anyone else? Domestic contentment is the radical act of taking responsibility for your own happiness. Guess what? Having a partner means that your happiness is still just as much your own personal obligation and responsibility as it was when you were alone. You can’t outsource it, you can’t delegate it, and you can’t abdicate either.
Three months from the click, the main emotional commitment I had made was a solemn belief in poverty, illness, loneliness, and misery. All I thought I had was myself and I didn’t even want me.
Three months from the click, I had a travel disaster. I wound up spending the night in a downtown hotel that I couldn’t afford. A kindly desk clerk shifted a few things and got me a half-price room. In the room that night, at the end of my trip, I soaked in the bathtub for two hours. I made myself the internal commitment that I would do whatever it took to improve my situation. I couldn’t know just how much better things would be in three months. As a matter of fact, everything got at least ten times worse shortly afterward! It wasn’t certainty in a brighter future that brought me that future. It was nothing more or less than a blind commitment to work at it. To keep my head up and to keep trying.
The question that arises out of all this is, if I could see three months into the future (or three years, or thirty), what would I do differently today? Am I doing everything that I know I can to move me in that direction?
Money problems are the best kind of problems, because they can actually be solved. Most problems that can’t be solved with money can’t be solved at all!
I tried to make that list longer and I had trouble doing it. Missing someone who is far away? Call or visit, problems that money can solve even if it takes a satellite phone. Have a problem you don’t know how to solve? Hire someone and ask for their expert opinion. Want something that doesn’t exist? Hire some designers and start making it, or write it into a novel or screenplay.
Then I went back over my list of Problems That Can’t Be Solved With Money and realized I might not be imaginative enough there. The Taj Mahal was built as a way to use money to deal with grief, and it’s a monument to undying love that has inspired generations. Stephen Hawking survived far past the limited medical knowledge of his youth and lived to a respectable old age, and there must have been money involved in that. Getting a song out of your head I guess could be solved by playing a different song, or going to Disneyland and riding the Small World ride. Hurt someone’s feelings, not much you can do about that, but paying off their student loans would probably help.
It seems that a large chunk of what qualifies as existential dread may come from the idea that we are surrounded by problems with no solution.
How much more manageable is that feeling when more problems feel like they can be solved after all?
We argue for our problems. We argue that they are inevitable and we argue that there is nothing we can do about them. Ask around and you’ll find that people are constantly arguing for their own limitations and against the concept that they have free will.
Ask anyone with a problem to imagine what it would be like to not have that problem. Usually you get a blank look. Nobody thinks that far. This is sad, because imagining a world without the problem often includes the obvious solution to the problem.
As an example, the biggest problem in my life right now is that my upstairs neighbors are constantly waking me up at 5:30 in the morning. What are some ways that I can solve this problem with money?
I’m so tired that I can’t think of any.
False. I could stay at a hotel, I could bribe my neighbors to stop wearing shoes in the house, I could hire a contractor to soundproof our apartment, or, hey! I could pay the seven grand to break our lease and move elsewhere.
The mental exercise involved in solving a problem with money is the same type of mental exercise involved in solving problems WITHOUT money,
The main factor is to think of a problem as a paradigm, one possible instance out of infinite possible variations on a timeline. In one universe, this problem exists. In most other universes, it does not.
Often, solving the problem only means stepping out of the current paradigm.
Quitting a job is one example of this. Every problem associated with the bad job goes away. The commute, the bad boss, the untrustworthy coworkers, the annoying customers, the poor lighting, sick building syndrome, the breakroom that smells of burnt popcorn and reheated fish.
Divorce is another example. My own divorce created a huge slew of problems for the first year. It also took away a bunch of problems, including my wasband’s snoring. Just like changing jobs, getting divorced resets the scoreboard. You get a fresh start and a chance at something better.
Note that both a job change and a divorce are problems that can be solved with money. You can hire someone to help with your resume just as you can hire a divorce lawyer.
I was poor until I was thirty. In my younger days, my diary was almost entirely full of worry about how to pay bills or make rent. I wonder what I would have worried about if I hadn’t had so many money problems. Another way to put that is that I wonder if I had really had any problems back then that couldn’t have been solved with money.
Now I’m not so poor that I lie awake crying or pay 80% of my income toward rent.
Now I am gradually learning to ask, whenever I have a problem, Could this problem be solved with money?
Can I buy my way out of this?
An example came up of a problem that I couldn’t solve with money. I was only partway through writing this post, and I realized I needed to finish it before I went to bed. Maybe there might have been a way to pay someone else to finish it, although that wouldn’t have been my desired outcome, but not on the timeline that I had. I got a good laugh out of the thought that in the process of writing about solving problems with money, I had created a problem that couldn’t be solved with money.
This is where I circle back to my “loud neighbor” problem. My real issue isn’t the neighbors waking me up so early, it’s that I keep prioritizing other things late in the evening that keep me from going to bed earlier. I don’t want to go to bed at 9:00 PM, even though that is a money-free way to solve my problem. Apparently I also value $7100 more than I value my lack of sleep. If problems can be monetized, then they can be specifically quantified.
Ultimately every problem is about the tradeoff between one thing that I want, and something else that I want, and the friction between them.
Solving a problem is a form of investment. It takes away the problem from this moment, as well as all future moments. Thus it’s always worth more than we think it is. We just have to try harder to imagine what it would be like to step into that future timeline where the problem doesn’t exist. That future point without the current problem, that’s a future point with more options, and, often, more financial means. The better we get at solving problems with or without money, the better we get at figuring out the money problem itself.
Some ways to solve problems with money:
A plumber, electrician, or general contractor
A chiropractor or physical therapist
A dentist or orthodontist
A personal trainer or nutritionist
A new wardrobe
A down payment
A dog trainer
Now you try!
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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