Going through an intensive learning experience with your spouse can result in some pretty interesting changes. This comes from new information, new perspectives, and the simple act of stepping away from your domestic routine for a week. Sometimes all it takes is to walk through your apartment door after some time away and realize that you’re ready to drop or add a habit. With something like the World Domination Summit, the changes can be radical indeed.
Last year, we went to WDS for the first time. On one hand was our shared experience. On the other hand was our shared decision that we would work together to become financially independent. Since then, we have sold our car and downsized to a tiny beach apartment, which means we’re currently a hair’s breadth from being completely debt-free. There were other major changes, but the relatively straightforward decision to focus on our finances wound up turning into a complete upending of our lifestyle. When we look back, it’s hard to remember how we ever wandered around without really attending to what is now such an obvious and important aspect of our marriage.
This year, one of our big takeaways was that it’s time to level up our fitness. We’re planning to shift from riding the bus and walking to riding our bikes. Since my husband’s job is six miles away, this could get interesting. I’ve been a bike commuter before, and it’s a very, very simple change. The point is that focusing on one specific area of life - money, fitness, communication - can be revolutionary. Usually the results tend to be unimaginable.
Our experience of WDS was different, and we realized that we were diverging more compared to last year’s experience. He has leaned more toward academies and meetups about communication and networking, which means he has met a lot more people than I have. He’s also had deeper conversations with them. It’s really cute to see how people light up when they see him. Meanwhile, I have leaned more toward informational stuff that has me typing notes at warp speed. Part of this has to do with our situations. He’s been in his dream career for decades, and he really has very little to learn about improving anything to do with work, productivity, sense of purpose, or increasing his income. I’m an empath, for whatever that’s worth, and I’ve flailed in areas where he is quite strong. It’s like we’re both doing a circuit in opposite directions and we’ll meet on the other side of the building. I’m excited to notice the changes in his communication style, and he’s intrigued with my upcoming (and secret) projects.
One takeaway we both had this year is that we have a lot to offer as teachers. I brought him in to do a section of my Curate Your Stuff meetup, and we were both pleased and surprised at the response to a topic he didn’t even realize he was going to introduce until he did it. (System 2 thinking and flow state). It felt easy and natural to share a speaking role. We’ve talked about it throughout the week, and there are a few topics we might do together, as well as things we would lead separately. Being in Toastmasters together has also led us to collaborate on our speaking skills, as we mentor and critique each other. That ability, that skill of constructive criticism in a professional manner, has its own ripple effect. We’re able to look at more of our plans objectively, taking in each other’s advice eagerly, feeling that it increases our regard for each other.
There’s a whole missing section here in my recap about all the machinations and projects that I have planned. Reason being, I made a firm commitment a few years ago not to share anything that’s still in the gestation stage. Anyone who wants to know what I’m up to can read it here on this blog, every business day at 9 AM. Unfinished projects and future plans? Those are for me. This has to do with my theory of building up The Steam, rather than dissipating it by talking about the project, rather than working on the project.
As a side note, I write about 10-20 pages a day 7 days a week, and about 4-7 pages of it shows up here in the blog 5 days a week.
When we meet other WDS attendees who have come back multiple years, we ask them what they’ve noticed has changed. They all, invariably, say that they’re here for the people and the community more than the content of the presentations. It starts to be more and more clear just why that is. The kindness, the instant connection, the curiosity and positivity, the way that people tend to excel at possibility thinking and brainstorming. The chasm between typical WDS behavior and crabby, uncivil civilian behavior. For instance, a guy moved out of his seat on our plane trip today, saying, “I don’t want to sit next to anyone.” Well, alrighty then… how heartbreaking that you would deprive us of the delight of your company… I am starting to think that some people think they are misanthropes or cynics simply due to the nature of their particular social circle.
This is the time when my husband and I start asking ourselves, “What do I want to get done by WDS next year?” It comes up quite a bit. It’s a surprisingly strong motivator. Level up and level up again. How is what we’ve learned going to show up in our behavior and our results?
Somehow I wound up tightrope walking. By “somehow,” I mean that I saw the slack line and immediately felt a magnetic attraction to it. I sat on it for a while, my body balanced three feet off the ground on a three inch wide fabric strap, surprised that I could balance quite well with my hands in the air. Then I took my shoes and socks off and climbed up. My cousin, who is quite tall, walked with me so I could hold his shoulder. I made it all thirty feet without falling off!
This is how I make decisions. I have a general policy of pursuing anything that interests me, with a brief pause to ask, “Is there any reason why I should not do this?” Why shouldn’t I walk a tightrope?
We were at the opening party for World Domination Summit. A band played on the stage at the Edgefield, and someone in a T Rex costume wandered around the grass dancing with people. I saw a hula hoop, and the sign that I was deeply involved in conversation is that I didn’t wind up inside it. I took my cousin over to meet Chris Guillebeau, who was as usual quite gracious, although think how busy he must be this week! We rode back on the shuttle, a school bus transformed into a wandering karaoke machine with everyone singing “Don’t Stop Believing.”
In the morning, I attended the Sparked academy by Jonathan Fields of the Good Life Project. I started following his podcast last year when I saw that he would be a keynote speaker at WDS. I love the way he listens so deeply and draws out these incredible conversations with fascinating people. The academy drew on material from his upcoming book. The central question is, How can we align who we are with what we do in the world when we don’t actually know who we are? When we know more about ourselves, we can find a way to contribute in our work in a way that makes even a disappointing job into a source of meaning and purpose.
Also, an attendee shared that she has a stand-up desk on wheels that she rolls out onto her deck. We were all suitably impressed.
Usual scurrying to get lunch, running into people, meeting new faces, trying to eat before running back in the same direction. I caught up with my husband, who had no plans all morning and spent the time as a flaneur, wandering around and chillaxing in a park. He has vacation face now.
In the afternoon, he went to an academy called Afford Anything while I went to one called How to Make a Living Writing, by Jeff Goins, Tim Grabo, and Joe Bunting. MIND OFFICIALLY BLOWN. I took twenty-three pages of notes. The main takeaway is that there are plenty of ways to make a solid living as a professional writer, none of which have anything to do with our romantic rockstar image. One example was the literary novel that made lifetime sales of $85, followed by the non-fiction writing manual that earned $30,000. Also compelling: the fact that six out of ten Pulitzer winners interviewed made their living from teaching, not writing. At the end, Jeff Goins announced that he was giving each of us a free, signed copy of his book Real Artists Don’t Starve. Note that the book’s list price is $24.99 and we paid $29 to attend the academy.
This is abundance mentality in action. These three prosperous, successful men showed up to teach hundreds of wannabe writers how to make money in their own field. Potential competitors! They know that many of us will look further into their offerings, buying their books or purchasing their online courses or promoting their work to others. It’s not about the ticket sales on that particular summer day in 2017, it’s about wordfame - and the simple desire to teach and share and help other people to succeed.
Comparing notes with my husband later, there are some predictable themes that come up when talking about money. (He never really experienced scarcity mindset around money; he says that even as a little boy in a trailer in a rural small town, he always figured you could just go out and get a job and earn as much as you wanted). In his academy, where the premise was that it’s possible to “Afford Anything,” a number of attendees gave pushback about buying lattes. It’s the avocado toast problem, right? “Oh, if you want to afford things you have to not waste your money on stupid stuff like that.” Even when presented with charts and percentages, certain people are unwilling to let go of their preconceived notions about how money works. My husband and I spend an absurd amount of money at Starbucks - but we also save 35% of our income and I own a few shares of Starbucks stock. I’m not going to apologize to anyone for it, because 1. I do what I want and 2. I like Howard Schultz’s continual attempts to improve conditions for his employees, such as setting up the college plan. Also, anyone who wants to nitpick my spending is going to need to step up with hard numbers and transparency about their own cash flow. I’ll go there with you; I don’t mind.
We started our day with a pound of fresh blueberries, which we had because we woke up at 6:00 AM and my husband went out to pick them in my parents’ yard while I was blow-drying my hair. He had a relaxed and casual day while sitting in a park, enjoying the warm summer weather. These highlights of our experience did not cost money. The point here is that there are plenty of billionaire moments available to everyone, and much of the time, rather than enjoy watching the sunset or smelling an actual rose, we sit around complaining about all the stuff we can’t afford. Or why other hypothetical people spend too much money on stuff. Meanwhile I’m walking around wearing my FREE HUGS t-shirt and collecting all the free hugs. So yeah.
I brought home a bag of groceries, and I had a thought. I talk a lot about eating healthy food, but I don’t really do it in detail. What if I just went over a typical bag of groceries and how I plan meals?
Then I realized that if I wanted a good picture, I’d have to take everything out of the produce bags and put it back in again before I could finish putting the groceries away. It was tedious. What will I not do to get people to eat cruciferous vegetables??
We don’t have a car anymore, so our groceries all get carried from the Whole Foods Market, our closest store at half a mile away. This means we typically make three trips a week. Two will be mostly produce (basically one for fruit and one for vegetables), and one will be mostly frozen foods. Our kitchen is really small, so even if we still had a car, we can’t really stock up or keep a lot of extra food in the pantry. In a weird way, the lack of these two typical resources - transportation and living space - results in our eating fresher food.
I want to pause to talk about cost. We live in a 680-square-foot apartment with a micro-kitchen and we have no car. Line by line, every vegetable represented on this receipt is in the price range of a bag of chips or a case of soda. (Except the cabbage, but I challenge you to eat a cabbage that size in one meal). I will stand toe to toe with anyone who wants to talk about elitism and social justice with me, because that is my motivation. Everyone has the right to eat vegetables that grow in the ground. It’s not fair that most people don’t know how. I’m not here to judge; I’m here to teach, to teach what I learned over such a long time and with such great difficulty.
This picture represents a produce run. There are a few items in it that are 1. Not produce and 2. Not items a typical American household would buy. I’ve included the receipt (totaling $35.47), but I’m excluding the soy milk, two packages of plant-based cold cuts, and a bag of bulk peanuts from both the total and the discussion. My position on vegetables is that they are relevant to all diets, regardless of philosophy or culture, and whatever entree you want to put them next to is up to your personal preference.
Clockwise from upper left, you’re seeing: the biggest green cabbage we’ve ever had; collard greens; broccoli; chard; dino kale; scallions; carrots; red bell pepper; a bundle of bok choy; cauliflower. Occasionally I get Brussels sprouts, but they’ve been looking too small lately.
The scallions, carrots, and bell pepper are representative of what I call “decorations” or “sprinkles.” They’re there because they’re pretty and fun to eat, not because I think they count for nutrition. Although it’s worth mentioning that bell pepper has more vitamin C than an orange.
Our basic plan is to eat cruciferous vegetables every night. Chard is not cruciferous, but it’s a power vegetable nonetheless, and we eat it a lot. The idea is to rotate through these power vegetables, with the entree as something of an afterthought. It’s more like “what goes with collard greens?” rather than “what is a good side vegetable for barbecue?”
Neither of us ate this way when we met. As a matter of cold fact, the first time I got a farm box delivery that included kale, collard greens, and chard, I had to Google all three of them to figure out which was which. I had no idea how to wash or chop this stuff, whether you eat the stems, how to make them not taste bad, or any of that. I had a hundred cookbooks, but very few of them had recipes for these vegetables - especially not cabbage, the poor step-cousin of the veg world. Other uncommon vegetables like kohlrabi? Good luck with that.
One of the biggest surprises of my life has been how awesome cabbage is. I think it has a reputation problem, and part of it is the name. We pronounce it with a spurious French accent: cabauge. I would try out a new recipe, everyone would eat it, and then both my husband and my stepdaughter would mention it weeks later. It turned out that every single one of the favorite recipes included cabbage! I was like WHAT???? That’s why I get excited now when I find a cabbage that’s bigger than my head. We might get two or even three dinners out of it.
The second biggest surprise for me about preparing vegetables is that they all take about 5 minutes to cook.
I can wash and chop half a cabbage for dinner in about one minute, and I sauté it in oil for 4-5 minutes, although often I put it in soup and it doesn’t need the oil. We microwave broccoli for 4 minutes, and cauliflower goes in for 8. (Trying to cook broccoli and cauliflower together for the same length of time is a tragic mistake that results either in bitter, undercooked cauliflower or soggy, tasteless broccoli). Collard greens, kale, chard, and bok choy all take about two minutes to wash and chop and 3-4 minutes to sauté.
My working hypothesis is that standard Americans don’t eat these vegetables for two reasons. Either they gag on unfamiliar textures and bitter tastes, or they simply have no idea how to cook them and feel overwhelmed at the prospect of learning how. My heart absolutely breaks for adult picky eaters, because I used to be one, and it correlates with weight problems and major health issues. I feel pretty terrible at the lack of cultural information available on how to have a real vegetable party. Sure, I can look at a new vegetable-free recipe, figure out exactly which crucifer belongs in it, and adapt on the spot. How are neophytes supposed to learn to do this? How are people going to get over the first speed bumps of poor execution and unfamiliar tastes and textures?
It’s possible, maybe inevitable, that eating more power vegetables will captivate you. It happened to us. We’ve both found ourselves staring at a gleaming vat of steamed kale, transfixed, wondering if it’s possible to just buy it all and eat two gallons at one sitting. Most people never know that such a deep and visceral food craving is possible. How could they, if they’ve never eaten the vegetable in question in their entire lives? How could they, if they’ve had it once or twice and didn’t immediately like it? How could they, when our culture makes such a mockery of this stuff? Cruciferous vegetables are like the earnest, obnoxious door-to-door missionaries of the food world.
Do you have a few moments to talk about kale?
No? I guess I’ll go bother your neighbor then.
I took the picture of these vegetables, and then I bagged up everything except the chard. The chard went into the sink. I washed it, chopped it, cooked it, and we had eaten every bite of it within forty minutes of it coming home from the store. The kale went into our green smoothies. We got into a minor quarrel over which one of us got to cook the broccoli, because we take turns cooking, and we both mentally claimed it as soon as it entered the kitchen. I made the cauliflower with a frozen Indian vindaloo because the sauce is amazing with cauliflower. A week later, all that was left was a few scallions, a couple of carrots, and about two-thirds of the cabbage.
Most of the rest of what we eat is “processed foods.” This is heresy in the healthy eating community. Apparently the only way to reach salvation is to hand-process everything. Okay, I make my own stocks and jam and pickles and sauerkraut. That does not mean I’m going to spend 90 minutes every night cooking from scratch! We eat all sorts of ridiculous processed foods, like frozen sliders and pizza pockets. We just do it off a plate that is filled at least half by these gorgeous, fresh, organic vegetables.
Believe me, I recognize that the way we eat is based on privilege. I know this because I’ve gone hungry. I also know this because I refused to eat broccoli or cauliflower as a child, and I never had the kale or the chard or the collard greens. I don’t think I tasted bok choy until I was 19. I share about the elite way we eat now because I think it’s within reach of many people who would benefit from it if they only knew they could.
What goes with what?
Broccoli usually goes with sliders and potatoes, or in a stir-fry with frozen Szechuan and sundry leftover vegetables
Cauliflower usually goes with frozen Indian food, or just anything because we love it
Cabbage usually goes with something in katsu sauce, peanut sauce, soup, veggie sausage and potatoes, or anything Chinese
Collard greens usually go with anything BBQ, anything Southern like Hoppin’ John, or sautéed with some kind of Gardein
Kale usually goes in smoothies but we’ll eat it with anything
Chard is the fancy one
Bok choy we usually do with Asian food or tofu
I procrastinated on finishing this book for ten years. This is even worse than it sounds. Not only did I quit reading a book subtitled "Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny," but it was a signed copy. I found out that Suze Orman was coming to my area to do a reading, and I physically ran out the door after work to try to make it on time, driving through Napa County like a madwoman. I MET HER. It's true, I actually met Suze Orman and spoke to her in person! She was incredibly gracious and charismatic. I felt that she really looked at me, really saw me, and in that moment, I saw myself. I saw myself as a young woman, trying hard, but not reaching her full potential. I saw myself in the context of Women & Money. That changed everything.
Going back and reading a personal finance book ten years later was really interesting for a lot of reasons. One was that everything in the book still very much holds true. Another was that I could give myself credit for actually doing everything that the book recommends! I even have an advance care directive. I'm quite comfortable picking stocks and managing my own investments. My FICO score finally passed 800. The young woman who bought this book - a young woman who could barely follow a recipe - had so much hope and passion. All of it came true. Thanks, Past Me, for trying so hard.
It was also intriguing to see that I had left a sticky note in the book as a bookmark. It had a few days' worth of expenses, all for amounts under $14. I was still tracking every penny I spent back then, in a little spiral notepad that I kept in my purse. All of my focus in those days was on paying off debt and trying to follow a lockdown budget. I felt like I would be broke forever. Fourteen dollars felt like a big deal to me at the time, and definitely the $25 I spent on a new hardcover book felt like a big deal. Why, then, did I drift off and quit reading it?
The reason I write about my procrastination is that I believe it's a near-universal reaction when it comes to personal finance and retirement. We go blank. We vague out. We dislike doing System 2 thinking anyway, but when it comes to learning about money, most of us are too intimidated. An octogenarian acquaintance of mine goes around saying, "Nobody PLANS to wind up in a trailer in their old age." That's exactly right. We put it off, we let it bore us or scare us, and then decades go by and suddenly we realize that there's a big blank spot in our lives where RETIREMENT was supposed to go.
Sometimes we realize that we wouldn't have stayed with someone if we'd had more of a sense of financial security. I would never have married my ex if I had been earning more (not that I understood that at the time). There's a crushing sadness there. Only when I took charge of my own career and my own finances could I stand toe to toe with the man I love today, knowing my choice to love him comes from a place of power.
I let my focus wander at the Retirement Investing chapter. This was super-dumb because I lost out on a free $100 because of it. The book came with a limited-time offer to deposit $100 in your brokerage account after you deposited $50 a month for 12 months. I want to beat my head on the wall when I think about this. I was so fixated on becoming debt-free at that time, but I absolutely could have afforded $25 per paycheck. It's not so much about the free $100, but about how much money I would have made by going into the market at that time. ARRGGGHHHH! Past Self, Past Self. What were you thinking? I could have been fully funding my IRA all that time. All I got out of paying attention to other things and delaying was lost opportunities and less money.
Explain to a 32-year-old that she'll eventually be 42, and 52, and 62, and 72. Go on, explain it.
I met Suze Orman and she changed my life. I listened when she spoke. I paid attention to her story of coming from a poor family and starting out as a waitress. Simply seeing the polish of wealth and prosperity on someone I admired made something click in my head. I was wearing clothes that were three sizes too big and I had a hot chocolate stain on my shirt. My haircut wasn't doing me any favors. I decided to invest in myself and push forward. I was still in scarcity mindset, but I was starting to make the shift.
Women & Money is a great starter guide, a book for confused beginners as well as women whose financial issues do not stem from lack of knowledge. It's about setting boundaries, communication, and managing relationships in which money plays a part. It's about confronting the blocks we have around taking charge of our own money. It's about personal power. This book is easy to read, but it has the potential to blow the roof off your life. In the world of self-limiting behaviors, avoiding the role of money is a great place to start.
Just for laughs, I pulled out my phone and looked up property values next door to our new apartment. My husband and I decided early in our marriage that we wouldn't bother with home ownership. This has gotten easier in our local housing market, because you can buy an entire neighborhood in some places for what it costs to get a little shack here. When I say 'shack' I'm not even exaggerating. We got our apartment because one of the three available rental houses in our city literally did not come with a heater, much less air conditioning. There are "houses" here with bedrooms that can't physically accommodate a king-size mattress. Originally built as vacation bungalows, they now cost more than what would qualify as a mansion in other markets. Now that I've set the scene, do you want to know what the houses near us cost? Do you? Do you really?
One point eight million dollars for a two-bedroom. Just over 2000 square feet. The estimated mortgage is $6700 a month. This is the single-family home closest to our apartment.
The two next door to it cost four million and eight million, respectively. It's like a Monopoly board over here! Of course, that's because we literally have a boardwalk, because we live on the coast. These million- and multi-million-dollar homes look directly on the Southern California beach, with yellow sand close enough to have in your carpet and your sheets at all times.
Why should I care how much some rich person's house cost? I know that lifestyle is out of my reach. I also know it's totally irrelevant to my interests. Anyone who comes to our place to socialize is presumably more interested in our conversation and our charming pets than our comparative wealth or networking abilities. Visiting the Denham Ranch isn't going to get you any introductions to famous people or a chance to get your screenplay read. Check that. Of course I'll totally read your screenplay. I just don't know anyone useful to whom I can give it next.
I care about how much the houses near us cost, because we're benefiting from the same neighborhood, the same geography, the same climate, the same restaurants, the same delivery options, the same customer service, the same public infrastructure, and all the other amenities that they have. We're just doing it at a far lower cost.
Oh, but equity! you say. You're throwing your money away on rent! This is exactly what your realtor wants you to say. Excuse me, Realtor. You have to capitalize it to show that it's a real profession, in the exact precise way that a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, a surgeon, or an astronaut never do. For legitimacy. I don't doubt for a moment that a Realtor can tell me all sorts of things about the housing market, and help me to find a house that's perfect for me. One that will develop just as many wiring problems and plumbing problems and roofing problems and extermination problems and mold problems and slipped foundations and cracked walls and loose windows as every other house. Now that I'm to be a homeowner, all of these expenses can be my responsibility - the American Dream!
I'm just as comfortable allowing my landlord to cash in on that particular Dream. Reason being, the stock market out-performs real estate as an investment.* If making money is what I want to do, there are tons of ways to earn a higher return than there are in speculating on a primary residence. If I want to own something that gives me pride of ownership, I can own my own business, and the bar to entry is much, much lower than the down payment that would be necessary where I live.
The cheapest property for sale where I live is a mobile home that costs over $400,000. Nearly half a mil for a trailer!
Why not just live somewhere less expensive? Somewhere where I don't want to live and don't know anyone? Somewhere that lacks the career opportunities we have here? My husband is an aerospace engineer, so surely we'd be better off in a cheaper housing market nowhere near space industry firms? High rent is the price of the ticket. Sure, we'll move somewhere cheaper, when he decides to retire. Somewhere where a fixed income will stretch farther. In the meantime, it makes sense to chase down the highest income possible, putting away more cash at the same savings rate, possibly earning a higher payment if social security survives another twenty years.
We live in a stupidly expensive area. Price per square foot is, I think, around that of my parents' and both of my brothers' homes put together. It has its advantages, though. We were able to ditch our car (and accompanying payments) because transit is so good here and because everything we need is within walking distance. A bunch of stuff is weirdly cheaper. Our internet is half what we were paying in our last place, and our dog's expensive monthly shot is also half-price. Our entire monthly utility cost is under $100 a month. My husband gets his bus pass reimbursed at work, so his transportation cost is zero. Due to his schedule, we get a three-day weekend on alternate weeks. Since our place is right on the beach, we're essentially on beach vacation all the time. We refer to our tiny apartment as "the room" because it feels better to think of it as a big hotel suite than as a micro-apartment. A 680-square-foot room can be either big or small depending on how you look at it. We're starting to understand why retirees who downsize are so relaxed - they don't really have to do any housework.
Walk out the front door. Turn left and go down the hallway. Open the outer door. Now you're on the staircase landing. From here, you can watch the sun set as the sailboats and rental canoes come in to harbor. Often you can hear the sea lions from out on the rocks. Walk down the stairs and along the path for a few yards. Go down the stairs. Look, you're on the marina! Walk south another couple hundred yards and check that out. Sandy beach sand. People come here on vacation, and it's basically your yard. This is what we can access with our monthly rent, and all we had to give for a down payment was a month's rent, rather than, say, $200,000.
Figuring out whether a house is a good investment for you is a mathematical exercise. It has actual numerical, objective answers. There are handy calculators* out there where you can put in various factors and learn whether this little building you're looking at really qualifies as a sound investment. It wouldn't for us, even if we knew we could stay for more than five years, although I haven't lived in one home for more than five years since 1990. We understand the stock market. Honestly, we can outdo the housing market as an investment just by striving for raises and bonuses at work. Other people may get a warm and fuzzy feeling from "owning" a house, which is the shorthand we use for "the bank owns this house and I pay them for the privilege of pretending it's mine." We'd rather collect on the experiences of living in a particular place than in a particular building, especially when considering the cost per square foot.
There are a million parallels between money and body weight (and clutter, when it comes to that). Anything we learn about one usually works as a useful thinking tool for the other. One of these tools is to use our metrics to calculate a trend line, using our past behavior to predict our future results. When we want to take better care of Future Self, it is helpful to evaluate by the month, not the day.
Why by the month and not the week? Most of our bills occur monthly. Rent or mortgage, car payment, student loan, electric bill, gym, internet, cable, storage unit, phone bill, all that stuff shows up monthly. We can break down our quarterly or annual bills, like car insurance or roadside assistance, and plug in a monthly cost for these as well. It gets tricky when we have to work out an estimate for our variable weekly and daily expenses over a month, because we usually don't like the answer.
I think some of this attitude comes from having an allowance as a child. We want to feel like we can have fun with as much of our money as possible. We work so hard and we're so tired so much of the time, and we have to drive in traffic and follow a dress code... surely we're entitled to splurge and have a treat from time to time? This is all well and good for Present Self, but not very kind to Future Me. We don't realize how much we're sacrificing to preserve that sense of fun and freedom.
The emotional comfort of having "enough" savings is something I wish I could bottle, so people could get spritzed and have a whiff. One waft of that fragrance would be a major motivating force. There is such a huge psychic difference between having a major, unexpected expense with no savings, or having a savings cushion and then having an extended run of good luck. It starts when you realize that you already have enough in your checking account to pay all of your rent and bills this month and next month, with some left over.
There's always something. I personally have been laid off, had major medical expenses while uninsured, received erroneous tax bills, been billed for equipment I had already returned, had engine failure on road trips (more than once), had the primary vehicle die, and I don't even want to talk about how many veterinary emergencies. There is a guarantee for expensive disasters that is much stronger than the guarantee of finding cute shoes or a "can't miss" sale. It feels so unfair and boring, when what we want to feel when we spend money is the internal fireworks of delight and dopamine.
The trouble is that spending money in search of that fun, exciting feeling doesn't always deliver the desired emotional payoff. That's true even today. Then there's the deferred sinking feeling of dread when we realize we've been overspending. We never see it coming, because the last thing most of us are going to do with our free time is to estimate our monthly spending on a graph.
I know exactly how I would do it. I'd start out with a $5 green tea soy latte and a $3 pastry, plus tip. Then I'd have an $18 lunch, sometimes more because I really should be eating more salads. Then I'd do a little shopping and spend $70 on books, plus tax, and maybe a new top. Ooh, I'm so busy, better text my honey and convince him to take a Lyft over to meet me for sushi and a movie! I could happily spend every day like this, much less spreading it over a week or two. It would feel so natural and easy, I wouldn't even realize that my burn rate was roughly $200 (a week? A day?), not including rent, utilities, vacations, gifts, debt maintenance, or special occasions. My daily splurges almost automatically become routine daily requirements. Then I'm chasing my tail, trying harder and harder to get that feeling of luxury and sparkle. I feel deprived when I have to "skip" what I can't afford in the first place. This is why scarcity mindset is so much more expensive than abundance mindset.
Planning for the future is a gift to myself. It takes imagination, especially because most people don't bother to do it, but I can get emotional juice out of putting money aside for Future Me: Next Year and Future Me: Age 60 and Future Me: Age 80 and Future Me: Who Even Knows. It also takes imagination to find comfort and excitement in the routine. There is no specific price tag on a sense of abundance, just as there is no upper limit to the amount that still will not satisfy a sense of deprivation. I can be cheerful eating homemade lentil soup, and bored and resentful at a five-star restaurant. I can sit with the realization that none of the tinsel and glitter I see are really going to satisfy me the way the actors in the commercial look satisfied. Nothing I have ever bought has ever made me jump into the air with my knees four feet off the ground and my arms in the air, I can say that much for sure.
Extrapolating my habitual activities over a month prevents me from fooling myself about "unusual" days or weeks. It's harder to write off my behavior as anomalous or claim it doesn't count for some reason. All the birthday cake and candy I had this month counts, just as I probably don't eat broccoli or cabbage as often as I mentally tally it. All the trinkets and treats I buy count, just as all my unfair bills and fines do, and I probably don't save money at nearly the rate I'd like to believe. I'm just trying to live in reality, to understand my own proclivities, and to make sure I'm really living up to my own standards and preferences.
An underrated advantage of estimating our monthly expenses is that it enables us to estimate our annual expenses. The reason we do this is that we can then estimate how much we would need to maintain our current lifestyle if we were financially independent. What seems impossible today can, with sufficient data, seem nearly inevitable four or ten or fifteen years down the road. Extrapolating into the future induces optimism.
Money is life energy. This is a concept articulated in great detail in the fabulous, must-read book, Your Money or Your Life. We earn money by going to work and doing things. Most of us don't particularly enjoy our jobs, our commute, our bosses, our coworkers, our customers, the interior design of our workplace, or, well, anything else about working. We do it because we don't have a choice. Work is the price of the ticket. If we want to live here on this earth, we have to eat, and if we want to eat, we have to figure out some way to get the food. Food, clothing, transportation, shelter, wifi, and all the rest. What we spend our money on is a direct tradeoff for whatever we had to do to get that money.
Calculate how much you have to show after working for an hour. This formula also comes from the YMOYL book. Look at your take-home pay after taxes and anything else that is withheld from your paycheck. This is not your true net pay. You next subtract anything you spent in that pay period that you would not have spent if you didn't have to work for a living. Commute, bridge toll, parking, any snacks or adult beverages (including coffee) that you only buy as compensation for how much you hate your job. THEN divide that sorry amount by how many hours you actually spend on your job, including work hours, overtime, commute, lunch, breaks, and any "free time" you spend thinking about or complaining about your job.
The first time I did this, my true hourly wage was about $3.75.
Now that you've calculated what you actually earn for an hour of your precious life spent at your cruddy job, what does it cost you to buy stuff?
Frugal people do this kind of calculation routinely. If I buy this on a regular basis, it's $X per week, roughly $4x per month, $52x per year. Variation: That would cost me a day's pay, a week's pay, a month's pay. Variation: If I invested that much and it earned a 4% rate of return compounded annually, it would be worth this much when I retire, or, conversely, spending this amount regularly would require this much capital investment. If your eyes just glazed over, that's totally okay! These mental calculations don't snap into place automatically unless you're already quite good with numbers and comfortable with math. For most of us, it's much simpler:
When I buy this, it means I paid for it with time in the saddle at my wretched job.
If we're in debt, it means more:
When I buy this, and I didn't save for it, and I'm already in debt, it means I expect Future Me to pay for it. Also, I want Future Me to have to pay interest on the debt.
When we buy stuff, we're buying it with after-tax money. Most of us are also paying sales tax on most items. When we buy stuff on credit, we're then adding interest and fees on top of everything else. It's variable depending on what you earn and where you live, but you can estimate. To buy a $100 item on credit, you would have to earn $169. (Assuming 25% withholding, a 10% sales tax and a 15% interest rate on a credit card that you didn't pay off for a year. Oh, and not including tip).
Okay, enough with the math already, it's making my head spin. My husband is helping me with this and he just pointed out that due to our tax bracket, we effectively have to earn $2 for every $1 we spend. Me: "We can never go to Starbucks again"
Another calculation that frugal people use is to compare the price of one thing to the price of another version of it, and ask whether this makes sense. For instance, I can pay $8 for a bucket of movie theater popcorn, or I can pay $5 for a 12-pack of microwave popcorn. Is the experience of eating stale popcorn during the movie really 20x better than the hot, fresh 42-cent bag I can make at home? If I'm buying jeans, is the $100 pair twice as good as the $50 pair?
This calculation can be used in a similar way to compare distinct objects and experiences. Is $1.99 for chips equally as good as $1.99 for kale? (Yeah, yeah, yeah, but consider the difference between both choices compounded over ten years).
Another calculation is any monthly expense, or what we refer to as a "dinger." Like a cash register going DING! A dent in a car is also referred to as a ding. Most people are not in the habit of doing this, but the results of this exercise can be impressive. Multiply any regular monthly cost times twelve months of a year. Would the monthly cost of a storage unit really and truly add up to the cost of a round-trip plane ticket anywhere in the world? (Answer: if it's $100 a month, then yes. Cable TV, same answer).
A dollar is worth exactly one dollar, no matter who is spending it or what it's buying, just like everyone gets the same 24 hours in a day. Intentional living means we are spending our hard-earned dollars in the ways that we intend. We are getting the most value for our effort. We are avoiding expenditures that don't mean all that much to us, and instead using the money to buy our heart's desire. We're making sure the pittance we earned during our worst hour on the job was really worth the trouble it took to earn it.
If everything in your house cost one dollar, how much did you spend on it?
How many individual items do you own? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?
The premise here is that for many of us, our "net worth" consists of our personal belongings plus debt. This is a classic symptom of scarcity mindset that often leads to broke people having far more possessions than wealthy people do. Examining how much hidden abundance we actually have in our lives is the first step toward feeling our way into actual abundance.
Now, let's start looking around. Those of us deep in scarcity mindset are going to be pretty well convinced that we don't spend money on anything. Our focus will immediately turn to those things we received as gifts, salvaged, bought at a thrift store or yard sale, built ourselves, or that we have had so long they have fully depreciated. There may well be someone reading this who has transitioned to full money-free living, and if so, by all means please send me a note! I'd love to hear from you! The rest of us, well, we probably do have at least a trickle of money coming into our lives, and it's likely trickling right back out in one form or another. Rent, utilities, food, debt payments, and other expenses do occur that we feel are locked in to our scarcity lifestyle.
It also tends to go to items we feel like we can afford. Snacks and sodas. Discount and sale items. Used books. Inexpensive holiday decorations. We're more likely to feel we can "afford" items that cost under a certain dollar amount than we are to consider our expenses as a total annual cost. I realized at one point that I was spending $300 a year on vending machine snacks, when I never would have dreamed of spending that identical $300 in a lump sum on something like a dining table, a vacuum cleaner, or a fridge.
Another hallmark of scarcity mindset is never feeling like we have ENOUGH of something. When everything we own is sub-optimal in some way, we're always questing for something better. That tends to result in, say, five pairs of $10 shoes that fit poorly rather than one pair of $50 better-quality shoes. Same fifty bucks! The difference is that the scarcity purchasing leads to constant discomfort and a bulging closet, while the abundance purchase of the single, actually-good-enough pair leads to satisfaction. Multiply by every category of possession and a scarcity house will have 5x more stuff than an abundance house for the same number of total dollars.
The attention, focus, and awareness we place on bargaining and negotiating to get our material needs met can also be applied to finding ways to increase our earning power. The better we are at functioning on an extremely low income, the better use we would make of a higher income. We can only cut our expenses down to zero, but there IS NO UPPER LIMIT to how much we can earn. There is a finite lower limit but an infinite ceiling. Can I say that in other ways that make more sense so it will sink in? It is much easier to think of many ways to bring in more money than it is to think of even one more way to save money.
Cash flow is very abstract, while our possessions are very concrete. I can hold this stuffed animal in my hand, while I can't guarantee that this supposed earning power really exists, or will continue to exist next year. I'm already doing everything I know how to do - I simply can't imagine myself in a position that could bring in a higher income. I have no idea what would be different about my life if my income were that much higher. I don't know what I would buy or not buy. What I do know right now is that this is my life, this is my home, these are my things, and this is all I have. I have enough problems without foolish fantasies and woo-woo thinking exercises.
My clutter clients have an astonishing amount of stuff. Even for single people who live alone, each room can easily have double to 5x more items than most homes would have. There are sometimes entire closets or rooms that are packed solid. A closet will have stuff poking out the bottom of the door, or a room cannot be entered because even the doorframe is full from top to bottom and from side to side. Even discounting the paper clutter, gifts, and hand-me-downs, there is plenty of stuff that cost the owner money at some point. Sometimes it's duplicate items that arose from chronic disorganization, like pens, shopping bags, or an extra case of paper towels. Sometimes it's the result of compulsive accumulation, like magazines, cosmetics, holiday decorations, or shoes. It almost always includes books, clothes, and stockpiles of extra food. I NEED THIS BECAUSE I HAVE NOTHING.
Thrift stores can be an irresistible attraction when we're poor, or when we feel like we are poor, which is more important than actual cash flow in terms of mindset. Surely nothing I bought in the $1-$5 range actually counts, does it? Well, yes. When there's so much stuff in a house that it has to be piled, when there are so many clothes that they can cover the floor in even one room, it adds up. The cost adds up. A hundred $1 items, fifty $1.99 items, twenty $5 items, perhaps some of each, represent not just clutter but the absence of $100 or $200 or $300 of emergency savings. It isn't much, but often even that $100 can make the literal difference between a bill getting sent to collections or not. An envelope with even the smallest amount of emergency savings can represent peace of mind in a way that no physical possessions can.
The question is, what do we have to show for all our hard work and all the bitter tears we've wept over our financial desperation? How much is in our various bank accounts (and envelopes) as opposed to spread out on every flat surface, including the floor? If we could wave a wand and have a dollar bill instead of any and every possession of our choice, how quickly would we be out of debt? How many lifestyle upgrades could we suddenly afford? We want to look at our financial outlay as buying the best quality of life we can get for our hard-earned money. There are very few material possessions that can contribute as much as savings, investments, and confidence can.
This is a money book for people who are resistant and uncomfortable when the topic of money comes up, people who don't think of money as a healthy or fun thing to think about. The Art of Money is the perfect book for creative, sensitive people who are looking for something more appealing and unconventional, a way to see finance as self-care.
Bari Tessler is a financial therapist. When she started her business, there was only one other person using that title, and now it has become an official profession. It turns out that anyone of any income level can have emotional issues around money. It's been my experience that talking openly about money can feel even more awkward and negatively charged for most people than talking about divorce, body image, trauma, or abuse. My clients tend to feel that thinking about money and increasing their income is materialistic, although their hoarding and compulsive accumulation is not, especially since many of their belongings were acquired at a discount or as castoffs or gifts. I see hoarding as primarily a symptom of scarcity mindset, inextricably bound with money as a flow of energy. This stuff matters.
Tessler talks about how her clients sometimes "check out" mentally when they are shopping or dealing with financial matters. I see this in my work, too, in the form of 'clutter blindness.' We choose to stop noticing certain things, or sing "LA LA LA LA LA" internally so that we can block out uncomfortable information. Tessler teaches a Body Check-In tool to bring our awareness back to the present moment.
The Art of Money walks us through how to bring more self-compassion into our relationship with money. We can learn to forgive ourselves and others, grieve past incidents, and work through delicate conversations about our finances. We can learn to recognize our Money Story and tell a new one. We can choose for ourselves what we consider to be the Basic, Comfortable, and Ultimate Money Tiers.
One of the practices in the book is to have a Money Date with your partner. (Life partner, business partner, financial planner - any kind of partner). I can attest to how helpful this is. My husband and I do this every Saturday morning, as part of a breakfast business meeting we call Status Meeting. ("Do you want to status your status?") I've learned how good he is at analyzing profit and loss statements, and he's learned how good I am at researching and picking stocks. Talking about money together is usually exciting and interesting for us, and it definitely helps us to bond and feel more respect and confidence in our relationship. No dark shadows. I can even say that 'financializing' problems sometimes makes it easier for us to discuss them together, when we feel that there is some way this problem can be solved with money.
Having more money can't solve every problem, but I believe it can solve most of them. More leeway for urgent family visits; more money for alternative health care, better nutrition, and insurance; more financial cushion; more money for education and professional credentials; more breathing room to make major transitions; more room for charity and gifts; greater ability to afford better-quality stuff that just works and doesn't break down all the time.
What I've found in my work is that people often suffer from lack of imagination: what would we do differently if things were easier? What do we want the most? What is our heart's desire? What would make us feel the happiest and most fulfilled? What would feel more positive in our life? The Art of Money is a truly excellent way to start finding answers to those questions.
This is my second tax nightmare in 18 years. Why they choose me, I don't know.
The first time, someone else's income was reported under my social security number, and I got a tax bill representing about half my annual income. I only found out about it after my ex-husband intercepted and opened the letter and withheld it from me until after the deadline for dispute had passed. The IRS agent who helped me was warm and friendly. Although this was someone else's mistake, it fell upon me to do the research and resolve the problem. File under: NOT MY FAULT, STILL MY PROBLEM. This involved tracking down the other person, a coworker, and convincing her to give me a copy of her W-2. It seems obvious that someone involved in the payroll process at my office had made the mistake; otherwise, we would be looking at one of the most outrageous coincidences of all time. Could someone somewhere just vaguely, passively say that A Mistake Had Been Made and apologize to me for my inconvenience? Heavens no.
There are two things we can never expect in this life: gratitude for the good we've done, and apologies for the mistakes that other people have made.
Now I'm sitting in the City of Los Angeles Office of Finance. They've summoned me to a hearing for supposedly not paying municipal business taxes. This despite the fact that I have not lived within a City of Los Angeles zip code since 2015. The summons was even addressed to me at my previous non-LA address.
This is the fourth calendar year that we have been having this dispute. I tried everything. I sent letters. I spoke to an agent on the phone. I sent copies of our tax return. I have told them over and over again that 1. The income they were after is actually my husband's salary, not business income and 2. We don't live in LA.
Their response was to send a tax bill for slightly over $8000. Weirdly, it's almost the exact same amount I was mistakenly assessed by the federal government back in 1999. I got that cleared up, or so I thought, and then several months later I get this summons.
I guess it's my karma that maybe I robbed someone of $8000 in a past life? Or maybe I was a cruel tax collector? Who knows.
What I WANT from this transaction is:
For someone to take accountability and say, "This was our fault, not yours."
Compensation for my time
A letter absolving me from further bureaucratic transactions with this department
Some kind of goodie like a free bus pass
What I NEED from this transaction is:
Resolution of the issue
Some kind of notation in my account or in whatever database or mailing list
Knowledge of what to do if anything like this happens again
My INSTINCT is to:
Yell at someone
Tell the entire saga from start to finish
Call my mayor
Alert the media
Cry (actually I did that the day after I got the letter)
What I actually do is to use my carefully honed skills in navigating bureaucratic red tape. I use tact and civility. Guess what? My case is resolved half an hour after I walk in the door. I didn't get an apology or compensation or any of those feeble fantasies. What I did get was the most genial, easy-going guy on the staff, who listened carefully, closed my account, and gave me photocopies of his stamped paperwork for my file.
How is this done?
There's an art to doing these things smoothly, and as far as I can tell, not everyone is aware of it. I have seen people shouting so loudly that they could clearly be heard through the entire building, or pounding their fist on the counter. The only thing you get when you act that way is a conversation with a security guard. Threats, intimidation, swearing, scowling, glaring, sarcasm, rudeness, cutting in line, interrupting, and gesticulating are tools for fools. They're only going to make things harder. You never know when you'll find yourself in the same office again, or facing the exact same person in a different job.
The person I'm talking to is almost certainly not the person who made the mistake on my account. This person is my ally. We want the same thing. We both want a simple transaction in which I go away quickly with a smile on my face. His goal is to do his job and make it to the end of the day without someone shouting at him. My goal is to be the friendliest transaction of his week. This person, whoever it is, is much more likely to listen to me and believe me if I am rational, respectful, and deferential. I walk up smiling, dressed professionally, and I make sure to wait my turn before speaking.
Always start with the assumption that the miscommunication has been on your end. Maybe I walked in the wrong door, didn't read a sign, or unknowingly shuffled a vital piece of correspondence into a wad of coupons that I then recycled. I start from the position of empathy, imagining that I am on the other side of the desk, forced to deal with this uptight, nervous wreck of a middle-aged crazy birdwatcher lady before lunch. I've been a civil servant and I've worked in customer service, so this trick of empathy is easy. I want to be my own ideal customer or client, the person I wouldn't mind helping.
The truth is that there is nothing complicated about my situation. It's routine on both sides. Any weeping or gnashing of teeth I have done has arisen from 1. My own anxiety 2. Projecting 3. Mind-reading (which doesn't work) and 4. Predicting the future (badly). I got all wound around the axle. I felt like THIS ALWAYS HAPPENS TO ME and WHAT WILL I DO NOW? and WHYYYYY MEEEEEE? I also felt that IT'S NOT FAIR and I WANT CAAAAAAAKE. It actually crossed my mind that I would have to see a judge or that someone would demand some kind of payment from me. I thought I would have to camp out in the office the entire day and come back again the following day, possibly through the entire week. Not a single thing that worried me came true. If I really want compensation, it should be for the time I spent flagellating myself and the sleep I lost tormenting myself with weird imaginary scenarios that never happened.
Gracious behavior always helps. When I listen courteously, I hear more details and everything makes more sense. When I wait patiently, I get better treatment. Everything goes faster when people wait their turn, including me. Most importantly, the self-discipline of controlling my irrational responses and NOT doing what comes naturally helps me to realize how rarely I ever need to escalate. Life is easier than we think it is, especially when we're not having a conniption.
PS On the way home, I found a dollar coin. So that's something.
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.