We used to worry about money a lot, but we don’t anymore, because we have a simple strategy. It comes in three pieces, and it works. Anyone can learn it. It goes like this:
When I was younger my eyes used to glaze over when I read lists like that. I didn’t want to have to think about anything with an acronym. I didn’t want to learn new technology. I figured I would think about it when I was older.
Now I AM older and I’m feeling pretty smug that Young Me read so many personal finance books and made the effort to learn these concepts.
It takes about 15 minutes to fill out the paperwork to max out your payroll deductions and put them in a 401(k) or equivalent. You literally only have to do it once per job. That’s the first step, and after those 15 minutes then you never have to think about it again.
The third step, living on less money than you earn, can be tricky. It can be hard to believe it can be done. It sometimes means making radical lifestyle changes, and those can be emotional and hard to explain to other people. Following the plan itself, though, becomes automatic.
It’s the second step, setting up an IRA and putting money in it every year, that trips people up. I knew what it was and how to do it, and I never bothered to get around to it until a few years into my second marriage. When I think back to all the tens of thousands of dollars I would have if I hadn’t procrastinated on this, it makes me want to slap myself.
The reason it’s so easy to procrastinate is that there isn’t an HR person to walk you through it. Nobody sends you an email reminder. You have to find a bank and set up a brand-new account. You have to decide which of two types of account work for you. Then you have to get the money together and remember to deposit it before the deadline every year.
In practice you can do it in an hour, set up a reminder on your phone in one minute, and then spend ten minutes a year moving the money.
It’s not the time, it’s the mental bandwidth.
Now that I know how to do this stuff, and I’ve seen it work, it seems simple and easy. In fact most people I know put more thought, focus, and attention into following the plot of complicated prestige television than I do into investing. It’s just that hump of studying up and learning how something works, especially if nobody you know does it or talks about it.
Setting up an investment account is free. You don’t have to keep putting money in it; you can skip a year if you have to. You can also catch up and do the previous year. You don’t have to have the maximum amount, either. Even if you only have a dollar to put in one year, that’s better than nothing.
This is a conversation I had with my husband when we first met, when we were just work buddies. He was complaining about his expensive divorce, child support, and alimony, and he said he couldn’t even afford to invest in his retirement plan.
“What??” I bawled him out. “You make three times as much as me and I’m maxed out. You’re trying to tell me you can’t even save one percent? I don’t believe you.”
(This is actually why we are married today, because he respects my frugality and I always tell it like it is).
He told me later that he went in to HR and filed the papers. He immediately maxed out his retirement contribution and, of course, it was fine. He could afford it after all. Emotionally, he had just been feeling the divorce drama. Mine had come and gone five years earlier, so I recognized it.
The thing is, there’s no such thing as CAN’T AFFORD. You’ll never be as young again as you are today. One day, Older You is going to have some kind of problem that only Younger You can solve, because Older You won’t be able to work or earn more money. The emergency you have in the future is going to be harder to solve than any problem you have today. Almost definitely.
You can never allow yourself to believe that it’s impossible. You can never give in to the idea that you can’t even find a penny on the street once a year. (A guy at the next table in my cafe literally dropped a penny on the floor AS I WROTE THAT and he still hasn’t picked it up. It’s the second penny I’ve seen on a floor today).
The main advantage of being poor (or thinking you are) is that you know how to live with a low overhead. That means you understand austerity, that you can emotionally handle spending as little as possible on things like rent, transportation, healthcare, heat, and food.
The disadvantage of being poor is that scarcity mindset prevents us from having better ideas about how to earn more money.
I did my husband the favor of snapping him out of his divorce blues and convincing him to start investing toward his retirement again. That paid off for me because now his financial future is also mine... He returned the favor to me, many times over, by painstakingly teaching me how to replace my scarcity mindset with abundance mentality.
None of the rules that worked for my life when I was poor, a broke student, an entry-level career person, none of those rules make any sense in my life as a comfortably established married person.
Another way to express that there are three parts to a financial plan is like this:
Feel that your anxiety and dejection about money is an emotional state, not reality. Understand that the only difference between you and a rich person is that they know things you don’t. Figure out what it takes to kick yourself, to make yourself do things. How do you get yourself to make phone calls or log in to websites or drive to a bank? How do you set up reminders for yourself to do things by a certain date? How do you inspire yourself to learn things you don’t already know? What do you do when you realize you need help; do you ask someone?
Everyone has a financial plan. For most people that is, “Don’t think about it right now.” Please reward yourself by using your imagination, your creativity, and your intelligence to come up with a more interesting plan. Maybe part of that could be setting up an account for your IRA, even if you don’t have any money to put in it quite yet.
We continue our tradition of buying nothing and going nowhere the day after Thanksgiving. It’s going well. Three of us are bundled up in blankets on the couch, and Noelie is sunning herself by the window. Time has no meaning for us today. We’re simply relaxing and doing whatever we want.
Apparently the alternative is to get up early, drive around town, and fight other people for bargains?
We went shopping together on this supposed Black Friday once when we were dating. As we idled in traffic at an intersection, we saw something remarkable: One man kneeling on another man’s chest, hands on his throat, while a few bystanders stood there. Our attention was drawn because two pickup trucks were pulled up to the curb, one at a slant, doors hanging open. A road rage incident.
Ahh, the holiday spirit in action!
We did not feel that adding another truck and more people would bring any clarity to this situation. Instead we drove on, making up new lyrics to It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
“...and punching your neighbor and drinking some beeeeeerrrr...”
Since then, we’ve let go of not just shopping on Black Friday, but owning a vehicle and driving as well. Hanging out at home for Buy Nothing Day has spoiled us.
Bargains are not bargains. Usually a sale or a coupon is the retail price of something, artificially inflated and then “dropped” to make it look cheaper. Sometimes it’s a functionally obsolete item, shunted to the side to make room for the new version that’s about to fill the shelves. It’s never a bargain if it leads to months or years of credit card debt. We know this, right?
Whatever we buy, we add sales tax, and then we multiply by the interest rate that we are paying on credit. Then we subtract that from our post-tax paycheck. The quick version of this is to estimate that we have to earn two dollars for every dollar we spend. That is no bargain.
The pressure is off in my family. We agreed that instead of exchanging gifts, we would put that budget toward visiting each other. We also sponsor a family, bringing them gifts and groceries, keeping them in sheets and towels and that sort of thing. Our family holiday spirit revolves around games rather than piles of packages.
I just challenged my mom to online Scrabble. Do you think she’ll play me?
Shopping is hard for a minimalist. Not that we’re no good at buying things, just that it’s hard for others to shop for us. This is especially true if they’ve seen our apartment.
Nice, thank you for the lovely gift, now where in tarnation are we going to put it??
This is why, when we get a package, it usually consists of a parrot toy and a bag of dog treats. These are things that are guaranteed to get used, and they also have some fun value.
Part of why we’re staying home today is that our dog’s days are numbered. He supposedly had only a few weeks to live as of Thanksgiving 2018, yet somehow, magically, he is still here and having a pretty good day. We are in the existentially fraught situation where we literally have to compare a “bargain” to a snuggle day at home with him.
That’s technically true for everyone, but we forget.
And it’s not just true for our pets, either.
I think of all the times I’ve been out shopping with someone, and we come home tense and tired after fighting traffic, bad weather, long lines, and slow walkers. We’re seduced by an endless stream of marketing material into thinking that buying things will be jolly and spiritually fulfilling. Then we go out and try to do it and discover that the process is hollow and exhausting.
While we were in line, were we getting what we came for? Love and togetherness?
Does the shopping and the debt really translate into caring and affection?
Is this what happiness feels like? Joy and delight?
Honestly I don’t think all of us know the difference. We’re going for dopamine instead of oxytocin. Shopping expeditions are sometimes the only way that families and friends know how to relate to each other, the only way to have a good time.
This is part of where compulsive acquisition comes from. My hoarders may be out shopping with family multiple times a week. Part of the habit is justified by stocking up on gifts, gifts that may pile up for years without actually being given to the intended recipient. There’s always a special pile of gifts received and still in the original wrapping. Sometimes they have the year written on the tag so you can see how far back they go.
That’s where our bargains go, sometimes. They go into a hoarded pile on someone’s dining table or into their closet. All that shopping and wrapping, for what?
This is why it’s so hard for me to find an exchange of gifts very interesting. I can’t help but see all this stuff in the context of thrift stores, yard sales, and hoarding. What was the exciting gift of one holiday season will inevitably be shabby a few years later. The constant churning of consumer preference creates, as part of its nature, tackiness and unwearable colors and dated fashions that cause us to burst into laughter. They were all desirable one year and a complete joke not long after.
That could actually make a fun party idea! Everyone show up wearing a thrift store outfit from an earlier era and wrap up a white elephant gift from a different decade. Throw a potluck using all the dusty kitchen appliances from the back of the cabinet. Make a game out of identifying weird unitaskers, the single-use gadgets that fill so many drawers and closets. Then see if anyone will be willing to take it off your hands.
That sounds like work to me right now, though. I’m going to continue lounging around in my pajamas until noon and then see how much cranberry sauce I can fit in my lunch. This is Slack Friday, after all, and I’m not convinced I’m slacking hard enough.
Financial Freedom is a book about financial independence for those who are ready to look at the numbers. This is a practical handbook. It’s particularly ideal for someone who wants to convince a skeptical partner to give FI a closer look.
As a non-math person, I like that Financial Freedom includes lookup tables of numbers. It doesn’t require a calculator, which is good because I’m the kind of person who can get four different answers for the same math problem. Fortunately, financial independence is possible for anyone, regardless of numeracy.
Sabatier starts the book with a copy of his bank statement, containing $2.26, while he is back living with his parents after a layoff. At one point he counts up how much he had earned at his last job, after taxes, and compares it to the credit card balance he had run up. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but effectively he’s come out ahead by only $2.50 an hour. Whatever was going on with his full-time work/standard consumer lifestyle, it wasn’t working and it sure didn’t look much like financial freedom.
Five years later he was a millionaire.
I’m guessing that part does NOT sound so familiar.
Not everyone wants or needs to be a millionaire, and most people won’t feel that it’s possible for them when they start. Sabatier outlines seven levels of financial freedom, starting with simple clarity, and none of these levels has a specific dollar amount attached. It depends on your personal situation. The author started with no knowledge and a bunch of debt, and one year later he had seven income streams and $100,000 in savings. It can happen fast if you figure out how to do it.
Most people probably spend more time, in minutes, figuring out what movie to watch than they do looking over their accounts or planning a financial strategy. We have the free time, we have the intelligence, we certainly have the desire to be free of stress and struggle. All we’re missing are the role models and the plan, and Grant Sabatier is here to help with both.
No matter how much money you owe, there’s a path out and a path to wealth.
I’m just going to come out and say it—most people who are side hustling, especially when they are first starting out, charge way too little for their services or products.
The next time you think about buying something, ask yourself, Is this worth trading my freedom for?
Six weeks to live, that’s what the vet told us. He was in one room and we were in another, having a surgical consult for our 10-year-old dog. After absorbing all the information and asking a lot of questions, we wept on each other and then declined treatment.
A year later, he’s still here.
There are few emotional moments as difficult as saying goodbye to a beloved pet. Our love for them is uncomplicated and pure in a way that it rarely or never is for the humans in our lives. This is why sitting in a veterinary office can lead us to make decisions that can ultimately be bad for the animal and bad for us as well. It helps when we can set ourselves some guidelines in advance.
It sucks, but animals have lifespans. Most of them are shorter than ours. We love them, and then they get old and die on us. It’s desperately unfair. Why can’t a dog live as long as a horse? Why can’t a cat live as long as a parrot? Our parrot helped raise this dog, Spike, from a 10-week-old puppy. Now she’s still swinging upside down by two toes and singing to Lady Gaga while he’s a stiff old elderly dog. She’s 21 and she could probably outlive five consecutive dogs during her natural lifespan.
It isn’t fair.
It isn’t fair, and yet that’s part of my attraction to parrots. Long life and few health problems.
Comparing one phylum to another isn’t useful in this context, though. What I am going to offer is a comparison between two dog-loving families faced with similar veterinary issues, what they decided, and how it turned out.
First I’ll offer the test case, and then I’ll offer details about Spike’s situation.
I met a woman at a party. She had a lot on her mind. Her household was broke, she was unemployed, and she couldn’t afford the special high-end groceries she needed for her diet. I used to work in social services, so when I hear “can’t afford groceries” I get into “feed this family” mode and start offering options. Then I found that the family was broke partly because they had recently spent over $20,000 on cancer treatments for their dog.
I didn’t meet the dog in question, and we’re not in touch, so I have no idea how this looks a year down the road. The story was that the treatments worked and the dog was cancer-free a year later. The woman at the party didn’t seem to have made the connection between struggling with grocery money and paying the extra vet bills.
This stuck in my mind because only a couple of weeks later, we found out that our own dog had a liver tumor.
Here’s the backstory. Our dog was diagnosed with Addison’s disease when he was two years old. He hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours and he lay in his bed, shaking. I got down on the floor with him and held him all night, certain this pup was going to die. Took him to the vet and found out he has this genetic endocrine disorder which is so serious that most people choose to euthanize rather than try to treat it.
We decided to give him the pills and keep him around. A few years later, that medication quit working on him and we thought he was going to die again, but he responded to a different drug. Now he goes in every month for a shot, and the few days at the end of the cycle, he tends to be shaky and ill. Tough life for a little dog.
Then there was the time he hurt his neck from shaking his toys so much. The vet advised a spinal tap and a long list of other treatments to find out what was wrong. He didn’t do well on the pain medication and quit eating again, and once again we were sure our expensive little dog wasn’t going to make it. We took him off the pain meds and I was able to coax him back into eating solid food by pretending I couldn’t stop dropping bits of my lunch on the floor.
By the time we made it to the Liver Tumor point on the timeline, we had been through a lot as a mixed-species family. Spike had been on countless prescriptions and was on a first-name basis with literally every single employee at no fewer than four clinics. He was a canine celebrity, The Addisonian Dog Who Lived. “Personality plus,” they call him, a great dog with a loving home... and poor health.
It’s like this. 20% of the time, he’s happy and hilarious. He jumps three feet straight off the ground, chases his tail, and does a dozen circus tricks.
20% of the time, he’s curled up in a ball feeling sick and refusing food.
The middle 60%, he’s like any other dog, hanging around sleeping or scratching his ear or following us from room to room.
We’ve known for a long time that Spike probably wasn’t going to get the advanced life span of some dogs. We’ve known for most of his life that his genetic condition would eventually progress to the point that it was untreatable. We had to make the decision early on that when he started suffering more and life was no longer fun for him, we would do the right thing.
Then my mother-in-law died of cancer, her fifth recurrence.
When we decided to decline treatment for Spike’s liver tumor, this was why. My husband couldn’t put his dog through cancer treatment because he saw what it did to his mom. She was a human who could communicate and sign her own forms. Our dog could never possibly understand what was happening to him, what we were doing to him. We knew he might die during the exploratory surgery, much less during radiation and chemo. All that just to buy him another year, a year of constant pain and fear and confusion?
And then what? The same choices again, only with an older dog?
When we declined treatment, the $9100 bill for the exploratory surgery was a factor, sure. It should be for most families. We have an adult child. What if *she* needed help with that kind of money but we had already spent it on our pet?
What if one of *us* got cancer?
Wouldn’t it be nice if veterinary care came free of charge, no matter the animal. Wouldn’t it be nice if they lived forever. Sure, that would be great, but we don’t expect anyone else to work for free, so why veterinarians? The “cost” isn’t a financial cost, though, as much as it is a cost of pain and confusion and dread for the animal. They hate it there, we know that, and when we bring them in it’s often more about postponing our own pain than theirs.
What happened with our dog’s liver tumor, a year after declining treatment? Fair question. It got larger and he developed a second tumor, in his lung this time. He’s still here, though.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that treating our dog for the liver tumor/possible cancer would not have been a good idea. He got this second tumor anyway, and the treatment for the first tumor could not have prevented it. We would easily have spent twenty thousand dollars treating our dog, who is now eleven and a half, and for what?
In the year that we didn’t have to buy him, the bonus year, he’s had a lot of terrible days. He’s also had some great days, where he was so happy and energetic that we just looked at each other with our mouths hanging open. This dog! His vets (he knows the whole team) have no explanation for why he is still alive. We know his day must be coming any time now, and we have the number to call to help his crossing over the rainbow bridge. We’ll do the right thing for him, no question, but why rush when he still wants to jump and play and do tricks?
Did that other family do the right thing by spending $20,000 on cancer treatments for their dog, at the expense of their own grocery budget? They seemed happy about it, and it isn’t for me to judge. Did my husband and I do the right thing by declining treatment for our own dog, partly because we knew it would cost $20,000? Not everyone would agree, and it probably isn’t fair to include the results, because if he had only lived for a month we might have seemed callous and cruel.
We made the choice we did because we felt that it was too much to ask of our dog to tolerate a year of cancer treatments. We also made this choice because spending that kind of money on a ten-year-old dog did not make sense in a broader moral context. If we were going to spend $20,000, why not put it toward a human’s cancer treatment instead?
We’ll say goodbye to our dog sometime soon. We won’t wait for the obvious last day. We’ll make it a party, so his friends can say goodbye too. He can have party foods, even the naughty stuff if he wants it, like fried chicken and chocolate and grapes. We’ll let him go, and it will crush us. But we knew, even when we first held him and he would fit in one hand, we knew he would. We knew that we would love him and he would break our hearts, because we are immortals compared to his kind. We choose this love because it burns so hot, an enormous love for a short life.
Hey, I have an idea. Let’s start off the week with a highly loaded discussion of power dynamics!
When we talk about who makes the money and who does the chores, we tend to frame it in a really dumb way, which anyone who has multiple siblings should immediately understand. Why are chore wars always “husband vs. wife” or “mom vs. kids” when it should really just be “people who share common areas”?
I have two brothers, so in our household chores rotated week to week. My dad’s response to questions about trading chores was:
“I don’t care, just get it done.”
Right. Focus on the goal. Cleanest house with the least amount of effort. In my parents’ view, that meant training the kids to do as much as possible. A charitable interpretation of this is that they maximized our opportunities to learn adult skills.
It’s pretty common, in a traditional monogamous hetero marriage, for the wife to take on more of the housework and childcare. We’ve workshopped this, my husband and I, with groups of other couples. A wife will explain that she does more because she feels guilty that she is earning less money.
This is where the contrarian take comes in.
Power couples look at the division of labor strategically. What can be done so that both parties maximize their earning potential and overall career success? How can everyone in the household enjoy the highest possible quality of life?
This can happen in a million bajillion different ways, arranged over various timelines. Where it doesn’t happen is in relationships where one party is motivated by guilt and feelings of being a lesser contributor. What, one of you is the CEO so the other one has to be the janitor?
(Note: facilities maintenance is an honorable profession, and plenty of people have become millionaires through offering custodial services. Trash is cash).
When one person in a relationship is motivated by guilt and/or shame, the chore wars become about something entirely different than a smoothly running household. They become about earning approval, or avoiding conflict, or demonstrating, what? Fealty? Subservience?
What we’re talking about is not the sort of relationship in which one partner radiates joy and serenity through interior design and the culinary arts, while the other channels their self-expression into career ambition. That’s totally a thing, and if it works for both of you, more power to ya.
What we’re talking about is that other kind, where both parties are dissatisfied or bored or fighting about money or feeling unappreciated. None of those feelings tend to be part of someone’s wedding vows.
To have and to ignore, to annoy and exasperate, from this day forward.
We’re smarter than this. We didn’t marry our houses and we know better than to prioritize our stuff over our relationships. Besides, we have robots now.
The truth is that we tend to magnify the amount of work that “needs” to be done to run a household in four ways:
By having larger homes than we need,
Filled with more stuff than we need,
With no systems in place,
And having power struggles about it all.
My ex-husband and I used to play poker for chores, using a points system that we designed together. He did 95% of the cooking, because arguably he was a much better cook and he preferred it that way. Yes, he earned about 50% more than I did, and that was an issue when we discussed our budget and our savings goals, but it didn’t factor into how we divided labor at home. Rather, we had a plan that he would work while I got my degree, and then I would work at my newly increased rate of pay while he finished his. It was understood that it would be several years before we divided the housework “evenly.”
We never got to that point. I can claim, though, that we kept a pretty tidy home. Out of all the things we fought about, housework wasn’t on the list. Probably because we were minimalists and spent most of our marriage in small apartments. Possibly also because we both had multiple siblings!
Now I’m remarried, and the structure is different, partly because the man is different and partly because we rely on engineering principles rather than poker. What works on the manufacturing floor that would also work at home? We have successfully harnessed professional pride, his in Agile methodology and mine in my work with chronic disorganization and hoarding.
Keep work surfaces and common areas clear. Streamline processes and eliminate unnecessary steps. Don’t tie up capital in excess inventory. Cross-train and share best practices. Continuous improvement.
We have had a LOT of discussions about housework over our ten-year marriage. This has been almost entirely driven by me, because I’m the fussy one. I’ve framed it as a way to view a smoothly running household like an engineering management problem. Rather than make this, How do I convince you to wipe down counters my way?, I’ve tried to make it, What terminology would an engineer use to describe this work process?
Also, What kind of robot could do this particular task? Could you build me one?
This is how I learned that you can clean a greasy oven in ten minutes if you use a drill, and that the question, Can I get my husband to spend three hours kneeling in front of this thing instead of me? WAS THE WRONG QUESTION ENTIRELY.
All of the questions we have about dividing household labor fairly may, likewise, be structured in an unhelpful way. If the framework involves guilt, shame, blame, resentment, grudges, anger, or crying, there are probably other ways to look at the situation.
What if almost all of those feelings were directly related to household labor that didn’t even need to be done by a human? What if we engineered those chores out of existence?
There used to be household chores like churning butter, darning socks, and carrying coal scuttles that most 21st-century households no longer do. (Well, I still darn my own socks, but hey). It’s my thesis that a lot of our 20th-century chores can be canceled, too.
Stepping forward and focusing on a more interesting, challenging, and fulfilling career almost always results in significantly more income. A higher income can do a lot more for a family, like eliminating debt and buying a $200 robotic vacuum cleaner, than anyone can do just by focusing on folding laundry more often. Eyes on the prize.
Let’s find a way to restructure our division of labor so that everyone involved is excited, having fun, laughing, talking, and generally thinking about chores as little as possible. One day it’ll all be done by nanobots anyway.
I finally tried flying on a Basic Economy fare. It was easier than I thought, but still I’d probably do it differently next time. Here’s what it was like.
I planned a last-minute trip with a friend. Because of the time of year and the location, not only was I able to fly on the same days that she did, I was even able to get on the same flights! This is particularly interesting because I booked my trip with reward points.
(The points came from my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and we flew United. This is relevant because apparently United is the strictest with the special rules of Basic Economy).
A regular fare was double the number of points as the Basic Economy fare, or an extra $200+ in cash. This matters to me, and in fact I felt excited that no-frills travel is so much cheaper. I’m an ideal candidate because:
I did my research before packing. I knew from travel scuttlebutt that airlines are strict about this type of fare, that not all carriers offer it, and that the rules vary and change over time. Any deviation was likely to cost me money and possibly also time.
I hate spending more money than I have to, but I also tend to cut my arrival time to the wire. I’m rarely in a situation when I can afford to add even fifteen or twenty minutes to my time cushion. In nearly forty years of flying, I’ve never missed a flight, and I don’t intend to start now.
Especially not due to my luggage, of all things!
My research indicated that under Basic Economy, I couldn’t choose my seat. I literally do not care. I’m that rare creature, a middle seat person, anyway.
I couldn’t choose to sit next to my travel partner(s). Eh. We planned to sleep on the way east, so it didn't matter. We are currently sitting side by side on the return trip, which either says something about boarding last or about the enduring niceness of American Midwesterners. Either way, this restriction doesn’t bother me much because when I’m traveling with someone, we’re already planning to be together on the trip. What’s a brief break when we’re likely napping, reading, or watching a movie anyway?
I wouldn’t get a meal. Eh. Again, I was planning to sleep one way, and we never get fed during the westward leg regardless. I know what types of food travel well.
Most importantly in the list of restrictions that made this fare half-price, my fare would not include any bags! No checked bag (yawn) and no carry-on either! I could bring one solitary personal item, smaller than the original dimensions that were allowed when this type of fare debuted.
If this personal item was too large, I would have to pay not only the $30 checked bag charge, but a $25 handling fee on top. Bags are routinely weighed and measured.
This part interested me. I texted my friend about it and she utterly did not believe me! We went back and forth over it for a while. I offered to pay the $30 to check one large suitcase that we could both share, and that settled the matter.
Under these conditions, paying to check a bag was a good deal.
I’m not in love with the idea of paying $60 round-trip for luggage, but it was significantly cheaper than paying the extra $200 for a regular economy ticket. It was also cheaper than buying new outfits and paying to ship them home.
Some friends, roommates, or siblings might split the cost, sharing the bag and each paying for one leg of the trip. I covered the whole thing, partly because it was mostly my stuff and partly because my friend was covering the rental car. Obviously a romantic couple is likely to be sharing expenses, or figuring out how to do so in a way that makes sense, which fighting over money does not.
The suitcase that I brought was the only piece of luggage that I own that was large enough to share. My husband bought it for a three-week work trip, and it physically holds his entire work wardrobe. It is comically vast and its geometry is such that it comes up to my waist. At its fullest, it weighed 45 pounds, only a bit less than the weight limit for one bag.
This is the main reason why I would avoid paying to check a bag the next time I fly Basic Economy. The bag itself was a monster, an annoying burden that had to be hauled on and off the shuttle twice and hoisted into the back of the rental vehicle.
Going any smaller raises the question of why I couldn’t just make it happen with the personal item.
The current dimensions of the Basic Economy personal item are those of a daypack, a typical school backpack for a high school or college student. I found that packing it too full and putting too much in the front pocket made it expand past the allowed dimensions. Risky!
Depending on the weather and the length of the trip, I’m quite sure I could make this type of bag work for, say, three days. Then I’d have to do laundry. I’d make it work by bringing only one pair of shoes and being very spare with my toiletries, electronics, and snacks. I probably would not pack workout clothes, although if the hotel had a pool I would cram in a swimsuit and flip flops.
Having access to half a large checked suitcase caused me to go a bit nuts. I brought hairstyling implements that I didn't use. I completely forgot sneakers, making my workout clothes pointless. I haven't counted how many points I cost myself for bringing things I didn't use (a personal game), but I believe I set a new record. Not my best showing.
This was a good exercise for me. Ultimately I met all the requirements of the restrictive Basic Economy fare, and saved over $140. That almost pays for a round trip to visit my family. It’s worth it. This was also a good exercise because it reminded me why I despise dragging big heavy bags around, and how distracting and confusing it can be to pack so many items that you lose track of what you do and don’t have.
In sum, I’m likely to be found in the near future, sitting in a middle seat, with my sparse and austere personal item at my feet, counting a thick wad of cash.
Quit Like a Millionaire is one of my favorite financial independence books of all time. Not only does it have more specific details about the technical details of FI, it also made me laugh like a sea lion.
Kristy Shen starts by describing her experience as a poor child in China. This is an excellent and attention-grabbing foundation for the book, because anyone reading it in English surely has more resources and ability to earn and save money. If that statement seems challenging, at least agree that anyone reading this is not a little kid...? ...and then actually read the book itself. Shen also describes herself as a mediocre student, struggling with concepts and getting by on hard work rather than brilliance.
In other words, if Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung can do it, anyone can. The book is filled with charts showing the numbers for all different income and saving levels.
Shen goes over the financial principles she used to become financially independent very carefully. One of the most surprising of these is her Pay-over-Tuition score, which shows that a doctor or a lawyer may do only about as well as someone in an arts career due to the high cost of their education.
Something I particularly appreciated was the concept of “eating bitterness” and how Shen makes use of scarcity mindset. I have a bit of this myself, and have actually broken out in hives at the thought of wasting money on certain things. It definitely helps to draw on this attitude when engaging in extreme saving.
Quit Like a Millionaire explains Modern Portfolio Theory, capital gains harvesting, and geographic arbitrage, among other concepts. The section on insurance was enlightening. It can be hard to believe, but becoming financially independent actually eliminates whole categories of spending, and insurance can be one of them.
Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung retired just after they turned thirty, which is nuts, but possible. What is even crazier is that they accidentally discovered they could travel the world for the same cost as living at home. Now they’re at least three years into their retirement and it sure sounds like they’re having a lot of fun. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t mind joining them.
Read this book and Quit Like a Millionaire today... or maybe eleven years from now, but who’s counting?
No one is coming to save you.
My boss didn’t care about my mediocre grades; he hired me because of my insane work ethic.
For them, failure was totally an option.
Since I knew that things could always get worse, the Scarcity Mind-set taught me that money was precious and if I wanted security and autonomy in life, I’d have to earn it.
“The past doesn’t matter. What do we do now?”
If you understand money, life is incredibly easy. If you don’t understand money, like the vast majority of people, life is incredibly hard.
Free isn’t free. It’s better to understand that going in. Anything you take, any object that you handle, has strings attached.
One of the great paradoxes of clutter is that it’s usually harder to get rid of “free” stuff than things that we bought at retail price. Why? No idea, I just know that it’s true.
We had a give-away party after our last move, and one of the items in the pile was our last set of plastic shelving from when we had a garage. We were 100% sure the shelves would go, and we were astonished when they didn’t. The other half-dozen sets had so much traction on Craigslist that we probably should have sold them for cash.
We don’t look at it that way, because we don’t necessarily want to advertise our home as a place full of valuable stuff. (It isn’t). Giving something away attracts gratitude, while selling something seems to activate scarcity mindset in everyone involved. Do I really want to spend my free time dickering over $20? Do I really want a lot of random strangers driving to my specific home address, wondering what else I have?
The thing about shelves in particular is that they have no intrinsic value. They are not beautiful to look at, and their only use consists in storing and/or displaying other items. Nobody just wishes for a house full of empty shelves, and then leaves them that way.
I had a good laugh the other day because one of the apartment units in our building is visible from the pool. What we could see from our perspective was a wall of built-in shelving with about a dozen paperback books on it. There was room for several hundred and they looked a little lonely, all on their own.
This is dangerous, an attractive nuisance. Nature abhors a vacuum and for this reason, empty shelves attract clutter like nothing else.
Once clutter is stored or displayed on a shelf, it never leaves. It merges with the shelving unit and becomes an unremovable part of the whole. It becomes impossible to imagine the object and the shelves separately.
The strangest thing about shelves is that they tend to be inexpensive and easy to find. Yet the people who need them the most never seem to have any. I have a theory about this.
When my eldest nephew was a little boy, we had a conversation about money and stuff. He came running in breathlessly asking to get into his piggy bank because a neighbor kid was willing to sell him a plastic truck for ten dollars. What the heck?? [insert static noise] I told him that sounded way too expensive and that he’d have to ask his dad. Then I gave him a homily about how we save money so we can get something really cool later.
“I like to buy lots of small stuff and then I don’t have to wait,” he replied.
Yeah, you and all my hoarding clients, I thought.
My people, caught in scarcity mindset, all share a knee-jerk reaction that goes NO I CAN’T AFFORD THAT. They are unable to process the idea that a $40 set of shelves costs the same amount as ten $4 items or forty $1 items, which I can clearly see scattered, stacked and piled all over their home.
I “can afford” infinite amounts of $1 and $5 items. Never in life, in no alternative universe, could I even hypothetically afford any item over $X.
That’s the line. That’s how it works. In the scarcity paradigm, there is a permanent cutoff of any price tag over a certain amount, forever and always, for all time, the end.
The other issue with something like a set of shelves is that it needs to go somewhere. Any set of free shelving is virtually guaranteed not to match either the existing furniture or the dimensions of the room. In a cluttered room with a lot of big furniture, it’s never obvious where such a thing could go.
Our utilitarian beige plastic shelving wouldn’t look good anywhere except for a garage, and none of our friends has a garage, because few of the homes in our region do. We live in small apartments or condos because that’s mostly what is available. Who wants to live in a small place dominated by an ugly set of shelves? We all operate under the assumption that our homes should be comfortable and reasonably attractive.
My people, on the other hand, plan everything around THEIR STUFF, what they already have and whatever else they might carry in.
How could I set up these shelves? I’d have to move all these bags and boxes first.
The free shelves that are easy to get are only free because there’s something wrong with them. Either they are rickety or unappealing, or the original owner tried them and found that they didn’t do the job. They’re designed for a purpose. Our shelves are designed to hold medium-sized moving boxes or storage tubs. They work great for that, but they’re too tall for most stuff, either in the garage or indoors. Other “free” shelves might be designed specifically for DVDs or paperback books or some other standard size unit.
A standard shelf will either attract more items that fit it, because it feels right, or it will fill with random clutter that has nowhere else to go. It’s either manifest destiny or lebensraum.
Ideally, a shelf empties and refills. Clean dishes, clean towels, fresh groceries, they’re all supposed to come and go. It’s hard to tolerate clutter on shelves that are constantly in use, because anything that isn’t being used is always in the way. That’s what clutter IS, of course. So what is it that we think we’re doing with any shelf if it’s filled with stuff we don’t use?
The goal is always to be intentional. With something like shelving, it should be clear what is being stored, why, where, and for how long. Then it’s simple enough to find a set of shelving of the right size and dimensions. Maybe sell off some existing clutter to pay for them, thereby solving two problems: too much stuff, and nowhere to put what’s left. Good luck finding any free shelves that will magically do that job.
It comes up a lot. People generally can’t believe that a married couple our age are voluntarily choosing to rent instead of own a home. One of our young ones came over on open house night, and blurted out, “You guys RENT??” Like it had completely violated his impression of us or something!
That’s generally how you know you’ve hit upon a truly contrarian position. Nobody understands it or why you’re doing it. Young or old, rich or poor, artist or business professional, nobody gets it.
You don’t... own... a car?
You... don’t... drink coffee?
You... actually like... the middle seat?
Personally, I do weirder things, like using chopsticks with my non-dominant hand, and nobody notices that stuff at all. Most of the time people are just thinking about themselves, that or their phone.
You can get away with A LOT in plain sight. People may give feedback in one form or another, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay attention or base your major strategic decisions on their opinion. Especially if you think the common denominator isn’t working for most people.
Default: tired, broke, cluttered
To sum up, our strategy is to rent a tiny apartment, use public transport, and max out our retirement contributions. Literally anyone in the world can live in a small space and not own a car. This is not elitist. It’s about the complications you are willing to tolerate.
What are the three basic home-owning strategies?
Ideally we would love #1. We live in Southern California right now, and we agree that it’s paradise. It’s a combination of a beautiful place with a great climate, ready access to fascinating work opportunities, and a culture that suits us. Unfortunately, buying an amazing house where we live costs about 4x as much as the same house somewhere else.
We understand #2, and we know precisely how to do it. We are both tool-oriented DIY types, part of our initial attraction to one another. One of our few continual quarrels revolves around who gets to assemble new furniture. The problem with this strategy is that all your free time, evenings, weekends, and holidays, goes to fixing up the house. It becomes your only hobby, that and accidentally breaking some drywall.
#3, geographic arbitrage, is something else we understand. Pack up and go somewhere else, like... Belize? Our biggest problems with this strategy are 1. Jobs, 2. Our pets, and 3. Choosing one place. Quite frankly we would only go in this direction at the point of retirement, and neither of us really believes in retirement as a thing.
Oops, another hot take! Let’s save that one for a different day.
The biggest problem with owning a house is that nobody wants to talk about the externalities.
The closing costs, the annual maintenance costs, the higher utility bills and other hidden costs, the extra chores of yard work and housework, the risk position, the house becoming a character in your story and demanding things, like extra furniture.
Risk position! There are NO GUARANTEES that you won’t need extensive wiring work, plumbing repairs, and a new roof, just as you find out you have a cracked foundation... and then you get hit with a major natural disaster shortly after finishing it all. When you own a house the buck stops with you.
People will try to talk you into home ownership in the same way they try to talk you into having children, or adopting a cat. They won’t talk about all that stuff like burst pipes, teething, or the cat barfing on your bedspread. “It’s different when they’re yours!” Yep, my point exactly.
The main reason that my husband and I haven’t bought a house is the way mortgages are structured. The loan is front-loaded, and almost everything you pay for the first five years is interest. You aren’t building equity. Due to our strategic position on career growth, we haven’t felt that we could guarantee we would stay in one city for five years. We decided that before we got married, and in point of fact, we were right.
If we had chosen the house over the career opportunities, we would have had to pass up several promotional choice points. We’d be making 50% less money, and, to be honest, I would probably be tired of the house and constantly being in Remodel Purgatory.
It’s my nature. If I lived in the fanciest house on the entire planet, there would be something I didn’t like about it, and I would want to either rearrange all the furniture or remodel something. I don’t have it in me to just fall in love with one specific building and want it to never change.
There are other home-ownership strategies out there, and probably room for more, because anything can be modified or disrupted. For instance, a lot of people live with their parents and save money, and someone could probably do something similar while house-sitting. Another common one is to live in a granny unit or put in a garage or basement apartment, get tenants for the main house, and use their rent to pay down the mortgage. Or get a job that includes housing, like working on a cruise ship or at a fire watch tower, and save as much money as possible.
One day, we might buy a house. We’d do it when we had fallen in love with that city, when we had a sense of knowing about that property, when we had nothing better to do with our copious spare time. When that will be, only time will tell. In the meantime, yeah, we rent. What’s it to you?
I shouldn’t read horror stories in bed late at night, and I know this, but I do it anyway. It’s easier when I have my big strong husband lying next to me. I can usually tell myself “it’s just make-believe,” except for when it isn’t. This time, the story was so scary that I had to share it.
The nightmare that was real? The Wall Street Journal feature of August 1, 2019, “Families Go Deep In Debt to Stay in the Middle Class.”
The subtitle of this piece says a lot for two Gen X people like us. “Wages stalled but costs haven’t, so people increasingly rent or finance what their parents might have owned outright.”
My hubby and I both were raised by frugal Boomer parents. He grew up in a small town that didn’t have a movie theater, shopping mall, or fast food. My parents didn’t get a credit card until I was 14. I was in my twenties the first time they bought a new vehicle from a car lot. We probably have our parents to thank for the fact that we are debt-free and saving half our income today.
This is why we both had an issue with the WSJ article.
To start, we know the economy is hosed. That’s why we save so much. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop and for another market correction/recession to happen. We know that incomes have flatlined and that almost nobody can “afford” housing or healthcare. We’re blaming broader historical currents, not individuals.
There is still room for an individual (person, couple, or family) to buck trends and behave unusually, to live a radically different lifestyle and thus get radically different results.
Default behavior gets default results.
The WSJ article starts by comparing income and various categories of consumer spending and debt since 1987. Then it brings in three couples and shares details of their household budgets. All of them are younger than we are, and it would certainly be interesting to follow up in 10-15 years and see how they are doing.
Otherwise we risk sounding like grumpy old codgers...
The first couple are both 28, they own a home and two cars, and they have a baby. The article includes pictures of them in their home, and my first thought was, Wow, I wish our furniture was that nice! At age 28, I had a college degree, but no dreams of home ownership. I had never owned a car and in fact I still didn’t have my driver’s license.
That’s the difference. I had no expectations of living a middle-class lifestyle in my twenties. My parents didn’t, so why would I think I could?
Blue-collar kids don’t live in that world.
When I told my family I was going back to school, they challenged me and suggested that I become an electrician instead. My brothers invited me to their company picnic, intending to play matchmaker and find me a husband. Nobody in my acquaintance thought that I would graduate into student loan debt and magically be able to afford a home loan and a car.
The no-college plan is a solid plan indeed. Both of my (younger) brothers will retire comfortably in their fifties, debt-free, with their houses paid off. Consider commercial construction and encourage your kids to become apprentice carpenters.
I didn’t go that route. I went into debt to get a history degree at a state school.
Plan A was to pay off my loans and then save for a house. I had paid one of them off six years early and was working on the other when I met my husband. That was when we rejected the idea of home ownership, and eventually the idea of car ownership as well.
He had just started paying alimony and child support. We understood that we could choose either to own a house and a car OR to fund our retirement.
The more research we did, the more it confirmed our sense that home ownership is a luxury and that the game is structured in favor of the bank, not us. Where we live, renting and investing the difference offers a much higher rate of return than the supposed appreciation on a house.
In the 2.5 years since we sold our car and downsized into a studio apartment, our investment portfolio has gained two hundred thousand dollars.
A single-family house in most markets is highly unlikely to appreciate at that rate.
In the same timeframe, my husband has begun applying for patents and is currently working on his fourth. He didn’t have the time when we lived in a suburban house, with its constant lawn mowing, yard maintenance, and repairs. The WSJ article doesn’t talk about being on the hook for roofing, windows, plumbing, electrical problems, pest control, remodels, or fun stuff like collapsing chimneys and cracked or shifting foundations - that’s a whole separate article. The effect of home ownership on mental bandwidth is non-trivial.
Granted, most people are not aerospace engineers and their lawn care does not compete with their invention time. Most people would not be willing to get rid of 80% of their stuff and live in a studio apartment just to save money for retirement. Most people are demonstrably unwilling to live car-free and ride the bus to work, even if it saves them $8000 a year.
The WSJ article includes couples who ran up $50,000 in credit card debt, make minimum payments on store cards for retailers that sell little more than clothing and home decor items, go further into debt to attend weddings, take out dual car loans after a reduction in income, and, unbelievably, cash out a pension to pay off a credit card balance. My husband and I were so astonished by each and every one of these choices that we grimaced and made flailing hand gestures as we read.
What freaked us out the most was the line about someone being “forced... to borrow more” because of a wrecked car. Forced?
We would describe it more as “took out a loan for a second vehicle because it never crossed their minds that two married people can share one car, save in advance, ride a bicycle or take the bus for a few months, move to a smaller/cheaper place closer to work, trade/barter to carpool for a while, or make do with an old beater.”
What we would have liked to see in this WSJ article was a counterpoint, the voice of a certified financial planner, or someone who paid off a large quantity of debt in a short period of time, or someone from the FIRE community. Maybe one of each?
What we’d like to see is empowerment. We cringe to think of young couples and families drowning in debt, fighting or crying about money. We’ve certainly both been broke, both had cancer scares, both been unemployed and unclear about when we’d be gainfully employed again, both been divorced after marrying a secret spender, both struggled and counted pennies. Neither of us were born into the middle class. We put into practice the arcane guild knowledge of frugality that we learned from our economic stratum.
Is it possible to enter the middle class or the upper middle class as a 21st century American? Sure, yes, we’ve both done it from the downlow. Is it possible to do this with a handful of credit cards, a traditional mortgage, and a couple of car loans? Probably not. Proceed accordingly.
I'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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