The Truth About Dating as a Single Rich Woman

woman in wetsuit

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I’m in my 30s, single and I have a high-paying job.

I didn’t mean for this to happen.

I never cared about marriage or starting a family. By default, I chose to focus on my life and career in my 20s. I think if I were going to do it again, it may have been easier to do family first and then career. Though it would seem that having a career and a high income would be an attractive asset in the dating world, I have found it to be more often a liability.

What I Mean When I Say I’m Rich

For some background, I live in DC, home to tens of thousands of interns, students, and federal government workers. In DC, lawyers make some of the highest salaries in the city (whereas in SF or NYC, say, tech founders, bankers and people in many different industries can make much more). What this means is that when I date, 9 times out of 10, I’m dating a man who makes less, often a lot less. As of late, I generally make 2-3x more than my date, but I’ve dated men with bigger income differentials (students).

Does my career/salary hurt the kinds of men that respond to me online? I have no idea. People don’t fill out questionnaires. I do know that the income differential has caused rifts in my relationships though. I still haven’t figured out how to navigate the issue of who pays. If I were a man dating a woman who made a quarter of my salary, I would pay for at least half, but more likely I would pay for most things. But as a woman, it’s less clear what my role is.

Entering Unchartered Pay Disparity Dating Territory

I remember I had a fight about money with my ex, who we shall call Bob. He brought up that I was contributing less than half toward our food budget. We never discussed our salaries but it was understood that I made considerably more than him. We were both earning good money though and neither of had debt or high expenses. Combined we were likely in the top 2% of incomes. We went to nice but not extravagant places.

A few weeks before the fight, I had actually thought about whether I was contributing my fair share. When Bob and I went out to eat, one person would pick up the tab. My family is Asian so splitting the bill is a bit foreign to me. I detested the idea of a couple keeping spreadsheets to ensure each side was paying exactly 50%. I was hoping for something easy-breezy and motivated by love (*in the future, maybe spreadsheets are the answer).

But I also thought about fairness. By my calculations, I paid for about 1/3 of the meals out and he paid 2/3. I also cooked often and would plan and shop for the meals. I would cook somewhat expensive or elaborate meals – slow-roasted pork belly, chicken pot pie, paella, baked salmon, pork loin banh mi, katsudon donburi. By my rough estimates, I figured I was paying for half our total meals (eating in and eating out) though I was spending less because cooking is cheaper than eating out.

He was resentful. And I was resentful that he was resentful. I felt like he didn’t recognize my efforts. Also, I was resentful because if I made less, this wouldn’t have been an issue. My cooking would have counted as my contribution towards our “couple-y” expenses. But because I made more, I should pay for more. It didn’t seem fair.

What is Fair in Love and War

Of course, I’m sure it was fair. If I were a man, I’d pay more. When I was younger and making an entry-level salary, I dated a lawyer.  He paid for most of our dates and he would cook as well. The tables had turned.  But I wasn’t ready to pay for more than my half.

Now in my 30s, I’m learning to acclimate myself to paying more. I feel that this is the right outcome. If I had married when I was younger, I wouldn’t be in the career I am now. Many of my ex-boyfriends made good money. I doubt I would have had the ambition to make more if I already had a good source of income (from my hypothetical hubby) to support me. I went to law school in a small town, and I’m not sure that many men would have followed me there. If I had had children, I would have taken a break from work and I’m not sure I would have returned.

Because I didn’t focus on family, I have a career. Because I have a career, I have a high-paying job. With that high-paying job comes certain responsibilities like paying for more. This is the price of change. I’m working on my resentment.

Why I’m Still Worried

A woman outearning her husband increases the couple’s likelihood of divorce. Being nominated for the Best Actress Oscar (a sign of a woman’s success over her male significant other) increases her risk of divorce. When a woman earns more, she might resent her husband for earning less. The pay differential may change their dynamic. Her husband might be jealous at her success. These are not great things, but they are natural things. You can be a part of a team and still be jealous of your overperforming teammate or resentful of your underperforming one. I’m sure the rest of the Cavaliers all envy LeBron and LeBron may get tired of carrying his teammates. We would like to think that this jealousy or resentment will stir in us ambition to greater self-improvement or empathy but for many, it’ll be corrosive.

I don’t feel ashamed that I will likely date and marry a man who earns significantly less than me. I would be lying, however, if I said that I don’t worry at all about ill effects due to outearning my spouse. I’m learning to get comfortable paying for more. He will have to get comfortable with me earning more. It’s a whole lot of uncomfortable. I guess that’s what happens when you buck societal expectations. It’s for the best, but it doesn’t feel that great when you’re learning to change. I think they’re called growing pains.

Some will say, oh it’s ok because the men who are uncomfortable with your success aren’t right for you. I think a lot of men are or would be uncomfortable with the success of their female significant other. Many men don’t have to deal with this scenario – as the typical case is still that the man earns more. But we live in a society where it’s expected that the man earns more. Men can brag about how happy they are to be kept husbands – but the fact that they can brag about that shows that that’s not the norm. It’s generally uncouth to brag. If a woman were to brag about being a trophy wife, she’d be derided if she wasn’t being sarcastic. Trophy husbands get the best of every world – they get to work less, brag about that fact, and get lauded for being supportive. Meanwhile the bread-winning wives are warned that their husbands will likely have an affair.

Most of the women I know are dating or are married to men who make more than them, often significantly so. It seems really stupid and backwards to want to feel like a princess who is funded by her prince. I will admit that I had had a little hope in the back of my mind that that would be the case for me. Maybe I could be Meghan Markle.

If this is a big problem? HELL, NO. If it were, I could just quit my job and become a receptionist. There are easy options to go from higher-earning to lower-earning. I realize that this is a great problem to have in some ways. I don’t have to rely on some rich man to pick me. I can support myself. I can be single if I want.

Turns out, in my own fairytale, I’m the prince. And I’m learning to be ok with that.

Why You Need a Budget for Charity

monk in front of children near brown concrete building

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When I was a kid, my Sunday School teacher asked if I had any questions about prayer. I asked him the most pressing question I could think of – can I pray for the Knicks? My teacher reassured me that God cared very much for the Knicks. But even if I prayed for the Knicks, there would be other children (and possibly adults) praying for the other team. So God probably couldn’t intervene in basketball games (which explains why the Knicks are so bad).

But if prayer isn’t about getting what you want, then what in the world are you talking to God for? Later in life I figured it out.

In college, I was very stressed planning a group trip to a Christian concert. (Yes, my life is quite embarrassing). And my friend said he would pray for me. Rather than pray that the details of the concert would go off without a hitch, he prayed that I would be released from worry.

It was from this prayer that I understood that prayer isn’t about getting stuff from God. Rather, prayer is about changing one’s mind. Prayer was about teaching yourself to focus on the things that mattered.

How Prayer is Like Charity

I think charity is as misunderstood a concept as prayer. People think prayer is about getting stuff for yourself. If it were about getting stuff, then you would easily get discouraged that you didn’t get what you want. Logically, prayer can’t be about the results. There are people praying “against” you – praying for their team to win, praying for the job that you want, for the winning lottery ticket. If prayer meant you could get everything you wanted, then everyone would win the lottery every day.  The reason to pray can’t be about getting stuff. Instead the meaning of prayer is to learn to change your mind to want the stuff that you get.

Likewise, charity isn’t about giving stuff to others and getting the results you want. But there are people donating to causes against yours, unfortunately. You give money to support the homeless but there is tons of money going towards other factors that are perpetuating homelessness. You can give money and then find that the charity you support isn’t using it judiciously. These can all seem like reasons to quit giving to charity. It can all seem a little hopeless but I don’t think that means you shouldn’t give to charity. Like prayer, I think charity is more about its effect on yourself, not its effect on others. That way you can’t blame external forces for why not to give to charity.

Why budget for charity?

MsZiyou raised an interesting point in my last post –  reasons why not to give to charity.

I completely agree that there are a lot of charities that are not worth supporting. There are a lot of charities that overpay their staff for very cushy jobs. Some charities seem like their missions are to support Big Charity and to make rich people feel better about themselves rather than improving heir world.  I don’t give to big institutionalized charitable organizations. I refuse even to give to my alma mater state school, which pays its dean $400k.

Just because something is called a charity, doesn’t mean it’s doing any good. Charities might not be solving problems at all, might not be solving problems in an efficient or competent way and some may actually be creating more and worse problems. Still, despite these caveats, I think charity is an integral part of one’s budget. That’s because it’s not about supporting an organization, but about devoting a portion of your budget to help people other than your self.

Where to give your money?

I don’t think limiting charity just to those organizations for which you get a tax-deduction makes sense in a budgeting standpoint or even an ethical standpoint. Charity is money spent to help others. It’s whatever is spent to direct your focus away from yourself.

So the lack of trustworthy organizations is not an excuse not to give to charity. (Sorry, so many negatives). Charity is about regularly thinking about others rather than yourself. It’s about putting our money toward changing our minds.

To me, of course the purpose of the charity matters. One should use one’s money judiciously to do the most good. There’s no point in supporting charities that do a bad job or that support a mission that doesn’t align with your values. I research all my charities and generally only support ones where I’ve volunteered and know the management.

But even if you despise all organized charity, that doesn’t mean you get to forget others in your budget. Your charity budget can include helping people you meet in need. It can be gifts to show your support for those that have helped you. You can give tips to those who are doing great in low-paying jobs.

The important part, in my opinion, is that you realize that you have more than enough in your budget than just for you. You have a responsibility to help where you can. Further, you will only learn to be happy when you learn to give. A life lived just for yourself will ultimately prove meaningless. That’s why you need a charity budget.

How the Rich Justify Donating Less to Charity than the Poor

how the rich justify donating less to charity

To be honest, as a self-described rich person, I can be a bit of a rich person apologist. But I have always been puzzled as to why the rich give less as a percentage of their wealth to charity. Some people surmise it’s because the wealthy are insulated from socioeconomic suffering or because the rich are unethical.

I had previously surmised the reason was that giving is a skill. If you don’t develop the skill when you have less, it doesn’t come naturally when you have more. So my solution was – build the habit.

How the Rich Can Justify Giving Less

A new idea popped into my head after discussing the differences between absolute and relative frugality. The rich may treat charity in terms of absolute and relative generosity.

For instance, the rich give on average 1% of their income as opposed to 3% by the poor (I don’t know if this is pre- or post-tax). So 3% at a $33,000 post-tax salary might be $1,000. 1% at a $600,000 salary would be $6,000.

The poor don’t give a lot in absolute terms to charity.  They do give a percentage that is significant for them. While the rich can give a lower percentage, they can give themselves kudos because of the amount.  $6,000 seems like/is a lot of money and the rich might stop at that amount because it’s such a large amount. Both sides can pat themselves on the back by choosing to view their donations in the way that is most beneficial to them.

In a way it makes sense. The poor can’t give much in terms of absolute amounts without doing serious damage to their finances. The rich don’t have to give a large percentage in order to make an impressive gift.

And the absolute amount certainly matters. The media have chastised Jeff Bezos  for his lack of philanthropy but he, his parents and Amazon have given away hundreds of millions.  Further, to be fair, if you have a lot of money to give, it would be wise to take your time and research before making any moves.

Are the rich terrible?

I’m not trying to shame anyone regarding their charitable giving. I applaud anyone who gives to charity in any amount (so long as it isn’t to the church of scientology etc). Decide on a charitable budget that makes you comfortable and then view your choice in whatever way that makes you feel good about it. It’s a great deed – it doesn’t have to be the greatest deed to be commendable.

Does viewing your charitable donations in terms of relative or absolute generosity help you feel better about your donations?

The Three Questions to Ask to Know if Your Finances are on the Right Track

How to Know Your Finances Are on the Right Track

Before we talk about the right track for your finances, have I ever told you about the time that my appendix ruptured and I missed it? For over a year? Well, I told this story to my doctor friends and they all shrugged their shoulders and said, well, people’s bodies are so wonderfully different. That’s it. No wisdom. No explanation. Just that people are different.

I was reminded of this because every Friday at Mark’s Daily Apple, they run a success story. A few weeks ago, the success was a little controversial. The featured lady had plenty of smiling pictures, described her diet, and says she feels great. The problem – some people thought she wasn’t eating enough based on their own caloric estimates of her diet. You can’t have fewer than 1200 calories, they say.

Do others know your life better than you do?

This is an interesting criticism. Here’s this woman who has found this diet that works for her. She has tried it out and found that her energy and weight have greatly improved. She looks healthy. She doesn’t look underweight. And yet, internet strangers, who have probably never taken a nutrition course and have never met this woman, feel the need to question her lifestyle because they read somewhere on the Internet that 1200 calories is the minimum that any woman should eat.

Could it be that this woman doesn’t know how to take care of herself and is missing some huge impending problems? Sure, it’s possible. But should we give her the benefit of the doubt that maybe her body is different and that she knows what’s best for herself?

Probably. I mean, I certainly follow a strange diet that works for me. I told my doctor, like a good little patient and she said the same groundbreaking wisdom about nutrition I had heard on a podcast:

If it works for you, then it works.

People are different. What works for you might not work for me. And if it works for you, why should you stop doing it just because it doesn’t work for others? Why should you stop just because they’ve done some studies to say that it didn’t work for other people? If it works for you, maybe it just works, full stop. Maybe you don’t need to conduct a double blind study to prove its validity. It works in the only place it matters – in your life.

The same applies to personal finance.

How to get on the right track with your finances

Our budgets have different categories, different percentages. Savings rates differ. Our incomes are different. It’s easy to look at others and wonder how you’re doing comparatively. How do you know you’re on the right financial track?

  • Are you making acceptable progress toward your financial goals?
  • Does your plan make you feel calm about your finances?
  • Is your lifestyle sustainable and does it make you happy?

I think we sometimes fall into the trap from our school days – assuming that there is just one right answer. For our lives, the right answers are less clear cut.

Every person is unique and what works for you won’t necessarily work for anyone else. It can be easy to be swayed by experts that pressure you to do things their way or even family or friends who don’t understand your way. You don’t have to convince anyone that your way works for them. The question to ask yourself is whether your financial plan makes sense for you.   Let’s never forget that personal finance is not about math, it’s about fitting the money plan to the person. Whatever plan works for you – in that it’s something that advances you to your goals while letting you live your life – is the right track for your finances.

Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash

Who Picks Up the Check?: Talking to Neuropsychologist Rachel about Dating with Income Disparities

Who Picks up the Check? Dating and Money stories

This is the first in the series “Who Picks Up The Check?” about dating and money. Rachel of Dousing the Fire is a neuropsychologist who recently quit her job, is pursuing her own definition of financial independence and is just generally a badass. I spoke with Rachel about dating with large income disparities, the effect of the FIRE movement on in-demand jobs, and bad dates.

If you want to be interviewed, use the contact form or send me a DM on Twitter @thegiveandget. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Editorial comments are in brackets. 

Let’s start with some background. What kind of beliefs about money did you have when you were growing up?  

My parents were not by any means high-income. My mom worked as a teller at the gas company (in the 80s, people paid their bills in person). My dad worked in materials management. We were barely middle class.  

My grandparents had a business that they started in the ‘70s. There was a recession but in the end it did very well. Day to day, I was lower middle class but when I was around my grandparents, I was upper middle class.

My family believed that they could always make more money. I was taught not to worry about it so much. 

Where did you learn about FIRE and what has been your experience with it?

It may have been Millennial Revolution that was the first blog that I came across. They are very anti-homeownership and I just bought a house and I am now of the same opinion as well.

In the field I work in, you have to really want it.  The year I had my internship, there was a 26% non-match rate. And if you didn’t match, you would just have six figures of debt [and no job]. 

On FI, they emphasize becoming an electrician or an air traffic controllers [high paying jobs without high student debt loads]. But if everyone did this, we wouldn’t have geriatricians. We wouldn’t have people deep in debt doing jobs that are very much in demand and if we lost that, we’d all be up a creek without a paddle. 

Maybe there’s a middle path where you can go and take student loans but not that much. But no one’s talking about that yet and no one’s talking about changing the system. 

If you had a definition of FIRE, what would it look like for you?

I am pursuing FIRE. It’s ironic because the last thing I want to do is travel. I just want to live out in the country and do my consulting work and forensic work. I’ve done some statistical consulting and do some disability insurance review and some report underwriting.

I’m a public expert on criminal forensic neuropsychology.  As a neuropsychologist, to get your foot in the door, you have to do a lot of criminal competency evals. And sometimes it’s a big pain because the patient is on the ground covered in feces. [Editorial note: Rachel is a badass.] But as lawyers get to know your expertise in sex offender analyses, you get more work. As a neuropsychologist, not just a psychologist, I’m more likely to be used in cases involving the death penalty.

I worked for 19 months in the federal prison system. Now, even my real estate tenants don’t scare me. 

You recently quit your job – does that mean you’re FI?

It just means I’m fearless and have a low tolerance for BS. 

Have you read about Kiyosaki The Cash Flow Quadrant? Most people are employees but the other class of people who trade time for money. So I’ve only traded in being an employee for being a self employed professional. The other side of the quadrant is investment and entrepreneurial, which is the real estate part. I want to continue to invest and build a business with passive sources of money because the goal is to  quit trading time for money. 

You have an interesting perspective because you have dated both as a high-income person (doctor) and as a lower income person (grad student). Tell us about that.

When I was on post doc in Toronto, my salary was $40k CAD/year but in Toronto you are considered low-income if you make less than $45k. The most interesting thing was the barriers the low income imposed. If someone wants to invite you to go to do something, you have the uncertainty of knowing who will end up paying.

If you’re lower income you’re at the mercy of your finances and of the other person. Once, I was dating someone and we were going to the fashion district in Toronto and something happened on the transit. Trolleys were full. I called him to say that I would be 30-45 minutes late. He said just get a taxi and I’ll pay for it. In my head that wasn’t even an option. I was so upset. It just ruined the evening.

How did you handle that uncertainty of not knowing who was going to pay?

I typically got things paid for. My best friend and I dated the same guy  but when i dated him, he paid for everything.  It wasn’t even a question. When she dated him, they split everything fifty-fifty. Maybe it was feminine wiles. Same guy, same apartment, same job, same city – just different women.

But I also thought, it’s just money, I can always make more. I wanted to enjoy the city at least a little bit.

I probably would have told my younger self to lighten up a little bit. Get the damn taxi and do not let it ruin your life. Spending an extra $50/month would not have broken me if it’s a means to an end. If you’re voluntarily impoverished because you are pursuing some high end profession, lighten up a little.

How was dating different when you were high-income?

I got into a longer-term relationship when I started making money. I felt a sense of responsibility to provide because I was dating this guy who had a son. It was interesting to me how quickly that kicked in – how much responsibility I felt as the higher income person to take care of my partner. 

In my Italian family, they’re adamant that the man takes care of the woman. So when he met my family, I told him that he better bring a roll of hundreds because if they saw me take out my wallet at any point they were not going to like him.

Were you ever resentful of having to pay for everything?

I was not resentful at all. He busted his ass and he was doing HVAC on roofs in Florida in July. He’s working harder physically 110% and he doesn’t have as much to show for it. He knew I was a doctor and I knew he was in HVAC. When I would ask him to dinner, I would pay because I asked him. If we went out for dinner last week, he would bring a pizza next week. Or if I had a rough day he would ask if he could bring by some wings.

Every Friday, I would typically buy steaks, and he would grill them or I would take us all out to dinner.  A nice dinner is nothing for me. He has worries about overdrafts and it’s a very different world. 

I was happy to do that for him and his son. When we went to a steakhouse for  the first time his son had never been to a restaurant with cloth napkins.

We never said it out loud but we understood and did what felt equal for us. It’s like Thanksgiving – everyone brings something to the table.

Does being a high-income woman limit your dating prospects?

Being a high-income female professional very much limits your dating options. You occasionally get a unicorn with a very secure man who doesn’t care if you make more.

You are limited in the lower income or lower education men you can date because they have to be secure and open to it. Some of the higher income men are hypercompetitive and can also get threatened by a high income. It can be difficult to align personality and income to get a good fit. In college any kind of guy would date me. If you’re a median earner you’re less of a threat to men. 

Still, I very much preferred higher income dating. Having a higher income in general is less stressful for the world.

If you could pick the ideal spouse in terms of financial habits and beliefs, what would that person be like?

It’s hard to quantify – it would depend on where they are in their journey. But there are real estate people and not real estate people. My ideal person might have to be a real estate person in order for me not to seem like I’m totally insane. 

It would have to be someone who understands leverage but isn’t too crazy. Someone who is intensely focused on whatever they’re trying to do. which is probably going to involve real estate. 

I like a good adventure. I’m very judgmental when people are operating from a place of fear. I dated a super cautious engineer type in Florida and he seemed afraid of losing a penny. I do think I need somebody who’s ready to be bold in his financial charges. 

Any terrible dating stories that you want to share?

I dated a guy in Missouri who I knew was a psychopath but he was nice to look at and I kept dating him just to see what he would try. He forgot his wallet on our first date. That’s a classic move there. Because i knew what was going on I never lent him any money. He put my name as a reference for a payday loan later. Sometime I do things just for the adventure. I love a good adventure. 

Another date that comes to mind: I saw this profile, a little bit hipster, big glasses but he states in his profile that his dad committed suicide and he was traveling around the country getting to know his dad’s friends to write a memoir. I meet up with him and he was the most boring person I’ve ever met. He looked so sickly I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to stand up at the end of the date. At the end, we were walking to my car and he for a hug. I offered him a handshake.

Do people go on dates with you to get free therapy?

People ask me questions that they want to ask a psychologist. What do you think about chronic traumatic encephalopathy? I get some stupid questions from time to time. In person, everyone says “you’re analyzing me right now!” No, I’m not , other than that now I know your IQ.

What do you wish you knew way back when?

If you know what you want, prescreen it. As a psychologist, I know that the #1 thing couples fight about is money. It’s so personal and intimate to people that it’ll be so integral to relationship if not aligned. 

I actually wish there was a way to know more bout people’s financial philosophy without society considering most of these things rude. If you find out later that someone has $57k in credit card debt that’s a big damper in a relationship. I don’t know that I’ve figured out how to solve that problem. Maybe you should just be rude and know that you have a lot of credit card debt than drag the relationship along for 6 months and be like “whoops.” 

When I told someone I was going to FI, he said I wouldn’t want to retire. I wouldn’t want to either. The important thing is to tell people about your relationship with money first. 

 

The Expert Budgeting Advice I Don’t Follow

The 50-20-30 budget is a cornerstone rule-of-thumb according to personal finance budgeting experts. In it, you spend 50% on needs, 20% on savings and debt reduction and 30% on “wants.”  This may be sacrilege but this seems like a terrible plan for your budget.

Frittering money away on a budget

Consider the following hypothetical 10-year spending of a 23-year old who makes approximately $30,000/year post-tax and who follows this budget.
Age Posttax $ Annual wants Monthly Wants
23 30,000 9,000 750
24 31,200 9,360 780
25 32,448 9,734 811
26 33,746 10,124 844
27 35,096 10,529 877
28 36,500 10,950 912
29 37,960 11,388 949
30 39,478 11,843 987
31 41,057 12,317 1,026
32 42,699 12,810 1,067
 Total $108,055

Starting with a modest entry-level salary and modest raises, this person has spent $108,055 over just 10 years on indeterminate “wants.” Over a 40 year career, this number could be half a million or more.

What do you get if you spend 30% on wants?

What do you think these wants are? Well, if you look at the number as $100k, and think of spending a lump sum like that, it seems like you could have bought some really awesome stuff that would be valuable now. You could have a designer wardrobe, a nice car, some nice vintage furniture or maybe you can point to key moments in your life- lavish vacations, a big wedding.

But if you subdivide it into $750-$1000 month, it’s very easy for that money to disappear rapidly. You find that you can piddle your money away on Kardashian-endorsed clothing, a Hyundai, and overpriced West Elm furniture (I don’t have anything against the Kardashians or Hyundais but I’ve heard West Elm isn’t very good). Instead of memorable meals, you’ve spent way too many weeknights at the not-so-good pub or the meh takeout place.

Why 30% “wants” can be a bad idea

Budgets are often thought of as ways to restrain our spending but, if used incorrectly, they can be the impetus to increase spending. Say this person is 23 and never made any real money before and now has license to use $750 with no real purpose every month. How is this person going to spend that $750? Probably not in a malicious way but likely in an easy way. Someone suggests a trip somewhere and you go.

Then, you have a rough day at work so you go out to a fancy dinner to treat yourself. Upgrade your electronics and your cars. Upgrade your furniture. You have kids and buy your kids stuff. At the end of 10 years, you have the latest versions of things you used to have when you were 23, your closets are filled with stuff, you have a fair number of frequent flyer miles and you wonder, why am I still in debt? Why don’t I have the career I want?  Why don’t I have the relationships I want? Why isn’t my life fulfilling?

 All this regret and you’ve been sticking to a budget. You did everything the financial gurus told you to do, but you might not be getting ahead of your finances.

A Possible Solution

The regrets people have in their 20s were not traveling more, not building close relationships, not exercising, not trying new things. Instead of putting an indiscriminate “wants” category, perhaps you could subdivide your “wants” budget to address these possible regrets.

Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing offered some interesting budget advice. Some background on Li, after his dad passed away, he was forced to start working 16-hour days at age 15. He did not come from wealth but is worth an estimated $31 billion today.

Anyway, Li’s advice is to divide one’s budget according to the following categories:

50% live. 20% save. 15% grow. 10% build. 5% play.

Here’s How It Would Work

Here’s an example of what this looks like on the same $30k posttax salary:


Live (the basics)

$800 rent/utilities
$150 food
$200 other necessary spending (insurance, phone etc.)
$100 transportation

Total = $1250=50%

Grow (learn and experience)

$50 building your network/dating (building new relationships)
$50 books/classes (structured learning)
$200 travel/trying new things/starting a new business (independent learning)
$75 charity

Total =$375 =15%

Build (acquire the things you will need in your life)

$100 furnishing your home/home needs
$100 furnishing your wardrobe/personal needs
$50 exercise (classes, building your own at-home gym)
Total = $250 = 10%

Save

$500 savings/debt repayment
Total = $500 = 20%

Play (whatever you want)

$125 entertainment/eating out
Total = $125 = 5%

$2500 total

You get $50 to spend on networking this month. Who do you want to meet and treat to coffee? A cute dating prospect? Your coworkers? People with your potential dream job?

You get $200 to travel this month. Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? Paris? Polynesia? Pittsburgh?

You have $100 to spend on classes. What do you want to learn? Java? Italian? How to bake a cake? How to play the piano?

Even you can’t make these percentages, that’s fine. It’s something to work towards. The point of a budget is structure, not perfection. The beauty of this budget is that if you follow it perfectly, you will grow and you won’t squander too much of your money away on activities and products that you won’t remember.

I’ve heard some people say that the 20s don’t matter. Those people probably think life doesn’t matter. In your 20s you may (finally!) be out of school, and you can make your 20s can be all about growth. Even if all you learn is how to tread water, that’s a great skill

Some people enter their 30s in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Why can’t you use these 10 years to build a foundation for your career growth?

What do you think of this alternative budget?

Expert budgeting financial advice I don't follow

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

In Praise of Deceiving Your Audience

Giving advice is tricky. First, you might not know what advice to give. Then, even if you know the absolutely right solution, the asker might not follow your advice. This has led some people to give advice based on what they believe the asker might follow instead of what may be more useful. I guess for me, that rings false because lawyers don’t get to give illegal advice just because we believe our clients are crooks.

Others believe that people may follow their advice but will be disappointed if they get different results. These people are very wary of giving advice of the “I did this, you can too!” varietal. They say insinuating similar or even positive results could be misleading. I’d like to think that people have seen the Etsy Fail blog  and/or understand the term “your mileage may vary.”  You train as hard but you don’t run as fast in the race. You study as hard but get different grades. You can diet and exercise and still not be as skinny as someone who eats whatever they want and lays on the couch. This is something we all learn about pretty early in life – life is not a simple cause and effect machine.

My thoughts on this: if the advice is solid, I don’t think we should concern ourselves with the results. First of all, none of us can guarantee or predict results. (The only people who try to do so are selling something.) If you write solid advice to a group of people, you can’t take on too much responsibility for what happens. We can’t predict the future for ourselves, let alone anyone else. The only thing we can control is our choices.

Second, the process is more important than the results.  I believe in teaching good habits, even if the results will inevitably vary.  If we focus too much on the end result, if we get too caught up in “well she has these advantages” or “he has these deficiencies,” no one will ever start anything. And that may be the worst kind of advice. If we focus on the journey and the good habits, I think it would be exceedingly rare for anyone to get to the end and think, I wish I hadn’t even started. 

I think about the call for transparency in personal finance blogs and I wonder if that’s beneficial. Let’s say someone reads the Frugalwoods, who have gotten some heat for pretending to be middle class while earning a $300k salary, and the reader is inspired to live a simpler, less expensive lifestyle and save more. Is there a bad outcome in this scenario? To me, the ends justify the means.

Some might say, bloggers can be inspiring while being honest. But I’ve disclosed that I have a high salary, and I’ve already heard a few comments that imply that  I’m unrelatable. I think people get most inspired by those who seem similar to themselves. If you broadcast you have a high salary, fewer people will think they can follow you, even if the advice and the steps are the same. If you broadcast your high salary, other people will focus on the results, see it as unobtainable and they might not even start. That’s a bad outcome. So if some bloggers want to create a facade of being low-income and that facade helps more people, who am I to judge? They are helping people. I am unrelatable.

Some might also say that bloggers could more transparently advertise the difficulties in their paths, but I wonder if this is also counterproductive. When I think about everything I’ve ever accomplished in my life, I’ve never thought about the obstacles or my deficiencies. For instance, my friends wanted to run a marathon, and I figured I would join them.  I had never run more than 10 miles before but I followed Hal Higdon’s program and I was fine.  I think if someone had told me that I wouldn’t make it, I probably would have backed out.  Some people like to prove people wrong – I am not one of those people. Lots of people are easily discouraged.

This is the beautiful thing about tiger moms. They assume their kids are capable and make their kids keep trying. Usually the kids soar because the kids have no idea that they can’t do it. I think it’s also true for adults – if you have high expectations, people will reach them more often than you would expect. Part of it is that you have no idea what the other person can accomplish and the other part is that people stretch to achieve what they believe they can achieve.

I think there are enough naysayers in the world that I don’t need to be one of them. And I think the basic tenets of personal finance are something that nearly everyone can do.

In fact, succeeding in personal finance is not that surprising, even if you start from the bottom. When I think of all the amazing things that people have accomplished when they really shouldn’t have, personal finance seems easy. Like Spud Webb never should have made it to the NBA. There are guys who are 6’8″ who don’t make it to the NBA. So someone who is 5’7″ generally has no chance. And no way would he ever have the chance to compete or win a dunk contest. I’m sure everyone told this to Spud Webb. I’m sure the number of people who believed in him making it to the NBA was very small. I’m sure there were a number of people who told him to do something easier. If he focused on the results, he wouldn’t be Spud Webb. He just focused on being an awesome basketball player. (See also Muggsy Bogues)

I think of the pianist with only one hand. There are people with two hands who aren’t pianists. Hey buddy, let’s steer you to painting instead (I mean, you don’t need both hands for painting and there’s a quadriplegic painter, so one hand doesn’t seem so bad). There are tons of things that someone with only one hand can do easily – playing the piano is one of the hardest. But that guy said no, I want to play the piano. And he did.

I remember I heard an interview with a man without limbs who became a wrestler and when I tried looking him up,  I couldn’t figure out which search result was him because there were multiple successful limbless wrestlers.  

I’m following the budding career of Shaquem Griffin, the first one handed-NFL player in the modern era. Now, if I had a son with one hand who wanted to be in sports, I would direct him towards running or soccer. And those would have been the safe choices. But it’s also less inspiring.

Shaquem Griffin was selected in the fifth round – he wasn’t a sought-after prospect. He knew the odds were against him in the draft. But from what I read from his interviews before he got drafted, the results of the draft, which he couldn’t control, were not the most important thing. He had already created a life for himself where he didn’t say, this is my disability, what can I still do? He started with, this is what I want to do and I won’t let my disability hold me back. And that’s the kind of mindset that is going to get him far and inspire others. That’s the kind of mindset I want to cultivate in myself and others.

It would have been very good advice to tell any of these people why they couldn’t do what they were trying to do. Why waste your time? Try something easier. That’s focusing on the results, not the process. All of these people succeeded because they focused on the process and weren’t too afraid to start.

So when people say, people can’t save money, I’m surprised. There are countless dyslexic authors, but telling someone they can save money is setting people’s hopes up. Because saving money, that’s impossible.

I’m not saying the message should be, you will get a million dollars by age 35. The message should be, if you develop these habits, you will have a great chance at succeeding no matter where you start from. Yes there will be obstacles and challenges and setbacks. I have no idea what those will be like for you. But I believe in starting and I believe in the process. And I believe anyone can. I also believe in the great Rumi quote:

Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.

Jordan B. Peterson describes a very optimistic view of life whereby a person thinks that all one’s problems are caused by oneself. That way, each person is totally in control of his/her own destiny. I mean, it’s not true. We are not the masters of our own fate. But what if we acted as if we were? Those who think they are the protagonists in their dramas have a lot more say in their outcomes than those who see themselves as victims.

People say you can encourage people but the ethical thing to do is to stifle their expectations lest they be disappointed. I say, why? If more people believe they can, more people will.

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

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How Being “Nice” Hurts Your Finances

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Everyone should be kind. But that’s quite different than being “nice.”

According to Wikipedia:

The term”nice guy syndrome” can be used to describe a man who views himself as a prototypical “nice guy,” but whose “nice deeds” are deemed to be solely motivated by a desire to court women.

A nice guy does certain things that appear, on their face, to be nice, but he doesn’t do these actions just to be nice – no, he has an agenda. In his mind he’s thinking, if I do X nice things for a girl, then she should date me. But the girl never agreed to any of this. The way you recognize a “nice guy” is that when he doesn’t get the results he expected, he gets really upset and the nice actions stop. He views these women as leading him on.

This isn’t a phenomenon solely for men though. I’ve seen women also make these mental contracts. I’ve known women who act believing that if she does certain things, the guy she’s dating will want her to be his girlfriend, or will propose or will be a better husband.  And then when the guy doesn’t call, doesn’t propose, doesn’t pick up the extra chores, she’s upset. She views these men as players.

In both these “nice people’s” minds is the idea that the other person should have known that the nice guy/girl wouldn’t have done these things without some quid pro quo arrangement. The nice guy/girl held up his/her end of the deal so where was their reward?

So what’s a nice guy/girl to do?

Well, I’m a lawyer so I’m going to say “Make a contract.” But you probably won’t.

The problem with “nice guys” or “nice girls” is that you can only control your own actions. If you expect people to read your mind, you’ll generally be disappointed. Even if they could read your mind, it doesn’t mean that they’ll do what you want them to do. If you need someone else to do something in order to make your actions worth it, either state your intentions and get an agreement or don’t do it.

What does this have to do with finances?

Just like in relationships, you can only control your own actions when it comes to your finances; you don’t have control over results and you don’t have control over anyone else. The important thing here is acknowledging the contracts you are making in your own head. For instance:

You’re killing yourself at work, but no one agreed to promote you.

You write blog posts based on what you perceive other people want to read, but no one agreed to read it.

If you’re acting like a “nice guy/girl” these are reasonable things to do but these actions will only lead to resentment. Instead, you need to ask yourself why you’re doing the things you do. If you find your work intrinsically rewarding, then keep on doing it. If you would only do certain activities if you get a certain return, then you have to ask for it and do what it takes to get the other person to agree. If what you’re asking them to do sounds hideous to ask (if I am nice to you, then you will work for free), then don’t expect a great response.Even if the other person agrees to your terms, you should always act as if the return is uncertain. That means, if it’s something you really don’t want to do, you really shouldn’t do it.

I know everyone says doing what you love is terrible advice. It’s true that it’s a dicey proposition to do what you love and expect to make a living from it. But the worst part of doing what you love is that you might not get paid; you still spent your time doing what you love. If you aren’t doing what you love, you better make sure you are getting something worthwhile in return.

Cheapness – Can Stop Please Stop

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A friend was telling me how he could get any drink he wanted for free at a certain Starbucks because of a deal with his company. He was telling me about how he chose his drink (yes, this was an incredibly long and boring conversation) and I interjected, you don’t drink coffee so why does any of this matter?

I know, he said, but it was free.

He would make an excellent personal finance blogger. =D

When I was younger, I tried to figure out everything I could get for free. But as you get older, you become a little warier about free stuff. Sometimes the furniture is free because it has bed bugs embedded in it. Sometimes the food is free because you’re getting a sales pitch. And sometimes it is a good product without strings attached but it is still too much of a hassle to pick it up or upkeep, or sometimes you just don’t want it.

Free only means it doesn’t cost money; it doesn’t mean it comes without any costs at all.

As I’ve aged, I’ve learned to appreciate the other costs in life. Costs in time, mental energy, space in my apartment, convenience. It makes sense that the more money I have, the less I use money as my only lens with which to view the costs of things, particularly as those other costs have become more precious.

If you have no money, then it may make sense to base your decisions on money. But I’m exceedingly wary of people who have money who base all their decisions solely on money. There are personal finance bloggers who make much more money than I do and who put up all these constraints on how they can spend their money. No vacations. The cheapest food.

I understand dipping one’s toes into austerity. I think it makes sense for everyone to go through no-spend months and to live like they were college students again. It’s important not to forget that feeling. But living your life based on what saves the most money – that’s cheap.

People think lifestyle inflation is the only thing you need to look out for but cheapness is also a pervasive and somewhat easy trap to fall into. What’s the problem, you may say. You’re saving money.

I mean the problem is you’re a jerk. How do you know you’re a jerk? Because you don’t have a code. Everyone needs to have a code. What do I mean by a code?

Imagine your parents assembled the perfect toolbox. They read up on Consumer Reports and spent their time figuring out what was needed for the best toolbox, and then got to work assembling the best hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, you name it. Then one day you ask for advice on a project and you learn that they have never used any of these tools. They don’t even know how to use them.

You ask to borrow a tool. They won’t give it to you. You ask, what are the tools for. Emergencies. The future. It makes them feel safer knowing they’re there. Even though they don’t use them. And then they leave you behind and amass more tools.

Money is a tool.  If you have no projects, then why are you accumulating so many tools?

I’ve had former friends who invited people over for food and then told us how much the food they were providing would cost us (it was something like $10/person and they were serving us cabbage soup. I felt like I was getting fleeced. Also I don’t know when I had to agree to eat and pay for cabbage soup).

There are things that will cost money and you will have to decide what is more important to you. Your reputation. Your children. Your parents. Fun. Charity.

You have to set out the tenets you want to live by. Because if you don’t value anything at all, then why do you and how can you value money?

Frugality – Don’t Stop Can’t Stop

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I have two friends who own successful small businesses. One spent $25,000 on two watches recently but the first time I met him, he was giddily boasting about his $6 t-shirt. The other sold his share in his company for $1.2M and the first time I met him, he was looking for street parking to avoid paying for a lot.

One would think, both of these men being cocky alpha males, that they would have tried to impress me from the get-go with their wealth. But they were flaunting their cheapness when just meeting me and I only learned about their wealth over time. I think they both tried to flaunt their wealth to me later (I did learn about the watches and the selling price of the company after all), but what I initially saw was that these were people who were still interested in saving a few bucks here and there even when it didn’t matter to them.

For a different perspective, I remember a grad student telling a friend and me that when she got her first real job she would get a wardrobe full of designer clothing. My other friend in this conversation is a very successful vice president of a major company and I remember her balking at the cost of designer clothing. $600 for boots? No thank you.

So why am I telling you these anecdotes? Well, I’ve seen posts where people wonder if they’ll have to be “frugal forever.” It seems like people are wondering if they’ll always be miserable clipping coupons or comparing prices. What I learned from these anecdotes is that there is no end to frugality. I’m not saying it’s an endless treadmill of counting pennies, but if you get into certain money-saving habits that work for you, that you develop over years, you don’t turn them off even when you gain wealth. You may not be able to turn them off either. Think of it like a train – you spent all this time getting it going that it’s hard to stop it. You’ve built these habits for life.

For instance, I still look at coupon inserts because I used to clip coupons with my mother. This is a habit I’ve had since I was a little kid. I look for promo codes when I purchase items online. I still cook most of my meals at home. I don’t need to save the dollars here and there anymore, but 1) I’ve gotten quite efficient with how I save money because I know what works and where to look; 2) there’s very little incentive to spend more when I know the cheaper option works; 3) I’ve learned to enjoy the cheaper options; 4)  the high of saving money doesn’t go away; and 5) I just don’t know another way to be.

So if you’re frugal, you are mindful with your money. You have forced yourself to make decisions that resulted in spending more  on things that are meaningful to you and less on stuff that isn’t. If you live that perspective, you probably start to believe that mindset and that’s a hard mindset to break out of. In fact, you probably don’t want to break out of that mindset. You are that mindset now.

So if you’re wondering if you will get to a point in your life when you can finally get rid of your frugal habits, the answer is probably not. Once you develop the habit, you’ve changed something about yourself and your goals. The positives are that it only gets easier to save money because you will find it second nature and you will want to do it. It’s like flexing a muscle. It becomes less awkward and then it just becomes second nature. The negatives (possibly) are that you have fundamentally changed what you value and how you live your life. You may never get that designer wardrobe because you have realized different goals in life.

The other option you have is to get the designer wardrobe, the fancy vacations, the upscale apartment. The truth is that all the choices you make at the beginning of your career and all the ones you are making on a daily basis are creating the habits you will get used to. As I’ve heard Whitney Cummings say about snowboarding, you go in the direction that your feet are pointed. If you’re used to saving, the more you’ll save.   The more you spend, the more you’ll get used to spending. The more you do something, the more you’ll value it, the more it’ll become part of you. It’s the habits, the things you do everyday, that will make you into the person you will eventually become. And it’s only much later that you realize what you decided you valued, because that’s the person you became.

What kind of person are you becoming?
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Photo by Mado El Khouly on Unsplash