How Not to Use Money to Find Happiness

When reading Gary Keller’s “The One Thing,” he shared an ancient tale that really resonated with me. It’s about thinking of abundance and the pursuit of happiness.

The Begging Bowl

Upon coming out of his palace one morning and encountering a beggar, a king asks, “What do you want?” The beggar laughingly says, “You ask as though you can fulfill my desire!” Offended, the king replies, “Of course I can. What is it?” The beggar warns, “Think twice before you promise anything.”

Now, the beggar was no ordinary beggar but the king’s past-life master, who had promised in their former life, “I will come to try to wake you in our next life. This life you have missed, but I will come again to help you.”

The King, not recognizing his old friend, insisted, “I will fulfill anything you ask, for I am a very powerful king who can fulfill any desire.” The beggar said, “It is a very simple desire. Can you fill this begging bowl?” “Of course!” said the king, and he instructed his vizier to “Fill the mans begging bowl with money.” The vizier did, but when the money was poured into the bowl, it disappeared. So he poured more and more, but the moment he did, it would disappear.

The begging bowl remained empty.

Word spread throughout the kingdom, and a huge crowd gathered. The prestige and power of the king were at stake, so he told his vizier, “If my kingdom is to be lost, I am ready to lose it, but I cannot be defeated by this beggar.” He continued to empty his wealth into the bowl.

Diamonds, pearls, emeralds. His treasury was becoming empty.

And yet the begging bowl seemed bottomless. Everything put into it immediately disappeared!

Finally, as the crowd stood in utter silence, the king dropped at the beggar’s feet and admitted defeat. “You are victorious, but before you go, fulfill my curiosity. What is the secret of this begging bowl?”

The beggar humbly replied, ‘There is no secret. It is simply made up of human desire.”

What I get from this parable is that we will never be happy/satisfied/finished if we try to fulfill our wants. We have to seek something beyond desire.

 

Does the latte factor make sense for personal finance?


I don’t think you can even write about personal finance without addressing the so-called “latte factor.” A long time ago (the 90s) a personal finance writer named David Bach coined the term to express the idea that you could build up wealth by redirecting your small time expenditures into savings.

I’m of two minds on this. On the first mind, I think, even though I don’t drink much coffee, the cost/benefit ratio of quitting a daily coffee habit seems low. Assuming you incur no additional expenses (say, you cut out a $2 coffee every day and switch to tap water in a water bottle you already own), derive no additional benefit from your coffee than the actual coffee, invest that money and wait for it to grow, and there isn’t a market downturn, you can have, $55,000 over 40 years. But you had to make the choice 14,600 times (40*365, assuming that you are only tempted to get coffee once per day). You get a year of retirement savings after making 14,600 perfectly correct decisions.

This doesn’t seem like a bargain to me. It’s like saying – “here’s the secret to being healthy in old age – “Just say no every time you see something delicious you want to eat. Continue for 40 years.”  I like to think I have a fair amount of willpower, but this coffee task seems daunting. And that’s to me – someone who can only physically handle one coffee per week.

On the other hand, no one deserves luxury.Let’s face it – the latte-a-day habit is something fairly new. The Starbucks-on-every-corner only happened in the 1990s.  I remember, in the 90s, the news stories about the outrageous prices people were paying for coffee. Now, the prices and the habits have become commonplace.

What I’ve realized after being a frugal saver ever since my first job, is that these small expenses don’t matter to me. A daily $4 coffee, a $10 Uber, even a $500 airplane change ticket – none of these will affect my day-to-day. They don’t affect my savings. They don’t change my plans for retirement. They don’t register on my net worth. When I was starting out, they certainly would have. But I’ve achieved a level of financial security where I don’t have to worry about these amounts.

However, this might be different for you. If this sum of money is significant to you, then you shouldn’t fritter it away on coffee. Even if we assume that all the studies about the health benefits of coffee are 100% true and there are no downsides, no one needs coffee, and certainly no one needs it in a to-go cup everyday. So if you’re already scrimping and saving on the big things – housing, education, food, transportation, etc., and you are still struggling with money – and the amount of money you spend on coffee is a factor in your budget – then cut out the coffee.

I don’t think of this as the “latte factor” because overall, I think attacking a part of your budget that will yield such small results seems pointless, but the “latte spectrum.”  Don’t spend on luxuries, even little ones, until you can afford them, but when you can afford them, don’t sweat the small stuff. 

I think when you can enjoy your little luxuries without worrying about the cost, they’ll become even more luxurious, and you’ll appreciate them more because you will remember a time when you couldn’t have them.

What do you think of the latte factor? Is it worth it to you?

5 Perfect & Free Last Minute Mother’s Day Gift Ideas

mothersday

Stereotypically, gift-giving occasions are really fun for kids and really stressful for adults. In my household growing up, Christmas was stressful for me as a child because my parents never gave us gifts. So when we got back to school, the other kids would always show off their new toys and clothes and I would always make something up so I wouldn’t feel so odd.

However, no expectation of gifts means that as an adult, holidays, birthdays and Mother’s and Father’s day are completely stress-free. I can buy a gift if I want to but no one is expecting anything. If I buy a gift, it can’t be a disappointment, because there was no expectation of receiving anything from me. It relieves so much stress. Even my friends and I are sporadic gift-givers. Every year, the only gift I have to find is for my significant other.

And even that isn’t stressful because I love thinking about and shopping for gifts. I love thinking about what kinds of gifts would solve a problem or bring a smile. And it’s easy because it’s not stressful.  I also realize that some of the best gifts don’t cost anything. Here are some free ideas I’ve been thinking about to help you guys out.

1. A letter expressing your appreciation/love.

I remember my law school roommate explaining why a gift was incomplete without a card. Often what we’re trying to do with exchanging gifts is converting our appreciation into the form of a material object and hoping the other person can interpret the meaning of the gift correctly. But you can’t actually get out of writing down the words and the meaning. For those who are more linguistically inclined, just expressing the admiration or love with words may mean much more than any monogrammed gravy boat ever could.

2. Performing a chore that the giftee loathes or that relieves a burden.

For Thanksgiving, my sister and I cleaned out my mother’s closet. I wouldn’t even say we Marie Kondo-ed it. We just cleaned out the clearly tattered clothes, of which there were many. After it was done, she could see and find everything in her closet, she had more room in her closet, she found clothes she had forgotten about and her closet was beautiful to look at. This was completely free and was much more meaningful and helpful than buying her a new outfit to fit into her overstuffed closet. She said it makes her feel so happy every time she enters her closet and she thinks of us every time too.

I bought a cleaning service for my boyfriend once and even though the cleaning service was late, he felt so relieved to not have to worry about his dirty apartment anymore. It was also relieving for his roommates. That may have been the best gift ever (though this one wasn’t free, one could clean someone’s apartment for free). Think about what bothersome projects you can take on to alleviate the stress or burdens of your mother.

3. Teaching the giftee something he/she wants to learn.

All these gift ideas could go horribly wrong if taken on without a good understanding of what the giftee actually wants and what the tone of the relationship is. For instance, if the gifter has a bossy or condescending tone or if the giftee feels incompetent or has low self-esteem, tread lightly. But if you know the giftee actually does want to learn to make her pecs dance, and you happen to be The Rock, then this should be a no-brainer.

4. Something that you have that he/she wants

At first blush, this sounds like regifting but it doesn’t have to be and it doesn’t have to be negative. First, you don’t have to give something you received as a gift. You don’t even necessarily have to give something new. There are things you have that have added value because they come from you and because you’ve used them (but obviously, this does not include your used socks or underwear). The best version of giving something you already own is like giving an inheritance. It’s touching to give things of meaning to ones you love. It’s touching to think of the things you love getting new leases on life with your loved ones. The difference between this and regifting is that you’re giving something you love, not something you hate or are indifferent toward.

So consider giving your heirlooms, your jewelry, your antiques – things that you want others to have. Other ideas include books you have that you think would be meaningful to someone else or any souvenirs that you’ve kept and tell the story behind them. It would add an extra dimension if it’s a souvenir between the two of you that symbolizes an important milestone in your relationship.

5. Scheduled time together.

People are so busy these days I’m always touched when my friends give me enthusiastic yeses to last-minute get-togethers. It’s so much better than random material objects, even if they’re shiny or new. I would love it if someone gave me a scheduled coffee meet-up or date and I assume others would too.

In the end, these gifts are not really costless – they just cost time. But this is your mom and likely, what she wants most of all is to spend more time with you.

What do you think of this list? What are you getting your mom for Mother’s Day?

 

I was Featured in LearnVest

I tried to win the LearnVest contest for a story of pulling back when you’ve been too frugal. Well, I lost the contest but my story intrigued one of the editors enough to feature me in a story. And it’s currently the most commented (but I’m always afraid of internet comments so I haven’t read them. Tell me if they’re nice and I might dip my toe.) Go to Learnvest to read it now!

 

‘Paying Down $112K of Debt Super-Fast Made Me Miserable—So I Did This Instead’

Are our frugal tricks really saving us money?

I was shopping with my friend once and she was about to fall for that old, if you spend an extra $X, you’ll get a coupon for $Y off in the future. That doesn’t save you money! You’re buying stuff that you don’t want or need!

Sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking we’re saving money but it turns out to be not as much of a savings as we thought or perhaps not worth the effort required. This reminds me of when I helped my boyfriend move and he hadn’t planned ahead so we had a smaller truck than what we needed and only got the help of one mover. As we were driving on our second trip back to the new apartment at 2am, completely exhausted and demoralized, I asked how much he thought we saved by moving ourselves and he estimated a few hundred dollars. It wasn’t worth it! 2am!

Perhaps, like my friend, we don’t want whatever we saved money buying. We buy cheap clothing that we don’t like. We buy stuff because it’s cheaper than what we expected. Or sometimes we just delay a purchase that we had to make anyway.

I have been thinking about my “money-saving hacks” and I have to wonder if they’re really worth doing. If the money saved isn’t worth it, and you don’t like doing it, that’s a waste. I don’t have a TV, but that only saved me a few hundred dollars over several years.  And it’s not that I think I should have a TV. And I’m sure it saves me time and money from not watching more commercials than I need. But I keep telling myself that it’s such a cost savings when it really isn’t.

I think the first step to budgeting is checking your purchases to make sure you are spending your money in ways that make you happy. But sometimes when you get really frugal, you start to enjoy the high of saving money. And you might trick yourself into thinking you’re saving more than you really are. Maybe you enjoy the high but you have to ask yourself if there’s any real savings there. Are you getting stuff you like? Are you spending too much time looking for savings? If it’s not a significant savings, is it really worth the effort?

Are you paying to tempt yourself?

cropped-pretty_woman_vivian_after_shopping1.jpg

I never buy potato chips. I don’t even walk down the snack aisle. I know I can’t control myself around potato chips and if I go down the aisle, I will just be tempted to buy potato chips or something else really unhealthy. And after I eat the whole bag of potato chips in one sitting, which I always do, I feel pretty gross. Why even tempt myself? I just don’t keep potato chips in the house.

I just saw that Hulu was running a promotion – $6/month for the next year instead of the usual $8/month.  I’ve seen a lot of personal finance articles cite switching to Hulu/Netflix as an obvious money-saving switch. I currently have cable because it was actually cheaper than having just internet. So it’s clear that Hulu/Netflix isn’t always a cheaper solution. But I wonder if Hulu/Netflix makes good sense as an option by itself.

For me, it doesn’t save money to have Hulu/Netflix because I have cable for free. If someone had basic cable, which one may need to watch sports, then there are already an endless number of shows to watch. If someone had Amazon Prime, they would also have an endless amount of TV to watch. And a number of shows that are on Hulu can be watched for free on the network tv channels. Plus there’s Youtube, Ted talks, audio books from the library, online academic and video courses, actual books, Pandora, the radio, etc. You don’t need to spend $20 on Hulu/Netflix for endless entertainment. In fact, Hulu and Netflix give you more options for fun entertainment but a lot of helpful and educational videos can be had for free.

Furthermore, the cost of having Hulu/Netflix is more than just the cost of the access.  Watching TV is typically a sedentary and mindless activity. Having so many good TV options means other activities may be less attractive.

Now, I don’t own a TV, but I love watching TV. And while I usually turn something on to have some noise and entertainment while I’m cleaning or cooking, I know I could still be using the time more productively. I know that watching TV is like reading magazines or following aspirational Instagram feeds- it increases my restlessness, my ingratitude towards my own life. It makes me want to shop to buy the cool clothes or the lifestyles of the people I’m watching. It distracts me from taking the time to improve myself through reading books, exercising, doing errands. Paying for extra TV options is not paying for entertainment but paying so that I never achieve my goals. It’s like having a subscription feed for potato chips. So maybe I’ll just cut the temptation off at the pass and stick with cable for now until the promotion ends. Then I’ll go back to just internet.

On the other hand, I spent $22 on Twix bars at Costco. This was a startlingly large expense as I had just gone to Costco for a few things (actually just baking powder, but Costco only sells baking powder in 5 pound increments, which is an insane amount unless you’re a large family that eats a lot of baked goods). However, it’s much cheaper than buying Twix bars from a vending machine and I sometimes go to get a baked good for a much more expensive and just as unhealthy treat on rough days. This would be a cheaper alternative. So ideally, I would deal with stress by meditating and eating fruits and veggies, but let’s be realistic – I’m going for chocolate. So long as I eat these Twix bars as a replacement for prior bad behaviors, rather than creating a new ritual of eating way too many candy bars, I think this is an improvement on my past behavior rather than encouraging bad behaviors that wouldn’t happen without the purchase.

But I may just be deluding myself. How do you use shopping to make better habits for yourself?

Budget of a Single Childless Young Professional

I’m paid biweekly, I don’t count on a bonus, and it goes up at the end of the year after I max out my SS taxes, so my monthly income isn’t fixed. My spending isn’t fixed either. There’s always some random expenditure or maybe I make a big purchase that lasts for a few months (I do live next to a Costco). Let’s just average the income out to be about $8,300/month after taxes and other deductions. Also, I would average the spending to be:

$2100 for rent/utilities/phone;
$600 for gifts/charity;
$375 for food/drink;
$250 for personal care/clothing;
$150 for general shopping;
$200 for therapy;
$100 for transportation;
$100 for travel;
$500 for miscellaneous (apartment cleaning, entertainment, education, health and wellness, random expenses)

$3925 savings every month.

I spend about $4,375/month or $53k/year, so if I made about $75k gross, I could live paycheck to paycheck and have the same lifestyle. There’s quite a bit of bloat in there I guess, but if I took that salary cut, I would downgrade my apartment first. It’s a reasonable price to pay at my current salary but would be too large a percentage of my income at a lower salary.

It seems very much like I spend a lot of money and the numbers do look quite high. It seems to me that I live quite frugally but perhaps that’s just mindset and doesn’t really hold up to the facts. For my no-spend November, I’m hoping to cut deeply into my budgets for food, miscellaneous and general shopping but many of the other categories are non-negotiables for me. I’m not quite sure it’s lifestyle inflation because it’s stuff that I find really valuable in my life.

What do other people spend in a month?