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. 

 

Why My Next Car Will Be a Luxury Car

pexels-photo-724495.jpegDespite being happily car free for two years, I already know what car I will get in the future –  a 2015 white Acura ILX with approximately 50,000 miles.

I think the frugalest among us would gripe – DON’T GET A LUXURY CAR!!! YOU’RE FALLING INTO CON-SOOOOOOOM-ERRRRR-ISM-ism-ism (imagine that with a ghost voice echoing).

I’m not choosing this car because it’s a luxury car or even a car I particularly like. I’m choosing it because it’s my mom’s car, she doesn’t like it, and it has a poor trade-in value. She wants to get a new car, and I don’t have a car, so when she decides on a new car, I’ll purchase her old one.

I guess some people would think, well that’s your mom’s mistake and you shouldn’t have to pay for it. I mean, I don’t really understand that way of thinking but let me explain what our way of thinking is.

So our family is Chinese and my parents left China because they’re not big fans of communism. The basic problem with communism is you can’t trust others to keep working if they can get everything for free. Ironically, our family operates like a quasi-Communist unit. If someone needs money, money flows to that person freely. The plus side is that there’s a lot of trust and we also know everyone’s finances. We are lucky in that everyone is a self-sustaining ship.

The benefits include a sense of unity. We are very Asian in that we never split the cost of anything if we are out together. We pay for each others’ groceries if we’re shopping together. We never ask to be repaid for anything. If anyone were to ask for money from everyone else, it would be considered a gift – there is never mention of paying someone back. To us, that’s how one would treat strangers, not family. It also just makes life easier, making it seem like we have extra emergency funds (though we keep our own personal emergency funds as well).

It also helps our peace of mind to have others that you can depend on to help you out. Or even that demand to help you out. My parents get pretty annoyed if I buy something that they could give to me for free. I’m afraid to buy new dishes or towels because my family will see them and wonder why I thought their 10 year old towels weren’t good enough anymore. In fact, I never throw anything out without first considering if someone else in my family would want it. Waste not.

I’m pretty sure this is normal among the immigrant community. My friend drove a really fancy Mercedes that wasn’t his style for years. He said his brother needed to sell it to get a minivan for his growing family. It didn’t matter that he could have and may have wanted a cheaper or different car. Money is more than thinking about oneself – it always involves thinking about the family unit.

I remember rolling up to CampFi in a black dress, black cashmere sweater, designer shoes and driving a Lexus. I thought, I hope no one sees me. I had just come from work and, because I didn’t have a car, I borrowed my dad’s car, while he was on vacation. My whole outfit cost $100 and I had worn it for years. This was the cheapest car I could get. It didn’t look like I was frugal. And I guess it’s good that I didn’t care how I looked.

It’s funny because so much about “being frugal” seems to be “looking frugal.” People brag about their rusty cars and the holes in their pants. But just as everyone knows that having expensive stuff doesn’t mean you’re rich, having  expensive stuff also doesn’t mean you’re spending too much or that you’re not wealthy. In the future, I may drive around in a fancy car but it’s not because I view the car as a sign of monetary wealth. The car would be a sign of the wealth that I have accrued based on the strength of my family.

At the Crossroads of Student Financial Health and Mental Health

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I learned that there was a suicide at my very competitive high school earlier this month. He was a freshman. When I learned this from a friend, I told her I was surprised it hasn’t happened more often.

When I was home on break my fourth year at college, I received a very strange phone call. It was the father of an acquaintance,  a current senior, already accepted to attend my college. The father asked about my senior slump, i.e. the expected drop in grades a high school senior has after being accepted into college. Oblivious, I stated honestly that my senior grades improved my last semester, likely due to teachers caring even less than the students. I treated it as a bit of a joke, but he didn’t take it that way.

Apparently, my acquaintance had suffered the usual senior slump and his father had taken it upon himself to punish him based on whether I had done the same. (I was currently attending the college, so clearly I was not a good example for the father to call).

I later learned that the father hit his son after our call.

I think people hear this story and are surprised that I’m surprised. That family and my family are both Asian so I should have known what the call was about, right?

Over the years, I’ve learned that my parents are not normal. For instance, once when I was in a group of Asian people, someone said “people don’t understand that all Asian people get beat by their parents.” I piped up:”my parents don’t hit me.” One of my friends burst out laughing. Then she stopped and asked if it was a joke.

Asians think this is bar none the strangest thing about my family – no one gets hit, no one hits anyone else.  I know, as children, my parents got beat, but that was in Asia and a long time ago. I figured it was a bygone barbaric time. My grandparents did not know any better.

I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t beat your kids. I don’t understand it myself but I’m not judging. Still, it’s not the hitting that bothers me so much as the reason for hitting. My acquaintance was going to a very good school. Why would you hit a good kid like that?

And the answer is, because slumping grades are not good enough in the Asian American community. I am cognizant of the pressures to be perfect, but mostly from a distance. Most of my pressure growing up was internal; I tiger mom-ed myself. I signed myself up for piano lessons. I applied to gifted and talented programs. I applied to law school on my own urging.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I saw the external pressure my friends were under. This pressure to be perfect, top of class, high-earning. And I didn’t even grow up in a  super-pressure-cooker area like New York or California, or (heaven-forbid) Asia.

Asian immigrant parents often came to this country with nothing and they wanted a better life for their children. This has led to an arms race in education and money. And Asian parents will literally do anything to get their kids to succeed. There’s an incredible amount of sacrifice involved. Some Asian parents will sacrifice their own financial well-being for their children. With that, there comes a lot of pressure (psychological, emotional and physical, to name a few) to do well and give back. It’s not just about earning one’s keep; it feels a little bit like the guilt that Private Ryan has after so many people sacrificed for him. But if he had known about the guilt he would suffer, Private Ryan probably would have told those soldiers to call off the search. It’s just too much of a burden to bear. Nothing will ever seem enough to cover the sacrifice.

When I thought of student financial health, I thought about student health, and I thought about this. I was thinking, the best way to work on your financial health as a student is to give yourself a break. It’s too much of a burden to achieve super-perfect grades to get into that super-perfect college so that you can get that super-perfect job and earn super-perfect money. It’s ok to make ok money.

It’s ok to struggle at school or finances or relationships or anything. It’s also ok to fail sometimes. Failint doesn’t make you a failure and people will not see you as such.  Not being perfect only means you are human. And if that’s not ok for some people, well it’s their own problem. It’s not your problem.

In a way, it was good that I wasn’t such a stellar student because it meant that I didn’t have to live in fear of knowing what might happen if I failed. I met the failure and found it was ok.

Your parents probably love you even without all the bells and whistles. I mean, I can’t say for sure because I’m an Internet stranger. But it’s probably true. I eventually found out my own parents cared about me apart from my (paltry) accomplishments.

I always noticed that when pushy Asian moms would brag about their kids, my mom would bring up whatever marginally impressive thing her kids had done to use as a weapon to fight back. And then she’d bemoan the other moms later. From this, I did eventually get the feeling that my family was all on the same team. She didn’t tell me to get better for the sake of other moms; she just hung around other moms less. (Not because she was ashamed of us but because it’s just exhausting and no one’s ever going to top Danny who went to Yale on a full scholarship).

I wish you all the same luck with your families. And, y’know a scholarship to Yale (while we’re wishing). #finhealthmatters

 

 

The Huge Financial Privilege No One Talks About

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When we think of the haves vs. the have-nots, we assume that the “haves” hold all the financial advantages. Obviously tons of money is a huge financial privilege, but having money is no guarantee for proper management. There is no amount of money that is so large that it cannot be lost. See, e.g. pro athletes, lottery winners, MC Hammer.

People who succeed in careers often have good mentors; people who succeed in finance often have good role models. So while I did not grow up with a trust fund, I did have a huge financial privilege that set me up for financial success:

I had the privilege of being raised by financially responsible parents.
My parents didn’t have a lot of money when they came to this country but I grew up in a middle class family.  In the years between when my parents emigrated and when they had children, they saved every penny to give their children a more comfortable life, and they continued to model this behavior as we grew up.

What did this mean for me?

Lifestyle inflation is a foreign concept.

Before going car-free two years ago, I drove an 18-year old Honda Accord. I also used a 7-year old laptop. This was a few years after I had started working as an attorney with a six-figure salary and after I had paid off my law school debt. Someone asked me once why I didn’t upgrade and I honestly thought, you CAN’T buy something new until the old thing falls apart.

When you’re raised by immigrants, you never let things go to waste. My parents kept the same threadbare artificial Christmas tree for 20 years. My nephews sleep in the bunk bed that I slept in until I was 22. I still sleep with the same comforter I received when I was 8.  This idea of upgrading for upgrading’s sake is new to me and it honestly seems like too much work.

In fact, lifestyle inflation makes even less sense when you have judge-y immigrant parents. People talk a lot about peer pressure to spend. In my family, it was peer pressure to save. My parents routinely criticize me for spending on some pretty “normal” things, but they never encouraged me to buy more than I need to. Thrift is next to godliness.

They taught me that money is not love.

My parents never gave us gifts for Christmas or birthdays. While it would have been nice to have some new gadgets and gizmos, I never felt less loved. And my parents weren’t stressed about buying my love through gifts.

There’s obviously nothing wrong with gifts but I think some families really do get caught up in buying gifts, thinking that without spending $X on their kids, then they would have failed. But what’s more detrimental to children is being raised by stressed parents and learning that bigger gifts mean bigger love.

Money is an important tool but it’s not a cure-all.  Money is money and love is love. Confusing the two can only lead to disasters for your financial accounts and your heart.

They taught me that money isn’t shame.

My parents, they weren’t perfect (let me tell you!). But they never used money as a bargaining chip. They’d always ask if I needed money when I went out in high school (In fact, they still ask. They know I don’t carry cash). And they’d just give it to me. There was no “what are you going to use it for” or “didn’t you already get a new sweater?”

As a kid, if I needed money, they just gave it to me, no questions asked. I mean, they’re lucky I wasn’t into drugs or big shopping sprees, but maybe I wasn’t into those things because I didn’t grow up ashamed of needing money or of having needs.

I know some other people are raised to think that earning a lot of money is shameful. I obviously wasn’t raised that way and, well, obviously earning a lot of money is a lot easier than getting by on very little. It’s also easier to save when you aren’t ashamed of having money. I would argue that shame is the biggest obstacle to proper money management. (Maybe in a later post.)

They make me optimistic about my future.

Everyday there are countless articles/tweets/memes written by Americans throwing America under the bus. And yes, I know there are a ton of problems in this country. I don’t want to get all patriotic on you (but I’m not afraid to) but I love America. I was raised to love America.

Were my parents lucky? Sure. There’s an element of luck. Did they also make a lifetime of hard choices that had a high probability of success? Yes.

My dad served in the Navy and then studied accounting, a very stable career. My mother worked at the supermarket and various fast food restaurants to pay for her degree in math. They took English classes at night. We moved when they got better jobs. They commuted an hour each way to get to work. They drove their cars to the ground. They packed their lunches. We rarely went out to eat, and when we did, we went to a Chinese restaurant, which is not as expensive as many other kinds of restaurant. We would vacation wherever we could drive to (which explains why I’ve been to so many U.S. states). When my mom got fired (she was probably the fourth Asian person in a row to get fired), she picked herself up and refashioned herself as a computer programmer in her 50s.

And though my parents’ life hasn’t been that easy, and they get frustrated with certain things, they are incredibly proud of the life they have made for themselves. America is their home and they wouldn’t have been able to have this life where they once lived. They never speak ill of America and neither do I.

I know the “privilege” police would disagree, but I honestly think my life is the easiest life anyone could live. The hardest things in my life were minor medical problems, doing well in school and paying off my law school debt. And whenever I’ve thought even for a second “woe is me,” I just look at my parents’ life and think, this will work out. I’ll just work harder. So what if I eat ramen a few nights? My mom used to eat rice and soy sauce. (I also flippin’ love ramen and rice and soy sauce.) If my parents could be optimistic for so long, then what excuse do I have not to be? If my parents can make it, I can and will too.

Were you raised by financially responsible parents?

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What Amazing Things Would You Do With Your Money if You Weren’t So Gigantically Afraid?

what amazing things could you do with your money if you weren't gigantically afraidUnless you are Chuck Norris (in which case, hi Mr. Norris!), you probably have some fears – whether it be violence, money, bugs, etc. Recently, I’ve read a number of articles and social media posts discussing how #allwomen live in constant fear of being attacked or killed by a man, and, because of this, women engage in many rituals aimed at minimizing the risk of being hurt by strangers.  This is interesting to me for a number of reasons. One, I’m a woman and I don’t live in constant fear for my life. So I was surprised that all women, including women who don’t live in war-torn countries or gang-ridden areas, were living in a state of constant fear. Two, it’s interesting to me that all women are essentially my mother.

How Fear Robs You of Joy

My mother was and is irrationally afraid of many things and she tried to spread this fear to me. I couldn’t go to anyone’s house or to a dance or to a football game because it wasn’t safe. I couldn’t stay out after 10pm because it wasn’t safe. Rather than seeing this as love and care from my mother, I viewed it as a way of restricting my freedom and controlling me.

Despite the repercussions in my own life, I didn’t blame my mother for these fears. I know she held her fears honestly. If anything, I felt sad for her being afraid her whole life. You can’t be content and afraid. You can’t be joyful and afraid. Nearly all good emotions are mutually exclusive from fear. To me, that is quite an opportunity cost. Fear might protect you from some trouble, but at the cost of taking away all that is good in your life. And imagine, if #allwomen are like my mother – they are living in daily fear and robbing themselves of all joy.

*I’m not saying all women are afraid – but women are taught to be afraid all the time, as if it’s just good sense. In my opinion, it’s a way of controlling women – keeping them from doing certain things society frowns upon. Thus, after something bad happens, someone can say, well you shouldn’t drink – you need to stay constantly vigilant! Or, quit your job and stay at home where it’s safe, even though your significant other is the person statistically most likely to kill you. But I digress.

How Fear Robs You of Life

So many accomplishments in life require overcoming fear. If you’re busy worrying about getting killed in a freak accident, you’re not going to do anything more risky than ordering your groceries online and barricading yourself in your “safe” home.

You might say, well once you’ve been harassed, you’ll sing a different tune. But I have been harassed, at work and on the streets. I’ve been followed. I’ve gotten mysterious notes in the mail and phone calls from people I didn’t know had my number. I haven’t experienced the worst of it, for sure and it isn’t common in my life. In total, these were a few days of my life. I certainly don’t think back and regret not worrying on all those days I wasn’t harassed. I don’t think now that I should worry more. And even if there are more days of trouble than joy in your life- why waste those precious days of joy when nothing happened fearing that something would?

A lifetime of fear is still worth it to be safe, you may say. But being afraid is not the same as being safe – you can take precautions without being in fear and you can be afraid and act in ways that put you in danger. I think that the more prepared you are, the less you have to fear. And the more fearful you are, the more that preparation goes to waste.  One should consider instead how to respond to the necessary fears in our lives in ways that are actually helpful. And because fear is such a detrimental factor in one’s life, it should be used judiciously, not without abandon.

Fear Gives You the Illusion of Safety While Placing You in Danger

Many times, fear encourages irrational responses. There are, unfortunately, a lot of women who will experience violence this year. The majority of the violence will be committed by men the victims knew (3:1 proportion). But no one is encouraging women to avoid all men at all times (and they shouldn’t encourage that – that would be crippling). In contrast, the lists that purport to guide women on how to protect themselves focus on strangers. And even those tips tend to be useless.

Women are often told to keep their keys in their hands to use as a weapon but in interviews with rapists, it proves ineffective because you have to be really close to the potential rapist to use them. More effective were large objects like umbrellas, that the potential rapist could see from a distance, and, having seen them, choose not to assault you. Also, most kidnappings occurred in the morning in parking lots – so the fear of being out at night seems less valid. The more you know.

The result is that women are taught to spend their lives in fear, but 1) they’re protecting themselves against events that are unlikely to happen; 2) their methods for protection are futile; 3) the constant feeling of fear may actually immunize women from recognizing when they should actually be afraid, or make them too exhausted to address them; and 4) the constant fear and worry hurt their lives. And yet, people keep saying that women need to stay in fear. Maybe women should be afraid because the actions they are taking aren’t protecting them from what they fear most.

How Fears Can Ruin Your Financial Life

Ok, so this was a very long introduction.

Suffice to say, I was thinking about fear and risk in terms of violence, and then I thought about fear and risk in terms of money. A lot of the fears that people have regarding money (the stock market or economy crashes, your job is outsourced, you’ll never advance in your career) are low-probability, but hey, they happen.

What’s worse though is the actions that people take to respond to these fears (i.e. staying out of the stock market, picking “safe” jobs, spending hundreds of thousands on grad school) are putting them in much more dangerous places. Yes, the stock market might crash but what will definitely happen is that inflation will swallow up your savings. Yes, maybe your job won’t be outsourced but instead, you definitely hate every day of work. Maybe you will stall out at a certain level in your career without a graduate degree but you will definitely have to deal with hundreds of dollars of debt to advance just a little bit further in your career.

Don’t Let Money Fears Control Your Life

There’s nothing wrong with fear. Fear can be a good messenger reminding us to be extra careful. But we should hear our fear and respond to it intelligently. Just because our lizard brain is programmed to say “Be afraid!” doesn’t mean you have to keep listening to your lizard brain when it says “Never go out at night! Sell all your stocks! Become a lawyer!”

Constantly being afraid, is a bad game plan. Stress makes us make bad decisions. Instead, we should be using our modern brains to come up with the best long-term plan  even if it makes us a little afraid in the short-term. I’m not saying you can’t be afraid, or that you can get rid of your fears. Fear is a part of life, but you shouldn’t let your fear dictate, and thus ruin, your life.

In the end, it’s all about balancing your risk tolerance and your fears with what you want out of life. If you don’t lean heavily towards focusing on your own life, you could be consumed by your fears. I’m a pretty risk averse person but I’m trying to be more free. I think what we all really want, what we are all searching for, is freedom from fear. Imagine what you could do with your life if you weren’t always gigantically afraid!

What Could You Do with Your Money/Life if You Weren’t Gigantically Afraid?

There’s fear in everything. Nothing is certain. In my mind, it makes the most sense to move forward with what you want to do. It would be the worst of all worlds to not go after your dreams and still be afraid in the process. You’re going to be afraid anyway whether you pursue the gold medal or never try out for the Olympics. Why not at least try?

I remember a story I read in Carol Dweck’s Mindset where a man acknowledges that he had spent his whole life worried that something terrible would happen to his family. Then his family died in a car accident and he realized that the lifetime of worrying hadn’t helped prepare him for the event one iota. Instead, the fear robbed him of fully appreciating the joyful times that he had spent with his family.

I think about this story when people tell me I should be afraid.

What are your money fears?

 

You Can Be a Feminist and Have a Big Wedding

Personal finance blogs can be the source of some great financial wisdom but also a lot of judgmental and conflicting advice. For instance, many financial bloggers espouse the idea that one should choose experiences over stuff. So it should come as no surprise that if a young couple saves money to travel the world, that’s equated with living the dream. Contrast that with  a young couple who buys all their loved ones dinner and drinks to celebrate their commitment to one another – i.e. they have a wedding. This couple is stupid and wasteful and stupid again.

A wedding is an experience – it’s not stuff. So why should the couple throwing the wedding be derided?

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Why I Moved

I moved 4 miles and a world away.

Whenever people visit my new apartment, they ask why I moved four miles to a worse neighborhood. I explain that this apartment is cheaper and larger and closer to my office. It’s a good explanation because it sounds plausible. But I loathe moving, and I loved my old place. Further, I just hate change.

But change came for me. After almost two years of a long-distance relationship, my fiance was moving into town. We had toured some very hoity-toity apartments and picked the best one. We were planning to move in mid-August. I remember worrying a lot about the overlap with my existing lease. Those wasted days of rent! Perhaps I should have spent the time being more excited than worried.
Despite hating moving, I enjoy the preparation. I like decluttering. I like building boxes. I like packing. I had made a spreadsheet of all my possessions so that I could eliminate redundancies when we combined our stuff. These little tasks kept me distracted from the gnawing worry that my fiance still hadn’t reserved the apartment. It was -mid-July.

In late July, my fiance said he was having second thoughts about moving in together. He would move into the apartment complex that we had chosen and I should find another place. My current apartment required two months notice before moving out and they told me my apartment had already been rented out.

So I had to find a new place before my move-out date on August 14. I figured it made the most sense to rent a place near my fiance. It didn’t have to be too nice because we would move in together soon.

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The Fearless Uncertainty of the New Year

 

pexels-photo-287487.jpegThe first clue that something was off was the pint of strawberries. We don’t usually eat strawberries and it was the end of December – they were not in season.
As I pondered the mystery of the strawberries, the second clue came when he uncharacteristically shooed me out of the kitchen to prepare dinner. We always cook dinner together unless I’m too hangry to cooperate.
He told me later he thought he was being so clever and was acting completely naturally. The third clue was that it was a small apartment so I could tell that he was pounding meat with a tenderizer I had gifted him. Unexpected strawberries and secretive meat-pounding? The clues were inexorably barreling toward a single conclusion.
He was going to propose.
The list of things for which I have been certain and proved to be wrong is quite long and embarrassing. I was certain the stock market was going to dive after the 2016 election. I believed silk cargo pants were a worthy investment piece. I thought Justin Bieber was just a fad. It’s not that I’m wrong all the time but when I’m wrong, I’m spectacularly wrong.
It makes me wonder why I trust anything that originates from the Magic-Eight ball mind of mine. But the one thing I am usually right about is the New Year. I’m excellent at keeping resolutions. And how I ring in the New Year Eve is how I spend the rest of my year – usually alone, and asleep. I can control the New Year’s Eve though I can’t always control the New Year.
But when I have been wrong, I’ve been pretty spectacularly wrong.
***
New Year’s Eve 2009, I was texting a guy with whom I had drunkenly made out after finals. We decided to give dating a go and set our anniverary as January 20, 2010. That meant that after only dating one month, it was suddenly Valentine’s Day, the most fraught holiday for new couples.
He gifted well – romantic but not frighteningly expensive or serious – hand-dipped chocolate covered strawberries. I don’t often eat strawberries, chocolate covered or not, but he had spent so much time on them and there were so many and so perishable I found myself eating them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and offering them to anyone who would come by.
I told him I had never had chicken fried steak, and he, a southern boy, said he would make it for me once he bought a meat tenderizer.  I gifted him with a tenderizer and he gifted me with the steak – the first dinner he made for me.
***
New Year’s Eve 2015 I got a proposal (I said yes). We spent the New Year at a party with his friends, where I felt awkward and out of place. But my friends all texted me warm wishes from their perches around the country and I basked in the glow of my phone.
I spent, well a few months basking in the glow of being newly engaged and planning our wedding. Then we hit a rough patch. He ghosted for a week. Then, he reappeared and there was fighting. We broke up August 22, 2015, a day before my 33rd birthday. So in retrospect, and if you include the time I spent cancelling the wedding, the whole year was spent around wedding festivities, which is what one would expect following a NYE proposal.
I was certain it would be better to have the answer before my birthday. Then I realized too late this meant I would be spending my birthday alone. Everyone assumed I would be celebrating my birthday with my fiance and I couldn’t tell anyone until I was ready to tell them everything. And I wasn’t ready. And I wanted to go out for my birthday.
And so I had a pity birthday dinner with my fiance after he had broke up with me. And that was worse.
We had a lot of problems. We had a lot of outside pressures. I felt 100% certain that we could work through it.
The reason was that he had doubts. He doubted that I could communicate effectively. He doubted that I could understand him. I didn’t realize it at the time but on New Year’s Eve, he had gifted me with a several thousand dollar token representing doubt.
Doubt is stronger than certainty. A single doubt can kill all certainty, even at 100% proof.
Then I was certain we would get back together. As the months went on, less certain. And now that he has stopped talking to me for about 9 months I have to admit defeat. I am no longer certain of anything.
***
Why are we so certain of everything? It makes us feel good when it’s actually leading us to utter confusion.
We live in a country where everyone is certain that they’re right. A sizable proportion are certain it’s one way and others are certain it’s the opposite. The problem with certainty is that if you are certain of something good, you’ll be disappointed if you’re wrong and if you are certain of something bad, no one wants to be around you. If you’re certain that we should go left, you put yourself at odds with those who are certain it’s right. Certainty divides us and makes us miserable.
New Year’s Eve 2016 I went back to being asleep when the ball dropped and I spent a fair amount of 2017 sleeping and reading. Some things don’t change.
This New Year’s Eve I’ve given up on certainty. But it’s not sacrifice to give up something I never had. Some people think the opposite of certainty is doubt, but you can look down the crevasse and not be sure what is in store for you. Then you don’t have certainty, and it’s not quite the feeling of doubt.
 At those moments, all that is left is hope.

Eye-opening: My Thoughts on The Paycheck to Paycheck Documentary

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When I was in law school, I interned at the Legal Aid Center. One of my tasks was to help an elderly woman apply for jobs. Her name was Flossie and she was in her 80s. She was still quite spry but she needed to work in order to afford to live. I helped her create an email address and apply for CNA (certified nurse assistant) positions. I found her two jobs by the end of my internship to make up one full time job. I never heard back from her after that. But it’s crazy to be in your 80s and be a CNA. It’s as difficult as being a nurse but for much less pay.

I was reminded of Flossie after watching the documentary, Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert. 

Katrina Gilbert is also a CNA, but she’s 30 and has sole custody of her three young kids. She’s in the process of divorcing her husband, who had been battling an opioid addiction while they were married. He’s unemployed and lives far away so he doesn’t help with the children. Their kids go to daycare under a highly subsidized program. Katrina has a new boyfriend who also lives paycheck to paycheck – he puts sunblock and floaties on his credit card so the kids can go to the beach.

By the end of the documentary, the ex finds a job and takes over more care of the kids. Katrina has moved in with her new boyfriend, who has lost custody of his four daughters and will need to pay child support.

I think both sides of the political divide will have their judgments, but neither side has the solution that will get Gilbert out. Being a CNA, a single parent with three kids, no savings and no familial or friend support- there’s no happy ending there.

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Three Reasons Your Budget Sucks

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Let’s face it – following a budget sucks. Setting the monthly food budget, for instance, may be easy but following the budget requires a never-ending slew of decisions and judgments.  Caviar or foie gras? (maybe these aren’t your actual choices, but it makes it more fun to think about). What’s a good price for caviar? If I get the caviar, can I still go out to dinner at Le Bernadin next week? And so it goes.

Budgets are cruel dictators, mean CEOs. They don’t care about us, the little guys, the minions that are carrying out their wishes. But even though we may all complain about how arbitrary and unhelpful our bosses are (I know I do), we may not all question our budgets. Even the best laid plans need to be evaluated and revised as conditions change. Budgets are no different and this is the perfect time to determine whether your budget is ailing from one of the following three woes that make it a sucky boss.

1. Your budget sucks because it’s based on someone else’s life. 

I looked at my food spending for 2017 and I was aghast and how large a number I saw. Then I thought, well what should the correct number be? So I looked at what I spent last year. I went to Google and compared my spending by city and then according to USDA guidelines.

And what I determined: who cares what they think?

I always wonder how people come up with their budgets. Every time I look at sample budgets, people are spending $400 on rent (whoa that’s low) and $300 on entertainment (whoa that’s high) and I throw up my hands and think, who are these people and where do they live? There’s no way I can use that person’s budget as a guide because their life is nothing like mine.

I’m not saying it doesn’t matter at all how your spending compares to others, because it can be useful in benchmarking in areas you don’t get enjoyment from spending more  (like insurance, cable or utilities), but for areas where it’s discretionary, if I’m happy with my food budget, and I’m meeting my spending goals, then who cares what other people do or think? No one sees this budget but me. No one is affected by this budget but me.

It’s really great (amazing even) when you set goals for yourself and then achieve them. But it doesn’t make any sense to meet other people’s goals. You have to set your own goals.

2. Your budget sucks if you’re not growing. 

I hear that the 50-20-30 budget is very popular (that is 50% needs, 20% savings and 30% wants) but I don’t really understand why. Why are those the right numbers? And are those numbers supposed to stay the same as you age?

Let’s say you’re an exceptionally wise young person and you follow the 50-20-30 budget religiously while making $30,000 after tax. So $15,000 needs, $6,000 savings, $9,000 fun. Let’s say that over time you double your income to $60,000 after tax. So $30,000 needs, $12,000 savings, and $18,000 fun. Wait, why do your needs double just because you make twice as much? And wow $18,000 is a lot to spend on wants. That’s $1500/month.

If you get skilled at following your budget, it’ll only get easier when you make more money. But that’s the trap of lifestyle inflation. Having the same budget year after year is like lifting the same weights over and over. As you get stronger, it gets easier to lift the weights. Good, right? But you didn’t start lifting weights because you wanted an easy activity; you started lifting waits to get stronger. Lifting the same weights doesn’t help you get stronger. In fact, at some point, you’re probably just risking injury.

If you’re saving the same amount or percentage of money as your income increases, yes, you’ll be following a budget, but you’re basically treading water. Can you imagine watching someone tread water for the next 30 years? At some point, you’d just have to ask them, with all that energy being exerted, wouldn’t you rather go somewhere?

Part of the reason you follow a budget is because you want to save money, ideally enough money to have options in the future. The more money you save, the better your future could be and the faster you can get there. I think part of the reason is also to condition yourself to a certain lifestyle. You’ve learned all these skills to save money so why not keep them fresh?

Finally, things get more expensive as you get older so you often really do need to save more over time. To do that, you need to keep shifting your budget goalposts. Over time, you should be getting lower numbers on many budget metrics (like fast fashion and novelty electronics) so that if you have to increase costs on rent, insurance, and family needs or downshift your career, you have options.

3. Your budget sucks because you’re just looking at the numbers. 

I know what you’re going to say. Of course I evaluate my budget by looking at the numbers. A budget is basically just a spreadsheet of numbers.

I mean, kinda.

But let’s say I look at my budget and I see the following metrics:

Coffee Shops: Up 50%
Restaurants: Up 30%
Vacation: Up 100%

Clearly, my budget is going haywire, right? I need to tamp all these down in order to save money.

But if I think back on the year, I know I went to coffee shops more often because it became a ritual with my coworker, which makes my workday much more enjoyable. Restaurant spending increased partly because I made a habit of going to fancy dinners with a friend, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.  His treatment has made him lose his sense of taste – making me cherish the memories more.  And I took 3 weeks of vacation this year – and I don’t regret any of it.

Your budget is literally, just a sheet with numbers and letters, an estimate of your income and expenditures for the year. But metaphorically, your budget is a description of your life and your values. It’s a record of the choices you made. And the choices you make create the person you become.

This is what’s so exciting about evaluating my budget (to a personal finance nerd like me). I can look at my budget and see what I value. I can look at my budget and see what direction I’m heading in.

Yes your budget may be going up in certain areas and that might not be a concern so long as you know why it did that and if it’s a conscious decision. If your budget for gambling or drugs is increasing, well you may want to look into that.

I think it’s important to measure your budget holistically, not just by the numbers. For me, I like to see if I like the way I’m living and if I’m getting better both at budgeting and at becoming a better person every year – more compassionate, more curious, more alive. I think I am. And my budget reflects that.

What did I miss? What are other ways to evaluate if one’s budget sucks?

 

 

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