30 Tiny Specific Habits that Make Me Calmer and Happier

person on a bridge near a lake

Photo by Simon Migaj on Pexels.com

The first thing I told new guy as we sat down for drinks was that I’m a type-A nutjob. (I like to let my dealbreakers hang out as soon as possible to give the other person the chance to run). A lot of people think being type-A means you’re a jerk, and there’s definitely a correlation. There’s just something about Type-A people that makes them think that they are in a constant battle with time. Because of that, Type-A people are prone to stress and stress-related illnesses. And that can easily translate into being a jerk.

So I have a fair amount of built-in anxiety. Growing up, my piano teacher would always tell me to relax my shoulders. My doctor would tell me to relax my tongue; my dentist told me to unclench my jaw. Basically any part of me that could be tense, was tense all the time unless instructed otherwise. I was also a worried little kid. We spent a lot of time in Chinatown, Manhattan when I was growing up and whenever we would go shopping, my eyes were stuck on my dad’s back pocket, to make sure he didn’t get robbed. This was when I was 6, and it wasn’t that dangerous there – even for pickpockets. Even now, when I enter my apartment by myself, I check all the closets and the bathtub for murderers, just in case.

I only recently learned that this was not normal.

But rather than consign myself to a life of anxiety and fear, unhappiness and stress-related illnesses, I’ve really tried to fight it. I’ve tried to reduce as much stress as possible from my life. Here are some of the tips I’ve used over the years to make my life a little calmer and happier.

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Waking up

1. Waking up with sunlight.

I purposely picked an apartment that got a lot of sunlight and my blinds are always open. I don’t even own curtains (they get dusty anyway) . It makes it much tougher to stay in bed when there’s so much light streaming through. And even during the winter, I use a Light Therapy Lamp so I can wake up to a gradually increasing bright light (simulating the sun) coinciding with 6am. It’s a great way to start the day (and otherwise would be very jarring to wake up in darkness and then expose yourself to the sun). I don’t use an alarm but this habit helps me wake up at exactly the same time every day.

2. Drinking lemon water.

Lemon water just makes my body feel so clean in the morning (ahem, it helps with bowel movements). Plus I get tons of Vitamin C, which is helpful for iron absorption (I have an iron deficiency, like many women). Also, lemon water doesn’t make me hungry the way tea or coffee do so I can drink it throughout the day as a little flavor to my water without making me ravenous and hangry (and that means less sugar and less caffeine – for a calmer me). When I don’t have my lemon water in the morning, my body just feels sluggish.

3. Leaving my phone outside of my bedroom.

This might not work if I have kids who go to sleepaway camp, but while I still don’t have any real responsibilities, the phone is always outside my bedroom. My bedroom is a no screens place. No TV, no phone, no other electronics (except for the light therapy lamp). I wake up in the morning and have to leave my bedroom to check any devices and I can’t fall asleep to the boob tube, which is supposed to make falling and staying asleep easier.

4. Oil pulling, tongue scraping and sugar-free toothpaste.

Now hear me out, this is pretty weird. I use Baking Soda and Coconut Oil on my teeth with a little Peppermint Oil as my toothpaste. I make a batch every few weeks or so. But after using my own unsweetened toothpaste, regular toothpaste tastes like putting sugar on my teeth. And putting sugar on your teeth just makes you crave more sweets. I realize it’s “fake sugar” but even so, I don’t like having my mouth taste like candy in the morning. I have enough of a sweet tooth as it is!

Also, ever since I switched my toothpaste, done oil pulling and tongue scraping, I’ve had zero problems at the dentist, whereas before I would always have cavities. My dentist (and some of my friends) have all noticed my naturally white teeth (the oil pulling makes your teeth whiter). Additionally, it’s nice to start your day with a super clean mouth. (It’s kind of like that saying of washing your mouth out with soap, but this is much less terrible-tasting). When I forget to do these things, I worry about bad breath and just my mouth rotting in general (see, I can worry about anything).

5. Having everything in bulk.

It would be really annoying to run out of toilet paper in the morning. Or contact lens solution. Or any other thing you need to get ready before work. I shop at Costco (I will write another post some other day – why a single person without a car shops at Costco) because I hate running out of things.

I would see these money diaries where people would buy one chicken breast, 6 oz of rice and 1 potato on their shopping trips. What a waste of time! I buy 5 pounds of frozen chicken, 10 pounds of rice and 10 pounds of potatoes. I can skip shopping for weeks without worrying about running out of things. So this saves me a fair amount of time shopping because if I don’t HAVE to go to the store, I won’t. It makes it easier to cook, because I have everything I need, which means I’m healthier and saving money. And it means I don’t have this nagging worry about running out of things.

Some of the things that I buy in such large quantities that I consider them annual purchases – dishwasher detergent, garbage bags, Baking Soda (seriously baking soda is the best in bulk. You can also use it to make an abrasive scrub to basically clean anything you want, as well), swiffer refills, liquid soap, sponges, laundry detergent, Chlorox bleach wipes, and Coconut Oil. Other things I buy in large quantities – rice or grains, meat, frozen veggies, tea.

Morning routine

6. Lifting weights.

I was always terrible with lifting weights, but I know I need to! Now I just have a short routine with simple Adjustable Ankle or Wrist Weights. No excuses, it’s in the routine now. Lifting weights makes me stronger and better able to face the day. It’s also a great stress reliever. I realize I’m never going to look like Madonna by doing a simple routine, but even a little boost of strength is better than nothing. As they say, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

7. Reading a chapter of a book in the morning.

I realize that a lot of people are very anti-Tim Ferriss but I find his latest books – Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors to be fascinating. They’re basically chock-a-block full of little life hacks from the most successful people in the world (perfect if you like reading lists like this). Also, the inspiration for my one-meal-a-day habit and the one-good-breath-a-day habit (below) came from Tools of Titans.

Problem for me is that 1) I own the books and I never read books that I own and 2) both books are incredibly long. But each chapter is only a few pages long. So I’ve decided to tackle each book by reading one chapter a day. Yes, it’ll take me the whole year to finish reading, but I will finally finish reading it. And I get to digest each chapter for the day. It’s like my mini-meditation and it makes me feel good that I’m learning new ideas in the morning, even if only bit by bit.

8. Foam Rolling/stretching.

I would like to say I do this as precaution, but actually the last two massages I had were agony when the masseuses even touched my legs. They were so tight. It is a luxury to get a massage, but you can’t actually pay your way out of pain. You have to put in the work (unless you have a personal Thai massage assistant at your back and call every day). So in order to even appreciate having a massage, I have to get my body in shape to receive one.

I had read somewhere that you have to spend an equal amount of time recovering from your day as preparing for it. I’m not sure that’s true but I know that years of not recovering (not stretching, not breathing, constant stress and anxiety) has left me so tight that I couldn’t even get a massage. So now I’ve become proactive. I realize that getting a massage is like going to the trainer – the pro can only do so much. Most of your advancement is in the homework. Most of what will help you or kill you is your daily lifestyle decisions.

Stretching and foam rolling (I also like using these Therapy Balls) are activities that require repeated practice. It can’t just be “I’ll stretch today for 2 hours!” and then never stretch again. You have to give your body some time to rest in between and after, so that your body will be able to go further into the stretch. I like this book for its foam roller beginner plan. After mandating a little foam roller time, my hips aren’t constantly in pain! Small (but significant) gains.

9. Streamlining my clothing selection.

I like everything in my closet. Full stop. I can pick anything off the line and wear it and I wouldn’t hate my day.

My main closet is only for work clothes – casual clothes or workout clothes go in the dresser or in the other closet. So I face all my work clothes every day, with no other clothes in the way. They are organized by color.

In addition, I’ve divided my closet in half with a blue ribbon separating the middle. I only pick stuff to wear from one side of the closet. Once I wear something I move it to the other side of the closet. I continue until everything is on the other side of the closet. Then I just start over on the other side. Most of these items are dresses so I just pick a dress and go. If something is ripped or dirty, it goes in a separate area but everything in the closet is ready to go. As the system proceeds, my decisions get fewer and fewer. Decision fatigue is debilitating for me. This way, with fewer decisions, even if I become indecisive, I can just pick the next thing in line and I’ll be fine with my outfit.

It’s not the same as being a minimalist and only having 10 items of clothing, but it does streamline my decision making. Everything I do with regard to my work clothing is about reducing decisions. I said above I buy things in bulk, but that’s for things that are exhaustible. For things that don’t run out, and that you can only use one of at a time, I have minimalist-ed to one. I have ONE pair of work shoes. I have ONE work purse. ONE blazer. ONE pair of flat sandals that I use for commuting. ONE watch. No decisions required because there’s no selection. And that’s fine by me.

10. Avoiding certain stressful things.

 

My morning routine is as notable for what it doesn’t have as what it does. Of course I check my phone in the morning – I’m human.

But I stopped listening to the news. You learn over time that it’s not helpful and it’s not important.

I don’t drink coffee – coffee doesn’t work for me. I get jittery and then sleepy.

I don’t eat breakfast. Eating breakfast makes me so hungry. (But if I do eat something in the morning, I avoid sugar and try to eat protein).

Basically, I try to start the day with silence and peace as a stark contrast from what will soon happen at my job.

11. Getting rid of something everyday.

Whenever something gets in my way of finding something, and I can’t figure out why I would have this item anyway, I’ll just toss it. Also, if I hate something, I’ll throw it away. It seems like a small thing but I know I’ve gotten rid of a lot of little obstacles in my apartment every day because of this. I’m not very organized and I hate taking care of objects so I’ve learned to shop less. Not shopping means less stuff to take care of, organize, and then ultimately throw away because I can never figure out how to keep track of it all. Ultimately, for me, less stuff means less stress. And getting rid of stuff I hate is also less stress.

Also, don’t have a junk drawer. Just get rid of the junk. You’ll thank yourself.

12. Spending 30 minutes out in the sun/exercising.

I bike to work and try to bike home. It’s often the only exercise I get through the day. It is also meditative (I usually think of blog posts on my bike ride). If I bike to and from work, it’s an entire hour out in the fresh air.

I also bike everywhere to save a few minutes on places that are really close by but would be annoying to walk to (there’s that Type-A resurfacing). It’s really hard to stay stressed when you’re on a bike in the sunshine for half an hour. Nearly everyone is Vitamin D-deprived, and getting more sun is a great pick-me-up.

During the Day

 

13. Having all sorts of pick me ups in the office.

 

I always have red lipstick because seeing red puts you in a better mood. I have my favorite perfumes in my office because, the same thing with smelling something beautiful. I have lotion for my face so it doesn’t get too dry. I have dry shampoo and hair oil so my hair will look ok. I have hand sanitizer because, well, that’s just good sense.

I have things in my office that make me happy. I spend a lot of time there so it just makes good sense to have a way of picking myself up and feeling good about myself throughout the day.

14. Only exposing myself to good media.

My ex and I used to keep a blog. We have very strange religious and political views so we saw each other as refuges for discussing things. We would link articles that we wanted to discuss and then we would discuss them. We would always link at least three articles per blog post. So when I read stuff online, I would look at the articles very critically. I would wonder if it was good enough for the blog.

And it became clear which blogs were more fruitful for discussion, which ones produced articles worth discussing. I started to wonder why I would I want to read anything that had very little chance of being something I would want to talk about, to remember, to discuss. Why am I reading things when it’s clear that I won’t want to remember even tomorrow what Kylie Jenner is wearing, for example. If it’s not important to my future, it’s not important to my present.

Even now, though I don’t have that blog anymore, I do write down important things I’ve learned in a journal. And it’s a reminder that I want to fill my mind with stuff that I want to remember. I don’t want to fill my mind with stuff I immediately want to forget.

15. Spending quality time away from my phone.

 

I was late to the smart phone game (I got my first smart phone in 2013) but I’ve finally started to get a phone addiction. Trying to circumvent this, I’ve stopped ALL app notifications. I also have an app to block me from using my phone – I usually block myself for an hour – it’s brutal. But it brings me a little bit of peace and productivity.

16. Taking one good breath.

People often hate it when you tell them to breathe in a stressful situation. For me, though, it’s helpful because I often hold my breath even during generally unstressful events. So normal breathing is something I still need to work on.

Deep breathing is the ultimate goal. I’ve heard that not only do you need to take a deep breath that fills your lungs, but when you exhale, you’re supposed to really squeeze your lungs to get all the air out. In any event, focusing on even one good breath is way better than the very shallow panic breathing I use throughout the day. It also oddly makes me feel accomplished – like hey, not all my breaths sucked today!

17. Keeping a drawer of chocolate at work.

This is just good sense. This one is my favorite. It’s not an affiliate link. Chocolate just makes me happy. And sometimes you want something sweet.  And if you buy any kind of baked good around my office, it’ll run you at least $3. Having a little piece of chocolate satisfies the urge and gives me a moment of edible happiness.

18. Trying to get through all emails.

I try to touch everything only once in my inbox. And if I can’t respond immediately something I’m trying to do is take notes on why I don’t respond to any email immediately. But having too many emails stresses me out. It’s very calming to me to have a clean inbox.

After work

19. Cooking.

I know it sounds really stupid but honestly figuring out what to eat was stressing me out. This was the real impetus for me eating one meal a day. Just having lemon water for breakfast and a snack for lunch has alleviated a lot of decisions I have to make. (And yes, even choosing what to order in a restaurant was giving me decision fatigue. Honestly eating out gives me more decision fatigue than cooking because there are so many choices. If you cook at home, you can really only cook the items you have, meaning fewer decisions).

With fewer meals, I could focus my decisions on making one awesome meal at home. Cooking at home means that I have healthier meals that remind me my childhood – which was a very pleasant healthy childhood that I’m ok being reminded of. On nights when I’m at home, I always cook. I never order takeout, which has always seemed like such a hassle, and delivery takes too long. Plus, because I buy in bulk, there’s always food to cook.

I tend to drink soup with my meal. I guess the kids call it bone broth. Chinese people are big on soup. I like the ritual of it myself, though I also stew a lot of chicken feet for their collagen. It’s a relaxing way to end the day. For dinner, I rely on simple strategies to always have a good meal.

20. Bringing a book everywhere.

 

For a type-A nutjob like me, waiting in lines can induce so much anger. Having a book is a way to self-medicate. I always have at least 8 books checked out from the library at any given time, because the book I may want to read today may be different than what I wanted to read yesterday. And as a practical matter, only certain books are small enough to lug around.

If I forget my book, I have devised other ways to entertain myself. I try to practice seeing without my glasses (ok I’m extremely nearsighted, so this is actually very difficult for me). I focus on breathing. I try to work through problems. Basically, I focus on ways not to think about how angry I am becoming while standing in line.

21. Having things to look forward to.

Anticipation is the real joy or the real dread, in my opinion. I generally have a hard time understanding how to feel joy during an event so the anticipation really is the best or worst part. It’s something I need to work on – feeling the moment. But for now, if I have something to look forward to, the time passes sooner and it’s much more pleasant. I try to do something fun at least every week and I keep a running total of these things to remind myself of what fun I had this year.

22. Taking the stairs.

I hate waiting. Taking the stairs is a little bit more exercise and keeps me from waiting. Honestly I do anything to keep myself from waiting. I use self-checkout. Sometimes I’ll put stuff back in the store that I don’t NEED to buy if I’m in a line without a book – so I can just leave the store without waiting in line. Any little movement – anywhere – makes me feel like my fight against time is less dire. I’m moving – I’m getting somewhere. That calms my Type-A tendencies. And if I’m honest, every time there’s a fire drill I’m stunned at how out of shape I am – thus the need to take the stairs more often. It’s like lifting weights – every little bit counts.

23. Having really stupid things in my apartment that make me smile.

Like my Batman Shower Curtain. My Batman wall art. A gallery wall filled with family pictures, beautiful photos and dumb postcards. Tacky gold chairs. A little girls’ hot pink futon. My Keanu Reeves rug. Trinkets and souvenirs from good times.

My apartment looks like a college student dorm room. I have really junky furniture. It’s probably not befitting a lawyer who makes six figures. But I enter my apartment, I see all the things I love and I think, ahh I’m home.

Night routine

24. Taking a bath.

 

I’m type-A so obviously I’m a shower kind of girl. But taking a bath is so soothing – I never regret it.

I add Epsom Salts because most people are low on magnesium and Coconut Oil so my skin is soft. Sometimes I’ll add this seaweed detox bath. The first time I used it, I slept like a dream, but it’s been only ok since then. No screens in the bath. Only a good book, some ice water, maybe an aromatherapy diffuser or candle and myself.

25.  Packing my bag for the next day.

Even if it’s just throwing most of the stuff I need to pack in the general direction of my bag, it makes everything a little bit easier in the morning. Because I bike to work, it can get complicated packing for the day – because you have to pack everything for showering at work and your work outfit. This wouldn’t be a big deal if I didn’t bike to work because I’d just use the same purse day in and day out. But with a bike, and then sometimes taking the metro home, it can be a little more work. I don’t want to add stress to my life by biking to work so I try to pack ahead of time.

26. Keeping a list of daily and weekly items to move forward.

I have a list of things I need to do everyday. What? A list within a list? Yep. This list is actually how I started many of these activities. It’s a way for me to remember to make progress toward my goals.

Some of the items on the list don’t necessarily make me happier or less stressed (so not on this list). Actually they often make me MORE stressed but the end goal would make me happier. The idea of finishing a large task and taking steps toward that goal consistently make me happier. And I have to remind myself that no matter what, I don’t want a zero day. Every day is important. I have to make SOME progress every day.

I practice my Chinese and my Cantonese daily (and weekly with a tutor) though it can be difficult and annoying. I work on my Pinterest game (which I’m slowly starting to enjoy). I copy my journal entries into Word. I write these to-dos on a list and they soon become habits. And building those habits makes me happier.

27. Doing leg inversions for a few minutes before sleep.

 

I don’t know if it really works but to me, this feels like a collective sigh that the day is over. And because I always do this before bed, it reminds me to go to sleep, honestly. And it could just be me, but it makes me feel just a little bit skinnier after doing my inversions (ok I made that up but I do feel that way).

28. Writing my lessons for the day.

Every night I evaluate my day and think about the lessons that would have helped me do better. I don’t remember if this is the accurate quote but I think Coco Chanel said, every day I simplify because every day I learn something.

29. Wearing an eye mask.

 

If I used blackout curtains, I couldn’t wake up with sunlight (see #1). So I wear an eye mask. These Lovely Panda Face Sleep Masks Eye Masks are adorable. For whatever reason, these masks always come off in the night so my eyes are always greeted to sunlight, not to a mask. It’s probably a flaw in the mask, but it works out well for me.

30. Drifting off thinking of something positive.

I still always have nightmares (ugh to be type A) but fantasizing about wonderful things helps me fall asleep quickly. So go ahead and dream about your dream life, rather than worrying about what happened or what’s to come. This is your fun time.

Five I’d like to incorporate

1. Writing thank you notes.

It’s another way of creating a gratitude journal (which I never figured out how to do correctly because to me, it was writing 1. family 2. health 3. finances every day) except that the people I’m thanking actually get to hear the thanks.

2. Taking pictures of beautiful things.

I got the One Second Video app. (this is an example) I saw it in the Jon Favreau movie, Chef, and was so charmed by it. I still have yet to remember to record more than a few videos.

3. Giving up tracking my sleep.

Basically being type-A means you berate yourself for wasting time, even when it’s not a waste. For instance, I found that tracking my sleep meant I would berate myself for sleeping. And I don’t even know what that accomplished. If I’m tired, and because I don’t have a set start time at work, I can sleep in without repercussion. I don’t want to be someone who berates themselves for sleeping 7-8 hours like a healthy person. So I’m not going to track it.

Conclusion


You can see a consistent pattern of reducing disorganization and clutter, reducing decisions (for decision fatigue), typical stress relieving activities and other tiny little habits that are just meant to encourage a positive outlook on life. Those are the kinds of habits that have made my life better. There are obviously bigger things I also do to make a better life (spending time with family, removing toxic friends, reducing bad habits, increasing financial security) but these habits are things that almost anyone can start doing immediately without the need for other people or a lot of money.

New Guy was looking over my shoulder and noticed that the time on my clock displayed the seconds. He said, that’s needless stress. So I got rid of it. I can’t tell if it has made me that much less stressed but if there’s a way to reduce stress, I’m keen on it. I’m always looking for new ideas.

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How to Stay Motivated when Progress is Slow, Nonexistent or Backwards

How to Stay motivated when progress is slow, nonexistent or backwards

Photo by Lorenzo Cafaro on Pexels.com

So you’ve decided to change or improve yourself in some way. Congratulations! Taking the first step is the most important and the hardest. In those beginning stages, it can be surprisingly easy to find motivation. You are buoyed by the excitement of starting something new. The gains are immediate and can be impressive.

But after the initial surge of improvement, you might hit a wall. Your end is still far away, but you aren’t improving at quite the same rate. Before, you could keep yourself going with novelty, adrenaline, and a sense of accomplishment. Once that progress slows down, your motivation also slows. They say that a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. You can cruise along for awhile, but when you’re on step 400, now you really know how far you have to go and you’re already tired. And it’s going to take ages! And there are obstacles! And there is boredom!

So how do you keep going when the end is still far and you can’t find incremental improvements to keep you going? How do you stay motivated when progress is slow, nonexistent or backwards? Here are some ways to reframe your journey to focus on the journey ahead.

You Struggle is Preparing You to Handle Success

When we picture success, we often imagine it to be instant and easy. We think failure is the slow trudge and struggle of hard work through the beginner courses. This is where many quit because we think success is going through the bunny slopes, but doing it with fanfare and paparazzi while wearing a mink coat and cashing in millions of dollars.

But success isn’t about navigating the beginner stage fast or slow; success isn’t overnight success. And overnight success isn’t really what we expect it to be. Overnight success is like getting pushed down the black diamonds on your first day skiing. There are a lot of pitfalls.  We don’t even understand the pitfalls yet because we’re only at the bunny slopes-level in mentality. If we are still at the bunny slope stage, we should be happy that we aren’t going down the black diamond slopes because we aren’t prepared to have black diamond-level problems yet. We learn how to deal with those problems while working through the bunny slopes.

We see people who achieve success at a young age and then think nothing of watching them crash and burn. We think, we would do better if given the chance. But we have no idea. The problem with lotto winners or pro athletes is not that they’re dumber at finances than the average person with their upbringings; much of the problem is that that they get all the money in one go. The problem with overnight success is that you have all sorts of difficult situations and problems and you never had to figure more basic versions of the problems out when it didn’t matter. You can face a new obstacle on the bunny slopes and trip and fall and learn; it’s much harder to trip and fall on a more treacherous obstacle on the black diamonds with people watching and criticizing your every move.

If you can’t stop yourself from spending when you’re on a low income, it doesn’t become easier when you have money. It may take longer for you to get into trouble, but having more money doesn’t mean you have better control; it just means you have more to lose. This is the reason you need to start start saving before you make a lot.If your brakes don’t work when you’re going slow, they’re not going to work better when you’re going fast.

In this way, you can be happy with your beginner awkward phases because they teach you and prepare you for the big stakes games. You can be happy for your awkward early relationships because they taught you how to be better when you meet your future spouse. You can be grateful for your bad entry-level jobs, because you wouldn’t want to play around when you have the chance to prove yourself at your dream job. You can be thankful for beginner poker games, because when a million dollars is on the line, you will have developed a great poker face from playing for a nickel.

Chances are you will make more money later in life. We can be grateful that we are struggling when we have struggles now, because when we get more successful, we’ll know exactly what to do. When we are trustworthy with less, we can be trusted with more. It just takes time and trial and error.

Your Struggle Teaches You to Love the Journey

I don’t know where I’ve heard it first but I’ve heard it multiple times: you have to love the process. The people that become great musicians, loved learning how to be better musicians. They didn’t love fame. I mean, you can chase fame too and you might still be successful. But many people will flame out first. It’s like someone who loves crossing finish lines but doesn’t love to run. How far is that person going to go?

Recently, I made a joke about another blogger complaining about their page views:
Screen Shot 2018-07-28 at 11.05.12 PM.png

And I got a surprising amount of pushback. Like, people can complain about stuff like this! And of course people can complain about anything they want. But it’s so weird to me to complain about blogging. This is a completely optional activity that for the vast majority of people makes no money. Most people are doing it out of love and with no intention of ever being famous or quitting their jobs over it. It’s like being angry that people aren’t appreciating the way you karaoke or read. Sure you can complain, but why are you doing this in the first place? If you want to make money, there are easier ways. There are probably ways that you would like doing not for the money. Maybe you should try one of those. Because the journey and the obstacles are definitely going to happen – “success” might not. If you hate the journey, will you ever be “successful?”

I think overall, the people who love the journey will go the farthest. Consider this response from Elementum Money.

Screen Shot 2018-07-28 at 11.30.47 PM.pngElementum Money sees the value in the journey. She’s getting better at writing. She’s enjoying the process. And though, according to her, her pageviews are not where they could ultimately be, she knows that she hasn’t devoted the time to marketing. It’s something to work on in the future. And since she enjoys the process, there’s plenty of time in that future.

Make Sure to Celebrate Every Small Win

Similar to my articles on how the rich justify donating less to charity, or why frugality is for the rich there are many ways to look at your financial health. The main ways you can trick yourself, sometimes for the better, is to switch from looking at absolute values to percentages or vice versa. By switching to looking at charitable spending in absolutes instead of percentages, the rich could feel better about their charitable spending while spending less as a percentage than the poor. By looking at percentages, the rich could also spend a middle class salary and still call themselves uber-frugal.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with switching your thinking from absolutes to percentages or vice versa. It’s like looking at a glass as half full or half empty.  Or seeing that dress that no one could agree on as blue or gold. It’s just a different way of characterizing something you see.

If you’re dealing with low level progress, you can shift your thinking to  concentrate on the percentage change. If you look at the absolutes, you might think, oh I only saved $50 this month. That’s not a lot of money. If you look at your percentage, maybe that’s 10% of your discretionary income, and maybe that’s more impressive to you. What could be really motivational though is that maybe last month you saved $50, but this month you saved $100 – that’s a 100% increase in savings. 100% That’s quite a lot. And I’m not saying you should happily fall off the wagon, but if you backslide, think of the percentage increase when you get back on track again!

You need to celebrate the small wins.
Whatever progress you’re making, it’s ok if you celebrate the smallest increments – percentage or absolute. There is no one on high judging you for which you choose. It only matters whatever keeps you motivated to keep moving. Any progress is still good progress. Don’t let declines in progress distract you when they could just as easily motivate you.

What if Progress is Going Backwards?

Ok, so I hope this is encouraging you a little bit for when progress is slow. But what if it’s not just that you’re moving ahead slowly – but you’re actively on the decline. How do you stay motivated when you’re putting one foot in front of the other and you’re moving backwards?

The thing is, progress is not all in one direction. Two steps forward, one step back. Or one step forward, two steps back. It happens.

I heard this great line in a podcast The Art of Manliness by the Author of Make Today Matter: 10 Habits for a Better Life (and World), that the first rule of being a doctor is Do No Harm. So if you’re not having a great day, if you know you’re not making progress, that’s ok. You’ll have days like that. You can’t win them all, you can’t make progress on every day. Some days you’re just fighting not to drown.

The only rule for yourself that day is don’t harm your goals. If you’re trying to mind your anger, and everything is going wrong and you just don’t think you can be a GREAT person today, that’s fine. Just don’t cause any irreparable harm. Don’t yell at your family. Don’t send out mean emails. You don’t have to beat yourself up for not getting ahead; just try to contain the level of harm done.

Or if you get into a car accident while paying down debt – that’s going to slow down your progress and it sucks! But don’t give up the whole game just because you hit a pothole. Ok you’re not going to pay down as much debt this month because of this unexpected expense – but try to keep levelheaded and stay the course as much as possible otherwise. You can be on triage mode and just congratulate yourself for not digging yourself further into a hole. That’s a terrific win, even though it doesn’t feel like it. It’s overcoming these obstacles that will get you to the end. You’re a champion even if it doesn’t feel like it.

How to Stay Motivated when Progress is Slow, Nonexistent or Backwards

In conclusion, you won’t always be improving by leaps or bounds. That’s A-OK. Remember that you’ve made the first step toward your path of self-improvement and that it’s this vast middle area where it really starts to get fun. You learn to overcome obstacles, learn to love your craft and get better prepared for success. As long as you continue to celebrate your wins and keep the big obstacles from deterring you completely, you’re well on your way for your inevitable success.

I’d like to leave you with the following quote I read in Tim Ferriss’ Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World:

I used to resent obstacles along the path, thinking ‘if only that hadn’t happened life would be so good.’ Then I suddenly realized, life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path. – Janna Levin

It can be easy to be caught up in pitying ourselves and the obstacles we go through. We think we would rather have everything handed to us on a silver platter. But we actually don’t. There’s the old joke about the guy who died and in the afterlife, he wins every game, can get any woman he wanted and owns everything. He gets frustrated and asks to see “the other place” thinking that he was in Heaven. Then he’s told, nope, the place where you get everything you want, is a kind of hell.

You are in the middle of your magnificent journey. Why would you want to skip ahead to the end? This is when it’s about to get really good. Good luck!

How this Man is Pursuing Life and Love on the Beach

who picks up the check in mexico

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In our second interview asking who picks up the check in the lives of singles pursuing financial independence, we talk to Jesse, an expat entrepreneur. Jesse owns his own spa in Ensenada, Mexico. We talk about the difficulties of being FIRE in a small town and dating across cultures. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell us about your first memories about money. 

When I was 11, my parents divorced. My dad lived nearby. My mom ran the family finances and did all the grocery shopping. She was a big coupon clipper.

I used to play soccer. As a freshman in high school, that was the first time I got real leather shoes. You can get $14 plastic ones from Kmart.

My grandfather was a big saver and investor in the stock market. He liked to read the Wall Street Journal even though he grew up in rural Kentucky and only had a 5th grade education. He was always interested in saving and investing at an early age.

For Christmas we would get gifts, but also twenty individual 1$ bills wadded up in newspaper.  My grandma still gives me a $25 check for my birthday.

What has dating been like for you?

Evangelical and sexually repressed until I was 21. I was studying religion and philosophy at a state school (Wheaton College). I started dating a Catholic girl and I could see that she wanted to stay in Wisconsin and I wanted to go to DC and the relationship ended. Dating for me is about sharing life with someone and making commitments around who you can be emotionally and sexually intimate with.

In DC and San Diego and Guatemala, I was in serial monogomous, and co dependent relationships.  They were normal and just how I thought life was.  When I finished my graduate work in San Diego in economics, and moved to Central America for work, it was after the financial crisis, so there weren’t any jobs. I got used to living in Central America on barely enough to cover my backpacker expenses.

After I graduated with my graduate program, I went to work in Guatemala for two years managing research for one of my professors in San Diego. For 3-4 years I didn’t have a lot of work. I published the paper I was working on and I moved down to Baja to save on rent and to travel. Then I got testicular cancer that was removed. [At the time], there wasn’t any kind of safety net. I had to think about whether I had enough money to take care of emergencies. It wasn’t really until last year that I could see regular income from starting my massage therapy business. I like doing this but I don’t want to be doing this in 10-30 years. I wanted to have options.

[I was basically living in] a retirement community on the ocean. When I got cancer I didn’t want to hang out with retired Americans anymore so I moved to Ensenada and completely integrated into the culture.

In Ensenada, I dated as much as I could. Read as much as I could to understand the social dynamics and manipulation of dating. I’ve pretty much come back full circle but it’s too much hassle to date multiple people. Before, it wasn’t discussed but now people are very clear if we’re dating and if we’re monogamous.

What were your early experiences as an adult with money?

When I lived in DC, I had an ok salary doing consulting. But my feeling when I left was that if I stayed there, I’d have to be making quite a bit more to have enough – to have kids or to get older. It made me miserable to be in an office. I was a nervous wreck. I really needed to have a lifestyle that supported me. And I could only do that when I could control my expenses.

I have my own spa with 3-4 therapists that work under me, working with a lot of tourists.  A lot of people work off the cruise scene. I charge more than average but I also have the ability to speak to tourists.

I was interested in stock investing from my grandfather and in university was president of our finance club during the internet stock boom.  Eventually after studying economics, I took the coursework for CFP and worked with a financial planner as his assistant.  In the end, I am too emotional to do individual stocks (indexing now), and I was not ready to settle down and develop the relationships necessary for financial planning career.  Life sucked for me emotionally at that time, so I had to change.

Where did you learn about dating?

Trial and error. I’ve dated people of many cultures in DC. They were still the same mindset of the working professional.

I was in a relationship with this amazing woman mid-30s veterinarian, but near the end, one of our stopping points was finances. Through a series of conversations I was able to understand exactly what she was looking for – a lifelong partnership where she pays for your clothes and her car but her partner pays for everything else. I did everything to clarify and when I got to clarity I couldn’t’ commit to a serious long-term relationship that would do that.

Two months into it she expected me to pay for the vacation. She wanted me to buy her $100 earrings. 3 days later she breaks up with me because she thought it was awful that I would not pay for the whole thing.

What’s the biggest difference between dating abroad and dating in the U.S.?

In San Diego, my friends are into cuddle parties, which are all about human contact and communication. It’s about [giving and receiving] permission [via] verbal communication about how someone touches you. The same kind of communication skills are taken to the bedroom so people can talk about sexual health or relationship commitments. I got used to being very clear about my expectations and communicating about these things with words.

In Ensenada, people don’t talk about anything – it’s all nonverbal, implied. The women here are not direct at all. It never feels good to be rejected, but you don’t get rejected here – you just get ignored. Or there’s a pretext. I could ask you out for a coffee date tomorrow and you’d stop answering texts two hours before or make up a BS excuse for not doing it. That’s the biggest difference.

In Latin American culture, family is huge. People work Mon-Saturday 2pm. They get Saturday afternoon off and Sunday is hanging out with family. So I pretty much have Saturday night to date someone. Or you spend the time with extended family. With a fairly big family there are frequent birthday party, baptisms, social obligations you have to go do.

I dated a girl who was second generation Mexican in San Diego and I had to manage relationships with her parents, sisters, grandfather. I understand it now but it makes it much more complicated emotionally.

What was your worst date?

When I moved to Ensenada I liked to go to salsa dancing. I invited a woman to go to a flamenco dancing festival. Her parents came. I was at a table with her friends. She went to sit with her parents. She made it clear that I was not allowed to be at the table with her parents. And then she asked to get her bag out of my car and she left with her parents.

Do you think you’ll marry in your new country?

[The main difference of dating in this country] is that this cultural idea of working for the rest of your life is very present. You need a job to be productive and be an upstanding person in society. I’m not opposed to the idea of a long term amazing relationship at all. More and more I see a lot of marriages and people aren’t living happy lives. As I become happier single, that idea of marriage seems less and less attractive. I would like to be the kind of person that supports someone else in whatever they want to do. If they want to be with me, that’s awesome. If not, that’s fine too. Over the decades, your goals change. To feel like it has to be with the same person feels limiting. It doesn’t seem like a reasonable expectation.

But love happens and you just want to be around the same person for as much as you can as long as you can.

Who picks up the check in Mexico?

Pretty much the man picks up the check. I just pick it up. I got into a lot of trouble fighting the culture but these are the rules.

People meet through friends and networks of people. So by the first date you’ve talked 5-6 times and had coffee. The way I do it, I pick things I really want to do so I still have a good time even if the date doesn’t go well.

Recent first dates have been hiking, independent movie theatre/dinner place, steakhouse I wanted to go to, coffee dates for easy exits, beach walking with the dog.

What’s your best piece of advice for dating and money?

Learn to be happy without either. If you’re not needy without anyone else to have someone to watch TV with or cuddle with. Even in my business, when I’m feeling abundant, not needy for another client, I attract higher quality clients and better work. That comes back to personal development whether it comes to spiritual or psychology. The other great thing about here is that I have time to spend time alone, sort through life.

Time is money. FI is the freedom to pursue my own happiness. Getting into a relationship can mean big restrictions on time and money. It’s also control. The relevance of expat dating is that anytime dating involves more restrictions on time and money and options in life that’s exacerbated in cross-cultural situations in outlook of life, demographics in urban/rural.

Anyways I’m going to enjoy the Pacific Ocean, some tacos and an easy life. I like my life. For me, it’s nice to have options.

How to Throw a Frugal Wedding (Without Alienating Your Friends)

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My sister’s wedding was the worst day of my life. I would like to say it was because I felt like I was losing her. But no, I was fine with that. The real reason was because she had a nightmare frugal wedding. Would money have fixed the problem? Well, let’s find out!

The Terrible Prelude

My sister’s wedding had about 75 people and cost a few thousand. It’s not the frugalest wedding of all time but it’s pretty good.

My brother in law chose his only brother as his best man. I am my sister’s only sister. My sister chose to have three bridesmaids and no maid of honor. She wanted us to be equal. I really felt like this was a slap in the face. My sister stated though that there would be no toasts at the wedding so it wouldn’t matter. Remember this detail.

Also, despite what I will write about below, my sister and I have a great relationship. I hated her wedding but she’s a lovely person. It’s just that a lack of planning (and the stress of weddings in general) can make everyone go crazy.

The Garbage Rehearsal

At the rehearsal, the church wedding planner created name tags for all of us. I was designated the maid of honor, because I guess she needed one for staging purposes. I was also the tallest, which probably made the pictures a bit easier.

At the rehearsal dinner, one of my BIL’s relatives opted to bless the meal. His prayer had some line about being overjoyed to be able to celebrate the wedding of [my BIL] and ..pause. I hiss my sister’s name. He seems to finally remember the name of the bride. I wanted to stab him.

The Nightmare Wedding

So the wedding day arrives. My sister said the bridesmaids could all wear black dresses we owned. I’m of course mistaken for the bride. (Ugh all Asians don’t look alike! Plus the bride is the one in the big white dress!).

The ceremony starts at 10am. My sister is chillzilla. But around 9:40 she ponders, should I wear makeup? So we decide on some foundation. Some gets dripped on her dress. I immediately make a beeline for the groomsman who told me he would bring a Tide pen. Crisis averted.

Wedding goes off fine, if a little long. The kiss, well that’s a whole other story. (It was all everyone, but me, could talk about after the wedding.)

Anyway, the reception is in the church basement. My sister said she had heard of weddings where the friends and family would serve the food buffet- style. It cuts down on catering costs and people are happy to help.

The food has been delivered but there are no caterers. There are no waiters. Which means there is no one to figure out where the food will be served. There is no one to bring out the large buffet trays. A bunch of people come up to me asking, what do we do?

The Disastrous Climax

I enlist the help of the ushers (these guys were godsends and I hope my sister and BIL realize what treasures these guys were). We assemble the tables, bring out the food, find the serving wear and well, serve the guests. Fine, everyone’s eating. I sneak in some food. While I’m sitting at the head table by myself (the newlyweds were making the rounds and the other bridesmaids and groomsmen were elsewhere) the emcee starts his schtick. He congratulates the new bride and groom. Then he says words that haunt me to this day.

Now for the maid of honor toast.

And he shoves the microphone straight in my face while I’m eating my dinner alone. And 75 heads turn my way. I swat away the mic, a look of horror spreading on my face.

Fortunately, my dad jumps up and gives an impromptu speech. Thanks, dad.

The Whimpering Conclusion

Then it’s time for cake. I again enlist the ushers to bring all the food back to the kitchen. (I don’t remember what happened to people’s dinner plates). So then we served cake.

The reception was pretty much over at this point. Except for one thing: we are supposed to clean all the dishes. Surprisingly, the wedding party all has plans so they leave tout de suite. I’m left with the two ushers. We clean dishes for a few hours. The floor is a puddle of water so I can’t even take off my four-inch heels. I also make sure the church is back in tip top shape. When the ushers leave, I wished I had firstborn children to give them. They were super amazing.

Then, my sister’s friend asks for a lift to go buy a gift. He’s a good guy, if a little scatter-brained. I literally cannot feel my feet and can barely walk at this point so I say he can take my car but he has to drive. I slink into the passenger seat, my dress covered in food smells. It’s only a few miles to the Best Buy. But my friend gets into a fender bender with a car in front of him. Thankfully, my car is a beater, but still, it was the perfect cap to the worst day of my life.

Oh and then for bridesmaid gifts, my sister gave me a copy of her favorite children’s book. I don’t want YOUR favorite children’s book, I say. And she happily takes it back.
The end result was that I was exhausted, sore, humiliated, scared (about what would happen with my car), frustrated, resentful and angry. This is what happens when your “frugal” wedding goes wrong.

Why Frugal Wedding Advice is Infuriating

To her credit, my sister is not a personal finance blogger. Because so help me, if she writes a how-to on having a frugal wedding, I will ….think really bad thoughts about her. (Incidentally, my sister’s uber-cheap bridesmaid friend copied my sister’s wedding to a tee. She even requested the same church – which she doesn’t attend – and asked to take my sister’s dress. Two of a kind).

The tips that personal finance bloggers write about weddings is infuriating and one would end up with a wedding not dissimilar to my sister’s. Look at any list of frugal wedding tips and they’ll tell you to be dishonest (don’t tell them it’s a wedding, tell them it’s a retirement party!). They’ll also tell you to use your friends and family for free labor, and then pat themselves on the back for all the free hours, weeks and months that their friends and family spent worrying about their wedding.

Weddings are that funny occasion when personal finance bloggers do not put their money where their mouth is.  These are the same people who will encourage you to side hustle in one post. But with regard to weddings, they’ll encourage you to get your hard side-hustling friends to work for free.

A personal finance blogger will say, ignore the expectations of your peers. But their concept of a frugal wedding still abides by the same rules. You have to feed everyone a meal, you have to have alcohol, you have to have music, you have to have professional photography, and new fancy clothes. The only way to do those things is to be kinda rich already (so you can stockpile booze or have connections for cheap food) or to use people (free photography, free music, free setup and cleanup). What people who pay for the $30k wedding are paying for is not diamond-encrusted swans – but logistics. It can cost a lot of money for things to run smoothly. Otherwise, you have to get your wedding party to pick up the slack, which can be stressful (see above).

My Experience Planning A Wedding

I’ve never been married but I have planned a wedding. We cut all the corners for the bride and groom (wear clothes we owned, no hair or makeup, as few flowers and decorations as possible) but we would not cut corners for our guests and friends. We hired a friend to do the photography – but we were paying her. We hired a friend to do the ceremony – but we were paying her and had looked into the ordination rules for her. We were going to pay for travel and lodging for family that wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Still, the wedding budget was right around $30k – the average price for a wedding. We were also 1%ers and this amount of money was still stressing me out. The difference for us was that this was about how much money we could save in 5 months. For many couples, that’s one entire salary for a year.

How to Have a Frugal Wedding Without Alienating Your Friends

If you can’t afford the big ordeal wedding, that’s totally fine. Weddings used to be punch and cake in the church basement while wearing your Sunday best.  You can create a sustainable, honest wedding. If all you can afford is punch and cake, the people who will be offended will not be around for long anyway. There are a million ways to say, hey wedding industry, I can’t do the huge party. I just want to gather my friends and family together and drink beers. And that’s ok.  Personally, I would rather have a barbecue and call it a day than lie or use people.

Living within your means requires bravery. Throwing a wedding that flouts the traditional won’t be for everyone. But I’m betting that a lot of people will hear of your wedding and be relieved. At least some of these people will be your guests. But at least one of those people will be me.

 

How to KonMari Your Finances

konmari your finances

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There’s so much personal finance advice clutter out there – I think it’s time you all learned how to KonMari your personal finance advice. Wait, what does that even mean?

If you read my Twitter feed, it’s filled with tons of bad advice I’ve seen on other finance blogs. And if you’ve read the “At Age 35” memes that have been popping up all over the internet, you can see that many people were aggravated over the provocative Marketwatch tweet where “experts” stated that 35-year olds should have twice their salary saved.

Ok, let’s say you don’t have twice your salary saved by 35. That’s totally ok. I have twice my salary saved and I’m turning 35. But I didn’t meet the guidelines for 25 or 30 and I might not meet the guidelines for 40. Personal finance is personal. It doesn’t really make sense to be upset about what one person says is the “right way.” But sometimes you do get upset. What do you do with personal finance advice that upsets you?

Who is Marie Kondo and what is KonMari?

KonMari is a method of decluttering created by Marie Kondo that has as its central message: get rid of that which doesn’t spark joy. So how does this apply practically?
I used to have a Letterman jacket in high school. Huge waste of money. You can only wear it for four years tops and then it’s weird.

I never wore it. I kept it for years in my closet because of how much money my mother spent on it. Every time I opened my closet I would see it and feel guilty. It reminded me of my regrets from high school. I thought about how this would be a really weird thing to donate to the Salvation Army because it was embroidered with my name and year. I thought about my parents’ sacrifice and where I was in my life. I mean it was just a huge guilt explosion whenever I opened my closet.

So one day, I threw it away. Just tossed it in a bag and down the garbage chute.

And immediately, I felt immense relief. In fact, I felt elated.

Part of me thought I needed to keep the jacket into perpetuity as a reminder of my mistakes. But it didn’t make me better; it only made me feel worse. It was an anchor for me – keeping me rooted in the past and unable to feel free in the future.

I think about this jacket when I see criticisms of KonMari of the “Well I can’t just throw out my fridge because I’m indifferent to it” variety. I take the most commonsense approach to KonMari – if you hate it, get rid of it. And as simple and obvious as that advice sounds, it was a revelation for me.

KonMari-ing your Personal Finance

I love good financial voyeurism as much as the next person. But I recently read an article that made me feel pretty bad. It was from a couple that was younger than me but who had more money saved. I mean, it’s very likely that a couple would have more money than me because there are two of them. But even dividing by two, they had more. It made me feel inadequate. I didn’t know what to do with it.

So I tried to KonMari it. And I came up with the following mantra:

If advice or messages serve as an inspiration or a wake-up call, then take it and run with it. If they do nothing but make you feel ashamed or hopeless, then get rid of it. 

Does this Allow Me to Ignore Good Advice?

Wait a second, you say. This seems like I can just ignore the personal advice I need just because it makes me feel bad. That seems like an entitled millennial victim blah blah blah.

Sure, there’s the possibility of that. But I think, you have to be ready to take the advice. Even if advice is exactly right for you mathematically or practically, it still has to be right for your emotionally. If the form of the advice makes you more upset and angry than inspired or energized, then maybe it’s not the right advice at the right time for you. Sometimes you’re not at the right point in life to understand that advice. Sometimes what you need to do is work on what you can and get to the point when you’re ready to take that advice. The advice won’t go into the ether. There’s so much financial advice out there; it’ll come back to you in a form that’s ready for you to take it when you’re ready to accept it.

When Advice Doesn’t Incite Change

My brother, unfortunately, gets a lot of criticism in my family. He can be a little unrefined at times. For instance, when he’s excited he can speak so loudly that it sounds like yelling. He’s been doing this since he was a kid. And my family has chastised him since he was a kid. Nothing has changed. He is incredibly loud in settings where quietness is valued. The cycle continues. Loud. Chastise. Loud. Chastise.

A few years ago, I said, here’s the deal. You’re too loud sometimes. It bothers us. But we’ve told you this over and over again and it doesn’t seem to change. And the mark of an insane person is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. So, if it’s something that we’ve already told you annoys us, I’m going to assume you’ve heard it. And I’m not going to say anything more about it. It hasn’t changed anything in the past and I would be an insane person to assume it would change something in the future. Further, I fear that it’s hurting our relationship. It seems we’re only chastising you to make ourselves feel better, not to effect change. So I’m putting an end to it. He said he appreciated it.

And you know what? It’s been years. He hasn’t changed. But I have.

Maybe one day, he’ll change. But I believe that it has to be the right message at the right time. Reading personal finance advice that makes you feel bad is guaranteed to make you feel bad, but it won’t guarantee change. It might even make it harder to change. Feeling bad is not the answer.

Conclusion

If you’re at the point where certain advice isn’t helping you to change, that’s ok. It can be the best advice in the world but if it’s not working for you, you have my permission as a totally unlicensed untrained personal finance blogger to leave it alone.  For what that’s worth.

This doesn’t absolve you from improving yourself. Everyone should be improving themselves constantly! But you can pick and choose what works for you. The best anyone can do is to put one foot in front of the other and make whatever progress we can. You don’t have to beat yourself up just to beat yourself up. And you shouldn’t let others beat you up just for the sake of it either. Shame isn’t the answer to your financial woes. Pick what inspires you to put one foot in front of the other. Follow that. Get more of that.

If there is advice or messages that make you feel bad about yourself and don’t encourage you to be better, you don’t need to keep them around. KonMari it and let it go.

How to Be Bad at Math, But Good at Money

coffee cup mug desk

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I’ve heard a number of personal finance bloggers state that people aren’t interested in money because they’re intimidated by math. That seems like a straw man argument because in my mind, being good with money has little to nothing to do with math. Money is not about math; it’s about emotions.

Being Good with Money is Not about Math

I was very good at calculus but quite terrible at any kind of useful math. I tend to make egregious errors in arithmetic.

How can I be (often) bad with math and good with money? Well, why do we even think money is about math? Because there are numbers involved? I don’t think most people have a problem understanding that they need to spend less than what they earn. I don’t think most people have a problem understanding the percentages and arithmetic needed to create a budget. You can copy a budget from online or use an Excel spreadsheet if you’re THAT bad with math.

Creating the budget is easy.  The main problem is sticking to that budget and that involves self-control and emotions, not math.

Jason Kelly raised a good point for my last article – the differential between what I paid and what my boyfriend paid was probably inconsequential.
We could have spreadsheet-ed it out. I could have paid the next several meals out or frankly, just given him the difference in cash. But I think we all know that that would not have solved the problem. Like so many fights, what we were explicitly fighting about was not the real cause of our problems. You fight about chores with your spouse, but you’re really longing to feel appreciated. You fight about curfews with your kids, but you’re really projecting your own anxieties about your kid growing up.
Our fight wasn’t about money – it was about our expectations.

How Expectations Can Ruin Our Relationship with Money (and with Others)

Bob and I talked about this recently. (Bob reads my blog – I mean, I guess it makes sense because who wouldn’t want to read the inner thoughts of their ex?). I came from a background where my father paid for everything. Now, my parents made similar salaries and they had a joint account. So when I say my father paid, it wasn’t as if my mother was getting a free meal. The only sacrifice was that my dad carried his wallet around and my mom didn’t have to.
My parents hate the idea of splitting the check, but their way of paying wasn’t meaningfully different than going dutch. My dad could have paid for some of the meals and my mom the rest.  My mom could have paid for all the meals. It’s all exactly the same math-wise. Their payment arrangement had nothing to do with the math and everything to do with emotions. My mom liked feeling taken care of even if she was paying for half. I knew the whole thing was a ruse but it was a cute ruse. The money part worked because everyone’s feelings were attended to.

When Math Won’t Solve Your Money Problems

It was pretty stupid for me to want my parents’ situation in my relationship with my boyfriend. We weren’t married. I made more than him and we didn’t have a joint account. When he was treating me, there was less money for him. I wanted the same emotions but it wasn’t the same math.
Of course, if we had made it perfectly equal, I still wouldn’t have been happy. I needed to adjust my expectations. This was no place to think that, because I was a woman, I should have been treated to his money. I made more than enough to pay an equal share. I made more than enough to pay for everything. But I was equating money with affection, and that’s a dangerous misconception.

The Aftermath

I dated a guy recently and on our first few dates, we went dutch. This has rarely happened on my dates, but in terms of the math it made sense. He was a graduate student and I made 6x what he did. Still, I took the action as a sign that he wasn’t interested. But he kept asking me out on dates. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. So you know what I did?
I asked him if he liked me.
*Mind blown* What? Honesty has no place in dating, I can hear you all say. But I asked him, and he answered that he did. And that was the basis for our relationship. He liked me, I liked him and we communicated it via words instead of implied it with actions involving money. I’m not sure if this is how adults have relationships, but I’m going to try it more often.
We might say that we “need” the guy to pay for dates to show that he cares. The other way he can show he cares? By using his words. Money can’t solve these problems because money isn’t about math.
 

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.

A Neuropsychologist’s Advice on Dating and Money

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