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

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

How Fear Robs You of Joy

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

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

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

How Fear Robs You of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Fears Can Ruin Your Financial Life

Ok, so this was a very long introduction.

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

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

Don’t Let Money Fears Control Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your money fears?

 

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You Can Be a Feminist and Have a Big Wedding

you can be a feminist and have a big wedding

Photo by Terje Sollie on Pexels.com

It’s wedding season – which means new brides will get inundated with personal finance advice telling them that if they spend too much money, they’re a bridezilla!

My Experience Planning a Wedding

When I thought about planning my own wedding, I was very cognizant of this judgment and of the possibility of being labeled a bridezilla. I figured I could cut out nonsense like releasing doves or hand carved ice sculptures and save a ton of money.

But two things stood in the way of having my uber-budget wedding. One, my fiance was not afraid to be called a groomzilla. He was very interested in wedding planning and would not sign off on a shoddy menu or anything less than an open bar (in his defense, I thought these were perfectly reasonable requests). Two, and most importantly, weddings are crazy expensive even if you cut the luxury items.

We were planning a wedding in a small town, in a “budget” space, with a mid-cost well-reviewed caterer serving the cheaper buffet option in the wedding shoulder season. Our wedding budget spreadsheet was filled with 0’s. I would wear an old dress and shoes. He owned a tux. No decorations. No video. No DJ/band. Invitations were emailed.

The wedding (including rehearsal dinner, bachelor/ette parties and flying relatives in) was still going to cost $30k.

Are these Numbers for Real?

I ran the numbers over and over again, sure I’d missed something. The average wedding costs $25,576, but that number is going to be skewed by the weddings of the wealthy and, you know, Prince Harry and Megan Markle. Most weddings cost less than $10,000 to feed and entertain 120 guests.  Though our guest count was higher, I was still aghast that we would be above average in our budget.

The biggest costs for a wedding are the space and the food and drink. I read every single article on the Internet about saving money on a wedding. The only ways to cut these costs were 1) having the wedding during weekdays and/or in the morning; 2) not serving alcohol or having a cash bar; and/or 3) passing costs to our guests, like having friends and family perform services for free. These were all concessions we loathed.

Perhaps even more stunning than the estimated budget was the fact that we could afford it. We didn’t have to put the wedding on credit or get help from family members. (See, we are actually frugal!).

Still, I had it ingrained in my mind that a wise person shouldn’t spend too much on her wedding. It felt frivolous. It felt almost shameful.

Why Brides are Shamed for Spending

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

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

I have a theory that the reason that spending on weddings is viewed so negatively is because weddings are considered “feminine” activities, and thus, they’re not valued. But “feminine” activities are not inherently less important. Spending on them shouldn’t automatically be considered a waste of money.

The Hyprocrisy Over Weddings

Contrast the scorn over wedding spending to the lack of vitriol for expensive bachelor parties. Some cost $850 for each member to attend (meaning the cost of the entire party is in the thousands). Bachelor parties can be quite expensive but, unlike weddings, they don’t serve a communal purpose. And even if a man spends way too much on a bachelor party, there’s no equivalent term to bridezilla – no bachelor-zilla.

Weddings are about love, commitment, family, friends, and community. Most people would agree that these are the most important things in life. And if you have 120 guests who love you and support you and you want to (and can afford to) buy them dinner and celebrate your love, there seems to be a good argument that that’s a good use of money.

Having a wedding within your budget (and a happy marriage!) should be a couple’s main goal. You shouldn’t have to worry about being labeled a bridezilla or a bad feminist. I hope we can someday reduce some of the stigma associated with spending on weddings, because weddings can be beautiful affairs.

How a Feminist Made Peace with Having a Big Wedding

Eventually, I learned to love the idea of spending on my wedding. I mean, I wasn’t happy that everything cost so much money and if I could spend less, I would. But if that was the cost of the wedding we wanted, then we were willing to pay, I was willing to pay. Though I ultimately had to cancel my wedding, I don’t regret any of it. Our wedding was going to be a celebration and I couldn’t think of a better way to use my money than to bring my friends and family together for the ride.

So if you’re struggling with the idea of spending money on a big wedding, because it’s a gift to your family and to your community, well just know that this anonymous blogger is on your side.

Also, congratulations!

Why I Moved

woman looking at sunset

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I moved 4 miles and a world away.

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

But change came for me. After almost two years of a long-distance relationship, my fiance was moving into town. We had toured some very hoity-toity apartments and picked the best one. We were planning to move in mid-August. I remember worrying a lot about the overlap with my existing lease. Those wasted days of rent! Perhaps I should have spent the time being more excited than worried.

Despite hating moving, I enjoy the preparation. I like decluttering. I like building boxes. I like packing. I had made a spreadsheet of all my possessions so that I could eliminate redundancies when we combined our stuff. These little tasks kept me distracted from the gnawing worry that my fiance still hadn’t reserved the apartment. It was -mid-July.

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

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

On the morning of July 31, I looked at apartments and settled on one that was the most similar to my current apartment. I was driving back home from another appointment when a car in front of me stopped on the highway and my reflexes reacted like molasses.  I became the fourth car in a four car pileup, my very first car accident.

My car didn’t sustain that much damage but the airbags went off. It was an 18-year old sedan, so it was totaled. This was poor foreshadowing for my upcoming move logistics.

The last time I had been involved in a move, I had helped my fiance move from the Upper East side to downtown. I remember thinking at 2am when we were still unloading furniture from the truck in a dark, wet alley, well, it’s not like we could have hired movers. I asked him how much money we had saved from doing it ourselves, expecting to get a number so astronomical that I could justify my ire. He estimated a few hundred dollars. We had worked the entire day and into the night to move. We were both lawyers at big firms. Also, I have the strength and build of a medium sized house cat. I wanted to kill him.

I was definitely going to hire movers for my own move. My friend gave me a recommendation for awesome movers, but, it turns out, awesome movers aren’t available on short notice in August. I went down the list of Yelp reviews until I found one that was finally available.

Sometimes you don’t get what you pay for, but instead, get what you expect when you don’t plan ahead. The movers drove me crazy because they only brought very small dollies and spent most of their time moving each box down the hall to the elevator, rather than piling them up together and moving them all at once. They were being paid by the hour but I found it hard to believe they were milking the time while ruining their bodies. I wanted to tell them, literally to save their backs, that I would pay them whatever they wanted if they just got it all done sooner. I only had the loading dock for three hours but the move took the entire day.

$602 on movers

$40 on lunch for movers

Unfortunately, the movers took too long and they required more of my assistance than I anticipated. There was still a lot of stuff left in my apartment after they left. I picked the highest rated and most expensive Taskrabbit, who also had a van, to assist me. I can’t say enough good things about my Taskrabbit. He was on time, polite and, most importantly, efficient. I wish I had paid for him to take care of everything. I felt like I had a lot going on in my mind; it was nice to have someone else figure things out for once. I was most grateful for that.

Cleaners for old apartment $180
Taskrabbit $250

Miscellaneous things for new apartment: ~$100

I moved four miles and it cost me $1200 and took two days. I’ve lived in my new apartment for over a year. I don’t plan to move anytime soon. The view from my window doesn’t seem that different but I know it’s a world away from where I was a few years ago.

The Fearless Uncertainty of the New Year

 

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

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

hands-water-poor-poverty.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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Three Reasons Your Budget Sucks

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

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

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

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

And what I determined: who cares what they think?

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

How to Get Your Budget to Align to Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Grow Your Budget Along with You

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, kinda.

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

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

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

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

How to Look at Your Budget Beyond the Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Gif credit: Justpo.st

Cook at Home: Save Money, Save the Country

When I was just starting out as an adult, my mother chastised me for eating out too often (which was never more than a few times a week). She said eating out would make me sick and fat. I didn’t know if she was correct, but since that time, if I ate out more than twice a week, her voice would haunt me and I would eat at home for weeks as penance.

My mother has always been my food role model. She worked full time but still cooked dinner from scratch every night (we ate leftover too). We would often eat around 8pm but we never ever ordered delivery and we would only eat out once a month. So it’s not even that I could fall back on being a fancy lawyer to prove I didn’t have enough time to cook – she always cooked and she had way less time than I do. Plus I was handicapped by lacking familiarity with the concept of delivery.  It was cook or starve. So I cook most of my meals, but it’s not to save money; it’s to avoid the wrath of my internal mother.

It also helps that I love food. I saw this documentary about Asian Americans’ love of food, and it rang true for our family. Asian culture is all about the food. Part of it is taste and part is adventure but there’s also the inevitable element of community. I grew up in a Chinese church that would serve the most disgusting fried rice for lunch. But it was cheap and more importantly, because there was food, everyone in the church stuck around. This is how I got to meet the people in my church. Even today, the only reason I get to know anyone at a church is because I attended functions that involved food. There’s something about sharing food with people that brings people together in a way that business meetings, for example, cannot.

Something I had noticed in my reading of the Longevity Plan was the idea of sharing every meal with someone else. It’s much rarer these days as people are staying single longer and are getting takeout and staying in. Even when people are coupled, they might only eat with each other. There’s less of a community aspect to eating.

My mother used to throw these big Thanksgiving dinner parties where 40 people from church would come. It was utter chaos. And even though my mother is an avowed introvert, she loved throwing these parties. She loved hosting and giving. Those are some of my most fond childhood memories. If I look back, nearly every great memory involves food. Why would I want to shortcut my relationship with food when it has given me so much?

Michael Ruhlman basically shares the same sentiments, when talking about his late father, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America:

He carried the deep, intuitive understanding of the power of food to connect people, knew that food was not simply a device for entertaining or filling our bodies and pleasing our senses but rather that it served as a direct channel to the greater pleasures of being alive, and that it could be so only when that food was shared with friends and lovers and family.

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But it’s a love that’s becoming more elusive in American culture. Women look down at cooking. People are too stressed and busy to cook, and sometimes even to eat. They’re obsessed with nutrition, convenience, and speed – i.e. everything but taste.  There’s also this weird meal prepping craze that basically turns your preparation of food into an assembly line. I realize it saves time and money, and encourages one to eat at home, but I would literally rather starve. It seems so cold and lifeless.

And what’s wrong with making time to cook food? We’re a culture that is obsessed with famous chefs and cooking shows, but won’t take the time to carefully prepare something that we should nourish our bodies. You might as well tell me how to be more efficient in the time I spend gossiping with my friends. It’s not that I need a lot of time, but what would I rather be doing?

As Ruhlman notes, it’s our lack of priorities that has led to the disarray in American eating and cooking habits. But once we realign the priorities, we find we’ll get the nutrition, the weight loss, and the savings.

Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want – just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself . . . . The only way [increase the proportion of nutritious food in our diets] is for society to recognize the long-term benefits of carving out the time to cook. That’s all it really is: being organized and making time. You never hear people say, “You know I would really love to shower more, but I just don’t have the time.”

The shower comment rang so true to me. And this is basically my diet in a nutshell. In my kitchen, a nutritionist would be appalled to find such staples as bacon, butter, regular flour, nonorganic vegetables, many types of real sugar, and condensed milk (not that I eat these things together). I’m sure diets revolving around “real food” would also be dismissive of my diet. I mean this isn’t the healthiest of the healthy, but it’s all real. Everything is made from scratch – like bread, pie crusts, peanut butter. It’s not super processed. It’s not grab and go. It requires me to slow down and to appreciate the ingredients.

Also, bacon is delicious.

There’s so much else in Ruhlman’s book bout the history and business of shopping for food and how grocery stores are reacting to new trends in culture by making more prepared foods (because again, Americans don’t cook), and how all of this is affecting us and our futures. I love everything there is to know about food. (I mean, I read a book about grocery stores). But this book made me think of the past, of my culture and what we’ve lost, and what we stand to lose in the future. I also got all teary-eyed when he was talking about his father because it reminded me of my parents. And nothing reminds me more of my family than the act of cooking food.

What’s your favorite food memory?

You Are What You Give: A List of Charities Worth Supporting

In case you need some inspiration about which charities to which you should direct your year-end donations, these are the ones I support:

Groceryships 

I read about this charity from goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s magazine. They are simultaneously tackling obesity and hunger by offering “grocery scholarships,” cooking classes and support groups so that families can learn about nutrition and cooking and be able to support themselves – and each other – through cooking. I’m such a cooking at home enthusiast, this really spoke to my heart. I visited their graduation ceremony and it was really moving.

DC Books to Prisons

A DC-based charity that speaks to my compassion for the imprisoned and my love of reading. They receive letters from all over the country requesting books to read. This is the most bare bones charity I’ve ever seen. The books, the storage, and the packing materials are all donated and volunteers read the requests and pick the books. I’ve been to one of their volunteer events and they’re even stingy about how much tape they use! All your money goes to postage. Give people a second chance and the chance to better their circumstances. PLUS I love their newsletter. The thank you notes really get me teary eyed.

Modest Needs

I’ve been supporting this charity for years. It helps people who are a financial emergency away from poverty by directing funds to help pay for the potentially devastating emergency – which can run the gamut from cancer to leaving an abusive home situation to delayed paychecks. PLUS, you get to pick the person you want to support and you often get a lovely thank you letter.

Polaris Project

Human trafficking is that one cause (besides prison reform) that just makes me spend all my money to fight it. The founders came to my college when they were just starting out and I was really impressed.

Sixth and I

Ok so my charities are a little DC-centric. I love this place. It’s a synagogue that puts on the most amazing book talks and events. I’ve seen Esther Perel, Atul Gawande, Joshua Radin, Tim Ferriss and Amy Tan just in the past 6 months. It makes me a little sad I’m not Jewish.

Evermore

This is a charity that I volunteer with that is trying to change how society interacts and supports families who’ve lost a child. It’s a pretty random choice for me, having never had a child, but the founder is pretty inspirational.

Other ideas: your library (the link is to my local library, where I’m a lifetime member), your church (my church, which does so much to help the community), your local homelessness help organization, your local PBS station (because they are the ones that run the Great British Bakeoff!), NPR.

I think giving is so important, not only to make the world a better place, but also to show appreciation for all that the world has given us and to get us out of our own bubble and to build empathy. I have a relationship to most of the charities I support and it keeps me grounded.

What are your favorite charities?

How to Conquer Your Fears

I did something scary the other day (I can’t remember what it was exactly). And I remember a moment of fear when I thought I would just turn back. So I thought of the worst case scenario and told the world (in my mind) “yeah world, bring it on!”

Whatever it was, it became much less scary.

(Sorry, this story would probably have been a lot better if I remembered what it was! I think it was biking to work in the cold? Even though I do it quite regularly, I still have to amp myself up for it).

I learned of this technique from Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning*, which he calls  the idea of paradoxical intention, based on the twofold fact that:

fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes. In this approach the phobic patient is invited to intend, even if only for a moment, precisely that which he fears.

The example he gives is a man who sweats too much. His fear of sweating and his desire to sweat less actually makes him sweat even more. But if he visualizes sweating up a storm, he paradoxically sweats less. When he imagines what he wants to happen, the stress paradoxically causes what he most fears. Only by accepting the worst case scenario can he make a better result for himself.

On the other hand, I went to a holiday party and only talked to a few people. If I had just visualized everyone rejecting and mocking me as the worst thing that could happen, I probably would have gone out of my shell a bit more.

What do you think? Do you want to try this paradoxical intention?

 

*A similar technique is in The Tools, but this one stuck with me, probably because I’ve heard it at least twice now and am more receptive to the technique.

Why Having a Purpose is More Important than Having a Budget

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If you read biographies of successful people, the beginning is often very tragic (and sometimes the middle and the end, as well).* I remember reading about Mission Chinese chef Danny Bowien’s early years as a cook at a fancy French-Japanese restaurant where the head chefs bullied him mercilessly, even throwing pots at his head.  He made so little money that he ate scraps.

And you think, of course he kept going because he became a wild success later. But he didn’t know that was going to happen and how hard it must have been to go through the abuse and the poverty. For years. Always doubting if he was on the right path. All because he had a passion and a dream. He endured because he had this glimmer of hope that this was a stepping stone to working as a chef. It’s much less likely that you could endure that environment for such a long time if you didn’t care about the career.

In Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, it’s a lot worse than kitchen hazing. And the happy ending was mere survival.

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As a quick summary, Frankl recounts his years being tortured at a concentration camp and he finds that what sustained the survivors, what sustained him, was having an ultimate purpose. For him, he lost his life’s work, the manuscript that comprised his life’s research, upon entering the camp. He needed to stay alive in order to recreate his research. Throughout the book, he echoes the quote by Nietzsche:

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.

Frankl sees the modern problem** as:

people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning.

I see this lack of meaning always underlying today’s blogs and articles about saving money. I can see why it’s hard to think “stop buying coffee and avocado toast, save for retirement!” Because retirement is when people die. Also it’s a long time away. Why would you delay your happiness for death (or 40 years, whichever is sooner).

You should live now. And I don’t mean live recklessly on drugs and rock and roll (or whatever the kids are doing). But if you really loved something or had a dream to do something with your life, it would be a lot easier to say, I’d rather put the latte money towards that dream. I’d rather find ways to cut corners so I have money to help me on my dream.

I think most of the time we have no idea what to save money for. That’s why we just fritter it away towards things we think are meaningful but have no overarching purpose. We work to have enough money to chase the lifestyle we want. We don’t work to chase a dream. But if we did, I think a lot of the wastes of money would just dry up.

It’s a lot easier to give up the lattes if you have a reason to give them up. 

For the super short term, it could just be a little thing that you want. For the short term this might mean a great vacation. For a longer term, it might be getting rid of debt, quitting your job and writing your book or starting a business. It could be donating to charity or starting a family or seeing your family more often.  It could be whatever your amazing ridiculous dream is, and it’s very likely that money will help you achieve it.

What about you? What’s your meaning in life? (ooh big question).

*They’ve done studies where successful people with tough childhoods drew strength from their hardships. It’s not just that it makes for a better story but it could be a secret to their success.

**Don’t worry – he puts in a caveat that some don’t even have the means. Also note that Frankl died 20 years ago but his assessment of modern problems are still relevant today.

***A good book re passion and finding your purpose.