I Would Do Anything for Love, but I Won’t Do That (for Money)

I did something I thought I’d never do – which is brave Bath and Body Works during the holidays. The place is crazy. But they were having  a(n equally) crazy candle sale and I will admit to being basic enough that I got quite excited.

After buying three candles, my mother realized that I had gotten a $10 off $30 coupon that I could use that day. She suggested, because I had spent $27 on candles already, that I return the candles and repurchase them and something else to use the coupon. Thus I would get all three candles plus something else, for less than what I had paid for just the three candles.

My first thought was that I didn’t want to do that because it seemed like a hassle. Additionally, it just seemed unethical. I wouldn’t have received the coupon if I hadn’t made the first purchase. That was not how the coupon was intended to be used. If it were, they would have given the coupon before the purchase.

Some people would say, Bath and Body Works is a big corporation and makes a ton of money, so it’s not the same as cheating a smaller company. But my ethics have nothing to do with who I’m dealing with and everything to do with how I conduct myself. If I treat nice people well and “bad” people poorly, that’s not so much a system of ethics so much as the path of least resistance. I don’t want to violate my own code of ethics for $10 or any amount of money.

I saw a personal finance blogger mention cheating a “bad” company by intentionally buying things to qualify for free shipping that he planned to return immediately. It’s not necessarily immoral, but the blogger had specifically justified his actions because the company was bad, and not because he thought his actions were ethical. It makes me wonder, who else will he try to cheat? Where are the boundaries to what he will do to save money? If he’s going to cheat for a small amount of money, what would he do with a large amount of money?

Personal finance is about money but it’s more than that. It’s about what you will do, how you will live, who you will become, in relation to how you treat your money. You become a certain kind of person when you treat money as your biggest goal, your idol. I never want to be the kind of person who does that. I will pay the money to live by my own code of ethics. I would rather have no candles at all.

Saving money is important, but there should be principles that are more important. What boundaries will you not cross to save money?

How to Spend A Lot on Things that are Free

Yes, you read that title correctly. (And hey, you clicked on the link, so it’s your own fault). There are innumerable websites on how to get expensive luxury good items for cheap. Most of those are scams. This article, well this may also be a scam but I’m telling you upfront: the most valuable items mentioned in this article are free
We are in the holiday shopping season and people and companies are trying to sell you all manner of things to cure whatever ails you. The marketing tends to play on your emotions, promising happy family relationships, stress free and happy living.
1. Energy
There is no shortage of beauty products you can buy to make yourself look like you sleep. There’s concealer for the dark circles, brightening makeup for dull skin, eye drops, etc.  Then there’s coffee to trick your body into being awake.
The Free Solution: SLEEP!
On my to-read list if Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution. I remember hearing her speak on a podcast and quote Andy Murray, the famous tennis player, as saying something to the extent of “When you sleep, it’s like the ball comes to you in slow motion.” That’s something that you can’t get from a bottle.
2. Happiness
We buy toys for our kids and toys for ourselves. We buy expensive vacations that leave us yearning to return home.
There’s nothing wrong with a vacation. Of course we need time from work. But more than 4 in 10 workers say they don’t use all their vacation time and 35% of millenials reported working every day of their vacations.
Even if workers were using their vacation days, 4 weeks of the year isn’t really enough time to recharge from our stressed and busy lives. Just as intense workouts aren’t enough to counteract the effects of a sedentary lifestyle (consistent movement is key), thus, for our overworked culture, consistent play is needed.
The Free Solution: play! Take some time to doodle, frolic, go on a lark, a spree, a spelunk, and engage in some tomfoolery. Schedule some playtime into your day. TV-watching doesn’t count.
3. Good Relationships
This is the season for commercials about family togetherness, so treacly and saccharine that even the most happy families can still leave feeling wanting.
So we buy gifts! This is the season for feeling stressed about buying innumerable gifts, hoping against all hope that the gift can convey the message of how much we value each other and that the cards, gift wrap, shipping, travel, home baked goodies, and stocking stuffers only bolster our relationships for the future. And we also hope it won’t cost too much per person.
The Free Solution: tell your family and friends how you feel about them.

If you don’t sleep well one night and drink an extra cup of coffee to make up for it, that’s fine and inevitable. But once you make it a lifestyle, you can end up spending quite a bit of money for subpar replacements. Let’s not forget what really matters. And what really matters is often free, but the hardest to get.

What do you spend money on that is actually free?

The Best Way to Deal with Bad Service

I took my mom out to lunch yesterday. Or to be more clear, I intended to pay for her but the meal was comped. A half hour after we ordered, we noticed the cooks were shutting down as the entire dining room had been served, except us (it was an open kitchen).

I caught up with my waiter by the open kitchen and asked about our food. The manager happened to be standing next to him (I didn’t plan this. I was lucky to find our waiter) and he asked if what I said was true. The kitchen expediter seemed to acknowledge the presence of a ticket for our meal and the manager apologized profusely and offered to comp our meal if we stayed. He also sent over some complimentary dip while we waited for our meal. The food was very good and I was impressed with the manager’s handling of the situation. I’ve had some not-so-great service as of late in restaurants and it’s made me less inclined to dine out.

And it got me to thinking, why do I get bad service? Part of it is that I don’t order drinks as often anymore and there is some anecdotal evidence that waiters are more attentive to big-spending parties. We could always go the racist angle. (My mom did, but there were some other minorities that got food). I’m sure this was an isolated incident. I’m sure it had nothing to do with us.

But of course, I’m still digging on the Internet on what to do. On Quora I liked the following suggestion on “If I receive poor service from a waiter/waitress in a restaurant, what’s the best way to show my displeasure?

Continue reading The Best Way to Deal with Bad Service

The Futility of Spending to Improve Your Social Status

I confided in my friends that I was afraid of going car-free because I thought it would make people think I was poor. I’d be the weird kid biking everywhere while everyone else showed up in their cars. They all responded the same way: driving my 18-year old Honda made people think I was far poorer than being car-free.

And so, without adding or subtracting a cent, (and actually subtracting one car), I was now wealthier in the eyes of others. But how strange to think that someone who doesn’t have an asset could seem wealthier than someone who has that asset (a car, even if beat up). Wouldn’t one naturally think that the person who has more stuff is wealthier?

It got me to thinking, we buy these markers of success in order for us to look a certain way but sometimes we are completely wrong about how we are being perceived.

I asked my friend, who is a fancy businessman, if he thought I was broke based on how I’ve furnished my apartment (a strong Ikea theme). And he said no, because one’s bank account isn’t reflected in one’s possessions. I think this may be how wealthy people think in general. I mean, when I first met him, he was wearing a NASA shirt that he bragged that he got for $6. Wealthy people appreciate a good deal.

On the other hand, I have a friend who always seems to be going on shopping sprees at expensive stores – Lilly Pulitzer, Kate Spade, Stuart Weitzmann. And then she spends a lot of time selling stuff on consignment. It’s like a rotating door of expensive clothing, kind of like fast fashion with bigger price tags. And honestly, hearing about her expensive clothing habit made her seem poorer because it didn’t seem like she valued money or time, no matter how expensive the tags were.

So really, we may live a certain lifestyle to be perceived a certain way, but we really have very little control over how we are perceived.

What financial habits do you think make a person look wealthy or poor?

The Ugly Truth about Frugality

I haven’t done many diets because I hate the idea of restriction. I lasted about 4 days on a no-carbs diet and they were some of the most miserable days of my life. But one that has stuck is the “one meal a day” diet.

I started by skipping breakfast. That was quite easy. I immediately didn’t miss it. Skipping lunch was much more difficult and I could feel the hunger eating (haha) me alive. But it got easier as my body adjusted. And the hunger would subside after 15 minutes, max. And when I finally eat my meal of the day – dinner – I eat without abandon. There are no restrictions. There is always dessert. So it seems like a joyous celebration rather than a constant level of restriction.

I think the parallels to personal finance speak for themselves. I look at other people’s spending, and I’m pretty shocked about the constant frittering of money.

For me, I’m pretty used to wanting something and not buying it. It seems that for a lot of these people, that’s not how they do it. They get the itch and they scratch. I get the itch, and I store the itch in a file and revisit the itch in a week.

Frugality often reminds me of my diet. I’ve heard supermodels complain that they’re always hungry. The truth about frugality is that it often feels like you’re hungry all the time as well. Frugality means you just ignore these “hunger” pangs. If you think about frugality as a whole, you’ll feel like you are constantly living in a state of desire and denial. You’re always craving.

Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re deprived. Sometimes you’ll feel like you don’t have enough. You will have a list of things a mile long on your “to buy” list. That’s just the truth of denying what you want. It doesn’t get easier. Unless you have a way to tune out all marketing, there will always be new things that make you itch for more.

Of course, giving in to your desires isn’t what you truly want. The problem with scratching every itch is that your skin will be all scratched up. The problem with eating whenever your hunger strikes is that you’ll often eat too much. You don’t recognize the signals to stop eating anymore and you may start mistaking signals for thirst or boredom for hunger. And as your weight balloons, you start to worry about every time you eat, trying to restrict at all times. Sometimes it’s better to restrict from the get-go.

The upside of ignoring your desires is that 90% of the desires will go away and often quite quickly. And rather than having a lot of products that you can barely remember desiring, you’ll have a fat checking account.

It reminds me of co-opting and bastardizing Steve Jobs’ graduation speech motto, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” But here, “Stay hungry. The hunger will go away.” The caveat is though, you still remember to eat and when you do eat, relish every moment of it.

[I thought about submitting this article idea to a personal finance site but figured it would get a lot of backlash because the idea of restricting one’s meals is basically as unpopular as saying “Trump’s doing a good job.” People will accuse you of encouraging eating disorders. Meanwhile, we’re facing an obesity epidemic in conjunction with widespread malnourishment. To the extent this counts as advice, it only applies to people who don’t have an eating disorder. Please take care of yourselves. ]

What You’re Actually Paying For

I was dismayed to find out that my very expensive shampoo and conditioner contain the very ingredients I try most to avoid – mineral oil, silicones and sulfates. They were products that were recommended on blogs as panaceas for the hair and I blindly complied, thinking this many people can’t be wrong. (Note: no one cares as much about your hair as you. Or at least no one cares as much about my hair as me.)

So these bottles are family-size and only half used. I think I’ll just leave them out in the free section of my apartment building for others who are interested. Ten years ago, I would have continued to use them to the last drop in some misguided attempt to “get my money’s worth.”

My sister taught me something useful a long time ago. I had bought some snack that I did not enjoy eating and, like a good Asian child, I was continuing to eat it until it was empty. But she said, that was not the only -or optimal- way to think about the price. What I was paying for with the snack, was not the food, but the choice to eat the food. I had already obtained the full value of my purchase by having the snack in my hands. What I chose to do with it was up to me.

What an interesting thought! And it really makes sense. Yes, you’re getting the full caloric value of the snack but you’re putting this 75 cent snack’s value ahead of the value of your own body. If you found out you were allergic to a snack, you wouldn’t keep eating it out of some misguided attempt to get more value. It shouldn’t be different if it just doesn’t impart any value for you or you just don’t like it. There similarly isn’t much more value from coating my hair with chemicals I don’t want and using a product that doesn’t impart the expected benefits to my hair nicer, just so I can say I got my money’s worth.

I think it goes to our Puritan ideals. We should punish ourselves for making the mistake of buying something incorrectly. But maybe we don’t have to beat ourselves up. Maybe we can note the problems we made, and vow not to make them again as we go to the store immediately to buy a replacement.

Making Frugality Fun

I’ve always been a frugal person and I consider myself a disciplined person. But sometimes I read personal finance blogs and it all seems like….a drag. If you read these blogs, it seems that to live a frugal life, you have to aim to be a monk. You have to live a life of deprivation. You have to deny yourself, deny yourself and then deny yourself some more. And then you retire or die.

I think your self discipline gives way though. And even if it didn’t, at some point you realize that life is short and you don’t want to spend it denying it and being unhappy.

So if not a life of deprivation, then how does one become frugal? I thought about this when I was selecting a restaurant for dinner. One place looked much fancier, was packed and looked fun. The other was half the price in a much simpler atmosphere. But after we picked the cheaper restaurant, choosing foods was much more fun because, for the same price, we had so many options. And it dawned on me, frugality can have benefits beyond saving money.

Frugality can lead to more options
Rather than look at frugality as a way of limiting your options, frugality can allow us to have more options. If we are at a cheaper restaurant, we can choose more foods for the same price.

Frugality can lead to more creativity
If you get an expensive piece of furniture or clothing, you invest resources in trying to protect it and care for it as is. If you get a cheaper piece of furniture, you can spray paint it, reupholster it or have money to add pillows or decor.

Frugality can let you optimize your results
I am a woman who loves reading about beauty. I don’t necessarily love spending the big bucks on beauty but I voyeuristically look at other women’s medicine cabinets, as posted all over the web, and I’m shocked to see so many tiny bottles of very expensive potions and primers.

I know if I bought a lotion or “miracle product” for $100 or more a pop, I would use as little as possible to preserve the product. See, look at this. I would have spent $100 and I would be tiptoeing MY life to preserve IT. It’s pretty weird. It’s like having a child or a dog. Except it’s a beauty product. The products you buy should serve YOU. Not the other way around.

And the thing with skin care is, your skin needs moisture. Maybe this miracle product is better at moisturizing your skin than a cheaper product. But is it better than products that you actually aren’t afraid of applying multiple times a day all over your face and in indiscriminate quantities? Likely not. The moisturizer can’t moisturize skin that it doesn’t touch.

So I say, buy the products that you are not afraid to use, that serve you, rather than the other way around. And while you may feel frugal using a nonfancy moisturizer, it feels incredibly abundant to be able to use your products without abandon.

Frugality can save time.
Piggybacking off the previous idea of saving product because it’s so expensive is that expensive things make us think we should take better care of them. I take the time to be gentle to my expensive purses. I would consider saving an expensive face cream in case of a fire. But doesn’t that make you feel rather poor and insignificant? Again, you’re spending your money to WORSHIP A PRODUCT. The product should serve you, not the other way around.

Yes, you should take care of your things. There’s no need to be reckless. But there’s something wonderful to be said that it can all burn in a fire and I wouldn’t risk my life for anything (but my laptop would certainly be nice). It’s also nice to think, ok so my stuff is getting a bit of wear and tear. Well that’s what they’re there for.

Frugality can just be fun
A lot of frugal activities are recommended because they save money but often they’re just more fun to do. Hosting people over at my house is one of my favorite things to do and creates great memories. It’s great that it’s cheaper than paying for the same number of people to go to a restaurant and may even be cheaper than one’s own portion at a restaurant, if you factor in gifts of food and wine and leftovers. But mostly, I do it because it’s fun. I bike to work because it’s fun, but it does save money.

I think if you live your life in a way where most of the reasons you do things are because they’re frugal, you’ll burn out and get sick of it. You’ll get so tired of being a slave to money that you might give up on the idea of saving money altogether. If you do things for the reason that they are fun, but they could also be frugal, you are so much less likely to burn out. You’re living your life according to what makes you happy and really enriching your life by being frugal.

What kinds of things do you do because they’re fun but that are also frugal?

This is the Secret to Being Healthy, Frugal and Happy

It dawned on me recently that I had lost ten pounds and was keeping it off. My legs had never been so toned, my skin was glowing and I was BM-ing like a rock star.

And it wasn’t because I had amazing willpower. It wasn’t because I was forcing myself to eat iceberg lettuce or dragging myself to the gym. What was surprising about my transformation was not so much the transformation itself but how little sacrifice I had made.

This is exactly what I do for eat and exercise:

Meal plan: I eat one meal a day, usually. I don’t have any restrictions on that meal. I can eat carbs, sugar, starches, dairy, whatever I fancy.

Exercise plan: I bike to work most days and go for a long run or bike ride on the weekends. This amounts to half an hour to an hour of cardio. Every now and then I lift weights or do body weight strength training exercises.

So am I saying you should do these same things and will get the same results? NO!!! The secret to losing weight and getting toned aren’t what I do.

The secret is: I love this diet and exercise program.

I don’t eat this way or exercise this way in order to change the way I look. If these activities made me fatter, I would probably reduce them, but I would still try to find a way to keep doing what I’m doing. I look forward to them.

I mean, I generally have excellent self-control, just not for diets. I have only ever been on 2 diets and I quit both early. Gained back the weight. And you know why? Because people aren’t great at making themselves miserable. People hate telling themselves they can’t have what they want. And you know what? That’s ok!

It’s ok if you want to be happy. The secret isn’t to learn how to deal with misery. The secret is to find a way to get to your goal that you frickin’ are addicted to.

So if you love binge eating, as I do, and hate restricting yourself from certain foods, maybe intermittent fasting is for you. Maybe it’s working out so much that you can eat as much as you like. Maybe it’s savoring your food. Maybe it’s going for a walk after you eat.

If there’s a healthy food you love, focus on incorporating more of those into your diet rather than what you “can’t” eat. So if you love apples, eat an apple before your biggest meal. If you love radishes, roast them, saute them, eat them raw with salt and pepper. Make the healthy thing you love the appetizer and it turns out, you’ll end up eating a delicious craveable healthy food and there will just be less room for the unhealthy.

The secret to being frugal is not to deny yourself everything but to concentrate spending on the things that you love. As an obvious first step, stop paying for stuff you hate. Stop paying for the gym if you hate going to the gym. Get rid of anything that’s only ok or that you just do on autopilot.

And then focus your attention on things that you love. Focus on travel and then it becomes easier to stop shopping. Focus on seeing loved ones and you start bringing your lunch to work. Focus on getting your company off the ground and you will gladly cut cable.

Whatever it is, the secret to being happy and being healthy is to make it consistent. And to make it consistent, think about adding more pleasure instead of adding more pain.

The problem is not with you. It’s not that you lack willpower. It’s that you shouldn’t use willpower for everything.

What craveable healthy or frugal habits can you incorporate into your life?

My Cheap Mostly-Natural Beauty Routine

I’m one of those annoying people who will scrutinize ingredient labels on all my personal care products and eventually leave the store empty handed because nothing will match my expectations. Either that or if I find something with good ingredients, I’ll see the extravagant cost and just vow to buy the top two ingredients in their most natural form.

Now I’m not exactly a hippie. This is not my complete beauty routine – though it does represent a lot of it. I mean, I’m a blonde Asian, and my hair wasn’t bleached by any kind of natural process. But that doesn’t mean I should add to my toxic load. For me, it just makes sense to have the simplest products that I know will work without all sorts of other ingredients I don’t want. It’s also easier on the wallet. Plus, non-natural products can sometimes be filled with tons of ingredients, like silicones, that appear to make your hair healthier but are really wreaking havoc in the long run by creating a barrier to your skin and hair that prevents better ingredients from getting through.

So without further adieu, I’ve searched and found the following to be good, effective products, none costs more than $20 and they’ll last you a long time.

Skin

I don’t wash my face. I read a blogger write once that her face improved so much after she stopped washing it. So I stopped washing it and had the same result. I don’t work in a mine or some really filthy area so it’s fine. At the end of the day, I remove my makeup with coconut oil ($11) and take a cotton pad soaked in witch hazel ($2.5) and tea tree oil ($14) and remove any sweat or dirt from my face. For moisturizing my face, I alternate between Radha Argan Oil ($14) and Rosehip oil ($14).

I’ll do a weekly mask with Aztec Healing Clay ($9). I also like to do a little mini peel ($5) in the office when my skin needs a little pick me up. I know sheet masks are quite fashionable right now, so I bought a bulk order of cotton masks off eBay and I put some cocktail of oils and aloe vera gel ($9) and just zone out.

For the rest of my skin, I use grapeseed oil ($8) to keep it soft and moisturized. I will often just squirt some oil directly onto me and add it to my baths. In the summer, I use monoi oil ($15) on my legs to keep bugs away. It works as well as other bug repellants, doesn’t make me smell weird and also keeps my legs silky.

After taking some time in a sensory deprivation chamber, I’ve started paying more attention to keeping my hands in tip top condition (having little cuts on your hands and then going into a massive saltwater chamber is a new kind of pain). I’ve relied on old favorite, Burt’s Bees cuticle cream ($6). For a somewhat greasy hand lotion, I use lanolin oil. I just started this and more research may need to follow.

I find that I don’t really need deodorant but sometimes I like to use Schmidt’s rose deodorant ($10) because it smells good.

Hair

The fact that saved my hair was learning that my hair needs both moisture and protein in balance. And no matter how “moisturizing” a hair conditioner can say it is, it can actually be a major source of protein; thus, an oil may be the better way to go to get moisture without additional protein. A good, inexpensive oil that can really penetrate into your hair is castor oil ($9). Once or twice a week, or just when my hair is looking parched, I’ll pour castor oil into my hair (my hair just sucks it up) and let it sit for as long as I can stand – sometimes overnight. Then I wash it out with conditioner. Castor oil can also be applied to your lashes to make them grow or used in oil cleansing.

My hair can get really dry throughout the day, just being out in the sun or in the dry air of my office. I started using a leave-in conditioner from Mielle Organics ($13) and it makes my hair much more presentable throughout the day.  This is one of the only products on here with more than one ingredient but the ingredient list looked pretty good to me and it’s available at CVS.

Lips

The best beauty secret I have is pure lanolin($8)  for your lips. It’s super hydrating and I think makes them plump up over time. I also use a scrub made of kosher salt and olive oil to exfoliate.

What natural beauty products do you use?

Marveling At Our Dumb Luck

Sometimes I read stories on the internet about people failing on their spending bans or whining about how being in debt means they are in constant FOMO and it makes me really sad.

Sad that these people exist in the world. And that they’re typically from my generation.

When my parents came to this country, they had nothing. My mom ate rice and soy sauce as her meals and worked multiple jobs to get herself through school. My dad served in the Navy. I mean, there was a level of sacrifice that people in my generation do not have any concept of.

I’m not saying I in any way shared with the tough experiences they had. I had a much easier life because of their sacrifices. But I think it’s because I know what they went through, and because of how I was brought up, and knowing that money doesn’t grow on trees and we are so privileged to have anything at all that these little things we do to “save money” are not tough – they are ridiculously fun and wonderful.

I drove the same car for almost 18 years and I was ridiculously happy doing so. I spend on average $34/week on groceries and that’s luxurious.  Deciding NOT to buy clothes for A FEW DAYS is an AMAZING PRIVILEGE. Skipping lattes and spa services for the rest of your life – all of this stuff should be super easy to do.

I read this story recently on a Quora answer to What Motivates You. It’s got a lot of really great answers to I recommend you reading it. But this one was the one that showed up in my feed and honestly it’s something I think anyone who can’t figure out how to stop getting manicures needs to read on a daily basis.

After I read this story, I wanted to try to find it again. I remembered the man’s name was Idris and that he was a cleaner in Bangladesh, which turned up this result:

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It links to this article that discusses the worst job in the world – diving in liquid sewage to claw out blockages, without any protective gear and with only a stick for safety. I’m not sure this is the same Idris. But I can understand why Idris may have washed himself literally in public toilets to clean himself before going home.

Risking his life diving into raw sewage as his livelihood and this guy is still happy! How could I not be?