How Not to Use Money to Find Happiness

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

The Begging Bowl

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

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

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

The begging bowl remained empty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is being nice hurting your finances?

Yesterday, I was at a gala event where it was encouraged to take the centerpieces after the event. My dad reached for our centerpiece, which looked like leftover Valentine’s day bouquets full of pink and red carnations and roses, but I shooed him away because I saw that there were much better centerpieces from the front tables. Yes, these centerpieces were nearly twice as big, and had snapdragons and lilies and foliage. I guarded my bouquet while I waited for my dad to bring the car around. On their way out, a duo of women whom I thought were friends of my dad, looked at my bouquet and asked if they could swap my bouquet with theirs. One woman was a board member, she said. And honestly, I felt like I was trapped in an etiquette quagmire. Yes, that was rude of them to ask. But they were old women. And so I swapped my beautiful bouquet for her crappy bouquet. 

Later I found out that these women had caused my dad endless frustration during the ceremony, hadn’t even paid for their tickets and did nothing but put my father down. So I was pretty furious that I gave my bouquet to them.

But even more than that, there was no reason for me to switch my bouquet. I got my centerpiece fair and square, well after the people at the table had left and people had started leaving. I had given other bouquets to other people who wanted them. And even if I hadn’t, this woman had no right to my centerpiece. It was a free-for-all and I took advantage. And then she took advantage of me.  

The incidence caused me to wonder, is everyone either a taker or a giver in life, and am I too much of a giver than a taker?

Now, I would never ask for something that clearly belongs to someone else, but maybe I should. Sometimes, that person may give it up. Furthermore, if someone asks me for something that I don’t need, I am often willing to give it away. I wonder if I’m too giving in this regard.

And while this all seems quite mean, 1) I’m not advocating for stealing and 2) maybe this is the way the world works.

First, I’m advocating for asking for things, not taking without permission. And I’m advocating for taking ownership of what’s yours. There’s nothing even slightly immoral about what I’m positing. Don’t rob the poor and take from the needy – because that’s silly and mean. But ask for what you want from people who can give it to you.

Second, I think this is how people get ahead. I’ve read that people actually like you more when you ask them to do favors for you. So it gets to be a win-win for the askers and a lose-lose for the givers. I guess, third, and finally, no one should only be a giver or only a taker. We should all strive for balance. I find that I might be giving too much, and being only a giver has a lot of disadvantages. 

What do you think? Are you too much of a giver, too much of a taker or have you found the right balance?

Does the latte factor make sense for personal finance?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My New Year’s Resolution: Stop Doing Stuff I Hate

I think I’m actually quite good at ignoring other people’s opinions – about certain things. I’ve always had my own sense of style, grating personality, and my weird hipster tendencies. But I also have a high threshold for pain and misery. I mean I’ve worked as an attorney in a law firm for almost 5 years, and I lived with appendicitis for a few years.

stop

So recently I was invited to a baby shower. And I know this makes me a terrible person, but I hate baby showers. Or at least I hate it when only women are invited to these things – as if raising children is just a woman’s job. And then you play these stupid gross games like eating baby food. And you don’t even know each other that well, unlike at bridal showers, where you might be all really good friends. And then you just talk about baby stuff and there’s often no booze!

So I went shopping for something off the registry, and I was figuring out my train ride back from a little vacation I was having so that I could make it back for the baby shower. And then it occurred to me, I don’t have to go. I could give the gift ahead of time and spend the time I would have spent at the baby shower, doing anything I wanted to do.

In 2016, I was hampered by saying yes to things I knew I would hate. I spent way too much time with people I hated, including on a 5-day vacation, where I wished every minute that I was back at work. And that vacation was something that cast a shadow and caused a strain on my whole relationship with my fiance. It would have been much easier for both of us, if I had just acknowledged that I didn’t want to go to these events.I could have done things I wanted to do. I wouldn’t have built up so much resentment. The resentment wouldn’t have caused so much anger. The anger wouldn’t have seeped into every interaction we had.

So yeah, there’s nothing wrong with saying no to stuff that you hate.  I heard this great quote: “The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot” – Michael Altshuler. Why pilot yourself into situations you hate?

How to Start A Gratitude Journal


Sometimes the happier you are, the less you’re going to spend. If you feel great in your body, you may be less likely to fall for claims that the latest diet pills will help you lose weight or that some cellulite creams will do anything for you.  (However, you may also feel so happy that you buy a new outfit, so your mileage may vary).  In any case, happy spending is probably better, no?

A great way to be happy is a gratitude journal. Or so I’ve heard. I never really understood it because I tried it and just found myself writing an ongoing list of friends or family or terrible things that had, as yet, not inflicted me. But I saw this list of reflections from the Chopra Center, and this would make sense. I could think of a few of these questions everyday to come up with something to be grateful for that wouldn’t be horribly generic, and that, dare I say it, would increase the gratitude I feel in my life. Try it with me!

  • What was the funniest experience you had? Who did you share it with?
    • P’s Bachelorette Party with the 4-foot inflatable dildo. I also loved how someone brought this uninflated dildo to the fancy restaurant where we ate dinner.
  • What made your mouth drop in awe and wonder?
    • The dramatic decline of my relationship with B.
    • How my friend M has never mentioned any of the wrongs that I’ve done to her and picked me up from my car accident.
    • J’s wedding vows to P.
  • What was your smallest ritual that you loved?
    • Baths with tons of epsom salts, coconut oil and essential oils.
    • Buying flowers.
  • Who made you smile the most?
    • B, always. But possibly my new nephew, Arthur, who has very sweet cheeks.
  • What was a kind thing a stranger did for you?
    • The Managing Director of a charity thanked me personally and invited me to an event over email for a contribution. I felt like some fancy benefactor even though I had donated very little.
  • What is an annoying experience you had that is now a great memory?
    • After my car accident, my parents said I could drive the car to their house so I would have a place to park it without incurring the daily tow parking lot fees.  I drove the 20 miles to my parents’ house at about 25 mph because I was warned that the hood might fly up. But all throughout my car accident, people came through the woodwork to express concern and to help me. At the time, I hadn’t talked to my parents civilly in months.
  • When did you feel closest to God or your Higher Power?
    • When my Community Group noticed I had been missing for a few weeks and reached out to me.
  • What made you jump for joy? (On the inside or literally?)
    • My car hitting 200k miles, thankfully before the accident.
    • How happy I was that B was sharing equally with wedding planning. (would have traded that in for a wedding actually going through, but we aren’t given those choices).
    • Seeing the beach on my much-needed vacation.
    • Finding a Cheesecake Factory after wandering around starved, jetlagged and scared in L.A.
  • What was the most beautiful thing you saw?
    • The water around the Jefferson Memorial on my bike ride home from work.
    • An open table, food and beer after The Great Saunter.
  • What words made your heart melt?
    • I remember my brother saying he would support me whomever I was marrying.
  • Who gave you the best hug?
    • My friend Jim when I saw him at the marathon. I hadn’t seen him in years and he was invited and then uninvited to my wedding (because it was cancelled). He’s a great hugger.

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

mothersday

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

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

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

1. A letter expressing your appreciation/love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Something that you have that he/she wants

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

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

5. Scheduled time together.

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

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

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

 

I was Featured in LearnVest

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

 

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