If You’re Feeling Humbled, You’re on a Positive Path

This picture humbles me in two ways; it reminds me of both my insignificance relative to the total universe and of my rudimentary photography skills – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

I’m pretty sick of the superhero trend in Hollywood. But over the last decade or so, one particular franchise was the exception to that. Ok, two if you count Deadpool; but I would argue that those movies offer much more than just another superhero series. Anyway, when I saw The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, I went in expecting a crescendo from a trilogy that had started off strong with Batman Begins, and then taken a giant leap forward from there with The Dark Knight. Sadly, I came away bitterly disappointed. However, while there is no denying that the movie was a step backwards from the Dark Knight, and possibly from Batman Begins as well, a subsequent viewing convinced me that my initial expectations for it had been unreasonable and left me feeling that it was a much worse movie than it actually was. Today I believe it was an overall solid movie with moderate plot problems that relied excessively on Michael Bay-esque large scale destruction in a flailing effort to emerge from the giant shadow its predecessor cast over it. And also, that it has more to say than I had given it credit for at first.

Early in the movie, as he squares off with Batman for the first time, Bane tells Batman that “Peace has cost you your strength; victory has defeated you.” He then proceeds to toy with his clearly overmatched opponent until he gets bored and finishes the fight, pounding Batman until his mask literally breaks and finally, lifting him over his head and cracking him over his knee. Unrealistic? Yes. Brutal, visceral entertainment that culminates with shuddering on the part of any audience member who has ever dealt with back pain? Also yes. But the red meat of the fight is in Bane’s quote. It would appear that life has been pretty comfortable for the caped crusader since the events of The Dark Knight. But that comfort costs him the ass kicking of a lifetime at the hands of Bane.

Fast forward to the near the end of the movie – before the plot REALLY falls apart – to Batman’s second fight with Bane. This time, the preparation has been anything but comfortable; in fact, it nearly broke him. But as a result, he has come back much stronger than he was at the beginning of the movie. Admittedly, he gets a little lucky in this fight when Bane’s mask, which appears to be necessary for him to breathe, breaks. One does wonder how that never happened in the first fight, given that Batman landed several uncontested punches to Bane’s face in that one as well. But Hollywood magic aside, Batman soundly defeats Bane in their rematch, if not quite as dramatically as Bane won the first fight. This is not an uncommon lesson in stories, but I chose this as an example because I love the way Bane articulated it.

Life has a way of putting us in uncomfortable situations. But with the proper mindset and work ethic, we can turn these difficult circumstances into gifts for our future selves. Growing up, I mostly lived with scarce resources. This discomfort led me to learn everything I could about money so I would never have to face those conditions again and today, it looks very unlikely that I ever will. Fast forward to my MMA training. Early on, I distinctly remember having my ass handed to me many times by smaller, physically weaker men who had gone through countless hours of hell learning their techniques. Going through that myself made me a much more capable fighter – both physically and mentally. Later in life, I lost my wife in an excruciating manner. I have heard plenty of people say that a divorce is significantly more difficult to get through than the death of a spouse and while I acknowledge I have only experienced the former, I would still tend to believe that is true. It was a severe, complicated form of pain and it went on for the better part of a year. But that terrible sequence of events motivated me to reevaluate everything about my life and change most of it, and I am now immeasurably better off for having gone through it.

But when life isn’t putting us on our asses, sometimes that can be more problematic. Just like Batman, if we aren’t challenged, we atrophy. Recently I was reminded of this when I began the process of learning to fly. I challenge myself as often as possible whether it be in the gym, in doing a very difficult job, in learning how to run my side business on the fly, in reading about new things daily, practicing Spanish and German, etc. But I have been working on most of those things for a long time now and while I’m certainly not an expert in any of them, I’m far from that day one ass kicking experience in all of them. I may be improving, but nothing is forcing me outside of my comfort zone. But being handed the controls to a small airplane fixed that. Within seconds, it became very obvious to me that I knew absolutely nothing in that context. It was a feeling I hadn’t experienced for a while.

Part of being older and wiser is being excited and thankful for that feeling and that is how I feel now. There is a profound happiness in admitting your beginner status because it means you’re in the best position to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Life puts us there fairly often, but I don’t think that’s quite enough. I believe we should continuously be actively looking for opportunities to be humbled. If something is too easy, then it simply isn’t enough of a challenge to facilitate the dramatic growth we should be seeking out each and every day. So today, I encourage each and every one of you to go find something that will knock you on your ass. Then, work at it. Stick with it and get better. I believe that is the best way to grow.

How Much I Spend on Gas and Some Ways to Spend Less

Even in the land of gas guzzling, we still have different degrees. Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Happy Monday, everyone! Here is the latest post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, you can check it out here. I’ve been going into detail on one category each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $2800 on gas. This is largely because I drive a ton for work and for my other business activities. However, if I drove a typical number of miles in a year, I believe I could reasonably cut this expense down to about $1200. Are you spending more than that? Here are some ways you can improve the situation, form most effective to least.

1. Drive a fuel efficient vehicle.

Yes, this one is pretty obvious. But it’s the biggest reason most people overspend on gas. How many pickup truck owners do you know who do almost nothing but drive to work in them? How many SUV owners do you know who rarely have more than one or two passengers? These people are spending a fortune owning these vehicles – in many more ways than simply filling their gas tanks. I’ve been without my truck for almost two years now and guess what? I’ve managed to find ways to get by without it in most cases and when that hasn’t been possible, well, that’s why Uhaul and their ilk exist. Even some home improvement stores have trucks available to rent now. Renting a truck even ten times a year is much, much cheaper than owning one. So my advice is to think long and hard about why you’re driving what you are and whether you really need a vehicle that size. If you can’t get at least 30mpg on the highway and there isn’t a very good, consistent reason for it, you’re wasting a lot of money. In my case, I get roughly 30mpg on AVERAGE and drive a car with just shy of 300hp. Automotive technology has come a long way and compromise isn’t nearly as painful as it was years ago.

2. Keep your driving miles down.

There are lots of ways to do this. Carpool, combine multiple trips into single ones with multiple stops, skip going to things you didn’t really want to do anyway, etc.

3. Maintain your vehicle appropriately.

There is a good chance a poorly maintained vehicle will get correspondingly poor gas mileage. This is one way that a fair portion of your maintenance costs will literally pay for themselves. And that’s not to mention the money you’ll save in depreciation since a car that’s maintained ages more gracefully and is worth more money. Here is a post I wrote about basic vehicle maintenance.

4. Drive gently. If you’re adventurous, try some hypermiling techniques.

I’m not going to go into the extreme stuff here, although you should know there are people who can get literally double the EPA rating out of some cars. You can improve your gas mileage quite a bit just by accelerating gently, maintaining a good following distance, minimizing brake use (which is strongly related to following distance), etc. Driving your car like you’re on an imaginary race track isn’t going to save you much time anyway since you will still have to deal with the same (often horribly timed) stoplights and idiots going the speed limit in the left lane that everyone else does. And besides, any time saved will get eaten up pretty quickly when some revenue generator asshole traffic cop lights you up or you get into an accident. Driving aggressively really isn’t worth it and it has a devastating effect on your gas mileage.  

5. Buy the cheapest gas you can find.

I wrote a post with some more tips about this recently so check it out here if you missed it. Gas is the ultimate commodity item and yes, provided you’re doing an apples to apples comparison in terms of octane rating, it’s the same no matter what station you buy it from. I can’t believe how many people swear by the opposite. If you don’t believe me, drive by your local distribution center (likely in the middle of nowhere) and check out how many different logos are on the sides of the tankers – which are all lined up to be loaded with the EXACT SAME GAS.

6. Use credit card rewards to your advantage.

There are multiple credit cards that pay 3% on gas. Additionally, “category cards” like Chase Freedom occasionally pay 5%. This is free money, people. But if you don’t want it, no problem. That’s just more for me.

7. Go to your furthest away destination first.

While you’re planning your multiple errand trip after reading point number two above, consider this. Cars run most efficiently when they’re fully warmed up and this takes some time, depending on your climate. This is why if you live in a place with hellish winters, your winter gas mileage is substantially worse than in the summer time; it takes cars longer to warm up. Anyway, if you drive to your first destination a few miles away, then a few more miles, then a few more, etc, and turn your car off each time, it may never get fully warmed up and you may be losing tons of gas mileage. Contrast this with driving twenty miles to the furthest destination, completely warming up your engine in the process, then making your way back towards home. You want to be driving the highest possible percentage of your miles with your car running as efficiently as possible. Another way to plan out your trips is to avoid rush hour like the plague. Stop and go driving is bad for both your gas mileage and your car’s longevity. Few of us live in a perfect world, but most of us still have some options available that can make a big difference with things like this.

8. Regardless of climate, DO NOT leave your car “warming up” in your driveway.

I don’t know what they were doing thirty years ago because I’m not that damn old. But I do know that today’s cars are designed to run right away and also that idling is bad for them and should be kept to a minimum. I know it gets inhumanely cold in some places – for example, Wisconsin. But if you punish your car for that by leaving it sitting idling, you’re going to take a ton of life out of it in the long term and waste a ton of gas in the short.

Happy Friday! An Update on My Situation

A view from the cockpit of the venerable Cessna 172 – a plane countless pilots have gotten their start in

Happy Friday, folks! As most of you probably know, employers often do their firing on Fridays. Recently, mine followed that same philosophy, firing over twenty percent of our sales force and some office employees as well. We all knew it was coming; or at least we should have. There were ample signals from management in both words and actions. And even if there hadn’t been, it’s common knowledge that revenue in most of our industry collapsed late last year and has not improved ever since and our “numbers” have reflected that. Simply put, it wasn’t if, but when. But here comes the plot twist. In spite of almost certainly having been “on the list” at one time, yours truly not only survived, but wasn’t the slightest bit concerned about whether he would. There are two reasons for this.

First, since being personally warned that attrition was coming, I’ve been able to produce literally the best numbers of my young career in spite of the state of the market. I’ve gone from somewhere in the lower middle of our division to one of the company’s top performers in the entire world. How did I do it? Sure, I started pushing myself a little harder. But mostly, I kept doing exactly the same thing. I had always been working diligently to develop my new territory – even when the results weren’t reflecting it. It takes about two years to do that successfully and my employer is well aware of that. Had management pulled the plug early, they would have been making an extraordinarily expensive mistake. But economic stress often forces companies to make decisions from a very short term perspective. Luckily for all involved, my territory has absolutely exploded with production over the last couple of months to the point where the mere notion of me being fired would be absurd. At this point, it’s all I can do to keep up with the business I have. If the market recovers even a little bit, look out.

But there is another, more important reason for my lack of trepidation over my job – I don’t need it anymore. The minute my boss broke the news to me, the wheels in my head were already turning. He did me a solid by giving me a warning. But nonetheless, before the conversation was even over, I had mapped out my plan. A key part of it was to replace employment income altogether in my life. I have always harbored a healthy hatred of authority; and alliteration aside, I don’t take that word choice lightly. After spending my life watching reliance on employers result in devastating consequences for so many people and finally having it threaten me as well, it was time to act. My real estate business was only in its early stages at the time. But no matter. I decided it would be paying all of my expenses by the end of the year and began ramping it up aggressively. And today, it appears that goal is going to be accomplished ahead of schedule. Admittedly, the fact that I keep my expenses low means that wasn’t as high a bar to clear as it may sound like. But still, success is sweet.

Make no mistake, I still want my employment income. I want to see my real estate business cover the bills and then some for at least a year or two before I take the plunge. So the plan is to kick ass in both areas for the time being and see where it takes me. However, to commemorate the occasion, I must admit I’ve adopted a rather expensive new hobby – flying. This is the first thing in my life I can think of that I’ve done without any plan or goal in mind, but instead, simply because I enjoy it. I am taking lessons and hope to have my private pilot’s license by around the end of this year. From there, we’ll see what happens. As long as I’m enjoying myself, I’m happy. But if I can’t keep an awful lot of money flowing in, I won’t be able to afford to fly as much. So that should keep me hungry for a while.

The moral of the story? Believe in yourself. If someone doubts you, be thankful. It’s just more fuel for your fire. If you know you have a good hand and someone bets against you, be happy. The size of your payday just increased. And if times get tough in your life, get excited. This rough patch may be exactly what you needed to convince you to take things to the next level. Happy Friday, folks! Have a wonderful weekend!

Some Ways to Make Driving Great Again!

Between the low double digit gas mileage and the tight quarters inside, this Ferrari may not be the best choice for a road trip

My job involves a lot of driving. How much? Over the last three years of doing it, I’ve put on well over 100k miles. So I know a thing or two about this stuff. Today I’m going to throw out some random tips that I use to make life on the road a little safer, more efficient, and generally better.

Take care of your vehicle and it will take care of you.

This is an easy one. I’ve written about basic maintenance before. Whether you do it yourself or you have it done at a shop you trust, make sure it gets done.

Drive gently.

I’ve read about hypermiling techniques that allow people to get some pretty insane gas mileage. A lot of it isn’t necessarily practical for every day driving but the most important concept is; drive gently. Accelerate gradually, maintain plenty of following distance, and avoid abrupt braking. Not only will you save gas, your car will last longer and you will be much less likely to get into an accident. This can easily save you thousands of dollars over the life of a car.

Google Maps is pretty awesome!

I don’t even use the in car GPS systems anymore because Google Maps is way better. In addition to basic navigation, it allows you to search for gas stations and see many of their prices on the fly. It doesn’t have prices for every station, but it at least gives you a good idea of what area you’re likely to find the best prices in. And for anyone who doesn’t know, no matter where you buy your gas, it is exactly the same stuff. I talk to oil industry people all the time and that has been confirmed time and time again. So this is a commodity item and that means price wins.

But my favorite Google Maps feature is definitely the speed trap notifications. It isn’t a perfect system, but it is more effective than a traditional radar/laser detector in my opinion for two reasons. One, the range is much better. You can see speed traps miles away on the map. Two, there are far fewer false positives – a huge problem with even the best detectors. But the system is only as good as the data it has so please, let’s all be good citizens and put the word out whenever a revenue generation agent police officer is spotted trying to ruin someone’s day. Disclaimer: I support police most of the time and believe they provide a valuable service. But in this particular area, I believe Google is providing a much more valuable service than they are. To report a speed trap, click the little plus button on the right side of the screen in Google Maps. We need as many people doing this as possible!

I tried an app called Upside and well, not everything works out.

The app supposedly pays a rebate whenever you buy gas. But you have to take a picture of your receipt every time and that’s a pain – even if the pump isn’t out of receipt paper, which is often the case. And in my experience, after the teaser rate on the first fill up, it was almost always one cent per gallon. Also, usually only the more expensive gas stations in the area were available on the app. A one cent per gallon rebate isn’t worth much if you’re paying ten cents more per gallon to begin with. There was also a restaurant option available that paid much better, but the selection was atrocious. I did, however, use that to buy enough chicken sandwiches at Burger King, which are surprisingly decent now, to get over the $10 cash out threshold and make the whole thing at least pay off a little.  

As usual, Costco rocks.

If you can get your gas there, you will likely save at least ten cents a gallon versus the next cheapest station in the area.

Speaking of gas, if you’re getting less than 3% back on it, you’re leaving money on the table.

Both the Wells Fargo Propel credit card and the Bank of America Cash Rewards card offer 3% back in this category. Occasionally the quarterly 5% cards like Chase Freedom will pay out on gas. There are probably several other cards that do at least this well, too.

AAA is a pretty worthwhile service if you drive long distances often.

Peace of mind is worth a lot when you’re in a strange place. If something happens, it’s nice to know you’re a phone call away from getting help and that in many cases, you won’t even have to pay for it. In a lot of places, especially in the more rural areas, the tow truck business is quite a racket. With AAA, even if you do end up having to pay, you will at least be dealing with one of the more reputable options in the area (or at least one that likely doesn’t want to risk losing its AAA business by pissing off customers) without having to do the research on your own.

If Discount Tire is available where you live, you’d be a fool not to buy your tires from them. And yes, I know that my favorite store sells tires. Even Costco isn’t the best at absolutely everything.

These guys have the tire business down to a science. They have great selection, the best prices, and great service. They check/correct your pressure whenever you want and free rotation is included with your tires. But the best part is their warranty. 99% of the time I am not a warranty advocate. But Discount Tire is an exception. For about twenty bucks a tire, they will repair or replace any tire you have any issue with during the warranty period. This is all fresh in my mind because on a recent trip to the oil country, it was so hot that one of my tires exploded as I was driving. Thankfully, I wasn’t far from the nearest town when it happened. I did have to wait a day for the specific tire I had to get there (to be fair, they did have another option available, but I didn’t want mismatched tires so I opted to wait), but given how far out in the middle of nowhere oil country is, that was actually impressive in my opinion. And rather than having to pay $200+ for a replacement tire (high performance, 18 inch, low profile tires are expensive anywhere you go; Discount Tire’s price is still easily the best), I only had to pay the twenty bucks to renew the warranty on the tire that was being replaced for free. With tire prices being what they are these days, and with roads being as bad as they are in many places, this warranty is a no brainer and has already paid off more than double for me with about half the life of the three remaining tires left to go.

Have a great Wednesday, folks! And be safe out there!

How Much I Spend on Fun Activities and How I Do It

A picture from a tour at St Arnold Brewing Company – the oldest craft brewery in Texas

Happy Monday, everyone! Here is the latest post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, you can check it out here. I’ve been going into detail on one category each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $2100 on fun activities. This is really a category I could cut down as much as necessary if I had to. Like most of my spending categories, I don’t have a particular target in mind; I simply make sure that if I’m spending money on something, there is a good reason.

This category includes most of what I spend on dating. And the reason I’m able to spend so little in that normally very expensive area is that over the years, I’ve learned that trying to impress women by spending money has consistently gotten me exactly the opposite of the outcome I was looking for. Yes, I should have known this long before I did, but I had that same single mother upbringing that has proven so disastrous to a huge portion of my generation and it has taken a ton of constant, ongoing work to deprogram the many erroneous lessons I didn’t even realize I was learning over the years. I’m not trying to disparage the efforts of my mother or any other single mother, many of which are nothing short of Herculean. However, from my own life and from observing our society at large, it appears painfully obvious to me that a boy needs a strong, consistent father figure in his life and if there isn’t one, he is likely to make more than a few missteps in the process of figuring things out on his own. But that topic could be an entire series of posts all by itself. For now, I’ll just say that trying to buy your way into a woman’s heart (or into any other part of her) is not an effective method.

Anyway, if I want to have fun, I have fun. But here is the important point. In my life, almost everything has a purpose. So with the free time I have available, I want to enjoy myself but I also want to better myself in at least some way in the process. For example, a lot of my “fun” activities are physical activities like weight lifting, tennis, basketball, swimming, hiking, etc. Most of these benefit my health and fitness level, benefit my mind as I improve a skill set, and also happen to cost me little or no money. I also enjoy reading, cooking, volunteering, and learning to fix things like cars, electronics, plumbing, and so forth. I’ve found that personal growth is what makes me happy and thus, I tend to have fun while learning and increasing my capabilities in various areas. In general, if you can find ways to enjoy yourself while also creating value, you will be able to have fun without spending much money.

Even most social interaction doesn’t have to be expensive. Sure, I go out for drinks, to museums, and various other attractions like most people do. But those tend to be more special occasion activities and with most of my friends, our most common activities are hanging out, grilling, going to the beach, playing some pool, etc. We will occasionally have a roller coaster day that will cost us each a hundred bucks or so or go to a football game and drop more than that. But these are every now and again type activities and as a result, they are special treats when we do them. Contrast that with the people who spray money like a fire hose everywhere they go and then go home to worry about how they’re going to pay their bills. Are they having any more fun than my friends and I are? I doubt it.  Spending money can be required for particular activities, but it isn’t required for meaningful interaction. It’s all about deciding what is really important to you – the activity itself or the people you’re doing it with. If you have the right people involved, it really doesn’t matter what the activity is.

It’s important to have fun in your life. That I will not dispute. But spending a lot of money usually isn’t what gets you there. It’s all about figuring out what you truly enjoy and making that the focus. And if your focus is on spending money, you’re going to live a very stressful life because you can outspend absolutely any income. In my experience, stress is pretty near the opposite of fun.

A Couple More Books I Recommend

Good morning ya’ll! Here are quick reviews of a couple of books I’ve read recently that I felt were pretty worthwhile.

Sleeping Your Way to the Top: How to Get the Sleep You Need to Succeed by Terry Cralle and W. David Brown (2016)

I was really impressed with this book – and not just because of the cheeky title. In fact, that cheekiness continued throughout the book to the point of getting a little bit old. But somehow, some way, this book kept me interested and engaged for almost three hundred pages…of talking about sleep. Tons of recent research definitely points to sleep being much more important than we as a society have ever fully understood. This book puts a bunch of it together to illustrate just how badly some of us, who have disregarded our sleep far too often over the years, have screwed ourselves. It had me stunned and horrified several times as I realized that some of the issues I’ve had in my life, and still have in some cases, could very well have been self inflicted wounds. But it did it in a way that not only didn’t totally crush my spirit (even though I may have it coming in this case), but made it a very easy book to keep reading.

My only criticism is that I wish the book had included more specific solutions. I did try two ideas that it gave me, but in both cases, I quickly realized that I was in way over my head. And now I’m considering consulting a professional, which may be a very beneficial outcome for me. I think this is a very important book that almost anyone could benefit from reading.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, and Laura Roppe (2011)

This is a grudging recommendation on my part. Why? Because I liked the authors less and less the more I read this book. It could be that I was just in a bad mood one day when I was reading it and my perception snowballed from there, but I came away feeling like it was very condescending. Many of the examples provided seemed flimsy at best and the authors loved their ideas so much that they were repeated over and over and……….

Anyway, the fact that I basically hated the experience of reading this book should give my recommendation of it that much more weight. In spite of my feelings for it, the book really did get me thinking critically about the way I approach my “crucial conversations” – and contentious, high stakes conversations are almost a daily part of life for someone in my line of work. It gave me some excellent ideas and I’ve already noticed myself being more effective and getting some better outcomes as I’ve made a conscious effort to integrate what I read into my tactics. This book could benefit just about anyone – not just in a business context, but also in all sorts of other relationships. It’s a great reminder that we don’t have to personally like the source of information to benefit from it – a point that probably won’t be lost on some of my readers…

Have a splendid day and if you’re in Houston, let’s all keep doing our best not to drown! I’ve never seen so much fucking rain in my life and I hope I never do again. But it’s still nowhere near as frustrating as the four to six months of hell people in Wisconsin call winter. Anyway…  

What I Spend on Restaurants and How I Do It

A recent restaurant meal I had in a hotel bar on a rare trip to Los Angeles, CA

Happy July, everyone! This is the latest post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, you can check it out here. I’ve been going into detail on one category each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $500 per year on restaurant meals. A lot of people really blow it financially in this area. I’m in a particularly fortunate situation, which is why my restaurant spending is exceptionally low. A reasonable amount to spend on restaurants could certainly be higher in most cases – maybe $1-2k a year or even more if one has the resources. But on a minimum budget, you would spend $0.

Why is my restaurant spending so low? I eat at restaurants for a living – often very nice ones. Wining and dining people is in the job description. So psychologically, I’m usually pretty restaurant-ed out and prefer to eat food I make at home – which is often as good or better than restaurant food anyway in my humble opinion. I do go out on dates and what not and in my imperfect system of recording spending, some of that winds up in this category and some in the “fun” category. But as you will learn next week, Monday, I don’t spend terribly excessively in that area either. Mostly, I live a fairly quiet, low key lifestyle since I get that stuff out of my system on someone else’s dime while I’m working.

But how would I keep restaurant spending reasonable if I didn’t have the job I have? The underlying mindset is the same as everywhere else; figure out what I actually enjoy about the experience, cut out the superfluous stuff, and keep everything moderate overall.

I come from a lower class background and even after eating hundreds of meals over the last few years at restaurants ranging from sandwich shops all the way up to high end steakhouses and seafood restaurants where the menu prices are in whole dollar amounts with many items sporting three figures, I haven’t quite gotten comfortable with the idea of someone else serving me. So that element is not primarily what I enjoy about restaurants, even though I can certainly appreciate that rare waiter or waitress who has taken the craft to the level of art. The parts I truly enjoy are delicious food and spending time with other people.

And as it turns out, neither of those requires going to a restaurant at all. Instead, whenever I can, I enjoy both of those things at home. That offers the bonuses of knowing exactly what is in my food and being able to optimize everything for nutritional value, cost, and personal taste. I’ve even learned to enjoy the process of preparing food; there is certainly a creativity to it if you’re doing it right. And while not everyone sees things this way, I take pride in my entertaining and I think cooking for a special someone amounts to sharing much more of myself than what I would by going to a restaurant with her.

Besides, the restaurant experience, like so many others in our historically rich society, has become so routine that it has lost much of what used to make it special. I believe eating in restaurants several times a week is unhealthy for us on multiple levels. So I probably only go to restaurants a handful of times a year outside of work. And when I do, it is usually an event. Even if I didn’t have the job I do, I probably wouldn’t go more than once or twice a month. So that’s my biggest tip to saving money at restaurants – learn to enjoy cooking for yourself and in the process, keep restaurant meals the special treat they really should be. And that doesn’t have to cost you a minute either. My repertoire includes time consuming recipes but also plenty that can be produced in no more time than would be spent waiting at a restaurant anyway. Sometimes I take the scenic route but a lot of times I take shortcuts. It gets easier with experience.

When you do go to a restaurant, there are certainly ways you can minimize the expense. First, keep the drinks to a minimum. It’s very easy to double a restaurant bill just by ordering a few drinks per person and in most cases, you are drinking the exact same thing you could have at home for 10-20% of the cost. Another technique is to be mindful of portion sizes. Most restaurant meals contain over half the calories a typical person needs to consume in an entire day. So appetizers really aren’t necessary and in fact, you should probably eat half the food you are served, or even less than that, and then save the rest to bring home and enjoy again later. If it’s a romantic evening, you may want to share an overpriced dessert. Otherwise, you almost certainly don’t need one at all.

I want to end with an important point. To a financially responsible person, restaurants are a luxury spending item. Please do not stiff the wait staff. Like it or not, here in the United States, the restaurant business model involves paying these people practically nothing – so they rely heavily on tips. If you can’t afford to tip (when and where appropriate, of course), you shouldn’t be eating at a restaurant at all in my opinion because in effect, you are not paying for the service portion of the experience. Imagine what it would be like if your employer left it up to customers to decide how much you got paid. I didn’t create the system, but I definitely don’t believe in screwing people over to save a buck, regardless of whether I agree with the way their employers operate. That is a great example of the difference between financially responsible (as I’ve mentioned, I hate the word “frugal”) and cheap.

Have a great week, folks!

Would You Like $50 for Doing Almost Nothing?

$50 could buy you an unlimited shrimp dinner at Outback Steakhouse for a pair of gluttons like my friend and I if you time it right. Bonus points if your friend says everything in an awesomely obnoxious Australian accent the entire time!

My most faithful readers may have noticed that last week, I missed the Friday post in the Monday, Wednesday, Friday pattern I’ve been following for a while now. This was one of the results of a little adventure I had while on a trip to the oil country. I plan to write a post about that trip next week because I think there were some worthwhile things to mention about it. But for now, just know that I wound up spending an extra night in a hotel room there. For some reason, I decided to read through some emails and for a less mysterious reason, I decided to act on one of them.

Not too long ago, I wrote about my new SoFi checking account. I’m happy to report that it has been a great experience so far. I haven’t been charged any fees (not even for checks, which most banks do charge for now), the bill pay functionality has worked smoothly, transfers to other accounts have been likewise, and I’ve been paid 2.25% interest on the money I’ve run through the account. So I’m very happy. But like any company that truly finds a place in my heart, that wasn’t good enough for the people at SoFi. So they found a way to put a little more money in my pocket and emailed me their idea. And on a scorching evening in a west Texas hotel room, I read that email.

Simply put, SoFi will pay me $50 for everyone I refer to them who starts a checking account. But they didn’t just give me an incentive; they wanted to welcome new customers into the SoFi family in style. And they’re going to do that by depositing $50 into the new accounts of everyone I refer to SoFi who starts one. That’s right folks, everybody wins! And it gets better. Once you’ve gotten your free $50, you can turn around and make $50 more for everyone you sign up. This means that anyone with a spouse or significant other who also likes free money has just been handed $150…or more! You can multiply that $50 times as many friends as you have who are interested in having a free $50 of their own.

Up to this point, I have written this blog for zero compensation. No advertising, no referral links, nothing. Simply put, income is not my goal in doing this. That said, if you have enjoyed reading my blog to such an extent that you’d like to toss a little cash my way as a thank you, make a little for yourself in the process, and try out a checking account that comes recommended by someone who has had them at literally dozens of different banks, feel free to use this link – which will do all of those things. If not, I will probably still manage to survive and will definitely keep writing this blog as long as I continue to enjoy doing so. And either way, I wish you a wonderful Wednesday!

P.S. As an extra little bonus, if you click the link above, you will learn what the B in B. Money stands for.

What I Spend On Groceries and How I Do It

A recent meal of turkey lasagna, roasted squash, and green peas (I probably wound up having seconds on the lasagna)

Happy Monday, Everyone! Here is the latest post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, check it out here. I’ve been going into detail on one category each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $1700 per year on groceries and I believe I could spend a reasonable minimum of $1200 per year if I had to. This is one area that always blows me away when I read about what people typically spend on it. Supposedly the average is about $3000 per year, per person. Then again, the average American reportedly wastes about a pound of food per day, so that is part of the reason for such a high number. I do all I can to avoid EVER wasting food and probably throw away less than one item per month. But before I go any further, I do have to ‘fess up to one advantage. I eat three to five meals per week at restaurants in a typical week as part of my job, which saves me some food I would need to make at home. And actually, during 2017 I was traveling a lot more and probably ate twice that many meals. So admittedly, my spending would be higher if not for that. However, as a very physically active man, I also eat significantly more total calories than a typical person does and as a result, I believe things balance out to some degree.

As with most shopping, my grocery strategy begins at Costco. Yes, I am only a household of one. But there are still plenty of foods I am able to buy in bulk and consume quickly enough to avoid having them go bad. Some of the many items I can think of off the top of my head that I buy regularly include the mixed bags of organic spinach/kale/other stuff that tastes like grass clippings, tortillas, eggs, butter, cheese, coffee, olive oil, spices, boneless skinless chicken breasts, fish, and assorted frozen foods I can make once in a while when I’m feeling lazy. Absolutely every item I just listed is a great quality/price combination at Costco, with many of them being substantially cheaper than any competitor’s offerings. I don’t buy much produce at Costco, however. That doesn’t seem to be their strongest priced area.

If I don’t buy something at Costco, I go to HEB, a regional chain here in Texas that has solid selection and an “every day low pricing” model. When I lived in Wisconsin, there was a similarly excellent option called Woodman’s. Either way, I take the lazy approach of shopping at stores that offer the lowest prices most of the time rather than shopping at several different ones looking for sale prices that are occasionally a little bit lower. I know people who do things that way and there is certainly money to be saved, but I simply don’t have the time available to be able to execute that strategy.

At the grocery store, my focus is on buying mostly “raw materials,” which tend to be both the cheapest and the healthiest versions of foods. I buy the most in the produce section. Flexibility is key here. Everything has a peak season when it is plentiful and cheap and I plan my cooking around that to some extent. For example, when pineapples are less than $2, I buy them more often and sweeten up my green smoothies with them. And since lately avocados are about double what they are normally, I’ve been using them much less or skipping them altogether. After the produce section, I typically go to the meat section the next most, followed by the frozen section where I buy lots of frozen vegetables. These are a great value because they’re flash frozen almost immediately after being harvested, meaning they’re both fresh/nutritious and benefit from the economy of scale pricing that results from mass production. I do occasionally venture into the middle aisles, where the most processed food lives, but only for particular items when I need them, usually for a particular recipe.

In practice, this usually ends up being a couple trips to both Costco and HEB each week. If I’m just buying my regular stuff, I usually end up spending about $10-15 total on groceries each of these trips and $20-30 per week. Every now and again I stock up or buy special items for recipes and spend a little more. But I never feel like I have to deprive myself in any way to spend what I do on groceries. I guess the only caveat is that since I buy food mostly in raw, unprocessed form, I do spend a fair amount of time cooking. But since I enjoy doing that, and enjoy the results even more, I don’t really see that as a cost. That’s the advantage of learning to enjoy activities that happen to help you to live a better, healthier life and save money in the process.

Anyway, hopefully this gives someone an idea or two. Have a great Monday, Ya’ll!

Going Down Swinging…Maybe – A Quick Update on My Situation

Crash and burn…or soar above the clouds? Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

About two months ago, I mentioned that I’m in some career trouble. Simply put, the increasingly difficult economic conditions have put my employer in a precarious position and as a result, only the bona fide superstars are truly safe. And even they are only safe because they are marketable; no one who relies on my employer is because the company itself isn’t certain to survive. While I have been squarely in the rising star category for a while, I haven’t made the next leap yet and my status isn’t good enough in a situation like this. I could be let go any day and I don’t have a big enough name in my industry to ensure I’d be snapped up quickly if that came to pass. Since I found this out, I’ve addressed the situation with maximum effort in three different areas. While there hasn’t been an outright victorious moment yet, there are very encouraging signs in all three areas.

It seems only logical to hedge one’s bets in a situation like this and to that end, I’ve done what I can to find a new job. Unfortunately, I’ve found myself in a position that, while highly valued, is not terribly common. It is perfectly normal for someone in my position to cover a large territory – sometimes a whole state or even several. And there are only a handful of companies that do what my employer does – and some are only regional. So while I could try to get into something a little different, there are not many “smooth transition” options available. I’ve applied for two opportunities over the last two months. Of those, I quickly withdrew from one when I learned some disconcerting things about the company as I did my due diligence and narrowly missed getting an offer from the other (this was the major positive development I was hinting at for a while in some of my posts). I will continue to keep my eye on the market, but given the economic reality of this moment in time, very few people are leaving positions of this kind and very few employers are creating new ones.

My second area of effort is also obvious – I’m trying to put out the fire in my current house in case I can’t escape it. This has actually been enormously successful. The last two months have averaged out to be more than double any other two I’ve had with the company and have included a fair number of deals the company cares a lot about because they are crucial to the bottom line. If I can continue at this pace, there is almost no chance I will be fired. However, there is no guarantee that will happen. In fact, my recent success has been wildly improbable given market conditions. For months, almost all of my peers have been doing significantly worse than they typically do, just as I had been until I suddenly caught fire. And even if I can keep the magic going, there is still no guarantee the company will survive.

Enter my third area of effort: my side business. A deal just concluded very successfully, I see more opportunity, and I’m ready to push in more chips. I’ve pulled some money from other investments, which was easy to do given my views on where stocks are headed in the short to medium term, and I’m plowing it into the business. I’m not going all in, but I’m betting enough that the possibilities of enough income to cover all my annual expenses and significant pain are both on the table. This project has proven it CAN work. Whether it can be scaled up efficiently or not remains to be seen. But I’ve decided it’s time to have some balls and give it a shot.

There is one other thing I’m focused on: enjoying my life and not worrying too much. I’ve gone to great lengths to set up my finances to withstand even an economic catastrophe. And whatever happens, I’m still going to be the same person who accomplished all I have up to this point. I am confident that even in a worst case scenario, I would eventually find success again. Besides, it’s kind of invigorating to be taking big swings at things that are suddenly very important. Yes, there is a chance I’ll hit the canvas before this is over. But there is also a chance I will be more successful than ever before. Either way, I will almost definitely grow for having tried. And at the end of the day, I think that’s the most important thing.