Happy Fantastic Friday (I Wanted to Up the Ante From Last Week)!

I was looking for a picture of destruction. I found this picture of hurricane damage. It will do. Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Holy cow are we in some suddenly dark days! I’m seeing some genuinely good people and businesses getting hurt and some being taken down altogether and it is all happening so quickly. And this, of course, only intensifies my problems. I’ve seen this recession coming on paper (or at least screens, the 2019 equivalent) for a couple of years now and while I may have made some early calls, I would much rather have been early than late. And more importantly, I believe we are now almost definitely in it. I see more real world signs of it every day and I hear similar reports from my contacts all over the country. If you haven’t started preparing yet, I strongly recommend doing so right now because you won’t get a better opportunity. Anyway, mercifully, another Friday is upon us and here are some random observations and anecdotes from the week.

Don’t Let Car Dealerships Take Advantage of You Because You’re Lazy

In spite of what I wrote above, I have been quietly watching the market for my next vehicle for a while. I’m not saying I will pull the trigger any time soon, but as I believe I’ve mentioned before, I typically watch the market for months before I so much as set foot on a dealer’s lot. I don’t just want to take the internet’s word for it; I want to know for a fact whether a price is good or not. Plus, I predict some amazing recession discounts on cars this time around. Plus, I enjoy the research. Yes, because I’m weird like that.

Anyway, I’ve noticed that these “no haggle” dealerships have gotten very popular. I’ve also noticed something else; their prices are absurdly high! I’m talking 10-15% higher than average in most cases! After doing a little googling and perusing some forum posts, I’ve confirmed that this is exactly what it appears to be – another example on the long and growing list of times American companies have had the balls to fairly openly exploit laziness for profit – and succeeded at it. Two quick notes on this.

One – and I know this doesn’t apply to all of them, but only some of the very most millennial-ly ones that may as well be throwing in a year’s supply of avocado toast with their overpriced cars – but any dealership that will not let you inspect a car in person first at a minimum, needs to be avoided at all costs. Cars, particularly used ones, are not commodity items. If you aren’t going to test drive one before you buy it, you deserve whatever you get. And if you’re not willing to spend a hundred bucks or so to have a qualified mechanic check a used car out, you’re taking an awfully huge risk. Sure, you may get lucky. But you could also wind up out thousands and thousands of dollars. And sure, some of these “dealerships” allow returns. But do you really want to stake that kind of money on these policies being honored? Better you than me if you do. But then, I’m just a car freak who has done extremely well with car purchases over the years. Not only have I had to do almost zero repairs beyond preventative maintenance, I have even pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of selling one car for a profit after driving it over a year and another for exactly what I paid after driving it for several months. But then, I don’t like to toot my own horn…

Two, these dealers literally believe they can overcharge people by thousands of dollars because the average person either doesn’t even have the courage to sit and talk to a salesman (or woman), or is too lazy to do so. Are you really willing to validate that theory for them? For the sake of all of us, I hope not. But based on the fact that some of these companies appear to be extraordinarily successful, it would appear the mob has already spoken. In any case, at the risk of sounding like your parents, do you want to get ripped off just because a million other people have been?

Aldi Now Accepts Credit Cards

This could be old news, I don’t know. I stopped going to these stores years ago because I didn’t like playing roulette with the possibility of getting stuck waiting in line for fifteen minutes because there was one employee in the entire store. Also because I don’t do business with anyone who doesn’t accept credit cards outside of incredibly rare, possibly life threatening circumstances. Anyway, I stopped in to an Aldi for the hell of it recently and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the company has joined the rest of the civilized world in accepting credit cards. Someone must have had a eureka moment and realized that not accepting by far the most popular payment method on earth to save a few nickels per order, which could easily be accounted for in the pricing of everything (again, like the rest of the civilized world does it), might not be quite the brilliant business tactic they had once thought it was. No, no sarcasm here at all. And by the way, speaking of spare change, I genuinely believe the quarter deposit thing they do with their carts is brilliant. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one freely roaming a parking lot en route to damaging someone’s several thousand dollar vehicle because someone else is a lazy, entitled asshole. My goodness, I’m in an interesting mood today. But I promise this is happy, if cynical. Remember, Friday.

Anyway, the line thing still happened. As it turned out, the only employee in the store was in the bathroom. There was a line about half the length of the building when he came out. I probably won’t repeat this experiment anytime soon. But if you’re looking for absolute bottom line grocery prices, this store may be worth a visit for you – especially now that you don’t lose out on 3% of the purchase price (it’s actually 5% until the end of June with Chase Freedom) because management doesn’t believe in pricing its products according to the costs of doing business with the vast majority of all possible customers. Seriously, charging credit card users extra is basically like installing pay toilets in the bathrooms since a few people may have a phobia of using public bathrooms or something. Or in the case of shady gas stations, who tend to discount their cash prices by several times anything approaching a possible credit card merchant rate, putting up a giant “IRS, please audit me!” sign outside one’s place of business. And not accepting them at all? Well, it’s their business, not mine. Yes, as old fashioned as I can be, I get incredibly irritated when people fail to adapt to the overwhelming convention of the times in this particular area. We are all hypocrites; the only difference is that some of us are at least willing to admit it. Anyway…

Time to Make a Dietary Change

Sugar is the devil. We all know it deep within our sad little souls and just in case we’re intentionally ignorant anyway, there are about forty million studies rightly screaming it. Recently, I finally accepted that I’m weaker than I need to be at standing up to its cocaine-esque charms. So I’m cutting it out. No, not all of it. We all have to find a balance that works for us in life. In this case, I need to be somewhere between excessive, gluttonous consumption at will, where I have been for much of my life, and eating only what I grow on my isolated, non GMO (if that is even possible given the selective breeding that has gone on with just about all crops for hundreds, if not thousands of years – but I digress), 100% organic farm in the middle of some God forsaken backwater town no one ever visited, let alone lived in, on purpose.

The logical choice seems simple. I’m not going to try to police every gram of sugar out of my life. Cutting out only the stuff that is primarily sugar (cookies, my beloved Nutella, my even more beloved Freddy’s chocolate custard concrete mixers with various mix ins, etc) will amount to a major improvement for me. I recall reading somewhere that habits take seven weeks to form so I’m going to do two months for good measure. I started on Tuesday so that means I’m going until July 28. I’m hoping that by then I won’t even want the stuff anymore. But we’ll see how it goes.

Happy Friday, Everyone! Have a wonderful weekend!

This Is How Much I Spend in a Year

My view of the famous Jerry Jones screen/dome from my trip to the 2017 Cotton Bowl, in which my Badgers narrowly defeated an over matched, but extremely motivated opponent with a bizarre team motto that was repeated almost nonstop by its fans – and yes, the expenses from this trip are included in the numbers below.

Words are all well and good. But without numbers, how much do they really mean? I’ve decided that in order to make this blog as valuable as possible for readers, I need to make it specific. As such, I’m going to give you a very intimate look at an important element of my personal finances. In particular, I’m going to show you what I spend on EVERYTHING. Obviously this is all specific to me, but to illustrate things more vividly, I’m going to go into detail on each of these “line items,” one post per week. Hopefully it will give some folks an idea or two on how to cut expenses without sacrificing anything that’s important to them.

Before I jump into the numbers, here is some basic information about me for context. I’m a male in my early thirties with no dependents (not even pets) and while I spend my share of time with certain young ladies, I live alone. The numbers below are average figures between what I spent in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, I lived in an upper middle class Milwaukee suburb with a relatively moderate cost of living. But for most of 2018, I lived in the Galleria area of Houston, which is pricier than almost anywhere in Wisconsin, but still very reasonable for a wealthy part of a major city.

I work as an outside sales rep in the commercial finance industry. That affects a couple of areas of my spending. First, since I expense around half a dozen restaurant meals most weeks, I don’t have much desire to eat at restaurants in my personal life and as a result, I spend almost nothing in that category. This also cuts down on my grocery spending somewhat, although I like to cook and spend fairly liberally on groceries for the meals I do buy. Second, in spite of my employer’s generous vacation policy, actually taking advantage of it would cost me much more in income than in any other way. Plus, I travel a lot for work, resulting in general travel fatigue, and I’m single. So this is just not an area I spend much in. However, I consider both restaurants and vacations luxury spending categories and thus, if one were trying to live as economically efficiently as possible, these numbers would still be very low.

As I said above, I’ll get more specific about what I do in each area in subsequent posts. But in general, my lifestyle (note, I said lifestyle, not spending; the difference between the two is the foundation of my financial success) is somewhere between middle class and upper middle class and I save over half my gross income. In other words, there is plenty of fat in my expenses since I pretty much do whatever makes me happy. No economic constraints limit my spending besides my desire to increase my net worth rapidly.

The first number in each category is what I actually spent; the second is about what I would spend if I needed to live as economically as reasonably possible. I will note that the most advantaged living situation is two productive people under one roof, assuming they can trust one another and are on the same page financially. When I lived with my ex-wife and we were working on paying off a mountain of student loans, we spent more than my bare bones total figure below but didn’t come anywhere close to doubling it (keep in mind the figure is for one person, not two). So it is definitely realistically achievable. If you are astute, you will notice that I’ve omitted one very large expense: taxes and fees. In the interest of keeping things at least somewhat private, I’ve decided to leave that exact figure out, at least for now. I’ll simply tell you it is less than the total of all my other expenses but not by much. Plus, there is only so much one can do to limit that number when the majority of your income is W2. I’ve been investing more of my time into improving that situation and if I find success, I may post about it at a later date. Anyway, here we go!

My Average Annual Expenses Between 2017 and 2018

  • Auto maintenance/repairs: 1300 (500)
  • Cash donations: 2100 (subjective)
  • Clothing: 700 (100)
  • Food – groceries: 1700 (1200)
  • Food – restaurants: 500 (0)
  • Fun: 2100 (300)
  • Gas: 2800 (1200)
  • Gifts: 1200 (200)
  • Household expenses: 700 (300)
  • Housing: 12,600 (6000-10,000)
  • Insurance: 3000 (2000)
  • Medical: 900 (0)
  • Memberships: 300 (300)
  • Other: 2400 (0)
  • Supplements: 100 (0)
  • Technology services: 500 (350)
  • Utilities: 1100 (600)
  • Vacation: 300 (0)
  • Vehicle depreciation: 2100 (500)

Total: 36,400 (13,550-17,550)

How did I arrive at these numbers? And why the range in the housing category for the minimalist budget? You’re just going to have to stay tuned to find out…

Why I’m Not Afraid of the Health Insurance Boogeyman

These probably won’t help…then again, you only live once! – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

I occasionally hang out with early retirement minded people. Some of them have already taken the plunge, some are thinking about it more and more as I am, and some are much earlier in their financial journeys but are intrigued by an alternative to the “work till you’re either dead or wish you were” program that has been the standard for far too long. Easily the most common question I hear being asked of the people who have already retired ten, twenty, or even thirty years before the traditional age, is “what about health insurance?”

And I admit that was one of my first questions as well. Most people I’ve met answer this question in one of a few disappointing ways. Some were able to negotiate some sort of arrangement with their final employers, some have a spouse that is still working, and many are structuring their incomes in such a way as to be eligible for subsidies on individual coverage under the Affordable Care Act. None of these is workable for me. My current employer will likely be neither willing, nor able, to make any deal with me, I don’t have a spouse who can keep working so I can “retire,” and I can’t stomach exploiting badly written legislation for personal gain – particularly not when I’m currently paying a substantial share of the associated bill.

After I recently learned of some significant challenges my current employer is facing, which threaten not just my job and those of many of my colleagues, but the company itself as a going concern, I’ve been thinking a lot about my options. I could find a similar job at another company. Since I started my latest job search, there have certainly been some encouraging signs that this will be a viable option – although nothing has come to fruition just yet. But aside from maintaining the status quo as an employee/entrepreneur hybrid, I’ve been looking at other, more adventurous options. One common thread among many of them would be stepping out from under the umbrella of having an employer at all. And this has brought the health insurance question back to the forefront.

But as I’ve begun to explore the issue, I’ve actually been very pleasantly surprised by what I’ve learned. It turns out individual health insurance is both fairly straightforward and less expensive than I had anticipated. I acknowledge that things would likely be different if I had dependents. But at roughly $15k per child, per year, for as long as one is willing to keep the financial umbilical cord intact, having children is one of the most expensive financial decisions a person can make. That is one of several reasons I’ve personally opted out.

Anyway, I searched around and Blue Cross Blue Shield appears to be king of individual health insurance in my neck of the woods. By simply entering my birth date, non-smoker status, and zip code, I was presented with a menu of options ranging from the most minimalist plan at roughly $320 per month to something approaching the top of the line plan I have now at nearly $700. I didn’t see an annual payment option but if one is offered with a decent discount, it would amount to an awesome churning opportunity. One nice thing that I believe came out of the ACA is that it appears all plans now cover the one annual preventative appointment we should all be going to. Of course, that is priced into the premiums. But I digress. Beyond that, as a relatively healthy young adult, I’m almost certain to spend somewhere in the $0-1500 range per year on health care expenses, meaning paying an extra $400 a month for a high end plan that would cover most of that doesn’t make sense. I will note that there are subsidies offered for people with surprisingly high income limits. Sadly, I’m in the group that pays handsomely for those subsidies to be offered, and don’t anticipate that changing, so I’m paying full freight for my own coverage no matter what. But your results may be different – particularly if you have kids. And as the birth rate continues to decline, it is very likely that we will all see the government using more mechanisms like this to force people like me to subsidize your procreation efforts. For what it’s worth, that will likely offset at least a portion of the additional costs you would face in areas like this.

Ultimately, my choice would be a plan that costs $332 per month because it is the cheapest HSA eligible option. With a deductible of $6k, an out of pocket limit of $6650, and no prescription coverage until the deductible is met, I would almost definitely be paying all of my costs beyond the annual preventative appointment. In most cases, I would probably not even use the insurance, instead opting to negotiate directly with doctors since my insurance would effectively cover nothing anyway. I’ve heard there is often significant room on the pricing if you aren’t forcing the provider to deal with an insurance company.

But this is where it becomes important to calculate things out for yourself. If you tend to spend a lot in health care costs, it may make sense for you to go with a plan with higher premiums but more coverage. One thing to consider is that it’s not necessarily the end of the world if a plan doesn’t offer prescription coverage (it can’t if it is HSA eligible). Thanks to a wonderful website called Good RX, anyone can pay much less than retail prices for prescriptions whether or not they have insurance. Don’t ask me what kind of sorcery makes it possible, but this can be an absolute godsend if you don’t have prescription coverage and yes, I did use it back when I worked for an employer that offered a very minimalist coverage option.

I’ve mentioned “HSA eligible” twice now. Why? HSA stands for health savings account and it’s a hidden financial gem. Unlike an FSA, which is garbage unless you have health care costs you can forecast very reliably, an HSA is a tax advantaged account that can be built into quite an asset. To put it simply, it is a miniature Roth IRA for health related expenses only. This year, an individual can contribute $3500 into one. The money can be invested in whatever you want, provided you’ve chosen a good provider, and as long as you don’t spend it, it will grow tax free just like a Roth IRA. It does ultimately have to be spent on health care expenses, but given the state of the industry, I don’t believe any of us will have too much trouble accomplishing that. In fact, remember that quarter million dollars the media is always screaming about you having to pay for your health care expenses during your traditional retirement years? Well, if you contribute the max to a Roth IRA for twenty or thirty years and don’t use any until you retire, that is more or less covered – without dipping into your other assets. As usual, a little knowledge can go a long way towards putting out the fires of mainstream ignorance. The important thing to keep in mind with HSAs is that only certain more minimalist health insurance plans are eligible for them. If you have a lot of health care expenses now, you may be better off with a “Cadillac” plan paired with an FSA. No one can tell you definitively without specific information; I recommend that you run your specific numbers yourself to figure it out.

But in my case, a disaster only health insurance plan and an HSA are a home run combination. The only problem is that pesky “Cadillac” plan I have now. But given that I’m kicking in well under $100 a month for it, and that’s tax deductible by the way, it’s obviously the best option available to me as long as I’m with my current employer. However, once that relationship runs its course, likely by the end of this year, it’s nice to know I will have some great options available to me and that they won’t be nearly the financial disaster the media would have folks believing they are.

Happy Friday!

Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

We’ve nearly made it through another week – at least those of us who work conventional hours have. Here are some quick tips and recent observations to celebrate the coming weekend.

Listening is a lost, but crucial art.

Back when he was just a regular NFL quarterback and not the center of a controversy the media hasn’t completely stopped exploiting for ratings, page views, etc to this very day, Colin Kaepernick was in a commercial for some incredibly overpriced noise canceling headphones that involved him easily ignoring very hostile Seahawks fans. At the end, the slogan “hear what you want” is displayed. Much like paying a premium price for very pedestrian headphones, the slogan was rather unproductive.

This week, I had a conversation with a customer that made it painfully clear he had been taking this approach quite literally in numerous conversations we’d had over more than a year. Not only had he missed some fundamental, incredibly important points, but he had apparently been operating under the assumption that what he “didn’t know” (I put that in quotes because I’m still not sure I believe anyone could have every one of the conversations we had and still not know things that were repeated so emphatically, so many different times, in so many different ways) couldn’t hurt him, and that everything would work out in a very advantageous, but tragically impossible way. Based on this wildly inaccurate view, he wanted to make a decision that would likely have cost him tens of thousands of dollars over the remainder of this year and much more in the long run. I like the guy, but the sheer absurdity of what he apparently believed almost made my head explode. It was a visceral moment that forced me to understand that my efforts are simply not accomplishing anything in his case. Anyway, when I informed him of the almost certain consequences of the decision he wanted to make, he immediately changed his mind. But clearly this was the first time he had ever listened when I told him these things and he had managed to walk all the way to the edge of a financial cliff while ignoring me repeating them again and again.

Listening doesn’t always have implications that expensive, but sometimes they can be even more important. How many relationships have broken down because one person stopped listening to what the other was really saying? How many medical mistakes has this caused? How many decisions that affected thousands of people have been made based on faulty or incomplete information as a result? The costs of this phenomenon aren’t even quantifiable. But one thing is certain; we can all do better in life if we go into conversations with the goal of gaining whatever information the other person is trying to share with us first. Not only will we make better, more informed decisions, but relationships will improve. I’m working on improving in this area myself and I recommend everyone do the same!

If you’re buying a greeting card, the dollar store is your friend!

Obviously if you want something to last a while, the dollar store is a questionable choice at best. But if you’re buying a folded piece of paper with canned words on it for the strict purpose of having something to give someone versus not, you’re about to save some money. Rather than paying the ridiculous amount of $3-5 (or more!) for something that will most likely be in the garbage within ten minutes of receipt (multiplied times goodness knows how many per year), you can buy the same damn thing for a buck – or even fifty cents if you choose certain cards! Will this turn your financial situation around on its own? Not likely. But it will save you 80% or more on this particular purchase, which happens to be repeated many times, year after year. And perhaps more importantly, it will help you stay in the mindset of being financially intentional – accomplishing 100% of your goal without spending more money than you have to. This mentality will save you a ton more money if applied to all areas of your financial life.

Game of Thrones is over.

The ending, along with the entire final season, was ever so slightly controversial. I don’t believe in ruining good entertainment for busy people so I’m not going to post my thoughts on it yet. And besides, my opinions are still swimming around upstairs as they form, almost solidify, break down, form again, etc. But rest assured, that post will be coming in the next couple of weeks.

Have a fantastic Friday and a wonderful weekend!

Mint Mobile Update: So Far, This Fox Rox!

Note the absence of a charger cord, which is very rarely connected!

A couple weeks ago, I switched from Republic Wireless to Mint Mobile, the company with the little green marketing spokesfox. Republic worked out great for me for over four and a half years and I have nothing negative to say about the company…except that it changed its pricing scheme in a way that would have effectively doubled the price for light users like myself when I wanted to upgrade my phone. So when it finally came time to do that, I first did what any financially conscious person would in that situation and re-evaluated the market. It turned out that while it was a price increase of about $5 per month from what I had been paying, Mint still came in about $5 cheaper than the new price Republic would have charged for what I do; and it offered 3gb versus 1 on top of the cheaper price. So I gave it a shot. I wanted to give y’all a quick update on how it has worked out.

So far, there isn’t much to say because Mint has done exactly what it promised to do. In almost half a month, I’ve used just over half a gb of data since I’m on WiFi the vast majority of the time. And to give it a good, fair test, I haven’t made any effort to avoid using data whatsoever beyond setting the phone to use WiFi when available. So unless I use about five times as much data for the remainder of the month as I have in the first half, I won’t hit the point where I start getting throttled. As for quality, everything has been great. Calls are clear, I’ve had zero reception issues or dropped calls (Mint uses the T-Mobile network; Republic uses Sprint), text messages go through, and data speed is more than adequate in the rare circumstances when I need to use it. The setup process was very simple and it took me less than ten minutes from unboxing to having a fully functional new phone.

Being a relative luddite by design, I’ve been predictably thrilled with the upgrade from the Moto X1 to the X4 and with a little bonus I didn’t even anticipate (keep in mind that the X1 was my very first smartphone). I hadn’t realized I would still be able to use my existing phone as a WiFi device. That is a kick ass development since the only real problem I had been having was call related (and even this likely had more to do with Republic Wireless than the phone itself) and being able to continue using it this way for probably at least a few more years is worth much more to me than the few dollars I could have gotten in return for recycling it. Aside from that, I’ve particularly pleased with the X4’s speed, battery life upgrade (I only charge it every other day so far), fingerprint sensor, camera upgrade over the X1, and very fast charging.

The one downside about the phone itself is that the speaker SUCKS for listening to music. But I use a Bluetooth speaker I got on Amazon for ten bucks around my apartment so that’s not a huge deal. The only other annoyance, aside from the dramatically increased phone size that comes with making just about any upgrade these days (Why do they assume we want to carry around laptop sized phones? Or am I the one making an assumption in thinking other people don’t want that just because I don’t?), was having to add a second type of charger (USB-C) and cable to the birds’ nests of them I keep at home, in my travel bag, etc. But everything has its price and that lighting quick charging of my new phone is no exception I suppose.  

Overall, I’m very happy with this change. It sure is awesome when a company delivers on its promises and thus, I’m more than happy to recommend Mint Mobile to anyone! And as always, my recommendation cannot be bought; I’m not being compensated in any way for saying this. Even if you use a lot more data than I do, Mint is still a great option for you at $20 for an 8gb cap and $25 for 12. Happy smartphoning!

Lessons from My Odd, But Mostly Successful Fight Against the Siren Call of Junk Food

The wonderful/diabolical man who has destroyed millions of diets, posing for a picture with his surprisingly svelte family. I don’t think they’re trying to claim this was taken at the time of their 55th wedding anniversary but if they are, I call bullshit. I know people got married young back in the day, but COME ON. Also, damn, that’s a lot of kids! It’s a good thing the restaurant chain thing worked out so well!

There is no denying it; a good diet is key to both physical and mental health. For years I fought against that concept, insistent that if I worked long and hard enough in the gym, I could “have my cake and eat it too.” And while I was successful at staying in above average physical shape that way, I ran into two problems. First, I could never completely outwork an overindulgent diet. The only way I have ever gone from good shape to great is by being disciplined about what I eat and when. Second, as I’ve gotten older (I’m in my early thirties now), the degree of difficulty has increased. Dietary sins I could easily have shrugged off in my early to mid twenties result in significant punishment today – both in my appearance and in the way I feel.

In my experience, eating enough good stuff isn’t too difficult. I love eating protein so getting enough of that is easy, although I mostly stick to chicken and fish with beef being an occasional treat. I force two to three servings of fruit and three or more servings of vegetables down my throat each day in the form of green smoothies in the mornings and evenings. From there, I just make sure there is some sort of vegetable element included with most meals and I have that covered. I make sure to get a moderate amount of decent quality carbohydrates, which is easy since I enjoy them. Making things as automatic as possible and minimizing the number of decisions I have to make helps me to maintain a solid baseline diet.

But one area has always been a thorn in my side. I love junk food. And I’m not one of those people who has only a sweet tooth or only likes salty/savory snacks. I’m an all of the above kind of guy, and a gluttonous one at that. So I want to talk about what I’ve done to combat that – what has worked, what hasn’t, and what I’ve learned from it. It probably won’t all apply to you but if any of it gives you an idea that helps, then I consider this post a success. So in no particular order, here we go.

1. Some things have been easy.

I loved soda (that’s “cokes” for my native Texan friends) as a kid. Thankfully, I wasn’t allowed to have it at home very often but when I was out of the house – hanging out with friends, for example – I went to town! I distinctly remember being “up north” (a Wisconsin term to describe “vacationing” in an even colder, more economically challenged place than your actual home, which is more than likely easily characterized by both of those already) as a young lad with some relatives when I consumed five sodas in a single day and wound up throwing up multiple times that night. I loved the stuff. But in my early twenties, I learned that it’s basically poison and almost immediately, I simply stopped drinking it. At no point have I felt any urge to “relapse” and as a result, I haven’t had any soda in a very long time. I’m almost exclusively a beer or wine guy when it comes to alcohol, so no, not even in mixed drinks. I have absolutely no idea why this was so easy for me but sadly, that hasn’t been the case with other forms of junk food.

2. Moderation has not been a successful approach at home.  

Over the years, no matter what I’ve told myself, I’ve learned I simply can’t keep junk food at home. I’ve tried everything I can think of and the result is always the same; I start with the best of intentions (I will make this last two weeks…), then make little bargains with myself (I will eat tomorrow’s allotment today, but then NONE tomorrow), then break them in favor of other less restrictive ones (It’s football season – I’ll eat the rest of this bag this weekend, but then I won’t open another until next weekend), until finally, I simply accept reality and wolf down whatever is left, swearing to never buy it again. The take away here is pretty simple; I don’t keep junk food at home. Lack of access has proven very effective.

3. Associations can be powerful.

I don’t believe in drinking milk. At all. I wish I had known what I know now as a child when I guzzled it like water. Clearly my Mother hadn’t done as much research on milk as she had on soda; or perhaps the science hadn’t gotten as far with one as it had with the other. But live and learn. Anyway, at one time, my ultimate junk food weakness was Oreo’s – a product (note, I didn’t even use the word food) that requires milk in order to be enjoyed properly. It was very rare for a package of those evil things to last three days. If I was doing well, I could limit myself to a single ROW at a time. And I didn’t often do well. Thankfully, when I stopped drinking milk, Oreo’s no longer did it for me. I even tried once but without milk, it was like going to the beach without it being warm outside. It just didn’t make sense. So in that case, cutting out one bad thing made it much easier to cut out another. This is a concept that could probably be useful elsewhere…

4. There are definitely degrees of bad choices when it comes to lunch options and my body knows the truth.

As an outside sales rep, restaurant lunches are a reality of life. This was before my working days, but I went to a McDonald’s in 2010 for the first time in many years. I was involved in a big group activity, we were in a hurry for lunch, I was not in charge of the group’s decisions, apparently there was no decent alternative anywhere in the vicinity, there was peer pressure, etc. It happened, and I paid the price. Almost immediately, I felt like my stomach was going to explode. And it lasted for the rest of the day until I gave in, went to the bathroom, and threw up. I didn’t have to try to do that so much as I just had to stop preventing it from happening. My body’s tolerance for the purest form of garbage food had been gone for some time. Today, all I can think of when I see those golden arches is that experience and I have not repeated that mistake again.

I do go to fast food restaurants sometimes, but only if they serve some form of actual food. For example, I go to Chick Fil A and get just about any of the entrees, a large superfood side salad, medium fries, and water. That’s a pretty decent meal for a hungry, athletic man. If I want a burger, I go to a place where they cost around ten bucks but you get actual meat. Five Guys used to be a good example, although based on the last few times I’ve visited, it seems like they’re going downhill. Also, Five Guys is definitely a bulking phase only restaurant and even then I only order the small versions of everything. I enjoy the abundance of quality fast casual options here in Houston which, again, serve mostly real food. Or I go to any of a handful of good sub shops – or if there are no good sub shops around, I resolve to plan my day better, sigh, and go to Subway. Every now and again, I will go to Freddy’s and splurge big time. If you’re not familiar with Freddy’s, you’re both missing out and lucky at the same time. I fully prepare for a rough afternoon on those days (although still not McDonald’s rough), but Freddy’s is worth it.

5. A balanced approach works best for me – but again, not in the house!

Lately I’ve settled into a system that seems to work pretty well. I have a good “base” diet that covers the important things as I described in the second paragraph of this post. I eat in around a ten hour window, which is a relaxed version of an experiment I tried that was way too effective at weight management for a guy that looks and feels best carrying some extra muscle and is willing to sacrifice the exposed six pack look to do it. Seriously, if you want to maintain an extremely low fat/low weight build, this is almost definitely one way to accomplish it. From there, I enjoy life without letting things go off the rails. I get myself a coffee in the lobby of my apartment at least once a day (free and great quality – just one of the many perks of living where I do) and if I want to also indulge in one of the cookies they regularly have out, I do. Same goes for Costco samples. As long as it’s not IN my home, it doesn’t become excessive.

I generally eat nutritionally decent, but enjoyable food, but I do allow myself a single cheat meal per week, complete with the happy ending. No, I’m not talking massage parlors, you degenerates. I haven’t had to pay for that stuff…yet. I’m talking dessert. For a guy in his early thirties that spends a lot of time in the gym and wants to look like it, but also wants a little of what Joe Rogan, a man I actually couldn’t stand as an MMA hype man but love as a podcast host, regularly refers to as “mouth candy,” it works. For now. But keep in mind that things are significantly more difficult for me today than they were five years ago and five years from now, I will probably have to re-balance what I’m doing to adapt to the continuation of that trend. Whatever happens, I will try to maintain some food related enjoyment, even as it will almost certainly dwindle closer and closer to none.

Awesome Books I Recommend – 3rd Edition

Two great books from two different area library systems

The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage (2017) by Mel Robbins

I decided to read this book because I had been impressed by a couple of Mel Robbins’ speeches I saw. In writing, Robbins has the same firmly positive, but realistic tone. Her five second rule seems like a gimmick but it also seems to help tons of people so it’s worth trying. While it hasn’t worked very well for me, I am incredibly over analytical and going through a stressful time in my life at the moment so virtually nothing is working well for me. I believe you are very likely to have better results.

There were two things I liked the most about this book. First, it is very human. Robbins is very open about the struggles she has had and acknowledges that everyone will have some of their own. That said, she advocates finding ways to push through those struggles and succeed in spite of them. Second, while it is a very easy book to read, it is clear that a substantial amount of research went into it. Robbins distills things into very simple concepts but it’s clear she has a well earned understanding of psychology that has made it possible. I believe just about anyone could learn at least something valuable from this book that would help them improve in life so I highly recommend it.

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves (2013) by Dan Ariely

I’ve been a Dan Ariely fan for quite a while now. His work all falls between psychology and economics and the links between the two are fascinating. I’m obviously not the only one who thinks so as Ariely has come further and further into prominence in recent years. This particular book was a lot of fun to read – although it was also a little eye opening in some uncomfortable ways. It very vividly illustrates a concept I’ve believed to be true for quite some time now; namely, we are all full of shit and the only real differentiating factor is how honest we are about it.

This book goes into detail on numerous experiments by Ariely and others that attempted to identify the significant factors that affect the lying and cheating that make up a much larger part of life than most of us would ever believe or admit. If you’re anything like me, this book will have you thinking a lot about your own life and feeling slightly uneasy plenty of times. But I’m a big believer in having information, even if it’s not the information I wish I had, versus living in blissful ignorance.

And somehow, through all of this rather dark topic, Ariely manages to maintain a light hearted, and even often humorous tone. My sense of humor may be darker than most, but I chuckled to myself several times while reading this book. Overall, this book taught me more about the dark side of people, including myself, and kept me reasonably entertained in the process. I was already a pretty big fan of Ariely’s work so factor in my bias, but I highly recommend this book.

Living Intentionally: A Much Better Alternative to Both Financial Ruin AND Frugality

These are shrimp boats, but any boat would be more effective than a car in Houston right now! – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

I wasn’t always where I am now with money. As a newly minted adult with a full time income that seemed substantial at the time, I thought the world was my oyster. I had zero respect for the value of the dollars in my possession. If I saw something I wanted, even a little bit, I bought first and asked questions later. If my friends and I were bored, dinner and/or drinks would solve the problem – maybe with a movie or a round of golf thrown in for good measure. And if I had a bad day, setting some money on fire for any reason, or even no reason at all, seemed to ease the pain. I probably wasted tens of thousands of dollars on almost literally nothing productive in just a year or two. Had I continued along that path, my financial life would be an unmitigated disaster today and I would have been part of the multitude of people who are woefully unprepared to retire in spite of living in the richest country in the history of the world.

Of course, this wasn’t healthy behavior and after I realized I had been working for a few years and had virtually nothing to show for it aside from some stuff that was mostly worth pennies on the dollar I had paid for it, I wised up pretty quickly. But as a relatively wealthy, still young adult, I’ve noticed that most people seem to have either missed that lesson or skipped it intentionally. Maybe they weren’t blessed (seriously) with the harsh reality of financial scarcity when they were kids like I was. Maybe they simply can’t bear to admit the truth about what they’re doing to themselves. Or maybe they simply prefer the bird in the hand of doing what is easy today to a much more prosperous future that isn’t 100% guaranteed, even if it is extremely likely. I really like the way my new Houston real estate mogul friend explained the concept in this post.

Whatever the reason, I see people driving their financial cars with the e-brake on almost everywhere I look. I’ve long since learned not to be “that guy” so I neither give unsolicited advice, nor ask any questions that might lead anyone to the unpleasant experience of looking in the figurative mirror. In my experience, if people want help, they ask for it and if they don’t ask for it, they don’t want it. But I often have to stifle a strong urge to try to help people anyway when I see them destroying their financial futures because I know how much pain it will cause them in the long run.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t consider myself even remotely frugal and I hate everything about the term. There are very few aspects of my life where I’ve chosen to spend the absolute minimum possible, or even close. I live in a luxury apartment that costs more than double what a bare bones living arrangement would. My car has leather seats, almost 300 horsepower, more electronics than the spacecraft that took the first astronauts to the moon, flashy 18 inch rims, and so much more; and I’m probably going to make a huge upgrade from that in the next year or two. I eat and drink what I want, when I want, where I want. If I wanted to take a vacation, there would be no practical limits to where I could go or what I could do and given how difficult it is to find the time, I wouldn’t be likely to waste the opportunity by going cheap. I could go on and on but the point is that I’m in no way deprived of anything I could imagine wanting in life.

So how am I different than my young adult self in the way I handle my money then? Aside from having tons more at my disposal, everything I do is intentional. Spending money is a means of accomplishing some specific purpose – not a pastime or a figurative drug I use to tamp down unpleasant emotions. If I get the notion to spend money, I think about it first. Is it necessary? If not, it’s a want, not a need. If it’s a want, is it something that will truly contribute to my life in a positive and meaningful way? If so, what, exactly, is my goal in spending this money? What is the best way to accomplish it? What is the most cost effective way? Where does it make sense to be on that spectrum in this particular context (between maximum utility and maximum cost efficiency)? Sometimes, I buy the best. Other times, I go with the cheapest option that accomplishes everything I want it to. On very, very rare occasions, I go with the absolute cheapest option. The important thing is that if I’m spending money, I know why I’m doing it and why I’m making the specific choices I am about it. And the good news is that while it may have seemed tedious when I was starting out, over time, this thought process has become almost automatic for me.

This may sound pretty obvious and to some of you, it probably is. But there are tons of people out there who seem to have no clue why they’re making the financial decisions they are. And there are tons of people who are totally broke. And both groups are large enough that there is almost definitely substantial overlap between the two. For anyone who resides in both, you need to make some dramatic changes if you want to improve the situation. Being intentional with your financial decisions, both large and small, will almost definitely help. Not only will your finances improve, but you will probably find yourself feeling calmer and happier. Have a wonderful weekend, everyone! And if you’re in Houston, hopefully you either have a boat or know someone who does – because that’s what it’s going to take to get very far down the road pretty soon if this rain doesn’t let up.

My New $16.94/mo Unlimited Everything Cell Phone Plan

RIP to my very first smartphone – even the charger cord was near the end of the line

Morning folks! Sorry this is my first post of the week. I’ve been extremely busy with a number of things, some of which I believe will turn into big news I’ll be posting about pretty soon. I also had to carve out some time to watch the latest Game of Thrones episode so it wouldn’t be spoiled for me since the whole world seems intent on doing that to anyone who doesn’t watch it the second it’s available (seriously, get a life you dicks, it’s not 1995 anymore; networks haven’t dictated our tv watching schedules to us for quite some time). But more importantly, my personal cell phone has been having an odd problem that prevents some calls from going through – both outgoing and incoming. Given that I use my work phone for most calls, this isn’t as big a deal as it may be for some people. However, given that I use my personal phone to open the security gate when I have visitors and that I’m currently in job search mode, the situation needed to be remedied. I was hoping my current phone would make it to the five year mark, if only for the sake of pride, but it appears it is not to be. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure it’s an issue with my phone. It could also be an issue with my soon to be former carrier. But given that I’m already plenty due for an upgrade and ready to switch carriers anyway, I’ve decided not to mess with it.

I’ve been paying just over $12 a month for service with Republic Wireless since September of 2014, but given that upgrading my phone would literally result in doubling that (great business practice for a carrier that markets almost exclusively on pricing…), I checked out what else is available. I eventually decided to go with Mint Mobile, a no contract carrier that works on the T-Mobile network. Supposedly Sprint is the worst network but in my experience, it performs almost identically to the vaunted Verizon network my work phone is on. So I’m hoping T-Mobile will be similarly adequate. The big selling point with Mint is that you get unlimited everything for $15 a month ($16.94 after all taxes and fees in my case).

Now I do need to qualify that statement in a way that I believe is necessary with every “unlimited” cell phone plan. Every unlimited plan I’ve seen is technically unlimited, but begins throttling data at some point. Mint Mobile is no different but unlike with many carriers, the company seems to care about truth in advertising. Its plans are advertised at the amounts of data they’re capped at. In the case of the minimum plan I got, that’s 3gb per month. However, it is also stated that data is unlimited, but simply throttled after the stated allotment. It shouldn’t matter for me anyway because I don’t watch videos while I’m driving (and thus not on wifi) – and without watching videos, I highly doubt I’ll ever come near using 1gb, let alone 3. But just in case, I got the three month intro plan so I can make a change if I need to.

One downside I’ve discovered to Mint Mobile so far is that it is prepaid. So I had to pay for my three months up front and if I want to renew at the best price, I will need to pay for twelve at that point. That’s not an issue for me as long as the service keeps working for the duration, but for anyone with cashflow concerns, $180 + taxes and fees might be a lot at one time. Another downside is that the pricing on the phones isn’t competitive in at least some cases. However, there is an easy fix there. Supposedly, any GSM unlocked phone will work with Mint. We’ll find out because I bought a Moto X4 4gb/64gb version for a steal at $200 from Best Buy (the X4 is available directly from Mint at the same price but it’s the 3gb/32gb version). And it’s even better with 1% back from Ebates, 2% back from my Citi Double Cash card, and whatever I wind up getting for recycling my current X1 (probably just a few bucks, but every little bit helps). I’ll be picking the new phone up later today and activating it as soon as the SIM card arrives.

I’ll post a follow up on this once I get everything going. But suffice it to say, I’m excited. The X4 with these particular specs will be an awesome upgrade from my current X1 and I would challenge anyone to find a better phone available for $200. If Mint lives up to its promises, then I will be very happy with the phone upgrade – even if it is four months shy of my X1’s fifth birthday that I was so excited to celebrate. You know what they say; shoot for the moon so that even if you miss, you will be among the stars. I really hope you imagined me saying that in an incredibly sardonic tone. While the sentiment is valid, I can assure you that I’m not the kind of guy who goes around saying things like that. Have a wonderful Wednesday!

Update: This deal just got sweeter by $20! Ebates was offering a straight $20 in cash back for Mint Mobile purchases but there was language that said it did not apply to starter kits. So naturally I tried it but since I had elected to only buy the three month plan from Mint and buy the phone from Best Buy where it was a much better deal, I didn’t expect to get that rebate. However, later the same day, I got an email from Ebates stating that I did, in fact, get the $20. So this deal was a home run all around and now I just have to wait for my Mint Mobile sim card to arrive to see how it all works out.