How I Saved $35 on a Recent Purchase and Some Other Odds and Ends

Now if that isn’t one of the stupidest things I’ve seen in a while – think about it… – Spotted in a hotel room I recently stayed in while hustling my ass off as described in this post

Happy Monday, ya’ll! I decided to take a break from my Annual Expenses series of posts as the concept was feeling a little stale. I’ll probably pick it back up next week. But for today, I want to tell you about a recent purchase, give you a general update, and do one other thing I had said I would but forgot about until now. Let’s get to it!

Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed a trend where “deals” pop up when I’m looking at my online accounts with different banks. Usually, it’s in the form of “spend x dollars at a particular store, get a y dollar reward.” I haven’t messed with them until now because I’ve been busy, the offers usually didn’t apply to anything I particularly wanted to buy, and the dollar amounts didn’t entice me to do things differently. But recently, I saw one with American Express that changed all that: spend $25 at an office supply store, get a $5 reward. Toner cartridges for my printer cost way more than that and I have to replace them every pretty routinely, so I went to the local Office Depot. The cartridge I needed seemed a little pricier than usual at $90, so I checked online. The first option I saw was $60 – and interestingly enough, it was at Officedepot.com! I asked one of the clerks if they would price match their website, it turned out they would, and just like that, I had saved $30. Tack on the $5 from the good people at American Express and the cartridge was $35 off.

The lessons here are pretty obvious, but bear repeating as a reminder. First, keep your eyes open for easy opportunities. It took me less than thirty seconds to read over the Amex offer, come up with a plan to take advantage of it, and click it. Second, a price is not set in stone. It was a little shocking in this case that Office Depot’s brick and mortar location was substantially more expensive than its website (and no, the online price did not say it was a “sale price”), but even when it’s someone else’s website, a lot of stores will price match now since if they don’t, they will probably fall victim to “showrooming.” Third, regardless of the situation, it never hurts to ask and you can’t get what you don’t ask for. ‘Nuff said.

My current career situation could be described as “frustrated and angry, but opportunistic.” In the throes of panic mode, my employer is making life incredibly difficult for those of us out in the field with a seemingly impossible double standard. Their words say “we want tons and tons of business.” Their actions say “we’re not going to let you do any business unless we absolutely have to.” And some other actions have already made it clear that “if you don’t do tons and tons of business, you’re fired.” It seems infuriatingly disingenuous, particularly when you consider that numerous firings have already happened and not one of the people left employed appears to be safe. But then you remember that these management guys are likely facing similarly impossible double standards that have been set by the guys above them and the whole thing just kind of becomes a shared nightmare for all.

The only thing that’s certain is that it’s time to put up or shut up. As a result, I’ve been busting ass like never before and thankfully, succeeding like never before in spite of terrible market conditions. In fact, not only have I become one of the higher performers in the entire country, but of the handful of people who have been hired in my division over the last five years or so, I’m literally the only one left standing. I’m damn proud of that, even as I feel for those who didn’t make it. There are two ways to look at this situation. Sure, it’s difficult and in many cases unfair. But life hasn’t been fair since the kid in preschool took the toy from you without asking, you pushed him, and the teacher only saw the second part. Or even before that when one kid was born into almost unimaginable wealth and opportunity in the US by world standards, while another was born into almost guaranteed poverty.

Bottom line, there is opportunity in everything, even when things look extremely bleak. I do my share of bitching, no doubt. I need to work on not letting things phase me as much. But at the end of the day, I’m the guy who’s out there in all out attack mode when many others are retreating. I may go down swinging anyway, but that’s virtually guaranteed if I don’t try. In the mean time, I’m making more money than ever and building on what had already been a pretty promising career. This terrible period could be the one that takes me from pretty successful to extremely successful. Someone has to come out on top, right? As many people who have gone on to give the best performances of their lives have said, why not me, why not now?

Like it or not, few entities have more data on us and our finances than the credit bureaus. We can either waste our time being angry about that, which will change nothing, or we can use the opportunity to indulge our inner data geeks and glean some valuable insights.  Recently, someone from Experian emailed me about a post on their blog. It is a comparison of mortgage debt held by different generations and since typing the word “millennial” is basically page view gold, it of course approaches the topic from that perspective. I think the data is presented in some pretty interesting ways. Of course, if you go to their blog, they’re hoping you will click on something else and buy something. But the post is free. And full disclosure, I’m not getting anything from linking to it other than to help a fellow blogger out. Check it out here.

That’s all for today, folks. Have a great Monday and an even better week!

Happy Friday! Sadly, this One is Rather Bittersweet.

Sometimes it rains. And sometimes, it POURS.

Howdy folks! This week, we saw something a little different. My employer’s latest round of firings caught just about everyone by surprise when it was done on – gasp – a Tuesday. Not even the last day of the month. Now I think they’re just toying with us. But in any case, nearly half of our division, by far the most productive in the country, is now gone – and that includes several people I truly love and care about. Yours truly survived again thanks to two very good months followed by a July so stellar it literally eclipsed any previous QUARTER I’ve had by itself. Can I keep it up? Only time will tell. The industry is in absolute shambles, with widespread attrition happening. That’s why I haven’t been able to simply leave. Very few viable companies are hiring and even if they were, I’d likely be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. But this latest round has opened up an opportunity for me that I believe will result in a lot of new business. So stand and fight, while diversifying by growing my side business as much as possible, seems to remain my best available course of action for now.

Do you like to play chess? I loved it as a young lad. And lately, I’ve found a fairly convenient way to get back into it a little bit. It wasn’t exactly difficult. I play on www.chess.com. You can play with a computer at various levels or with human players from around the world who you are matched with based on both of your ratings. It works pretty seamlessly. There are lots of different game settings, different types of tournaments you can participate in, analysis, lessons, different ways to practice, basically, it seems to have everything you could want. I’ve only been playing the free version and while it offers plenty of functionality for a casual player like me, there are also very reasonably priced paid versions for more serious players. I highly recommend the site if you enjoy playing chess. And if you give it a try, who knows? You may find yourself facing off with me – although you likely won’t know it.

That’s all for today. Have an awesome Friday and an even better weekend!

Happy Friday – Don’t Forget to Savor Life!

The pit at The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas

Another week is almost behind us! Over the last few years, I’ve decided that one of the best ways to determine whether you’re living a life of significance is to pay attention to that. Do your days drag on in the seemingly endless pursuit of weekends that seem to melt through your fingers almost as soon as they arrive? Or do the weeks fly by to the point where you often forget what day it even is? Living in the latter category has been very satisfying for me while the former was often terrible.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about my will lately – or rather, my current lack of one. In addition to distributing my assets when I die, it will need to unwind my business activities in a way that is as minimally disruptive to my business partners as possible. I really need to get on this. But this same line of thinking also leads me somewhere else. Somewhere most finance blogs never quite seem to reach.

Saving and investing is all well and good, but what happens if I die before I’m ever able to enjoy the fruits of any of that? Other people have their own aspirations in life and while they may be happy to inherit my money, it’s also quite possible that it may be disruptive to them in the long run. After all, I firmly believe that struggle is what leads to personal growth of all kinds. Money typically reduces the degree of struggle in life and I would much rather help facilitate growth than stunt it. I have a lot of figuring out to do in this area. But it is far from a foregone conclusion that my money will do more good for people who didn’t earn it than it could for me while I’m alive.

The people in life matter to me more than anything. This is why I went to Austin this weekend to visit a friend who was there for a conference. We go back about a decade at this point and it’s always a thrill to see him. My career has taken me all over the United States since I met him, while his has taken him all over the world. It’s a wonderful thing to bring all of our experiences together against the backdrop of reminiscing about the past, and usually in some novel new place.

This time, we had just enough time to get to an old favorite –  The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas – to enjoy some of the best bbq on our planet along with the restaurant’s BYOB policy. If you’re ever in the Austin area, I highly recommend you pick up a six pack or three and give it a try. It’s a three to five hour undertaking once wait time is considered, but that’s why you need to do it with good friends. You drink in both the beer and some good company in their covered outside area while you wait for your buzzer to go off, then go inside to enjoy some incredible bbq when it does. It’s not a terribly cheap date, although the BYOB policy balances things out a little since alcohol is usually marked up quite high at restaurants.

Is it economical to drive 150+ one way miles to see a friend for an afternoon and then back in the same day? No, not particularly. But life is about so much more than being economical. I’ll remember this particular afternoon fondly for some time to come – maybe years. And that is worth so much more than the money it cost me. So why am I writing this post? I just want to remind the people like me, who may be a little too careful for their own good at times, that you can’t take it with you. Don’t forget to drink in the moments along the way. Most of the time, you can accomplish that without spending much money. But don’t pass up truly special opportunities just because you can’t.

Have a great weekend, ya’ll!

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.

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!

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.

Happy Friday!

Driving down a beach (South Padre Island in this case) definitely felt like a Friday thing, even though I did it on a Tuesday morning this past winter.

Happy Friday!

Another Friday is upon us! It’s been a long time since I’ve spent my weeks lusting for Friday and the weekend that follows it quite like this. That probably means something…

Duolingo

I don’t always just write about finance. I’m also big on self improvement. It seems like most of the world has already discovered this app but for anyone who hasn’t, I highly recommend that you check it out. Learning a language is a very rewarding way to spend a little time. In addition to the positive feelings that result from building a new skill or improving an existing one, language learning forces your brain to exert itself in ways that everyday life often doesn’t. Brain science is still so young but we already know that doing things just a little differently makes lasting changes that will benefit just about anyone in any stage of life.

Plus, Duolingo isn’t anything like your high school or college foreign language classes. Believe me, I despised those! I’m decidedly ungifted in this particular area for some reason. But this app actually makes it a reasonably enjoyable process and it teaches pretty effectively as well. I’ve been rapidly improving in both German and Spanish and it just doesn’t suck as much as I would have expected, for lack of a better way to describe it. I’ve only used the cell phone app version but I’m told it has a great web based one as well. I will also note that recently, a new feature appeared – the leaderboard. It has added a fun element by getting my competitive juices flowing. And judging by watching other people on the app, I’m not the only one who feels that way.

As always, I’m not getting anything from this. I haven’t even added a link. I just think this is an awesome app that can really enrich one’s life and I wanted to recommend it to anyone who hasn’t already given it a try.

Sleep Issues

I’ve been reading a book about sleep lately (review coming soon) and mostly it has solidified what I already knew; sleeping affects damn near everything about your body, mind, and life. It’s a little mind blowing how many of the issues I’ve struggled with could potentially be affected, if not completely caused, by this one problem. As a lifelong insomnia sufferer, this is both good news and bad news. The bad news, of course, is that I’ve probably done an incalculable amount of damage to myself by not getting this taken care of much sooner. But the good news is that everything I’ve accomplished in my life has been accomplished in a severely handicapped state; and now that I know this, I can remove the handicap and see what happens!

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been very focused on getting more sleep in general and I have definitely accomplished that. I’ve been averaging well over seven hours per night, as measured by a Fitbit, for most of that time. That’s around an hour more than I’ve ever averaged with the same Fitbit previously and probably even more of an increase over what I’ve done over most of my life. So that’s good and it has definitely been reflected in how I feel. But I’ve noticed that even post improvement, my deep sleep is consistently near the bottom of the range and my REM sleep never even touches the bottom of the range at all. So there is still something left to fix.

Based on my research, I’ve purchased a mouth guard on Amazon. Yes, one of the $30 ones the dentist I only went to one time assured me wouldn’t help me one bit as she attempted to sell me a $600 version of the same thing. But there were several reasons I didn’t go back to that dentist for a second appointment, the reviews on this mouth guard are excellent, and I have an easy way to measure my results against plenty of my past data. Worst case scenario, I’ve wasted $30. Best case scenario, I’ve moved closer to fixing a lifelong problem that has been much more serious than I wanted to believe all along. I’m always willing to try an experiment with that kind of risk/reward proposition. I’ll give ya’ll an update on how it works out in a couple of weeks or so.

Have a wonderful weekend!

A Walk in the Woods: A New Metaphor I Thought Up During a Difficult Evening

This particular “walk in the woods” was taken in the Sam Houston National Forest.

I’ve been pretty open about my struggles with depression in the past. Many people who deal with this very stubborn affliction know all too well how it can make even the best of times in life seem bleak. It can color current events darker than they actually are and it can barrage you with obsessive thoughts about the worst moments of your past. And it can even be life threatening if it gets you to the point of thinking the only way out of the fog might just be to stop being alive at all. But over the last several years of my life, I’ve been having more and more success fighting back against all of this.

Today, although things are mostly pretty good, I’m dealing with a somewhat difficult moment. My job is in jeopardy and even my employer may be. And while my finances will most likely withstand whatever comes, our current economic conditions and trajectory make this an unfortunate time to be in such a predicament. Additionally, I’ve been frustrated by my lack of progress in building up a social life here in my new home of Houston, Texas. I think a big part of the problem is the paradox of the big city – or at least this one. While there are tons of people around, most of them seem to be here for a very specific, career oriented purpose. The norm seems to be to come here for a new job or a promotion, hang around for a few years, and then leave for the next one. Of course there are people who stay long term too. But they tend to be family oriented, which means they have neither much spare time, nor much in common with me. That said, I’m making some progress on these problems.

On the career side, I’m working on finding a new job, even as more companies go into panic mode and hiring rapidly decelerates. I’m taking things day by day in my current job. I actually had a record month in May in spite of increasingly dismal economic conditions, so all is not lost just yet. And finally, I’m working on expanding my side business in the hopes of moving it closer and closer to capable of funding my living expenses by itself. The good news there is that the worse the economy gets, the more opportunities there are likely to be in the real estate market – even as rent is likely to keep going up.

On the social side, I’ve kept trying and have had some successes. I’ve met people through a local financial independence oriented group, even as I’ve grown increasingly frustrated that most of them have kids and are almost exclusively interested in activities oriented around them. I’ve met people playing sports like basketball and tennis and particularly with tennis, I appear to be gaining traction in terms of getting a regular group together. Finally, I’ve met people doing random activities. The reality is that I enjoy spending time with a fairly small percentage of people and as a result, meeting people has a very low success rate, meaning it’s the dreaded “numbers game.” But I’ve definitely made progress.

Overall, I’m in a solid mental place. Life is never going to be problem free so that is the wrong thing to hope for. Working towards being capable of handling as many problems as possible successfully is a much more viable goal. And I’m proud to say that for the most part, the problems I’ve described above are not threatening me. I believe they’re each putting an appropriate amount of stress on me to keep me actively working on solving them without being overwhelmed or obsessed.

So what is messing with me now? Somehow, my past has crept back in. 2016 and 2017 both held some pretty serious disappointments, particularly romantically. So that is always an easy place to find myself mentally mired, especially as I get tired in the evenings, since it is relatively fresh. And then, of course, there is my childhood. Historically, I’ve avoided thinking about it as much as possible. To this day, simply speaking to my mom or my sister can be enough to get me down because it reminds me of a time I so desperately want to forget. Freud may not be quite the widely revered figure he had been anymore, but he was definitely on to something with his focus on childhood.

Anyway, last night I had a bout with some of these past oriented negative thoughts. But thankfully, rather than the nightmare of insomnia, it was ended with a revelation I think could be really valuable. It’s a simple concept and it may seem silly, but within maybe ten minutes, it completely pulled me out of what could had been a spiral into a bad place I’ve visited way too many times and helped me relax and get to sleep. For anyone who doesn’t already know, good quality sleep is probably the ultimate weapon against depression and a host of other struggles, both mental and physical. I’ll be talking more about that in another post very soon.

But for today, what was this revelation? It was a metaphor. The world, both spatial and temporal, is a giant wooded area that I’ve been walking through with the resulting paths being my life so far, and my current location my life today. It’s true that some of the paths I’ve followed up to this point have led me through ugly terrain I would have preferred not to traverse. But I don’t have to go backwards and experience those things again. I can, but it is a wildly ineffective way to live. Instead, I should be using the lessons I’ve learned and my mental capabilities to plot a better course from here based on what I really want. So much of my pain has resulted from not having much of a plan at all. How can I complain about where I’ve wound up if I haven’t even had any particular destination?

I think this concept could have great potential in combating depression and even suicidal thoughts. Whenever I’ve thought about suicide, it has been for primarily two reasons. One, I have felt that the pain I was in would never subside and the only escape was death. Two, I have felt that I had screwed up my life so badly that there was no possibility of “coming back” and making it into something I wanted it to be.

Let’s go back to the woods. If you’re thinking about suicide, this is what I would say to you. You feel you’re in a bad place now, which is a result of the paths you’ve taken. But is there a place you would be happy to be in? If there isn’t, then chances are you need more help than this metaphor can provide and I suggest you get it. But if there is, think hard about that place. What does it look like? What about it makes you happy? And here is the most important question. Is there ANY way you can get there from where you are now? If there is, why kill yourself? You have just admitted that a path exists that will make you happy if you follow it. And sure, you may be facing long odds of success. But dying will reduce your odds to zero. Plus, if you try to follow this path to the place you believe would make you happy, it’s very likely that you will find some measure of happiness even if you don’t end up making it all the way there.

Maybe this concept will work for you and maybe it won’t. But I’m telling you, it worked for me last night. My favorite part about it is that it didn’t just turn me away from darkness. It turned me towards light. If you follow the thought process I just described, it should be much more difficult for you to think about negatives when you’re finished because you will have replaced them with positives. Instead of thinking about bad paths you’ve already walked down, you will be thinking about a place you actually want to be in and what it will take you to get there. And sure, Rome wasn’t built in a day. I get that. But if you map out this path to this particular place you want to be in, you will have a mission. And if you work on chipping away at that mission, you’re going to have less room in your head for thoughts that don’t relate to it. Maybe I’m way off base with this. But it helped me through a dark evening and I intend to revisit it as necessary in the hopes of repeating that success. If you’re struggling, maybe it’s worth a try for you, too.  

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…

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.