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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Spend on Restaurants and How I Do It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great week, folks!

What I Spend On Groceries and How I Do It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Spend on Clothes and How I Do It

Here’s a fashion-y looking picture. – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Hola! This is the third post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, check it out here. I plan to go into detail on every category with a post on one each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $700 per year on clothes and I believe I could spend a reasonable minimum of $100 per year if I had to.

Clothing is in a seemingly unique position amongst expense categories. That’s because there is so much of it in the world that even very poor countries have all they need and then some. So theoretically, you could spend next to nothing in this category. That would probably involve shopping at places like Goodwill or the Salvation Army. You might not get exactly the style or fit you wanted, but it would be adequate to serve the purpose of covering the areas of your body our overly puritanical society deems necessary to cover as you went about your day to day activities. I’d estimate that would cost about $100 per year, per person. But for just a little bit more than that “bare bones” budget, you can have your cake and eat it too.

I only buy high quality clothes that are always in style but not necessarily “fashionable.” My closet contains mostly polo shirts (mostly Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein), long sleeved button shirts (both dress and casual), jeans, and khaki pants. I also have a handful of suits I almost never wear (if I did, I would probably go out and spend a grand or two on a couple of really nice ones to replace what I have and leave it at that) and five total pairs of shoes that give me every option I need. I also have some winter clothes in case I ever visit Wisconsin in the winter (that’s October through April, or sometimes May) again – which is very doubtful. I’m trying to be better about only buying clothes I love that fit exactly as I want them to and returning them if I decide I failed with a particular purchase.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve done more and more of my clothes shopping at Costco to the point where now it’s fairly rare for me to buy something anywhere else. I’ve mostly stopped buying Ralph Lauren stuff because I hate the “tennis tails” on their shirts, their quality control seems questionable (I have over a dozen of their shirts, all in the same size and in one of two styles, but they are a fairly wide range of lengths and fits), their stuff is overpriced unless bought at an extreme discount (which is, of course, the only way I ever bought it), and finally, I already have their polo shirts in almost every color I want and they last about a decade. These days most of my polo shirts come from Costco and are both high quality and cheap like almost everything else the store sells. That’s where I started buying the Calvin Klein ones for about $15-20 each. I also have some of the 32 Degree Cool brand which is great for southern weather, decent quality, and even cheaper. I buy all my socks, underwear, undershirts, etc there now. I even buy most of my shoes there – usually for $20-30 a pair. So far I have yet to be disappointed with any of this stuff.

I’ve just about finished my obligatory post divorce closet overhaul, which took about three years. So now I’m transitioning from that phase to a “one item in, one item out, upgrades only” phase I expect will last for the foreseeable future. As a result, my spending will likely decline to probably $2-300 a year or maybe even less. And again, these will be only high quality, great fitting purchases to replace either lower quality/worse fitting clothes or worn out ones.

I don’t really do anything revolutionary in this spending category but my spending is low and getting lower. I do acknowledge that things will almost certainly be more expensive for women. Not only are they judged more on their appearance than men are, but they have much more unique bodies, which makes getting clothes that fit well into a much more complicated process. Plus, their clothes are much less durable in most cases. But what can I say? If you want the fun of a sports car, you have to accept the realities of paying for premium gas, nearly constant repairs, high insurance premiums, etc, that all come with it. However, there are ways to moderate those costs and still have your fun – with both cars and women. The same general concept of buying more high quality, timeless styled clothes and less “fast fashion” or very outfit specific items would probably also help women. My ex-wife was pretty good at doing things that way and she certainly always kept herself looking good. And gentlemen, that is a very rare and valuable quality. Almost every woman I’ve dated since has spent much, much more to accomplish the same feat. But I feel like we’re blurring the lines between this topic and a totally different one. Anyway, have an awesome day, folks! Kick some ass out there!

What I Spend on Cash Donations and How I Do It

A bridge I encountered walking on a trail a while back – I don’t remember where exactly

Happy Monday, Everyone! This is the second post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, check it out here. I plan to go into detail on every category with a post on one each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $2100 on cash donations. In most areas of my financial life, I feel pretty comfortable that I know what I’m doing. But since I have only been relatively wealthy for a few years now, this is one area where I’m just getting started and as a result, I’m still figuring things out. For that reason, any feedback or suggestions would be greatly appreciated – even more than usual. So far, the money I’ve spent in this category has mostly gone to either charitable organizations or personal causes people had. I’m no expert on this yet but I have figured out a couple of things.

One, lots of charitable organizations are questionable at best in terms of the way they’re run and the percentage of funds that are actually put towards their causes. I’m not opposed to reasonable costs that are necessary to run an organization, including paying what the market necessitates to employ highly talented people. However, it is pretty clear that some of these organizations are excessively lining the pockets of individuals in one way or another, which is disgusting given that the money is donated for charitable causes.

Two, once you donate to a charitable organization, it will pursue you relentlessly trying to get more out of you. While I lived in Wisconsin, I donated to a couple of very location specific organizations whose mailers have followed me through two different Texas addresses already. It is baffling to me that no one in these organizations has made the connection that I’ve obviously moved and haven’t sent a dime since. I also wonder what portion of the money I donated they are going to spend on sending mailer after mailer before they finally (hopefully) give up. Is it really possible that the entirety of my donations will eventually be spent that way?

While I’m no expert at charitable giving, I have developed a few guiding principles for myself. First, I believe in making sure you are able to donate before doing so. After all, if you’re living on the edge yourself and you donate money, that could be the difference between your being independent and you needing help yourself, which would likely cost society more than your donation helped in the first place. As such, my donations have gradually increased as my personal wealth has and will likely continue accordingly. Second, I believe in helping those who either try to help themselves or have been dealt such a terrible hand that it is almost impossible for them to. I believe there is a distinct limit to how much money can help anyone – the “teach a man to fish” concept. I believe the capability to earn money is much more valuable than the result itself. So I’d be much more inclined to give money to someone who is dealing with a misfortunate setback or set of circumstances and would otherwise be a productive person than to someone who has never made a serious effort to do anything productive. Not only do I want to do the greatest good for society, but for the individual. I believe there is a huge psychological benefit to being self sufficient.

I don’t have any particular target in this area in terms of the amount I spend as it is pretty new for me. I think it is crucially important that people with resources help the less fortunate and I am certainly in that category. But trying to do so in a way that is both effective and not frustrating has proven difficult. I’ve had some success volunteering in local organizations, getting to know how they operate, and then donating additional money once I’m comfortable doing so. But that doesn’t stop the endless hounding from following me to the ends of the earth. I’m nearing the point where I will only donate money if it can be anonymous. I don’t itemize deductions on my taxes yet, so that isn’t an issue and I don’t care whether people know what I donate or not so recognition isn’t either.

Here is a particularly egregious example in my opinion. My alma mater has been after me since the day I graduated and I’ve never even given it a dime. My reasoning there is pretty simple. Tuition was raised by the state allowable maximum every single year I attended. This happened to be in the early part of the Great Recession and in spite of this economic backdrop, perfectly good buildings were constantly being torn down so fancier ones could be built in their place. This struck me as being very out of touch with both the mission of the school (presumably to provide a high quality education to people from a wide variety of backgrounds – including those who, like me, grew up relatively poor) and the reality of the times. A couple years after I left, it was discovered that the school had been sitting on a slush fund in excess of $100 million. I believe the tuition increases immediately stopped to avoid making the PR disaster even worse. But at no point was there any mention of doing anything to make things right with the students who had unknowingly contributed so much to that slush fund. Many of my former classmates seem to have similar reservations since they went through the school during the same timeframe.

If I were going to send any money in this direction, it would be directly to a student or group of students from a financially disadvantaged background who had already continued to demonstrate a good work ethic and continued to do so. I think both elements would be important for me and I would need a way to ensure that both were present to feel good about what I was doing. Additionally, I don’t think I would want to have my scholarship, or whatever form it took, be school specific. But I haven’t started looking into how to do any of that yet. Maybe it will be my first substantial charitable endeavor. For now, I typically donate a hundred or two when I see something that moves me to do so. Like I said, this area is a work in progress.

How Much I Spend On Auto Maintenance/Repairs and How I Do It

The elder statesmen of my former fleet of vehicles – the legendary Ford Ranger…before Ford stopped making the model for years and then brought it back as a slightly smaller F150

Happy Monday Everyone! This is the very first post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, check it out here. I plan to go into detail on every category with a post on one each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $1300 per year on auto maintenance and repairs and I believe I could spend a bare minimum of $500 per year if I had to. This, in particular, is an expense I am able to spend a lot less than I otherwise would on because I do as much of my own work as possible. I try to only do that in areas of life where it is worth my time and with most shops charging at least $70-80 an hour for labor alone, not including marking up parts, this is definitely one of those. Here come the details.

First off, that $1300 number would be significantly lower if I hadn’t done what I consider a minor overhaul on the truck I had until near the end of 2017. At a total cost of roughly $1500, I replaced all four sets of brakes (pads and rotors on the front and all drum components on the back), the two front wheel hub assemblies, and most of the steering and suspension parts. This would likely have cost at least two to three times that figure if I’d had a shop do the work. That said, there would have been some cost savings since there was a lot of overlap in the labor. That was why I did all that at one time; not everything needed to be done right away but it made sense to do it all as long as I was going to have everything apart. Whether you do your own work or pay someone else to do it, this is something I recommend you think about. It usually won’t make sense on a newer vehicle, but on an old dog like my truck, it certainly did since anything that wasn’t already bad was definitely likely to be before long.

I wasn’t able to do all of it myself, mind you. When doing steering and suspension work, an alignment is usually required when you’re finished and that requires expensive equipment and know how. But by doing most of the work myself, I got basically everything done that my high mileage truck would need to keep running reliably for at least a few more years, aside from basic maintenance. I’m not a mechanical genius by any stretch but with auto repair work, you can find instructional videos on just about any repair for your specific vehicle on youtube. If you are at least a little bit mechanically inclined, have a basic set of tools, and particularly if the repair is on the less complicated end, like brakes for example, I highly recommend this route to learn a new skill and save a ton of money.

What do I do in a normal year? I spend roughly $200 on oil changes with what I believe is the best oil money can buy (Amsoil), I clean and lubricate my performance/reusable K&N air filter and cabin air filter for free, I have the tires rotated every 5k miles or so (done for free at Discount Tire, the best tire store I’ve ever found), and that’s about it for routine stuff. I also spend money on other maintenance items like brakes, coolant, transmission fluid, etc, but none of that has to be done every year. I went into detail about those kinds of items here. I highly recommend you keep all the basic maintenance up to date on your vehicles. It will cost you some money and time on the front end but in the long run, it will save you tons of both. While your costs will vary based on which additional maintenance items need to be done in a given year, if you keep up with it, your average annual cost should be around $500. Note that this is for one regular vehicle. If you have a truck or SUV it will be more and if you have a giant diesel truck or you buy a vehicle that is known for mechanical issues (avoid that by checking out this post), it will be a lot more.

I do spend a little extra keeping my vehicles clean and waxed/polished because I can, because I like the look of a clean car, and because keeping the paint looking good will keep the resale value as high as possible. In my case, this costs me $20 per month on unlimited, high quality car washes, and maybe $5-10 per year on wax and polish. These aren’t things you would absolutely have to do for a car to operate properly, but if your car looks nice now, keeping it that way will most likely more than pay for itself when you end up selling it.

That’s about it. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or send me an email at admin@healthwealthpower.com. Next week, Monday, I’m going to be covering my Cash Donations category in this series of posts.