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!

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!

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.

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.

More Ways to Save Money Very Quickly at My Favorite Store

Sorry for the grainy quality! But seriously, what do luxury apartment complexes have against using free weights in a full range of motion? Yes, I know it’s probably an insurance thing. Still though.

Anyone who read my previous Costco post knows I love the company. But in what I promise wasn’t an intentionally malicious act, I forgot to mention some very significant ways the store can save you a ton of money. Recently I was reminded of two of them in particular. So this post is more an addendum than a standalone but I felt it was important to correct my oversight.

Do you ever have occasions to give out gift cards? Or do you just like going to a nice restaurant every now and again? Then you may want to take a trip to Costco. Somewhere in the store (sometimes near the checkout area, other times near the frozen food aisles, and still other times in some other totally random place), you will find a display with a bunch of gift cards. These won’t be that same assortment you find in nearly every store on earth. This is Costco, so most of them will be for more upscale restaurants and other services. But upscale is only half of what Costco is known for – with the other half being almost impossibly low prices. And these gift cards are no exception. Most of them are for $100 but will only cost you somewhere between $70 and $80. Many of them also come packaged in the form of two $50 cards in case you want to split them into two smaller gifts. And of course you can also use them for yourself if you want a serious discount on a nice meal or two.

But one gift card in that section has saved me more than any other – the 24 Hour Fitness one. Since I sold all my gym equipment before I moved across the country and since even the nicest luxury apartment gyms never seem to include a proper squat rack (usually just a smith machine), I needed a gym membership when I came here. Planet Fitness is the cheapest but given the company’s notorious “serious fitness people need not apply” attitude, I don’t consider that a valid option. 24 Hour Fitness seems to be the best one in the area for me. It offers all the necessary equipment at a reasonable price and has many locations, many of which have extras like swimming pools, saunas, basketball gyms, yoga studios, etc. But why pay full price if you don’t have to? A basic level 24 Hour Fitness membership is going to run $35-40 a month – fairly typical in the world of gym memberships but a tough pill to swallow for a previous owner of a commercial quality basement gym that cost only an initial investment of about $3k.

But Costco to the rescue! If you don’t need to go to a Super Sport/Ultra Sport location, and most people don’t since there are plenty of Sport and Active ones (but check your area out first before you buy), you can get a two year membership gift card from Costco for $430. That works out to $18 per month – a savings of about 50%! If you do need the Super Sport/Ultra Sport membership, Costco offers that as well at a similar savings. And as the late, great Billy Mays said, “But I’m not done yet!” If you’re a pro level Costco shopper like me, you know that just about everything is significantly discounted at some point. When I got here, I only had to wait a month or two before the membership was on sale for $370 – or from $18 a month to just over $15! This is a great example of how I live an upper middle class lifestyle while paying for a lower middle class one. I go to the exact same gym other people do but I pay less than half as much. And this stuff is available to anyone who wants it and requires virtually no hassle or sacrifice most of the time.

But there was still one loose end that had been lurking at the recesses of my psyche for some time. What happens when the two years is up and (gasp!) I have to start paying more than double for my gym membership? 24 Hour Fitness is still likely the best deal in the area even at the regular price. But still, paying full price? How could I tolerate such a travesty? Thankfully, after a little recent googling, I’m confident that I won’t have to. While it’s true that the Costco deal can only be used by someone who does not have a current membership, it turns out that this is even easier to get around than the “promotional pricing” game the ISPs play. Once your membership has expired, even for a day, you are no longer a current member. It can’t be that simple, can it? According to scores of posters online, it absolutely is. I read enough posts from people who have done this two, three, or even more times, to be confident it works. How did people do anything before the internet?

So there you have it. If you buy two or three $100 gift cards (or four to six $50 ones) in a year, your Costco membership pays for itself. If 24 Hour Fitness is in your area and you’re serious about making the most important investment of them all, the membership pays for itself every three to four months on an ongoing basis. And that means the hundreds of dollars (or more) you save on other purchases throughout the year are pure profit. Have a wonderful Friday and an even more wonderful weekend, everyone! And no, Costco still doesn’t have me on the payroll – although I should probably look into that…

My 50th Post Spectacular (Yes, That is a Play on the Title of a Simpsons Episode – Yes, From Back When the Show Was Still Worth Watching)

No, I’m not sure how this relates to the post. But it does strike me as one of those cool “only in Houston” sights and since I haven’t found an occasion to use it yet, I’m using it now.

With this post we’ve reached a milestone on Health, Wealth, Power. By my count, this is post number 50. So far, readership has been going up steadily and that has been very exciting. To those of you who have been coming here for a while, I’m glad to have you along on this journey. To anyone who has started reading more recently, welcome. Today I want to highlight both some of my most viewed posts and some of my favorites that haven’t been seen as much – in many cases because I posted them before many people were reading the blog at all. Thank you to everyone for reading and here’s to the next 50 posts (and many more) to come!

Most Viewed

How Do You Respond When Your World Comes Crashing Down (Again)?

A window into my raw thought process on a recent night when I got some seemingly devastating news about my career. I wrote this almost immediately when I got home so I would have a good record of my immediate reaction to look back at later. I’m still in the midst of dealing with this situation but I have a very exciting recent development that I’ll be sharing soon.

Bank Account Basics

A basic guide to how I use bank accounts to maximize income, minimize risk, and pay zero fees in the process

The Importance of Outlook – How I Still Struggle with the Scarcity Mentality of My Past

A discussion of how even though I am more financially fortunate than 99% of the world, I still haven’t been able to completely adopt that mindset over that of my much more difficult financial past

A Happy Night of Insomnia

This is one of my personal favorite posts so far. It is a nostalgic look at the way the most difficult event of my life so far has spawned so many wonderful changes. While I and my life will never be quite the same as before it happened again, that is mostly a good thing.

My New Diet Experiment

In this post I talked about time restricted eating and how I planned to implement what I had learned about it. It has been a very positive change for me and I wrote about that in a follow up post – Time Restricted Eating Update: There is Definitely Something to This!

My Favorites

The Most Important Investment

Health and fitness is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. Medical science is keeping people alive longer and longer today. But what is it worth? My argument is that we’ve long since passed the point where quality is much more important (and elusive in many cases) than quantity. This post is my attempt to lay out the basics for anyone who feels similarly and wants to do something about it.

The Opportunities in Life’s Challenges

I’ve written a number of posts on this theme now – the value of finding the positives in situations that don’t seem very positive at face value. But this was one of the first. As someone who has put a ton of work into thinking more positively and seen firsthand how dramatically that mentality shift can change life in often unexpected ways, it is very important to me to share my experiences in this area.

Today I’m Going to Challenge You

I wrote this post for people who struggle with depression or have in the past. It’s not comprehensive and I’m no mental health professional, but it’s a discussion of some tactics and information that have helped me in the past when the weight of the world seemed to be crushing me with no sign of relief. If it helps one person, it was worth far more than the time it took to write it.

The Internet Game and How You Can Win It

I’m trying to be less of a bastard in life. But I do tend to temporarily suspend that effort when it comes to fighting back against what I view as unethical tactics. In this post, I illustrate how I’ve been mostly successful at keeping the shenanigans of those damn ISPs from succeeding in robbing me blind.

How to Spend a Fraction of What Most People Do On Electronics Without Having to Sacrifice Much

Simply put, the methods I described in this post have saved me five figures by this point in my life. One of the many benefits of living in the richest country in the history of the world, particularly at a time when technological advancement has been unprecedented as well, is that extremely marginal compromises can result in enormous savings. There is an almost constant chorus in the media about the retirement crisis in the United States. That means that for most of us, there is no excuse for not taking advantage of opportunities like this to get so much in return for so little.

My Newest Health Boosting Experiments and Why They’re Awesome

These tiny sprouts will be supercharging my immune system in just a few short days!

It’s not enough to be good at something today. You have to keep evolving over time. Imagine if you were the best reader in your fifth grade class in school but never got any better from that point on. Or more relevant to today’s post, imagine how far behind you’d be if you were still operating according to the best available health knowledge from twenty years ago – or even five years ago for that matter. I’m always reevaluating what I’m doing and trying new ways to make improve myself. I’m no science expert, but I read what I can and rely on very intelligent people in that area whose opinions I respect to help point me in the right direction. That’s why I recently started my ultimately very successful experiment with time restricted eating. And that’s why I am trying two more new things now.

First, I’ve been working on growing some organic broccoli sprouts. I’ve become convinced that sulphoraphane is a substance I very much want in my body and broccoli sprouts have it in almost incomparably high levels. I understand they don’t taste great but I’m going to toss them in the Vitamix along with everything else I put in my twice daily smoothies and hope the fruit will mask the taste, just as it does with all the other green crap I want to consume but not experience in too much detail as it goes down. I’m growing my own because it is much cheaper than buying the sprouts at a grocery store, because it is supposedly an easy process (and so far I can concur on that point), and because I thought I would enjoy the novelty of a new project. I’m loosely following these instructions, which seem to be producing good results thus far.

The sprouts in the picture are roughly three and a half days old and according to my research, they will be ready to eat in one to three more days. It has been very easy to get them to this point. I bought some organic broccoli seeds, soaked some of them in filtered water overnight, spread them in the device you see in the picture, and have rinsed them (again with the filtered water) twice a day. The seeds cost me about $50 for 2.5 pounds (I’m pretty convinced this is something I’m going to adopt long term) and the sprouting device was less than $20 (actually it was just about free because of this little trick). I believe I should be good to go for well over a year with those items purchased. I’ve invested no more than a half hour total in the project so far, not counting my initial research. Once these sprouts are ready, I’ll put them in a container in the refrigerator and start adding them to my smoothies. Then I’ll wash the sprouting device, start another batch, and keep the process going indefinitely. I’m very excited to see if I notice any results – whether in the way I feel day to day or in medical assessments/testing down the line.

My second new thing is regular sauna use. I recently read about a study that showed measurably better long term health outcomes for people who use saunas. And the more they did it, the better their results were. So that was already in the back of my mind. And I decided to give it a try when I moved to a new area and discovered that the gym here has a sauna. So far, I must say, it feels wonderful. Since I’m at the gym four or five mornings per week, I simply go sit in the sauna for about fifteen minutes after my workout. Aside from feeling refreshed and more energetic afterwards, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how relaxing it is. When no one else is in the sauna with me, I’ve noticed my mind clears almost automatically and it easily becomes a meditative experience – something that is very difficult for me to achieve under normal circumstances. I don’t know exactly what is going on there or why it feels that way, but I like it. And as long as the research is showing that I’m doing a great thing for my health in the process, I’m going to keep it up.

Not only is it fun (ok, so maybe I’m a little unusual) and mentally stimulating to stay on top of new research and use it to improve your life, it is also crucial. Far too many people spend the last several years of their lives suffering and reliant on others and not keeping themselves up to date is a huge part of the reason. For example, middle aged people grew up in an era where resistance training (weightlifting) wasn’t something normal people did. If they haven’t since picked it up, they are virtually guaranteed an awful aging process including rapidly atrophying muscular capabilities and very strong odds of developing numerous age related diseases like Alzheimer’s. One of my favorite goals in life is to have a workout I’m proud of on the morning of my last day on this earth; in other words, I want to function at a high level until the very end. Through experiments like these, combined with a strong emphasis on physical and mental health in almost every element of my daily routine, I hope to feel great both now and in the long term, thus accomplishing my goal. I highly recommend that everyone do the same. 

Time Restricted Eating Update: There is Definitely Something to This!

In the wild, I believe this guy would spend most of his time hungry and primed for action – not fed round the clock. Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

It’s been about a month since I wrote about my time restricted eating experiment and maybe two months since I started so here is an update. The title really sums it up; this experiment has produced far and away the most measurable results of any of the many I’ve conducted on myself over the years. It has me rethinking a lot of what I thought I knew about my body, nutrition, and so forth. Let’s get into the details.

I’ve been pretty successful about sticking with an eight hour eating window. I went with eight because that’s who I am; if I’m going to do something, I’m not going to half ass it. On a typical day, I start eating around 10:30am and stop by 6:30pm. When I know I’ll be out late – no later than eleven for me these days and usually more like ten –  I don’t start eating until a late lunch in order to maintain the experiment (remember, any calories count and that includes drinking anything but water). I’ve had only a few days where I slipped and wound up around a nine hour window and one where I screwed up completely and ended up at about twelve.

Overall, the most surprising element of this experiment has been how easy it is. As an avid food lover, I expected to suffer miserably. But that hasn’t transpired at all. After some modest discomfort the first week or two, I’ve barely even had to think about what I’m doing. The habit seems to suit me very well and it even seems to have made me noticeably more productive. Yes, I’m consistently referred to as “very disciplined,” although my worst critic (me) considers my discipline level to be atrocious. But nothing I’ve experienced makes me think anyone would struggle to implement this in any significant way. It just requires a little bit of mindfulness and a few adjustments.

And the results have been more than worth the effort. The most noticeable change has been weight loss and with this part, keep in mind that my body is very ectomorphic by nature so unlike many people, keeping weight on is my biggest challenge. Prior to embarking on my restricted eating journey, I had already been down about twenty pounds from my normal weight due to a dramatic reduction in both eating (intentional to account for a dramatic reduction in calories being burned) and gym time/efficacy as a result of a frustrating string of injuries I went through. I had a lean, muscular build prior to that weight loss so there was a lot of good weight in that twenty pounds and after losing it, I had very little fat left available to lose. Since there is definitely a limit to how low a healthy person’s body fat percentage can go, additional fat loss was not a goal for me.

However, I have lost about an additional five pounds since starting time restricted eating and my body fat has, in fact, almost completely disappeared. I believe there are two reasons for this. One, you only want to eat so much in an eight hour window. Once I noticed my weight dropping even further than it already had, I started forcing myself to eat more. I even loosened up on eating lower quality foods a little bit to make things easier. And still I’ve only managed to stop the bleeding. I’m stuck at the five pounds down mark and am gradually eating more and more in an attempt to start putting weight back on. Keep in mind that since I’m finally 100% physically healthy again, I’m back working hard in the gym along with this. The second reason I suspect is that I do almost zero snacking of any kind now. Since I seemingly can’t eat enough, I rarely feel hungry at all. So snacking not only doesn’t come naturally anymore, it would literally amount to an effort I would have to make. Long story short, if you’re after weight loss, fat loss, or both, time restricted eating seems very likely to help you.

There have been other very measurable changes as well – and much more positive ones in my case. My resting heart rate, which used to hover around an average of 60 bpm, now sits in the low to mid 50s. I suppose this makes sense since my metabolic functions are only happening about half to two thirds of the time they previously had been. That is a huge energy savings and my guess is this is much more appropriate for my body from an evolutionary perspective. But the most exciting change for me has been to my sleeping. I’ve struggled in this area all my life and even employing every method I’ve ever read about to an almost religious degree, I’ve never managed to average over 6.5 hours per night in a week outside of the occasional anomaly. However, since not long after I started time restricted eating, I’m averaging over 7 hours a night consistently. I don’t doubt for a second that this has made a huge difference in my day to day life. I have no precise way to measure this, but I feel more energetic and mentally sharper/more alert. I had been in the habit of drinking coffee twice a day – morning and early afternoon. Now I usually only do so once and sometimes not at all. Note that coffee isn’t harmful in any known way. But not feeling compelled to drink it is still a very positive sign in my book.

Overall, this has been a huge net positive for me and I’m going to continue with it. Yes, my strength in the gym has declined somewhat. But that can probably be almost exclusively attributed to the weight I had already lost prior to starting this experiment and the way I lost it (both eating and working out dramatically less). And given that my strength numbers are still excellent for a man my size (which has itself changed), I’m not concerned about this other than being motivated to gain back my good size in spite of the additional challenge. And for most people, the weight loss would be viewed as a positive. Other than that, everything has been a huge positive for me. My body and mind both seem to work much better this way. This experiment has been a huge success!

My New Diet Experiment

Delicious chicken burritos

Up until now, most of my health/fitness effort in life has been on the exercise side with nutrition being an afterthought. Of course I know now how foolish this was but hindsight is 20/20. For years, I ate without a thought beyond that I needed a lot of protein and a lot of everything overall and my time in the gym would take care of the rest. This was obviously a terrible approach and I can only guess what it has cost me. Unfortunately, because I usually do spend a prodigious amount of time in the gym, I have always been in above average physical shape so I have never been forced to confront the nutrition side in a serious way. In my mid twenties, I started to pay a little bit of attention to nutrition, but not much. At least I started eating more fruits and vegetables but aside from that, my diet was still pretty bad. When I was married, my diet got a little bit better, but again, not much. We both spent a fair amount of time in the gym and were both in above average shape so again, we did the bare minimum with nutrition and neither of us was interested enough in breaking the cycle.

But when I got divorced, things finally changed. With no one else around to worry about pleasing and a newfound mission to prove someone very, very wrong, I started experimenting more in the kitchen. Instead of choosing a recipe I wanted to eat and then making it, possibly substituting a healthier ingredient or two but otherwise keeping it the same, I started to choose the healthiest ingredients and then find recipes that featured them. And sometimes I would simply build my own recipes from the ground up that would start out as very healthy culinary disasters but evolve over time into very healthy, edible meals – and sometimes even beyond that point. But over the last year, I’ve taken it to the next level. I’ve started paying attention to the big picture – making sure I get plenty of vegetables, a moderate amount of mostly high quality carbohydrates, a reasonable amount of protein, and less garbage. And since this year started, I’ve eaten almost no garbage and have paid for zero. As a result, my fitness level, which was probably at an 8 before, is knocking on the door of 9 – even in spite of a rash of injuries that has held me back.

Why the nutritional history? I want people to know what a flippant attitude I’ve had towards nutrition for most of my life because it’s a great example of how it’s never too late to start doing the right things. This concept applies to many areas, although today I want to talk about nutrition. Over the last year, I’ve heard more and more about intermittent fasting and recently, it reached the tipping point quite by accident. When I sprained my ankle, I wound up missing a couple weeks of doing almost any leg exercises in the gym. In an attempt to mitigate the situation as well as improve my overall efficiency, I devised a plan to eat less. I had been spending 30-40 minutes making elaborate breakfast burritos totally from scratch in the mornings.

I decided to temporarily scrap this meal to account for the dramatic reduction in calories I would be burning and get myself moving more quickly in the mornings at the same time. This is easily the healthiest meal I eat so imagine my surprise when I started feeling better without it (I have since added it back in, often as dinner since I have more time in the evenings). And it wasn’t just the way I felt. Even though I was putting in about half the work in the gym and even less than that on the cardio side, it wasn’t the all out disaster I was expecting. I did lose about twenty pounds (not a one of which I wanted to lose, mind you) and while a lot of it was muscle, I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of it was also fat, to the point where my overall composition was noticeably improving.

I started researching in an effort to figure out what was going on and all roads seemed to lead to the same place. While the focus of nutrition is usually on what you are eating, there is more and more evidence that the timing of that eating is very important as well. I had inadvertently stumbled onto time restricted eating – the very same thing I had overheard so many people talking about and dismissed as “just the latest trend.” I’m still in the process of researching but I’ve learned enough to form a hypothesis and launch an experiment. In simple, general terms, the theory is that one’s metabolism can only work effectively for so many hours per day. Unfortunately, we in the western world tend to eat basically the entire time we’re awake. If you think about it, this wouldn’t have been possible for our distant ancestors and even for people a century ago, who largely wouldn’t have been able to afford such excess. Anyway, for some of those hours we’re eating, our metabolisms are struggling severely. In order for them to work optimally, it appears that eating should be restricted to twelve hours per day on the high end. And there is evidence that fewer hours will yield even better results.

As for me, I’m aiming for eight to nine hours per day. One unwelcome revelation in my research was that coffee counts, even if you only drink it black as I do, because it forces metabolic processes to start. So I’ve had to make some adjustments and here is what I’m doing now. I wake up at 6am and instead of having coffee, I head straight to the gym after chugging the 24 ounces of water I drink immediately when I wake up (your body gets dehydrated during the night). I get home between 7:30 and 8. Then I do 20-30 minutes of core work and then I do some language practice (I’m always working on improving my German and Spanish). Sometimes I also work in a chore or two around the apartment. Finally, around 9, I make coffee, drink a protein shake, and drink a smoothie of mostly leafy green vegetables with a little fruit. When the coffee is ready, I do my morning reading. From there, I get my workday going.

I eat a big lunch and a reasonable sized dinner. But the dinner (and my evening smoothie) has to happen by about 5 if I’m going to stay within my eight hour target. I will note that I’m not going to be 100% rigid. If I’m out for drinks once or twice a week, I’m not going to sit there sipping water in order to keep my fast going. However, I may consider starting the day with a late lunch; I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Lucky for me, I work out of my home, don’t travel as much as I did in the past, and am usually back home doing emails, follow ups, etc by around 4 so as to avoid as much of the stupidly insane Houston traffic as possible. Back in my office droning days, this would have taken more planning and effort. But even if I were in that position today, I would probably try something like this. For me, success in life is quality times quantity. If there is a way to improve my health and fitness level, then I’d be willing to tolerate a very high cost in both financial expense and inconvenience. There was a time when I didn’t think that way. But I’m thankful to be here today. There is absolutely nothing worth more than health.

After a while, I’ll do another post on this with both my observed results and any conclusions I come to with my research. If anyone out there wants to try this with me, I would love to compare notes!

Today I’m Going to Challenge You

Unknown, but interesting looking buildings in East Downtown, Houston

It is no secret among those who know me that I have struggled with depression for most of my life. While it seems counterintuitive, there does appear to be a strong correlation between the prevalence of this problem and the unprecedented and continuing economic success our country has enjoyed. So if you struggle with it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. Most of us do, at least some of the time, and our circumstances in life really don’t seem to have a significant effect on that. As difficult as depression symptoms are to deal with, the sheer persistence of the disease in the face of long term, consistent efforts to eradicate it, has been the most frustrating aspect for me.

However, there is plenty to be hopeful about. Several months ago, I started making a more focused effort than ever to get my depression under control. First I had to accept, once and for all, that depression is a part of me and probably always will be. Acceptance is so important! As I understand it, suffering isn’t a direct result of circumstances, but rather, the result of the difference between those circumstances and one’s expectations. So in other words, anyone can be unhappy if he isn’t willing to accept reality. This is a large part of the explanation for miserable billionaires and happy people who don’t know where their next meals are coming from.

Accepting the reality that I will always have depression to contend with was a huge help. The next big step was taking responsibility for my own mental health. Too often in my life I’ve leaned on mental health professionals, thinking that if I invested enough time and money, I would have to see results. But just like with anything else, that isn’t enough. Simply going through the motions didn’t work for me. I wasted thousands of dollars in copays and hundreds of hours because I went in with the wrong mindset. The correct mindset, as in any situation, is to take responsibility – not for making the investment, but for attaining the RESULTS. When I finally did that around the middle of last year, I naturally started putting in the focused work that was necessary and everything changed.

What were my tactics? For one thing, I started reading with the specific purpose of defeating depression. Some of the books that really helped me include: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, Self-Compassion: The Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life by Eric Greitens, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, and Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel By Changing the Way You Think by Dennis Greenberger, Christine Padesky, and Aaron Beck. But beyond just reading, I started actively working on changing my thought process. There are hundreds of very worthwhile exercises and things to think about in just the books I listed and I highly recommend working through them all to find the ones that help you.

But reading books takes time. Today I want to challenge you to start with one simple, but incredibly powerful concept: gratitude. This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned it in this young blog and that is no accident. Why is it so important? If you can change the way you think and start looking for positives instead of negatives, a few things will happen. Biologically, you will literally change your physical brain as you force it to work in different ways. That means that thinking positively will become easier with practice just like lifting weights does as your muscles get stronger. You will likely notice that your happiness level increases fairly quickly. But maybe the most exciting thing that will happen when you make it a priority to be thankful for the good things in your life is that you will get more of them. That’s right; changing the way you think will literally change your circumstances in life.

This isn’t some silly gimmick or pseudo-science. I’m not talking about thinking about things you want and the universe magically manifesting them for you. What I’m talking about is real. How does it work? When you start focusing on positive things in your life and being thankful for them, you will start to see more of them. This is human nature; you tend to find what you’re looking for and miss a lot of what you aren’t. When you start seeing more positive things, you start feeling better. When that happens, you start acting differently. You make an extra sales call. You meet a smoking hot girl and ask her out on the spot. Or maybe you just simply hold the door for someone. When you change your actions, your results start to change. Each of the examples I just listed can lead to something good happening for you and if you make enough changes like them, they certainly will. The first step to success is simply showing up and doing something. Success has a way of snowballing really quickly so literally all you have to do is start the process and ride the momentum from there and things will improve.

So how am I going to challenge you today? I want you to focus on making gratitude a part of your life. Immediately. In order for this to be as effective as possible, it needs to be obnoxious. Start keeping a notebook around or taking notes in your phone or whatever works for you. Every hour you’re awake, write down something you’re thankful for. Every single hour. I guarantee you can think of something. It can be as big as getting a promotion at work or as small as a conversation you had that you enjoyed. Still can’t find something? I bet you aren’t dying of cancer right now. I’ll bet even more that a tsunami didn’t just destroy your house and all your belongings. Try not to lean on the “it could always be worse” crutch too often but you can use it when you have to.

At the end of each day, review your list and pick out your favorites. Think about them as you lay in bed and go to sleep. There is no better way to start a night of restful sleep. Look back over previous days’ lists whenever you’re starting to feel down and remind yourself of some of the blessings in your life until the mood passes.

This exercise isn’t going to cure anyone’s depression. Much like alcoholism, I am not sure there is a cure. I think you just have to acknowledge that it exists and commit to fighting it every day. Do my gratitude challenge for a week or two and see how you feel. See if it is easier to come up with an item to add to the list than it was when you started. You are already going to notice progress and that is a money back guarantee! Obviously this doesn’t end your war. But it puts one battle in the win column. Next, pick out something else to try. Remember, big victories are made up of many little ones. If anyone decides to complete my challenge, I would love to hear about the results. So leave a comment or email me at admin@healthwealthpower.com and let me know how it worked for you.