How I Occasionally Get Over Half the Cost of My Hotel Stays Back in Cash Equivalent Rewards and Why Choice Hotels is the Hotel Brand I Love to Hate (Hint: the two are related)

I try to see something interesting on every trip; in this case, Texan hero Sam Houston looks solemnly out over the highway.

Hotels offer a wonderful opportunity to make some extra money when traveling for work, and mind you none of the windfall is taxable. I personally use Marriott and Choice. My colleagues (yes, even the boss, who approves my expense reports and would seem to have reason to prefer smaller numbers) mock me mercilessly for “slumming” when it comes to my hotel preferences. But I come from a humble background and to me, it’s really not a huge sacrifice. Why those two chains? Marriott properties are where I most prefer to stay (not too fancy/expensive, but also not too “questionable,” as long as you avoid certain older properties) and the rewards program is decent. So if I’m going to pay for a hotel stay on vacation with points, Marriott is a good, solid option. Choice, on the other hand, has a rewards program that makes it number one for people who want to get PAID – during two parts of the year in particular. And if you travel to the same areas regularly, you figure out pretty quickly which of their properties are fine and which are better avoided, so that aspect of things becomes less of an issue.

The key with Choice is learning the ins and outs of the rewards program. It is clearly designed to offer a lot of potential value while quietly screwing as many people as possible out of much of it. But once you know what you’re doing, it’s pretty easy to deal with. First I’m going to show you just how valuable the program can be. Then I will discuss the pitfalls and how to avoid them. The two parts of the year when I “choose” Choice (sorry) are when two specific promotions are running. Otherwise, I’m at Marriott for the better overall hotel experience.

Right now, Choice is running its “stay two times, get a free night” promotion. It’s not quite as great as it sounds, but it’s close. A typical one night stay (more on the significance of this wording later) will get you about 1000 points (roughly $100 x 10 points per dollar). But during this promotion, two of those 1000 point nights will get you a serious bonus. It gets a little strange here since supposedly you will get 8000 points total but in reality, you get a little more and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to exactly how many. But regardless, you get a minimum of 8000 points for two stays. Now to be fair, that will only get you a night at a select few Choice properties but that’s irrelevant to me because that isn’t how I use the points. I use them to buy Amazon gift cards, which are effectively cash equivalents. And the cost of a $50 Amazon gift card is 16,000 points. Are you one of the eight people who don’t use Amazon? No problem. There are tons of other gift card options as well and I believe they’re all priced the same.

The opposite promotion is twice as good. You still get 8000 points minimum for two one night stays but in addition, some of the gift cards, including Amazon, are discounted to half price – meaning you get a $50 gift card for every other night you stay. The catch here is that the discount only lasts while the promotion is running and if I remember correctly, there is a delay of 48 hours between gift card orders. So you have to stay on top of it or you will get screwed out of some of your bonus. But this can be an incredible moneymaker. Back when I was spending a few nights on the road in a typical week, I was making easily $500+ in Amazon gift cards during the approximately two months a year this promotion ran.

This pair of promotions represents the bulk of the opportunity, but I’m all about maximizing. You can make about an extra $2-10 per stay if you use ebates (www.ebates.com), depending on how much Choice is offering when you make your reservation. On my last stay, it was 10%! Usually it’s at least 2%. Another thing that is easy to overlook is the “Extras” portion. I use it to collect an additional $2.50 Amazon gift card for every stay. There are other “Extras” options but this one is the easiest for me to monetize. Finally, if you use a proper rewards credit card to pay for your stay, you will get even more cash back. I use the Wells Fargo Propel Amex to get 3%. All of these are small on their own but together, they add up to almost $10 per stay (or significantly more depending on the current ebates rate). And other than the $2.50 Amazon gift card, you can also use them at Marriott or most other major hotel chains.

What does this all look like in practice? This week I stayed a night under the “stay two times, get a free night” promotion. For the sake of simplicity, I will round the cost to $100, which is usually pretty close anyway. For my one night stay, I got: $12.50 in the form of enough points to buy a quarter of a $50 Amazon gift card, $10 through ebates, $3 through my Wells Fargo Propel credit card, and an additional $2.50 Amazon gift card through “Extras.” So in total, my $100 stay paid me back $28. If you factor in the vomit inducing amount of taxes I pay on every dollar of earned income, and will not have to pay on this since it falls under that magical “purchase rebate” category, that $28 becomes almost $40. And if this stay had instead been during the opposite promotion, I would have earned half an Amazon gift card instead of a quarter, bringing the total haul to nearly a whopping $60 with taxes factored in!   

How can you keep the clever bastards in Choice’s c-suite from conning you out of your rewards? First, you obviously have to register for a rewards account. But it’s not that simple. The two promotions above require a separate registration each time they run. So when I make any hotel reservation, I always start with the Choice site to make sure one of these promotions isn’t running. If it is, I immediately register and then use only Choice hotels for the duration. Another way they can get you is the difference between “night” and “stay.” The promotions are for “stays,” meaning that if you stay multiple consecutive nights, you have just made a terrible mistake because your multiple nights are only getting you credit for one half of the two “stays” required to earn the bonus (when multiple nights would already have earned you the bonus once and potentially more times, depending on how many there were). I believe the extras (the $2.50 Amazon gift card in my case) run the same way. So make sure you never stay two nights in a row in the same Choice hotel unless you’re ok with halving most of your payoff – and if you’re anything like me, the payoff is the only reason you’re there in the first place.

I will note that as a guy who has been to the top tier of Choice’s rewards level and well beyond, there is very little benefit to doing so. You get some bonus points on top of your regular 1000 but nothing else of value. And for me, that isn’t enough to get my business over a superior Marriott option, which is typically priced only a little bit higher. The money is made with the two major bonus promotions. There are a couple of other promotions throughout the year (for example, one doubles the points you earn from a stay) but there again, they aren’t enough to move the needle for me.

There you have it. You now have the tools to make some serious money off of your hotel stays, especially at Choice properties. Stay tuned because I’m going to post about other ways to put your travel job to work making extra money for you – and no, it’s not anything illegal or underhanded. Happy system gaming and have a great afternoon!

Stop Ignoring the Opportunities in Your Life!

Frequent flooding doesn’t stop some of the brave souls in Houston!

I’d like to start today’s post with an old joke to illustrate a simple, but incredibly important concept.

A man is trapped in his house during a hurricane so he prays to God for help. God answers and promises to spare his life. Not long after, a man drifts by in a boat and offers to rescue him. “No thanks,” he replies, “God is going to take care of me.” So the boat leaves. The water gets higher and the man is forced up to the second floor of his house. Another boat comes by with another offer of help but the man turns it down as well. Finally, the water level gets high enough that the man has no choice but to climb onto his roof. A helicopter hovers over and a voice calls down, once again offering help. But once again, the man turns it down. Soon after, he drowns. Later that day in heaven, the man asks God why he hadn’t come through on his promise to help him. God sighs with frustration and says, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

I was reminded of this joke after dealing with a particularly difficult customer whose business probably won’t survive the year. I’ve seen plenty of other customers go through situations like his and come out better and stronger for the experience. But unless he changes his attitude, he won’t. Where the customers who ultimately succeed see opportunities, even as they struggle through setbacks, he only sees the odds stacked against him. Where members of the first group take responsibility for their situations, learn their lessons, and improve their tactics, he blames anyone except himself for everything that happens. I’ve tried to bring this to his attention in the most delicate manner possible, but I bet you can guess what the response has been.

Admittedly I’m not great at softening my tough love, but in his situation, I’m one of the men in the boats or in the helicopter in the joke. I’m offering him help but it isn’t the help he wants and he assumes other, more preferable help is going to come. Of course, it won’t, and even if it does, it probably won’t be quite the help he wants either. People like this very rarely succeed in the long run. And I’ve learned that once the initial offer of help has been offered and turned down, it isn’t worth losing any sleep over the situation. You can’t help someone who refuses to help himself and you can’t force someone to see an opportunity. If you could, far more people would be successful.

What I’m trying to say is that opportunity doesn’t usually visit us when we prefer, nor does it usually appear in the form we want or expect. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Opportunities are all around us. One of the major differences between those who succeed and those who fail is that some of us see opportunities, grab them, and make the most of them, while others simply complain that they don’t have any opportunities. Obviously most people want to be successful. I would have thought it was everyone at one time in my life but I’ve seen plenty of evidence to the contrary.

So my goal isn’t to help the people with zero ambition or zero personal responsibility. Unless they find at least some of both, I can’t do a thing for them. Instead, I want to help the people who want to be more than they are but simply haven’t figured out how yet. I also want to help people like me who are already successful but want to keep that going and/or increase it. Today, I’m trying to do that by reminding everyone not to be like the man in the joke. If you think you don’t have any options, you’re wrong. Understand that there are people who find options in absolutely any situation and with that in mind, look again. And don’t just look. Opportunities aren’t for ogling. They need to be taken and combined with effort. Only then will they turn into successful results. If you can change the way you think, you will eventually change the results you are getting out of life. I encourage you to be on the lookout for opportunities because they definitely will cross your path whether you spot them or not. It all comes down to who you want to be and only you can answer that.

The Real Reason the Media is Flipping Out About Tax Refunds This Year

You’ve probably seen some of the articles talking about people screaming and stomping their feet because their tax refunds are smaller this year. There have been plenty of them. Unfortunately, a lot of people simply don’t understand how the federal tax system works and the mainstream media, which makes its money by fanning up any potential controversy into a firestorm, is all too happy to spread the ignorance around as usual rather than doing the responsible thing and explaining the reality of the situation. So I guess it falls on my shoulders to put out their fire by spraying it with facts. This is not a political post. My goal is not to change anyone’s opinion about the tax reform package that took effect in 2018. I just want to do my part to combat the apparently widespread ignorance.

Let’s say you go to the store and buy a candy bar for $.75. You pay with a $1 bill and the cashier hands you a quarter. Did you just gain 25 cents? No, you simply overpaid and got the change you had coming to you. That is exactly what happens when you file your tax return. In the case of most people, your employer has been withholding a portion of your pay all year. The tax return is a reconciliation. It determines how much you were legally obligated to pay, compares that to the amount you actually did pay, and either gives you your “change” in the form of a refund if you paid too much, or demands that you pay more if you paid too little. You are not gaining or losing anything except cash flow. And if you’re getting a refund, it’s technically bad news since it means you gave the government an interest free loan for an entire year. If you don’t know why that is a bad thing, google “time value of money” and get ready for the most important lesson you’ve learned in a while. Simply put, it’s how people like me use our money to create more money. It is also how people who don’t understand the principle fall further and further behind. Ignorance does not exempt anyone.

In 2018, most people actually paid less in taxes than in previous years, assuming important factors like income, dependents, etc didn’t change. The main category of people who paid more are people who itemized previously. Roughly 30% did so for the 2017 tax year and that number is expected to drop by about half for 2018. This is because the standard deduction, the alternative mechanism to itemizing, was increased at the same time as certain deductions were limited. But the important point here is that most people paid less.

However, most payroll software (and most employers use the same handful of payroll vendors) updated to account for the changes in 2018. Almost everyone who was getting a tax cut got it spread out over every paycheck – just as they would have if they had gotten a pay raise. It wasn’t a lot; for most people, it was $500 or less over the course of the year. If you’re high income, then it was probably more but also a proportionally small amount. A lot of people probably didn’t even notice their paychecks were $10 or $20 higher. Unfortunately, some of the payroll software was a little more optimistic than it had been in previous years and as a result, many people’s 2018 refunds got smaller. However, this simply means that instead of getting their interest free loans back a few months into the following year, they simply never made them in the first place or made smaller ones. In actual financial terms, that’s a gain.

So why all the howling if the majority of people are paying less in taxes? First off, as I already mentioned, there are a lot of people who don’t understand the situation. And it doesn’t help when the media has no interest in doing anything but amplifying that effect. But aside from ignorance, most people are negligent with their finances. They save little or nothing throughout the year and as a result, their tax refunds are found money in their eyes – and usually found money they’re mentally counting on. This is why car dealerships, furniture stores, and tons of other businesses tend to have tax refund themed sales around this time of year; it is the only time a lot of people will have any money in hand. If you’re in this group, it’s time for some tough love. You’re put yourself in a difficult position and I encourage you to take a good, honest look at what you’re doing with your money. If you don’t know how to do that, ask a wealthy person you know to do it for you and give you some tips. Or email me at admin@healthwealthpower.com. Everyone has to start somewhere and I will be happy to help anyone who is serious about improving.

There are people who legitimately paid higher taxes in 2018 but a lot of the people who are complaining about their refunds are not in this camp. For anyone a tax refund is a big deal to, I encourage you to use this as a wake up call. Keep reading this blog and others like it. Evaluate the way you handle your money and make changes. Even little ones will make a big difference if you’re in rough shape, just like how people who don’t exercise regularly will typically get huge results from just getting started in the gym. Turn a negative into a positive. I’m here willing to help and there are a lot of others like me. But at the end of the day, all the information and advice in the world won’t do an ounce of good if you aren’t honest with yourself and/or don’t make the necessary changes. But regardless of what you do, please stop complaining, particularly when the thing you’re complaining about actually benefited you. It’s not a good look.

Basic Investing: A Roadmap to Getting Started

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa, FL

There is an awful lot of misinformation out there about investing, much of it propagated by people who stand to benefit from leading others astray. Detangling all of it will take time and while I intend to do that on this blog eventually, I want to start with a simple, basic strategy that a lot of people can follow. This strategy will outperform most of the “experts” over time and at a much lower cost than what they will charge you. As a general side note, please remember this; very few people in the media are impartial anymore. Don’t act on any financial advice that is given out publicly without evaluating who the source is and what he or she may have to gain from disseminating it.

Cash is king and that is where you should start. If you don’t have enough on hand to deal with life when it happens to you, it is going to cost you dearly. For example, you can’t pull money out of your 401k very easily (or cheaply) to deal with sudden medical expenses. It is better to have enough cash saved up before sacrificing liquidity in favor of potentially higher returns. A lot of people will tell you to have six months to a year of expenses on hand. I think that is a decent place to start but also that it is a little more nuanced than that. Think about your personal situation. How many incomes are in your household and how many total people? If there are more mouths to feed than sources of income doing so, your cash needs are greater. Conversely, if you have a household of two working partners and no dependents, you can probably get by with somewhat less cash, particularly if your incomes are relatively similar. No matter what you do, keep in mind that the basis for your calculations should be your expenses, not your income. And if you don’t know at least approximately what your monthly expenses are, then you need to go back and start there.

Once you are comfortable with your cash position, you can start investing. I recommend a 401k if your employer offers one. Of course, not all 401k offerings are the same. A good one will include at least some level of employer matching, at least a handful of low cost (expense ratio of no more than .5% and preferably lower) investment options, and a reasonable vesting schedule. Sadly, my current employer fails on that last point with a ridiculous six years to 100%! But I digress. You can put a maximum of $19k a year into a 401k and it will lower your taxable income accordingly. But assuming your MAGI (modified adjusted gross income) is less than $122k, you can also put up to $6k a year into a Roth IRA.

But start by contributing at least enough to your 401k to get the employer match. A typical one seems to be 50% of the first 6% of your salary (in other words, 3% if you contribute 6). From there, you can determine where to go with the excess. In general, a 401k reduces your tax liability today while a Roth IRA reduces your tax liability in retirement. Since your tax rate is very likely lower today than it will be years down the road, there is a solid argument to be made for putting $6k into your Roth IRA and then going back to finish maxing out your 401k. But I would start with some combination of these two, again taking the phase outs based on your income under consideration in the case of the Roth IRA.

What should you invest in with your 401k and Roth IRA money? This is an easy one. Go for low cost index funds that mirror your objectives. If you’re young and you have a long time until you plan to retire, you can afford to be risky so you can go with a heavier stock to bond ratio – as high as 100/0 even. If you’re getting older, you will likely want to move towards the other end of the spectrum. It’s all a matter of risk tolerance but remember, more risk typically produces more reward.

Regardless of the risk you want to take on, this next point is the most important of all on investment choices. Do not let anyone bleed your retirement savings year after year. Actively managed funds almost never outperform index funds over the long term and they are much more expensive. A fee of over .5% will eat up a ton of your money over time. If Vanguard options are available to you, there is a good reason they are the largest mutual fund company on earth. Their funds are the gold standard in providing low cost funds with competitive returns. You would be hard pressed to go wrong if you’re looking at anything of theirs.

What if you’re making less than $122k a year (roughly 90% of people are below that level) and you are already maxing out both your 401k and your Roth IRA or you’re making more than that and doing all you can with those two avenues? First, pat yourself on the back because if you stay on that course and make decent investment decisions, your retirement is more secure than that of almost anyone you know. Now, prepare to have a little fun. With that $25k a year going into your long term retirement funding, you can afford to get aggressive with any excess if you want to. In my case, I do some more conventional stuff and I’ve also started a side business investing in real estate. In your case, the world is your oyster. This is where you may want to talk to a professional if you aren’t sure. I work with both attorneys and a CPA with my business. If you work with a financial advisor/planner, make sure they are fee only. If not, they’re likely to put you in the investments that are most profitable to them while your interests wind up more of a secondary consideration. But you can also just stick with more conventional investment choices like the ones I mentioned for your 401k and Roth IRA if you prefer.

I do want to stress one point, however. Unless you have a fairly large amount available to invest, say at least mid five figures, I would stay away from individual stocks. With less than mid five figures, you simply don’t have enough to be able to diversify adequately. The less diversified you are, the more you are gambling. And consider this; almost no one in the history of mankind has picked stocks well enough to beat the market consistently over time. Do you think you will be one of the handful of counter examples? If not, your best bet is probably to stick to mutual funds for stock market investing.

I think this is enough for now. I kept it very basic because with investing, as with so many things, getting started is most important. And if people feel overwhelmed, it tends to push them in exactly the opposite direction. As always on my posts, if you have any questions, feel free to comment below or email me at admin@healthwealthpower.com.

Buy the Best and Save…Sometimes

Whether very expensive or relatively inexpensive, mindful purchases tend to produce happy results

I have to be honest; I despise the word frugal. Or more accurately, I hate the way people tend to use it. The exact definition is “characterized by or reflecting economy in the use of resources.” According to that definition, I suppose I am frugal – usually. But in order to define me that way, you have to think about that definition accurately. I’ll give you an example. When I was a child in a lower middle class, single parent household, washing the dishes included washing the little plastic lunch bags so they could be reused. I would say Ziploc but I can guarantee you we had the off brand ones. I still feel my blood boiling at the number of my living, breathing moments I spent doing this. The things cost a fucking penny. I don’t care how low anyone is in life; we live in the richest country in the world and even the most hopeless person’s time would be far better spent doing almost anything else. And I will prove it. Assuming the process of washing, rinsing, and eventually putting away takes ten seconds per bag, which is almost certainly an underestimate by half or more, the person doing it is valuing his time (or having it valued for him by someone who didn’t really think it through) at six bags per minute, which ultimately extends to $3.60 per hour when processing $.01 bags. Even a twelve year old can earn more than that delivering papers or mowing lawns. I know because I did both.

What I just described isn’t frugal. It’s insane. But hopefully now some folks I occasionally frustrate will have a slightly better understanding of why it can be difficult for me to spend money at times, even when it would be nothing to me. That scarcity mentality was drilled into me very young and I fight it every day. I legitimately believe it is a form of mental disorder. But anyway, that is an extreme example of the type of ridiculous bullshit people associate with the word frugal. Aside from the occasional extravagance I manage to grant myself as a man who is already on pace to be financially independent well before 40, I do believe in using resources efficiently. The infuriating lunch bag example above is actually the opposite of frugal since there are is an almost infinite number of better ways one’s time could be used.

When used correctly, frugality can make life better. One way is that it allows you to have better quality products. For example, I own a Vitamix blender that cost $500. After nearly six years of daily use, it still works like it did the day I got it, which means it could blend a boot into fine powder if I could fit one in. The thing is probably more powerful than some of those sad, go cart looking hatchback things some people call cars these days (seriously, why?!?). It is still under warranty for the remainder of year seven and that is irrelevant because less than 1% of Vitamix blenders are ever repaired under warranty. I will actually be shocked if it doesn’t last another decade. So what did my $500 get me? It got me a blender that blends a combination of fruits and vegetables into a very drinkable smoothie on a daily basis (and often blends other things as well since I enjoy cooking) in an incredibly efficient manner and will continue doing it long enough that by the time it’s on its way to blender heaven, I will have paid significantly less than a dime per use. There are probably only a handful of blenders on the market that can even do what this one can a single time. Most of the ones I’ve seen take much longer and don’t blend nearly as thoroughly. More time equals more strain on the motor and a shorter lifespan. Plus, more time equals more investment on your part with each use. Believe it or not, there are also blenders even more expensive than the Vitamix. I haven’t done the math and couldn’t without making significant assumptions that would render the exercise pointless, but I would be very surprised if there is another blender that can match the Vitamix in a true apples to apples, dollar to dollar comparison.

Yes, $500 is a lot to spend on a blender. But when you evaluate it holistically rather than on a simple cash flow basis, it was a frugal purchase. The key is to do your homework. For example, I was recently looking to make another “best money can buy” style purchase in the form of a coffee making apparatus. I used that word because for the kind of money that can be spent, I think a fancier word than “maker” or “machine” is necessary. I quickly learned that I could spend well over $1000 for a contraption that ultimately pours hot water through ground beans. And after fairly thorough research, I concluded that I shouldn’t. I couldn’t find a single high end option that didn’t have mixed reviews at best, with most of the bad ones referencing durability issues within only a few years. Apparently it is simply too difficult a task to produce a coffee maker that can match both the quality and durability of my blender. I ultimately ended up spending around $50 total on a solution that is producing great quality coffee and appears that it will do so for a long time to come – a handheld burr grinder and a French press, both in attractive stainless steel that makes them counter worthy. Oh. And an old electric kettle that probably cost $10 ten years ago is also part of the ensemble, although its appearance keeps it relegated to a cupboard. Had I spent 10 or 20 times as much on a setup that had ultimately let me down way too soon, I would have been making a terribly un-frugal decision.

So there you have it. Frugal isn’t quite the dirty word its colloquial use would have you believing. If you do it right, you get the best possible outcome in every situation and ultimately pay less for it, even if you have to put more cash into the deal on the front end. And to save you the analysis on one purchase, go buy the 7000 pack of high quality, Ziploc lunch bags at Costco for maybe ten bucks and don’t ever think about them again. That’s all for now. I have a morning workout to get to and business deals to discuss. Have a lovely day.

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!

The New Checking Account That Will Pay Me $67.50 a Year for a One Time Investment of Ten Minutes

Disclaimer: I am not selling anything, doing affiliate marketing, or any other shenanigans. In no way will I make any money if anyone follows my lead and signs up for the account I describe in this post.

I went into more details on this previously, but for a while now, I have mainly kept my cash in a combination of a credit union checking account and an online savings account. First, it would flow into the checking account from my paychecks and various other sources. I was paid 7.5% on the first $500 in the account and .2% on the rest. Each month, I would pay my bills, transfer some to investments, transfer some to my online savings account, and leave a few thousand in checking. The online savings account paid me a better rate than the .2% I would otherwise have been paid on the balance above $500 left in the checking account and of course the investments paid significantly more (at least most of the time). Today, that online savings account is paying 2.45% and if the FED would stop letting the stock market and our very stock market oriented president intimidate it, that rate would continue to go higher.

Mostly, this is a pretty awesome system. I only keep around $10k of cash on hand (any excess usually gets invested) and of that $10k, the first $500 makes $37.50 a year and the last $6500 makes $159.25 for an average ROI of 2.8% which covers inflation and just a little bit extra – not bad for my emergency/float cash. So what’s the problem? I’m getting crushed on the other $3k I usually keep in my checking account, which makes only .2%. Previously, I had simply lived with this and considered it a small price to pay to have enough cash on hand to deal with any minor to moderate issues that came along. But no mas! Introducing the SoFi Checking Account!

The SoFi Checking Account is a hybrid account with a ton to offer. First and foremost, it pays 2.25%. Second, there are basically no fees of any kind to have to dodge using direct deposit, minimum balances, an absurd number of debit card transactions each month, etc. Third, and this is a big one for some folks, there are no ATM fees – ANYWHERE. There is a little bit of weirdness as SoFi itself is not an actual bank. So it uses partner banks to actually store the money. But not to worry; all of them are FDIC insured, which makes them just as secure as any other US bank.

It’s not every day that I change primary bank accounts but today is one of them! My new setup will be as follows. I will leave $500 sitting in the existing checking account since I’m not about to give up my 7.5% rate on that money. A minimum monthly direct deposit of $250 is required to avoid a monthly maintenance fee so I will deposit that much and then move it into an investment from there on a monthly basis. But the rest of the incoming cash will be destined for this new SoFi account, meaning the $3k average balance will earn me $73.50 per year. Subtract the paltry $6 a year that money was making me before and I’m left with a profit of $67.50. And if the FED gets its head out of its ass and continues its long, slow march back towards responsible currency management, that return is likely to go up rapidly. If it increases its funds rate to a historically normal level, this payoff would more than double!

What did it cost me to get this money? About ten minutes. The account setup process was actually incredibly easy and that took about five. The other five minutes involved printing out the ol’ direct deposit change form, filling it out, and emailing it over to our payroll lady, who is accustomed to getting these from me on a fairly regular basis and I’m quite sure loves me for it. For those ten beautiful minutes, I made a cool $405 an hour! I would work that job 24/7/365 if I could. And every year this account keeps paying out at this rate, or preferably higher, those ten minutes become retroactively that much more valuable. Sweet!

Hello Darkness, My Old “Friend”

The view from the tower at Holy Hill in Richfield, WI – Wisconsin being a land of almost constant darkness in my decades of frustrated experience

Let it never be said that I’m using this blog the way most people use social media –  presenting a highlight reel as if it accurately represented the entirety of my life and there wasn’t even a hint of a struggle anywhere. On the contrary, my struggles are the only reason I have been able to attain the highlight reel moments and the only reason I have been able to enjoy them. Yes, I’m successful in many areas of life and I want to help others attain success of their own. But I believe I would be doing a disservice if I led anyone to believe that success would come without a price or that it would mean an easy life from that day forward. There is no utopia or lasting easiness in life and if you spend your time wishing for it, you will ruin your opportunities to enjoy the happiness that is actually possible.

In a recent post, I mentioned that I’ve dealt with depression for most of my life and that while the situation has improved dramatically, I’ve accepted that the disease will always be a part of me. And as it so happens, I’m contending with it today. It started early yesterday evening during a real estate investing webinar (that is my side business; as it progresses I may write about it here). It had been a very solid day. I wound up crossing literally every item off of my to do list, something that rarely happens because I aim very high. Just about every aspect of the day had gone well. Sure, there are some storms lurking on the horizon for me and yes, a couple of them are almost certain to get very ugly. But this is nothing out of the ordinary in my profession; with great privilege comes great responsibility.

I ended last night the way I always try to. I got to bed reasonably close to on schedule, I hit every point on my checklist, and my last thoughts before I fell asleep were about events of the day I was thankful for. It isn’t uncommon for me to get depressed at night but usually my regular routine, which is designed largely for this purpose, is enough to ensure that I wake up feeling back to normal. But this morning, the depression was still very noticeably present, pressing down on every inch of me like a giant, invisible lead vest. This is far from my first rodeo so I know what usually works. I ignored the feelings and worked through my routine, confident that by the time I finished my morning workout, momentum would have built and pulled me through. But again I was wrong. I had a good, solid workout. No personal records were set but it was a little over an hour very well spent. And yet, I still didn’t feel any better.

At that point, I decided I needed to take the situation more seriously. One of my favorite depression fighting techniques is called a thought record. Basically, it involves systematically pinpointing the thoughts that are causing the depression and weighing the evidence for and against them. Usually, I am able to conclude that the thoughts are not an accurate reflection of reality and disregard them, and usually the negative feelings dissipate pretty quickly. In this case, I put a lot of effort in, but it ultimately became clear that I was already thinking in a balanced way. There are plenty of legitimate concerns in my world right now and I am neither exaggerating, nor minimizing/overlooking them. For anyone who thinks life is easy once you’re doing very well financially, I can tell you that it isn’t. Yes, things get easier financially, although there is a strong diminishing return effect due to the progressive nature of our tax code. But the reality is that you’re being compensated for taking on additional stress. There is a great saying about this; if it was easy, everyone would do it. Only you can determine what makes the most sense for you, but many people choose to have less money and less stress and I’m pretty sure I will turn back in that direction in my own life eventually.

But as I said, I work in a high stress job and this is not new. On any given day, I’m likely to be at odds with customers, dealers, various service providing entities, and maybe most of all, people in my office. Conflict and high pressure comprise the medium in which most of our business gets done. Many people can’t handle it and in fact, my job was only open in this territory because the last man to hold it had a very public nervous breakdown. And that is not uncommon in this line of work; tons of people wash out. But the point is, I’ve learned to handle ongoing conflicts of varying intensity and I can’t remember too many times over the last few years when I’ve had none to speak of. It could be a situation where a long enough duration of fighting has worn me down to the point where I can’t handle any more, but I don’t think so. I don’t feel like I’m in that place or anywhere near it. I’ve been feeling consistently great lately, in fact. So while I can’t rule it out as a cause, I doubt my current bout of depression is coming from this particular source, even if it does appear to be the simplest and most logical explanation.

And that’s where I’m at now. I’m about to head downstairs for my evening cardio and certainly there is a possibility I will feel better after that. But it’s also very possible that I won’t and that it could take me a few more days, or even weeks, to get through this fog. I know a number of things that help me – exercise, fresh air, sunlight, doing the right things and building momentum to truck right through it, analyzing my thought patterns and challenging their logic as objectively as possible, and talking to people I love. I tried most of these methods during the course of today and I will continue to pursue them because the continuation of this particular episode of depression is not a foregone conclusion, like a minimum number of years to be served on a prison sentence. I can break out of this at any moment and at some point in the near future, I will. But sometimes the answers don’t come immediately and rather than present this as a problem that is easy to solve with a systematic approach, I wanted to use my present circumstances as an example of how it can be more complex than that. Just like anything else worth doing, breaking out of depression doesn’t always come easily, even if you have a lot of experience doing it. Be well, my friends.

Awesome Books I Recommend – 2nd Edition

As I’ve mentioned previously, I can’t overstate the importance of continuing your lifelong education. And reading books (or listening to audio books if you don’t like to sit and read) is a great way to contribute to that. Here are my thoughts on a couple of books I’ve enjoyed recently.

Borrow: The American Way of Debt (2012) by Louis Hyman

Full disclosure: I love both history and economics so your mileage may vary on this one. With that out of the way, I loved this book! It chronicles the history of the use of credit in the United States from prior to the Great Depression all the way up until 2012 when it was published. Credit is as old as agriculture (how do procure the necessary equipment, supplies, labor, etc until harvest time when you finally get paid?) and it has played a huge role in the growth of the most powerful economy in the history of mankind to date. Basically, credit to the American economy is PED use to professional athletes. If you use none at all, you’re ordinary and probably unsuccessful. If you use too much, you run into problems – for example, a failed drug test or an early death as a result of your organs more or less crushing your heart against your rib cage until it explodes. But with just the right balance (think vintage Arnold versus today’s bodybuilders), legends are born.

The analogy is mine; I don’t believe this book mentions steroids or even sports for that matter. But it does paint a balanced picture of how credit has both hurt us and benefited us as a nation. It also illustrates the patterns in the way the economy cycles, which can be very valuable knowledge to have. Unfortunately, the author closes it abruptly and in rather shallow fashion with a quick and superficial admonishment about how more government oversight would fix the biggest problems. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his assertion, it’s disappointing to see someone paint such a vivid, thorough picture and then wrap it up like a professor who just realized he’s gone over on his lecture and everyone is getting up to leave. I would have enjoyed seeing him form his argument and present evidence for it but instead he basically just stated it and promptly left the room.

Weak conclusion aside, this was a very worthwhile book to read. It really helped me to round things out and I already had a pretty solid base in both American history and economics. To someone who has neither of those, it would probably be even more helpful. I recommend this book to anyone who has ever heard someone say “back in my day, people would have never dreamed of borrowing money.” You have probably always known deep down that unless that guy stepped out of a time machine before he said that, he was full of shit. But if you read this book, you will have the facts to back it up.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016) by Sebastian Junger

This is a special book that has a lot to say. It was so profound that there were several times when I put the book down and found myself deep in thought about what I had just read and the way it relates to issues in our society today. What’s more, it manages to present its message in an extremely succinct fashion – something the author of this blog could certainly take a lesson on at times! The book is just over a hundred pages and yet, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished it.

If I had to summarize the message of this book, I would say that victory has made us weak. We in the western world have gotten so far beyond the subsistence based existence of most of humanity’s past that we now have obese people with devices containing the entire world’s knowledge in the palm of their hands who genuinely believe they are poor. But in the process of getting here, we have lost sight of something crucial. Today, we are the wealthiest collection of people that has ever existed but we are also much more disconnected from one another than almost any of our ancestors were. Each of us lives an incredibly isolated life by historical standards and the author posits that this is the cause of the epidemic of mental health issues we collectively struggle against. All of this is very well researched and put together.

This book won’t take anyone more than a few hours to read and I promise it will change you in some way. It is for anyone from extreme liberal to extreme conservative and anywhere in between. It explains so much of what we see every day and how we might be able to make this world a better place if we would just pay attention to what is really important. This author has a gift and I would definitely read another book based on nothing more than his name being on the cover.