Take Advantage of the Easy Opportunities

About a week ago at the grocery store, the cashier handed me three coupons. Most of the time coupons are worthless to me. Some have too many contingencies, others are for something I would never buy, and still others are for stores or service providers that aren’t the best options in the first place. But I always take a quick look anyway and it turned out these coupons were amazing. One was $5 off a $30 total purchase, one was $3 off a $5 purchase of produce, and one was for a free pound of ground beef. I could use each one of these and they were for HEB, the best and cheapest grocery store in my area. Not only that, there were zero restrictions of any kind meaning they could all be used together. I barely had to modify my next shopping trip at all to take advantage of the more than $10 HEB had decided to hand me.

That opportunity fell into my lap but not all of them will. Sometimes it takes just a little bit of hunting. For example, when I set up this website earlier this week, I took one extra step before checking out. I googled “wordpress coupon code.” After trying a couple that didn’t work, I happened upon one that did and it saved me around $15. And just today, I got the notice that it’s time to renew the registration on my car. Here in Texas, an inspection is required as part of the process. The state sets the price of this inspection at $25.50 but just for the hell of it, I gave Google a shot at helping out again. Within seconds, I found a coupon for 25% off, saving me over $6 on this useless but mandatory service.

For those who are keeping score, that’s over $30 I’ve saved just this week – all on things I would have paid for anyway. Since I invested a total of no more than five minutes of extra effort in making this happen, that means I was paid more than $360 an hour for my “trouble.” As a bonus, our friends at the IRS haven’t found a way to tax money that isn’t spent yet, although I’m sure they’re working diligently on it. So that brings my hourly pay up to over $600 for these activities.

Taking advantage of opportunities like these may seem obvious and absolutely everyone has them but it’s amazing how many people don’t do so. I bet over half of the people who were handed those same coupons threw them out without even looking at them. I bet the same percentage or more don’t do a quick google check for coupon codes when they’re shopping online. And furthermore, I bet that many of these are the same people who claim they can’t afford to save for retirement or even for a rainy day.

I can easily afford those things and more. But a huge part of what got me here was taking advantage of the opportunities that were either in front of me or easy to find from where I was. I’m not talking about working my ass off to find more customers or to hammer out a deal that is both attractive to someone and profitable for me. I’m not even talking about spending ten minutes gathering up coupons and planning a shopping trip. That is more of a time investment than I am willing to make on that even though I do know people who make an excellent hourly rate doing it. I’m not talking about taking a girl out with a promotion that I have to use right in front of her or something else potentially embarrassing. I’m talking about the six-inch putt, the extra point (before they moved them back in the NFL), the gift that is available to anyone willing to simply unwrap it. I’m still taking advantage of these today and still will long after my net worth crosses from six figures to seven.

Folks, life is hard and sometimes opportunities are scarce or difficult to take advantage of. I’m not saying you shouldn’t fight hard because you are very unlikely to succeed if you don’t. I simply want to remind you not to neglect the easy stuff because it is there for the taking and often more profitable than you might expect.

Everyone Is a Business

You’re probably thinking the title of this post is crazy. I can practically hear you saying “I’m not a business!” In the technical sense, you’re correct. You probably don’t have Inc or LLC after your name. But in the practical sense, you’re wrong. A business is simply an entity that attempts to make a profit from its activities. Do you want to make a profit from your activities? If you don’t, not only are you looking at a rough retirement, you’re looking at a rough present if you ever lose your job or face any unexpected expenses.

Profit is simply the difference between revenue and expenses and if you don’t make any, then your bank account is empty at the end of the month – or worse. As crazy as this sounds, around half of Americans (residents of the richest country on earth) can’t come up with $500 cash to deal with an emergency. And $500 isn’t even much of an emergency. You could easily eclipse that number with something as ordinary as replacing the tires or a moderately expensive repair on your car. An emergency is getting in a serious car accident and winding up in the hospital for a week. Sure, insurance is going to cover the lion’s share if you have it but what about lost wages, deductibles, and other random items you don’t necessarily think about until you’re in the situation? You are almost guaranteed to be out at least a few thousand one way or another in that scenario. And what about a job loss? I’ve never taken unemployment but I’ve never heard anyone say it paid as much as the job it replaced, which means you’re losing money there too. You really don’t have the choice of not being a business; your only choice is whether to be a successful one or a failure. And the failure option is going to be a very difficult, stressful existence.

But not to worry. Being a successful business really isn’t that difficult. Revenue minus expenses equals net income. If net income is positive, your bank account or other assets are growing. If it is negative, you need to make major changes RIGHT NOW.

Once you start thinking about your business, you are already off to a good start. Most people don’t even do that. They just kind of exist and hope everything will work out. The stat I mentioned earlier about the $500 emergency is only one of many that illustrate what an ineffective strategy that is. Revenue is going to be mostly employment income for most people – especially early on. Increasing that is possible but it usually takes time. I’m going to write a post where I talk about as many ways to do that as I can think of at some point so stay tuned. But in the short term, you’re going to have much more success attacking your expenses. I’m going to write tons of posts about ways to do that.

Budgeting works very well even if it is unpopular. I don’t personally do it but that’s because I’m automatic at this point. I have annual targets and monthly targets for everything I do. All of it is in spreadsheet form but most of it is also in the back of my mind all the time. And it translates into me doing things in ways that automatically move me towards my targets. For example, if I go shopping, it is for a particular item or list of items and without even consciously thinking about it, I find the best intersection of price and quality and milk every portion of the transaction. Overall, I likely spend around half of what the average person does for the exact same products and services. You won’t get there overnight and if you aren’t as crazy as I am, it may never happen. But budgeting is very likely to help you move in the right direction if you aren’t already where you want to be.

If you’re ever trying to solve a problem, the first step is to figure out exactly where you stand now. This isn’t fun but keep track of all your expenses for a month – or preferably longer. Excel makes it pretty easy but if you want it to be easier, there are sites like Mint that can probably help. Once you have a month’s worth of data, you can start gleaning information from it. Total all the expenses and then compare that number to your total revenue for the month or whatever other period of time you’re looking at. This is your starting point. Categorize your expenses and you will be able to see where your money is going. Focus on the biggest numbers, look at the specific things you are buying/paying for, and start looking into ways to make the numbers smaller.   

The end goal is to have the biggest possible difference between your total revenue and total expenses. This is the foundation of all financial success. Once you’re achieving it consistently, that difference will start accumulating and you will be ready to start working on putting your money to work for you. This will help you on the revenue side and increase your net income even further. No matter where you are now, you can work on moving in this direction and your situation will at least be improving. And improvement has a way of turning into real results if you can keep making it happen.

Introduction

In the eyes of many people, I am a failure. And worse, a failure by choice. I have a relatively fulfilling career that allows me to live quite comfortably while still saving and investing roughly the median household income of the United States. If that isn’t enough, I’m working on ramping up a fledgling side business that appears to have a reasonable chance to become a high paying, low effort semi-retirement occupation one day. My health is great and my physical fitness level is very high. I make friends and “more than friends” almost at will and have as many treasured relationships as I have time for. I got a good education from good schools and ultimately a world class university, I have wide ranging interests, and since I love to learn, my knowledge base is always growing. I am happy and healthy in almost every way someone could be and I do what I can to give back and make the world a little better place to live in.

So how am I a failure? In the “survival of the fittest” sense. I will never reproduce and thus, my exact set of genes will not be passed on to the next generation. Or from a more common perspective, my life will always be missing that fundamental checklist item; you know – a loving spouse, a house with a white picket fence, 2.5 children, a dog, a boat…

I don’t hate children or anything. I simply don’t want any of my own. As expensive as they are, I could certainly afford them so that isn’t my reason. There are plenty of other drawbacks in my view but again, no one is my reason to opt out. I won’t do it because it is an all or nothing decision. Children aren’t like a favorite board game you can take out and play with when you want to and then put it back on the shelf until next time. They are there 24/7/365 until the day either you die or they do. By deciding not to have them, I am simply being honest about the fact that there is absolutely nothing on earth I want to do THAT much. So I feel I owe it to myself, my unborn children, and the world they would inhabit, to not reproduce given my strong reluctance to make this most serious of commitments. After all, we have more than enough half assed parents in this world. If you don’t believe me, just turn on the news and watch for as long as you can stand to.

But just because I don’t want to go all in on reproduction, that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to contribute. One aspect of having kids I acknowledge I will miss out on is the opportunity to pass on my knowledge and experience in an effort to help someone grow up and become a worthwhile human being. And one day while we were talking, a good friend told me I should start a blog. I told him that’s become such a cliché and no one would read it. But he told me he would and that’s good enough for me. And it brings this introduction full circle. By doing this, I hope some folks will consider me less of a failure since I will be passing on the most valuable part of myself to anyone willing to read it. Just kidding. I don’t care what other people think of me. And you shouldn’t either. It is very difficult to be happy or successful that way. And that is as good a first lesson as any.

So anyway, why should you read this? I can’t answer that since only you are qualified to make decisions about how you spend your time. Are you sensing a theme yet? But to help inform that decision, here is a little about what you can expect to read here. I am a finance man by trade and most of what I write will be about that area of life either directly or indirectly. I consider myself a financial hacker in that I evaluate everything myself and reject anything that does not pass my standard of optimum. If you want to get rich, I can certainly give you the information you need to do it. Of course that information is widely available already and without adding time, effort, and capability to the equation, you will accomplish little with it. I enjoy sports, cars, women, several types of art, and learning about all sorts of things so I will probably work a little of everything in. But in general, I’m going to write whatever the hell I want about whatever the hell I want. Read it or don’t.


One disclaimer. I believe in tough love. I want to help people but coddling is rarely the way to do it. Usually if someone needs help, it is because there are changes that need to be made. If you want coddling, go talk to your mom. This blog is for people who want to do very well in life and understand that like anything else, that has a cost. Those who want to be comfortable at all times should re-evaluate that desire as it is very unlikely to lead to any form of success.