Of Coupon Codes and Meaning in Life

Karl Marx believed history was shaped by an overarching dialectic—an enduring conflict between the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production and the proletariat who were stuck selling their labor to the capitalist class. I have my own overarching dialectic that I believe shapes family life, religious communities, municipalities, and even nation-states—an enduring conflict between our material and spiritual selves.

In the simplest terms, it’s a battle between our preoccupation with consumer goods that make our lives more convenient and comfortable versus prioritizing family, friends, those in need, and the ethical stewardship our finite natural resources.

My material self routinely gets the better of my spiritual self. I spend too much time shopping online and I recently I purchased an iPhone 6+ and a new car. But I suspect I’m different than a lot of consumers because I’m keenly aware of the battle that rages inside me. I also live well below my means and know my phone and car, as nice as they are, can’t hold a candle to the joy and meaning my wife, family, friends, students, and writing provide.

How ironic that this time of year is marked by numerous sacred religious traditions and we’re more susceptible than ever to mindless materialism. Consumerism trumps contemplation. This manifests itself in many ways, stampeding store customers have to be the most jarring (the increased popularity of online shopping appears to be dampening that phenomenon).

This weekend in Seattle, The Gap and a few other stores were having a “50% off everything in the store” sale. Which got me thinking about a grand experiment in which all of downtown Seattle businesses had simultaneous “100% off everything in the store” sales. Their motto might be, “This stuff was really ill-conceived and is poorly made, ugly, and of no real use, so please, please take it off our hands.” Tens of thousands would jump in their cars and speed downtown, park haphazardly, and run towards the stores with eyes ablaze.

Free man, free! Nevermind that they’d have no real need for the stuff falling out of their overfilled shopping carts. Free man! Nevermind that they wouldn’t have enough room in their dresser drawers, closets, or garages for the stuff. Free! Nevermind that the stuff wouldn’t fill those empty spaces in their lives created by superficial or strained relationships with others.

My spiritual self has convinced my material self to sit out the mania this December. Join me. Help me tilt the balance from the material to the spiritual.

Life After Work

As is often the case, I’m confused. One day last week Ron Lieber, a Times blogger, summarized research from The Journal of Consumer Research that finds older people often draw as much happiness from ordinary experiences—like a library visit or an afternoon spent gardening—as they do from extraordinary ones. Then, on the same day, with stories of extended trips to exotic locations, the Times David Wallis’s published a contradictory article titled, “Increasingly, Retirees Dump Their Possessions and Hit the Road”.

Wallis writes that between 1993 and 2012, the percentage of retirees traveling abroad rose to 13 percent from 9.7 percent and about 360,000 Americans received Social Security benefits at foreign addresses in 2013, about 48 percent more than 10 years earlier. Wallis illustrates this trend through examples of people like Lynne Martin, 73, a retired publicist and the author of “Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World”:

Three years ago, Martin and her husband sold their three-bedroom house in Paso Robles, Calif., gave away most of their possessions, found a home for their Jack Russell terrier, Sparky, and now live in short-term vacation rentals they usually find through HomeAway.com. The Martins have not tapped their savings during their travels, alternating visits to expensive cities like London with more reasonable destinations like Lisbon. “We simply traded the money we were spending for overhead on a house and garden in California for a life in much smaller but comfortable HomeAway rentals in more interesting places,” Ms. Martin said by email from Paris.

Another couple in the late 60s sold their house, bought a Recreational Vehicle, and started volunteering full time for two nonprofits. So far, they’ve repaired damaged homes in 28 different states.

One of the older vagabonds, or Wallis’s term is better, itinerant baby boomers (IBB), said, “I used to dream about all the places I would go as soon as I was old enough to get away. But then. . . life happened.” That’s probably the key variable, whether older people have pent-up wanderlust.

Wallis explains that many IBB’s are traveling on the cheap, volunteering for nonprofits and organic farms in exchange for room and board or finding free places to stay through Couchsurfing.org which puts its membership of people 50 and older at about 250,000. Given the manner in which most retirees are traveling, maybe the two pieces aren’t completely antithetical after all.

The common thread is that retirees are choosing experiences over material possessions. Listen carefully everyone under 50 and you’ll hear the collective, “Ah shit, why did we accumulate all this crap?!” Personal finance researchers tell us one-third of seniors have nothing saved for retirement. It’s a good thing ordinary experiences prove so fulfilling in later life.

Both pieces were short so an important subtopic was left out, just how similarly retired partners think about how to spend the last chapters of their shared lives. I know many couples think differently about their idealized post-work lives. What to do when one person wants to see the world, and the other, the backyard?

I’m the opposite of the IBB who dreamed about all the places to go. I’ve been very, very fortunate to travel and live all over the U.S. and on three different continents. Don’t tell the Good Wife, but I’m content to walk, swim, run, cycle, and drive throughout our hood, our state, and the Western United States and Canada. She wants to travel to Spanish speaking countries so I should probably renew my passport. I will take one or two or three long distance trips for the team. But I’d be just as content taking the labradude for a walk in the woods.

 

 

 

 

 

What People Get Wrong About Financial Literacy

Every spring a friend in North Carolina and I have a NCAA college basketball tournament bet. He takes the teams representing the Atlantic Coast Conference and I get those representing the Pacific-12. If his teams win more games, I send him a t-shirt, if mine win more, I anxiously await my cotton trophy. This year, neither conference did well, but I barely won a stylish long sleeve Guilford College tee*.

We met teaching and playing noon basketball at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the 90s. This year, along with the shirt(s—one for the Good Wife too, and a coffee mug, Christmas in April), he included four copies of recent Guilfordians, the liberal, liberal arts school’s student paper.

Reading them made it seem like time had stood still. Faculty salaries were still the lowest among a large comparison group of peers. Enrollment was down. Faculty morale was flagging. Some well-liked faculty were leaving to the disappointment of students. Students were protesting the administration’s salaries, which had increased markedly, and were at least average among the same comparison group. Tucked in one of the articles was a devastating detail that will make the new president’s job especially difficult. The small Quaker school has $16m in deferred maintenance. They budget $1.8m a year for continuing maintenance, meaning they’re eight years behind. Some students complained about mold in the dorms.

Colleges on the financial edge routinely defer maintenance. “Let’s delay the roof on the science lab another year.” Eventually, the quality of life for students and faculty suffers, and as with mounting credit card debt, the financial challenges multiply and trustees fret they’ll never catch up. Public schools, churches, and city council’s everywhere face the exact same challenge. Can we manage our finite revenue—whether bonds or levees, charitable contributions, or taxes—well enough to maintain our existing buildings, roadways, and parks? If you want to assess the health of a school district, church, or city, find out how much maintenance they have deferred.

We’re fortunate that our Washington State home backs up to beautiful woods that we’ve enjoyed for sixteen years. In the woods there are hiking and running trails, deer, owls, and a path to a nice city park. Now the woods are for sale and three different developers are interested. Many in our community who have organized to save the woods from being turned into another housing development attended the City Council meeting last week to implore the Council to follow through on their own five-year plan for creating more park space.

The organizing committee has done great work thinking creatively about grants and related funding that makes the purchase seem feasible. imgres But the city has been deferring maintenance on our existing parks. One includes a nice boardwalk along the Puget Sound, a walkway so neglected, parts of it will be closed to the public this summer. While sympathetic to our arguments, the city manager and council both regretted that the city can’t afford to purchase and preserve the woods because they’ve deferred far too much maintenance.

It’s human nature to put off saving for future expenses. Just like colleges, school districts, and churches, I do it all the time too. I replace my nicked up bicycle tires after flatting a few times. I get my lawn mower tuned up when it won’t start. I go to the doctor when I’m near death.

I talked to the college senior recently about car ownership. Most twenty-one year olds think exclusively about the purchase price, “If I can just save $5k for that $5k car.” I impressed on her the need for a “cushion” for additional costs like insurance, gas, and regular maintenance including oil changes, the battery, and tires. In an ideal world, she’d also factor in replacement costs, but that’s pie in the sky. Once I broadened her thinking about car ownership, she realized it’s not financially feasible yet.**

Most financial literacy talk is seriously flawed. Everyone overemphasizes technical knowledge. Do you know the “rule of 72”? Do you understand the power of compounding interest? Do you understand asset allocation, mutual funds, investing costs, dollar cost averaging, and taxes impact on your returns?

People think if schools just taught that knowledge all would be well, but it’s not that people don’t know enough about personal finance, it’s that they lack the self-discipline to spend less than they earn. Including legions of college educated people who would pass a personal finance multiple-choice test.

Schools can’t teach young people to defer purchases, to set aside money to adequately maintain and eventually replace possessions, to live within one’s means. The only way to teach anyone the limits of consumerism, to delay gratification, the importance of savings, and how to live within one’s means, is to model it for them over time.

Fortunately, my parents, especially my dad, taught me those habits without ever sitting me down for any sort of money talk. For colleges, churches, cities, and families, “deferred maintenance” means “We’re in the habit of spending more than we have.” Like mounting interest charges, it ties the hands of college administrators, church councils, city councils, and families.

We are extremely fortunate to be able to meet our family’s basic needs each month with some money left over. We can do one of three things with our surplus. 1) Succumb to status anxiety and buy unnecessary luxury items; 2) Keep existential questions about life’s larger purposes at bay through mindless consumerism; or 3) Set some of the surplus aside for anticipated future expenses.

* During graduate school, my friend was a UC Santa Cruz hippie. The UC Santa Cruz mascot is the banana slug. Second Born and I had lunch in downtown Santa Cruz in late January. After lunch we found a must have t-shirt that featured a large banana slug with the caption “SLUG LIFE”. The perfect gift for my next loss. So good in fact we decided I had to send it this year win or lose. He was very grateful and assured us he’ll get a lot of grief for it from his Geezer basketball pals. That, of course, was our hope.

** Odd to me that she’s not more motivated to make it financially feasible. At eighteen, I couldn’t wait to own my own car. So I parked golf carts and picked up range balls for a few years and bought a VW Bug for $1,500. Most gratifying purchase of all time. For the time being at least, in keeping with her peers, she’s perfectly content to bicycle, use public transportation, or, and maybe this is the problem, use her parents spare car.

Expanding Minimalism’s Reach

If our government’s closed, why are politicians still appearing on my television? I guess once you get in the habit of working really hard for what’s in the best interest of the people, you just can’t stop.

On Fox News I learned the shutdown’s Obama’s fault. Their refrain is “the American people don’t wan’t ObamaCare.” Guess I don’t count. At times like this, all you can do is watch Saturday Night Live.

My vote for most interesting Affordable Care Act article of the recent past, “An Overlooked Obamacare Flaw: Too Many Choices“. The gist of it:

. .  .the typical family will be able to choose from 53 health plans, on average, with a few states, including Florida and Arizona, offering more than 100. “There’s no way people are going to be able to make optimal decisions, except by luck,” says Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore University and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. “If you have 40 or 50 insurance possibilities, there will be less uptake and people will make bad decisions.”

The seminal study of excessive choice was a 2000 paper recounting an experiment at a California grocery store in which two tasting tables were set up side-by-side: one offering samples of six jams, the other offering samples of 24. The “extensive” selection of jams attracted more shoppers than the “limited” selection. But only 3% of the extensive samplers made a purchase after tasting. Of those who sampled from the limited selection, 30% made a purchase.

“An extensive array of options can at first seem highly appealing to consumers,” the researchers concluded, “yet can reduce their subsequent motivation to purchase the product.” Too much choice, they found, can be “demotivating” and leave shoppers confused.

The same dynamic applies to decisions in which a lot more is at stake than deciding what to spread on your toast. After the government passed the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit in 2003, seniors suddenly could choose from dozens of plans that would help lower their prescription drug costs. But many found the offerings so confusing they didn’t sign up, while others mistakenly chose a plan that didn’t lower their costs nearly as much as it could have.

“Decision quality deteriorates as the number of plans increases,” one study reported.

Minimalists focus almost exclusively on decluttering tangible items that often overwhelm—clothes in closets, papers in file cabinets, everything in garages—while ignoring the less tangible, but equally cluttered areas of our lives.

We’re not just overwhelmed by our mindless consumerism and the trail of material possessions that results from it, we’re overwhelmed by a steady torrent of stimuli—whether it’s hundreds of insurance plans, emails, interpersonal interactions, television channels, or advertisements.

Advanced minimalism is the art of narrowing one’s focus and decluttering one’s mind by consciously setting limits. For example, I allow myself to read ten blogs at any given time. That means if you send me a link to your mind blowing blog, I’ll have to decide whether it deserves more of my limited attention than one of my current ten. In the same spirit, I recently deleted some television channels that were more popular with the birdies before they flew the coup.

Social science suggests that if consumers had ten insurance plans to choose among, they’d be much better off. Less is almost always more. This was, in large part, Steve Jobs’ genius—off-the-charts focus. Once he shrunk Apple’s product line, customers weren’t confused, sales caught fire, and the company quickly rebounded.

Another way to impose limits is to lean on others for help. Some of the most popular websites on-line help citizens and consumers narrow their choices to a more manageable level. For example, for bibliophiles, there’s FiveBooks. And for people who want to manage their time better and be more productive there’s Lifehacker. And for consumers overwhelmed by Amazon.com, there’s The Sweethome and The Wirecutter.

My aim is different than the people who write for Lifehacker. They want to help readers get more done. My question to them is, for what purposes? Set limits on stimuli that tend to overwhelm to think about larger life purposes. If we just let any and all email, media images, and the cacophony of modern life wash over us, we’ll live day-to-day without any sense of purpose.

Minimalism must be about more than cleaning out garages. Our goal should be to create silent spaces in our lives, and from them, purpose.

Embrace the Waste

I love that about a quarter of PressingPause’s readers are from outside the United States. Hard to know of course if they’re ex patriot readers, or as I assume, genuine article foreign nationals. The contents of this post will most likely strike them as odd. Especially those with no firsthand experience of living in the United States.

Americans are unusually productive and wasteful. We work hard Monday through Friday and then buy lots of things on Saturday and Sunday that we don’t need. Yin and Yang. Over and over. As a result, our homes, no matter the size, get filled up with all sorts of ridiculous stuff. By which I mean The Magic Bullet. The technical term is clutter.

Given this national characteristic, many moons ago, a tradition was born in the U.S. The garage sale. A garage sale is when a family spreads out all of their leftover, unused stuff in front of their home and offers it for sale to anyone that’s interested. Our neighborhood designates the first Saturday in June to be a “neighborhood garage sale”. Too bad you missed ours or you could have bought a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory DVD; some unused, unopened 10w-30 motor oil; or an outdoor umbrella real cheap. Since my family is more frugal than most, we don’t normally participate. But this year I decided it was time to do some “thinning” of our worldly possessions since it’s been a long time and the youngest is getting ready to depart for college. It was especially fun to partner with her.

American wastefulness is often stomach turning, but Saturday during our garage sale, I realized it also provides opportunities. The sociologist in me loved the garage sale. For four hours I talked to a cross-section of society that I almost never get to. Many were first generation Americans smartly taking advantage of multi-generational American waste. For many it was a weekend ritual that they took very seriously.

Rule one, show up early. If the newspaper advert and signs say 8:00 a.m., start cruising the hood at 7:30 a.m. That way you might just luck into a free wheelbarrow or a nice $20 edger. Remember, the good stuff goes fast. My favorite part of the morning was foreign speaking customers who appeared to be just getting going in the U.S. using their smart phones to research prices.

If you have the time, join the garage sale masses. There are excellent bargains all around. Just make a list of things you need first or you’ll soon find yourself on the selling end.

In the U.S., people routinely fill up their garages so that they have to park their cars elsewhere. And sometimes, the garage isn’t nearly big enough for all of their stuff, let alone their cars. When that happens, people rent a second garage in a storage facility. Thus, if you have a lot more capital than time, invest in a storage facility.

A shiny new one recently opened near us and every time I drive by it I think to myself, “Damn. That’s the perfect investment.” Americans’ waste knows no bounds. You can bet on it. And invest in it. And profit from it. Especially where there’s population growth. Simple to build, storage facilities require little overhead. Unlike a rented house, no one is every going to call you at 1 a.m. to complain that the toilet is clogged again. There may be downsides to the investment, but I don’t want to know them. My ignorance makes me blissful.

Do not try to talk me out of it. I’m taking the $160 I made this weekend, embracing the waste, and going all in on another storage facility. I probably need other investors to buy the needed land. Care to join me?

The Best Get Rich Scheme You’ll Read About All Day

Huffington Post-like tabloid headline alert. By “best” I mean “only”, by “get rich” I mean have a little more money leftover at the end of the month, and by “scheme” I mean partner with your neighbor-friends to buy in bulk.

The Byrnes family likes them some guacamole. Avocados are usually $1.50 at the local grocery store, but are sometimes on sale for 99 cents. At Costco, six are $4.99. I believe in slow-mo, one 83 cent avocado at a time, financial improvement.

The problem of course is eating them before they go bad. One Costco shopper offered this tip in an on-line forum, “My technique is to put the newly purchased bag in the fridge for a week, and then take out one avocado and put it on the counter and keep a close eye on it. As soon as it feels a bit soft I use it up and take out another avocado. I’m surprised at how well this works for me.”

Overtime, buying avocados and many other consumer goods in bulk can lead to serious savings, but if you’re one or two people, or even a smallish family, avoiding waste is always a challenge. Which makes me wonder, why don’t individuals, couples, and/or families form informal neighborhood-based cooperatives to buy things much more cheaply in bulk? For example, someone buys two gallons of milk, six avocados, and a case of beer at Costco and walks over to their neighbors and gives them one gallon of milk, three avocados, and twelve bottles of beer for a few dollars savings.

Not a life-changing transaction, but it illustrates the concept. The key of course, is scaling the bulk buying up, and thereby, extending the savings.

There are a few imminently surmountable reasons for why this networking isn’t more common. People may not have close friends near by. Or people may have nearby friends, but be hesitant to buck the deep-seated individualism that’s ingrained in American life. Can we come together on which beer? Or maybe people don’t feel it’s worth taking non-working time to coordinate group Costco runs. Or like a solo car commuter whose resistant to join a carpool, maybe people don’t want to give up the freedom to shop on their own schedules.

It’s ironic that people’s wages aren’t keeping up with inflation and we’re living in the midst of a social media revolution and we don’t partner up more often to buy in bulk. Maybe necessity is the mother of invention. Maybe as young, tech savvy people struggle to achieve economic independence, informal bulk-buying neighborhood cooperatives will naturally bubble up.

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Green goodness

The Problem with the Simple Living Movement

The high priests and priestesses of minimalism don’t know it, but they have a problem. They’re seriously disliked by the majority of people who are struggling to get by. Ordinary people deeply resent the “voluntary” nature of most high-profile minimalists who write about the joys of downsizing on their numerous blogs, or for the New York Times, or Sunset Magazine.

Take for example how Graham Hill starts his New York Times essay titled “Living With Less. A Lot Less.” 

I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.

I have come a long way from the life I had in the late ’90s, when, flush with cash from an Internet start-up sale, I had a giant house crammed with stuff — electronics and cars and appliances and gadgets.

Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me. My circumstances are unusual (not everyone gets an Internet windfall before turning 30), but my relationship with material things isn’t.

Half way into Hill’s story, I started to guess at the vibe of the 329 comments already posted. As David Brooks can confirm, New York Times readers are an unhappy bunch. Hill probably wanted praise, but I’ve seen this car crash enough times to know how it transpires. A lot of readers tore into him. Like Michelle from Chicago:

There is a big difference between choosing minimalism and minimalism being a harsh aspect of daily life. At any moment, Mr. Hill could choose to buy more things. If one of his 6 dress shirts rips, he can simply buy a new one. It’s a far cry from a minimum wage worker who has this lifestyle by default, because there isn’t money to rent a larger apartment or money to replace a torn shirt.

The sad fact of the matter is the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is so great the “have nots” are unable to give any credit to the “haves” for living below their considerable means. I believe Hill and others like him deserve credit for their thoughtful and principled simplicity, but it’s naive for him, for me, for anyone to expect those trying to live month-to-month to cheer well-to-do minimalists for critiquing conspicuous consumption.

I was mindful of this dynamic when commenting on a blog recently. I was responding to a post about the recent highs in the stock market. I wrote that many people are starting to invest in stocks which means it might be a good time to take some profits. And then consciously added, “for those fortunate enough to have them.” If I hadn’t added that phrase, my comment would’ve prompted other replies of the “who has profits these days” variety.

Where does this leave Hill, myself, and many other minimalists who recommend voluntary simplicity? Can it be done without offending? Probably not. Which makes me think maybe we should stop writing about it altogether. Maybe we should just live it and wait to see if anyone asks, “What gives? Why do you live the way you do? Why such a small apartment? Why so few possessions? Why don’t you ever check bags when flying?”

Someone now leave the obvious comment. Nevermind, I’ll do it myself. “What the hell Ron, why do you assume people can afford to fly?”