Go Ahead, Refashion The World In Your Image

“I don’t shop at Walmart,” the lefty bumper sticker proudly proclaims. Congratulations I sarcastically think to myself, wake me when you convince ten working class families to do the same.

Similarly, I suppose, I deserve congratulations for having dropped my ballot in the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church ballot box last week, but I’d be far more impressed with myself if I convinced another person, or group of people, to vote the way I did.

Whether shopping or voting, I am one drop in ginormous buckets, but what if I tilt the buckets through persuading others to shop, vote, and think more like me? Easier said than done though, because to varying degrees, we’re all engaged in the art of persuasion.

Why are we so intent on getting others to shop, vote, think, and be like us? Because we’re so insecure? If that’s even partially correct, why are we so insecure? As long as I feel good about my daily decision making, why should I care whether others think and act similarly? Fortunately, we’re all different; consequently, what works for me, may not as well for others. And vice-versa. I want the autonomy to decide things mostly by myself, so why my impulse to influence others’ decision-making? Isn’t that a contradiction?

The ecologically minded among us would rightly say because the planet’s future depends upon it. But that reality doesn’t justify projecting all of our myriad beliefs upon others does it? It’s difficult to project our beliefs upon others without a certain arrogance that we know better than you where to shop, who to vote for, what lifestyle is best.

As I touched upon recently, the FIRE—Financial Independence Retire Early—Movement is having a moment. One of the main advocates is Pete Adeney who recently wrote a blog post titled “What Everybody is Getting Wrong About FIRE.” 

To which I wrote as a comment on his blog:

“. . . I don’t understand something fundamental to your thinking. Who cares? That Suze Orman and others hate the FIRE movement? That lots of people are critical of aspects of the Financial Independence Movement? That misperceptions abound? How do inaccuracies or flat out negativity effect you or other adherents of simple living? More generally, apart from the serious, negative ecological consequences of mindless materialism; who cares if someone chooses a long commute to a corporate cubicle? The stridency—everyone can and should follow our example to live better lives—almost harkens of evangelical Christianity. Or intense political partisanship—if only everyone was a Democrat or Republican like me. Every time I walk into the weight room, I see people with scary bad form, but that doesn’t mean I give them unsolicited advice on what to do differently to avoid injury. I totally get sitting around talking in-depth with close friends who are interested in all things financial independence, it’s the caring about what other people think and the proselytizing to the masses I don’t get.”

To which Adeney took issue in this return-of-serve:

“Do you really have to ask why I care about our society’s perception and adoption of these ideas I’m sharing?

I want them to SPREAD, and spread quickly. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

I care, because every bit of pollution and pointless inefficiency and unhappiness hurts all of us. And the solution is so obvious and easy.

My own problems and those of my close friends are already solved. Once you have your own shit set up nicely, it’s a pretty natural instinct to turn outwards and try to help others. And it’s also hella rewarding.”

To which I replied a second time:

“No offense meant, but I do. Concern about pollution is admirable; but ‘efficiency’ and ‘happiness’ are relative terms. That’s why social scientists use the term ‘subjective well being’. If the ideas were truly ‘obvious and easy’ financially independent minimalists wouldn’t be a distinct minority.”

To which another reader replied:

“Maybe you SHOULD help your fellow lifters out with unsolicited advice, before they blow out a knee or herniate a disc. They might even be grateful for your thoughtful intervention (like I am economically, with this particular blog here.)”

Adeney is beloved by his millions of readers, so I’ll always get pillared for daring to do anything but completely agree with him. His blog’s comment section, an echo chamber, is boring, but I digress.

In some ways, the weight room hypothetical is the heart of the matter. There is a middle ground, an alternative to my decision to not offer unsolicited advice and the reader’s suggestion to do exactly the opposite. And that is to offer a compelling enough example—through specialized knowledge, kindness, and care that eventually, some people will ASK for input.

  • How can I improve my finances? How can I save more? How should I invest?
  • How can I build strength without injuring myself? How should I train for a marathon?
  • What do you think about Candidate X? Initiative Y? Why?

Go forth and set compelling examples. And refashion the world in your image one inquisitive person at a time.

My “Forever 21” Test

I passed. In the same way I probably passed that economics class at UCLA that I changed to “pass/no pass” after bombing the first test. In a “C+” kind of way.

Last weekend was the annual Byrnes family downtown Seattle pre-Xmas overnight. Sixteen, Nineteen, their mother, and yours truly, playing the token male.

Historically this trip has been the Thanksgiving/Seattle Marathon weekend, but this year we had to wait for Nineteen to return home from college. Normally I use tapering as an excuse to spend the night frozen on the hotel bed watching football and basketball while the three of them do American Eagle, Forever 21, and [insert the name of a female shopping goddess here] only knows what other stores.

This year, with no race to run Sunday morning, I couldn’t use my normal tapering “get out of shopping” card. So I talked myself into going along in the interest of “family time”. I’d rather get a root canal without anesthesia or be the guy in the Tour de France that got flipped over the barbed wire by the reckless driver than watch two young women shop, even my favorite two young women. I decided to approach it as an endurance test, a gender test, a mental toughness test, a selflessness test.

Store one, Forever 21. I asked where Forever 51 was which elicited smiles. Men, the most important thing to know about Forever 21 is it’s inexpensive. If you want to get back at a lady friend that did you wrong, pick her up something there. The ten minutes of watching blonde one and two round up clothes to try on was tougher than expected, but then they disappeared into the changing room and time came to a complete stop. European finance ministers would solve the Euro crisis for good if they committed an equivalent amount of time.

I had prepared for a warm 10k, but was instead running a marathon in Tampa Florida in the middle of a summer afternoon. Totally out of my league. The wife with the bad wheel found a chair to spend the rest of her 51st year in. Losing my mind, I decided to entertain her by dancing to the incessant techno Christmas music. The more she smiled and laughed, the bolder I got, the bolder I got the more she smiled and laughed. In the end, it was probably twice as bad as you’re imagining.

Finally, I sent the wife in after them wondering if they had been abducted. She reported that they’d be ready in “five minutes” which turned into what felt like five hours. Finally, ready to go, but wait, turns out there’s this strange tradition of putting at least one article of clothing on hold. Kind of like throwing a coin in a fountain. This is so you don’t actually have to decide. Turns out you never go back for it, it’s just a game that everyone, shopper and store employee both enjoy playing.

On the way out, the following mind numbing “straw that broke my back” dialogue took place: One xx, “What’s with ponchos, seems like they’re making a comeback?” Another xx, “Oh no, they’re all the way back.” Still another, “Correction, they’re trying to make it back.”

Please make it stop hurting.

Once on 6th Avenue I breathed in the cold fresh air and slowly recovered. Like anyone who had to fight a young Mike Tyson, I knew I was whupped. One round was all I lasted.

As I collapsed on the bed in the gloriously silent unoccupied room I couldn’t help but think how this family tradition would differ if we had two sons. This is all I know for sure. We wouldn’t speak of ponchos, we’d race go-carts, we’d wrestle, and we’d fall asleep watching Hoosiers.

Everything Free Day

Two weeks ago Megan McArdle reviewed a few books on consumption. Early in the review she reveals she recently bought a $1,500 food processor. Who knew one could drop 1.5 large on a food processor?

The Saturday morning after Black Friday my betrothed filled me in on the L.A. shopper who pepper-sprayed several other X-box shopper-competitors before fleeing the scene. The good news is I don’t think anyone was trampled to death in Toys R’ Us this year. On Black Friday I subscribed to consumerreports.org in the a.m. and then spent a chunk of the p.m. shopping for new kitchen appliances at home in my pepper spray-free environment.

I spent part of Thanksgiving Day shopping too. Well, kind of. While watching Ndamukong Suh stomp on a Packer o-lineman, I blew through 90% of the 90 lbs. of newspaper ad inserts. Took everything the labradude had to drag that bad boy to the front door. Who knew Wal-Mart sells decent looking jeans for $10? And a decent Timex Ironman-brand watch for $10? Maybe they won’t stop stomping their suppliers until they can sell everything for $10 or less.

Remember the crazy shopping spree marketing prizes in the 70’s or 80’s? Some lucky winner would get an hour in a grocery store and they’d sprint up and down the aisle frantically loading a few baskets with a little of everything? And we’d watch imagining how much faster we’d go or how we’d be more strategic and target the most expensive goods that take up the least space.

What if Black Friday was “National Reduce Inventory” day and everything was free? Nothing sold out, no servers crashed, perfect availability. What would you have brought home? What about those you live with? Where/how would you have stored everything? How would those new possessions have changed your life? Would you be much happier?

At minimum, I would have ordered a few new kitchen appliances and brought home some of Costco’s most expensive vino, a new bicycle computer, and a McArdle food processor in a new Seal Gray 2012 Porsche 911. Initially at least, I would have been much happier. Among other ripple effects though, I’d have to work more hours to pay for more expensive car insurance and maintenance costs and over the course of a few weeks, months, and years, I probably wouldn’t be any happier at all.

I don’t assume what’s true for me is true for you, but I’m learning the things that make me happiest—friendship, good health, film, literature, exercising in natural settings, writing this blog, helping others—can’t be purchased in a store or ordered on-line. I could spend tons of time and energy shopping in stores and on-line at this time of year, brag about my good bargains, but not improve the quality of my life.

If there’s ever a time of the year for reflecting on this dynamic it’s now. The thrill of even great purchases quickly fades so invest time and energy in the people and things that bring lasting joy.

Related Graham Hill TED Talk titled “Less Stuff, More Happiness”.

Winning Personal Finance 2

I’ve been successful for several reasons: 1) most importantly, my parents’ work ethic, saving habits, and frugality have been deeply imprinted in me; 2) second most important, I chose to marry someone who wants to live a similar lifestyle as me; 3) I’ve educated myself reading and studying lots of material; 4) I found Vanguard early on which has saved me a lot in investing costs; 5) I’ve come to enjoy managing money so I set aside a few hours every week to continue learning and make decisions; and 6) I almost always avoid impulse purchases.

What might one and two mean for you? When it comes to family history and partner, I’m a personal finance +/+. The gal pal and I have probably had as many financial arguments as the next couple, but they’ve ebbed in number and intensity over time, and ultimately, our personal financial values are very similar. What if you’re a personal finance -/+ or the dreaded -/-? While it’s impossible to completely undo a “losing personal finance” family history, financial counselors can help minimize the damage and your time and resources are probably best spent working with them on minimizing the effects of negative role modeling before turning to asset allocation, minimizing taxes, and the like. Similarly, if your partner and you aren’t in sync, financial/couples counseling is probably more important than technical financial advising. Proactively, the more premarital counseling focused on each person’s financial history, values, and goals, the better.

What about reasons three, four, and five? How much time do you set aside each week to educate yourself about saving, investing, minimizing taxes, and related personal finance topics, not counting paying bills and balancing your check book? Put differently, how much time do you spend thinking about the forest that is you or your family’s financial well-being? My guess is, on a weekly basis, the average person spends very little time thinking about where they’ve been, where they are, and how to reduce expenses. Quiz. What was your net worth, assets minus debits, on 12/31/09? Will you recalculate it at the end of this month and then every quarter? If my assumption is right, is it any surprise that so many people are unsatisfied with their personal financial situation?

Reason six leads to tip five or experiment one, don’t buy anything that hasn’t been on your “To Buy” list for at least a week. Personal example. Three plus years ago I bought eight pairs of $120 running shoes for $60 a piece. Running shoe companies “update” their shoes regularly, every year or so. As far as I can tell, “updating” shoes means “we changed the colors”. If you’re savvy, you can pick up the “old” model at half price. When the big box of eight shoes arrived, it blew the daughters away. “Dad, you saved $480!” “Tru dat.” Fast forward, I’m halfway (250 miles) through pair eight so I’ve started to shop for a similar deal. No luck until last week. I found my Mizuno Wave Creations, model 10, for $65. Model 11, $135. Only two sizes were available, one was mine. Darn if the website would only let me buy two pairs, so I called them. They said they’d investigate and get back to me. Long story short, they found a third pair and all three are in transit. Normal cost for three pairs at $135 and 8.5% taxes, $439.42. After thanking the salesperson I said, “I saw something on-line about a Costco or Triple A discount.” “Yes, what’s your Triple A number?” Cost went from $201.50 ($6.00 shipping) to $181.50. Let’s see you do that on your fancy pants iPhone with the barcode application.

Now my $9,000 loss is a mere $8,742.08.

Winning Personal Finance 1

Everyone is hocking financial advice so how does one decide whose to follow? For example, why on earth should anyone pay any attention to the personal financial advice I offer below? What makes one advisor more credible than another, credentials, their popularity, their marketing savvy, something else? Credentials are nice in that they create a floor with respect to technical knowledge, but they don’t tell you much about the person’s ethics, integrity, or track record. Ultimately all credentials tell you is they succeeded in passing exams.

If I was looking for a financial advisor I’d look for someone that managed their own money well and emphasized saving, investing simply, and had other values that jived with my own. But how do you know if someone manages their own money well when we’re loathe to talk about our personal finances?

Tip one. Ask anyone wanting to manage your money to prove that they’ve managed theirs well. That will probably reduce the pool from which to choose in at least half. Take me for example, I have managed my family’s money well, but for privacy reasons, I won’t provide details except to say that for every ten financial decisions I make, I tend to make seven or eight good ones. Were I in the biz, I would completely understand if that lack of specificity caused potential clients to walk away.

Tip two. Ask any potential financial advisor about some of the mistakes he or she has made and what they learned from them. Last year I made a $9,000 mistake. I repeat, last year I made a $9,000 mistake. It was a brutal, self-inflicted wound that took time to shake. My goal is not to be perfect, but to consistently make more good decisions than bad. Look for a humble advisor who acknowledges complexity and doesn’t over promise. That will probably reduce the pool of potential advisors by at least another half.

Tip three. Even if you find a financial advisor that meets all of those criteria, don’t decide to work with him/her without first looking at yourself in a mirror and repeating several times, “No one will ever care about my financial well-being as much as me.”

Tip four. Never accept any financial advice passively. Instead educate yourself and recognize that no one will ever care about your personal financial well-being as much as you. More specifically, become your own financial advisor. That’s the best financial advice I’ll ever offer. Become your own financial advisor.

Well, the best advice until Part Two.