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Well, apparently I need a vacation after my European vacation! I've come home to a Real Life in which I have too much to do and not enough time to do it. The yard needs pruning, the house needs cleaning, my body needs exercise, friends need visiting, and this website needs lots of work behind the scenes.
Rather than try to spread myself to thin — my modus operandi — I'm going to do the wise thing: I'm going to take a break. For the next two weeks, I won't be publishing anything new here at Get Rich Slowly. (I will, however, continue to send out the Friday emails.)
While this isn't an ideal solution, I think it's best for the long-term. I have a lot of travel coming up later this summer. (I'm basically on the road from August 15th to October 15th.) If I don't make time now to take care of things, I'll wish I had.
So, go outside and enjoy the summer sun! I'll see you again on July 1st.
Bananarama - Cruel Summer (OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO) - YouTube
Last week, I wrote about how I've embraced mindful shopping. I'm teaching myself to be more deliberate about the things I own and buy. My goal is to buy less and, more importantly, to own less.
As part of this, I don't want to waste time shopping. I'm trying to train myself to make better decisions more quickly. This is tough for me to do.
By nature, I want to evaluate every alternative, to find the best option in every circumstance. Left to my own devices, I can spend two hours trying to decide which chainsaw is the best chainsaw at the best price.
There's nothing wrong with this, of course. Comparison shopping is a good thing. But there's a fine line. Some comparison can help you avoid purchasing poor products. Too much, on the other hand, becomes a tax on your time and your brainwidth.
I want to find a balance. I no longer feel the need to make a perfect decision. (Is there such a thing?) I'm becoming comfortable with the idea of accepting decisions that are “good enough”.
In short, I'm trying to incorporate lessons I've learned from The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz so that I can take some of the suck out of shopping.
The Paradox of Choice
For those unfamiliar, Barry Schwartz is a psychology professor from Swarthmore College. His 2004 book The Paradox of Choice argues that while life without choice is almost unbearable, having too many choices carries burdens of its own.
“I believe that many modern Americans are feeling less and less satisfied even as their freedom of choice expands,” Schwartz writes. “Having too many choices produces psychological distress.”
The paradox of choice | Barry Schwartz - YouTube
This certainly rings true from my own experience. And not just with money decisions.
One of the joys of financial independence is the ability to choose how to spend your time. Indeed, this is a unique luxury. However, it's also a burden. When you have an infinite number of options available, how do you make decisions about what to do with your time? (My answer, as you can probably guess, is to be clear about your purpose, and to make decisions aligned with that purpose.)
Schwartz argues that faced with so many options and decisions, we would be better off if we:
Embraced certain voluntary constraints on our choices (instead of rebelling against limits).
Opting for “good enough” instead of always seeking the best.
Lowering our expectations.
Made our decisions non-reversible.
Paid less attention to other people.
“A majority of people want more control over the details of their lives,” he writes, “but a majority of people also want to simplify their lives.” Schwartz calls this the paradox of choice. Greater choices creates greater complexity. That's what we think we want. In reality, most folks crave simplicity — and simplicity requires fewer choices.
So, how can we confront this paradox? Is it possible to have the best of both worlds? How do we go about wrestling with the ever-increasing array of choices while simultaneously seeking simplicity.
That's precisely what I've been trying to answer for myself lately.
At the end of The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz shares eleven steps that he believes can help mitigate (or eliminate) the distress caused by so much choice. Let's look at four that I've found effective in my own life.
Learn to Love Constraints
“To manage the problem of excessive choice,” Schwartz writes, “we must decide which choices in our life matter and focus our time and energy there.” Establish personal rules of thumb and follow them. Artificially limit your number of choices. You might, for instance, have a rule that you'll only visit two stores when shopping for clothing.
Here's a real-life example of limiting your number of choices.
For the past six months, I've been in the market for a new vehicle. There are hundreds to choose form, and if I were to let myself look at the entire universe of new cars, I'd never make a decision. Instead, I've created my own “pocket universe” of cars to choose from: compact and sub-compact vehicles that are available in electric or hybrid versions.
Another great way to exercise contraint is to ignore all of the options that are available, especially for products you purchase regularly. Do you need to examine every cheese at the grocery store? Every can of soup? Every loaf of bread? Of course not. You have favorites. You have defaults.
Whenever possible, stick with what you know — especially if what you know already makes you happy.
Satisfice More and Mazimize Less
According to Schwartz, maximizers are those who only accept the best. Every time they make a choice, they want to make the best choice possible. And even after they do make a choice, they worry there might have been a better option.
Satisficers, on the other hand, have learned that contrary to conventional wisdom, good enough often is. They're willing to settle for something other than the best. A satisficer still has expectations and standards, but once he's found something that meets those standards, the search is over.
My cousin Duane is a maximizer. He agonizes over buying decisions — even ordering food in a restaurant.
Duane knows it doesn't make much sense to deliberate over a menu decision, but he can't help it. He can't stop himself. “What if I choose something wrong?” he says, mocking himself. “That's why I like buffets.” With a buffet, he has an “out” if he doesn't like what he chooses. He can go choose something else.
I used to be like this too. Now, though, I take a different approach when dining out. I skim the menu until I find something I like, then I look no further. That first item I find is what I order. What's the point of trying to pick the perfect meal? Will it make me any happier? Probably not. I'm satisfied choosing the first thing that looks good.
I took this approach when buying my chainsaw last week. It worked great! I've invested in the EGO Power+ series of battery-powered tools. I checked to see if they produce an electric chainsaw. They do, and it's highly rated. I ordered it without looking at any other options.
After you've made a choice, move on. Don't linger over other possibilities. Don't second-guess yourself. If you buy stock in Dell instead of Apple, don't continue to track Apple's price. Stick with what you have.
More to the point, don't compare your choices with other possibilities. “Our evaluation of our choices is profoundly affected by what we compare them with,” Schwartz writes, “including comparisons with alternatives that exist only in our imaginations.”
He argues that we can vastly improve our subjective experience by striving to be grateful for what's good about our choices rather than being disappointed by what's bad about them.
It's also important to remember that most choices are complex. There's rarely an option that's clearly superior to all others in every single way. Each choice has its advantages and its disadvantages.
Jeff Bezos - Regret Minimization Framework - YouTube
How we feel about our decisions is strongly influenced by our expectations of the results. You might, for example, build up in your mind that a long-awaited Hawaiian vacation is going to be amazing — then it's not. It's fine, but it's not nearly what you'd hoped.
The problem here isn't Hawaii or the ocean or the hotel. The problem is the expectations you created for the experience. High expectations are the enemy of happiness.
Similarly, it's important to remember hedonic adaptation will occur. Even if your new Tesla is thrilling during the first week of ownership, that thrill won't last. You'll gradually become accustomed to your new normal. Before long, that Tesla will seem mundane.
Schwartz argues that one of the best ways to control expectations and to anticipate hedonic adaptation is to be a satisficer rather than a maximizer. Don't look for (or expect to find) the “perfect thing”. It doesn't exist. If your aim is only satisfaction, your decisions are less likely to fall short of expectations.
Another way to manage expectations is to stop comparing yourself to others. Doing so is nearly always destructive to your sense of well-being. Don't do it. Stop trying to keep up with the Joneses. “Focus on what makes you happy,” Schwartz writes, “and what gives meaning to your life.”
Thinking in Bets
Last year, I read and reviewed Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke's book about making smarter decisions when you don't have all the facts. (Here's my review.) Duke says that we should stop thinking in terms of right and wrong. Few things are ever 0% or 100% likely to occur. Few people are ever 0% or 100% right about what they know or believe. Instead, we should think in bets.
According to Duke, all decisions are bets on the future. An unwanted result doesn't mean we made a poor choice. It just means the bet didn't pay off this one time. If you get a head injury in a motorcycle crash, that doesn't mean wearing a helmet was a bad decision. It was a good decision, but this one result was poor.
“Job and relocation decisions are bets,” she writes. “Sales negotiations and contracts are bets. Buying a house is a bet. Ordering the chicken instead of the steak is a bet. Everything is a bet.”
In the year since I read her book, I've thought of this concept often. Another way for me to make better (and quicker) decisions is to embrace the idea that I'm betting on outcomes. When I buy something, I'm betting whether or not I'll like it because it meets my needs.
Taken together, all of these ideas — those from Duke and those from Schwartz — are helping me spend less time deliberating over decisions and more time enjoying life.
The older I get, the less I want or need. The older I get, the less I like to spend money. And when I have to buy something, I try to practice mindful shopping.
When I was younger, I wanted (and/or needed) all sorts of things. I wanted new clothes. I wanted tech gadgets. I wanted books. I was convinced that I needed a fast computer to be happy, not to mention a big house and lots of furniture. None of my shopping was mindful. It was mindless.
Now, at age fifty, buying things seems more like a hassle than a reward.
For one, buying something means I have to spend money — money that I'd rather keep for more important things, such as retirement. Or travel. Or beer. (Best of all: Travel and beer!)
Plus, there's the entire shopping process. It's a chore. If I need to buy a chainsaw, for instance (which I actually did this week), I have to research the best option. Then I have to find the best price. Then I have to order it or, worse, take time out of my day to go pick it up in person.
Then, after I buy a new thing, I have to store it. I have to dispose of the packaging, then add whatever I bought to my collection of Stuff. It becomes clutter in my life. (This is true whether the thing is actually clutter or not.)
I use my laptop computer all day every day, for instance, yet it still acts as mental (and physical) clutter. It's always here in the living room, sitting next to my recliner. I see it whenever I walk by. It's always on my mind.
I know I sound like an aging curmudgeon, but all of this is true. The older I get, the less Stuff I want — and the more I want to get rid of the Stuff I already own.
Now, I don't want to pretend that I don't buy things. I do. There's no question that I do. I even spend frivolously if I'm not diligent. But I'm far less likely to buy things than I used to. And when I do buy things, I tend to be purposeful about my purchases. I try to be a mindful shopper.
Let's use the chainsaw as an example.
Mindful Shopping in Practice
In the olden days — like, 2009 — I would have driven to Home Depot and bought a chainsaw the moment I thought I needed one. It wouldn't have even been a question. (In fact, I did this very thing in 2004.) Today, I deliberate over purchases like this for weeks, even when I know I need a tool.
Kim and I currently own an acre of mostly-wooded land just outside of Portland, Oregon. We have lots of trees, and those trees have lots of limbs. I don't think we're supposed to go hacking away at the trees on the forested part of our property, but there are still plenty of woody problems inside the yard.
For example, in March I took out a cedar tree so that I could replace it with a small orchard. This might have taken a few minutes with a chainsaw, but I spent an hour chopping away with a hatchet and a pruning saw. When I was finished, I was left with an ugly stump. (This stump joined several other stumps left over from the previous owners.)
“That stump looks terrible,” Kim told me. “You need to get rid of it. And you should get rid of the other stumps too.”
“I know,” I said. “But I don't have the tools to do it.”
“Why don't you just buy a chainsaw?” she asked. “We'd use it all of the time.”
I knew she was right. I'm constantly climbing ladders to chop down limbs. Every year, we take out two or three small trees that have taken root in inconvenient locations. A chainsaw would be handy.
We could certainly rent a chainsaw when we need it. We often rent equipment. Generally, though, we only rent tools if they're things we don't anticipate needing again for many years. We rented a lawn aerator last year, for example. And after we accumulated a couple of projects that needed it, we rented a chop saw. We may rent a pressure washer in the near future.
It doesn't really make sense to rent a chainsaw, though. It's something I'll use several times each year. Usually when I find myself wanting one, I'm in the middle of a larger project. I don't want to make an hour-long round-trip to the hardware store to rent another tool. It'd break my flow. Plus, over the long term, the cost will add up.
So, owning a chainsaw makes sense. I ordered one from Amazon and it arrived yesterday. But that doesn't mean I'm happy about it. It was a hassle. And now it's yet another thing I have to store. But at least I was mindful about the purchase.
The Onus of Ownership
It's not just that I don't want to buy stuff. More and more, I don't want to own things.
I know I have to own some things. I have to own clothes, for instance. I have to own tools. I have to own furniture. I have to own my computer. It's nice to own some art and some books.
But so many of the things I own sit unused for weeks or months or years on end. It seems silly.
Two years ago, in a moment of weakness, I bought a Nintendo Switch. “This'll be fun!” I thought to myself when I bought it. And it was fun for a few hours. Now, though, it rests ignored in the TV room. The last time I used it was in November. I should sell it (or give it to somebody's children).
Meanwhile, books have become a burden in my life. I never thought I'd say that. You see, I love books — and I always have.
Ten years ago, in my first active campaign against clutter, I purged most of my 3000+ books. Still, I have too many. They're everywhere, and I don't like it. It's no longer fun. Gone are the days when I'd simply order whatever book I wanted off Amazon. Nowadays, I usually dread getting new books.
It used to be that I found owning things comforting. I'm not joking. It made me feel good to know that I had all sorts of books and tools and furniture and clothes. I don't feel that way anymore.
Whenever I feel overwhelmed by the things I own, I remember our tour of the U.S. by RV. We carried very little with us on that trip. It was liberating. When we stopped to overwinter in Savannah, Georgia, Kim and I rented a condo for six months. All we had in that condo was what we'd had in the RV. Having so little felt amazing.
Time to Tidy
What do I spend money on? The older I get, the more my spending is aligned with my values. I deliberately practice mindful shopping and mindful spending.
For me, that means I spend a lot on travel, both for work and for pleasure. Between October 2018 to October 2019, I will have made four trips to Europe (three for fun and one for work) and four domestic trips (all for work). That doesn't count local excursions by car.
At home, my biggest expense — by far — remains our food budget. Even though we're dining out much less frequently in 2019, I still spend more on food (and drink) than any other category.
I don't mind spending money on travel and food for a couple of reasons.
First, these are things I value. They enrich my life.
Second, they don't create clutter. They're not possessions.
Nobody would ever mistake me for a minimalist, but I definitely crave a simpler lifestyle than the one I have now. For me, that means having fewer things around me.
And if I want to own fewer things, I have to get rid of some of the Stuff I already own.
When I returned from France two weeks ago, I was a cleaning machine. This often happens when I get back from a long trip. After spending days or weeks living with little, I'm eager to make my living space as minimal as possible.
This time, I started with the bathroom. I emptied all of my drawers and cupboards, then methodically trashed anything I don't use regularly. I threw out old shaving cream and bottles of stale cologne. I tossed dozens of old sticky notes on which I'd scrawled my weight and bodyfat. When I put the room back together, I felt a sense of relief.
I want to do the same in the bedroom — but I'm scared. Purging old toothpaste isn't a costly decision. Thinning a wardrobe, however, means getting rid of clothing that cost real money at one point in the past. Sometimes, the recent past. (Yes, I realize I'm succumbing to the sunk-cost fallacy. But just because I understand this intellectually doesn't mean I can overcome the problem in practice.)
Yesterday as I was driving to work at the box factory, I thought about what I'd own in an ideal world. Where would I live? What would I do? What would my life look like?
“I'm happy with the house,” I thought, “and I'm happy with Kim and the animals.” The basic infrastructure of my life is fine. I have a good partner, and we've deliberately selected a small house with a large outdoor living area. This is all great.
“But if I could buy everything from scratch, I'd own much less,” I thought. “I wouldn't have nearly as many clothes. I wouldn't own so many books. We wouldn't have crap in the storage shed at the bottom of the hill. We'd use that space as a tool shed instead.”
Driving home yesterday afternoon, I thought some more about this idea. What are some actual steps I can take to move from my current state of clutter and chaos to something more closely resembling this (hypothetical) ideal existence? I came up with a few ideas:
Implement a moratorium on buying. This shouldn't be difficult. It's merely formalizing a behavior I've already adopted. I'm ready to press “pause” on purchases for a few weeks or months until I've taken the next steps. This goes beyond mindful shopping to no shopping — at least for a little while.
Make a list (or several) of the things I want (or need) to own. Most of the time when I tackle projects like this, I do the reverse. I start with what I have and subtract. This is challenging. It quickly leads to decision fatigue. This time, I think it'd be interesting (and fun) to take an additive approach, to make lists of the items I'd own in my ideal life and work from there. What would my wardrobe look life? What books would be on my shelves? What tools would I have for the yard?
Go from space to space, ruthlessly purging the things I no longer need or want. I want to go full Marie Kondo on my life, being rational and realistic. If my aim is to create a capsule wardrobe filled with quality clothes, I need to get rid of a lot of crap. If books bother me so much, I need to thin my collection. I need to ask myself questions like: Am I really ever going to listen to my 100+ record albums again? (I don't even own a record player! Mine was destroyed by a “melting” pumpkin five years ago. For real.)
Be methodical and patient. Don't try to do this all at once. It's not possible to accomplish all of this in one day. Or one weekend. It is possible, however, to take fifteen minutes to sort the clutter in one kitchen drawer. Or, if I have an hour in the afternoon, I can pick through my photography gear to figure out which lenses I still use. (Do I use any of them? Or has my phone completely replaced my SLR?) If I'm diligent, I can probably process most of the house in a month.
This project excites me. It feels like doing this will clear both physical and mental baggage. I don't want to pretend like I think this will instantly make me a happier person — it won't — but I'm certain it'll bring a certain level of peace and calm to my life.
Kim gets a similar sense of serenity when the house itself is clean. For the first time together, we hired a housekeeper this week. For the past few days, Kim has been smiling and happy and she says it's because she loves walking from clean room to clean room.
I've been reading and writing about personal finance for more than thirteen years. In that time, I've consumed a lot of books about money. Lately, I've found that it's fun to revisit old favorites.
Recently, for instance, I've been re-reading Brett Wilder's The Quiet Millionaire [my review]. It's different than most personal finance books. It's targeted at those who are farther along their financial journeys rather than at those just starting out. Still, there are bits and pieces in The Quiet Millionaire that are applicable to everyone.
Ten years ago, I wrote that I particularly like Wilder's list of the seven enemies to financial success (which is my phrase, not his). I still like them. He writes:
If you want to become and stay the quiet millionaire, you must plan and manage your financial way of life…You must be proactive in order to obtain the financial life you want. By doing this, you will overcome the seven major obstacles to financial success.
Wilder is saying that we know there are certain common barriers to wealth. These obstacles arise for everyone. Because of this, it's possible to plan in advance to cope with them. First, however, we have to be able to name these enemies so that we can prepare the proper weapons to fight them.
The Seven Enemies of Financial Success
According to Wilder, the seven enemies of financial success are:
Lack of discipline. Without discipline, it's difficult to build wealth. In fact, it's impossible to get rich — slowly or otherwise — if you spend more than you earn. The math just doesn't work. Wilder also warns against compulsive spending, and he urges readers to track where their money is going.
Materialism. Stuff will not enrich your life. It's so very easy to find yourself “keeping up with the Joneses”, succumbing to lifestyle inflation. But materialism breeds discontent. Instead, Wilder says, focus on intellectual and spiritual pursuits to obtain fulfillment.
Debt. Not all debt is bad, of course. A reasonable mortgage on a sensible home is fine. But consumer debt — or a bad mortgage on a big house — is an enemy to financial success. In fact, bad debt may be the biggest enemy to financial success.
Taxes. It's our responsibility to pay the taxes we owe, but we're under no obligation to pay more than that. “It is not unpatriotic to reduce paying your taxes,” Wilder writes. We should instead actively work to keep our tax burden as low as possible.
Inflation. Inflation is wealth's silent enemy. It will not destroy you all at once. But it's always there, nibbling at the corners of your life, consuming a little cash every year. It's impossible to keep inflation completely at bay, but you can learn to mitigate its effects.
Investment mistakes. Poorly structured investment portfolios can be a killer. This enemy is fought through education, through an understanding of diversification and asset allocation, by taking the emotion out of investing.
Emergencies. The final enemy to financial success is the unexpected: unemployment, death, illness, and legal complications. Without a plan for emergencies, you leave yourself at the mercy of the fickle fates. Carry adequate insurance and maintain an emergency fund!
I've fought all of these enemies at one time or another. I still fight some from time to time. I feel like I have a good handle on investment mistakes and saving for emergencies, but my tax bill this year was onerous due to my own poor planning. And, of course, I've always struggled with discipline.
The Seven Deadly Sins (and the Last Four Things) by Hieronymus Bosch
The Seven Deadly Sins of Personal Finance
Wilder's seven enemies to financial success always reminds me of Catholicism's traditional list of seven deadly sins. This catalog of transgressions has a long, complicated (and intersting) history. Today, the seven deadly sins are considered to be:
Vanity (or Pride). An inflated belief in your own abilities.
Envy. The desire to have what others have.
Gluttony. Consuming more than you need, especially with regards to food and drink.
Lust. A passion or longing for bodily pleasure.
Wrath (or Anger). The tendency toward indignation and the desire for vengeance. Hatred toward others.
Greed. The desire for material wealth or gain.
Sloth. The avoidance of work. Laziness. A failure to act or make use of your talents.
What would happen if we combined Wilder's idea — seven enemies to financial success — with this list of seven deadly sins? If we were to make a list of seven deadly financial sins, what would those be? Off the top of my head, these seem like good candidates:
Sloth. The avoidance of work. Laziness. A failure to act or make use of your talents. Procrastination. Expecting others to solve your problems.
Gluttony. Consuming more than you need. Succumbing to lifestyle inflation, the endless desire to have more. Never being satisfied with what you already have. The inability to defer gratification. Impatience.
Aimlessness. A failure to plan for the future. A lack of purpose or direction. Failing to track your progress is also a form of aimlessness.
Improvidence. A lack of prudence or care in managing your resources. Spending mindlessly. Wasting what you already have. Not taking care of your possessions. Replacing the things you own before they need to be replaced.
Myopia. Making decisions without considering greater implications. Focusing on small, easy steps that make no real difference (clipping coupons, maybe) while ignoring the big things that destroy your financial future (paying too much for housing, for instance).
Ignorance. A lack of financial education. Putting blind faith in outside advisors — or the news. Failing to do your own research.
Although this list is spontaneous, I like it. These really do feel like seven barriers that prevent people from succeeding with money. But I'm sure it's possible to come up with other (possibly more grievous) sins.
What do you think? If you were to list the seven deadly sins of personal finance, what would you include? And why?
I like to travel. Over the past decade, I've probably made an average of two international trips per year. But you know what? Never once in that time have I tried to track how much I spend while exploring the world. Sure, I log my numbers in Quicken (as I do for everything), but I've never analyzed the cost of an individual trip.
This month, I flew to Europe to hang out with my cousin Duane again. He and I enjoy traveling together. Because I was curious, I decided to be diligent about tracking my expenses for this trip.
Note, however, that I didn't try to do anything different. I didn't adjust my normal behavior simply because I knew I'd be reporting to GRS readers. I did what I always do. I spent in ways that felt normal to me.
I don't need a fancy hotel, for instance. Neither does Duane. We're happy with cheap, simple lodging. And because most of the time we don't book rooms in advance, we don't hunt for the best deal. When we decide to stop for the night, we look for a place to stay. When we find something reasonable ($50 per person per night is our target) and available, we book it. We don't continue to search. We'd rather use our time to explore our surroundings.
On the other hand, we're both willing to splurge on food from time to time. Our rooms aren't important to us, but what we eat is.
Similarly, we'll pay to see special sites, but mostly we're happy visiting free museums and/or walking around a city. We don't pay much for tours, etc.
So, how much did I spend for two weeks in Europe? Let's find out!
Chateau Chenonceau in France's Loire Valley
This trip was sort of spontaneous. Remember, Duane has throat cancer. We expected our trip in December to be the last adventure we had together. But his health has held steady — and his doctor is making hopeful statements that he might be around for Christmas! — so we decided to make another trip.
Generally, I try to book flights several months in advance. I feel like I find cheaper options that way. This time, though, I didn't book my flight until April 19th, less than a month before our trip.
Also, I'm fussy about flights. It's not that I need to sit in business class — I'm perfectly happy in coach — but I don't like layovers. I'm willing to pay extra for a direct flight.
Unfortunately, when I searched for flights from Portland to Paris, I couldn't find any direct flights. I could, however, find a non-stop to London. I like London. It's a pleasant city. “What if,” I thought, “I flew to London a few days early and used that time to get some work done? Then I could take the Chunnel train across to Paris to meet Duane when he arrives.”
So, I booked a flight to London. It cost me $996.63 and each leg took roughly 10.5 hours.
(I don't know how much Duane paid for his plane ticket. I think it was around $600, but he had to fly from Portland to Las Vegas to Los Angeles to Paris and it took him almost 24 hours. Yuck. I'm happy to pay a premium to avoid crap like that.)
I made a small mistake when booking my ticket. In the past, I've always traveled economy. That's what I thought I was doing this time. Nope. Apparently, there's a new(-ish) airfare class called “basic economy”. This is a massive “screw you” from the airlines to their customers. It's a little bit cheaper, but you're not allowed to make any changes to your ticket once you've booked. No option to upgrade. Plus, you board dead last. And you can't choose your seat. And if you check a bag — as I did for my return flight — it costs a ton.
I flew into London with no real plan for the first few days. Brandon (the Mad Fientist) had invited me to visit him and his wife in Edinburgh, Scotland, but I felt like I oughtn't do it. I felt like I should stay in London and work.
When I landed, though, I changed my mind. “Is it still okay if I come up to see you?” I asked. “Sure!” Brandon said. So, I hopped on Trainline (an awesome app that Duane and I used to buy train tickets during our December trip) and booked a ticket from London to Edinburgh. Cost: $101.92.
While waiting for my train at Kings Cross station (and watching the tourist throngs at Platform 9-1/2), I withdrew £200 for spending money, which is about $252.31. I used this cash to buy things like coffee and snacks and souvenirs. I brought home £141.15, which means I spent £58.85 (or about $74.24) cash while in the U.K.
I had a great time hanging out with Brandon and Jill. They showed me everyday life in Edinburgh, one of my favorite cities. They put me up in their spare room, took me to pubs, and we wandered together through the streets and the parks.
While there, I spent:
$45.76 at Brewdog for beer and snacks. (Did you know that low-alcohol beer — like 0.5% to 2.0% — is a thing in the U.K.? I wish it was a thing here in the U.S. I'd buy it.)
$17.74 at Whiski Bar for an hour of music and Scotch.
$9.91 at Cairngorm Coffee, where Brandon and I spent a morning working.
$33.78 at Mother India restaurant, where the three of us had a fine meal of “Indian tapas”.
In all, I spent a total of $283.35 during my three nights in Scotland.
Picnic in the Meadows with the Mad Fientist and friends
When it came time to meet Duane in Paris, I was faced with a choice. Originally, I had intended to take the train from London to Paris. But when I looked at times and prices to get from Edinburgh to Gare du Nord, I didn't like what I saw. The trip would take about 12.5 hours and the total cost would be over $350. Yikes!
“You should book a flight on EasyJet,” Brandon suggested. I've never used EasyJet, but I looked into it. For $199.45, I could fly from Edinburgh to Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG) in Paris — in less than two hours. I booked a ticket. Then, using Chase Ultimate Rewards points, I booked one night at the Hotel ibis, which is attached to CDG terminal 3. My cost: 7718 Chase points.
In Paris, I paid €17.99 for a one-day train pass, which gave me unlimited access to all Metro and RER routes. (The metro lines are the subway and local trains. The RER routes are the commuter trains that run deeper into the suburbs, going places like Versailles and the airport.) I also withdrew €200 in cash (about $222.50) to use for incidental expenses, such as snacks and souvenirs.
While I waited for Duane's flight to arrive, I visited Notre Dame to see what it looked like after the fire. (I was startled to note that when the wind was right, you could smell the ashes!) I bought an extra travel shirt. And I met my friend Amy for champagne and charcuterie. (Amy lives in Houston but happened to be in Paris for work.)
Amy, J.D., and random amused French woman
At around 18:00, I returned to the airport to pick up our rental car. I was worried this might not go smoothly, but I was wrong. Estelle, the young woman at the Avis counter, was amazing. It didn't take long for her to get met set up with a Peugot 208. Plus, she was kind enough to phone ahead to our hotel to let them know we'd be a little late. I booked the car with British Airways points. My cost: 16,600 Avios — a bargain!
As I was finishing at the rental car, Duane cleared immigration. Perfect timing! We hopped in our little car, braved Paris traffic and made our way to the garden spot of Giverny.
In Giverny, we checked into our B&B (booked with 8154 Chase points), then hurried to the only restaurant in town that was still open. Duane spent €51.00 on our dinner of duck breast and red wine.
During two nights in and around Paris, I spent $199.45, €17.99, 8154 Chase points, and 16,600 Avios (BA points). Duane spent €51.00.
The next morning, Duane and I started our driving tour of northwest France. I'd been worried that all French drivers would be like the ones in Paris. They weren't. On the country roads, people were much more mellow. Thank goodness. (I drive like an old man. I hate speeding and tailgating.)
First, we toured Rouen, the town where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. We saw our first cathedral of the trip, visited the (free) Museum of Fine Arts, and browsed the weekly market.
Duane and I both enjoy markets. We're happy to pass time looking at fruits and vegetables and meat and fish. For real. Plus, this gave us a chance to buy cheap food for the road. I picked up a paper sack filled with twenty baby chorizo sausages, for instance, and it cost only €5. (I think there were more than 20 sausages in the bag too. That thing lasted me almost the entire trip, and I was eating several sausages per day.)
In the afternoon, we drove to Honfleur with no plans about where to stay. The first hotel we visited was perfect: cheap and efficient. I paid €100.00 to book a room. Duane spent €54.00 on our dinner at a local pub.
On our second day, we meandered along the coast. We stopped to taste calvados (an apple brandy made in Normandy), nibbled goat cheese in Deauville, and stopped to visit the Grand Hotel in Cabourg, the site of Proust's famous memory-inducing madeleine.
Buying goat cheese and “bacon” in Deauville
In the late afternoon, we reached Bayeux. Our first hotel choice was booked, but the second had two cheap rooms available. We paid €49.00 each. For dinner, we chose an expensive restaurant (I can't remember why) that cost Duane €94.00.
After dinner, we wandered around town. It was a magical evening in mid-spring. We happened to hit the city during its “festival of lights”, and when we stopped by the cathedral, an American choir was performing a concert. We stopped in to listen.
In the morning, we visited the Bayeux Tapestry, a 70-meter long work of art that's nearly 1000 years old. In dozens of scenes, it depicts the Norman conquest of England. People think I'm joking when I say this, but I'm not: This tapestry is like a very early comic book. (And, in fact, the drawings used to plan tapestries like this are referred to as cartoons. No joke.) This visit cost me €19.00.
Seriously, the Bayeux Tapestry is like a primitive comic book
While in Bayeux, we visited Omaha Beach and the nearby American Military Cemetery. After that, we drove backroads to reach Mont-Saint-Michel, one of the most famous tourist sites in all of France (and formerly one of the top three destinations for Christian pilgrims). This island used to be isolated from the mainland by ocean tides. Now there's a causeway that leads to it, but even that sometimes floods over (as it did during our stay).
I used 14,538 Chase points to book a room on the island, and I'm glad we did. During the day, the place is packed. After 18:00, the crowd disperses and things become peaceful. It's fun to wander the ramparts with nobody to disturb you.
Here, Duane paid €89.00 for dinner.
During our time in Normandy, I spent a total of €168.00 and 14,538 Chase points. Duane spent €286.00.
Mont-Saint-Michel at high tide
The next morning, after a quick tour of the Mont-Saint-Michel abbey, Duane and I packed up to drive to Brittany. (The island actually sits on the border between the two regions.)
As we entered Brittany, we got our first taste of fuel prices in France. To put 38 liters (about 10 gallons) in the Peugot 208, I paid €60.00. Holy cats! That's nearly $7 per gallon, or about twice what we pay here in the States.
In the early afternoon, we stopped for a couple of hours in the walled city of Dinan, which is built on a hillside overlooking the river Rance.
Looking from the ramparts of Dinan to the valley below
By early evening, we'd reached Carnac on the Atlantic coast. Carnac is famous for its “standing stones”, a collection of 3000+ domens and menhirs in the region. I love sites like this (and Avebury and Stonehenge in England), so was pleased to visit. (If you've ever read any Asterix comics, you're familiar with the stones of Carnac.)
The first hotel we visited had a cheap room available (€66.00), so we booked it. Our dinner next door was…an adventure.
Brittany, as you may know, is the source of the crepe. It's also the source of the galette (a savory crepe). Crepes and galettes everywhere in this region. Because we like to try local food when we travel, Duane and I decided to eat galettes for our evening meal. “You should get the andouille,” the restaurant owner told us, smiling. So we did.
Well. It turns out that American andouille is not the same as French andouille. French andouille is simply sliced pig intestine that has (ostensibly) been cleaned very, very well.
“This tastes like ass,” Duane said as he ate his galette. He couldn't finish. I did finish, but was a little mortified when I looked up the ingredients later. Our host seemed to take pity on us for being such good sports. When I ordered a glass of calvados after the meal, he gave me a huge pour.
I paid €46.00 for our dinner of pig-gut pancakes.
During our 24 hours in Brittany, I spent a total of €172.00. Duane spent nothing.
The Loire Valley
After a quick breakfast of coffee and crepes (€12.00 paid by Duane), we made our way to Angers, former capital of the Anjou region. (Angers is the source of both anjou pears and Cointreau liqueur.) Here, we visited our first chateau. Did you know that a chateau is a castle? I didn't — not until this trip.
Anyhow, the Chateau d'Angers is home to the amazing Apocalypse Tapestry, a 600-year-old visual retelling of the apocalypse story from the Bible's Book of Revelation. Like the Bayeux Tapestry, it reminds me of a massive comic book made from cloth. It cost us €12.00 each to see the chateau and its art. (Duane paid this.)
The Apocalypse Tapestry at Chateau d'Angers
In the evening, we experienced our big splurge of the trip. Based on a GRS reader recommendation, I had booked a night for us at the Royal Abbey of Our Lady of Fontevraud, a former monastery founded in 1101. Although many old buildings remain (and guests are free to explore them), the site is no longer an abbey. It's a fancy upscale hotel and a Michelin-star restaurant.
Going in, I'd told Duane to ignore the costs for our night at Fontevraud. “I'm paying for the hotel and dinner, and it's not part of our trip accounting. Don't try to balance it out,” I said. “I'm making a deliberate decision to splurge.”
Our room at the abbey cost us €172.00. Our meal cost €239.00. As I mentioned earlier this week, the food was fine and I'm glad I experienced it. But I wouldn't do it again.
In the morning, we traveled country roads to visit another chateau: Chenonceau. We each paid €19.00 to tour the grounds of this beautiful old estate.
In the afternoon, we moved to nearby Amboise, where Duane paid €73.00 to book a hotel. We hiked up the hillside, then tasted wine in a cave. We ate dinner at the tiny Restaurant L'Ilot, where the woman waiting tables chided us for not making a reservation — then was playfully grouchy the rest of the evening. This meal cost Duane €94.00 because he insisted we order a bottle of wine.
The next day, we stopped briefly in Blois to visit the church of St Nicolas. This place is barely mentioned in the guidebooks, but we loved it. During World War II, most of its stained-glass windows were destroyed. They've been replaced by modern windows with modern glass. The results are amazing. When light shines through them, color spreads throughout the church.
The light show from the stained glass at St Nicolas Church
We next stopped in Chartres to visit its famous cathedral, which is especially known for its stained-glass windows. And while yes, there are many of them (176!) and they're impressive, I liked the ones in Blois better.
During our time in the Loire Valley, I spent a total of €430.00, most of it for my splurge at the abbey. Duane spent €281.00. (He filled the car with gas at one point.)
Wrapping Things Up
After touring the Chartres cathedral, we didn't know what to do. We found ourselves on the southwest side of Paris, but wanting to reach the northeast corner by the following evening. We couldn't make up our minds, so I simply drove east.
Eventually, we reached Fontainebleau, which we decided might be fun to visit. But the town was packed and we were tired. Instead, we drove on until we found a budget hotel (aptly named Budget Hotel), where Duane paid €86.00 for a room. For dinner, we each paid cash at a French fast-food chain.
The next morning, we returned our rental car. I was sad to say good-bye to the Peugot 208, which had served us well. Before we turned it in, Duane paid €32.00 to top off the fuel tank.
For logistics purposes, I'd used 11,182 Chase points to book us separate rooms at the ibis Hotel once again. (It's handy having this place next to the airport train station.) We each paid €17.99 for one-day train tickets, then we rode into Paris.
With several hours to kill, we decided to walk the city. But we didn't walk the downtown tourist core. We've both done that before. Instead, we chose the Coulée verte René-Dumont, an elevated greenway akin to New York's Highline. From there, we made our way along the canal. This 5k stroll made for great people-watching.
Here, we said our good-byes. Duane wandered off to spend time on his own. I met up with my pal Matt Kepnes (a.k.a. Nomadic Matt) for a couple of beers.
In the morning, I took an early flight back to London (booked with 4500 Avios and $27.50), then boarded my Delta flight back to Portland.
On this final day, I spent a total of $47.48, 4500 Avios, and 11,182 Chase points. (At some point, I withdrew another €200.00 in spending money. I returned home with €102.66, which means I spent €97.34 of that — or about $108.41.) Duane spent €86.00 and $19.98.
The Bottom Line
After all of that, how much did I spend on this trip? Let's crunch the numbers. For two weeks (three nights in Scotland and ten in France), I spent:
$996.63 for my flights from and to the U.S.
€637.98 (about $710.63)
19,336 Chase points
21,100 Avios (British Airways points)
Converting all of my expenses to dollars, my total cost was $2277.91 plus rewards points. That's an average of $175.22 per night. (I spent $1284.28 plus points if you ignore the flight, for an average of $98.79 per night.)
If I hadn't splurged €411.00 for the abbey experience (and instead paid €100 for dinner and lodging that night), my costs would have been €311.00 less.
During our nine nights together in France, Duane spent a total of €670.99 (about $747.40) plus whatever his flights cost him (about $600, I think). That's $83.04 per night ($149.71 with his flights). Together, not counting flights, we spent the equivalent of $2031.68 and points for this vacation.
Because I've never tracked my trip spending before, I have no frame of reference for our costs. I feel like we did a good job of using money wisely — spending only on things that brought us value — but who knows? I'm sure plenty of people would spend much less on a trip like this. That would probably require advance planning, though, and half the fun for us is making this up as we go.
Here's the thing, though. How much have I been spending simply to live here at home? About $5000 per month, right? (And I'm aiming to get that down to $4000 per month.) When you compare the cost of travel to the cost of simply maintaining my lifestyle here in the U.S., it's shockingly affordable. Cheaper than living in Portland, even.
That's food for thought.
One final note: In Edinburgh, Brandon showed me how to use Apple Pay. Believe it or not, I'd never done this before. Now, though, I'm hooked. Even back here in Portland, I'm using my phone to pay for things, not my actual credit card. I think this is awesome. Duane is less convinced. But that's a subject for a future blog post…
Hello, friends. I have returned from France and recovered from jetlag. (I'm not good with jetlag.) Later this week, I'll publish an article about how much my cousin Duane and I spent during our ten-day drive across Normandy and Brittany, but today I want to share one small epiphany I had on the trip.
I am a Proust nerd so was happy to stumble upon Combray
Midway through our excursion, we heeded a recommendation from a GRS reader and stayed the night at the Royal Abbey of Our Lady of Fontevraud, a former monastery founded in 1101. Although many old buildings remain (and guests are free to explore them), the site is no longer an abbey. It's a fancy upscale hotel and a Michelin-star restaurant.
Duane and I typically prefer to stay in simple rooms when we travel. We don't need fancy. For us, a hotel is a place to sleep, not a place to be pampered. Our aim is to spend less than €100 per night (or €50 per person). We do make exceptions, though. (On this trip, we also paid extra to stay the night on Mont Saint Michel.)
In this case, we thought the hotel was nice and modern, but at $193.57 for the one night, we wouldn't do it again. That's way too expensive for us. And the restaurant was even more expensive.
Duane would have been perfectly happy eating crepes or galettes (which are savory crepes) at a regular restaurant in the nearby village, but I've always wanted to eat in a Michelin-star restaurant, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. I mean: It was right there in the same building as our hotel.
“I'll pay tonight,” I told him. “Ignore the prices. I'm making a deliberate decision to do this. You just enjoy the meal. Don't worry about the cost.”
We did enjoy the meal. It was a fixed menu at a fixed price, although we could add options. (Duane added mushrooms and I added a cheese plate.) The food was fun and fancy. Here for instance, is the pea soup with “bread”:
Pea soup with “bread” as a first course
In the end, I spent $267.41 for our meal. That's the most I've ever paid for a meal in my life. But was it the best meal of my life? No. It was good — don't get me wrong — and I loved experiencing how a superstar kitchen combines flavors, but this wasn't even in the top twenty meals I've ever eaten. There are several restaurants here in Portland that I'd prefer to dine at, and they cost much less.
But I don't mean to grouse about how little enjoyment we got for the money we spent. Just the opposite, in fact.
When we reached our hotel room after a long day of driving, I needed to freshen up before dinner. I went to the bathroom to wash my face. “Wow,” I thought as I scrubbed down, “this soap smells amazing. I love it.” This is a strange thing for me to think. I've never had positive feelings for soap before in my fifty years on this Earth.
When I'd finished, Duane took his turn in the bathroom. “Did you smell that soap?” he asked when he was done. “It smells like wood and smoke and spice. It's fantastic.”
“I thought same thing!” I said. “I'd buy some. Maybe we can find it when we get to Paris.”
“We sound like a couple of gay men,” Duane said and we both laughed. (He can get away with jokes like that because he is a gay man.) We forgot about the soap and went to dinner.
In the morning, as we were checking out, we noticed that the soap was for sale in the hotel lobby. On a hunch, I googled the manufacturer. Sure enough: The soap was produced by a small company only three kilometers away.
“Let's go buy some soap,” I said. We hopped in our rented Peugot 208 and made the short jaunt to the soap factory.
Sidenote: We knew nothing about the Peugot 208 before we picked it up at the rental company. Turns out, it's an awesome little car. France is filled with awesome little cars. Unfortunately, none of them are available in the U.S. because the car manufacturers don't think they'll sell well. Americans like big trucks and SUVs. This makes me sad. I'd gladly purchase a Peugot 208 as my next vehicle.
We spent about half an hour looking at (and smelling) the different soaps. A friendly French woman answered our questions and taught us how to better get a sense of each soap's scent. (“You need to step out of the shop,” she said, “and let the soap get warm in the sun. Then you'll know how it really smells.”)
In the end, Duane spent €20 on soap. I spent €40. We both believe it's money well spent.
Fancy soaps for sale in rural France
“I can't believe I just made a side trip to buy soap,” I said as we resumed our journey toward Amboise. “But I feel like this is a small thing that will improve my quality of life. Kim and I currently use watered-down liquid soap from a dispenser. I don't like it. Now when I come in from working in the yard, I'll actually enjoy washing my hands. It sounds stupid, I know, but it's real. Plus, it'll remind me of France and this trip with you.”
“It doesn't sound stupid,” Duane said. “There are lots of small things that make life better. I don't think we pay enough attention to them. Sometimes you can get big pleasure rom small things. More pleasure than from big things, in fact.”
“Do you really think so?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Think of your brother Jeff. He likes gourmet coffee. I'm happy with a cup of coffee from McDonald's but he's not. Every morning, he gets a lot of joy from a fancy cup of coffee. For me, I enjoy having a clean car or a clean house — especially since I don't clean either one very often. I'll bet you can think of all sorts of similar examples.”
As we drove, I thought more about the pleasure we get from small things. Duane is right. There are certain tiny actions and objects that make my life better. Here are some simple examples:
I like using everyday items I've purchased while traveling: band-aids, jackets, t-shirts, underwear, etc. I like being reminded of my trips.
I wear two cheap turtle necklaces. I bought one for ten bucks in Hawaii. I bought the other for two or three bucks in Ecuador. I love them.
Like many people, I have a favorite mug. I also have a favorite whisky glass. Each probably cost less than ten bucks, but they make me happy whenever I use them.
Kim and I own several pieces of art produced by family and friends. None of these was expensive. (Some were given to us free.) We enjoy having the constant reminder of their creativity.
One of the reasons I enjoy gardening is that every year these inexpensive plants bring my pleasure in a variety of ways: pretty flowers, tasty fruit, vegetables for meals I prepare.
Most of all, I love to walk. It costs me nothing but gives me so much. I like being outside. I like exercising. I like the time for meditation.
I'm unlikely to ever again in my life be so enthusiastic about soap. But I'm glad that Duane and I allowed ourselves to make a small side trip to buy this stuff. Now that I'm home and have the soap in the bathroom, it really is a small thing that gives me big pleasure. (Fortunately, Kim likes the smell of the woodsy soap too.)
In their classic Your Money or Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin argue that the relationship between spending and happiness is non-linear.
More spending brings more fulfillment — up to a point. But spending too much can actually have a negative impact on your quality of life. The authors suggest that personal fulfillment — that is, contentment — can be graphed on a curve that looks like this:
Beyond the peak, Stuff starts to take control of your life. Buying a sofa made you happy, so you buy recliners to match. Your DVD collection grows from 20 titles to 200, and you drink expensive hot chocolate made from Peruvian cocoa beans. Soon your house is so full of Stuff that you have to buy a bigger home — and rent a storage unit. But none of this makes you any happier. In fact, all of your things become a burden. Rather than adding to your fulfillment, buying new Stuff actually detracts from it.
The sweet spot on the Fulfillment Curve is in the Luxuries section, where money gives you the most happiness: You've provided for your survival needs, you have some creature comforts, and you even have a few luxuries. Life is grand. Your spending and your happiness are perfectly balanced. You have Enough.
According to Dominguez and Robin, your goal should be to achieve Financial Independence, the condition of having Enough for the rest of your life. “Financial Independence has nothing to do with rich,” they write. “Financial Independence is the experience of having enough — and then some.” This is achieved when your savings has reached a level that will sustain you at the peak of the Fulfillment Curve indefinitely.
As many Get Rich Slowly readers have discovered over the years, the exercises and advice in Your Money or Your Life can transform your relationship with money, helping to break your dependency on Stuff. It's a great book for learning how to align your spending with your values. It provides a roadmap to Financial Independence.
Where Your Money or Your Life is less good, however, is providing advice for what to do after you've reached this goal. What happens when you achieve Financial Independence? What happens when you have enough — and then some? Many people reach this place only to find themselves wondering, “What next?” It's an important question, one that's often tough to answer.
The Power of Purpose
When you're building your wealth snowball, your goals and mission keep you focused on the future. They guide you toward the things you ought to do while helping you avoid temptation and peril. Without a clear purpose, it's difficult to stay on course during the long march to financial freedom.
Purpose is also important after you've obtained the wealth you desire.
In his book You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think, financial planner Wes Moss shares five “secrets” of a happy retirement. After surveying 1350 retirees across 46 states, Moss found that the number-one predictor of contentment is a sense of purpose.
“[Happy retirees] have a well-defined understanding of their purpose in life,” he writes. According to his research:
91% of happy retirees are clear and comfortable with their sense of purpose.
In contrast, 89% of unhappy retirees report that they're uncomfortable (or only “slightly” comfortable) with their sense of purpose.
The bottom line: “Happy retirees know what their retirement money is for.”
To that end, Moss encourages his clients (and readers) to foster a handful of “core pursuits” — activities that excite them and bring them joy. By developing these core pursuits before reaching retirement or Financial Independence, you're better prepared for what comes next.
Similarly, in Choose Your Retirement, Emily Guy Birken writes that “a retirement based on values will be a fulfilling and contented experience”. Birken dubs this a “values-driven retirement”.
A values-driven retirement sounds great. But how do you discover your values? How do you pick your core pursuits? How do you decide what you want out of life? How do you answer the question, “What next?” I believe the answer goes back to creating (an adhering to) a personal mission statement.
With a mission statement, you have a roadmap to meaning. Without one, you run the risk of finding yourself lost in the woods where even your wealth won't help you find the way home.
Note: At the end of this article, I'll share a powerful exercise to help you discover purpose.
Money Without a Mission
A lot of people believe that if only they were wealthy, if only they had a million dollars, then all of their problems would be solved. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that.
There's no doubt that money can buy food and clothes and shelter. Wealth grants access to better health care. It provides peace of mind so that you don't fall into a panic when the car breaks down. But money is only a tool. It's not a magic wand that will miraculously make you smart, fit, and kind. It's up to you put the tool to constructive use.
What happens if you achieve financial freedom without direction, if you don't use money to build a better life?
At best, you drift aimlessly from day to day, never quite sure what you ought to be doing next. Maybe you aren't destructive (to yourself or others), but you're certainly don't add anything of value to the world. I've met a couple of folks who, because they're financially secure, shut themselves away all day playing videogames. That's a shame. They have the freedom to do whatever they want…and they choose to do nothing.
At worst, reaching financial freedom without a plan plunges a person into decadence and despair. Think of all the horror stories you've heard about pro athletes, movie stars, and lottery winners who squander their riches on speed boats and strip clubs. (Here, for example, is the poignant tale of Jack Whittaker, a West Virginia man who won a $315 million Powerball jackpot in 2002. Without a plan, instant riches brought devastation rather than delight.)
Money can buy freedom, no question. But you have to seize the freedom or it all goes to naught. You may win a billion dollars in the lottery, but that won't make a difference to your health and wealth if you elect to survive on a diet of donuts and vodka while lounging watching Friends re-runs on Hulu.
“Money is important but it's far from most important,” says Jim Wang from Wallet Hacks. “This becomes clearer when you reach Financial Independence, when you no longer need to work as hard to sustain yourself. You risk losing your sense of purpose if it was deeply tied to working for an income. This is why many retirees have trouble in retirement!”
Money is important but a mission matters more.
Once you have plenty of money, it's your responsibility to make what you want out of life. (Truthfully, it always has been your responsibility.)
Fix Yourself First
For many people — including myself — I think the best answer to the question “what next?”, the best way to discover meaning and purpose, is to fix what's broken in your life. After you achieve Financial Independence, you no longer have excuses not to become the best version of yourself, whatever that means to you. As an example, here's my own story.
When I was younger, I was deep in debt. I was also fifty pounds overweight. I had time-management issues. My relationships were built on a false projection of myself. I used to think that if I could win the lottery or otherwise luck into a windfall, all my worries would go away. But when I eventually achieved complete Financial Independence, my problems didn't disappear. Quite the opposite.
It turned out that J.D. with money was the same as J.D. without money. He remained a fat, lazy procrastinator who was unhappy with his situation.
I had fixed my finances by becoming the CFO of my own life, by running my personal finances like a business. Slowly, it dawned on me. In order to fix everything else that was broken, I'd have to take responsibility for all of it.
If I wanted to be fit instead of fat, I had to eat right and exercise.
If I wanted to be comfortable meeting new people, I had to overcome my introversion.
If I wanted to travel, learn Spanish, live in a walkable neighborhood, have healthy romantic relationships, write a book, become better at public speaking – if I wanted to be a better man, I had to do the work required to become a better man.
Money wouldn't magically make things better. Nobody else was going to do the work for me. If I wanted to repair what was broken, I had to do it myself. Furthermore, I realized that — like the hero of a fantasy or science-fiction novel — the power to fix my problems had always rested in my hands.
I began to make changes instead of excuses.
I lost weight, got fit, learned Spanish, traveled to Europe and Africa and South America, and began to build better relationships. I moved to a neighborhood where I could walk for 90% of my errands. I learned to ride a motorcycle and shoot a gun. I wrote a book (two, really) and became better at public speaking. I forced myself to set aside my introversion and relish the company of others, even strangers.
When I accepted responsibility for everything in my life, things got better. Lots better.
Note: My life isn't perfect, and I don't want to pretend that it is. Truthfully, I can sometimes go months forgetting that I must be my own hero. I grow complacent and slowly slide back into bad habits. I eat poorly. I play too many videogames. I drink too much wine. I don't spend enough energy maintaining friendships. Over the past year, for instance, I've packed on twenty pounds. But I know now how I ought to live — and when I live that way things are great!
Supplied with what seemed like limitless time and money, I realized that I was the only one who could fix the things that were wrong in my world. I realized that it had been up to me all along. It was a harsh epiphany.
My story isn't unique. Turns out it's rather commonplace.
For instance, Todd Tresidder (the Financial Mentor) says that after he achieved financial independence at age 35, he had a similar insight. He felt lost, directionless. It wasn't until he realized that only he could give himself direction that he found his way again.
This I believe: If you're not sure what your purpose is, fix yourself first — then move on to other goals.
Make the World a Better Place
After you've fixed yourself, you can turn your attention to making the world at large a better place. (Some folks might be tempted to focus on improving the world first. I think this is a huge mistake. You'll be much more effective if you take care of yourself first before moving on to help others.)
Here, for instance, is the story of Jason Brown, a former professional football player who gave up millions of dollars to do something more meaningful for himself…and the world. I love this story:
Ex-NFL star finds new passion in farming - YouTube
In 2009, after four years as a pro, Brown signed a five-year $37.5 million contract with the St. Louis Rams, which made him the highest-paid center in NFL history. He was financially independent. He could do anything he wanted, and he did not want to play football. Three years later (at age 29), Brown quit his career to become a farmer — even though he'd never farmed a single day in his life. (He learned how to grow crops from YouTube!)
But Brown isn't growing the food for himself. His First Fruits Farm raises sweet potatoes to donate to local food pantries. “When I think about a life of greatness, I think a life of service,” says Brown. He's found meaning through helping others.
Sidenote: In 2014, Brown delivered his own child after his wife went into labor on the farm and their midwife couldn't reach them in time!
Or there's Warrick Dunn, another former football player. During his first year in the NFL, when he was only 22 years old, he established Homes for the Holidays, a program to help struggling first-time homebuyers with the process.
Warrick Dunn Charities, Detroit Lions & Sponsors Help Single Mom - YouTube
Contrary to other reports around the web, Dunn's charity does not give homes to single mothers. Instead, in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity, Homes for the Holidays provides down-payment assistance and complete home furnishings to single-parent families that are purchasing their first home. (Not the same as giving away houses but still awesome!)
What's more — and I especially like this part of the program — Homes for the Holidays also provides financial literacy workshops.
You don't have to be a professional athlete to do good deeds once you've reached financial freedom.
After he became financially independent, Harlan founded The Plutus Foundation, a non-profit that aims to provide financial literacy and “improve financial empowerment”. And my friend Jen feels called to support Manos Unidas, a Peruvian school for disabled children.
Fixing yourself and improving the world are both excellent ways to find meaning and purpose once you've reached Financial Independence. But you know what? Another option, one that surprises many people, is continued work.
Work After Wealth
For many people who achieve Financial Independence, “what next?” is a new career. Or maybe even the same career.
After I sold Get Rich Slowly, for instance, and obtained financial freedom, I slowly reduced the amount of work I was doing until I was doing none at all. For a while, it was fun to have no commitments. I browsed the internet, read comic books, met friends for lunch. Kim I left for our grand roadtrip across the United States. But even before leaving Portland last March, she and I had both begun to recognize that I lacked a sense of purpose. I was aimless and adrift.
“When we get home,” Kim said, “I think you should get a job, even if it's just a few hours a day at Starbucks.” I agreed that seemed like an excellent idea. Instead, I started Money Boss while on the road. That gave me work and purpose again — the same work and purpose that gave my life meaning before. (Now, of course, Money Boss has been folded into Get Rich Slowly. In fact, this article originally appeared on Money Boss more than three years ago!)
“Financial independence allows you to do what you want whether that’s travel, raising children, saving the world, or playing golf. That’s what’s important,” Jacob writes. “What I like to do is solving impossible problems.” When he received a job offer that involved solving impossible problems, he took it. It gave him meaning and purpose. It was the right choice for Jacob and his circumstances.
Note: Some folks claim that if you're working you cannot possibly be retired. I think most of us recognize this as a bullshit semantic argument. (Mr. Money Mustache famously mocks what he calls the Internet Retirement Police.) To avoid debate, I prefer to talk about Financial Independence instead of retirement, but I believe they're essentially the same thing.
Finally, there's Jim from Wallet Hacks again. Jim is a serial entrepreneur. He's always starting businesses, even though he doesn't need the money. His work gives him meaning:
After I sold my last company, I felt a sense of emptiness when I woke up in the morning. I used to get up, excited to start the day because I had all these ideas in my head for what I wanted to try, projects I was working on, and people I needed to talk to. My sense of purpose, which was tied to my work, was taken away.
I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. I thought about what was important to me, what I really enjoyed about working outside of the paycheck, and realized that I work because I enjoy a feeling of accomplishment, I enjoy learning a new thing, and I enjoy overcoming challenges. So I set out to build a new work life for myself that touched on those…any income was an added bonus.
In his excellent book Work Less, Live More, author Bob Clyatt calls the lifestyle that Jacob and Jim and I have chosen “semi-retirement”. We're financially independent but opt to keep working. “Semi-retirees learn that a reasonable amount of work, even unpaid work, keeps them energized, contributing, and sharp,” writes Clyatt.
(Clyatt says that semi-retirement is also a great option for those who haven't yet achieved FI but are getting close. It's a way to scale back your career, to make a gradual transition from full-time employment to something more casual.)
“When you're Financially Independent, you should make decisions based purely on your personal values,” Mr. Money Mustache once told me. “You should make your decisions as if money didn't matter. You should ask yourself: If you could live anywhere, where would you live? You should choose to do work that you'd do even if you weren't getting paid. And you should make buying decisions as if everything were free.”
But how do know your personal values? Most people have a vague understanding of what's important to them, but lack clear goals and purpose. That's why I like the following exercise, which is designed to help you discover meaning in your life.
To complete this assignment — based on the work of Alan Lakein — you'll need about an hour of uninterrupted time. You'll also need a pen, some paper, and some sort of stopwatch. When you're ready, do the following:
At the top of a blank page, write this question: What are my lifetime goals? For five minutes, list whatever comes to mind. Imagine you don't have to worry about money, now or in the future. What would you do with the rest of your life? Don't filter yourself. Fill the entire page, if you can. When you're finished, spend an additional five minutes reviewing these goals. Make any changes or additions you see fit. Before moving on, note the three goals that seem most important to you.
On a new piece of paper, write: How would I like to spend the next five years? Spend five minutes answering this question. Be honest. Don't list what you will do or should do, but what you'd like to do. Suspend judgment. When your time is up, again spend five minutes reviewing and editing your answers. As before, highlight the three goals that most appeal to you.
Start a page with the question: How would I live if I knew I'd be dead in six months? Imagine that your doctor says you've contracted a new disease that won't compromise your health now, but which will suddenly strike you dead in exactly six months. There is no cure. How would you spend the time you have left? What would you regret not having done? You know the drill: Take five minutes to brainstorm as many answers as possible, then five minutes to go back through and consider your responses. When you're ready, indicate the three things that matter most to you.
At the top of a fourth piece of paper, write: My Most Important Goals. Below that, copy over the goals you marked as most important from answering each of the three questions. (If any answers are similar, combine them into one. For instance, if “write a novel” was one of your top answers to the first question and “writing fiction” was a top answer to the second, you'd merge these into a single goal.)
The final step requires a bit of creativity. Label a fifth piece of paper My Mission. Look through your list of most important goals. Does one stand out from the others? Can you see a common thread that connects some (or all) of the goals? Using your list as a starting point, draft a Mission Statement. Your Mission Statement should be short — but not too short. It might be anywhere from a few words to a few sentences. Take as much time as you need to make this the best, most compelling paragraph you can write.
When you've finished, set aside your Mission Statement and walk away. Go about the rest of your life for a few days. Don't forget about your mission, but keep it in the back of your mind.
After you've had time to stew on things, sit down and review what you've written. How does your Mission Statement make you feel? Can you improve upon it? You want a vision to give you a sense of purpose that drives you day-in and day-out, through good times and bad.
Do all of this (and more) and you could save hundreds of dollars a year.
And that’s great. I know lots of folks that enjoy growing a lush garden resulting in delicious produce (that can be canned or frozen) in due season. There are people in my life that find doing laundry calming, and others that will happily take on any domestic project that comes their way. Personally, I enjoy doing the dishes.
While I’m happy spending time on the things that I like, there are certain things that I hate doing — and that I will happily outsource to others.
Am I perfectly capable of cleaning my home and mowing the lawn? Sure. But why should I spend the time doing these things when I can pay someone else to do them? Here are some reasons I spend money to outsource parts of my life.
I Can Make More Money
The number-one reasons I outsource tasks I could do myself is that by doing so, I make more money. Wait, what?
When I talk about spending $200 a month on lawn care or $20 an hour on house cleaning services, many people are surprised to find that I make money by outsourcing these mundane chores.
I’m a freelance writer, so any time I free up can be used to write an article, interview a source, or work on edits. Rather than spending two hours cleaning the house, I can pay someone $40 to do it instead — and make $500. That’s a net gain of $460 each week, or about $1,840 per month.
There have been times that I take my laptop with me to get the oil changed. Jiffy Lube takes care of it for $65 and I can do work amounting to about $200 in the time I’m sitting there. That’s a net gain of $135.
In the past, I’ve used services like Blue Apron and HelloFresh to plan my meals and deliver the ingredients. That saves me the time and hassle of meal planning and grocery shopping, and allowed me to focus on other things. However, with my travel schedule, these types of services haven’t been meeting my needs.
Instead, with Instacart now available in my area, I’ve switched to getting someone else to do the shopping, while I use a service like $5 Meal Plan to plan my meals and provide me with an ingredient list.
No matter how I do it, though, the cost of these services is much less than what I can make doing a little extra work. Whether you want more time to work on a side gig, or take action to grow your business, the investment you make in outsourcing can yield dividends later.
I Have More Time with My Son
I’ll be honest. I don’t spend every minute I save by outsourcing on work or business activities. I also use the time I save on things that matter to me.
In the past, my son and I spent a portion of each Saturday cleaning the house. That’s not a super fun way to make memories with your teenager. Now, instead of spending time on chores, we can go to the museum, take a hike, or ride our bikes. It’s possible to spend the whole afternoon playing board games if we want.
J.D.'s note: I once played Exploding Kittens with Miranda. When she saw that I liked the game, she simply gave me her personal copy. Wow. How cool is that?
Plus, now that my son is doing more with his friends and has the independence of a car, being able to spend time when we can is especially important. We can go out to lunch, and he can still have time to go to the movies with his friends later. Sometimes we work on our small herb garden together in the morning, and he plays video games with his friends in the afternoon.
When my son wants to talk, I don’t have to cut him off because errands are weighing on me. Instead, I can focus on my son, knowing that I’ve outsourced tasks like grocery shopping and cleaning to others.
I Have More Time (and Money) for Self-Care
Freeing up time also means I can make more money while having more time for me.
Let’s use my above example of cleaning the house. If I used all the cleaning time to work, that would get me an extra $1,840 per month. However, I don’t use all that time to work. I probably use about half the time to work. That’s still an extra $920 per month — and an extra four hours.
I can do what I like with those four hours. Maybe I get two manicures in that month. That’s two hours gone, and $100. I don’t have to worry about it, though, because I used half the extra time already to make extra money.
Sometimes all I really want to do is just lay in bed for an extra hour and read. Or go to a movie by myself. Or, instead of work in the evening, binge-watch Netflix. Because I outsource mundane tasks that would otherwise fill my time, I can use half that saved time to make more money, and the rest of the time to do more of what I want, whether it’s baking cookies with my son, going out to lunch with a friend, or spending a Wednesday volunteering with a local service organization.
Outsourcing gives me more freedom and flexibility in my hours and in my spending. In fact, I recently discovered that the time I save (and the money I make) by having someone else handle the grocery shopping is just enough to cover personal training sessions each month. So now outsourcing has freed up the chance for me to improve my health.
Investing Extra Time and Money
I see outsourcing as a way to buy more time. And that makes it valuable. After all, time is a nonrenewable resource. That makes time more valuable than money. Purchasing that time allows me to make more choices and make the most of my time. Rather than spending time mowing the lawn or cleaning the house, I can make more money in a fraction of the time.
Take the lawn care, for example. It takes me about two hours a week to mow the lawn, trim the edges, and manage the weeds. That’s about eight hours a month from May through September, or five months. That’s 40 hours. I pay $200 per month, so $1,000 total. If I work half those hours, I can make about $5,000 extra dollars — and still have 20 hours left over to spread across those five months.
Because I outsource, I have extra time and extra money. I can use the extra time to invest in relationships with my loved ones, and to take extra time for myself. Those things pay dividends in goodwill with people I enjoy being with, as well as mental and physical health dividends for me.
The extra money can be invested as well. I might spend some of it on a trip to the spa, or to buy new camping gear, but a lot of it goes into my investment portfolio. Now that money is earning money, without the need for me to do more work for it. Or, I could take some of the money and invest it into my business, growing it so that it offers better returns down the road.
The benefits outsourcing has brought into my life by allowing me to buy more time — and use it in ways that are more profitable — have increased my quality of life, as well as improved my overall financial health.
Outsourcing in My Business
I’ve also found outsourcing helpful in my business. Over time, I’ve gradually outsourced social media posting, scheduling, podcast editing, tax preparation, and other tasks. Some of these tasks are outsourced to people, while others, like scheduling, are outsourced to free or low-cost software tools.
Just the time I save in posting on social media alone provides me with the ability to earn enough money to pay my social media manager and still have time and money left over for investment in other activities.
When outsourcing business tasks, it makes sense to identify your weaknesses. Rather than trying to turn your weaknesses into strengths, outsource your weaknesses and leverage your strengths into better profitably and improved outcomes.
J.D.'s note: This is precisely what's been going on behind the scenes at Get Rich Slowly for the past six months. My strength is writing. That's what I like to do, and that's what I'm good at. The rest of modern blogging isn't my forté. So, I brought on Tom to take care of marketing and monetization. We're working with other folks to handle social media, etc. I'm focusing on my strengths and outsourcing the rest. Speaking of Tom, he interviewed Miranda about this very topic on his MapleMoney Show podcast.
How to Start Outsourcing
I didn’t start by outsourcing everything all at once. I couldn’t afford it.
Instead, I chose one thing to outsource — one thing I could afford. At first, it was house cleaning every other week, while my son and I continued doing the weekly cleaning in between. However, after a few months of making extra money with the freed-up time, I was able to expand to the weekly house cleaning service.
Review the time you spend on various tasks. What could you be doing instead? Could you use the time more profitably? If so, consider outsourcing the task and using your newly-freed time to make extra money. Pretty soon, you could discover that the extra money allows you to outsource the next time-consuming and mundane task.
However, if there are things you like doing, even if they take up time, there’s nothing wrong with continuing to do them. Do what makes you happy. And outsource the mundane tasks that hold you back from a better quality of life.
A surprising thing happens to people in their forties. After working hard, buying a house, and starting a family, they suddenly realize that they'd better start being responsible with their money. They begin reading financial books and trying to learn how to set up a nest egg for themselves and their families. It's a natural part of growing older.
If you ask these people in their forties what their biggest life worry, the answer often is, quite simply, “money”. They want to learn to manage their money better, and they'll tell you how important financial stability is to them.
In the table below, researchers followed employees at companies that offered financial-education seminars. Despite the obvious need to learn about their finances, only 17% of company employees attended. This is a common phenomenon.
As Laura Levine of the Jump$tart Coalition told me — and I paraphrase — “Bob doesn't want to attend his 401(k) seminar because he's afraid he'll see his neighbor there…and that would be equivalent to admitting he didn't know about money for all those years.”
They also don't like to attend personal-finance events because they don't like to feel bad about themselves. But of those who did attend the employer event, something even more surprising happens.
Of the people who did not have a 401(k), 100% planned to enroll in their company's 401(k) offering after the seminar. Yet only 14% actually did.
Of those who already had a 401(k), 28% planned to increase their participation rate. 47% planned to change their fund selection (most likely because they learned they had picked the default money-market plan, which was earning them virtually nothing). But less than half of people actually made the change.
This is the kind of data that drives economists and engineers crazy, because it clearly shows that people are not rational. Yes, we should max out our 401(k) employer match, but billions of dollars are left on the table each year because we don't. Yes, we should start eating healthy and exercising more, but we don't.
Why not? Why wouldn't we do something that's objectively good for us?
Barriers are one of the implicit reasons you can't achieve your goals. These barriers can be psychological or profoundly physical, like something as simple as not having a pen when you need to fill out a form. But the underlying factor is that they are breathtakingly simple — and if I pointed them out to you about someone else, you would be sickened by how seemingly obvious they are to overcome.
It's easy to dismiss these barriers are trivial, and say, “Oh, that's so dumb!” when you realize that not having an envelope nearby could cost someone over $3,000. But it's true. And by the end of this article, you'll be able to identify at least three barriers in your own life — whether you want to or not.
Why People Don't Participate in Their 401(k)s
If you're like me, whenever you hear that one of your co-workers doesn't participate in their 401(k) — especially if there's an employer match — you scratch your head in confusion.
Even though this is free money, many people still don't participate. Journalists will cite intangibles like laziness and personal responsibility, suggesting that people are getting less responsible with their money over time. Hardly.
It turns out that getting people to enroll in their 401(k) is just plain hard. Using simple psychological techniques, however, we can dramatically increase the number of people who participate in their company's retirement plan. One technique, automatic enrollment, automatically establishes a retirement plan and contribution. You can opt out at any time, but you're enrolled by default.
Here's how it affects 401(k) enrollment. (“AE” = automatic enrollment.)
From 40% participation to nearly 100% in one example. Astonishing.
Today, J.D. has given me the opportunity to talk about one of the ways to drive behavioral change when it comes to your money. I call them barriers.
While I do this, I'm going to ask you for a favor. You'll see examples of people who lost thousands of dollars because they wouldn't spend one hour reading a form. It's easy to call these people “lazy” — and there's certainly an element of that — but disdainfully calling someone lazy doesn't explain the whole story. Getting people to change their behavior is extraordinarily hard — even if it will save them thousands of dollars or save their lives.
If it were easy, you would have a perfect financial situation: You'd have no debt, your asset allocation would be ideal and rebalanced annually, and you'd have a long-term outlook without worrying about the current economic crisis. You'd be at your college weight, with washboard abs and tight legs. You'd have a clean garage.
But you don't.
None of us are perfect. That's why understanding barriers is so important to changing your own behavior.
“Just Spend Less Than You Earn!”
There's something especially annoying about comments on personal-finance blogs. On nearly every major blog post I ever made, someone left a comment that goes like this: “Ugh, not another money tip. All you need to know is: spend less than you earn.”
Actually, it's not that simple. If that were the case, as I pointed out above, nobody would be in debt, overweight, or have relationship problems of any kind. Simply knowing a high-level fact doesn't make it useful. I studied persuasion and social influence in college and grad school, for example, but I still get persuaded all of the time.
These commenters make the common mistake of assuming that people are rational actors, meaning they behave as a computer model would predict. We know this is simply untrue: Books like Freakonomics and Judgment in Managerial Decision Making are great places to get an overview of our cognitive biases and psychological motivations.
For example, we say we want to be in shape, but we don't really want to go to the gym. (J.D. is a prime example of this, and he'll be the first to admit it.) We believe we're not affected by advertising, but we're driving a Mercedes or using Tupperware or wearing Calvin Klein jeans.
There are dramatic differences in what we say versus what we do. Often, the reason is so simple that we can't believe it would affect us. I call these barriers, and I've written about them before:
Last weekend, I went home to visit my family. While I was there, I asked my mom if she would make me some food, so like any Indian mom would, she cooked me two weeks' worth. I came back home skipping like a little girl.
Now here's where it gets interesting. When I got back to my place, I took the food out of the brown grocery bag and put the clear plastic bags on the counter. I was about to put the bags in the fridge but I realized something astonishing:
…if I got hungry, I'd probably go to the fridge, see the plastic bags, and realize that I'd have to (1) open them up and then I'd have to (2) open the Tupperware to (3) finally get to the food. And the truth was, I just wouldn't do it. The clear plastic bags were enough of a barrier to ignore the fresh-cooked Indian food for some crackers!!
Obviously, once I realized this, I tore the bags apart like a voracious wolf and have provided myself delicious sustenance for the past week.
I think the source of 95%+ of barriers to success is…ourselves. It's not our lack of resources (money, education, etc). It's not our competition. It's usually just what's in our own heads. Barriers are more than just excuses — they're the things that make us not get anything done. And not only do we allow them to exist around us, we encourage them. There are active barriers and passive barriers, but the result is still the same: We don't achieve what we want to.
I believe there are two kinds of barriers.
Active barriers are physical things like the plastic wrap on my food, or someone telling me that it'll never work, etc. These are hard to identify, but easy to fix. I usually just make them go away.
Passive barriers are things that don't exist, so they make your job harder. A trivial example is not having a stapler at your desk; imagine how many times a day that gets frustrating. For me, these are harder to identify and also harder to fix. I might rearrange my room to be more productive, or get myself a better pen to write with.
Today, I want to focus on passive barriers: what they are and how to overcome them.
How to Destroy Passive Barriers
Psychologists have been studying college students for decades to understand how to reduce unprotected sex. Among the most interesting findings, they pointed out that it would be rational for women to carry condoms with them, since often the sexual experiences they had were unplanned and these women can control the use of contraceptives.
Except for one thing.
When they asked college women why they didn't carry condoms with them, one young woman typified the responses: “I couldn't do that…I'd seem slutty.” As a result, she and others often ended up having unprotected sex because of the lack of a condom. Yes, technically they should carry condoms, just as both partners should stop, calmly go to the corner liquor store, and get protection. But often they don't.
In this case, the condom was the passive barrier: Because they didn't have it nearby and conveniently available, they violated their own rule to have safe sex.
Passive barriers exist everywhere. Let's look at some examples.
Passive Barriers in E-mail
I get emails like this all the time:
“Hey Ramit, what do you think of that article I sent last week? Any suggested changes?”
My reaction? “Ugh, what is he talking about? Oh yeah, that article on savings accounts…I have to dig that up and reply to him. Where is that? I'll search for it later. Marks email as unread”
Note: You can yell at me for not just taking the 30 seconds to find his email right then, but that's exactly the point: By not including the article in this followup email, he triggered a passive barrier of me needing to think about what he was talking about, search for it, and then decide what to reply to. The lack of the attached article is the passive barrier, and our most common response to barriers is to do nothing.
Passive Barriers on Your Desk
A friend of mine lost over $3000 because he didn't cash a check from his workplace, which went bankrupt a few months later. When I asked him why he didn't cash the check immediately, he looked at me and said, “I didn't have an envelope handy.” What other things do you delay because it's not convenient?
Passive Barriers to Exercise
I think back to when I've failed to hit my workout goals, and it's often the simplest of reasons. One of the most obvious barriers was my workout clothes. I had one pair of running pants, and after each workout, I would throw it in my laundry basket. When I woke up the next morning, the first thing I would think is: “Oh god, I have to get up, claw through my dirty clothes, and wear those sweaty pants again.”
Once I identified this, I bought a second pair of workout clothes and left them by my door each day. When I woke up, I knew I could walk out of my room, find the fully prepared workout bag and clothes, and get going.
Passive Barriers to Healthy Eating
Too many people create passive barriers to healthy eating. You're sitting at your desk at work and you get hungry. Rather than reach for a healthy snack (because you don't have one with you — a passive barrier), you go to the vending machine for a bag of Cheetos.
Here's a real-life example of passive barriers preventing J.D. from eating healthy. We were in Denver together in 2013 for a conference. During a long day with no breaks, he didn't have a healthy snack with him. But he did have Hostess Sno-Balls. Bad J.D. That's not even food.
J.D. needs to remove passive barriers to healthy eating
If you find yourself snacking on Cheetos (or Sno-Balls) all day at work, try this: Don’t take any spare change in your pockets for the vending machine. Even if you leave quarters in your car, that walk to the parking lot is barrier enough not to do it. Give yourself an alternative. Carry a healthy snack with you, like apple slices. Remove the passive barrier to eating healthy.
Applying Passive Barrier Theory to Your Own Life
As we've seen, the lack of having something nearby can have profound influences on your behavior. Imagine seeing a complicated mortgage form with interest rates and calculations on over 100 pages. Sure, you should calculate all of it, but if you don't have a calculator handy, the chances of your actually doing it go down dramatically.
Now, we're going to dig into areas where passive barriers are preventing you from making behavioral change — sometimes without you even knowing it.
Fundamentally, there are two ways to address a passive barrier.
You're missing something, so you add it to achieve your goals. For example, cutting up your fruit as soon as you bring it home from the grocery store, packing your lunches all at once, or re-adding the attachment to a followup email so the recipient doesn't have to look for it again.
Causing an intentional passive barrier by deliberately removing something. You put your credit card in a block of ice in the freezer to prevent overspending. (That's not addressing the cause, but it's immediately stopping the symptom.) Or you put your unhealthiest food on the other side of the house, so you have to walk to them. Or you install software like Freedom to force yourself not to browse Reddit three hours a day.
Personally, here are a few passive barriers I've identified (and removed) for myself: I keep my checkbook by my desk, because for the few bills I receive in the mail, I tend to never mail them in. I keep a gym bag of clothes ready to work out. And I cut up my fruit when I bring it home from the store, because I know I'll get lazy later.
Now let's see how this can work for you. Here's an exercise I'd like you to do:
Get a piece of paper and a pen — or open the note-taking app on your phone.
Identify ten things you would do if you were perfect. Don't censor. Just write what comes to mind. And focus on actions, not outcomes. Examples: “I'd work out four times per week, clean my garage by this Sunday, play with my daughter for 30 minutes each day, and check my spending once per week.”
Now, play the “Five Whys” game: Why aren't you doing each of these things?
Let's play out the last step with the example of exercising regularly. Let's assume I say that I want to exercise three times per week, but I only go twice per month. Let's do the Five Whys:
Why do I excercise only twice per month? Because I'm tired when I get home from work.
Why? Because I get home from work at 6 p.m.
Why? Because I leave late for work, so I have to put in eight hours.
Why? Because I don't wake up in time for my alarm clock.
Why? Hmm…Because when I get in bed, I watch Netflix for a couple of hours.
Here's a possible solution: Put the computer in the kitchen before you go to sleep → sleep earlier → come home from work at an earlier time → feel more rested → work out regularly.
That's a gross oversimplification, but you see what I mean.
Homework: Pick ten areas of your life that you want to improve. Force yourself to understand why you haven't done so already. Don't let yourself cop out: “I just don't want to” isn't the real reason. And once you find out the real reasons you haven't been able to check your spending, or cook dinner, or call your mom, you might be embarrassed at how simple it really was. Don't let that stop you. Passive barriers are valued in their usefulness, not in how difficult they are to identify.
The Bottom Line
Passive barriers are subtle factors that prevent you from changing your behavior. Unlike “active” barriers, passive barriers describe the lack of something, making them more challenging to identify. But once you do, you can immediately take action to change your behavior.
You can apply barriers to prevent yourself from spending money, cook and eat healthier, exercise more, stay in touch with your friends and family, and virtually any other behavior. You can do this with small changes or big ones. The important factor is to take action today.
A caveat: Sometimes people take this advice to mean, “The reason I haven't been sticking to my workout regimen is that I don't have the best running shoes. I should really go buy those $150 shoes I've been eyeing…that will help me change my behavior.”
Resolving passive barriers is not a silver bullet: Although they help, you'll be ultimately responsible for changing your own behavior. Instead of buying better shoes immediately, I'd recommend setting a concrete goal — “Once I run consistently for 20 days in a row, I'll buy those shoes for myself” — before spending on barriers. Most changes can be done with a minimum of expense.
J.D.'s note: This is one of my favorite guest articles in the history of Get Rich Slowly. It had a profound effect on me, my life, and my work. This piece was originally published on 17 March 2009. I'm reprinting it today to celebrate the newly-published second edition of Ramit's book, I Will Teach You to Be Rich [my review].
When I started Get Rich Slowly in 2006, I had no idea other money blogs existed. I'd been blogging about cats, computers, and comic books since 1997 — before blog was even a word! — and I thought my new venture might be the first blog about personal finance.
I was wrong.
I learned quickly that there were already dozens (dozens!) of people blogging about money on the interwebs. For instance:
Harlan Landes was writing at Consumerism Commentary. He now runs the Plutus Foundation, a financial literacy non-profit.
Jim Wang — a ginormous money nerd then, a ginormous money nerd now — was writing at Blueprint for Financial Prosperity. He now runs Wallet Hacks.
Instead, I Will Teach You to Be Rich has evolved as he's evolved. In recent years, Ramit has distanced himself from the world of personal finance. Nowadays, he's focused on the many different ways his readers can build a Rich Life.
In fact, “how to live a Rich Life” is the core theme of the brand-new second edition of I Will Teach You to Be Rich, the book. In 2009, Ramit wrote, “I Will Teach You to Be Rich is about sensible, banking, budgeting, saving, and investing.” In the 2019 edition, that's been changed to, “I Will Teach You to Be Rich is about using money to design your Rich Life.” I think you'll agree that this is a much more compelling theme.
If you've read my other book reviews, you'll note that I sometimes shy away from giving an overall evaluation, opting instead to talk about some aspect of the book I liked (or didn't). When this happens, it's usually because I don't think the book is that great.
I won't be coy today. I Will Teach You to Be Rich is one of the best personal-finance books on the market. It's great.
Let's take a closer look at why I like it so much.
Why Do You Want to Be Rich?
“Your goal probably isn't to become a financial expert,” Ramit writes at the start of I Will Teach You to Be Rich. “It's to live your life and let your money serve you.” His book aims to show you how to make that happen.
To start, he urges readers to not get hung up on minutiae. He warns them not to give in to modern “victim culture”. Instead, he wants people to put the excuses aside and agree to take an active role in building their financial future.
Crafting that future starts by asking a simple question: Why do you want to be rich? “When you picture your ideal life,” he asks, “what are you doing in it?” Similarly, I ask new GRS readers to take the time to write a personal mission statement. Ramit doesn't go that far, but he does urge his audience to do some self-reflection.
The bulk of the book is devoted to a “six-week action plan” designed to create a solid financial infrastructure.
Week one focuses on optimizing credit cards and improving your credit history.
Week two explains how to find great bank accounts, and how to negotiate away fees.
During week three, Ramit helps readers to open a 401(k) and/or a Roth IRA.
In week four, Ramit leads readers through he process of drafting a “conscious spending plan” so that they can make conscious choices about where their money goes.
Week five is all about connecting your new financial infrastructure, and automating it so that it hums along without intervention from you.
And the final week is an introduction to investing — how to use diversification and asset allocation to meet your investment goals.
This six-week action plan gives I Will Teach You to Be Rich a clear, logical structure. Having written one print money manual and two ebooks, I know how difficult this can be. (Of my books, only the Money Boss Manifesto has a structure I like.) Ramit gets this right, and it makes a huge difference.
The last few chapters cover miscellaneous subjects that couldn't be shoe-horned into this six-week program. Ramit discusses pre-nups, for instance, using his own recent marriage as an example. He explores student loans, taxes, and financial independence.
Plus, he includes an excellent eight-page section on salary negotiation. This is something for which he has a $588 for-profit course, yet he doesn't ever mention that course in the book. I appreciate that.
The Mad Fientist and me, working together in Edinburgh yesterday
Action Not Words
For me, the primary strength of I Will Teach You to Be Rich is (and always has been) that it's packed with actionable advice. Too many money books talk about terms and cover general concepts but never give readers specific steps they can take to implement this info in their lives.
Ramit, on the other hand, is all about action.
In I Will Teach You to Be Rich, he says which credit cards, apps, and bank accounts he uses (and he tells you why). He shares several word-for-word scripts that you can use to dispute charges, get fees waived, and more.
He urges readers to focus on Big Wins, not on small (but painless) actions that have little real impact on their financial future. (What's the point of clipping coupons when your mortgage debt is crushing you? You need a new house, not cheaper toilet paper!)
He explains why it's okay to spend deliberately on the things you love as long as you're careful to cut out the stuff that doesn't matter.
Does all of this sound familiar? Does it sound like the stuff I say all of the time here at Get Rich Slowly? That's because it is. My financial philosophy is closely aligned with Ramit's. And, in fact, key parts of it actually come from from Ramit. (He's where I learned about conscious spending, for instance, and about building barriers.)
In short, Ramit focuses on the choices that will create the greatest improvements in his readers lives. He doesn't pretend to cover everything. He's only interested in the 20% of actions that will help folks achieve 80% of results. He ignores the rest.
Living a Rich Life
Ramit has made significant changes to the new edition of I Will Teach You to Be Rich. He's corrected errors. He's added new material. And he's changed the overall theme.
In this new version, he's deliberately emphasized and expanded on his Rich Life concept, which was little more than an afterthought in the first edition. During the intervening ten years, “living a Rich Life” has become the focus of Ramit's financial philosophy.
Money Habits: How to Create a Rich Life with Ramit Sethi and lewis Howes - YouTube
He's also taken this opportunity to fix problems with the original. “Ten years ago, I made three mistakes when writing the first edition of this book,” Ramit says. Those mistakes?
“I didn't cover the emotions around money…If you don't tackle your invisible money scripts, none of it matters.” Amen! Ramit calls them “invisible money scripts”. I call them money blueprints. We both agree they have a profound influence on your attitudes and actions with money.
“The second mistake I made was being too overbearing. The truth is, you can choose what your Rich Life is and how you get there.” In other words: Do what works for you — our philosophy here at GRS since day one. Note that this also signals a softening of Ramit's famously abrasive delivery style. He still doesn't hesitate to say what he thinks, but he's no longer so pushy about it.
Ramit says that his third mistake was quoting actual rates and numbers. The world of personal finance is in constant flux. A decade ago, you could find 5% interest rates on savings accounts. Not anymore. A decade ago, the annual Roth IRA contribution was $5000. Not anymore. So, in the second edition of his book, Ramit tries to steer clear of quoting numbers that might be outdated next year. Or next week.
In 2009, many GRS readers complained about the book's tone. They found Ramit's “in your face” style annoying. While the book's voice is still breezy, the irreverence and silliness are much more subdued. You won't find many lines like this anymore: “Why does just about everything written about personal finance make me want to paint myself with honey and jump into a nest of fire ants?”
Here's a final (but vital) change: The book's numbers and examples have been altered to appeal to a broader audience. The original edition was clearly aimed at young adults. The book's examples featured folks aged 25 to 35. The new edition deliberately includes examples for an older audience.
A Rose By Any Other Name
I had only two real complaints about the first edition of I Will Teach You to Be Rich. Like a lot of people, I didn't care for the tone. But I also didn't like the way Ramit sometimes plays word games.
The tone of the new edition is much improved, as I've mentioned, but the word games remain.
Ramit pretends to hate budgets, for instance, writing: “I hate budgeting. ‘Budgeting' is the worst word in the history of the world…Because we know that budgets don't work, I'm going to show you a better way.”
First, budgets do work. According to The Millionaire Next Door, a majority of millionaires have a budget. (Of those who don't, many others create “an artificial economic environment of scarcity” that mimics a budget.)
Bad budgets don't work. Good ones do. (We looked at how to budget effectively last week.)
Second, Ramit's alternative to budgeting is…budgeting. He calls his budget a “conscious spending plan” but…it's a budget. It's a good budget explicitly based on the 60% Solution. But it's still a budget. (What's more, he advocates You Need a Budget and the envelope system!)
I don't like this sort of semantic gymnastics. It's pointless.
Really, though, this is a trivial complaint, something that'd only bother a money nerd like me. If calling his budget a “conscious spending plan” will help his readers improve their personal finances, great. Go for it. Play those silly word games.
Ramit’s book is great, but it’s not for everyone. First of all, it’s targeted almost exclusively at young adults. If you’re under 25 and single, and if you make a decent living, this book is perfect. But if you’re 45 and married with two children, and if you struggle to make ends meet, this book is less useful.
The second edition of I Will Teach You to Be Rich is different. This time around, I think the book would be useful for somebody who's 45 and married with two children. There's no doubt that the tone and content still skew young, but not in a way that's off-putting for old fogies like me.
Over the past decade, I've recommended (and handed out) I Will Teach You to Be Rich to many young adults. In the decade to come, I'm confident that I'll be recommending (and handing out) copies of the new edition to people of all ages.
Why? Because there's no bullshit in this book. There's no hedging, no obfuscation, no fluff. This book is smart, bold, and practical. It's filled with tips that actually work.
Personally, I'm sad that Ramit isn't as involved in the personal-finance space as he used to be. There are few people with original things to say about money. He's one one of them. Whereas most people parrot tropes without thinking, Ramit is unafraid to challenge conventional assumptions. His voice is valuable. I wish we heard more of it.