I Don’t Speak Chinese

For my birthday, Mom gave me a gift card to Land’s End. (Thanks, Mom!) Because my five-year-old slippers are dirty and stinky, I ordered a pair of mocassins. I didn’t expect them to be crafted by Native Americans, of course, but it was a little surprising to find that they were made in China.

I wore them for a couple of days with an annoying tag sticking out of each slipper. Finally, I tore the tags out in frustration. Before I threw them away, I checked to see if there was any important information. Turns out, it’s hard to tell. The tags are cryptic.

“What does this mean?” I said, showing a tag to Kris.

“I don’t know,” she said. “The slipper is made out of waffles?”

Anyone have a clue?

Pok Pok

On Presidents Day, Kris and I met Lisa and Craig at Pok Pok, a popular Asian restaurant here in Portland. We showed up at 8pm, thinking it would be easy to get a table on a Monday night. We were wrong. The wait was 90 minutes. Disappointed, we dined at Nostrana instead.

But I couldn’t shake the idea of Pok Pok. I love Thai and Vietnamese food. Kris doesn’t care for Asian food, so I’m always happy when she’ll let me choose it for our dinners out. When Tiffany offered to take me out to dinner for my birthday, I chose Pok Pok.

This time we showed up at 5:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. There was still a 20-minute wait (Pok Pok doesn’t take reservations except for parties of five or more), but that was reasonable. We sat outside in a covered waiting area. Once we entered the restaurant, we understood why the wait was so long: the place is tiny, seating maybe 30 people (with a few more spots at the bar).

Right away, I knew I was going to love the place. The smells were amazing. I loved the cramped space and the low ceiling. It didn’t feel like any other restaurant in Portland.

The dinner menu is filled with J.D.-friendly foods: lots of meat and sauces and rice, and only a few vegetables. Because servings are relatively small, family-style dining is encouraged. We ordered:

  • The whole Kai Yaang (a charcoal-roasted game hen)
  • Ike’s vietnamese fish sauce wings (named one of the ten-best restaurant dishes in America by Food & Wine)
  • Duck leg in a savory broth
  • A flank steak (I think) salad

Wow.

The food was amazing. It was so good, I had to text Craig in the middle of the meal to let him know about it. (Craig and Lisa, let’s make it a priority to go there together, eh?) Plenty of lime and pepper and garlic and fish sauce, all lathered over a variety of poultry. What’s not to love?

The wings, especially, were delicious. As many of you know, I am a connoisseur of chicken wings. (Or maybe that’s a “sucker for”, I’m not sure.) I’m a fan of the smokey wings at the Oaks Bottom Pub. I appreciate most wings. But none compare to Ike’s Sticky Wings. Again, they’re simply amazing, coated with garlic and caramelized fish sauce. Delicious. “Hm,” said Kris. “Even I like these.”

In fact, after we left, Kris confessed, “I guess we can come back to Pok Pok. For Asian food, that’s not so bad.” Not so bad. It rocks!

How much did I like Pok Pok? I liked it so much that I went back again yesterday to have lunch with Andrew. If I could, I’d go there again today. J.D. has a new favorite restaurant.

You can read a rave review of Pok Pok at An Exploration of Portland Food and Drink.

Goodbye My Lover

Last fall on our trip to Lincoln City with Mac and Pam, I witnessed one of those small perfect moments that linger in memory.

After clam chowder at Mo’s, we stopped at Cold Stone Creamery for dessert. It was about 7:30 on a Friday night, and the place was dead. We were the only customers.

We placed our orders with the young woman at the counter, While she scooped and folded our ice cream, I noticed her co-worker in the back room. This other young woman was making an ice cream cake, shaping it with a long spatula-like tool. As she worked, she sang to the music on the loudspeaker. She was completely absorbed in the moment: building the cake, singing with passion. She was unaware of our presence.

The song was a plaintive story of love and loss. The male vocalist had a thin, high voice perfectly matched to the subject matter.

“Who’s singing this?” I asked.

“I think it’s James Blunt,” Mac said. I had never heard of him. “Pam likes another one of his songs — ‘You’re Beautiful’.”

I continued to watch the young woman as she sang and built her cake. When the song was over, she set down the spatula, pulled off her gloves, walked to the stereo, and played the song again. She walked back to her work area, pulled on her gloves, and picked up her spatula. And she sang: “Goodbye my lover, goodbye my friend. You have been the one, you have been the one for me.”

This little scene occurred five months ago, yet I think of it at least once a week. What was the story there? Had the young woman recently suffered some sort of heartbreak? Or did she just love the song? Either way, the moment is burned on my brain.

An Easter Cartoon

When I was in college, I subscribed to The New Yorker just for the cartoons. now I subscribe to it because I like the articles, reviews, and stories. The cartoons are an added bonus. Sometimes, though, they’re the best thing in the issue. This, for example, is one of the funniest cartoons I’ve ever seen:

As I told Kris the funniest part of this cartoon is the Easter Bunny’s limp body. And hidden face. Great work by the artist. I love humor that skewers sacred cows. Or sacred bunnies.

The Negative Saving Rate and the Age of Easy Credit

My generation doesn’t know how to be thrifty,” writes Eve Conant in the current issue of Newsweek. She describes how her grandfather — who fled his native Ukraine during World War II — would store plastic bags filled with leftover bread crusts in the closet of his new home in California, a house he bought with $13,000 cash. “He couldn’t shake old habits,” Conant writes. “Or were they old virtues?”

Now, many decades after Arkady’s arrival, I also have plastic bags in my closet. But they’re filled with nice clothes I’m giving away because my wardrobe is too full. The biggest life issue facing me when I open my closet door is whether to put on an Ann Taylor jacket or a Gap sweater. As talk of recession and belt-tightening makes headlines, I wonder where and how I lost my grandfather’s sense of thrift.

These sentiments aren’t exactly new. For decades — centuries, even — people have complained that younger generations haven’t inherited the financial wisdom of their elders. During the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin bemoaned the lack of money skills among the American colonists. But these warnings took on greater urgency with the dawn of the age of easy credit. In the introduction to Ain’t We Got Fun?, Barbara Solomon writes:

Prior to the 1920s the public had held generally negative attitudes toward credit purchasing. Young people were warned against burdening themselves with a lifetime of debt and were made fearful of losing their possessions should they fail to make payments on time. In the Twenties all that was turned around.

Advertisers promised an acquisitive public that it needed no money down and could get liberal terms. Millions of ready buyers were convinced that there was no need to deprive themselves of the magnificent new appliances and machines of this age of progress. In 1927 six billion dollars’ worth of goods (about 15 percent of all sales) were bought on installment plans. And the factories kept on producing more merchandise.

The general sense of prosperity, coupled with the disillusionment of wartime idealism, became the basis of a new theme that dominated the age. The mass of Americans believed that they had an inalienable right to the good life and particularly to “a good time”. And a good time they determined to have.

Never before had a generation set out to be so self-consciously different from their forebears.

What had been one of American history’s recurring motifs now became a primary theme. Attitudes toward money, debt, and credit actually did begin to change. During the next several decades, the use of credit lost its stigma; it became an accepted — even celebrated — way of life.

In Conant’s Newsweek article (which I recommend highly), the author worries that this lifestyle of debt has made her generation ill-equipped to handle financial hardship. “How often do the words ‘frugal’ or ‘thrifty’ come up in conversation, especially as a compliment?” she wonders. From her story:

“People in their 30s haven’t really experienced a significant or long recessionary period,” says consumer behaviorist Larry Compeau of Clarkson University. “I am concerned that they won’t be able to respond quickly enough to mitigate what may be the damage ahead. Not only do people under 40 save less, but they have less to save.

My worry is not that we’re saving less, it’s that we’re no longer saving at all. The personal saving rate in the United States has been declining for years. In the 1970s and early 1980s, it frequently climbed above ten percent. More recently, it has hovered around zero. But the general trend is downward. Americans are not saving.

 

The personal saving rate began to drop in the mid-1980s. A 2002 publication [PDF] from the Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco notes three possible causes:

  • The “wealth effect”: When people become richer (or perceive themselves to become richer), they spend more.
  • Americans have become more productive and are, in general, earning higher wages. If they believe these increased incomes are likely to continue, they’re willing to spend more because they believe they’ll have money in the future.
  • Easy access to credit. Though the first major credit card was created in 1958, and use grew in the sixties and seventies, credit cards didn’t play a prominent role in American life until the 1980s.

Though the Federal Reserve Board believes consumer credit plays some part in the low saving rate, it isn’t considered a primary factor. I’m not convinced. The total level of consumer credit outstanding has waxed even as the saving rate has waned. I realize that correlation does not imply causation, but I’d love to see more information about how the following graph relates to the first:


From what I understand, this does not include debt secured by real estate.

 

What does all this mean? Does it matter to you and me? Is the subprime debacle related to personal saving at all? Could the stock market collapse? Will the credit industry implode? And what happens if the worst comes to pass?

I don’t know.

The financial picture seems bleak. Even the most optimistic believe we’re in for a couple years of rough times financially. The pessimistic are whispering we could be heading for an economic collapse to rival the Great Depression. In either case, prudence would indicate that it’s time to buckle down.

For myself, I will continue following the tenets of the “get rich slowly” philosophy. I’m going to stick to the basics. I’ve shed my non-mortgage debt, and I don’t intend to take on any more. I will continue to save. I’ll stick with the frugality that has served me well over the past three years. I will live below my means. If my friends ask my advice, I’ll recommend that they do the same.

Now is not the time for $2,500 plasma televisions. Nor is it yet time to store bread in the closet. But it is time to stop spending and to begin saving. Just like our grandparents did.

Note: Please see the comments for some important clarifications of these economic notions. For example, real-life economist JerichoHill writes: “The Personal Saving Rate is a very poor metric. Most folks save via IRA and 401K. So we should look at that savings rate, which is the National Saving Rate. The NSR shows the same disturbing downward trend, but is the more proper metric to use, in my opinion.”

 

This doesn’t change my primary point — that a return to frugality and thrift is the best way to cope with financial hard times.

How to Speak

Somebody — David Hatch? — sent me a link to a great video presentation a couple weeks ago. In this lecture, Patrick Winston of M.I.T. offers tips on how to give an effective talk. Winston’s remarks are geared specifically toward new teachers, training them how to give collegiate lectures. But I think they’re applicable to everyone.

As I delve further into this full-time blogging gig, I’m going to be required to do some public speaking. Just this past Sunday, KATU e-mailed to ask if they could interview me about the recession. I was busy and so declined, but it’s just a matter of time before I’m going to find myself in front of a camera. I want to be ready. I don’t want to crash and burn like I did on live radio in Seattle.

During my senior year of college, I took four speech communications classes. I loved them. I did well. Had I realized I enjoyed speech earlier, I would have tried to complete a fifth class, which would have given me a speechcom minor.

Because of this past experience, I’m not worried about speaking in front of small audiences. Later this month, I’ll give a presentation to a small group in San Francisco. I can do that. But the thought of speaking to many people — such as a radio or a television audience — paralyzes me.

It’s likely that I’ll join Toastmasters at some point (Dave, are you still going?), but until then, I’m researching other methods of learning. This video presentation is a great start.

Dark Safeway

The muzak at the local Safeway is usually pretty innocuous: Neil Diamond, The Capenters, maybe a little Rod Stewart or Olivia Newton-John to spice things up. Tonight, though, it was like Dark Safeway.

First they played Def Leppard. Then Heart’s “Barracuda”. Then “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers. I’m no prude, but the latter song is wholly inappropriate for a family grocery store. The tune is thrashy and the vocals strident. That’s enough to set me on edge right away. But the lyrics just put it over the top:

It started out with a kiss

How did it end up like this?

It was only a kiss

It was only a kiss

Now I’m falling asleep

And she’s calling a cab

While he’s having a smoke

And she’s taking a drag

Now they’re going to bed

And my stomach is sick

And it’s all in my head

But she’s touching his chest now

He takes off her dress now

I expected the next song to be “Add It Up” by Violent Femmes!

Swimming Goggles and the Tyranny of Choice

If you’ve been following along at Get Fit Slowly, then you know I recently began a health and fitness program. Yes, I know I’ve started these many times in the past, but this time feels different. This time feels like 1997, the year I lost 40 pounds. My entire mindset seems to have changed.

I’m following Bill Phillips’ Body for Life program, which contains two components: diet and exercise.

Body for life

The dietary component of this plan is pretty straightforward. Participants are supposed to eat six small meals per day. Each meal should consist of one portion protein and one portion carbohydrate (where a portion is roughly the size of your hand or fist). An extra vegetable can be eaten with two meals each day. Participants are encouraged to drink as much water as possible. Finally, everybody can take one free day per week on which they don’t worry about following the plan.

None of that is revolutionary, of course. The fitness plan is pretty standard, too, except for the aerobics. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, participants lift weights, alternating between upper- and lower-body workouts. (If I do lower body on Friday, for example, then I do upper body the following Monday.)

Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday are set aside for aerobics. Phillips recommends just twenty minutes of aerobic activity at a time, but each of those twenty minutes is carefully prescribed. One begins moderately but proceeds to exercise more vigorously until near peak effort, then reduces to moderate effort again to repeat the cycle.

All of this has worked fine so far. I’ve enjoyed the program, and have been able to stick with it.

I’m not so good at the twenty minute intensity intervals for the aerobics, though. I may be circumventing the intended effects, but I’m instead using my aerobic days to do traditional aerobics, the sort with which I am familiar. I might, for example, spend an hour on the stationary recumbent bike.

I’ve been looking for an aerobic exercise for my upper body (which is incredibly weak). All I can come up with is swimming. I’ve always considered swimming to be something for when I’m in peak condition. (I have a sliding scale: biking, running, swimming. The fitter I am, the further along that scale I can move.) But I’ve decided that I’m going to try to do some swimming regardless of my condition.

Buying goggles

As a result — and the entire reason I’m writing this entry! — I made a trip to G.I. Joe’s today to pick up some swimming goggles.

“Where are they?” asked Kris.

“I don’t know. Let’s start over here,” I said, pointing to the right, “and go ’til we find them.”

We walked past the biking stuff, the weight-lifting equipment, the team sports equipment, the walking equipment, the hunting equipment, the camping equipment, the auto parts, the kayak equipment, and then we came to the swimming stuff.

Just to the left of where we’d started, I found an endcap with about a dozen different types of goggles. I began to browse through them, looking for a pair I thought I’d work. I didn’t know what I was looking for, though. I don’t know anything about swimming goggles.

“What’s the difference between the Baja and the Baja Jr.?” I pondered aloud.

“I don’t know,” Kris said from around the corner, “but there are more goggles over here.”

Indeed there were. There were another 30 types of goggles of all colors, shapes, and sizes. Kris grabbed a pair. “Buy these,” she said, handing me the Speedo Hydrospex.

“Why should I buy those?” I asked. “The lenses are blue. Why would I want blue lenses?” I put them back and began to look through the rack. The choices seemed endless, and there was no way for me to evaluate the options. What made a $20 pair of goggles better than a $10 pair? Why did some have blue lenses or black lenses or pink lenses? Did it matter what type of headstrap the goggles had? I knew I wanted anti-fog goggles, but that was my only requirement. (I remember how annoying it was to have the goggles fog up when in the pool.)

“I can’t decide,” I said. “I’m just going to buy the Hydrospex.”

The moral

The crazy thing is that if I had only been given three choices, it would have been easy for me to make a decision. I feel qualified to choose between three types of swimming goggles. But when there are 30 choices, I’m all at sea. When there are 30 choices, there are so many subtle variations between the models that I have no hope of differentiating between them.

(Yes, I’m well aware there’s an entire book on this subject, thanks.)

Excited and Scared: One Week as a Full-Time Blogger

I’ve had a week now to adjust to the idea that I’m a full-time blogger, that I’m completely in control of my financial success or failure. To be honest, I’m both excited and scared.

I had the same job for sixteen years. I’ve never made a career change. I’m sure that many of you have moved or started a new job and felt similar fears. I need to realize that my fears are normal, and that this change is not irrevocable. I don’t want to make this sound like I’m having second thoughts —I’m not.

I’m excited to be pursuing my dreams, and I’m committed to making Get Rich Slowly a fantastic place to find personal finance information. I just need to make some mental adjustments to my new reality.

No cost savings
Some books argue that you can save significantly by quitting your day job, but I’m not convinced this is true. It might be true for a two-income couple with young children, but it’s not true for me. Not only will I lose the income from my day-job, but Kris and I both suspect household expenses will increase.

After one week, I already know our utility bill will go up. It’s fine for us to leave the thermostat set at 54 degrees when nobody’s home, but when I’m trying to write, that’s too cold. I bundle up to keep warm, but all the same, I need to turn up the heat a little.

I never spent a lot to go out to eat with co-workers, so my food costs were pretty low while on the job. Now that I’m trying to eat healthfully, our grocery bill will probably rise. I don’t have kids, so there are no daycare expenses I can cut. I already shop for clothes at thrift stores, so the savings on my wardrobe will be minimal, as well.

The only real economy will come in automobile expenses. The box factory was exactly 20 miles from my house, so I’ll be saving about $14/day in transportation expenses (fuel and maintenance), or about $3500 per year. (My car costs about 36.1 cents per mile to run.)

Potential problems
As you might expect, I’ve tried to be methodical about this move. Because I’m so eager for this to succeed, I’ve thought a lot about potential trouble spots, and I’ve tried to be sure that I have a plan for addressing them. Future concerns include:

  • Health insurance. For now, I’m covered on a plan through Kris’ job. What happens when she retires? What happens if she changes jobs? This isn’t something we have to figure out immediately, but it’s a concern for the future.
  • Personal savings. I’ve managed to rebuild my savings since encountering car trouble in early January, but I’m still short of the $10,000 I wanted to have set aside before quitting my job. I’m confident that I’ll have this by the middle of the year, but I’m still taking a risk by not having that money set aside first.
  • Income. The income from my web sites fluctuates. Some months it’s much higher than I need; sometimes it’s low enough to worry me. I’ve calculated how much I need to earn per day to replace my $42,000/year salary from the box factory, and so far I’m meeting that goal.
  • Expenses. My spending doesn’t worry me too much, but I’m continuing to track it closely. I spent the past two years reducing my lifestyle, cutting unnecessary expenses. This frugality will ease my mind as I begin to work from home.
  • Work schedule. For the past year, I’ve basically been working non-stop. Every spare moment has been spent on this site. I’m still working on it all the time. (Have I become a workaholic?) I need to develop a more realistic schedule that allows me to have time for family and friends.
  • Social life. Many people who work from home have warned me that it’s important to get out and be social. After just a week, I can see that they’re right. I need contact with people. How can I get this contact without spending money? Maybe I’ll take a class or two. Maybe I’ll do volunteer work.

I feel confident about our plan for each of these points. I’m particularly excited about our aggressive savings. In fact, I don’t have any specific worries about writing full time — only a generalized fear of the future.

Part of the problem may be that I no longer have a long-term goal. For three years, I was working to pay off debt. That goal kept me focused. When I became debt-free, my goal became to quit my day job. I’ve done that now, too. I don’t know what to do next. I have some short-term goals, but no longer have a single over-arching purpose. I need to find that purpose.

Words of wisdom
I spent part of Friday evening talking with Bruce, the father of a friend. We talked about exercise, we talked about investing and retirement, and we discussed my move to full-time writer.

“I’ve been writing on the web for over a decade,” I told him. “I’ve been writing daily about personal finance for nearly two years. You’d think this move would be a no-brainer. But the truth is I’m scared. It was one thing to have Get Rich Slowly as a hobby — it’s completely different to make it my full-time job. Making this leap is tough.”

Bruce nodded. “It’s always scary to try something new,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what. You’re doing the right thing. It’s scary now, but imagine how scared you would be to make this move in five years. Or ten. I think it’s great that you’re giving this a shot. What do you have to lose?”

He’s right. What do I have to lose? Nothing. Even if I fail, I succeed. I will have pursued my dream. If I come up short, I’ll have learned things for the future.

Where I’d really lose is by not pursuing my dream. When I’m on my deathbed, I’m not going to think, “Damn. I wish I hadn’t tried to write full-time — I should have stayed at the box factory.” But I very well might have thought, “Damn. I wonder what would have happened if I had tried to write full-time instead of staying at the box factory.”

To infinity, and beyond!
Ultimately, despite my fears, I’m doing the right thing. It’ll take a couple of weeks to work through my nervousness and trepidation. But I’m living the life I want, and that’s what is important.

Your first months, or even years, of being jobless will require adjustments of all kinds. You’ll be exposed to new people and you’ll be learning new skills. You’ll be drawing a new map, one that will take you places you’ve never been before. If you treat all of this as an adventure — which it certainly is — you…will be able to look back fondly when you tell the story of your early days of making a living without a job. — from Making a Living Without a Job by Barbara J. Winter

In the past month, I’ve done a lot of reading about nontraditional jobs (like writing a blog). Some of the books I’ve found useful include:

Each of these books was recommended by a different Get Rich Slowly reader. Thanks to everyone who has provided advice and suggestions. Your support makes all the difference!

Noise Pollution

It’s one o’clock on Sunday afternoon. I’m working on a long-delayed post for Get Rich Slowly about my fears over becoming a full-time blogger. This post has been weeks in coming, and I think I’m finally getting it.

I’ve got my radio tuned to the dance music station to give me a constant beat in the background. I’m focused on my writing.

Except Kris is listening to her weekly “Car Talk” podcast in her office. Argh! The noise pollution! Over everything, I can hear the maniacal duck-like laughter of the Magliozzi brothers.

Quack quack quack quack quack.

(Kris loves “Car Talk” and “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”. These two programs are broadcast back-to-back from 10am to noon on Saturday mornings on our public radio station. If she misses them for some reason, she downloads the free podcasts from iTunes. I think “Wait Wait” is pretty funny, but “Car Talk” drives me nuts.)