Why I Plan to Track My Spending During 2017

One of my goals for the coming year is to track all of my earning and spending. I’ve had a few folks ask me why I want to do this. “Aren’t you financially independent?” they ask. “If that’s the case, then why do you care what you spend?”

Simple.

Financial independence isn’t some magic place where you no longer have to worry about money. Reaching FI doesn’t give you a license to spend on whatever you want, consuming every luxury in the world. Financial independence only means you have enough saved (and invested) to support your current standard of living for the rest of your life — given some reasonable assumptions.

Using my roadmap to financial freedom, financial abundance is the state of never having to worry about money again. At this point, you’ve saved so much money you can do whatever you want without worrying about the financial consequences. I’m not there yet…and I probably never will be.

Here’s the thing about financial independence: You can lose it.

Say, for instance, you’ve amassed a net worth of about $1,500,000 (which happens to be close to the size my own nest egg) and you spend $36,000 per year (which is what I consider my typical spend rate). In this case, you have indeed achieve financial independence. With the parameters and assumptions we typically use here at Money Boss, a nest egg of $1.5 million ought to support annual spending of around $60,000.

But say you were to move from Omaha to someplace more expensive — someplace like San Francisco. And say that in addition to a jump in cost of living, you also experienced increased pressure to spend when you’re hanging out with your new friends. If you suddenly found your annual budget was $100,000 (or more!), that net worth of $1.5 million no longer puts you in the category of financial independence. You were FI in Nebraska, but you’re not FI in northern California.

Sure, you probably still have Financial Security with $100,000 in spending on $1.5 million of net worth. Your savings and investments will likely cover basic needs. But because you’ve changed your lifestyle, you’re no longer truly financially independent.

Now, I haven’t moved cross country to a more expensive city. I still live in Portland (which is plenty costly). I still walk most of the time. I’m still fairly frugal. But in the five years since I last logged my money moves, a lot of things have changed in my life.

  • I moved out of my cheap apartment and bought a condo. I paid for the place outright, but between utilities, maintenance, and HOA, it costs a lot to live here!
  • I swapped a low-rent neighborhood with lots of cheap places to shop and eat for a fancier area where restaurants are more expensive and all of the supermarkets feature boutique organic food.
  • I went from being a newly-divorced middle-aged man to dating somebody long-term. Expectations are different in a relationship than they are for single guys!
  • Kim and I got a puppy. And two kittens. These critters take money to maintain.

Plus, just like everyone, I have a tendency to give in to lifestyle inflation. If I’m not scrupulous, little luxuries turn into big ones.

Since returning from our cross-country RV trip, I’ve been tempted to spend more than in the recent past. Maybe it’s because we intentionally did not buy things on the road. I don’t know. Whatever the case, I’ve been updating my wardrobe, acquiring new gadgets, and rationalizing more books. In the grand scheme of things, I can afford this stuff. But that’s not really the point. I’m a little worried my lifestyle has grown too large.

If you put all of this together, you have a situation where I no longer know how much I’m spending, and that makes me uncomfortable. I say I spend roughly $36,000 per year, and that’s been true in the past, but what am I actually spending? That’s what I aim to discover.

To that end, I’m going to track my money in 2017. In fact, I’m going to start this project as soon as I figure out which tool to use. I want to get a current baseline before I start trying to make corrections.

My short-term challenge is to figure out how to track my spending. In the olden days, when the world was young, I used Quicken. Quicken isn’t perfect, but it’s familiar. I like its reporting features and I like that it forces me to manually enter data. That’s important because when I enter transactions by hand, I’m more aware of just where my money is going. (To me, tools that automatically record transactions aren’t helpful. They make it too easy to gloss over possible problems.)

I plan to give Mint and Personal Capital a try, but I suspect I’ll settle on something like Quicken. Or a customized spreadsheet.

Ultimately, I hope to accomplish two things with this project.

  • I want to get a clear idea of what I’m actually spending — even if it’s shocking. I can’t make adjustments if I don’t know what I need to adjust.
  • I want to encourage Money Boss readers to track their spending too, even if it’s only for a month (or three). I want you to find your problem spots so that you can correct them.

As soon as I publish this article, I’m going to get started. I’ll unearth my disused Mint and Personal Capital accounts. If I have to set up new ones, I’ll document the process. Plus, after all of these years, I’ll finally give YNAB a spin. I’ll use all of these tools during December. At the end of the month, I’ll write about my experience and share which tool I’ve chosen to manage my money during 2017.

If you have any suggestions for tools to try, I’d love to hear them!

Ecuador Chautauqua 2016: Mindfulness, Habits, and Financial Freedom

Kim and I have returned from nine days in Ecuador, where we laughed and learned — and played too much late-night Werewolf — with 24 other folks at the fourth annual chautauqua on money and happiness.

For those unfamiliar, every autumn a small group of like-minded people gathers in the Andes to talk about financial freedom and personal well-being. Sure, we spend time doing touristy things and enjoying the jungle, but mostly we sit around and share insights on how to be happy, wealthy, and wise. Although this might sound pretentious — Mr. Money Mustache calls it “crazy rich-person talk” — in practice it’s educational…and fun!

Each year, organizer Cheryl Reed invites three speakers to present their philosophies to the folks who’ve paid to attend the retreat. These speakers also meet one-on-one with as many attendees as possible, both formally and informally. And, of course, there’s tons of additional discussion outside the scheduled events. (In fact, it’s these free-form conversations at dinner and poolside that probably provide the most value.)

I’ve enjoyed that past chautauquas I’ve attended, but for my money this year was extra special. This was a great group of people that grew quite close by the end of the week.

I took detailed notes during the presentations from David Cain (who writes about becoming a better human at Raptitude) and Leo Babauta (who writes about mindfulness and minimalism at Zen Habits). Here’s what they had to say about being mindful and changing habits.

Quality of Mind is Quality of Life

In his talk, David Cain argued that it’s not only your circumstances that affect your well-being.

The best way to improve your quality of life is to improve your quality of mind,” Cain said at the start of his presentation. “The less aware you are of feelings, thoughts, and the present moment, the lower your quality of mind and quality of life. You’re more stressed, you’re reactive, you’re uneasy, you’re paranoid, you’re needy, and you’re envious.”

Ecuador 2016 - David Presents (photo by Ryan Smith)

Well-being is elusive because we tend to be preoccupied with improving our circumstances, with chasing future satisfaction. We’re never satisfied with what we have now. We defer expectations of ease and peace to some time in the future. It’s like we’re on a treadmill of dissatisfaction. Continue reading

Unintended consequences: The side effects of our financial choices

I just returned to Portland after a week in New York City, a week during which I spent five days packed with personal-finance meetings and events. (I’ll have plenty to say about those meetings and events in upcoming articles.)

While I was away, Kim was responsible for managing our tiny little household — one puppy and two kittens — all by herself. This proved challenging since she was also working twelve-hour days as a fill-in dental hygienist.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said when I got home. “This week taught me just how important quality of life is.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, because the animals were home alone all day, they needed a lot of attention every evening. Like three hours of attention. Especially the dog. On the days I worked across town, that meant I was getting home at 6:00 or 6:30 and having to entertain the animals until bedtime. It didn’t leave me time for anything else.”

“That sucks,” I said.

A Pile of Fur

“It was frustrating,” Kim said. “But one day I worked at the dental office just up the street. I walked to work. I had so much more free time. I had more free time in the morning, and I had more free time in the evening. The dog was still wild when I got home, but I got home at 4:30, which meant I had time to take her for a long walk before dinner. And I still had that done before the time I’d been getting home from the offices across town.”

“Sounds like you should try to get a job at the office up the street,” I said.

“I agree,” Kim said. “Even if they were to pay me less money, it’d be worth it for the increase in quality of life.”

Secondary Effects

Kim’s observation is nothing new, of course. For a long time, I’ve preached the importance of picking homes and jobs that match your lifestyle — and encouraged folks to live as close to work as possible. With few exceptions, a long commute is simply wasted time (and wasted money).

But her comments reminded me of a conversation I had during my week in New York. Somebody — and I can’t remember who because I didn’t take notes during this particular discussion — was describing the importance of what they called “secondary effects” and how people generally forget to factor them into their decisions. Continue reading

How Blogging Has Changed from 2006 to 2016

Last week, I attended the sixth annual Fincon in San Diego. It was awesome. I love the financial blogging community. The people aren’t just colleagues, they’re friends. It makes me happy to see how sharing and supportive the community is, how we’re willing to help each other succeed.

That’s not always the case at blogging conferences. Many have a collective “scarcity mentality”. Not Fincon. At Fincon, there’s an “abundance mentality”, and that manifests itself in everyone being willing to help everyone else.

Note: I’m please to report that Money Boss, my latest project, won the Plutus Award for best new financial blog. Makes me grin from ear to ear, actually.

Because I’ve been dubbed the “grandfather of personal-finance blogging”, a lot of people ask me for advice. I’m always happy to help when I can. (My skills are dated, though. I haven’t run a site regularly since 2009, so I’m not current on things like SEO and social media and monetization.)

One question I get all the time is: “How has blogging changed in the decade between starting Get Rich Slowly and starting Money Boss?” To me, the biggest change is that people are more parsimonious with links.

SEO Killed Blogging

In the olden days, everybody linked to everybody else. (It’s that abundance mindset thing again, right?)

  • If my buddy wrote a good article, I linked to it.
  • If I found a piece about debt reduction that was better than mine, I linked to it.
  • If I thought something would be of use to my readers, I linked to it.
  • If I discovered an amazing new blog, I linked to it.

The rise of SEO seems to have destroyed this sort of sharing economy. Nowadays, bloggers are too worried about diluting the value of their links. Links, after all, are the currency of the web. A link to a post is like gold — especially when it comes from a high-value site. The game is to get as many links as possible to as many profitable pages as possible. And if you link out to other people, you make your own links worth less.

Or something like that.

Today in 2016, bloggers are far less likely to link out than they were in 2006. I’m talking an order of magnitude less. Maybe more.

That sucks.

In order for the web to be useful to readers, we have to help them find useful information. If we know where useful information is and we don’t share it, we’re doing a disservice to people who trust us. Where’s the good in that? I suppose it makes sense in some short-sighted way, but it’s not a good long-term plan.

This same problem manifests itself in reverse.

Money Before People

This morning, I posted in the private Fincon group asking for people to share one article they’d like me to link to. I’m setting up some automated social media stuff — because I suck at social media and need to make it automatic or I’ll never do it — and I wanted to spread the love. (Because I still operate like it’s 2006, not 2016.) I wanted to populate my social media queue with one article from each of my friends.

The responses I got disappointed me. Sure, some people pointed me to their best work. But many (most?) pointed me to profitable pages that they wanted to pimp more. Or SEO-laden articles that they wanted to give more “juice”. Instead of trying to make the web a better place by providing readers with quality content, a lot of people just saw an opportunity to get a quick link to make more money.

I hate that.

I don’t know the source of this switch. I don’t know why in 2016 we’re reluctant to link to others, and when we get a chance to have a link, we link to money not to content.

Honestly, the origin of the problem doesn’t matter. What matters is fixing it. That’s not something I can do alone, obviously. All I can do is call attention to it — and make sure I’m not perpetuating it. There’s no way I can convince other bloggers that they should link to other people more often and that they shouldn’t focus on money. All I can do is try to set an example.

Grandpa Remembers

Some people will say, “Yeah, but you made bank with Get Rich Slowly. Aren’t you being hypocritical?” No, I’m not.

  • At Get Rich Slowly, I threw links around like they were nothing. Readers loved it. Sure, they left my site. But they also came back because they knew I’d point them to good shit. (At Money Boss, I still throw links around like they’re nothing. I even have a blogroll in my sidebar. How quaint is that?)
  • At Get Rich Slowly, I didn’t write articles purely to pimp affiliate links. If I wrote about something and there was an affiliate program, I might join the program and make some money. Or I might not. But I certainly never altered the content to emphasize the money-making opportunity. (At Money Boss, I’m only just beginning to monetize — but selectively. Only if doing so helps my readers.)
  • At Get Rich Slowly, when somebody requested a link for a blog carnival (remember those?) or a roundup or anything else, I didn’t just give them a sales page. I gave them whatever I thought their readers would find most interesting and/or useful. Then it’s a win-win-win, right? A win for me, a win for the other blogger, and a win for the readers. (If I were to give a link to a sales page, it’s only a win for me.)

I didn’t get rich quick at GRS with a scarcity mindset. Jim didn’t get rich at Bargaineering with a scarcity mindset. Harlan didn’t get rich at Consumerism Commentary with a scarcity mindset. It wasn’t intentional, but we each operated with abundance mindsets and it helped all of us.

Long-Term Beats Short-Term

Look, I don’t mean to sound harsh. As I said at the beginning, I love my Fincon family. These people are awesome.

But I hate the trend in modern blogging to focus only on the short term. (And trust me, SEO is all about the short term. It’s sneetches in action.) I want bloggers to provide long-term value. A lot of times, that means making choices that aren’t optimized for the short term. And that’s okay.

When you write a blog, there’s always a balance between what’s best for you and what’s best for the readers. Finding that balance is key. It’s different for each person and for each blog. (But some things are fundamentally always reader-hostile. Pop-ups, for instance — I hate SumoMe.) Your job, as a blogger, is to be as reader-friendly as possible while still meeting your goals.

Back in Savannah, I had a sign above my desk: “Is this in the best interest of the reader?” It was meant to remind me to write high-quality content and not just fluff, but I think it applies to all aspects of creating for the web. Answering it honestly leads in the direction of an abundance mentality. Tha means thinking long term, not short.

Tracking My Time: How I Found More Hours in My Day

Since arriving home to Portland at the end of June, I’ve felt frustrated. There’s so much I want to do but never enough time to do it. At the same time, I feel like a total whiner. I mean, how lucky am I to be in this situation? I have tons of free time, no job, and I’m really able to do whatever I want. I’m damned lucky is what I am.

Yet it feels like I never do what I want. It feels like I’m always doing things I have to do or things for other people.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with my friend Paula Pant about this problem. “I wish I could figure out where all of the time is going,” I said.

“You should do a time inventory,” Paula said.

“What’s a time inventory?” I asked.

“Well, you know how the first step to losing weight is tracking calories? And you know how the first step to getting out of debt is logging how much you earn and spend? Well, a time inventory is sort of the same thing. For a certain length of time, you write down exactly how you’re spending your time. Here. I’ll send you a link.”

Paula pointed me to Laura Vanderkam’s website. Vanderkam offers free downloadable PDF forms and spreadsheets to help people track their time in fifteen-minute increments. As you go about your day, you jot down what you’re doing at various intervals.

Paula recently performed this time inventory exercise in her own life and found she was wasting almost eighteen hours a week on mindless stuff. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, last week I logged exactly where my time has been going. I’m afraid my results are worse than Paula’s…

The Good

First up, let’s look at what I’m doing right. The results of this experiment weren’t all bad, after all.

For instance, I’m getting an average of one hour per day of exercise. Last week I went to Crossfit three times, yoga once, and enjoyed a few bike rides. That doesn’t include all of the times I walked to do errands or took the dog for her exercise.

Note: I haven’t mentioned it here, but Kim and I got a dog. Near the end of our trip, we stopped to visit my cousins in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. They had a littler of seven puppies, and Kim fell in love with the runt. We adopted her, named her Tahlequah, and brought her along for the last three weeks in the motorhome. Since returning to Portland, Tally has probably been the dominant theme in our lives. Puppies need a lot of attention.

Speaking of the new dog, Kim and I also adopted two kittens recently. According to my time inventory, I’m spending a full 2-1/2 hours per day with the pets. The cats don’t require much effort, of course (although they’re happy to play with humans), but Tally takes 3-5 hours each day, which Kim and I split between us. She needs two daily walks and plenty of play around the house. So far, we’ve been great about engaging with her. We hope this produces a happy, healthy dog in the long run, one that needs less time. (Fingers crossed!)

Finally, I’ve been averaging one hour per day with family and friends. On paper, that doesn’t actually sound like a lot, but turns out it’s actually quite a bit compared to most people.

The Bad

I wouldn’t be writing this post if I were doing a good job with time management. I’m not. I’m wasting more than thirty hours each week on non-productive activities. Like what?

Like, I spent an average of 2-1/2 hours each day watching TV and movies. Yikes! For a guy who says he doesn’t watch much TV, that’s an awful lot of TV. All told, that’s 17-1/2 hours I could have used for something more rewarding. To be fair, seven of those hours came when Kim and I decided to have a movie night. And two more were devoted to watching my Portland Timbers defeat the Seattle Sounders. But still…

But that’s not all.

I also frittered away thirteen hours and fifteen minutes on what I consider computer-based time-wasters: browsing Reddit, playing Hearthstone, and so on. That’s nearly two hours per day of time lost. Not good.

Aside from thirty hours of total wasted time, I lost hours in other ways.

For example, I spent a total of four hours in the car last week, which is just over half an hour per day. That might not sound like much, but it’s a lot for me. That’s time I’ll never get back.

It took me over eight hours to do chores and errands last week. That seems like a lot. Now part of that was because I did a deep clean of the house on Thursday, it’s true. And another part is because I tend to walk for my errands, which means they take a bit longer. All the same, this seems like a lot of time to have used for menial tasks. Maybe I can find ways to be more efficient?

Finally, I averaged nine hours and twenty minutes of sleep per night. WTF? When did I start hibernating? In the olden days, I was perfectly content with 7-1/2 hours per night. And often I could get by with six hours per night. I’ll bet that I could still get by with less sleep, but I got into the habit of sleeping tons during our roadtrip.

The Ugly

So, that’s where my time is going. And it’s not pretty. But perhaps even worse is where I’m not devoting my energy. My stated number-one goal is to build and promote Money Boss, my new financial blog. But am I doing that? No, I am not.

Last week, I only spent 7-1/2 hours writing material for Money Boss — and most of that came on Sunday morning. I consider this my top priority, yet I’m not treating it as such. This needs to change.

I spent another 7-1/2 hours working on Money Boss business matters last week: answering email, preparing talks, tinkering with the website. That’s a total of fifteen hours devoted to my business. I want to double that. I want to spend 30-40 hours each week on Money Boss and related projects.

Meanwhile, I’m not taking care of me. Over the past seven days, I allocated a mere four hours to personal care and self-improvement — and most of that was stuff like showering and shaving! I did take an hour to practice Spanish mid-week, and I took my usual hour to work on my personal finances on the weekend. But that’s it. This too needs to change.

Time to Change

In order for an exercise like this to be useful, you’ve got to be completely honest about your habits. And you can’t try to make changes during the assessment period. When you initially log your spending, your eating, or your time, your goal is to document what you’re doing in normal day-to-day life. If you try to make changes during the assessment period, you’re defeating the purpose.

Now that the assessment period is over for me, it’s clear what I need to do.

First up, I’d like to find at least two hours more per day to devote to Money Boss. And I’d like that time to be structured so that I know it’s there and I can use it productively. Those are two separate problems.

I feel like there are several ways I can approach the first part of the problem. Just as you should tackle the big things in your household budget before trying to pinch pennies on the smaller line-items, I’m going to start by trying to trim the biggest timesinks.

I can create more time in my day by:

  • Sleeping less. I should be able to easily move to 7-1/2 hours of sleep per night, which would free up nearly two hours per day. Boom! There’s fourteen hours per week — almost the amount I want to find for working on business.
  • I don’t want to eliminate TV, movies, websurfing, and videogames from my life. I like spending a bit of time on those hobbies. But do I need to spend four hours and twenty minutes per day on these things combined? Hell no! If I budget two hours per day for time-wasters, I think that’s plenty.

With these two changes alone, I’d free four hours and fifteen minutes each day to spend on more important things, such as business and personal growth. For instance, if I take three of those hours for Money Boss, that’ll give me 36 hours per week of work. Perfect. And if I use the other hour and a quarter I’ve freed up to work on becoming a better person, that’ll give me nearly two hours a day for self-improvement. Nice.

The second part of the problem is more difficult. Where do I put this time in my schedule? The ideal situation would be to wake early or go to bed late. I like going to bed with Kim, so that means my only option is to wake early. I’ve done well with rising early in the past, but by that I mean 5:30 or 6:00. To do what I want to do, I’m going to have to wake even earlier. I’m going to need to get up at 4:00 or 4:30, make coffee, and get directly to work.

Another option is to wake at 4:30, go to the 5:00 Crossfit class, come home and walk the dog, then sit down to work from eight until noon. Actually, thinking out loud, that’s probably the best option. It’ll suck at first — no question! — but in the long run, I’ll be much more productive.

The Ideal Schedule

So, there you have it. After all that, I’ve arrived at an “ideal schedule”. It looks something like this:

Monday, Wednesday, Friday
04:30 wake
04:45 drive to gym (sorry, Mr. Money Mustache)
05:00 Crossfit
06:15 drive home
06:30 take the dog for a walk
08:00 grab breakfast and sit down to work
13:00 end work, eat lunch (with somebody, if possible)
14:00 personal development
16:00 go into evening mode

Tuesday, Thursday
04:30 wake, grab coffee, start working
06:30 take the dog for a walk
08:00 grab breakfast and resume work
13:00 end work, eat lunch (with somebody, if possible)
14:00 personal development
16:00 go into evening mode

Look at that! With this schedule, I’ve built in 29 hours of work — and that doesn’t count afternoons or weekends. I love it. I’ve also built in ten hours for self-improvement. Yay!

I like this schedule because:

  • I’m free to do as I please after four o’clock every weekday afternoon.
  • Aside from Crossfit on Saturday mornings, my weekends are entirely free.

The challenge for me is to be militant about protecting my mornings. That’s my time. No meetings, no appointments, no errands. Only my priorities. It can be done. (I’ve done it before!)

Today is my second day on this ideal schedule. Yesterday morning, I woke early and went to Crossfit. I didn’t make the 5 a.m. class, but I did make it to the six o’clock session. Then I came home and walked the dog. Then I worked until one. And this morning, Kim and I got up together at 4:45. Here, two hours later, I’m done with this article and ready to take the dog for a walk. (She’s ready too!)

I have high hopes that this ideal schedule will allow me to get stuff done and give me plenty of time left over for play.

Note: By chance, my pal Chris Guillebeau recently published a related article: Eight ways to have more time.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen? Using Action and Momentum to Achieve Your Goals

Tyler K and Katie, sailingLast night I met long-time reader Tyler K for dinner at a local Portland restaurant. Tyler is a software engineer and a sailing nut. He’s also a man of strong (and vocal) opinions. As sometimes happens during these meetings, a casual conversation about something unrelated provided a flash of insight about personal finance.

Over Khao Soi and caramelized pork, we talked about goals and having direction in life. Tyler’s not a big fan of my mission statement concept — hey, nobody’s perfect! — and he thinks too many people have big dreams without taking action. I agree. A wise man once said, “Faith without works is dead.” So too, goals without acts are dead.

Action is the cornerstone of achievement. Consider:

  • Action creates luck.
  • Acton builds confidence.
  • Action destroys fear.
  • Action manufactures motivation.
  • Action is character.

That last point is so important. You aren’t what you think or say. You are what you do. If you never did anything, you wouldn’t be anybody. If you have goals but don’t work toward them, those goals don’t mean anything.

Tyler told me that he meets lots of people who dream about sailing around the world. “It’s almost a cliché,” he said. “Tons of people share this dream. They have a romantic notion of what it’d be like. But nobody ever does anything about it. They don’t take sailing lessons. They don’t save to buy a boat. They don’t do anything to make it happen. All they do is dream about it.”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“People are afraid. They make excuses,” Tyler said. “They’re not afraid of what might happen at sea — although maybe they should be — but afraid of what might happen at home. What would happen to their job? What would happen to their friends? You know, that kind of thing.”

“I think the same thing prevents a lot of folks from doing long-term RV trips,” I said.

“Exactly. But in reality, the worst-case scenario isn’t that bad. People imagine it’s terrible but it isn’t. What’s the worst that could happen? You’d probably end up back where you started. Maybe a little behind.” Continue reading

Learning to Live in the Here and Now

Guardians of BeingSince arriving home from our cross-country RV trip at the end of June, Kim and I have both been overwhelmed by modern life. We’re overwhelmed by the busy-ness of it all: the pace, the scheduling, all of the requests for time and attention.

“Why is this so tough for us?” I asked the other day. “We didn’t have problems before we left.”

“I don’t know,” Kim said. “But it sucks.” She’s right — it does suck.

This morning, I was reading Guardians of Being, a short book that mixes the philosophy of Eckhart Tolle with the animal art of Patrick McDonnell (from Mutts). Tolle, of course, is best known for his massive bestseller, The Power of Now, which encourages readers to get out of their heads and be more “present in the moment”. I was struck by this quote from Guardians:

Most of us live in a world of mental abstraction, conceptualization, and image making — a world of thought. We are immersed in a continuous stream of mental noise…We get lost in doing, thinking, remembering, anticipating — lost in a maze of complexity and a world of problems.

While we were on the road, Kim and I lived in the Now. We were always present in the moment. We might have vague plans for where we wanted to be in a few days or a few weeks, but mostly we made things up as we went along.

“Where do you want to go next?” Kim might ask, and then we’d pick a spot.

“Where should we camp tonight?” I might ask as we drove to the new town, and Kim would find a campground. “What should we do for dinner? Should we visit that park? This site is awesome — let’s stay a few more nights.” Nearly everything we did was spontaneous. We had no plans or commitments and it was wonderful.

But back home, even without jobs to go to (yet) and few plans, the pace of modern life is staggering. We’re always doing something with somebody. We schedule appointments and anticipate commitments. We have to-do lists. We go to the gym three mornings a week, take the puppy to puppy classes, agree to help colleagues, and so on. There’s so much going on that there’s never a chance to simply be present in the Here and Now.

And the stuff! There’s so much stuff! We had few possessions in the motorhome; we didn’t miss what we did not have. Here at home, even though we own less than many folks, we have tons of stuff. Tons of stuff! So many books! So many clothes! So many dishes! So much in every closet and cupboard.

Kim and I are overwhelmed because we’ve made a sudden transition from doing and having very little to doing and having a lot. All of the stuff and commitments comes with mental baggage. It takes brainwidth.

Be present

Last week, I met with my friend Michael. He’s a career and marriage counselor. I told him how overwhelmed we are. “We feel like we need to move to a small house in the country,” I said.

Michael nodded. “I can see how that might help,” he said. “But you know what? I’ve found that many of my clients who crave change can find happiness closer to home. They think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, that they’ll fix things by making big moves.”

“What do you suggest instead?” I asked.

“Something less drastic,” Michael said. “I try to get folks to find ways to shape their current situation to meet their needs. If they want a new job because they think it’ll allow them to be more fulfilled, I ask if there’s a way they can restructure their current position so that it gives them that fulfillment. In your case, I’d suggest you don’t need to buy two acres in the country to get what you want. You can probably find ways to stay where you are — because you have a great home in a great location! — while simultaneously reducing the stress and the stuff.”

I’ve been thinking about Michael’s advice for the past week. He’s right. We do live in a great spot. We both love it. It’s not the spot that’s the problem. It’s being surrounded by so much stuff in the house, and by the sudden need to schedule our time. We can’t remove all of the stuff and we can’t live completely free of schedules, but we can certainly be more judicious with both. We can guard our time assiduously, which would allow us to be more spontaneous (like we were on the road). We can purge some of our possessions, then be cautious about what we allow to come into the condo.

Here’s another quote I liked from Guardians of Being:

We have forgotten what rocks, plants, and animals still know. We have forgotten how to be — to be still, to be ourselves, to be where life is: Here and Now.

While traveling the country for fifteen months, Kim and I learned how to be Here and Now. It was awesome. Now the challenge is discovering how to be Here and Now while living a modern life in a modern city. We need to ignore (or reject) the hustle and bustle, to embrace the stillness.

Michael is right: We don’t need to move the country to reduce complexity. We can do it here. And now.

Just bee

American Nations: Why the U.S. is So Divided — and Why It Always Has Been

Several years ago, our book group read American Nations by Colin Woodard. The book has a fascinating premise: While the United States is nominally a single unified country, it’s actually a conglomerate of eleven smaller “nations”, each with its own unique history, culture, and attitudes. The U.S. is more like the E.U. than we think.

I’m not going to go into the details of the eleven distinct cultures Woodard posits. Instead, I’ll simply share a map and some brief descriptions:

American Nations
Click for a larger version.

Here are how the eleven “American nations” differ (these capsule summaries are taken from this Washington Post piece):

    American Nations

  • Yankeedom — Founded by Puritans, residents in Northeastern states and the industrial Midwest tend to be more comfortable with government regulation. They value education and the common good more than other regions.
  • New Netherland — The Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the Western world when New York was founded, Woodard writes, so it’s no wonder that the region has been a hub of global commerce. It’s also the region most accepting of historically persecuted populations.
  • The Midlands — Stretching from Quaker territory west through Iowa and into more populated areas of the Midwest, the Midlands are “pluralistic and organized around the middle class.” Government intrusion is unwelcome, and ethnic and ideological purity isn’t a priority.
  • Tidewater — The coastal regions in the English colonies of Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware tend to respect authority and value tradition. Once the most powerful American nation, it began to decline during Westward expansion.
  • Greater Appalachia — Extending from West Virginia through the Great Smoky Mountains and into Northwest Texas, the descendants of Irish, English and Scottish settlers value individual liberty. Residents are “intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers.”
  • Deep South — Dixie still traces its roots to the caste system established by masters who tried to duplicate West Indies-style slave society, Woodard writes. The Old South values states’ rights and local control and fights the expansion of federal powers.
  • El Norte — Southwest Texas and the border region is the oldest, and most linguistically different, nation in the Americas. Hard work and self-sufficiency are prized values.
  • The Left Coast — A hybrid, Woodard says, of Appalachian independence and Yankee utopianism loosely defined by the Pacific Ocean on one side and coastal mountain ranges like the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas on the other. The independence and innovation required of early explorers continues to manifest in places like Silicon Valley and the tech companies around Seattle.
  • The Far West — The Great Plains and the Mountain West were built by industry, made necessary by harsh, sometimes inhospitable climates. Far Westerners are intensely libertarian and deeply distrustful of big institutions, whether they are railroads and monopolies or the federal government.
  • New France — Former French colonies in and around New Orleans and Quebec tend toward consensus and egalitarian, “among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes toward gays and people of all races and a ready acceptance of government involvement in the economy,” Woodard writes.
  • First Nation — The few First Nation peoples left — Native Americans who never gave up their land to white settlers — are mainly in the harshly Arctic north of Canada and Alaska. They have sovereignty over their lands, but their population is only around 300,000.

In the book, of course, the author goes into greater detail about the differences between each region.

When I first read American Nations, I was skeptical of Woodard’s divisions. Even early in this RV trip, I didn’t agree with how he divided things. Now, as we near the end of our journey, I’m beginning to think he’s more right than wrong.

Note: Kim and I have now experienced all eleven of these American nations. Of them, we vastly prefer New France (in the form of southern Louisiana), New Netherland (in the form of New York City), and the Left Coast (where we were both born and raised). We “get” The Far West and El Norte. But much of the rest of the U.S. — meaning most of the eastern half — seems foreign to us, especially the Deep South.

There’s a common misconception that the United States was once united. Everyone I know complains about how our national government is so contentious and unwilling to work together. Donald Trump promises to “make America great again”. We have a sort of shared national dream that we were once a unified whole. I’m not sure that has ever been the case.

From my reading, it seems like the United States has almost never been united. Our history is one of division rather than unification. We’re always fighting with each other.

One place you commonly see the myth of American oneness is in reference to the Founding Fathers. People from both sides of the political fence like to claim things like, “The Founding Fathers believed X.” But you know what? The Founding Fathers didn’t agree on anything except that they wanted to break away from British rule.

A decade ago, I read a great book from Joseph J. Ellis. In Founding Brothers (which won the Pulitzer Prize), Ellis tells the stories of George Washington; John and Abigail Adams; Thomas Jefferson; Alexander Hamilton; James Madison; Benjamin Franklin; and Aaron Burr. I came away from the book with a better understanding of just why U.S. politics are so contentious. The division and arguments are actually baked into our Constitution. They’ve been here since the birth of the nation.

Here’s an extended passage from the beginning of Founding Brothers. This is long but it’s important. Reading it will help you better understand the U.S. political system.

It is truly humbling, perhaps even dispiriting, to realize that the [modern] historical debate over the revolutionary era and the early republic merely recapitulates the ideological debate conducted at the time, that historians have essentially been fighting the same battles, over and over again, that the members of the revolutionary generation fought originally among themselves. Though many historians have taken a compromise or split-the-difference position over the ensuing years, the basic choice has remained constant, as historians have declared themselves Jeffersonians or Hamiltonians, committed individualists or dedicated nationalists, liberals or conservatives, then written accounts that favor one camp over the other, or that stigmatize one side by viewing it through the eyes of the other, much as the contestants did back then. While we might be able to forestall intellectual embarrassment by claiming that the underlying values at stake are timeless, and the salient questions classical in character, the awkward truth is that we have been chasing our own tails in an apparently endless cycle of partisan pleading. Perhaps because we are still living their legacy, we have yet to reach a genuinely historical perspective on the revolutionary generation.

But, again, in a way that Paine would tell us was commonsensical and Jefferson would tell us was self-evident, both sides in the debate have legitimate claims on historical truth and both sides speak for the deepest impulses of the American Revolution. With the American Revolution, as with all revolutions, different factions came together in common cause to overthrow the reigning regime, then discovered in the aftermath of their triumph that they had fundamentally different and politically incompatible notions of what they intended. In the dizzying sequence of events that comprises the political history of the 1790s, the full range of their disagreement was exposed and their different agenda for the United States collided head-on. Taking sides in this debate is like choosing between the words and the music of the American Revolution.

What distinguishes the American Revolution from most, if not all, subsequent revolutions worth of the name is that in the battle for supremacy, for the “true meaning” of the Revolution, neither side completely triumphed. Here I do not just mean that the American Revolution did not “devour its own children” and lead to blood-soaked scenes a the guillotine or the firing-squad wall, though that is true enough. Instead, I mean that the revolutionary generation found a way to contain the explosive energies of the debate in the form of an ongoing argument or dialogue that was eventually institutionalized and rendered safe by the creation of political parties. And the subsequent political history of the United States then became an oscillation between new versions of the old tension, which broke out in violence only on the occasion of the Civil War. In its most familiar form, dominant in the nineteenth century, the tension assumes a constitutional appearance as a conflict between state and federal sovereignty. The source of the disagreement goes much deeper, however, involving conflicting attitudes toward government itself, competing versions of citizenship, differing postures toward the twin goals of freedom and equality.

But the key point is that the debate was not resolved so much as built into the fabric of our national identity. If that means the United States is founded on a contradiction, then so be it. With that one bloody exception, we have been living with it successfully for over two hundred years. Lincoln once said that America was founded on a proposition that was written by Jefferson in 1776. We are really founded on an argument about what that proposition means. When shown in this light, it all makes sense to me. The friction between Republicans and Democrats, and the structure of our two party system, is not something to chafe against; it’s inherent in our political system, it’s an integral part of our Constitution. It’s as if there wasn’t one country founded as the United States, but two, and they’ve been living together, hopelessly tangles, for two hundred years. It’s like yin and yang. It’s like a schizophrenic child. We cannot have one without the other. Democrats need Republicans, both for balance and to provide a source against which they can contrast their own ideas. Conversely, Republicans need Democrats for the same reasons.

Taken together, American Nations and Founding Brothers combine to paint a portrait of a country divided…and united at the same time.

Founding BrothersMy RV trip around the country has made this intellectual idea more real to me. When you spend a year (or fourteen months, in my case) traveling from state to state and city to city, you begin to pick up on subtle differences — everything from food, to race relations, to appreciation for nature, to friendliness, to respect for the rule of law.

For me anyhow, seeing these differences makes me much more empathetic to different ways of thought. Do I agree with the political ideas that hold sway in the Deep South? I do not! But having lived there for six months (and traveled there for an additional three), I get it. I get why the people think and behave the way do, and I can’t fault them for it. (That said, I can’t wait to get back to my home on the Left Coast!)

A couple of weeks ago in Gulf Shores, Alabama, Kim and I had drinks with a couple that had driven down from Jackson, Mississippi. They too had traveled the U.S. extensively. We discussed the differences between the states. The man in the couple then gave us an important insight into the Southern mindset.

“We don’t like being told what to do,” he said. From his perspective, the rest of the U.S. is always trying to make the South over in its image. This goes all the way back to the Civil War (or the “War Between the States”, as they still call it down here), if not further. It continues to this day. Southerners just want to be left alone, but they feel like other parts of the country are constantly trying to change their way of life.

Kim and I keep going back to this conversation. Whenever we see something we don’t like about the South, something we’d like to change, we remember what our acquaintance said. And we haven’t been able to think of a single way in which the South has imposed its will on us out in Oregon.

Interesting stuff, right?

Over the past fifty years, there’s been a huge unconscious push toward “same-ification”. (This is due largely to the omnipresence of television, I think.) But I’m not sure homogenization is such a good thing. I like the parts of the U.S. that feel different and unique. I like when we work together despite our differences. In fact, I think it’s all of our differences that make this nation great.

But how do you find a balance between respecting cultural differences and respecting each and every person? I don’t know. I’m not sure anybody does. Still, it’s a worthwhile conversation for the American nations to have.

Talking with strangers about money

Kim and I are back from our two-week tour through Florida, a sort of “vacation from our vacation”. We’ll resume our R.V. trip across the U.S. in a few weeks, but after crunching the numbers we realized it’d be more cost-effective (and time-efficient) to leave the motorhome in Savannah and drive the Mini Cooper across the Sunshine State. So that’s what we did.

Although most of our trip was about play, we both took some time to work. Following three days at Disney World, for instance, Kim joined a weekend retreat with a small group of entrepreneurial women. (Kim has spent all of her working life in the dental field; over the past six months, however, she’s been following Steve Chou’s program for creating an online store. She’s very proud that her endeavor has netted about $300 while Money Boss is thousands in the hole!) Meanwhile, I drank beer and smoked cigars in Tampa’s Ybor City.

Most of my “work” on the trip came through talking about personal finance with the people we met. You’d be surprised at how many conversations you can have about money if you allow yourself to be open to it.

Let me give you an example.

While in Miami, Kim and I stayed in a guesthouse we found on Airbnb. (I’m a huge fan of Airbnb. I’ve used it to find cheap places to stay all over the U.S. — and the world.) Our hosts were a Cuban couple with an entrepreneurial mindset. They used to have an outbuilding they used as an office. After the husband retired early from his job as a contractor, he converted the space into an amazing 400-square-foot living area, complete with bathroom and kitchen.

This guesthouse now supplements their income. At $120 per night, our hosts earn $20,000 to $30,000 every year — all from a space that might otherwise have gone unused. To me this is a win-win: They earn some extra money while we save on the ridiculous Miami hotel prices. (For more about this sort of thing, check out Paula Pant’s series of articles on how she became an Airbnb host.)

But the money conversations didn’t stop there! Continue reading

The Best Films of the Past Five Years

While browsing elsewhere on the interwebs (reddit, perhaps?), I came across David Ehrlich’s picks for the best films of 2015. For the past five years, he’s compiled his annual list of favorites into a short (roughly ten-minute) videos that highlights why he loves these movies.

Because the Oscars will be announced today, I think it’d be fun to share all of Ehrlich’s picks for the past five years in one place. For a few of the movies, I’ve included my own comments.

More than anything, the following lists are a resource to help me find movies to watch. I hope you find them useful and interesting too.

So, here they are, the best movies from the past five years (from 2015 to 2011 in reverse chronological order). Titles in bold are films I’ve seen.


The Best Films of 2015

25. Girlhood
24. Tangerine
23. Mustang
22. Junun
21. The Forbidden Room
20. James White
19. The Mend
18. The Hateful Eight
17. Heaven Knows What
16. Black Coal, Thin Ice
15. Listen to Me Marlon
14. Anomalisa
13. Tokyo Tribe
12. Magic Mike XXL – So, Kim and I saw this in South Dakota. I was dreading it. I mean really dreading it. Turns out, I thought it was damn good, a celebration of female sexuality rather than something exploitive.
11. Clouds of Sils Maria
10. Mad Max: Fury Road – The reason I saw Magic Mike in South Dakota? This film. Everyone loves it, I know, but Kim and I thought it was awful. After I dragged her to see it (I’m a fan of the Mad Max series), she made me promise I’d see three chick flicks with her. Magic Mike was part of that payment. I’ve since re-watched Fury Road and I still don’t like it.
9. Mistress America
8. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
7. Eden
6. The Duke of Burgundy
5. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
4. The Look of Silence
3. Phoenix
2. World of Tomorrow
1. Carol


The Best Films of 2014

25. Lucy
24. We are the Best!
23. Timbuktu
22. Selma
21. Love is Strange
20. Listen Up Philip
19. Godzilla
18. Starred Up
17. Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
16. Mommy
15. The Babadook – Kim and I watched this on Halloween. Creepy.
14. Palo Alto
13. Ida
12. Goodbye to Language
11. Boyhood – Love all of Richard Linklater’s work, including this. So ambitious!
10. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
9. Force Majeure
8. God Help the Girl
7. The Double
6. Only Lovers Left Alive
5. Gone Girl – I like David Fincher’s stuff and this was okay, but hasn’t stuck with me.
4. Nymphomaniac
3. Under the Skin
2. Inherent Vice
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel – Stylish and fun, but best of the year?


The Best Films of 2013

25. Frances Ha
24. The World’s End
23. The Broken Circle Breakdown
22. The Bling Ring
21. Pain & Gain
20. The Great Beauty
19. Blue Jasmine
18. Nebraska – Another great film from Alexander Payne.
17. Beyond the Hills
16. The Great Gatsby – I liked elements of this but thought much of it was just too gaudy, but that’s surely intentional based on the source material.
15. Stoker
14. The Act of Killing
13. Laurence Anyways
12. The Wolf of Wall Street
11. Upstream Color
10. Post Tenebras Lux
9. Leviathan
8. A Touch of Sin
7. At Berkeley
6. Spring Breakers
5. The Grandmaster
4. 12 Years a Slave – This film wasn’t bad but I didn’t think it was great either.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
2. The Wind Rises – Although I love Hayao Miyazaki’s work and own this film, I still haven’t seen it.
1. Before Midnight – This series — Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight — is amazing. This installment is heartbreaking. I can relate to it so much…


The Best Films of 2012

25. Sound of Noise
24. Cosmopolis
23. Policeman
22 The Avengers – This film combines two things I hate: Joss Whedon and over-the-top CGI. I didn’t like it.
21. Shut Up and Play the Hits
20. Moonrise Kingdom – I’m a fan of Wes Anderson, but I haven’t seen this yet.
19. Oslo, August 31st
18.
Tabu
17. The Deep Blue Sea
16.
Skyfall
15. Cloud Atlas – One of my favorite books but I’m reluctant to see this.
14. The Cabin in the Woods – Did I mention I don’t like Joss Whedon? Kim and I started watching this on Halloween but didn’t finish.
13. Goodbye First Love
12. Wuthering Heights
11. Alps
10. Girl Walk All Day
9. Anna Karenina
8. The Comedy
7. Something in the Air
6. The Master
5. Django Unchained – I didn’t expect to like this nearly as much as I did.
4. Zero Dark Thirty
3. Amour – Kim and I watched this after it was on many “best of lists”. It was interesting but ultimately pretty forgettable.
2. Like Someone in Love
1. Holy Motors


The Best Films of 2011

25. The Descendants – Love Alexander Payne, and I love this movie.
24. Buddha Mountain
23. The Trip
22. The Time That Remains
21. Drive
19. Pina
19. We Need to Talk About Kevin
18. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
17. Shame
16. How to Die in Oregon
15. Footnote
14. The Interrupters
13. A Separation
12. The Turin Horse
11. The Adventures of Tintin – Are you kidding me? Look, I’ve loved Tintin since discovering him in the fourth grade. I’ve read all of his adventures and used to be a serious collector. This movie sucks. It’s a lousy adaptation that utterly fails to capture the spirit of the Tintin stories.
10. The Girls with the Dragon Tattoo – Excellent.
9. The Skin I Live In
8. Miss Bala
7. The Loneliest Planet
6. Hugo – A lot of fun.
5. Melancholia
4. The Arbor
3. Kill List
2. The Tree of Life – I enjoy Malick’s films and their thoughtful pacing, but I haven’t seen this yet.
1. This is Not a Film

As a footnote, my favorite movie from 2015 was Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s exploration of what it means to be human. Ostensibly, it’s science fiction. In reality, it’s more about psychology and philosophy. I really enjoyed it, and would love to see a sequel.

I liked the new Star Wars too, of course. How could I not? I’m a nerd, and this was a return to the vibe of the first movie, which wrapped me in its arms when I was but a wee lad…