When to follow the rules — and when to break them

Last night’s HelloFresh recipe was Bulgogi Pork Tenderloin. As always, the instructions were clear and easy to follow. As always, it took me about twice as long to prep things as the recipe card said they would.

HelloFresh instructionsI chopped the vegetables, boiled the rice, seared the meat, made the sauce. But when I reached the final step — “finish and serve” — I hit a wall of sorts.

“Ugh,” I said to Kim, who was playing with our three cats and one dog simultaneously. “The recipe calls for a tablespoon of butter in the rice. I hate adding butter to rice. It makes it gummy and gross. But HelloFresh always wants me to do it.”

“I like butter in my rice,” Kim said, throwing a bacon ball for the dog while kicking a catnip toy for the cats. “But if you don’t like it, don’t add it.”

I sighed. Of course, she was right: Just don’t add the butter! Such an obvious solution, right? Yes — and no.

You see, I am fundamentally a Rule Follower. When I’m cooking, I follow the recipe exactly. When I’m building an IKEA desk for my new office, I follow the instructions exactly. On the road, I generally stick to the speed limit (which sometimes drives Kim nuts). I used to take pride that never once did I cheat on my homework or tests in high school and college — and I never helped anyone else cheat either.

As I said: I am, fundamentally, a Rule Follower.

This has been true when it comes to managing my money too. Since beginning my quest to become the CFO of my own life fifteen years ago, I’ve surrendered to wiser minds than mine. I tend to heed the time-tested “rules of money”, rules like:

  • When average people like me are wondering how to invest, the best answer is usually “set up automatic contributions to an index fund”.
  • When setting up a budget, it’s more important to pay attention to the Big Picture than it is to fret over details. Follow the balanced money formula and you should do okay.
  • When you want to get out of debt, use the debt snowball method. If possible, pay high-interest debts first. Many folks (including me) have more success, though, if they pay off low-balance debts first. And still others use a debt snowball approach in which they start by tackling the debts with the greatest emotional weight.
  • If you’re going to use them, know how to use credit cards wisely. If you’re unable to use credit without digging yourself into debt, then throw away the “shovel”.
  • And so on.

Following these rules has proved profitable. These “rules” are rules for a reason. Because they work. They allow folks to get out of debt and build wealth. Crazy, right?

Here’s the thing, though. As effective as these financial rules have been for me, as much as I like strictly following a recipe, I’ve also come to realize that sometimes it makes sense to (gasp!) break the rules.

The challenge, then, is determining when to follow the rules — and when to break them. Continue reading

Wishing for a walkable neighborhood

“You sure slept in late,” I said to Kim this morning.

“I know,” she said. “I was up for two hours in the middle of the night. I was thinking about you. I was thinking about everything we talked about at our family meeting.”

“For two hours?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Kim said. “My wheels were spinning. I was trying to figure out why you’ve been so unhappy since we moved to this house. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it’s because we don’t live in a walkable neighborhood. That’s so important for you. I think it makes a real difference to your mental health.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” I said.

Walk Score: Seven

Actually, when we moved to this place two-and-a-half years ago, the lack of walkability was a very real consideration. I thought about it. I talked about it. I wrote about it. In the end, though, I decided that the pros of the move would outweigh the cons.

Our current home has a Walk Score of 7

Since we moved, I haven’t thought much about the lack of walkability here. I’m aware of it, sure, and I sometimes bemoan the fact that I can’t just walk for errands. But Kim could be right. This could be a critical factor in my (lack of) recent happiness.

  • The condo had a Walk Score of 68, a Bike Score of 81, and a Transit Score of 37. Our current country cottage has a Walk Score of 7, a Bike Score of 24, and a Transit Score of 0. (The only reason our Walk Score isn’t a zero? There are nearby schools and parks.)
  • At our old place, the 0.5-mile walk to the nearest grocery store took ten minutes. Now, the two nearest grocery stores are both 1.5 miles away — or half an hour by foot. (Plus there’s 625 feet of elevation change on one route, an average grade of about 7.5%.)
  • At the condo, walking to restaurants took a little longer than walking to the grocery store — by two minutes. And there were a dozen good eateries to choose from! Here, it’s the same 1.5-mile walk to reach lesser-quality restaurants (and, again, half of them are at the bottom of a huge hill).

When we lived in Portland, it was easy to walk for nearly every errand. If the place I needed wasn’t in the half-mile radius of our immediate neighborhood, it was almost certainly within the one-mile radius of our extended neighborhood. And some summer afternoons, I’d make the 2.7-mile walk to the next neighborhood over in order to access even more stores and services.

Here, outside of the two shopping centers that are 1.5 miles away, there are two additional commercial pockets that are each 2.9 miles away (at the bottom of the hill). Those walks are doable — but not often.

Gone are the days when at three in the afternoon, I’d decide what to make for dinner, then walk to the grocery store to pick up ingredients. Gone are the days of spontaneously deciding to walk to Thai food for lunch. Gone are the days of walking the four miles into downtown Portland from the condo to meet readers and colleagues.

A Cascade Effect

Before we moved, I averaged about 12,000 steps per day. Last month, I averaged 6287 steps per day. Most of those steps are from walking the dog. A few times per year, I’ll walk for errands. Mostly, though, I drive.

Other indicators are worrisome too. In the thirty months since we’ve lived here, I’ve gained thirty pounds. (I’m pleased to report that I seem to have arrested this weight gain, however, and am now losing weight.) My net worth has dropped $300,000 (!!!). I now get a few social interactions per week instead of a few per day.

I can’t say there’s a causal relationship between the move and these changes (although it sure seems likely). And I’m not saying that I want to leave this house. Because I don’t. I told Kim as much this morning.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to improve your mental health,” Kim said this morning. “Even if it means moving.”

I waved her off. “I think you’re probably right about this. I think the lack of walkability probably has had a huge impact on me. But I don’t want to move. That feels foolish. I love this place. I love my life here with you and our animals. I don’t want to leave.”

Instead, I think I need to force myself to get out and walk more. I need to accept where I live and walk regardless.

A decade ago, when Kris and I were still married and living on the other side of the river, I was in a similar situation. The nearest grocery store was exactly one mile away. There were a few restaurants within 1.5 miles of the house. If I was feeling ambitious, I could walk the 2.7 miles to the nearest downtown area to access even more stuff.

For most of the time I lived in that house, I did not walk for errands. But during my last couple of years with Kris, I learned to walk. It became something I looked forward to. By the time we split up, I was often walking the five-mile roundtrip to the nearest town for lunch. I think that’s something I could (and should) do here.

The nearest restaurant to our house

Time to Walk

“You know what?” Kim said as we prepared to walk the dog this morning. “I think you might want to consider renting an office somewhere nearby. Even if it’s just a small place. It’d be a way for you to get out of the house. And if the office was somewhere walkable, you could scratch that itch too.”

Maybe Kim’s right. I don’t know.

This morning, I sifted through Craigslist to see if there’s any local office space for rent. There is, but not much. Five miles from our house, in the center of the next city over, there are two spots available.

  • The first space is 129 square feet for $325 per month.
  • The second space is 161 square feet for $425 per month.

Both of these spaces are in the same building, and the building is in the heart of a walkable downtown where we already do many of our errands. Plus, there’s a Regus shared office space at the bottom our our hill, about 2.5 miles from the house. That’s certainly walkable in summer and bike-able most of the year. (There’s no much else in that particular neighborhood though.)

I’ve already sent email regarding the office space. Tomorrow, I’ll drop by the Regus building to check out my options there. I think Kim may be on to something here.

In the meantime, I’m absolutely going to make myself walk more often — despite the fact that meterological winter starts today. When the cats need food, I’ll walk to the pet store. For small shopping trips, I’ll walk to the grocery store. And once or twice each week, I’ll walk to a local restaurant for lunch (and to work).

Instead of being passive, instead of allowing myself to be unhappy due to my circumstances (circumstances that I chose), it’s time for me to be proactive, time for me to do the things that I know bring me increased well-being. And that means walking.

How the toss of a coin determined my fate

Hello! I have returned from my final big trip of the year, and I’ve resumed working behind the scenes here at Get Rich Slowly. Soon, new articles will begin to appear on this site.

Oh, wait. Here’s a new article now!

On my most recent trip, I happened to tell the same story twice to two different groups. In doing so, I realized that it’s a story I’ve never told here. That’s unfortunate. It’s about an event that had a profound impact on the course of my life — and my finances.

To bide the time while I work on longer articles, today I’d like to share how my fate was decided by the literal toss of a coin.

Going to College

My parents never pushed higher education on my brothers and me. Both my father and mother had attended church schools briefly — Goshen College for him, Brigham Young University for her — but neither one graduated. My uncle got a math degree from a local junior college, and my cousin Duane got a business degree from yet another church school.

Growing up, I can’t remember that college was ever discussed in depth. It came up in conversation now and then, but there was never any expectation that my brothers and I would go.

But: I was a nerd. I hung out with other nerds. I read and I wrote. I entered math contests for fun. My favorite movies were about college and about college professors. I romanticized college life (and still do today).

Mitch and J.D. were (and are) nerds

Mitch and J.D., nerds in 1984, nerds in 2019

Continue reading

How I’m fighting chronic depression and anxiety

Hello, friends! I have four money articles in progress, plus I’m editing several guest posts for future publication. But today I want to give a brief update on my mental health. My depression and anxiety have been tough this year but it feels like I’ve turned a corner, and I want to share what’s helped.

Each week when I go to therapy, I complete a survey regarding my recent mood and attitude. It’s about what you’d expect. There’s a list of maybe a dozen statements, and for each I fill in a bubble indicating how strongly I agree (or disagree) based on my experience during the previous seven days.

From memory, sample statements include:

  • I feel nervous and/or my heart races.
  • I feel anxious in social situations.
  • I have friends and family I can ask for support.
  • I have trouble finding motivation to get things done.
  • I’m able to complete everything I want to do.
  • And so on.

At my first therapy session in April, my score on this assessment was awful. I felt anxious all of the time. I was having trouble with increased heart rates. (Thanks, Apple Watch, for constantly flagging that.) And by far my biggest problem was getting done everything I wanted to get done. I wasn’t doing anything. I was too deep in my anxiety and depression.

Last week, I visited my therapist for the first time in a month. As always, I completed the mental health inventory before our appointment started.

“Whoa!” my counselor said when she saw the results. She pulled up my past scores on her computer. “This is the best you’ve been since we started working together. You marked that everything’s fine except for your ability to get work done. That’s great. What happened?”

“What happened is that I got out of my routine,” I said. “I’ve been on vacation. Plus, I’ve been doing a lot of the things you and I have talked about. They’ve helped. Right now, the reason I can’t get done everything I want to do has nothing to do with depression and anxiety. It’s just that I have so much on my plate that I can’t figure out how to prioritize it!”

During our time together, my therapist and I have explored a variety of steps I can take to improve my mental health. When I actually implement these things, life is great. (I have a tendency to talk about making changes without actually doing so. This was especially true early on.)

Here are three changes that have helped me cope with my depression and anxiety. Continue reading

A phoenix from the flames

“You should bring back your personal blog,” my friend Tom told me last week. Tom is also the business half of Get Rich Slowly. He works on marketing and monetization.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You have a need to express yourself,” he said. “You’ve been writing more personal stuff at Get Rich Slowly, but it’s not a great fit for the site. Plus, I think you’d enjoy having an outlet for non-financial writing again.”

Tom is right. (He often is.) I would enjoy having this outlet again. And recently, a lot of things seem to be pulling me in this direction.

  • My friend Philip recently told me how much he enjoys my Facebook posts. “You tell stories,” he said. It’s true. I do use Facebook to tell stories about my life — silly things and big things alike. But Facebook isn’t great for longer content. Plus, I filter myself there because I don’t think casual acquaintances need (or want) to know everything about me.
  • David Cain at Raptitude recently published a post called “Let’s Talk Like We Used To” in which he described how his approach to blogging has changed over the past ten years. He’s gone from being more open and spontaneous to careful and calculated. “Somewhere along the line, at least for me, something got in the way of that straightforward sharing,” he says. I can relate. The same thing has happened to me. I miss the days of writing what I want when I want.
  • Over the years, I’ve created maybe a dozen sites on various topics. They’re all an outgrowth of this main blog, Folded Space, but they’re niched down to specific subjects such as animal intelligence or comic books. From a purely practical standpoint, it makes sense to have separate sites devoted to specific topics. Google likes that. Audiences like that. But it’s a hassle. I’d rather just have one site where I can write about all of these things — even if I’m only writing for myself alone.

And so, I’m going to resurrect Folded Space. It is going to rise, like a phoenix from the flames, to be an actual blog once more.

I won’t have a publishing schedule. I won’t filter myself. (Not much, anyhow.) I won’t adhere to any specific subject or subjects. I’m going to write about what interests me in the moment. This may or may not interest you.

If you’re one of the 1726 people still signed up to receive updates by email, you won’t offend me if you unsubscribe. It’s best for everyone if only folks who want these emails get these emails.

But it’ll be fun if you stick around. Please join the conversation! I’ll be writing about a lot of different stuff. Most of what I write will be new. Some of it will be old stuff from this site (and other sites) that I want to polish and/or share with a new audience. I hope that all of it — or nearly all of it — is interesting in some way.

First step? Since we’re getting close to debuting a new look for Get Rich Slowly, I’m going to move that site’s current theme over here. Folded Space is going to get a fresh coat of paint for the first time in a decade!

A self-made man

Dad at the LatheMy father died twenty-four years ago today.

As I drove to the airport this morning — I’m on a short trip to San Diego — my mind drifted back to him and what he was like.

I don’t think of Dad often anymore, and when I do it’s mostly superficial stuff: Dad was fat. His hair was wild and wavy. He could be gruff. He was funny and had a contagious laugh. Sometimes he wasn’t a very nice guy. Sometimes he was. But it’s tough to remember what Dad was like as a presence, you know?

What I remember most about him was how Dad could do anything he set his mind to. This isn’t nostalgic hero worship. It’s how he actually was. My father could teach himself to do anything he wanted. And he wanted to do a lot.

A Self-Made Man

I’m not sure where my father’s love of learning and experimenting came from. His parents were a simple, devout Mennonite couple.

When I knew Grandma and Grandpa, they managed a small farm. They had milk cows. They raised blueberries. They grew and canned vegetables. Grandpa cut his own wood. He’d been a janitor at the local high school, but by the time I was around, he was retired. Every night, he and Grandma sipped Sanka and played Scrabble. Their existence was simple, ordered, and serene.

My father wasn’t simple. His life wasn’t ordered. He was not a serene man. He was complex. He was messy. He was boisterous. He was a force of nature. (I come by my ADD honestly.) He had many interests, and he liked to indulge them all. Continue reading

Depression and me

For much of the past two weeks, I’ve been wrestling with my mental health. I could sense a crisis coming, so I scheduled some time away. I didn’t want to have to be worrying about blog posts while I was worrying about everything else. Thus, my “summer vacation”.

Long-time readers are aware that I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life.

In sixth grade, I missed five weeks of school with what my father called “parrot fever”. (We had parrots, and he attributed my issues to a parrot allergy.) After our family physician could find nothing wrong with me, Dad took me to his therapist. Hushed conversations followed the appointment. The verdict: I was dealing with depression.

In junior high, I was briefly suicidal but made a deliberate decision to turn things around. In high school and college, the depression was always there, looming in the shadows. As a young adult, it mostly went away…but then it came back as I got older.

In 1999, when I was thirty, I experienced something new: anxiety. At one point, I thought I was having a heart attack. Nope. It was a panic attack. When the second panic attack came a few weeks later, I knew it wasn’t my heart. It was me stressing about life.

Interesting note: It was after the second panic attack that my doctor strongly encouraged me to start drinking red wine. For real. Before that, I was a teetotaler.

During my divorce in 2011-12, Kris asked me a favor. “Please see a counselor,” she said. I did, and it helped. My therapist gave me advice for coping with depression and anxiety, plus she diagnosed me with ADD. For a few years, I was able to manage my symptoms.

Last year, though, things got bad. March and April and May were a struggle. In June, I published an article here about my ongoing battle with depression. During the summer, my mental health improved, however, and I forgot about how hard the spring had been.

Tweet about Anthony Bourdain's suicide

A Sneaky Little, Sticky Bitch

In February of this year, my anxiety returned. The depression followed soon after. When my heart-attack scare in mid-March turned up no physical issues (other than high blood pressure), my doctor suggested that the problem was anxiety. She asked me to start seeing a therapist again. So, I did.

Since early May, I’ve been attending talk therapy once a week. We’re exploring why I feel so anxious, and how using alcohol to cope with anxiety is a “maladaptive behavior”. We’re exploring other ways to make things work.

The trouble? When I don’t drink in the afternoon, I get more anxious.

The frustrating thing is that the depression and anxiety lead me to act like a completely different person.

For instance, I love people. I love spending time with people. Social interaction energizes me. Right now, though? I hate it. I don’t want to deal with anyone in any capacity. I don’t want to spend time with friends. I don’t want to be in crowds. (I make an exception for Portland Timbers games.) I don’t even want to go to the grocery store.

Here are some ways this manifests itself:

  • Today, I had a lunch appointment with a colleague and friend. Karl is a great guy and I enjoy spending time with him. Normally. Today, though, all I could think about were the reasons I might be able to cancel.
  • Yesterday, I taped a TV interview with a local station. I wanted to cancel that too. Afterward, I ought to have driven out to the family box factory. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to spend time with my brother and cousin.
  • This Sunday evening, there’s another Portland Timbers game. Kim can’t go with me, so I need to find somebody else to join me. I have zero desire to do so. I may end up selling the tickets and skipping the game because of my anxiety.

My medical doctor has prescribed propranolol to simultaneously deal with my high blood pressure and my anxiety. While it seems to be helping the former, it’s not helping the latter. (According to wikipedia, it’s really only useful for performance anxiety.)

Meanwhile, the depression is even worse. If you look at the symptoms of depression, I’m exhibiting every single one. Some of my symptoms are severe.

  • Fatigue? Have it.
  • Insomnia? You bet.
  • Feelings of guilt and worthlessness? Oh boy.
  • Irritability? Yes, and it’s so not me. I’m not an irritable guy — but I am lately.
  • Loss of interest in things once pleasurable? Absolutely, and it’s SO FRUSTRATING. Nothing appeals to me. I’m numb.
  • Trouble concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions? You have no idea. Everything is a chore.

The latter is especially difficult to deal with. When Karl asked where to meet for lunch today, I couldn’t decide. Why not? That’s so simple! Last night, Kim wanted me to make dinner. But I didn’t because I couldn’t decide what to fix. That’s ridiculous!

A Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

In fact, yesterday was miserable. It might have been the worst day of my entire life.

My head was a mess of negative thoughts and emotions, all of them swirling and swirling and swirling in a never-ending dark cloud of despair. I couldn’t focus on anything. I did tape the TV interview (the first segment went very well, but the second bordered on incoherent) but that’s the only productive thing I did all day.

On the drive home, I bought — and then consumed — a big bowl of clam chowder, a big bag of potato chips, and an entire package of chocolate chip cookies. Then I sat in the hot tub and played a videogame for five hours. (At least I didn’t drink alcohol!)

When Kim came home, she asked, “What’s for dinner?” I admitted that I hadn’t made dinner — but I didn’t tell her how messed up my head had been all day. (She knows I’m struggling but she doesn’t know how badly.) While she changed out of her scrubs, I fried some frozen potstickers.

Naturally, all of this makes me feel even more guilty and worthless and depressed. It’s a vicious cycle.

I’m sure you can see how this would translate in an inability to get work done, both here at Get Rich Slowly and in my real life.

It’s a problem.

What’s the solution to the problem? I’m not sure. There must be one. But I don’t know what it is. Drink every afternoon? That’s what I’ve been doing, and it works. But, as my therapist says, it’s a maladaptive behavior. I think we all know where that road leads.

My therapist is patient. She keeps giving me homework assignments…and I keep avoiding them. Exercise! Meditate! Set goals! These all sound awesome. They’re all things I know I like to do. But they also sound like tremendous effort, so I don’t do them.

Bringing Gratitude

Instead of canceling my lunch appointment with Karl today, I went. I’m glad I did.

I’ve known Karl for almost a decade. He’s one of the most uplifting, supportive people I’ve ever met. I love that his work is centered on positivity. He runs a site called Bring Gratitude and he published a book by the same name. (Six months ago, he shared a guest article here at Get Rich Slowly about practicing gratitude with a daily journal.)

As we sat down for lunch, I told Karl point blank about the issues I’m going through.

“I can totally relate,” he said, and he shared some of his own past struggles.

“You know,” I said, “my therapist has been urging me to try meditation. But I don’t know how to start.”

Karl nodded. “I meditate. I meditated just this morning. But it can be tough to get going. You have so many thoughts racing through your head. Here’s one thing that might work, though. Give yourself one minute. Only a minute. For that minute, meditate on all of the things that you’re thankful for.”

“I like that idea,” I said. “I like it a lot. Normally, I’m a grateful guy. I’m a lucky man, and I know it. Usually. Lately, though, I’ve forgotten how awesome life is. Meditating on the things I’m grateful for would be a great way to remind me of what I’ve got.”

Thank You

On my drive home, I put Karl’s idea into practice. I took back roads. As I drove slowly through the countryside, I thought about all of the things that I’m thankful for.

  • I’m thankful for Kim. She’s a not just a wonderful partner in life, but she’s a wonderful person. She’s a good soul.
  • I’m thankful for my dog. Tahlequah is a handful (a pawful?), and I do get frustrated with her. But I’m also grateful to have such an enthusiastic hound dog in my life.
  • I’m thankful for my health. I haven’t taken care of myself much lately, but that’s on me. Generally speaking, my body is in fine shape. And with a little work, it could be in great shape once again.
  • I’m grateful for music. I don’t mention it much, but music brings great joy to my life. I love music of all sorts. Taylor Swift, yes, but also U2 and Mozart and Styx and ABBA and Public Enemy.
  • I’m thankful for Portland. I love the green of it. I love its quirky die-hard (sometimes absurd) liberalism. I love the food scene and the Timbers and the passion for books. Speaking of which…
  • I’m grateful for words. Books bring me joy. So does writing. I’ve managed to make a living from my words, and I hope to continue doing so in the future.
  • I’m grateful for life.

Here at home, I had a call with my business partner, Tom. We spent two hours talking about behind-the-scenes details here at Get Rich Slowly. We made plans for the future. But we also took a lot of time to talk about nothing.

It was awesome. It was just what I needed.

When I got off the call, the dog wanted to play. She looked up with puppy-dog eyes and made her little whine that means, “Dad, throw the ball for me.” We went outside into the sunshine and I threw the ball for her. Then, I got down on my knees and wrestled with her. She loves when I wrestle with her.

“I really do have a good life,” I thought after the dog and I were done chomping on each other. I went into the kitchen to put away the clean dishes. “I’m thankful for all of it.”

You know what? I’m thankful for Get Rich Slowly too. And for you, the readers. This site has been a huge blessing in my life — and I’m not one to talk much about blessings. I’ve put a lot into GRS, it’s true, but I’ve gotten so much more out of it. I’ve gotten so much from you folks.

So, thank you. I mean it. Thank you for reading. Thank you for contributing. Thank you for everything.

Few and Far Between

As Karl and I chatted at lunch today, I caught a Natalie Merchant song playing on the restaurant’s radio. At first I thought it was “Wonder”, but then I recognized it as “Few and Far Between”.

“How fitting,” I thought. Some of the lyrics:

“‘Til you make your peace with yesterday, you’ll never build a future. I swear by what I say: Whatever penance you do, decide what it’s worth to you, and then respect it. However long it will take to weather your mistakes? Why not accept it?”

So, that’s what has been going on in my life lately. It’s been a struggle. But I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. And I can see some money articles at the end of the keyboard. (Thank goodness, right?)

What’s been going on with you?

How to make better (and quicker) decisions

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.”

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. Continue reading

Big pleasure from small things

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.

J.D. geeking it up with Proust stuff

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”:

Fancy soup at a Michelin-star restaurant

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, Martin de Candre.

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 soap in rural France

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 from 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 and 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.

It occurred to me that these are examples of conscious spending in action. When we identify small, inexpensive items and behaviors that make us disproportionately happy, spending on them allows us to get more bang for our buck. This also what Marie Kondo means when she talks about only keeping possessions that “spark joy”.

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.)

Welcome to fifty: My first health scare as a middle-aged man

Three weeks ago today, I had a major health scare.

Because it was Monday, I was at the family box factory. I had just finished running payroll and had taken paychecks out to the shop. I exited the building and *bam* my chest just sort of seized up.

“Ouch,” I thought. But, being a Roth, my thought process didn’t go much farther than that. (We Roths don’t like doctors and we tend to deal with injuries for weeks or months or years before having them looked at.)

On the way back to the office, I stopped to talk to my cousin Duane. He was digging in the dirt, prepping a spot for his summer garden. We chatted about blueberries, tomatoes, and greenhouses. We admired the warm spring day. After a few minutes, I realized that my chest still hurt.

“I don’t want to alarm you,” I said, “but I’m having chest pains. It’s probably nothing. But just in case it is something, I thought you should know.”

I walked back to the office and sat down at my computer. Instead of going back to work, however, I googled heart attacks. I read the list of symptoms. I wasn’t experiencing anything except chest pain but still…Every site said the same thing: Don’t mess around. If you’re having chest pain, have somebody drive you to a doctor.

Duane came in. “Are you feeling okay?” he asked.

“I’m still having chest pains,” I said.

“Do you want me to drive you to the doctor?” he asked.

I debated things in my mind. “It’s probably nothing,” I thought. “Or maybe it’s a panic attack like twenty years ago.” In 1998, I experienced two similar episodes that turned out to be panic attacks. I was under a lot of stress then. I’m not under a lot of stress now.

“Plus, if I go to the doctor, it could end up costing a fortune. My health insurance sucks,” I thought. “But if it is a heart attack and I don’t go in, I could end up dead.”

“Well?” Duane said.

“Tell you what,” I said. “I know I’m not supposed to but I’m going to drive myself to urgent care. If you don’t hear from me in fifteen minutes, come find me.” (There’s only one logical route from the box factory to the nearest clinic.)

I gathered my stuff, hopped in my pickup, and drove slowly to the clinic. Continue reading