The clean slate

I’m pleased to report that seventeen days into 2020, my mental health seems to be making some marked improvements. I’m happy, engaged, and productive. I’m not ready to claim victory over my anxiety and depression, but the changes I’ve been making — more exercise, zero alcohol, separating work life from home life — all seem to be helping me get back to normal.

“Let’s talk about your anxiety,” my therapist said to start our session a couple of weeks ago. “You say that you’ve always had depression but that the anxiety is relatively new. Why do you think that is?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Kim and I have talked about it. We know it wasn’t there when we started dating in 2012. In fact, I didn’t have trouble with anxiety until sometime after we returned from our RV trip in June 2016.”

“And after you returned, you made some big life changes.”

“Right,” I said. “We moved from the condo to our current country cottage. I repurchased Get Rich Slowly. My exercise declined and my drinking increased.”

“All of those could contribute to anxiety,” my therapist said. “And taken together as a whole, it’s not surprising that you might be struggling.”

“I get that intellectually,” I said, “but it still sucks on a day-to-day level.”

“When do you not feel anxious?” she asked.

“That’s a great question,” I said. “I don’t feel anxious when it feels like there aren’t any expectations on me. I don’t feel anxious when I’m in the middle of social situations.” (We’ve established that although I think I’m an introvert, I’m actually an extrovert. I feel recharged when I get to hang out with people.) “And you know what? I don’t feel anxious when life is stripped back to basics.”

“What do you mean?” my therapist asked.

“Take the RV trip, for instance. On that trip, Kim and I lived with the very basics. Before we set out, we had to be very deliberate about the things we brought with us. We just didn’t have a lot of room. The RV was a clean slate, and we had to be careful about what we put there. Does that make sense?”

“Of course,” she said.

“When we got home, we were both overwhelmed. We were overwhelmed by how much Stuff we had. We were overwhelmed by how many obligations we had. We were overwhelmed by the sheer pace of life. We tried to figure out how to subtract some of the the things we had around us. That’s part of why we moved. We were trying to downsize, trying to simplify.”

“Your new office is like a clean slate too,” she said.

My office at this very moment, as I write this article

“Yes,” I said. “Exactly. And I love it. I’ve spent the past week setting up my space, trying to make it cozy and productive. It is like a clean slate. I’ve tried to be intentional about every object I’ve brought into the room. I’m not just hauling over everything from the house. I’m picking and choosing what I allow in the office, from the big stuff like furniture to the smallest detail.”

“Such as?” she asked.

“Such as paperwork, for example. I have stacks and stacks of papers at home. In the past, I’d simply haul the stacks with me wherever I go. The stacks never get smaller. They only get larger. But the stacks are overwhelming. I told Kim the other night that I want to do things differently this time. This time, I’m bringing over one stack at a time. After you and I finish talking, for instance, I’ll drive to the office and I’ll tackle the one stack of paper I have there. I’ll sort through every single piece of paper — each one — and decide what to do with it. When I’m finished with that stack, I’ll bring over another one. I don’t want to have any loose ends. The office started as a blank slate; when I’m finished moving in, I want it to be organized, efficient, and useful.”

“And what about the website?” my therapist asked. “You told me that overwhelms you too.”

“It does,” I said. “Get Rich Slowly is like a ginormous house filled with crap and clutter from decades of living. It’s a mess. It’s intimidating to think about. When I started my second money blog in 2015, I started from scratch. Everything was simple. Again, it was like I had a blank slate. I could be very deliberate about what I added to the site. When I bought back Get Rich Slowly, though, it was as if I’d purchased chaos. There were nearly 5000 articles from over a decade of publishing.”

“Why can’t you make Get Rich Slowly a blank slate?” she asked.

That one stumped me.

“Well, I can’t just wipe everything out and start over,” I said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“But you’re not happy with how things are,” my therapist said. “It’s as if you’re dating your website but you don’t even like it. You don’t want to be together with it anymore.”

“Huh,” I said. “I hadn’t thought of it like that. But it’s true.”

“How can you achieve a clean slate with Get Rich Slowly?”

“I don’t know,” I said, sipping my coffee. “I don’t know.”

I thought for a moment. “I guess there are a few things I could do. For one, I could finish the goddamn redesign that I’ve been working on for two years. That’d help. I guess I could consider removing comments from the website. That’d help too, although it’d also have some downsides. And maybe there’s a way that Tom and I could manually create the idea of a clean slate by gradually curating which articles we’d like to keep from the archives.”

The more I thought about this, and the more I talked about it, the more excited I got. I could feel myself becoming energized. What if I did somehow approach Get Rich Slowly as a clean slate? How would that work? I don’t know for sure, but it’s something to explore over the next few days and weeks and months.

Meanwhile, I’m enamored with the idea of The Clean Slate.

I’ve always loved the excitement and possibility of fresh beginnings: heading to college, moving to a new house, starting a new job, diving into a new year. Whenever I start over, I have an opportunity to iterate, to do things better than I did before.

Over the two weeks since this conversation, I’ve thought about it a lot. (Perhaps too much!) Why is a clean slate so appealing to me? (And to many other people, as well.) What is it about fresh starts that makes them so invigorating? I think I’ve found a common thread:

  • When I practice ultra-light packing, spending 20 days on the road with only a 19-liter pack, I feel in complete control.
  • When I set up this office, carefully choosing what I allowed into the space, I felt in complete control.
  • When Kim and I took our RV trip, our entire life was confined to the motorhome. And, you guessed it, I felt in complete control — even when things went wrong!

When I pare my life to essentials, I feel more in control. When I feel in control, I’m happier and more productive. This reminds me of the “locus of control” concept that’s a core part of my financial philosophy.

In personality psychology, the term locus of control describes how people view the world around them, and where they place responsibility for the things that happen in their lives. Though this might sound complicated, the concept is actually rather simple.

  • If you have an internal locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your own choices and actions. You believe that you are responsible for who you are and what you are.
  • If you have an external locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your environment, by luck, by fate. You believe that others are responsible for who you are and what you are.

This isn’t an either-or proposition, obviously. Locus of control exists on a continuum. But many people tend to favor one side of the continuum over the other.

[Circle of Concern vs. Circle of Control]

With a clean slate — or a 19-liter backpack or a new office — I’m able to limit my environment. There are fewer things to keep track of and worry about. I know where everything is. I am in control.

But when I look at my email inbox or think of all the chores to do at Get Rich Slowly or look out at the jungle that is our backyard, I get overwhelmed. There’s so much going on and it just won’t stop. I feel powerless, as if I have no control.

So, I’ve had a flash of insight, a look into how I work — and many other people work too. At times, we get overwhelmed. When we get overwhelmed, we feel out of control. Each of us responds to this differently. (I tend to turtle up and practice what my therapist calls “productive procrastination”.)

When I’m able to achieve a blank slate, I feel great. I feel in complete control. I’m happy.

I think this is why I (and so many others) find the simplicity movement so attractive. With simplification comes control and power. This also explains why I’ve always been drawn to “additive” budgeting rather than “subtractive” budgeting.

  • When many people try to get their finances under control, they start by trying to decide what they can cut from their budget: cut cable, cut dinners out, cut the gym membership. But this approach leads to a feeling of deprivation. This is subtractive budgeting.
  • With additive budgeting, on the other hand, you start with a clean slate. You start from zero. (And, in fact, that’s what most people call this: zero-based budgeting.) You start with assumption that you don’t need anything and you’re not spending on anything. Then, each day and each week as expenses arise, you analyze them: Do I really want to spend money on this?

After one month of subtractive budgeting, most folks feel icky. They feel like they’re being restricted. And they don’t have a clear idea of what’s essential and what isn’t. But after one month of additive budgeting, you know what expenses bring value to your life and what expenses can be eliminated. It doesn’t feel as frustrating.

In the past, I’ve told Kim, “I wish we could just erase everything and start over from scratch.” I see now that what I’ve been wishing for is a clean slate, the ability to gain more control of my life. Now that I have this insight, I just need to figure out what to do with it!

For five years now, I’ve had the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown in my to-read stack. Maybe it’s time for me to read it. The book jacket says: “[Essentialism] is a systemic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can mek the highest possible contribution toward the things that really matter. Sounds like “mindful spending” but with time and energy instead of money, doesn’t it?

My 2019 year in review

On a cold first of December 2000, my car was totalled during morning rush hour. I was cruising along in the slow lane — I drive like an old man — when a tractor-trailer rig changed lanes into my Geo Storm. According to the guy behind me, the car spun around twice (although that seems unlikely) before slamming into a guardrail and coming to a stop.

The entire accident probably took all of five seconds but it seemed more like five minutes in subjective time. From the moment I felt the first jolt, my mind entered a state of hyper awareness. I could see everything happening around me — the truck looming to my left, the airbag deploying, the chaos as the car whirled about, the traffic in other lanes — but I was powerless to do anything about it.

When my vehicle came to a stop, witnesses pulled over and rushed to see if I was okay. I was stunned, but I was fine.

Over the next couple of hours — and then days — I went about picking up the pieces. The accident itself had been chaos, as I said, and it left a bit of a mess to clean up afterward. I had to have the car towed. The insurance company had to evaluate it. They had to issue me a check. I had to buy a new car. And so on.

Five seconds of chaos, five weeks of picking up the pieces, and then life settled into a new normal.

The left side of my Geo Storm (after accident)

My 2019 felt much the same, my friends. I’m not trying to be overdramatic (or to catastrophize), but for a lot of the past twelve months, I’ve felt as if I’m stuck in a spinning car, clearly able to see what’s happening but powerless to stop it.

This is, of course, a product of my anxiety and depression. Objectively, my life is fine. Great, even. Subjectively, everything’s been spinning and the airbag has deployed. I know this is all in my head, but that doesn’t make it any better.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that I believe — hope, maybe? — that the wreck has come to a halt. The car that is my life has stopped spinning. Over the past month, I’ve been “assessing the damage”. Things are messy, sure, but they’re not as bad as they might have been. Now, I’ve slowly begun to pick up the pieces, to work toward a new normal.

Fortunately, nothing’s totalled. It’s a mess, but there’s nothing that cannot be repaired. Continue reading

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 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.)