How to Pursue Happiness

What is the good life?

What is the good life?

Happiness has been a hot topic this summer in the personal finance blogosphere. Mr. Money Moustache, Frugalwoods, Our Next Life, and ThinkSaveRetire have all shared their philosophy of happiness recently.

It’s great that the money people are taking on transcendent topics. There’s more to life than money, as we all agree. Keeping our happiness in view helps us balance and direct our financial goals within the bigger picture of life.

But before we embrace any philosophical belief, we must scrutinize its underlying assumptions. I’m all for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but I want to do it right. The foundational presuppositions of the “primarily pursue happiness” viewpoint include:

  1. We know what will make us happy.
  2. What makes us happy is good for us.
  3. Happiness can be pursued directly.

Do We Know What Will Make Us Happy?

Before making happiness our life’s goal, we’d want to be confident that we can predict what will make us happy. Plenty of research suggests we can’t do so reliably. A couple good TED talks on the topic:

And surely we’ve all experienced a failure to forecast what will satisfy. For example, I never wanted to marry. Then I tied the knot at age 20 and have been happily married for 10 years. People think a career in business will make them happy only to return to school for a teaching degree a few years later. And we’ve all made fun purchases, thinking the object or experience will make us happy, only to look to the next purchase all too soon.

Is What Makes Us Happy Good For Us?

It’s easy to think of examples of unhealthy things that make people feel happy, but there are plenty of legal, good pastimes, possessions, or traits that make us happy for a while, but don’t deliver in the long run. Hollywood is littered with successful, beautiful, wealthy people whose utter unhappiness is tragically on display, and we’ve all known plenty of cases close to home, too.

  • People who have traits others believe comprise happiness—wealth, smarts, beauty, talent—actually report lower happiness levels than their average counterparts.
  • Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Shawn Johnson described how disappointing her Olympic experience was.
  • Quarterback Tom Brady reported feeling completely empty despite his hugely successful football career, massive wealth, and supermodel wife.
  • Dave Chappell ran away to South Africa after making $50 million by age 32, and stated “It seems the higher up I go, the less happy I am.”
  • Sigmund Freud declared that the “pursuit of happiness is a doomed quest.”
  • The author of Ecclesiastes recorded the results of his search for happiness. He tried women, wine, work, wealth, and education. His conclusion? “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after the wind and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

We want to find the perfect cocktail of financial stability, hobbies, friends, productivity, and creativity to make us happy. But what if it can’t? We are prone to imbalance and to wanting “too much of a good thing.” Even more subtly dangerous is wanting too much from a good thing.

Conversely, is what makes us unhappy bad for us? It all depends. Of course unhealthy pursuits and relationships are toxic, but periods of suffering are often viewed as the most redemptive or life-changing within a few years. An American Sociological Association study showed childless couples are happier than those with children. Of course! Raising kids is HARD! While I often feel unhappy when I’m being nagged, woken up, or pooped on, I am so happy that I have children. I’ve grown a lot already and the whole experience is very humbling and amazing.

Can Happiness Be Pursued Directly?

The reason our plans for happiness tend to evade us is that happiness can’t be pursued directly. It’s kind of like falling in love: you can’t force it. You can take some steps that are within your power; that’s fine and good. I’m not saying we should abandon everything that gives us cheer to wear sackcloth and ashes. Happiness and wanting to be happy aren’t wrong. Enjoying hobbies, experiences, and material provisions is awesome. “God has given us every good thing to enjoy.”

We all know you can’t buy happiness. Turns out you can’t chase it, either. TED talks by psychologists Dan Gilbert and Nancie Etcoff explore why happiness can’t be pursued directly. C.S. Lewis makes a wonderful case for this principle in Surprised by Joy. He searched for happiness his whole life, only to discover that you can’t find it. It finds you, often when you’re least expecting it.

So what are we supposed to do? I believe happiness comes from:

Above the sun. If everything under the sun is ultimately meaningless and unable to deliver true, enduring happiness, we need to look to a transcendent source. This is what surprised Lewis: a lifetime of searching for a feeling state left him unfulfilled. Meeting the Author of Joy brought an unexpected joy that rose above circumstance and emotion.

Be happy with what you have“It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you got” Sheryl Crow sang, and the apostle Paul agrees: “If we have food and covering, let us be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). Research concurs that, once a reasonable standard of living is secured, additional income doesn’t increase happiness. The principle of diminishing returns often applies to other areas like success or leisure time. The true secret to financial freedom isn’t reaching financial independence, or early retirement. It’s contentment.

Having a purpose. What brings real fulfillment and contentment is knowing our lives mean something. You may be ecstatic for a short time, but that doesn’t impact your overall life much in the long run. When I think back to my life just twelve short years ago, I scarcely remember my emotional state. What I do remember is my purpose at that time. And this is also what we remember about others, whether our grandparents or modern or historic heroes.

Making others happy. I’ve framed this many ways—Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle, Inflate Someone Else’s Lifestyle Instead of Your Own, and Real Worth vs. Net Worth to name a few.  I’m almost sorry to beat this drum again! But according to my experience, others’ research, and the wisdom of Jesus, it really is better to give than to receive.

Bringing others joy lies at the heart of having a purpose. If it’s all about me, I’m just chasing a moving target, a carrot tied to a stick. While getting happiness can’t be our primary reason for caring about others, it’s a likely side effect. And if directly pursuing my own bliss is ineffective, I might as well brighten other people’s lives.

Now, after all that philosophy, go enjoy this feel-good dance video.

What do you believe makes people happy?

How I Spent Less Than $8K on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting

Don't be afraid to do some repairs yourself.

Don’t be afraid to do some repairs yourself! Babies love working on cars, too.

This post was written by Neil, an experienced car guy. He’s got lots of great practical tips; enjoy!

What is it with America’s obsession with cars? Even the most frugal among us get swept up in the hype. I’ve owned lots of cars. If I think real hard, I can remember my first car. My momma said it could take me anywhere. (Anyone?) It was a 1988 Toyota Celica GT, 5 speed Black with black interior, with flipup headlights. Suffice to say it was a chick magnet. I purchased it in the last few months before my 16th birthday for $950.

I recently had a discussion with someone who insisted that getting a new hybrid will be such an efficient use of resources the car will basically be paying me to drive it. He didn’t know who he was talking to. Over the course of my decade and a half driving career I’ve spent $7700 to keep myself mobile.  I’ve always commuted, never taken public transportation, or rode a bike for any significant time during those years. That’s forty-three bucks a month for wheels. Not bad, not great either. (Yes, of course I spent on fuel, repairs, and insurance. I also sold them later. This post focuses on buying a car. )

1988 Toyota Celica GT  $950
1990 Acura Integra $3,000
1997 Ford Taurus $0      (Read the story in “Free and Broken“.)
1990 Dodge Shadow $750
2002 Ford Focus $3,000
Total $7,700

Okay, they weren't the prettiest cars, but they worked.

Okay, they weren’t the prettiest cars, but they worked. The net cost of this beauty averaged out to $5/month.

What I don’t get is people pretending to be frugal and dropping big bucks on cars like it’s no big deal. By big bucks, I don’t mean $10,000 for a used “economy” vehicle. My car purchases for the past 17 years come to less than that! What gives? The following are unacceptable excuses for buying an expensive transportation device:

I just want to be safe.”

All cars made from 1995 are quite safe relatively speaking. If you were really concerned with safety you would stay off the road entirely. There are few riskier things we engage in on a daily basis.

“I just want my car to be reliable.”

Price and age of car care not indicative of its reliability. Consumer reports will tell you the same.

“I don’t have time to work on a car.”

How much do you value you your time? Working extra decades to fund your car choices is a lot more time-consuming than turning the occasional wrench.

“I just want to enjoy my commute.” -and/or-

“My car makes me happy.”

Why is your commute so long that you have to buy a fancy car to enjoy it? Can you see how self-defeating that is? I’ll compound my crappy commute by spending butt loads of money on it too.  Listen people, a car ain’t going to make you happy, just like any other material possession.

Would somebody please think of the children?”

Children do just fine in any four door car or wagon with the LATCH system. (Though these are not even necessary.) No need to get a fancy minivan with built in dvd players, stow and go seating, and the whole nine yards, to accommodate a couple tiny humans.

“I gotta get better gas mileage to save money.”

This is a slippery slope. Be sure to run an ROI calculation on that. I highly doubt getting a different car will actually have a reasonable break even point. Please check out my spreadsheets detailing real-life scenarios I ran for friends: Gas Mileage vs. Vehicle Cost.

“I have to have a nice car for work.”

Most likely not the case. Do you actually cart around clients that demand to be chauffeured in a special vehicle? Or are you just telling yourself that? Could you for the rare case this is true, rent a car for that day or week?

These are all bogus excuses my fellow frugal friends! You can get a good cheap used car and not have to put much money into it. It always amazes me that people justify getting a fancy car by saying they got screwed on a used car they purchased once. How is it that for over 15 years I was able to eek loads of reliable miles out of a handful of very cheap cars? Am I just lucky? Nah. Pick wisely. More on that later.

Th truth is Americans are obsessed with cars. I have taken countless negative remarks about my hoopties of the years but really, who cares? If you’re into reading these frugal blogs you’re sure to have implemented some odd frugal tips. It’s funny to me that people get so into maximizing their bulk cinnamon purchases but then completely over-justify their need for a fancy car. If you want to win with money, you must get your car spending in control. Housing and transportation are most people’s biggest expenses. It’s worth it to maximize savings here. Once you get those under control, then move on to your bulk oatmeal calculations.

How to Buy a Used Car

You want a car that has passed 100,000 miles. This is the magic number. People think that once their car passes this milestone it is worthless trash and will sell it for next to nothing. One hundred thousand used to be an achievement for a car. Today, it means nothing. All cars can double this number without major component replacement. It’s not a big deal. Look at the following graph.

Used car value over time

Data from Edmunds car depreciation calculator.

Maybe people think that because they claim rights to one of the excuses above, then the depreciation curve doesn’t apply to them. No one escapes the depreciation curve, no one! Notice how the graph flattens out after 100000 miles or about 9 years. This is the time to buy a used car. Refuse depreciation. Ideally you’d be like this guy who doesn’t pay anything to drive, but he’s got some extraordinary skills.

The next most important thing is that the car was reasonably maintained. At 100,000 miles you want to see the car has had its timing belt changed. You want to check the front end for clunks. Check for leaking fluids. Open the hood. Check the oil. Look at the coolant. Maybe I’ll do some follow-up posts of what to look for with each of these. If you’re not knowledgeable about cars, get an third-party mechanic to check it over for you.

Take the car for a test drive. A hard test drive. If it’s an automatic, floor it. Yes, floor it. Make sure it shifts where it’s supposed to and doesn’t grind its gears. If it’s a manual, see if you can check the clutch adjustment. Get it up to highway speeds. Get it all the way to operating temperature. Check for leaks.

Look at Edmunds car reviews for common problems for the particular model you are looking at. Determine in a worst case scenario if that issue were to happen would the car still be a good deal. Consumer Reports used car ratings are okay but not nearly as good as Edmunds. Consumer Reports will have you rule out several years of a make and model because of a transmission issue. However, one could avoid that issue by getting the other type of transmission (manual vs. auto for example).

Buy American. Seriously. Yes, Japanese cars used to be a lot better; that’s not true anymore. American cars can hold their own in the reliability department. You want to buy American because American cars lose value much faster than Japanese. This is a GOOD thing. You want to find a car that’s value drops like a rock. You are buying way out on the depreciation curve that way. You will minimize its affects. Korean cars are also a good value.

Also, American cars have cheaper parts. Go onto a car parts website and compare a few common replacement parts (exhaust, ball joint, radiator) for a Ford and a Honda. No comparison. Both of these cars will go 200,000, probably more. Japanese cars just don’t command the premium price that goes with them anymore.

Use Kelly Blue Book as a starting point for negotiations. You want to buy a car from a private party at the private party price or below. Deals too good to be true in used cars usually are. I have no problem paying private party KBB if the car is well maintained.

spectrum

Where are you on the car purchase spectrum? How could you work your way down?

10 Things They Don’t Tell You About Decluttering

Not my kid, but close enough.

“You threw away my favorite, moldy rubber duck?” (Not my kid, but close enough.)

I felt a bit frazzled during a recent purge. It was all worth it when my mother-in-law, a total neat freak, noticed that “you’ve been cleaning up lately” after seeing my basement. “All the rooms are so clean!” Music to my ears.

There are approximately one million articles about the benefits of decluttering , and I contributed one  or two to that mess. I genuinely enjoy clearing our home of excess and find it makes life easier in the long run. However, there are some drawbacks I’ve experienced throughout the process.

I imagine these are the very reasons people stop short with this task, or don’t get around to it in the first place, so let’s just all acknowledge that decluttering and minimizing is hard! And that’s why we need one million articles reminding us why it’s good.

So don’t to be surprised when it’s hard. This is all a normal part of the process. Here’s what I experienced:

  1. You will neglect other chores. Dishes, laundry, yard work, vacuuming…something’s gotta give if you’re going to go through all your things and then sell or donate some of the excess.
  2. You will feel more stressed initially. The joys of owning less are more of a long-term promise. In the short-term, you will actually feel more stressed out or overwhelmed as you make time ot go through your stuff, and have to make decisions about what to pitch. After you’re done, you’ll have a backlog of laundry and other chores to catch up on.
  3. You will think about stuff too much temporarily. Minimalism promises less focus on material possessions, but the actual process of minimizing requires thinking about stuff more. I found myself absentmindedly thinking about whether I needed to keep a particular item when I should’ve been focused on other things.
  4. Your kids will not cooperate. They’ll make crazy messes while you try to reduce the mess potential of your home. Especially with the stuff you are trying to go through, which will make it tempting to keep that stuff because they’re playing with it! They also might request stuff back after it’s entered the donation truck! You know, stuff that they told you they hated and never use. This was a little embarrassing but the attendant was very kind about it.
  1. You may have to go over an area more than once. I’ve gone through my closet and kitchen twice this year, and I always find more I can part with. Something I may have been on the fence about 6 months ago can probably go if I haven’t needed it in that time. I’d love to minimalize once and for all, but realistically, it’s more of an ongoing process that gets quicker and easier each time.
  2. Your house may not look that different. If you have children or a messy partner, they will continue leaving stuff around the house. Even if there is a lot less stuff in your home.
  3. You may not be able to find stuff. The second half of decluttering is supposed to be organizing. But sometimes when you do a lot at once, it’s hard to find it next time you need it! It took me 10 minutes to find Neosporin after moving our medicine cabinet. I’ve also found myself looking for clothes I got rid of.
  4. Your kids will cry months later, too. You know the toys they never touched, so you gave them away? When my kids spot those in old pictures, they suddenly spout tears and profess their eternal love for that item. Although the storm passes, it’s not my favorite part of decluttering.
  5. Your spouse may not like it. Just because you’re on a mission to clear your space doesn’t mean the rest of your family will automatically be on board. And there may be some areas that are simply off limits. It doesn’t matter that I don’t think my husband (a cube-dweller) doesn’t need 5 pairs of old, dirty pants for working on cars. He thinks he does, and it’s not worth marital strife to fight over “minimalism.”
  6. You may regret some purging. Out of sight, out of mind? You won’t even miss the clutter? Sometimes I wonder if I got too over-zealous with a few items, especially when I find myself looking for them. In the long run, it’s insignificant and I could replace the item if I really wanted to. I’m sure I hang out to more than I don’t need, than vice versa.

Lest my warnings de-motivate you, let me remind you of just a few of the many benefits:

  1. Someone else can use it. Whether I decide to sell, donate, or just give it to a friend, I love knowing someone can put my excess to to good use.
  2. Find what you need easier (in the long run). I’m not just talking about finding rarely needed items in a basement box. I’ve decluttered my kitchen and now it’s so much easier to find the items I need every day.
  3. Less to clean. I still have plenty of messes to tackle but clearing out the extra toys, clothes, and household items means there is less for my children to make a mess with!
  4. Use what you already have. I was longing for a new summer dress when I found one I’d forgotten about in storage. And I’m a lot more likely to actually wear it now that I’ve donated the stuff I never wear.
  5. Freedom from the burden of maintaining and storing stuff. Less stuff (to a point) means more flexibility.
  6. Your mother-in-law might be impressed, or even think you’re a cleaner person than you actually are!

How you experienced any difficulty with decluttering? What is your favorite benefit?

Earn More vs. Spend Less Throwdown

mountain

What’s more important: increasing income or decreasing spending? The debate rages on, but unfortunately many answers miss the crux of the matter.

After a year and half of talking a lot of thrift, we recently broached the income side. To be honest, much of our financial progress has been supported by an above-average income. Yet we’re a one-income family living on less than half our take-home pay. We spend less than average and that makes an impact, too.

Many argue that you can increase your income by greater magnitudes than you can slash spending. But people often find their budget feeling tight even after their income grows. If you spend more than you make, it doesn’t matter how much you make. You never get ahead.

So what’s more important—your income side or your spending? Whichever one you need to work on. It depends on the person. I can’t tell you which that is for you, but I hope the case studies and questions below will help.

Consider two case studies of real-life families:

Family 1 was often running low on money despite having a very good income. They cited their house, having a baby, and medical expenses as some of the reasons for having cash flow problems. They were right that their spending was the problem, but were citing reasonable expenses instead of looking to the ones they could decrease.

Over time, resources from Dave Ramsey helped motivate them to reassess. They were eating out multiple times each week. They were paying for gym memberships they didn’t use. They were buying convenience items. One partner was smoking. They had a car payment and student loans. Once they started cutting back in these areas, they were able to pay off their car and student loans early. They built enough equity to stop paying PMI. The smoker quit. They started cooking at home. They identified that the problem was spending, acted accordingly, and have continued to make huge strides toward financial flexibility.

Family 2 was often close to broke, but one spouse’s father would cover what they couldn’t on a monthly basis. He even gifted them a down payment on a house. The only problem was that they couldn’t really afford the monthly mortgage payments. When they had their first child, the wife left her job to stay home. The husband worked in a field with limited earning potential. They still had student loans from his associate’s degree.

While their bills were paid, they had a serious income problem: part of their income was coming in the form of regular gifts. While this was very generous, it was ultimately unhelpful. It didn’t allow the family to attack their finances from the income side, which desperately needed attention. Both partners were capable of earning more but weren’t sure how to make it happen.

See how landing on just income or just spending doesn’t solve the problem for all situations?

Do You Need to Hustle?

If you’re underearning, dissatisfied with your job, or aren’t making enough to get by, you need to work more, harder, and/or smarter. You absolutely need to attack the income side so you can gain flexibility and not have money be the limiting factor in every life decision. You need a raise, a career move, a second job or other side hustle. Here’s how we stopped underearning by overstaying at the same company.

Know when it’s time to move on. Research your value in the market. Negotiate a raise if you’re underpaid. Assess what you’d be willing to do to make more money: would you work overtime, change companies, relocate, change careers, or start a side hustle or small business?

At some point, working more, harder, or sometimes even smarter becomes undesirable as it detracts your time and physical and mental energy from what you’d rather be doing. A common belief states if you could possibly make more money, you should. I disagree. There’s a lot more to life than pushing your earning potential to its outer limits, at any cost to other areas of your life. Always keep your real worth in the balance with your net worth.

Do You Need to Cut Back?

Do you have a good income and still find yourself broke? Do your expenses rise steadily alongside your income? Do you know how much you spend on average in a month? Are impulse purchases, going out, or recreational shopping frequent for you?  Look to your spending for solutions.

I sense that people from relatively affluent homes are more likely to need to work on this side. People with the advantages of the middle and upper-middle class are more likely to earn good incomes. They’re also more likely to be acclimated to a “comfortable” lifestyle that may have taken decades for their parents to build, but they aim for as soon as they land their first job.

Whatever your background, don’t dismiss the expense side of the equation until you have a handle on how much you spend, and on what. It’s easy to say, if I only made as much as her, or if we could just catch a break from special expenses cropping up, then we could get ahead. But if you’re making decent money and not saving it or paying down debt, more money isn’t going to fix the problem.

In summary, my answer to the income vs. expenses debate is that you need to work on the area where you’re weaker until you gain traction. In some cases, you’ll need to work on both. But you simply can’t assess which one it is for you unless you have a good picture of your financial situation. We approach this by tracking our spending and creating an annual budget.

Review the last few months of your income and spending to catch a snapshot of both angles. If you cut, cut, cut, and there’s still not enough income, increase the input. If you earn, earn, earn and never find it to be enough, it’s time to decrease the output. Underearning and overspending are both a waste of precious resources.

A healthy financial situation looks like being happy with both your income and spending, while staying open to improving both sides. Once you reach this point you’re free to focus more on the angle that’s your strength.

What are your financial strengths? How have you improved your weaknesses? Any other takes on the income vs. expense debate?

The Value of a (Half) Dollar

Image result for fourth of july

For this post we’re traveling back in time to an 1866 Fourth of July celebration as described in Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The “Independence Day” chapter includes a great object lesson about the value of a dollar, or a half-dollar in this case.

At the town’s Fourth of July celebration, the nine-year-old main character, Almanzo, watches his cousin Frank buy a glass of lemonade for a nickel. Frank brags that his father gives him money any time he asks, but Almanzo has never had money. Frank dares Almanzo to ask his father for money, so he reluctantly approaches his dad for a nickel and tells him why. His father slowly takes a half-dollar out of his wallet and asks, “‘Almanzo, do you know what this is?’

‘Half a dollar,’ Almanzo answered.

‘Yes. But do you know what half a dollar is?’

Almanzo didn’t know it was anything but half a dollar.

‘It’s work, son,” Father said. ‘That’s what money is; it’s hard work.'”

After going back and forth with a friend about whether a boy Almanzo’s age can understand this principle, Father asks him to describe the long, hard process of raising potatoes to sell. Then his father asks, “”How much do you get for half a bushel of potatoes?’

‘Half a dollar,’ Almanzo said.

‘Yes,’ said Father. ‘That’s what’s in this half-dollar, Almanzo. The work that raised half a bushel of potatoes is in it.’

Almanzo looked at the round piece of money that Father held up. It looked small, compared with all that work.”

His father gives him the half-dollar to keep, and explains that he could buy a baby pig with it, raise the pig and its babies, and sell them full-grown for $4 or $5 each. Or he could spend it on lemonade which is gone in a few moments.

What would you do with the hard-earned half-dollar? Would you invest in a baby pig that, after several years could yield a 50-fold return? Or would you spend it on a pitcher of lemonade?

Almanzo buys the pig, and we all like to think we’d do the same. But what have you actually done? The half-dollar is real; it’s your hard work and valuable time traded in for a paycheck. Are you getting your work’s worth out of your money, or are you blowing it on trinkets and treats that’ll be gone too soon? Remember, the value of Almanzo’s half-dollar was not only the hard work that earned it, but also the potential value of growing his money through investment.

Somewhere in the shift from corn rows to cubicles, we’ve stopped viewing work as the opportunity cost of our spending. We looked at this principle in “What Are You Working For?” and Life Is Not About Your Preferences. Maybe we understood this trade-off when we were teens entering the work force, until our expenses got more complicated and our work became full-time and perhaps cushier.

It seems less back-breaking labor is often more soul-numbing, which is probably why so many white collars I know fantasize about becoming farmers! Whatever color your collar, gleaning from previous generations’ view of money can help us fight against the imbalances we’re unwittingly steeped in. Check out the Live Like Grandma Challenge for more throwback financial lessons.

Without obsessing about how many minutes at work each purchase we make costs, we can value our time enough not to take spending lightly. The best way to keep spending in check without obsessing about it is to set a limit on your lifestyle. Contentment is the true secret to financial freedom. Know when enough’s enough. And if you’ve already passed the threshold into “too much,” it’s never too late to turn back. Sell that junk, pay off your debt, and make the decision to inflate your usefulness instead of your lifestyle. And inflate someone else’s lifestyle by helping others with your money while you’re at it. (The only money Almanzo had handled until that Independence Day was a weekly penny for the church collection.)

Reigning in your lifestyle also allows you to enjoy life now. Rather than frantically work extra hours, frivolously spending to entertain work-numbed souls, or fretting to maintain a lifestyle above your means, why not consider what’s actually worth your hard-earned half-dollars? Cut the rest, and enjoy some free blessings like nature, friends, family, and library books. Why not add Farmer Boy to your summer reading list?.

What has taught you the value of a dollar? Do you agree that we’ve lost sight of this as a culture? 

 

All excerpts taken from my 1971 Harper & Row edition of Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

Don’t Underearn By Overstaying

lake ontario 3

If I could offer one piece of career advice to new grads, it would be to avoid becoming an eternal intern. In other words, don’t under-earn by staying too long at the same job, especially your first real job. Neil almost committed this common career faux pas before getting a wake-up call and changing jobs. We finally realized why staying in one place for your whole career is thing of the past: it’s often the best way to stunt your career and income growth.

Like many of his engineering classmates, Neil worked an internship full- or part-time throughout the second half of his education. A year before graduation, he was offered a full-time position. He didn’t even have to interview. The salary and benefits were good. It was a Fortune 500 company and he’d continue working in the same department he was already familiar with.

The only problem? “I almost became an eternal intern,” he says. In other words, he felt like he could not shake the new hire status at his first company.

The Most Dangerous Job

While his pay increased significantly post-degree, his job was boring and under-utilized his engineering skills. We continued to view the position as a good job because it paid well and was low-stress. There was a sense of security in working at a big company.

Despite being a great employee with plenty of initiative, he reached a plateau in his career. He studied hard and passed a rigorous eight-hour exam to earn a Professional Engineering license. He talked to his boss about opportunities for advancement, but that required relocation. There was no way he was going to move our family for a job he didn’t love.

That’s when he realized this job wasn’t safe and secure at all. In fact, staying there was the most dangerous career choice he could make. He was going to be viewed as an intern forever. The most successful people in his group had been hired from the outside. He wasn’t gaining marketable skills and being bored at work didn’t signal job security. It was time to make his move.

Learning Your Market Value

He started reading up on the area he wanted to get into, and applyied for jobs.  When he found the right position a few months later, he was astonished at the difference. He was hired at their highest level for engineers. Because he changed industries, he expected a learning curve, but feels a new momentum in his career. In the year and a half that he’s been there, his salary has increased over 20% compared to his last job. He finds the work much more interesting, and his boss is discussing career growth opportunities with him.

He’s noticed that the new grads his company hires have perpetual intern status, too. Even though they are very knowledgeable and hard-working, they aren’t always treated with equal respect and professionalism. He allowed his previous employer to continue viewing him as an intern simply by staying there too long.

Neil shared these new insights with a friend whom he believed was under-earning. With two weeks of beginning his job search, his friend was offered a job and asked to name his price! He secured a 40% raise. His skill set didn’t change; he simply found a company willing to pay his market value.

I’m so glad we realized the dangers of becoming an eternal intern and moved on. This is one of the reasons Millennials don’t stay at the same job for 30 years—and shouldn’t. Here are some lessons we’ve learned:

  1. Your company cares about the bottom line, not you. No one else is going to look out for you and your career.
  2. In many careers, staying in one place is the best way to under-earn. Every move you make is a chance to make a jump in salary and build your skills.
  3. The problem with your job may not be your company or boss, but your inherent status as a former intern or new hire. Changing jobs may be the only way to change this status.
  4. We should be more scared of the status quo than of change. We don’t grow when things stay the same, and we should be terrified to stop growing.
  5. Making the bold move to take a new job communicates a degree of confidence and initiative that is valuable to employers, and your career.

Neil enjoys work more than ever, but he doesn’t plan to stay at the same company until retirement. We’ve learned our lesson and won’t settle for stagnation ever again.

Have you grown your career through a job change? What is your top career advice for new grads?

Burbstead Update: Birds, Bees, and Sweet Peas

Last bird standing.

Last bird standing.

It’s summer on the burbstead! Time for an update.

Birds

Just yesterday, Neil took our chickens for “processing” at a friends’ house where he has access to a mechanical plucker and other handy equipment. We got back from vacation the day before and he tried to pack everything that night since, of his own admission, he always forgets something. Of course, the chickens are the one component he couldn’t pack until the morning.

A couple hours after he left I went outside to hang laundry. My two-year-old came with me to play in the sandbox. She wandered over to the chicken tractor as she had every morning. She’d given us a Stoic summary of what happens to the chickens the day before: “Sometimes my dad feed the chickens. Sometimes he kill them. Then we eat them up in the tummy.” So I wasn’t worried about her discovering the empty tractor.

“The chickens aren’t in there,” I warned as she headed over.

“This chicken need food,” she declared.

“Dad took the chickens to the farm,” I reminded.

“This chicken need food,” she insisted. For a second I thought there might be a dead chicken in there. What if one died in the night and he hadn’t had time to deal with it this morning? It seemed unlikely, but I looked over and, lo and behold, there was a live chicken walking around in the box.

Neil forgot a chicken! In the rush over going back and forth to load up the car, he’d left behind the last chicken.

Shoot, I thought. That’s going to be messy.

Vegetarians, cover your eyes. Luckily it wasn’t too bad, and it gave Neil a chance to try his hand at skinning rather than plucking. He’s considered doing a second round of chickens later in the summer when he wouldn’t have access to special equipment. He concluded that it was quite manageable. After all, plucking chickens used to be the wife’s job. Let’s just say I’m a city girl.

Guess how he hauled these chickens to the farm? In his trusty, rusty 2-door hatchback. One of the spending fallacies we most try to avoid is the “hobby accouterments” pitfall. It goes like this: I like biking, so I need expensive bike shorts, bike gloves, bike shirts, bike attachments, etc. Since we’re not racing the Tour de France we’ve stuck with basic safety equipment instead.

For the burbstead, the thinking could easily be, “I’m hauling manure, wood, plants, and live animals. I need a pickup truck.” This would be the perfect example of a values-based budgeting blind spot. We value these endeavors so it’d be tempting to justify a truck. Though Neil sorely misses his 1985 Ford F150 he’s resisted the urge to replace it since it’s much more vehicle than we need.

Bees

The bait hive.

The bait hive.

We promised to update y’all on our bait bee hive. So far, we’ve seen bees scouting it out, and even had bees guarding the entrance for a while. But those bees passed on this move-in ready apartment. Further research indicates the bait hive is on the small side. Maybe when Neil’s schedule clears a bit he’ll make a bigger one, but for now it’s in our friends’ woods.

Peas (Garden)

Our snow peas and sugar snaps are ripe and the kids can’t get enough of them. They have to be the easiest way to eat vegetables, ever. We’ve enjoyed some strawberries and picked our first black raspberry yesterday. Tomatoes, cucumbers, hot peppers, and garlic are planted. We’re already enjoyed this year’s harvest of asparagus. Herbs like mint, dill, chives, scallions, and coolantro (a heartier plant that tastes a lot like cilantro) are flourishing.

When we returned from vacation, our garden looked like it grew a lettuce Afro. After months of unlimited salad, the lettuce finally bolted. Neil pulled most of it and planted peppers. We’ll plant lettuce again near the end of summer and enjoy it in the cooler fall weather.

In Rockin’ the Burbstead, we mentioned our plan to double our garden space. Alas, that much manure is one thing the Focus can’t haul, and plans to use a friend’s truck fell through.

Instead we brainstormed an optimal alternative. In fact, it’s even better than our original plan. I mentioned to Neil that some friends are renting community plots, and the light bulb went on. Why not rent a plot for $8? We used to do this back in our apartment days. The soil is already tilled and water is included in the cost. The plots are 2 miles from our home, right on Neil’s route to work.

Since they’ll be slightly less convenient to tend, we’ll plant one low maintenance crop like corn. And this leaves more our of yard available for other uses.

 

How is your garden? What is your favorite part of summer?

What My Four-Year-Old Taught Me About Investing

catch on the beach

Learning how to play catch & doling out investment advice.

The following blog post is part of The Road to Financial Wellness blog tour. The Road to Financial Wellness is a three-month, grassroots campaign promoting financial empowerment on a national level and encourages people to pursue their dream lifestyle. Find out more about local events near you.

My son staunchly refuses to write the alphabet, but he is fascinated by exponential growth. Not that he knows this is what it’s called. To pass time he loves to ask, “What’s two twos? What’s two fours? What’s two eights?” And so on. Luckily he loses interest before I max out my mental math capacity. The other day while playing this game he said, “You can’t count to a million by starting from one. You have to count with different numbers.”

Forgive my mom pride, but I couldn’t help interpreting this statement as the best investment advice ever uttered by a preschooler. Advice that I simply didn’t understand for a long time.

I’m a saver by nature, but I didn’t receive the most thorough financial education, nor did I come from a “Rich Dad” household. I never realized that just about anyone can “get to a million” using time, compounding interest, and basic earning and saving disciplines.

I saved money, dollar by dollar, through high school and college. In fact, my emergency savings was probably over-funded. Had I invested the extra, even though it wasn’t much, it would’ve been an early start at exponential growth.

After college graduation I blindly accepted the default retirement contributions set up by my employer. When I left that job after a year, I withdrew my funds, paying hefty taxes. Luckily it was 2007, the market was favorable, and it went toward a house down payment. But I’m still kicking myself for that one.

I just didn’t get it.

The Light Bulb Goes On

Not until I watched the first DVD of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. To be honest, that’s the only one I watched, but it was enough. He lays out the comparison of someone who invests $2000/year from ages 19-26, compared to someone who invests $2000/year from ages 27-65. Guess who has more at the end? The second guy never catches up. Though it makes assumes an overly optimistic 12%, the point is clear: start investing sooner rather than later. (Check it out here.)

By the time I watched this, we were contributing Ramsey’s recommended minimum of 15% to retirement accounts. But I was 25 and saving for retirement sounded amorphous, almost mythical. I wasn’t the least bit motivated about it, let alone informed. Since then I’ve become more educated about investing by reading a couple books & lots of personal finance blogs, as well as through conversations with my husband, who’s always learning more about this topic.

Maybe I should have finished watching the DVD course, but we actually had a lot of smaller pieces of personal finance in place. We were good at following a budget and limiting our spending. We had life insurance and a solid income. What I was lacking was the bigger picture of where these practical pieces could lead us. I didn’t need tips on how to save money; I needed a financial education.

Our goal isn’t to become millionaires, but to continue increasing our financial flexibility so that our life choices center more on our values and opportunities, and less on money. Paying off debt, simple living, and planning for retirement and kids’ college are all part of increasing our flexibility.

We won’t gain the flexibility we desire simply by scrimping and saving one dollar (or $100) at a time. For a long time I saved money without gaining the financial education about how to grow wealth. I’ve never wanted to be rich, but I do want the flexibility to prioritize family, volunteer, be generous, and retire someday.

That’s why we’re “counting by different numbers.”

How did you learn about investing? What’s the next step on your road to financial wellness?

The Blind Spot in Values-Based Spending

blind spot

Everyone has those things they’re willing to spend money. For some people it’s clothing, for others it’s restaurants or concerts or “toys.” We’ve always recognized that for us it’s travel.

Some people call this “values-based spending” and or “intentional budgeting.” Others refer to such spending as “budget failure justification.” I believe values-based spending is a great idea, though I doubt we’ve all thought through our values as much as we might give ourselves credit for. There’s also a common pitfall of saying you value just about everything, as a way to rationalize spending.

That said, it’s 100% legitimate to choose areas of non-essential spending and decide, “I value my health, so I’m going to buy healthy food, even if it costs more.” Or “I value learning so I’m willing to spend on books, or private school.” Whatever your areas are, that’s up to you. I wouldn’t recommend going into debt for most areas, but beyond that it really is a matter of personal preference.

At the same time, values-based spending has a dangerous blind spot: your values.

The Slippery Slope From Values to Invaluable

Once we pick a category and say, “this is valuable to me,” it’s a slippery slope to viewing that thing as invaluable. Meaning you’d spend (just about) any amount on that area that is so important to you.

The danger isn’t that you value a category, it’s that you have a blind spot toward your spending in that area. Let me give you an example from my life: dating my husband. This is non-negotiable to us. We make do with evenings at home together (that’s not most nights for us), but with two little ones and busy schedules, sometimes we just need to get out and have fun together before 9 pm.

So after our second child was old enough to leave with a babysitter, we went out about once a month and spent at least $50 every time. We’d budgeted $50 since we cherished that time together and wanted to have a meal and maybe do something afterwards. When Neil suggested we didn’t have to spend that much every time, I got defensive, made fun of our pre-parenthood Taco Bell or home dates, and basically shut down that suggestion real quick.

Then I realized I had a blind spot. We could choose to spend $50, and that was fine. Nothing wrong with it. We still do sometimes. But we could also enjoy ourselves just as much with cheaper meals or diversions, while upholding our values of date night and our marriage.

My emotional blind spot for this important area leeched my creativity in seeking good alternatives. While this expense wasn’t breaking the bank, the same phenomenon can take hold in many, sometimes more expensive areas.

Another area we value is our involvement in church ministry. We are volunteer leaders in our church and this means we spend money on retreats and social/ministry outings regularly. We are happy to do so, but have found some cheaper solutions. For example, sometimes we “pre-game” a restaurant outing and just order something small, or carpool or ride bikes to events when possible. We also choose to pay a babysitter so we can have less distractions during our home church meetings. So there are ways we’ve found to spend less while maintaining involvement, and there are also facets that we can’t really cut back on, or at least aren’t willing to.

How to Squint Out Your Blind Spots

First try to identify your value areas. And remember–you don’t get to pick everything! Common value areas include family, safety, health, education, faith, travel, adventure, gifts, technology, media, the arts, sports, friends, or experiences.

Now have a little brainstorming session, identifying possible alternatives to your current spending in your high-value areas. Be sure to ask your significant other or friends for ideas because it’s hard to think outside the box sometimes.

Please hear me: you might get creative, do some research, and find there are no better solutions or alternatives to your value areas. Maybe you recognize there are cheaper solutions, but you don’t have the time, inclination, or skills to adopt them. Then you would carry on as before, knowing that thing is really worth the price to you. That’s fine!

But a healthy dose of skepticism about our own values-based budgeting is helpful, because we’re almost inherently emotional about the things we value. And emotional money decisions aren’t always the wisest. It’s unrealistic to think any of us is going to do money perfectly every time, but I’d like the idea of reassessing and become more financially self-aware and solution-seeking over time.

What areas of your budget do you value most? Have you ever identified a blind spot in your values-based spending?

 

Inflate Someone Else’s Lifestyle Instead of Your Own

Meeting my sponsored child.

Meeting my sponsored child.

Did you know almost half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50/day?

A huge portion of the world lives in abject poverty. For example, recent droughts in India have increased prostitution, child labor, and the incidence of child brides because people simply don’t have enough resources to provide for their children. Many Dalits “don’t exist” on paper and thus do not have reliable access to government assistance.

Did you know that for $1/day, you can change the life of a child in poverty? For many people in developed nations, $1/day is an amount you’d barely even miss. That can’t even buy you a coffee. It’s about one Chipotle burrito per week. Whatever $1 means in your budget, if you can spare it, I encourage you to consider adding a real worth investment to your portfolio.

Why not inflate someone else’s lifestyle instead of your own? After all, $1 per day can’t inflate your lifestyle noticeably. Investing $1 per day isn’t going significantly alter your retirement plans. But it could radically alter the trajectory of someone else’s life, while also inflating your usefulness.

It could be the difference between infanticide and life. Between starvation and nutrition. Between ignorance and education. Between being sold as a child bride or prostitute, and having a wholesome childhood. Between a family being broken up or staying whole. Between untapped potential and opportunity.

There are so many great charitable causes out there, but child sponsorship is something near to my heart because children are often innocent victims of forces much greater than themselves. They have not chosen their way into bad circumstances. They are completely powerless to improve their situation.

Yes, some organizations take donations that do not actually benefit the children they claim to help. Corruption and fraud exist and that means donors have to exercise caution. That’s why we started our research with personal recommendations from friends who have visited the organizations we donate to, and eventually visited one of our sponsored children.

Let’s cover some common questions and concerns.

Does this conflict with parents from providing for their children?

The organizations we give to practice holistic efforts to help entire communities. Therefore, the parents often have access to vocational training, education, employment opportunities, and micro loans. While we can’t vouch for every possible scenario, the efforts of the organizations we’ve chosen to support include helping parents as well.

Also, many children who benefit from sponsorship are orphans. And since the quality and reach of orphan care varies quite a bit across countries, we are happy to help “orphans and widows” which James 1:27 describes as “true religion.”

How do you know the money is going to benefit the children?

During our international mission trips, Neil and I separately witnessed the huge gulf between sponsored children and street kids. Our sponsored children live in very simple but safe homes. They attend school rather than begging or trying to sell things on the street. They receive sufficient food and clothing, as well as an education. They often receive help with career training, higher education, and even marriage if they do not have a family to help with this.

We personally met the “house parents,” school teachers, program directors, and even the president of one organization we sponsor a child through. I also was able to meet our child’s mother, who spent almost our whole time together saying “very thank you.” It was incredibly humbling; you can read more about it here.

 

There are many good organizations that do child sponsorship and poverty relief, but I can’t vouch for them personally as I can for India Gospel League. I’ve personally seen the work of IGL and find the organization to be highly efficient, effective, and holistic. Friends of mine visited Compassion International’s work in one country (Ethiopia) and found their ministry to be worth supporting. I’ve also heard great things about World Relief.

Would you consider inflating someone else’s lifestyle through child sponsorship? This cause hits even closer to home now that I have children of my own. I can’t imagine being in a position where I couldn’t provide for them; it’s too heart-breaking to even think about. Yet many parents across the world find themselves in this situation, often due to forces outside their control.

Please don’t let fear of corruption hold you back from helping the needy. Do a little research. Check out a charity rating website like Charity Navigator. Ask friends if they could recommend an organization, or even volunteer with or visit a group to learn more. If you prefer to help domestically, go for it! Or if you want to help adults, consider supporting a microloan program, vocational education, or refugee needs.

Inflating some else’s lifestyle is a real worth investment that will have a solid return, and it’s very rewarding to know you can change someone’s life, even if you may never meet the person. It truly is “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Any questions or recommendations? Have you ever sponsored a child or microloan?