Financial habits I am keeping (or adding) for 2021

2020 has been a crazy year, and the pandemic forced us to do many things differently. For some of those things, I can’t wait to get back to normal, but some of my new habits I hope to keep forever. Here are the keepers:

  1. Cooking at home. I never liked eating out. Not just because it is expensive, but I really don’t like people touching my food, eating meals that I don’t really know the ingredients of, and socializing with the servers. Meals out with people are sometimes part of my job, but I plan to continue to avoid them whenever they are avoidable.
  2. Bringing my lunches to work. I always planned to bring my lunches to work but rarely did. Most of the time, I bought burritos from Chipotle. For me, this doesn’t have most of the negatives of eating out – I know pretty much exactly what is in my burrito, and I can see the people cooking the food. Nonetheless, it is expensive. A $7 burrito each workday adds up to $140 a month or $1680 a year. And that doesn’t count the drink I often got to go with my burrito. I have gotten pretty good at preparing food over the weekend for the whole week, and when I return to the office, I will plan to have five lunches for my wife and me ready in the freezer each Sunday night.
  3. Only buying and eating whole foods. No Snacks September had quite an impact on my eating habits. We have continued to buy very little processed food, and it has been wonderful both for my physical and mental health. I am not sure there are direct savings, but this is definitely a habit I want to keep.
  4. Using grocery curb pick-up. I love Misfit Foods (Want to try it? 25% off code for your first box: COOKWME-IE2AJH). Fresh organic fruits and veggies arrive at my doorstep every week. I have compared with my local organic options, and the food is cheaper and much better at Misfit. I plan to keep those deliveries for the foreseeable future. There is also a lot to be said about grocery pick-up. My only complaint about curb pick-up is that I don’t always like the produce they select, but as most of my produce now comes from Misfit, that is much less of a problem. I believe I am saving a significant amount of money by not being tempted to throw random stuff in my cart, and I save at least an hour. Once it is safe, I would be happy to go grocery shopping once in a while, but I don’t think that will be the norm for my family.
  5. Not spending money on transportation. My office is 3.5 miles from my house, so driving is a minimal expense in terms of gas. Parking, however, is about $10 a day! Between that and my lunches, I was spending about $4000 a year to go to work. If it feels safe, there is a bus which is close to free. If that doesn’t feel safe, I have identified free parking 1.3 miles from my office. I think a 2.6-mile daily walk will do me good:0)
  6. Not spending money on gyms. I have had gym memberships off and on for years. I really don’t like gyms – I’d much rather be outside. I don’t plan to sign up for a gym even when that becomes safe.
  7. Not spending money on the weekend. Before the pandemic, we sometimes ended up at the mall on the weekend. Mostly, we hung out at the bookstore and didn’t buy much, but it still involved mall food and occasional purchases. After the pandemic, I would like to spend more time with friends doing non-mall things like hiking or exploring the surrounding towns

There are some things that I would be happy to start spending money on again. Dancing and 5Ks are very high on my list…..Actually, those might be the only things on my list:0)

What habits did you pick up during the pandemic that you want to keep?

Becoming financially independent is easier than you may think

Financial independence, from a mathematical point of view, is pretty straightforward. You need an investment portfolio 25 times your annual expenses. With some basic assumptions, confirmed by historical market performance, if you withdraw no more than 4% of this portfolio each year, it will last indefinitely.


Financial independence is not absolute; it depends on how much money you need to cover your annual expenses. If you can live on $40,000 a year, you need a million dollars in your investment portfolio. If you spend $100,000 a year, you will need $2.5 million. That is a lot of money but actually getting to financial independence is easier than it might seem because you don’t have to save all of that money on your own. Once you start investing, the market helps you along.

Suppose you save and invest $20K per year. It may seem that it would take you 50 years to get to 1 million dollars. But if we assume that your investment grows at 11% annually (a reasonable assumption based on historical averages), it will take you only 17 years. In other words, you will only have to actually save $340,000, and the rest of the money will come from the growth of your stocks. In the table below, notice that after year 7, the market is actually contributing more towards your portfolio growth than you are. The rich get richer!

Surprisingly, how long it takes you to reach financial independence does not depend on how much you make but only on what percent of your income you save. If you make $200,000 and you save 50% of your income (therefore, you can live on $100,000 per year), it will take you exactly as long to accumulate the $2.5 million you need as someone who earns $80,000 and can save $40,000 of their income to reach their financial independence number of one million dollars. Of course, making more money helps – it is much easier to figure out how to live on 50% of a $200,000 income than to figure out how to live on 50% of a $20,000 income. Nevertheless, the table below will tell you how long it will take you to reach financial independence assuming today you have no assets and no debt based on various level of saving. You can get information based on your specific situation with this straightforward calculator.

Do you feel inspired? What percent of your income are you willing to save? The average US household saves about 7% of their income which translates to 58.8 years until financial independence. Can you do better?

Homemade “Meat”, “Cheese”, and Bread and how much do they cost

Artwork by The Child

I just finished eating a delicious “meat” and “cheese” sandwich on homemade bread and I thought I should share some amazingly easy recipes together with a comparison of the cost to make them at home verses buying equivalent products. Although the savings are significant, I mostly cook because I enjoy the magic of creating food (who knew you can make “meat” in your kitchen with just a few minutes of labor), and I like having control over the ingredients I use. Buying in bulk and cooking from scratch also reduces waste from packaging.

We are mostly vegan, hence the quotes above, but I am still pretty traditional and like a good “meat” and “cheese” sandwich once in a while. Bread is one of the easiest things to make and it is well worth making it at home to avoid all the preservatives added to store-bought breads. Plus it makes your house smell great.

I don’t remember where I got my bread recipe so I can’t give proper credit, sorry.

Bread

(This recipe is very forgiving. Even though I give exact measurements, I only measure the flour and the water and I am not very careful with those.)

Dry Ingredients
4 cups white flour
(can replace 1 cup with whole
wheat)
2.5 teaspoons yeast
1.5 teaspoons salt
Wet Ingredients
2 Tablespoons oil
1 3/4 cup warm water

In a big bowl mix together the dry ingredients. Then add the wet ingredients. Mix and knead for a couple of minutes. Add more flour if needed. Let the dough sit in the bowl covered with a damp towel for about 2 hours. It will double in size. I make two loaves out of it. After forming the loaves, give them another hour to raise and bake at 350 F until golden brown. Let cool before cutting.

Cost for two loaves using mostly organic ingredients with links to Amazon:

4 cups organic white flour = 18 oz =$1.62
2.5 teaspoons yeast = 0.25 oz = $0.20
2 Tablespoons oil = 1 fl oz = $0.05
Salt, water, and electricity for baking = a few cents
TOTAL: Less than $1.00 per loaf

Comparable bread at the store is about $3.00-$4.00 per loaf. You can have added fun by putting rosemary, oregano, or suflower seeds in the dough. Unfortunately the child does not like anything added to her bread so we make it plain.

Cheese

This recipe is a mild modification of Lessarella cheez by GoDairyFree. The original recipe is probably better but it requires lemons and I often don’t have those around. Prices quoted for mostly organic ingredients with links to Amazon.

2 cups water (free)
2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar (1 fl oz, $0.18)
1/2 cup nutritional yeast (8 Tbsp or $1.50)
1/3 cup quick oats ground to a powder ($0.20)
1/4 cup cornstarch (optional, makes cheese extra solid) ($0.35)
1 Tbsp onion powder ($0.25)
1/4 cup tahini ($0.86)
1 1/2 teaspoon salt

TOTAL cost: $3.34

Put all ingredients in a food processor (or use a submersible blender), blend until smooth (less than a minute) and then cook until thick (about 10 min). While cooking you really must stir THE WHOLE TIME. Freezes well. Great on sandwiches, pizza, quesadillas, and as dipping sauce for vegetables.

This “cheese” doesn’t really have a store bought equivalent but it fulfills all of our family’s cheese-needs for the week which used to take 3-4 packages of Dayia at $4.50 a bag and it is much less processed.

“Meat”

I don’t know why but it took me years to discover how easy it is to make seitan at home. This recipe is a modification of Seitan with Chickpea Flour from One Green Planet. Again, the original recipe is probably better but this has fewer ingredients so it is faster and cheaper.

Dry Ingredients
2 cups vital wheat gluten
1/2 cup chickpea flour
1/2 cup nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon onion powder
Wet Ingredients
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 1/2 cups hot water

Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl. Separately, mix all the wet ingredients. Add the wet to the dry, mix, and kneed for 3-4 min. Add extra wheat gluten if needed. Let rest for 15 min covered with a towel. I usually form two “loaves” and I like to make them kind of long and thin (helps with cutting later). Put in a pot mostly covered with water with some soy sauce and boil for 1.5 hours. They will at least double in size so make sure they have enough space to do that. You may have to top off the water occasionally and you might want to flip the loaves half way through but they will be fine if you forget. You can also boil them in vegetable broth but I never do.

Cost for two loaves of seitan using mostly organic ingredients with links to Amazon:

2 cups vital wheat gluten ($1.95)
1/2 cup chickpea flour ($0.72)
1/2 cup nutritional yeast ($1.50)
1 Tbsp dried basil ($0.25)
1 teaspoon cumin ($0.25)
1 Tbsp onion powder ($0.25)
1 Tbsp ketchup ($0.25)
1/3 cup soy sauce ($0.60)

TOTAL: $5.77

You can add seitan slices to any meal or salad. We also eat it just as a snack thinly sliced. Store-bought seitan in about $4.00 for an 8 oz package in my area. I don’t have a scale but I think the recipe above makes at least 2 lb so that is about $16 if you bought it pre-made. Plus, it is really fun to make!

No Netflix November

No Snacks September was a fun challenge which led our family to adopt new eating habits. I thought November offered an interesting opportunity to explore life without Netflix. Maybe this will be another change we will decide to permanently embrace…

Netlfix for me is a lot like junk food. I spend a lot of time on Netflix to relax – it is essentially junk screen time. Given that my job requires me to be on the screen for probably 10 hours per day, I really don’t need any additional screen time. There are also many other screen activities that are more productive and more fun like writing this blog.

The average Netflix subscriber spends 1hr and 11 min per day on Netflix but only 35 min bonding with their family. I am afraid my stats are even worse than the average. Maybe No Netflix November will help me be a better wife and mother…

The Child does not approve of No Netflix November. For this reason, she has declined my invitation to provide art for this post. I am glad she has clear opinions and refuses to participate in activities that go against her believes:0)

Three fallacies that will cost you money

Artwork by The Child

I am taking an MBA class, and I was reminded of a lesson that we should all keep in mind when making money decisions. Here are three ways in which our mind can play tricks on us that lead us astray.

Proportionate thinking:

Suppose you are shopping for a big-screen TV. You are a smart shopper, so you compare prices and discover that your local Best Buy has the exact TV you want for $3,999.99. Walmart, which is 15 min away, also has the same TV but for $3,989.99. Do you drive for 30 minutes round trip to save $10 on a $4,000 TV?

Now suppose that a Dairy Queen, which is also 15 min away, has free ice cream cones for the whole family, which you know normally costs $10 at your local Dairy Queen. Would you drive 30 min to get free ice cream for everyone?

Most people will not drive extra to save $10 when they are already planning to spend $4,000 because $3,999.99 is “almost the same” as $3,989.99. But these same people will drive the same distance to get free ice cream that is worth $10.

The fundamental question is, is it worth driving 30 min for $10 so the answer should always be the same, it is either worth it, or it is not. But the human mind gets focused on the proportion, not the absolute amount. So, when making a decision about money, try to step out of the specific situation and think about the principle.

This can get complicated very quickly, and there can be good reasons why the answer might be different in the two situations. Making a big purchase can be anxiety-provoking, and many people just want to get it done. On the other hand, going for free ice cream can be a fun family outing, and the drive can be part of the experience. Making a different choice in the two situations is not necessarily illogical, but it is still important to watch out for proportional thinking.

Ignoring implicit costs:

We recently considered buying a treadmill to use during the cold winter months. A basic treadmill is about $300. We could afford it. But then I started considering all the other “costs”:

-It will take up space the whole year while we will probably only use it during the two very cold months.

-We will have to maintain it and potentially service it if it stops working (which is likely if we are buying the cheapest model).

-If we move (which is likely), we will have to move it or get rid of it.

-We hope to move to a smaller house at some point, which will probably not have space for a treadmill.

-Eventually, this machine will end up in a landfill someplace where it will be for millions of years.

After considering all these other “costs,” we have decided to at least try some alternatives. Doing online exercise videos comes at no cost, no environmental impact, and can be done on demand. Of course, staying healthy is priceless, so if other options don’t work, we will reconsider the treadmill, but we will try the other options first.

Coloring money

We often make different decisions about money based on how we obtained it. Let’s take the treadmill example from above. Suppose I win $300 and decide that I can have the treadmill for “free,” so I buy it. This is an example of coloring money. I think of the $300 I won as somehow different than the rest of my money. But it is not. I could have afforded the treadmill before, but I decided it is not worth it. Just because I now have a different $300, this doesn’t change any of the reasons I decided it wasn’t worth it. You should use the same logic in spending these $300 as you use for any other $300. All money that you have is the same, no matter how you obtained it.

The decision parameters change if I actually win a treadmill. In this case, I can’t choose to spend the money on something else. My choice is to take the free treadmill if I think that the rest of the implicit costs after removing the treadmill’s actual cost are worth it or decline it and get nothing. If I were offered a free treadmill, I would probably take it.

There is sometimes space to negotiate that should be explored. Imagine your child has just finished their undergrad degree, they are finding it difficult to get a job, and you want to help. You are sitting for dinner, and your kid starts talking about some certificate program that they read about that seems like the kind of thing employers are looking for. The program’s cost is $5,000, and you jump at the opportunity to help your kid and say that you will pay for the program.

This situation is kind of like winning a free treadmill. The parameters for the kid is that she can get this program for free or get nothing, so she will probably choose to do the program. But is this the optimal way for you to help your kid? Maybe there is a different and better certificate that she wants to do. Or maybe she would rather use the $5,000 to buy a car, which will allow her to look for jobs in a larger geographic area. Or maybe she needs the money to start a small business. Your money may be much more beneficial to your kid if, instead of promising to pay for the certificate, you decide how much money you want to give to your kid and then have a conversation with her to figure out the best way to help. Depending on the kid, you could be completely hands-off and give her the money and trust she will make a good decision. On the other extreme, you might want to discuss with the kid, and once a decision is made, use the money to pay directly for the item you agreed on. Either way, that will ensure that your money is spent in the most impactful way possible.

Remaining completely logical when making money decisions is hard, but it pays to think hard about your behavior and realize that emotions sometimes cloud our judgment.

Contemplating becoming a single income household

Artwork by The Child

Funky Wife is a special ed teacher. In normal times, she mostly works one-on-one with students, sitting right by them, sharing pencils, and exchanging pieces of paper. Many of her students also have behavior issues making them more likely to defy rules or engage in impulsive behavior. This trimester she is working online, but it looks like that might not be an option for the following trimester. We hope she can stay employed part-time and continue to work from home, but there is a chance she will have to take a leave without pay.


We briefly considered the possibility of her actually going back to the classroom. There haven’t been many cases at her school. On the other hand, the schools in my county have only been open for in-person learning for a few weeks, and cases both nationally and in our state are going up, so there is no reason to believe that cases at the schools won’t go up as well. So, I think we have decided that her going to work in-person is not a risk we want to take.
The question of whether schools should be open for in-person learning is a thorny one. I fully realize that many kids do not learn nearly as much during online learning as they do in an actual classroom. Most of the learning The Child is doing happens with a parent sitting by her. I know there are many parents who either don’t have the time or the knowledge necessary to educate their kids. I also know that kids growing up in poverty are at a huge disadvantage, which compounds all the other disadvantages they have. And I know that most kids would be fine even if they get the virus.


On the other hand, both the students’ families and the teachers and their families may not be fine if they get the virus. And here again, poor students are at a disadvantage. They are more likely to live in multigenerational homes or to be cared for by grandparents, and their families are more likely to have preexisting conditions. Overall, I think a student is better off falling behind in math because they did online school for a year than losing their caregiver to the virus.


Teachers also didn’t sign up to be front line workers. A doctor or a policeman knows that they are embarking on a career that could put them in high-risk situations. A teacher doesn’t expect that to be part of their job. The same is true of paraeducators who often get paid just above minimum wage. Of course, this is also true of many other jobs which have suddenly become high-risk without a proportionate increase in pay.


So, back to our family. I don’t know what kind of choices we would have made if we didn’t have The Child, but at this time, I feel that our primary obligation is to her, and she needs her parents. Therefore, Funky Wife will not be returning to in-person work, and we will almost certainly experience a drop in income. Luckily, we already live on significantly less than we make, so our day-to-day life won’t have to change much. Also, we have enough savings that even if we have unexpected expenses during our single-income period, we should be able to manage.


Funky Wife enjoys her job, and I think she will be a little bit sad if she can’t work. For both of us, our jobs are much more than a source of income. Funky Wife loves to help students, especially the students that most people have given up on. She likes her colleagues, and she thrives on human interaction. She also knows that if she is not working, many household chores will fall on her, and she doesn’t like housework nearly as much as I like housework. So her not working is really not ideal, but at this point, we are grateful that we have this option. I feel terrible for people who feel that they need to go to work even though they are scared so they can pay their bills.

Money can seem really complicated. There are lots of books and blogs about investing, tax optimization, appropriate leveraging, etc. But there is actually only one lesson I want The Child to learn about money – live on less than you make! When you do that, you never go into debt, and your savings are always growing. When you are debt-free and have savings, you have many more choices about how you live your life, and that is much more valuable than anything money can buy.

Should you buy a Costco membership

Costco – the great warehouse store where your $120 membership gives you access to the wonders of 5lb jars of peanut butter and 8lb bottles of ketchup. Buying in bulk is cheaper, you get a back 2% of your spending at the end of the year, which usually covers your membership fee, so it is a great deal, right?


Well, not necessarily.

We had a Costco membership for several years, and we used it quite a lot. And yes, ketchup is cheaper per ounce than it is at our regular grocery store, and we did make up our membership fee in cash back at the end of the year. However, our grocery bill went up. “How is that possible if everything is cheaper?” you ask. Many of the things we bought were actually things we were never bought before, so we were not just replacing items we normally buy with cheaper alternatives, we were buying more stuff.


We bought only a few things at Costco that were actually a better deal on our normal purchases –I like their flour and their frozen fruit and vegetables and their toilet paper. The rest of our purchases were mostly snacks and pre-prepared foods and fancy water.


Costco has great snacks — large bags of popcorn, various chips, crackers, and cookies. They also have great soups, guacamole in single-serving containers (perfect for packed lunches), hummus, salsa, and naan. Costco bagels are better than those at most bakeries. And then there are the water and juice options. You will find the best deal on Izzy (our all-time favorite drink) at Costco. If you are going to eat all of those things, Costco is your store. However, all of those things added both to our grocery bill and my ever-expanding waistline. Not to mention the pounds of trash we added to landfills from all of those single-serving packages.

After NoSnack September, we discovered that life is better is you stick to the basic food groups, which for our family means fruits, veggies, and dried goods. Fresh fruit and veggies are not particularly great or particularly cheap at Costco. Our local coop often has the same or cheaper prices for organic produce that Costco has for conventional. I sometimes miss the packages of frozen broccoli we used to get at Costco. They are a great deal but certainly not worth the price of membership and the drive to the store. I pay a dollar more per pound at the coop and save a trip.


Costco does have good prices of bulk dried foods like chickpeas, lentils, rice, and flour. But it turns out Amazon comes pretty close. These items are easy to ship, and many producers, some of them Costco suppliers, sell their products directly to customers online. I don’t have to leave the house, and I have more choices.

Costco has great prices, but it also has many temptations. For now, I am staying out. The few dollars I could save are not worth the drive, and the risk I will walk out of there with 5 lbs of kettle corn. Someday, after the pandemic is over, I might ask a friend to take me to Costco a few times a year. There are also prepaid cards that you don’t need to be a member to use. Instead of rewarding you for spending more as membership does, these cards limit your ability to spend.


So, before you commit to Costco for the sake of saving a few dollars on 8 lbs of peanut butter, consider if you can really walk out of there just with the items you normally buy, if those few dollars are worth the trip, and if you even can, or should, eat 8 lbs of peanut butter before it goes bad.

Bullshit jobs

RIP  David Graeber

Many people hate their jobs, and David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics, told us why. David Graeber died today, so in his honor, let’s review the five types of bullshit jobs.

  1. Flunkies serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, and door attendants.
  2. Goons oppose other goons hired by other companies, e.g., lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, and public relations specialists.
  3. Duct tapers temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently, e.g., programmers repairing shoddy code, and airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don’t arrive.
  4. Box tickers create the appearance that something useful is being done when it isn’t, e.g., survey administrators, in-house magazine journalists, and corporate compliance officers
  5. Taskmasters manage—or create extra work for—those who do not need it, e.g., middle management, and leadership professionals.

In a 2013 survey of 12,000 professionals by the Harvard Business Review, half said they felt their job had no “meaning and significance,” and an equal number could not relate to their company’s mission. Similar polls with similar results have been performed in Europe. These polls help explain why the idea of retiring early attracts so many people. The only reason to stay at a meaningless job is to earn money, and once the need to make money disappears, there is no reason to continue to work.

I find my job pretty meaningful, although I am sure some people believe my job is in the last category. I am in a leadership position at a large public university. I help faculty develop their careers, and I tangentially help students have a productive and successful college experience. Maybe part of the reason I have no interest in retiring early is that I find my job very interesting and fulfilling.

One type of job that doesn’t make it on Graeber’s list is people involved in the production of items that are not needed. Probably everyone’s definition of such items is different. Today I saw a special two-level plate designed for sunflower seeds that allows you to hook up your phone to the plate. Perhaps most people, even those who eat sunflower seeds while watching movies on their phone, will agree that a standard plate and a regular phone stand would suffice.

Our family tends towards minimalism, so to me most things sold in stores are not necessary and don’t actually improve people’s lives. Most of us don’t really need a dinosaur taco holder,

or a light-up toilet.

Many people were involved in the production of these items – starting with the designers all the way down to the people manufacturing the item. And when you are selling an item that is quite useless, you need a significant amount of advertisement to make enough sales. Besides the human work hours put into these products, there is a significant detrimental effect on the environment. The plastic used had to be manufactured, and then those green taco holders will live in the landfill for much longer than they have graced someone’s table.


Wouldn’t the world be a better place if all the people involved in producing and selling dinosaur taco holders or sunflower seed bowls spend more time with their families? If we, as consumers, had fewer things to clutter our lives and empty our wallets so we too could spend more time doing the things that matter? David Graeber has pointed out the things that are wrong with how people in our society earn money. Let’s do something to fix the problems and help everyone have a more fulfilling life.

FIRE

For the novice, FIRE stands for Financial Independence Retire Early. Followers of this movement often save 50%-80% of their income to accumulate enough invested capital to be able to retire early (sometimes as early as in their 30s) and live entirely on passive income. If you hang out in the FIRE circles, you will hear about the 4% rule, which says that you can safely withdraw 4% per year of your investments and, assuming the market doesn’t do anything crazy, your money should last forever. If you don’t like percentages, this means that you need to have 25 times your annual spending in investment accounts to be able to quit your job and never need to earn money again.


There are, of course, variations on this theme. Some people go to great lengths to cut their budget to be able to retire as early as possible (lean Fire), some work longer in exchange for higher spending ability (fat FIRE), and some retire from stressful jobs but still work at some low-stress job they enjoy to supplement their investment income (barista FIRE).
I am totally not interested in the RE (retire early) part of FIRE. I love my job and expect to continue working for many years, regardless of our net worth. I am, however, very interested in the FI (financial independence) part of FIRE.


Sometimes I wonder why to me, FI is such an important goal. My wife thinks FI is a good idea, but she certainly doesn’t obsess about our FI number and how close we are to it. And people around me seem perfectly happy buying stuff they don’t need, so I am pretty sure they don’t even know there is such a thing as an FI number.


I am an immigrant from a relatively poor country. I came to the US for College with $500 and my tuition for the first semester covered. From there, I needed to figure it out on my own. Without even the ability to borrow money (foreigners can’t take out student loans), I was in a pretty tight spot.


At some point in College, maybe in my sophomore year, I got a terrible toothache. I didn’t have dental insurance, so I did the only thing I could – I took lots and lots of painkillers. It lasted for weeks. Much of the time, I was so drowsy from the pills I could barely function. I got a permanent case of an upset stomach. Eventually, I saved about $100 and went to the dentist. For me, at that time, $100 was a huge amount of money. The dentist looked at my tooth, took a couple of X-rays, gave me a proposed plan for how he can fix it, and charged me $100 for the consult and the X-rays. I still had a terrible toothache and no money.

Eventually, I learned about a free dental clinic. I found someone with a car who drove me there. They fixed that tooth and all the other teeth that were rotting in my mouth (I used to have a lot of tooth problems, probably due to very poor dental care in my home country), and I could get off the pain pills.


This is the sort of experience I never want to have again. And so when I have a choice between getting the newest iPhone or increasing our money stash, I opt to add to the stash. The stash is what keeps my family and me safe from at least some of the bad things that can happen in life. The iPhone can’t do that.


Take a minute and figure out your FI number. Imagine having that amount of money and the freedom that would give you. Now, look at the latest gadget you bought. What optimizes your happiness profits?

The Super-Power of Discretionary Income

Life is a series of experiences. Some are trivial like brushing your teeth, others are memorable, like your wedding day, or that cruise you took to Alaska. Some experiences are fun (maybe your last vacation is on your list of fun experiences), some are neutral (your list depends on your personality, washing dishes is on my list), and some suck (like getting a root canal). The most awesome power of having discretionary income is that you can opt out of some of the things you hate doing and opt into some of the things you love.

When I was younger, I didn’t understand this super-power you gain as you develop a discretionary income. I thought of money as something your exchange for goods. Paying to opt out of an experience is a more abstract transaction – you give away money but you don’t get an object in return. Of course, when I was younger I also didn’t have discretionary income so it was hard for me to understand its power. Sadly, this super-power is somewhat limited — you will still have to get that root canal yourself, no matter how much discretionary income you have.

When the Child talks about money, she always talks about the things she wants to buy – a huge mansion with a pool, a fancier car, the latest cell phone. She doesn’t yet understand that this is not where the power of money lies. Lots of adults also either don’t know this super-power or just don’t agree that it is awesome–based on the choices they are making with their money. Maybe owning the newest cell phone does optimize their happiness profits but somehow I doubt it.

There are lots of things I enjoy doing that other people outsource. For awhile we had a person who cleaned the house and I hated it. I don’t like other people in the house, I don’t like the weird chemicals they use, and I always worry about the pets. That service wasn’t optimizing my happiness profits. On the other hand I will call a repair person for the simplest things. I don’t like fixing things. It makes me anxious, it always takes more time than I predicted, and much of the time I have to call the repair person anyway. Instead of spending 5 hours trying to fix a leaky faucet, I can have an expert fix it in 5 minutes and I can spend my time messing with the yard which I love.

Today, I decided that I will have someone else build the website for this blog. I feel slightly guilty about it because I know I am perfectly capable of figuring out how to do it myself. But I only have so much time, I have a full time job, a child I am homeschooling (schools are closed because of the pandemic), and I am taking classes to complete my Masters in Finance. I don’t want to give up any of these things and I want a nice blog so outsourcing is the logical move.

I am a big fan of Mr. Money Mustache. His followers would vehemently disagree with this post. Mr. Money Mustache lives on a ridiculously low budget and in part he achieves that by not approaching problems from the perspective that he can just spend money to fix the problem. I am pretty sure he repairs his leaky faucets himself. I admire that attitude and I agree – if you want to minimize your spending that is the way to go. But this blog is not about minimizing spending, it is about optimizing happiness profits so on this particular topic I will not follow his advice.

One important caveat to this post. Notice that the super-power of opting out of experiences exists only if you have discretionary income. When I was younger and didn’t have discretionary income, I did fix my own leaky faucets and much more. Those experiences weren’t fun but I don’t recommend buying yourself out of experiences if you don’t have enough money to meet the basic needs of your family.

Having super-powers is awesome and it is worth working hard to get them!