The Perfect Thing: What Is Your Little Obsession?

I’ve been thinking about another excerpt from investor Charlie Munger’s biography about his father Al Munger:

Though he could not be described as a lavish spender, Al Munger savored just the perfect thing, whatever it was he needed. Al had learned the joy of artful living from his mother. She shopped for the very best coffee beans, then took great pleasure each morning in grinding them for fresh coffee. It was a Tao philosophy, Midwestern style. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tse urged seekers to regard the small as important and to make much of the little. “The little obsessions,” Charlie called them.

This is an appealing idea. Only a select few can afford a Ferrari or Bentley, but most people reading this can afford a great cup of coffee. Instead of focusing your energy on the crazy-stupid-expensive “bests” like an Hermes leather handbag or Patek Philippe watch, why not enjoy the best cheesecake in the city?

Personally, I’m not sure I connect with this philosophy. I like good coffee, but I just buy whatever is cheap and nearby on the days that I need it. I like craft beer, but will drink Bud Light happily. Maybe I have to work on this artful living thing. ๐Ÿ™‚

On the other hand, I did buy what may be the world’s best nail clipper for under $16. Also, my wife makes what I truly think is the world’s best roast chicken based on a really simple recipe by famous chef Thomas Keller. Follow the directions carefully, and it will turn out amazing. Bake some root vegetables alongside it, and you have a perfect meal for under $10.

Do you have an example of something that you enjoy the best of, but it still costs say under $25?

TreeHugger CEO Apartment: 420 Square Feet, 8 Rooms

I’m surprised I missed this earlier since I love this type of thing, but below is a nicely edited video from Gizmodo showing the 420 square feet apartment of TreeHugger.com CEO Graham Hill. It’s cool how they fit in the claimed 8 rooms using moving walls, floor-to-ceiling storage, and clever furniture and appliances: living room, office, bedroom, guest bedroom, dining room, bathroom, kitchen, and I guess they’re counting the closet as a room? You really have to see it to understand.

I like this concept, especially when efficient use of space allows you to be able to afford to live in the heart of a good city where you can do much of your “living” outside in parks, cafes, bars, and restaurants. I’ve seen the moving wall before inside this Hong Kong apartment (only 344 sf), and much of the furniture is from Resource Furniture (eek, that fancified murphy bed costs $12,000). Installing solar panels (on the window shades?) with battery storage is a nice touch, and I’d consider the portable induction burners and combo microwave/induction oven for my own place.

More on this apartment: LifeEdited, New York Times

Related posts:

Why You Should Make a New Year’s Resolution

If you’re like me, you may wonder if a New Year’s resolution is even worth the bother. By chance, I was listening to an NPR interview today with a Dr. John Norcross, a psychology professor who decided to study this phenomenon. Listen, download the mp3, or read the transcript at NPR.org. Here are the highlights:

According to Norcross, 40-50% of people make New Year’s resolutions each year. How did they do when studied over time?

Dr. NORCROSS: In two of our longitudinal studies, 40 to 46 percent of New Year’s resolvers will be successful at six months. So, the half empty is it’s true, most people fail. But 40 to 46 percent is pretty impressive. […]

You know, I was tired of people saying resolutions never succeed, we shouldn’t even try them. And I said, well, wait a minute, these are life-sustaining behaviors. What’s the alternative? So, the alternative was to track people starting before January 1st with the same behavioral goals, with the same motivation to stop or to take the resolutions but who just weren’t going to do anything then. And that’s – and only four percent of them were successful at six months. So you go from four percent, all the way up to 44, 46 percent by taking a New Year’s resolution seriously and trying to do something about it.

10 times the success rate! So people who made resolutions had a 40% success rate as compared to 4% from those who had the same motivations but didn’t set resolutions. Definitely encouragement for would-be resolvers. More goods news is that the studies found that slips or short lapses in the resolution did not always lead to failure. Many people used the lapses to strengthen their determination.

How to set a good resolution. Norcross recommends setting attainable, realistic, and measurable goals. So lose 10 pounds instead of 50 pounds or “a lot of weight”. Save $100 more from each paycheck vs. saving an extra $15,000 somehow during the year. Grandiose goals set you up for failure, as you need to have inner confidence that the specific goal you set is achievable. This agrees with the popular SMART mnemonic that says that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-sensitive.

So, resolutions are good, especially if you do them right. However, you may want to keep number of resolutions to a minimum:

FLATOW: So you do one thing at a time, you know? Don’t say, I’m going to diet and quit smoking at the same time, because you’ll never get them both done.

Dr. NORCROSS: Well, there’s some interesting research on that. And that is, it depends how much time and commitment you have. If the two resolutions are related, then it may make sense to do it together. For example, losing weight and increasing exercise – most people see those things as going together. But if there are two very different resolutions, you may just be overwhelmed with the amount of time and energy that they call for. So, we ask people never more than two. If they’re related, two is great. Otherwise, just do one at a time.

DIY Gift Idea: Yummy Stuff in Trendy Glass Jars

Forgive me frugalistas, but I’ve only recently discovered the retro trend that I call YSIJ – Yummy Stuff in Jars. A friend of ours recently provided homemade passionfruit butter in classic Ball glass jar, which was awesome. Another friend gave us this cookie mix from Williams-Sonoma, which they sell for $19.95:

Upon closer inspection, it’s a Weck jar, which you can buy for under $4 at Crate and Barrel. Aren’t they sexy?

So for a nice DIY gift for well under $10, simply find/create/steal an awesome cookie or brownie recipe and leave out the butter and eggs. Layer the remaining dry ingredients all pretty-like in the jar, stick a nice rustic-looking label on it, add a bow from extra fabric, and you’re done. You don’t even need wrapping paper. Make them in bulk.

You could also bake something that keeps for a while and put it inside – candied nuts, toffee, trail mix, etc. Or cook something like grandma’s marinara sauce. Or actually preserve something, which I have never tried beyond some easy pickles. After they ingest your gift of love via food, they’re still left with a cool reusable jar.

p.s. These glass bottles with stoppers look like great gift ideas too, even better if you can add a homemade drink to put inside.

(End Martha Stewart Hipster mode.)

What Is Your Holstee Manifesto?

Apparently I completely missed this when it first became popular, but the Holstee Manifesto is a set of ideals put forth by the founders of Holstee, a small apparel company which only sells environmentally-conscious and sustainably-sourced products. (Holstee = Holster + Tee, which I don’t think is even sold anymore.) I discovered it today only due to a LivingSocial deal selling a large poster print for $30, designed by Rachael Beresh.

My favorite line is actually โ€œIf you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.โ€ (Although it didn’t happen to me… I was just working a part-time gig to help pay for college.)

What would my own manifesto include? Definitely something about freedom, but that could be taken as similar to doing what you love and following your passion. The difference is that I also appreciate being able to do required and difficult things, as long as I get to do it my way. I hope that made sense.

Instead, I suppose I’d add that if you want to “Keep up with the Joneses”, well, the truth is the Joneses are nearly broke, live paycheck-to-paycheck, and will work until they are quite old. Being different than the Joneses is the only way to go; there are many ways to do so but you have to pick one and be *proud* of it.

Fix Your Stuff: Repair Cafes, Fix-It Collectives, and Free Online Repair Manuals

These days when you inquire about repairing something, you’re often confronted with a $50-$100 minimum diagnostic charge with no guarantee that it’ll be fixed. Combine this with carefully planned obsolescence by the manufacturers, and it’s no wonder that people tend to throw things away rather than fix them.

I was reading an AARP magazine article (yes, I read AARP magazine) about a growing chain of Repair Cafes in Amsterdam, where volunteers gather and help you repair your things from appliances to furniture to mending clothing. I think it’s a great idea for people to share their skills and help each other out in the community. Also profiled recently in the NY Times. My skilled 4-Her wife mends my clothing all the time, albeit reluctantly as she’d rather me look like I fell out of a J. Crew catalog…

I was also happy to find out that there are some local groups in the US doing similar things. It might be cool to volunteer at one, even if just to learn how to fix various things.

There are also many online guides to fixing your own stuff. Check out iFixit.com, their Self-Repair Manifesto, and their goal to make a free repair manual for every device out there from cars to iPhones.

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Stop Delivery of Physical Phone Books – YellowPagesOptOut.com

Visit YellowPagesOptOut.com to stop the delivery of those huge phone books. The site is reasonably easy-to-use, although they ask for a phone number and I chose not to provide my real phone number to an industry based on unsolicited advertising. I don’t have a landline anyway, so I don’t see why they should require it. It would be nice if they made the process opt-in, but I know that’s wishful thinking.

I’m sad to say I missed this up until now, and the last few phone books have gone straight from my doorstep to the recycling bin. If you don’t use printed yellow pages, fight the behavioral tendency to do nothing and opt-out today!

Digital Postal Mail / Zumbox Review

Digital Post Mail, formerly just known as Zumbox, is a service that tries to turn all your physical mail into digital format. Hat tip to reader Christina. My first reaction was that it seems very similar to Manilla.com. According to TechCrunch, Digital Post Mail has been around for a few years and just received another round of venture capital.

I signed up for the service, and since I already did a detailed review of Manilla, I’ll just share what I see as the main differences between Manilla and and Zumbox:

Zumbox allows you to keep getting both physical and digital mail concurrently. When you link a new provider on Zumbox, you will get a digital version of your mail but your snail mail will keep coming. You can opt-in to go paperless if you want, but it’s not required. With Manilla, once you start accepting paperless bills they will automatically convert you to digital-only (they store everything online so you can still print out the bills if you wish). For both services, they make money by charging a small fee to the provider as they save money on printing and mailing things to you.

Currently, Manilla has more providers available to their service. Zumbox seems to have added many of the major providers (Citi, Chase, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast), but not as many as Manilla. For example, Manilla has State Farm Insurance and my local electric company, and Zumbox does not. Hopefully, the gap will narrow quickly.

Zumbox confirms your mailing address by sending you a verification code via snail mail. Manilla does not, relying only on online logins and passwords. By doing this, Zumbox is able to match your address with all the other organizations that have you on their mailings list, including things like charities and catalog providers. I haven’t finished this process yet, but it’ll be interesting to see what they match me up with and if I can cut down on the junk mail (sorry USPS!).

The Morals of Epictetus: Stoic Philosophy and Personal Finance

I’m still working my way through Poor Charlie’s Almanack about the teachings of Charlie Munger. The book is very dense with broad ideas and includes references to many scientists, businesspeople, and ancient philosophers I’ve never heard of before.

One of these ancient philosophers was Epictetus, who was born a slave but eventually became free and taught philosophy in Rome and Greece. I couldn’t find the “morals” found in the book listed in the same manner elsewhere, so I wanted to share them below. The bolded sentences are English translations of his writings, and after that are my personal notes and interpretations.

First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak. Don’t open your big yap unless you know what you’re talking about. This seems to have changed to “open your yap all day long without knowing anything, and you’ll get your own show on television.”

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has. Appreciate all the many things you have before you complain about the things you don’t have.

If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid. Let others teach you. It’s better to look stupid for a while than actually be stupid forever.

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Do I Have An Obsession With Early Retirement?

After my post counting down my years until early retirement earlier this week, I received a very thoughtful e-mail from reader Tim:

I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for a long time, and think it’s one of the best out there for your mix of personality, short-term and long-term financial tips and advice. But one thing bothers me: the ongoing, almost central theme (obsession?) with early retirement. It seems to be the goal around which everything else in the blog revolves and leads toward.

Why is that? Do you hate your job so much, and can’t even imagine a job you would enjoy enough that you would want to do it whether you were paid or not? It doesn’t strike me that someone as industrious, curious and intellectually active as yourself would really ever retire. I understand there may be other activities you’d like to pursue, but my guess is that most of them would be potentially income-generating. So you’d still have a “job.” And if that’s the case, then why not pursue one or more of those things now, rather than delaying them until “retirement?”

It seems to me that “MyMoneyBlog” is likely one of those things, and I’m very glad you’re doing it. And if one reason is the hope to fully monetize the blog to the point of retirement from your nine-to-five job, then I hope you do that too.

But still, something about that recurrent theme of retiring just leaves me with a hollow, dead feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if we’re all inmates marking time on the wall of a dreary prison cell until our release. Maybe it’s the implied resignation to the assumption that joyless jobs are unavoidable – a bitter fact of life – that I reject. I just don’t like to think that as a society we accept a lifetime of delayed gratification as a given, and don’t rouse ourselves to do anything more about it than make sound financial plans to enjoy ourselves when the pain finally stops.

There are some great questions in there, and really it also showed me that I can improve on explaining my philosophies. I have all these ideas rattling around in my head, and not all of them reach the keyboard. My reply became rather long…

Definition of early retirement. I know that retirement is a very tricky word to use. For too many people, it conjures up images of playing golf and sitting around all day. Financial independence or financial freedom are better terms, and they all mean the same thing to me – I get to do whatever I want. Cook a new dish every day, rebuild a Land Rover Defender or Willys Jeep, volunteer, spend a year abroad, anything. F— You money.

Delayed gratification. Going back to the early retirement curve, a major assumption is that your current expenses are the same as your future expenses. Let’s say your household earns $80k and lives on $40k. Well, that curve assumes you’ll be living on $40k in “retirement” as well. Using a food analogy, getting there is not a crash diet, but requires a permanent change to healthier eating habits. I don’t feel deprived with my current lifestyle as it pertains to spending, otherwise it wouldn’t be sustainable.

A job that I would do forever? I’ve thought about this. Let’s try to design the best job possible. To start, it should satisfy this Career Venn diagram which reminds us to seek the intersection of things that we do well, things that pay well, and things we like to do. In addition, it should provide all the factors that make a job satisfying beyond money: autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward.

Does my current job cause me pain? Does my wife’s job? Not really, we are white-collar professionals so we have a certain degree of autonomy and challenge to our work. But we also have managers, meetings, clients, and politics.

Is there any such ideal job that exists? Honestly, if it had to pay $50k a year and 40 hours a week, probably not for me. I am the type of person that likes to do something for a while, and then move on to something else. Even self-employment has it’s own set of restrictions. Even though blogging is a sweet gig :), having income that depends on advertising is very volatile.

This is where financial freedom comes in, because it means more flexibility. I have realized over time that I will probably need to do something, and that is a big reason why I am happy with a 4% safe withdrawal rate. All the academic studies that calculate this withdrawal rate stuff assume that a theoretical person blindly takes out 4% inflation-adjusted to the CPI every single year. From reading experiences of real early retirees, they adjust and adapt.

Let’s say we want that 4% withdrawal rate to create $40,000 of income from investments, but it ends up that 3% is a more reasonable number. Now, I need to find a job that pays $10,000 a year. I could do all kinds of things that would be kind of cool for $10,000 a year, and I wouldn’t have to work 40 hours a week either. I could do just about anything – web design, tutor high school or college students, teach English in a foreign country, apprentice with a skilled craftsman, or work as a travel guide.

Indeed, the possibilities are endless. One day, if the stars align, we will have children. At that point, we plan on downshifting to working part-time so that we can both enjoy raising kids without all the financial stress that our parents had. Our portfolio can already cover half of our expenses. Once the kids go to school, there will be more time for work, if needed. In the end, I would say that I am obsessed with freedom and autonomy.

Selling Unwanted Gift Cards For Cash: Price Comparison

Updated with current price quotes for 2012!

Now, I always love every gift card that I get… ๐Ÿ˜‰ but what if you’re trying to simplify your life and wanted to convert your Overpriced.com gift card to good ole’ fungible cash?

Well, the “old-fashioned” way was to sell them on eBay. A couple years ago, I tested out eBay and found estimated eBay cash-out ratios after eBay auction costs and Paypal transaction fees ranged from 81% for Gap gift cards to 90% for Amazon gift certificates. However, the eBay route adds in hassle and potential for fraud. What if some buyer from across the country says your card arrived empty?

A bunch of new websites have popped up that (1) provide upfront quotes for your gift cards, (2) provide a prepaid mailer to send in your cards, and (3) send you a check. The most popular ones appear to be Cardpool, PlasticJungle.com, GiftCards.com, and GiftCardRescue. Many of these go even further and offer things like online redemption using the codes on the back of the certain cards, and instant payouts via PayPal or via Amazon.com gift certificates.

However, I just wanted to run a simple comparison of what different card-buying websites would offer in straight-up cash for a $100 gift card at various retailers. I’m ignoring any swap-style sites, and also sites like CardWoo that make you mail in the card first without any upfront pricing quotes (why would I do that? sounds like an awful idea). Here are the results, updated for 2012:

Gift Card Website Comparison ($100 Face Value, Updated 2012)


Cardpool

Plastic Jungle


GiftCards.com

GiftCardRescue
$92 $92 $91 $85
$83 $83 $86 $80
$83 $83 $83 $72
$75 $75 $72 $70

Results

When I first ran this comparison in December 2011, the website that offered the highest prices, on average, was GiftCards.com. However, as of January 2012 the overall winners are Cardpool and PlasticJungle. In either case, none of them had the highest prices across the board so if you can spare the time, trying each of the sites out may earn you a few more bucks. In the end, I would say that these sites do provide a useful service, as the payouts are often even better than what you could net after fees by selling directly on eBay.

The cards to stores that have the broadest appeal like Target and Home Depot have the best cash-out ratios. Something to think about next time you want to buy your buddy a gift card from StuffedMooseHeadsOnly.com.

I found it interesting that none of the sites wanted to buy an Amazon.com gift certificate from me, as they historically have a very high resale value. I’m guessing that Amazon forbids this somehow, or perhaps you can’t check the balance without adding it to a user’s account?

Graham Hill: Less Stuff, More Happiness (TED Talk)

Here’s a TED Talk I just found by Graham Hill about simple living. Try to find something that you can apply to your life in a positive manner, instead of pointing out ways it won’t work. It’s unlikely any of us will live in a place as organized as his. A quick intro:

Can having less stuff, in less room, lead to more happiness? He makes the case for taking up less space, and lays out three rules for editing your life.