The clean slate

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

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

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

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More about...Psychology, FS

My 2019 year in review

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

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

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

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

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

The left side of my Geo Storm (after accident)

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

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

That's the bad news.

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

Fortunately, nothing's totalled. It's a mess, but there's nothing that cannot be repaired.

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More about...Spending Wisely, FS

When to follow the rules — and when to break them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More about...Planning, FS

How the toss of a coin determined my fate

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

Oh, wait. Here's a new article now!

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

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

Going to College

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

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

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

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

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

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More about...Education, FS

How I’m fighting chronic depression and anxiety

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

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

From memory, sample statements include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More about...Psychology, FS

A self-made man

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

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

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

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

A Self-Made Man

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

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

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

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More about...Relationships, FS

Depression and me

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

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

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

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More about...Administration, FS

How to make better (and quicker) decisions

Last week, I wrote about how I've embraced mindful shopping. I'm teaching myself to be more deliberate about the things I own and buy. My goal is to buy less and, more importantly, to own less.

As part of this, I don't want to waste time shopping. I'm trying to train myself to make better decisions more quickly. This is tough for me to do.

By nature, I want to evaluate every alternative, to find the best option in every circumstance. Left to my own devices, I can spend two hours trying to decide which chainsaw is the best chainsaw at the best price.

There's nothing wrong with this, of course. Comparison shopping is a good thing. But there's a fine line. Some comparison can help you avoid purchasing poor products. Too much, on the other hand, becomes a tax on your time and your brainwidth.

I want to find a balance. I no longer feel the need to make a perfect decision. (Is there such a thing?) I'm becoming comfortable with the idea of accepting decisions that are "good enough".

In short, I'm trying to incorporate lessons I've learned from The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz so that I can take some of the suck out of shopping.

The Paradox of Choice

For those unfamiliar, Barry Schwartz is a psychology professor from Swarthmore College. His 2004 book The Paradox of Choice argues that while life without choice is almost unbearable, having too many choices carries burdens of its own.

"I believe that many modern Americans are feeling less and less satisfied even as their freedom of choice expands," Schwartz writes. "Having too many choices produces psychological distress."

This certainly rings true from my own experience. And not just with money decisions.

One of the joys of financial independence is the ability to choose how to spend your time. Indeed, this is a unique luxury. However, it's also a burden. When you have an infinite number of options available, how do you make decisions about what to do with your time? (My answer, as you can probably guess, is to be clear about your purpose, and to make decisions aligned with that purpose.)

Schwartz argues that faced with so many options and decisions, we would be better off if we:

  • Embraced certain voluntary constraints on our choices (instead of rebelling against limits).
  • Opting for "good enough" instead of always seeking the best.
  • Lowering our expectations.
  • Made our decisions non-reversible.
  • Paid less attention to other people.

"A majority of people want more control over the details of their lives," he writes, "but a majority of people also want to simplify their lives." Schwartz calls this the paradox of choice. Greater choices creates greater complexity. That's what we think we want. In reality, most folks crave simplicity -- and simplicity requires fewer choices.

So, how can we confront this paradox? Is it possible to have the best of both worlds? How do we go about wrestling with the ever-increasing array of choices while simultaneously seeking simplicity.

That's precisely what I've been trying to answer for myself lately.

At the end of The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz shares eleven steps that he believes can help mitigate (or eliminate) the distress caused by so much choice. Let's look at four that I've found effective in my own life.

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More about...Shopping, FS

Big pleasure from small things

Hello, friends. I have returned from France and recovered from jetlag. (I'm not good with jetlag.) Later this week, I'll publish an article about how much my cousin Duane and I spent during our ten-day drive across Normandy and Brittany, but today I want to share one small epiphany I had on the trip.

J.D. geeking it up with Proust stuff

I am a Proust nerd so was happy to stumble upon Combray

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More about...Travel, FS