Great lessons from great men

Because I write a personal finance blog, I read a lot of books about money. I'll be honest: they're usually pretty boring. Sure, they can tell you how to invest in bonds or how to find the latest loophole in the tax code. But most of them lack a certain something: the human element.

Over the years, I've found that it's fun to read a different kind of money book in my spare time. I've discovered the joy of classic biographies and success manuals, especially those written by (or about) wealthy and/or successful men. When I read about Benjamin Franklin or Booker T. Washington or J.C. Penney, I learn a lot — not just about money, but about how to be a better person.

Here are some of the most important lessons that these books, written by and about great men of years gone by, have taught me.

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How to get started with difficult tasks

Yesterday in the /r/financialindependence community on Reddit, /u/mkengland asked a seemingly innocent question:

What made you stop planning/researching financial independence and actually start?

Was there a tipping point for you where you finally felt ready to start your FI journey? What made you finally take the plunge, open that first IRA/brokerage account/etc., and throw your money into the market?

[...]

I'm waffling over details, though...and can't seem to just DO IT.

This question seems innocuous, right? Yet, I've been thinking about it for the past 24 hours.

I hear questions like this relatively often. People want to know how to get started with saving and investing. Or with debt reduction. Or they want to know how to get started with budgeting. And, in fact, it's the sort of question I had too back when I started my own journey away from debt and toward financial freedom. It all seems so overwhelming! Where do you begin?

Trust me, I know how easy it is to over-complicate things. My ex-wife used to call me Overanalytical Man due to my superhuman ability to overthink even the simplest subject. Although I do this less often (and less severely) than I used to, it's still a problem that plagues me.

Today, let's talk about what I've learned about how to get started with difficult tasks.

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My life philosophy: 51 lessons from 51 years

Happy birthday to me!

Today, I turn fifty-one. Holy cats, that's old! It's also a very, very strange time in this world. Kim and I had planned to celebrate by spending the weekend with my brother somewhere else in Oregon. With the coronavirus crisis in full swing, that's not going to happen. Oregonians have been ordered to stay at home with family unless absolutely necessary. So, we'll celebrate today with the dog and cats.

As I do every year here at Get Rich Slowly, I'm going to commemorate my birthday by sharing some of the most important things I've learned during my time on Earth. These are the core pieces of my life philosophy.

I'm no wiser or smarter than anybody else. And I'm certainly no better. But I am an individual. I'm my own person with my own personal preferences and personal experiences. These have all jumbled together over the past fifty years to give me a unique perspective on life (just as you have a unique perspective on life). To quote my favorite poem:

Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met...

So, these fifty-one nuggets of wisdom are things I've found to be true for me -- and, I believe, for most other people. (But each of us is different. What works for me may not work for you.) These beliefs make up the core of my personal philosophy of life.

For obvious reasons, some of these notions overlap with the core tenets of the Get Rich Slowly philosophy. Plus, long-time readers will recognize this as an article I update every year on my birthday.

Some of these ideas are original to me. Some aren't. When I've borrowed something, I've done my best to cite my source. (And I've tried to cite the oldest source I can find. Lots of folks borrow ideas from each other. There's nothing new under the sun and all that.)

Here are fifty-one principles I've found to be true during my fifty-one years on this planet. I'll lead with this year's new addition.

  • Love yourself. All my life, I've struggled with low self-esteem. There have been times when I've hated myself. Last year was especially tough for me as anxiety and depression proved to be crippling for several months. Working with a therapist has helped. She's helped me to understand that it's important to learn to both accept myself and love myself — even though, like everyone, I'm imperfect. I still have a long way to go, but I'm making progress.
  • Self-care comes first. If you're not healthy, it's tough to be happy. Before you can take care of your friends and your family, you need to take care of yourself. Eat well. Exercise. Nurture your mind, body, and spirit. Your body is a temple; treat it like one. If you don't have your health, you've got nothing.
  • You get what you give. Your outer life is a reflection of your inner life. If you think the world is a shitty place, the world is going to be a shitty place. If you think people are out to get you, people will be out to get you. But if you believe people are basically good, you'll find that this is true wherever you go.
  • Life is like a lottery. You receive tickets every time you try new things and meet new people. Most of these lottery tickets won't have a pay-out, and that's okay. But every now and then, you'll hit the jackpot. The more you play -- the more you say "yes" to new friends and new experiences -- the more often you'll win. You can't win if you don't play. That said, however...
  • Luck is no accident. What we think of as luck has almost nothing to do with randomness and almost everything to do with attitude. Lucky people watch for -- and take advantage of -- opportunities. They listen to their hunches. They know how to "fail forward", making good out of bad. [Via the book Luck is No Accident.]
  • Don't try to change others. "Attempts to change others are rarely successful, and even then are probably not completely satisfying," Harry Browne wrote in How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. "To accept others as they are doesn't mean you have to give into them or put up with them. You are sovereign. You own your own world. You can choose...There are millions of people out there in the world; you have a lot more to choose from than just what you see in front of you now."
  • Don't allow others to try to change you. Again from How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World: "You are free to live your life as you want...The demands and wishes of others don't control your life. You do. You make the decisions...There are thousands of people who wouldn't demand that you bend yourself out of shape to please them. There are people who will want you to be yourself, people who see things as you do, people who want the same things you want. Why should you have to waste your life in a futile effort to please those with whom you aren't compatible?"

An Early Birthday

  • Be impeccable with your word. Be honest -- with yourself and others. If you promise to do something, do it. When somebody asks you a question, tell the truth. Practice what you preach. Avoid gossip. [This is directly from Don Miguel's The Four Agreements.]
  • Don't take things personally. When people criticize you and your actions, it's not about you -- it's about them. They can't know what it's like to be you and live your life. When you take things personally, you're allowing others to control your life and your happiness. Heed the Arab proverb: "The dogs bark but the caravan moves on." [Also one of The Four Agreements.]
  • Don't make assumptions. The flip side of not taking things personally is to not assume you know what's going on in other people's heads. Don't assume you know the motivations for their actions. Just as their reality doesn't reflect your reality, your life is not theirs. Give people the benefit of the doubt. [Another of The Four Agreements.]

True story: Before Kim and I moved to our current country cottage, the dog park near our home had a homeless problem. (And still does.) We early-morning walkers did our best to clean up camps when they were vacated, but it was a never-ending task. Once, I joined a new woman for a stroll down the trail. "Look at that couple," she said, pointing to a man and a woman who were dragging a tarp down the hillside. "They just woke up and are packing up their camp." I tried to tell her that no, they were regular dog-walkers who were pitching in to clean things up. She didn't believe me. "I'm going to report them," she said. Classic example of a faulty assumption.

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What to do when the stock market crashes

Can you feel it? There's panic in the streets! We're in the middle of a stock market crash and the hysteria is starting again. As I write this, the S&P 500 is down six percent today -- and 17.3% off its record high of 3386.15 on February 19th.

S&P 500 status

Media outlets everywhere are sharing panicked headlines.

Panicked headlines

All over the TV and internet, other financial reporters are filing similar stories. And why not? This stuff sells. It's the financial equivalent of the old reporter's adage: "If it bleeds, it leads."

Here's the top story at USA Today at this very moment:

USA Today headline

But here's the thing: To succeed at investing, you have to pull yourself away from the financial news. You have to ignore it. All it'll do is make you crazy.

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More about...Investing, Economics, Psychology

Keeping up appearances

Spring has sprung here in Portland, and that means yard work. I'll spend most of March completing my project for Audible and The Great Courses -- which means things around here may be slow for a few weeks -- but when I'm done hacking in the word mines each day, there's plenty of mowing and pruning and digging and weeding and planting to do at home.

"I'll be glad when everything looks pretty back here," Kim said last Saturday. We were lounging at the bottom of the yard, soaking up sun and sipping beer. We'd spent the afternoon trimming blackberry vines and moving yard debris. Now, our three cats and one dog were with us, enjoying Family Time.

"Me too," I said. "This back yard is a jungle. It was a mess when we moved in, and it's only gotten worse in the past three years. My goal for 2020 is to clean it up completely, to create a space where it's fun to hang out with our friends."

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More about...Spending Wisely, Psychology

Moderators and abstainers

When I was a boy, I told my father I wanted a fish. I meant that I wanted a little orange goldfish in a small bowl that might live on the kitchen counter, just like other kids have. My dad knew that. But instead of buying me a goldfish, he went to the pet shop and purchased a 20-gallon aquarium with a bunch of expensive tropical fish.

The fish were fun for a day, but I was seven or eight or nine years old. I lost interest quickly. The fish became more of a nuisance than a novelty. And, eventually, one of us three boys -- I can't remember which -- broke the tank, and then we had no more fish.

Thank you for the goldfish, Dad?

Dad was like this.

If he had an interest (or if he saw that one of us had an interest), he was "all in". This was a part of his money blueprint. He had an invisible money script that led him to dive deep into whatever interested him, to pour money into passions. No surprise, then, that I too grew up to have a similar money script myself.

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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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Different strokes for different folks

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped in to visit Prosperity Pie Shoppe, a local dessert and coffee place co-owned by Luna Jaffe. Jaffe is a sort of wonder woman who blends art, psychotherapy, and financial education into something she calls "wild money". The space that Luna and her partners own isn't only a source of tasty treats; it's also a studio for money coaching.

Over pie and coffee, I chatted with Luna and one of her money coaches, Dryden Driggers. We shared our backgrounds with each other and talked about the direction we'd like to take our work. I think the three of us have a lot of shared viewpoints and visions. I imagine we'll find ways to work together in the future.

Prosperity Pie Shoppe

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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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Six simple money habits that changed my life

Habits play such an important role in every aspect of your life. And those habits, good or bad, are reflected in your finances.

Some of our habits are small, almost insignificant. Over time, though, they have a large effect. There are little things that I've done over many years that have had outsized results. Individually, they don't move the needle. But they're like little course corrections on the cruise ship of life. A little change early on, repeated and compounded over many years, can have a significant impact.

When you add them together, they can help you achieve things you never thought possible.

Six simple money habits

Small Habits Lead to Big Results

A prime example for me was gaining strength. I made a decision to build muscle but I didn't want to be one of those guys who spent hours in the gym. I learned that there are workout regimens that don't require a ton of time, but which still improve strength with just 20-30 minutes a session. These routines target several muscle groups at once. (The deadlift is a good example.)

Because these sessions only took 20-30 minutes, it was easy to make time for them. As a result, I started going to the gym more regularly. And once I was there, something funny happened. On some days, I did the workout and left. On others, I felt like I could do more. So, I incorporated other exercises that targeted smaller muscle groups. The promise of a short session got me in the habit of going to the gym. That was the hard part. Once I was there, I often did more than I had planned.

At first, I saw my strength increase until I hit a plateau. I talked with some folks and realized I had two non-obvious weaknesses: insufficient protein intake and grip strength.

  • For the protein, I added a bit of unflavored protein into my coffee each morning.
  • For grip strength, I started doing more dumbbell exercises in lieu of barbell exercises. The simple act of carrying the heavy weights to a bench helped increase my grip strength.

Both were small changes that became daily habits, which eventually had a big impact on my exercise regimen. Neither was difficult, I just had to discover them. And today, I'm stronger than I've ever been thanks to these seemingly minor changes.

But you're not here for fitness tips from me. You're here for money tips, right? Here are some simple habits I've developed that might not seem like much at first, but which have had a huge impact on my finances. Maybe they'll help you too.

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