I am the one thing in life I can control

Three weeks ago, I drove from Portland to Colorado Springs to participate in Camp FI, a weekend retreat for people interested in financial independence and early retirement.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't drive this distance. It's a 1300-mile trip that takes at least twenty hours to cover. Or, if you're me, it's a 1400-mile trip that takes 23 hours of driving spread over two days.

But, in case you haven't noticed, we're in the middle of a global pandemic, and although I'm not nearly as cautious as many of my friends, I don't relish the idea of confining myself to close quarters with dozens of strangers for hours on end in an airplane. Besides, I like to drive. And I love the beauty of the American west. And I needed some time alone to think deep thoughts — and to listen to the Hamilton soundtrack over and over and over again.

Around noon on Day Two, as I exited I-80 in south-central Wyoming, I was listening to Hamilton for the fourth time in 24 hours when I was smacked in the brain by a lyric I hadn't heard before. I pulled off the side of the road to think about it -- and to make some notes.

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More about...Psychology

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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More about...Psychology

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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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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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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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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More money, less happiness: When money makes you miserable

More money, less happiness: When money makes you miserableMoney, the conventional wisdom says, doesn't buy happiness. Modern psychology seems to back this up, with studies suggesting that beyond an income of $75,000, money doesn't make you any happier.

This conclusion is simultaneously obvious and counter-intuitive.

As an abstract principle, most us acknowledge that money doesn't buy happiness. But, at the same time, we all want more of something material -- a nicer house, nicer vacations, the ability to live in a certain neighborhood or eat at fancier restaurants -- that we think would make us happier. (If you're J.D., you think maybe season tickets to your favorite team might make you happier.)

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More about...Psychology, Spending Wisely

Identity economics: Who are you? And how does it affect your spending?

MTG card"Who are you?" my cousin Duane asked me on Saturday afternoon. We'd spent the day playing nerd games together and were taking a break for pizza.

"What?" I said. I wasn't expecting a philosophical question over supper.

"I don't think you know who you are," Duane said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I don't think you know who you are," he repeated. "You write about money and frugality, yet you spend $200 on dinner." Duane was referring to the fancy meal we'd had in May at a Michelin-star restaurant in France. I knew it had been bugging him, but he hadn't said anything about it until now. (And that meal cost $267.41 for the two of us, not $200.)

"You paid $1900 for your used pickup, but you don't wash it. It's filthy. You buy new clothes that you don't need, but you leave your old clothes on the floor so that your cats pee on them." It's true. Kim and I have a cat that will, from time to time, pee on my clothes.

"You say you don't like attention, that you don't want to be a celebrity, yet you're always taking on new work that puts you in the spotlight. You're thinking of doing a course for Audible, for instance, and you're talking about doing more speaking gigs -- even though you hate speaking gigs," Duane said.

All of these things were true. I couldn't argue.

"Who are you?" Duane asked. Well, that's a mighty fine question, Duane. That's a mighty fine question.

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More about...Psychology, Spending Wisely