Designing my life, part one: Building a compass

Last week, I raved about the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. These two Stanford design professors have taken design principles and applied them to helping people figure out what they want to be when they grow up.

After advocating Designing Your Life to several friends, two of them suggested that we work through the book's exercises together. One of those friends is Kim, my long-term girlfriend. The other is Craig, a college classmate. I thought it might be fun to share some of these exercises as we complete them over the next couple of months.

Because I want to respect the intellectual property of the authors, I'm not going to describe the exercises exactly. Instead, I'll provide a vague overview and then discuss my own answers. (And, when it makes sense, I'll also include answers from my friends.)

With that out of the way, let's dive in! Let's see what happens as I begin the process of designing my life.

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How to make better decisions

Howdy, friends. Sorry for the long lapse between posts. After returning from a brief summer vacation, the GRS database had imploded. Again. We patched things up this morning and can now resume publishing. Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to share excerpts from three recent money books.

The following is from Buy This, Not That by Sam Dogen with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Kansei Incorporated.

Please note that I've edited this passage slightly to (a) be more readable on the web and (b) fit within the publisher's word-count limitations. Ready? Let's dive in!

Life is rarely black-and-white, yet we need to make definitive choices all the time.

  • Rent this house or buy that apartment?
  • Invest in a growth stock or an index fund?
  • Live in San Francisco or Raleigh?
  • Join a start-up or work at an established firm?

These choices all involve an expense of time and capital. Each choice brings risk and reward. The problem is that most of the time we don't have enough information to confidently choose this or that. My approach helps you overcome this information gap.

You do this by thinking in probabilities instead of in binary terms, where it's an all-or-nothing proposition. If you start thinking in probabilities instead of absolutes, you'll develop a stronger analytical mindset to make more winning decisions over time. You'll also be able to make more winning decisions on risks that others never dare take.

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The seven habits of highly effective people

Because I've been driving back and forth from Corvallis to Portland so much lately to attend to my mother and cousin, I've had ample to time to listen to audiobooks. I find that I'm actually grateful for the opportunity to "read" in this fashion. (Like many folks, the past decade has destroyed my attention span and ability to read for long periods.)

[The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People book cover]

I'm currently reading Stephen R. Covey's classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. (Five stars on Amazon in 5672 reviews!) I read the book once long, long ago — sometime during the mid-1990s. I've referred to it now and then as the years have gone by, but mostly I've forgotten its lessons.

Or so I thought.

In reality, it turns out that much of my personal philosophy is similar to the precepts Covey covers. It's shocking, in fact, just how much of my personal and financial philosophies align with those presented in Seven Habits. I haven't consciously or deliberately emulated his teachings, but I've wound up in the same place nonetheless.

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The seven deadly sins of personal finance

I've been reading and writing about personal finance for more than thirteen years. In that time, I've consumed a lot of books about money. Lately, I've found that it's fun to revisit old favorites.

Recently, for instance, I've been re-reading Brett Wilder's The Quiet Millionaire [my review]. It's different than most personal finance books. It's targeted at those who are farther along their financial journeys rather than at those just starting out. Still, there are bits and pieces in The Quiet Millionaire that are applicable to everyone.

Ten years ago, I wrote that I particularly like Wilder's list of the seven enemies to financial success (which is my phrase, not his). I still like them. He writes:

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Book review: I Will Teach You to Be Rich (2019 Edition)

When I started Get Rich Slowly in 2006, I had no idea other money blogs existed. I'd been blogging about cats, computers, and comic books since 1997 -- before blog was even a word! -- and I thought my new venture might be the first blog about personal finance.

I was wrong.

I learned quickly that there were already dozens (dozens!) of people blogging about money on the interwebs. For instance:

  • Harlan Landes was writing at Consumerism Commentary. He now runs the Plutus Foundation, a financial literacy non-profit.
  • Jim Wang -- a ginormous money nerd then, a ginormous money nerd now -- was writing at Blueprint for Financial Prosperity. He now runs Wallet Hacks.
  • John was writing at Free Money Finance (a front for selling Moose Tracks ice cream!). He now runs ESI Money.
  • Ramit Sethi was writing at I Will Teach You to Be Rich. He still runs the site, but his focus has shifted from personal finance to entrepreneurship and marketing.

I Will Teach You to Be RichAll four of these folks built and grew successful sites because they produced quality content. But Ramit might be the most successful of all. Nowadays, he produces helpful courses on a variety of personal development subjects. He hosts conferences. He wrote a best-selling book. And he never sold his website.

Instead, I Will Teach You to Be Rich has evolved as he's evolved. In recent years, Ramit has distanced himself from the world of personal finance. Nowadays, he's focused on the many different ways his readers can build a Rich Life.

In fact, "how to live a Rich Life" is the core theme of the brand-new second edition of I Will Teach You to Be Rich, the book. In 2009, Ramit wrote, "I Will Teach You to Be Rich is about sensible, banking, budgeting, saving, and investing." In the 2019 edition, that's been changed to, "I Will Teach You to Be Rich is about using money to design your Rich Life." I think you'll agree that this is a much more compelling theme.

If you've read my other book reviews, you'll note that I sometimes shy away from giving an overall evaluation, opting instead to talk about some aspect of the book I liked (or didn't). When this happens, it's usually because I don't think the book is that great.

I won't be coy today. I Will Teach You to Be Rich is one of the best personal-finance books on the market. It's great.

Let's take a closer look at why I like it so much.

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What is money for? An evening with Vicki Robin

Your Money or Your LifeWhen I was a boy, my heroes were athletes and astronauts. I dreamed of playing pro football one day. Or, better yet, walking on the moon.

As an adult, my heroes are more mundane. They're the people who make personal finance accessible to average people. Long-time readers know that billionaire investor Warren Buffett is one of my heroes. So too is Dave Ramsey, who has helped countless people -- including me -- get out of debt.

But perhaps my biggest hero is an unassuming 73-year-old woman in cat-eye glasses who lives on Whidbey Island in Washington's Puget Sound.

In 1992, Vicki Robin (and her partner, Joe Dominguez) published Your Money or Your Life, a book designed to help readers transform their relationship with money. In 2004, the book transformed my relationship with money. It rocked my world. It inspired me to seek financial independence, which the book defines as "no longer having to work for money".

Fast-forward fifteen years.

Today, in 2019, I'm awe-struck to actually be exchanging email with Vicki Robin, discussing the past, present, and future of financial independence. And this week, when she came to Portland, I not only got to hear her speak in person, but also got to treat her to dinner.

Your Money or Your Life

Last night, Douglas Tsoi, founder of the Portland Underground Graduate School and the School of Financial Freedom, hosted a talk from Vicki Robin. A few dozen money nerds -- including some GRS readers (Hi, Scott! Hi, Brandon!) -- gathered to hear Robin's thoughts about financial independence.

For the sake of clarity, I've taken some liberties in what follows. I haven't changed any of Robin's ideas, but I've shifted some topics and quotes in order to create a smoother, more coherent flow for the blog. I've treated Robin's Q&A responses, for instance, as if they're part of the main talk. A real journalist would be mortified. I am not a real journalist.

Some folks in the audience were unfamiliar with Your Money or Your Life, so Robin started by briefly recapping the book's message.

The goal of Your Money or Your Life, Robin says, is to transform your relationship with money in order to liberate your most precious resource, time. The book's nine-step program is meant to help readers track the flow of money and stuff in their lives, guided by both self-interest ("does it work for me?") and higher values ("does it work for the world?").

It's natural that we act in our own self-interest. If we aren't right with ourselves, it's tough be of service to others. But Robin worries that too many people get stuck in the self-interest side of things and never move beyond that, never see how achieving financial independence gives them the freedom to leave a lasting, positive impression on the world.

Like me, she wants people to "live on purpose".

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Book review: Work Optional by Tanja Hester

Last week, I published an extended excerpt from Grant Sabatier's new book, Financial Freedom. Sabatier's core message is that time is more valuable than money — and that freedom is more valuable than time.

Several GRS readers took issue with the book's seemingly anti-work tone.

  • "There is a lot of talk about the drudgery of work; [I'm] pretty lucky [that] I love my job and have a lot of autonomy," wrote Angelica.
  • S.G. said, "The 'wage slave' rhetoric gets old."
  • And our pal El Nerdo didn't like this sentence: "I retired early because I didn’t want to spend the best years of my life working in a poorly lit cubicle at a stressful job I didn’t particularly enjoy." El Nerdo's response? "Could you maybe just find a better job? One that you enjoyed? With no cubicles, and better light?"

These comments are telling. They're representative of a common complaint leveled against the FIRE movement. (As you probably know, FIRE is a clumsy acronym for "financial independence/retire early". The FIRE movement is all about saving enough to retire as soon as you can.)

Much of the financial independence and early retirement messaging comes off as anti-work. While this appeals to some folks, it repels others. Not everybody hates their jobs. In fact, some people truly enjoy what they do.

If you love your job but are still interested in what the FIRE movement has to offer, you should take a look at Tanja Hester's new book, Work Optional, which was released today. It's a solid addition to anyone's personal finance library, with a core philosophy very much aligned with the one I espouse here at Get Rich Slowly. Best of all? As you might guess from the book's title, Hester doesn't pretend that work is a cage that we all want to escape.

For those unfamiliar, Hester is the braniac behind the popular Our Next Life blog and The Fairer Cents podcast. She's also an all-around cool cat.

The Value of Work

Work Optional by Tanja Hester"This book is not anti-work," Hester writes in her introduction. "Work is a good and noble thing, something nearly every person ever born has had to do in some form, whether or not they were formally employed...The problem isn't work itself, but our current societal work culture."

Hester says that Work Optional is about "reclaiming your life from our nonstop work culture so that you decide what role work will play in your life, instead of society deciding for you". She truly wants to help readers find ways to make work optional, an activity they can do or not do as they see fit.

I like this. It's a conventional idea of financial independence stated in a new way, a way that gives power to the individual without denigrating all work as undesirable. I also respect that Hester and her husband had fulfilling careers they enjoyed. She writes:

To us, retiring early was never about not liking work. Work can be a source of self-worth, of community, of proof that we add value to the world. And Mark and I both got that from our careers. We just didn't want to let work be the defining feature of our entire lives...

Because of the book's title and because its message is not anti-work, I had high hopes that Hester would spend more time exploring this concept, re-framing of early retirement and/or financial independence in a new way. I love the notion that we can reach a point at which work is optional.

And make no mistake: Much of this book is indeed about constructing a life in which work isn't necessary. The problem, however, is that Work Optional tries to tackle two themes at once. Is the book's subject early retirement? Or is the book's subject its stated thesis: creating a work-optional life? There's plenty of overlap between these two topics, sure, but they're not the same thing.

Look at it this way. I've written before about the stages of financial independence.

Early retirement is the fourth or fifth stage of financial freedom, the point at which you have enough money to support yourself for the rest of your life. Hester's "work optional" point, however, is more like the third stage of financial freedom, at which you could quit your job without a moment of hesitation.

In other words, you can reach the work optional stage without ever reaching early retirement. Many people do.

Okay, enough nitpicking! Let's take a quick look at what this book covers.

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Financial freedom and the value of time

Note from J.D.
Last October, I had a chance to read an advance copy of Grant Sabatier's new book, Financial Freedom, which was just released this morning. I liked it. I loved parts of it. In fact, the second chapter of Financial Freedom inspired my article about how time is more valuable than money.

Today, I'm pleased to present a (heavily edited) excerpt from that second chapter. Here's Sabatier on why time is more valuable than money -- and why you can and should retire early. (Links and photos are from me. Everything else is from the book. Note, however, I've heavily edited this chapter in order to abridge it and to make it more readable in blog format.)

If some ninety-year-old rich dude offered you $100 million to trade places with him, would you do it? Of course not. Why? Because time is more valuable than money.

The average person has approximately 25,000 days to live in their adult life. If you’re reading this, you likely need to trade your time for money in order to live a life that is safe, healthy, and happy. But if you didn’t have to work to make money, you’d be able to spend that time however you wanted.

No one cares about your time as much as you do. People will try to take your time and fill it up with meetings and calls and more meetings. But it’s your time. Your only time. Financial Freedom is designed to help you make the most of it. Make money buy time.

My goal is to help you retire as early as possible. When I say retire, I don’t mean that you'll never work again, only that you’ll have enough money so that you never have to work again. This is complete financial freedom — the ability to do whatever you want with your time.

Financial Freedom by Grant Sabatier

Traditional Retirement Advice Doesn't Work

I don’t ever plan to retire in the traditional sense of the word, but you could say that I’m “retired” now because I have enough money and freedom to spend my time doing whatever I want. I no longer have to work for money, but I still enjoy making money, and it’s attached to many of the things I enjoy doing. I love working and challenging myself and hopefully always will, so checking out to a life of leisure just isn’t my vibe.

If you want to “retire” sooner rather than later, you need to rethink everything you’ve been taught about retirement and probably most of what you’ve been taught about money. As a society, we have collectively adopted one approach to retiring: get a job, set aside a certain portion of your income in a 401(k) or other retirement account, and in 40+ years you’ll have enough money saved that you can stop working for good.

This approach is designed to get you to retire in your sixties or seventies, which explains why pretty much every advertisement about retirement shows silver-haired grandmas and grandpas (typically on a golf course or walking along the beach).

There are three major problems with this approach:

  1. It doesn’t work for most people.
  2. You end up spending the most valuable years of your life working for money.
  3. It’s not designed to help you “retire” as quickly as possible.

The first major problem with traditional retirement advice is that even if you follow it perfectly (and most people usually don’t), you still might not have enough to live on when you are in your sixties.

The popular advice to save 5% to 10% of your income isn't enough. You should be saving as much money as early and often as you can. If you want to be sure you'll be able to retire at 65, you need to start (and keep) saving at least 20% of your income from the age of 30.

Here’s how big a difference it makes.

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My experience with the KonMari method (and the life-changing magic of tidying up)

Because I'm a money nerd and a comics nerd, one of my favorite things is when these two obsessions come together in the form of (drom roll, please): financial graphic novels!

You might think that's a niche I just invented, but you'd be wrong. I'll admit that financial graphic novels aren't common, but they are out there. I've written before about the comics adaptation of Studs Terkel's Working, for instance. But I also own comic book versions of Think and Grow Rich, The Long Tail, The Alchemist, and Robert Caldini's Influence.

My dream project? Collaborating with an artist to create a visual version of my A Brief Guide to Financial Freedom.

Imagine how happy I was last week when I stumbled upon The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up, the graphic-novel adaptation of Marie Kondo's hugely popular (and hugely awesome) book on cleaning and organization. I loved The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up when it first came out; I love the comics version even better.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying UpThe Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up

In case you've been living under a rock, Kondo's thesis is that you should only own things that "spark joy" in your life. Naturally, not everything can spark joy. (Does anyone really get pleasure from their toothbrush or their coat hangers?) But to the extent possible, you should strive to only possess things that give you pleasure.

Let's take a quick look at the KonMari method -- and why it's proved to be popular with so many people (including me).

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An index to every money book I’ve reviewed during the past twelve years

I read a lot of money books. As a result, a large section of my large library is devoted to books about personal finance. (And if I hadn't purged hundreds of money books when I sold this site in 2009, I'd have even more books -- and no place to put them.)

Last week, a GRS reader named Lindsay dropped a line with an interesting question:

"I'm really enjoying your work back at GRS, the email newsletter, and your most recent FB live video! I'm wondering: Do you have a list of all the money books you've reviewed? I've been poking around to try and find one)?"

As it happens, I've been wanting a list of reviews myself. I know I have a million billion different projects around here, but one that I'd like to pursue is a free nicely-formatted PDF download that compiles every review I've written.

To answer Lindsay's question -- and to satisfy my own curiosity -- I sifted through the GRS archives yesterday to compile a list of every money book I've reviewed during my 12+ years at this site. In this post, I've linked to those reviews, plus I've included a short summary of each book.

Note: I'm certain that about half of the reviews are missing from the archives. The folks who purchased this site from me "unpublished" hundreds of articles (including many book reviews, apparently) during the time they owned GRS. Those reviews still exist, and I'll eventually find them and list them here, but it's far too cumbersome to find them at the moment.

Paperback Money Books

For each book below, I've included a link to Amazon. I've also assigned each a book a letter grade and, in some cases, a star .

My letter grades might seem harsh. That's because I've tried to really think about these on a sort of curve, where the vast majority of books are average and only a few merit As or Fs. As a result, some important titles get average (or low) grades despite their contribution to the field.

  • If I grade a book an A, I think it's excellent. It offers excellent advice with no real flaws.
  • If I give a book a B, it's a good book with good advice, but something about it holds it back. Maybe it's poorly written or maybe it's off-base on a topic or two.
  • If I give a grade of C, the book is average. That means it gives reasonable money advice in a typical way. There's nothing drastically wrong with the book, and it's worth reading.
  • If I give a D grade, the book is flawed in some major way. It still has some value to it -- maybe a core concept that you can't find elsewhere -- but I'm hesitant to recommend this to average folks.
  • If I give a book and F, I don't think it has any sort of value. I don't give many Fs because I think nearly every book has some nugget of wisdom in it.

Note that all of my letter grades were assigned today. They're based on who I am and what I know now, not when I wrote the reviews. And they're based on how valuable the book's info will be to a modern reader. (Some money books that were awesome in 1978 haven't aged well because their advice is specific to that era.)

When I've marked a book with a star , that indicates I believe regardless of my grade, the title should be considered part of a core personal-finance library. (I don't have a review of Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover here. If I did, it'd get a C or lower because the book's quality is mixed and it has certain drawbacks. But the book would also merit a star because it should be in any serious library of money books.)

Ultimately, though, you shouldn't let the letter grades and stars guide your decision to read a book. Use my reviews instead. They're much more nuanced than an arbitrary grade. The grades are meant as a sort of quick reference.

Finally, I've sorted the titles into roughly reverse-chronological order based on year of publication. I think most readers are interested in recent titles. (Because of my hiatus from money-blogging, there's a gap here between 2010 and 2016.) If, like me, you prefer older money books, you'll find them closer to the end of this list.

That's enough explanation. Here then is a list of (nearly) all of the book reviews from the archives here at Get Rich Slowly!

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