Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman on Mental Accounting

Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize for Economics this year for his pioneering work in Behavioral Economics. Of course, he promptly said he would spend the prize money “as irrationally as possible”. Here’s a light-hearted Q&A from the NY Times. Linked was a funny example of mental accounting, told by Gene Hackman about Dustin Hoffman. (Warning: There is a single f-bomb.)

Well, Hackman says when they were both young actors he was over at Dustin Hoffman’s house and Hoffman asks him for a loan.

Hackman goes into the kitchen and sees all these Mason jars with labels — “entertainment” and “books” and “rent” — and they all have money in them. Except for one, the one that says “food.” So he says to Hoffman: “You have plenty of money, why do you need money?” And Hoffman says, ‘There’s no money in the food jar. I can’t touch the other money. ”

They laugh, they go on, it’s funny but you know, it’s serious. Because we all do that.

If you can’t see the embedded video, here is the YouTube link.

How To Make Your Life Completely Miserable

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If you are a fan of Charlie Munger and his principle of inversion, you will enjoy this video by CGP Grey* about the 7 Ways to Maximize Misery. Sometimes the best solution to a problem comes by approaching it backwards. Found via Abnormal Returns. Briefly, here are the 7 ways:

  • Stay still.
  • Screw with your sleep.
  • Maximize your screen time.
  • Use your screen to stoke your negative emotions.
  • Set V.A.P.I.D. goals – Vague, Amorphous, Pie in the Sky, Irrelevant, and Delayed.
  • Pursue happiness directly.
  • Follow your instincts.

Charlie Munger himself might add two more things:

  • Be unreliable.
  • Be lazy.

This is according to his 2007 USC Law School Commencement speech:

Let me use a little inversion now. What will really fail in life? What do you want to avoid? Such an easy answer: sloth and unreliability. If you’re unreliable it doesn’t matter what your virtues are. Doing what you have faithfully engaged to do should be an automatic part of your conduct. You want to avoid sloth and unreliability.

It can be surprisingly instructive to know that we can become happier by simply avoiding these common behaviors. There are even more – the video is based on the book How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use by Randy J. Paterson. Added to my long to-read list.

* I referenced another CGP Grey video in my post Why Didn’t Technology Create a 4-Hour Workday? and why the solution is to accumulate assets towards financial freedom.

Buy It Nice, or Buy It Twice: Kitchen Edition

wusthof200Reader Chris sent in the following question (edited for clarity):

I read in your website about cast iron pans and KitchenAid mixers. I want to buy a small home and have nothing. What are some must-have kitchen items that will last a long time and be used most often? So they are an “investment”.

I finally figured out why people make you register for nice things on your wedding registry. After getting married over 12 years ago, I had to stop buying Hungry Man frozen dinners and really learn to cook at home. This also meant developing an appreciation for well-made kitchen items. When you “go cheap” on certain things, you not only have to replace it down the road (“Buy It Nice or Buy It Twice”), but you also feel a bit of annoyance and regret every time you use the inferior tool. In the words of Marie Kondo, owning high-quality tools “bring me joy”.

Here’s a list of high-quality items that are actually in my kitchen as I type this. There is no order, just a quick mental inventory. Some cost a few bucks. Some cost hundreds.

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Lodge 12″ Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet
With over 10,000 reviews (!) and a 4.6 out of 5 star average rating, I know I’m not the only fan of these heavy-duty beasts. Great for searing and pan-frying, oven-safe, no worrying about scratches or dings. They will outlive you. Got a rusty one? They are easy to resurrect; here’s a quick video on how to season your cast iron.

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Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron 5-1/2-Quart Round Dutch Oven
I cook multiple times a week with our Staub and Le Creuset enameled cast-iron dutch ovens. Cast iron isn’t a lot of maintenance, but you do have to keep it dry after each use to prevent rusting (and seasoning it again takes time). With enameling, you can just wash and leave it wet. The dutch oven shape also makes it perfect for braises, stews, and soups. (They also look nicer at dinner parties.) They do run $200-$300 but spread out over 30+ years of use it’s not that bad. But I’ll be honest, I don’t know how much better they are than this Lodge Enameled Dutch Oven which regularly runs under $80.

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KitchenAid Artisan 5-Quart Stand Mixer
We’ve used this machine regularly without any issues for over 10 years across multiple apartments, studios, and houses. We use it to beat eggs and knead dough for pizza, pasta, cookies, and bread. I don’t know what kind of motor is inside, but it is durable. The bowl has some small dings and there is a little rust on the exterior but nothing that prevents good operation. I notice a ton of different versions now, but I think the Artisan is the classic version.

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Kuhn Rikon 3-Set Original Swiss Peeler, Red/Green/Yellow
These may not last forever, but they have lasted a lot longer than my previous peelers and I’m still on my first one. (I also have a serrated version that I don’t use as often.) I bought these after seeing them recommended by America’s Test Kitchen and they peel much more easily and comfortably. Note: I see some Amazon reviews that say “I love my old Kuhn Rikon peeler but this one I just bought from Amazon is horrible.” My thought? Counterfeits. I would only buy these “Ships from and sold by Amazon.com”, even if it costs a few cents more. You’re still getting the best peeler out there for ~$4.

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Wusthof Classic 7-piece Knife Block Set
I remember wondering if Wusthof and Henckels were worth the price as I zapped them onto our wedding registry. Then someone actually bought us a set of Wusthof Classic knives and we proceeded to use them nearly every day for over a decade. They have been professionally sharpened a couple of times (less often than recommended), but they still work perfectly with no chips or rust spots. I bought a $40 Asian cleaver from a shop in Chinatown a couple years ago, and it only lasted a few months before large rust spots appeared. My mom told me I didn’t treat it right. I told her I’d rather spend $80 on a knife and have it last decades even after not treating it right. So I did. 🙂

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J.A. Henckels International 8-pc Steak Knife Set
We also got a set of Henckels steak knives as a wedding gift. They’ve also lasted over a decade as our family’s only set of steak knives. They still cut great. Yes, they cost about double the price of the AmazonBasics steak knives set, but I wonder if I’ll ever have to buy steak knives again.

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Zeroll 1020 Original Ice Cream Scoop, 2 Ounce
Didn’t see this coming, huh? This is the best ice cream scoop, period. Once you try it, you will wonder why all the other ice cream scoops in the world are so bad in comparison. If you walk into an ice cream shop, this is probably the brand that they use. It has conductive fluid that makes it easier to get through rock-hard ice cream. It creates the perfect ball shape for placing on cones. The 2-ounce size makes a small/medium-sized ball, but other sizes are available. Why not own the best ice cream scoop in the world for about $15?

I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things. There are also many other items I on my wish list that I haven’t bought yet. What high-quality kitchen items would you consider a good “investment”?

Shout out to Gita, Ben, Kiran, and family! Thanks for reading!

Money, Sex, and Happiness: What is Worth $50,000 of Happiness Per Year?

rothheartMid-Feburary is the time of year when writers everywhere tie their subject matter to Valentine’s Day. Here’s how mine came about. I was reading 23 Science-Backed Ways to Feel Happier at Mental Floss. #8 was “Twist the Sheets” which included the claim:

One study even suggests that having sex once a week may make you feel as stoked as scoring an additional $50,000 in income.

Really? The link provided was rather vague, but the study referenced is Money, Sex, and Happiness: An Empirical Study by Blanchflower and Oswald (and hosted at the National Bureau of Economic Research, thank you very much).

Working from there, I found this NY Times article that covered the study in more depth (emphasis mine):

In their study, Mr. Oswald and Mr. Blanchflower analyzed the self-reported sexual activity and levels of happiness of more than 16,000 American adults who participated in a number of social surveys since the early 1990’s. (Happiness is notoriously difficult to define, and the surveys make no attempt to do so; the respondents simply record how happy they believe themselves to be on a sliding scale.) By factoring out the measurable effects of other life events, the study revealed, to no one’s surprise, that, ”The more sex, the happier the person.”

Furthermore, the economists compared the levels of happiness produced by a vigorous sex life with other activities whose economic values had been calculated in prior research, allowing them to impute, in dollars, how much happiness sex was worth. They also estimated that increasing the frequency of sexual intercourse from once a month to at least once a week provided as much happiness as putting $50,000 in the bank.

A lasting marriage, by comparison, offers about $100,000 worth of happiness a year — that is, on average, a single person would need to receive $100,000 annually to be as happy as a married person with the same education, job status and other characteristics. Divorce, on the other hand, imposes an emotional toll of about $66,000 a year, though there may be a short-term economic gain from the immediate relief provided by leaving your spouse.

As they say, correlation is not causation. The study doesn’t suggest whether more sex leads to more happiness, or happiness leads to more sex. Same with marriage.

In addition, a different set of studies analyzed in the academic journal Social Psychological and Personality Science supports the idea that once-a-week sex is the optimal frequency for maximizing feelings of “well-being” (i.e. happiness?). Taken from the abstract (emphasis mine):

In Study 1, the association between sexual frequency and well-being is only significant for people in relationships. In Studies 2 and 3, which included only people in relationships, sexual frequency had a curvilinear association with relationship satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction mediated the association between sexual frequency and well-being. For people in relationships, sexual frequency is no longer significantly associated with well-being at a frequency greater than once a week.

Or, as Men’s Health magazine puts it: The Happiest Couples Have Sex Once a Week (And No More). Via NPR:

The take-home message, Muise says, is that it’s “important to maintain a sexual connection with a romantic partner, but it is also important to have realistic expectations for one’s sex life (given that many couples are busy with work and family responsibilities.)”

The first study also found that making more money does not mean more sex. Others have found that making more money (past a certain point) does not mean more happiness. Tricky stuff, this happiness thing. In any case, I wish you all a happy long weekend!

Dilbert’s Financial Advice on an Index Card

Scott Adams continues to convert wise observations about the workplace into clever and funny comics. Occasionally, he tackles investing and personal finance, like in this recent Dilbert comic:

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This older comic is more subtle but reflective of why market timing is so alluring:

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Recently, Ron Lieber of the New York Times profiled a new book about financial advice that fits on an index card. Included was a link to Dilbert’s One-Page Guide to Personal Finance. Looking back on it, I would have to say that Adams’ list stands up to the test of time. I might put #7 about emergency funds a little bit higher on the list, but that’s just nitpicking. For the vast majority of people, sticking to such simple advice would be more than adequate. Certainly much better than Wally’s “above-average” plan!

The Economics of Reality Court TV Shows (Behind-The-Scenes)

gavelforsaleHave you ever wondered how the participants get paid in court TV shows like Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, or The People’s Court? Over the weekend, I got this tweet from a casting director for a new court TV show where a celebrity gets to be the judge:

I’m guessing this is due to a previous guest post on Winning Our Case in Small Claims Court. Here’s the recruitment flyer:

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Of course, me being me, I found the payment details the most interesting:

  • If you win the case, you are guaranteed to collect because the show pays the judgment directly to the winner.
  • If you lose the case, you don’t have to pay anything, again because the show pays the judgment for you.
  • No matter what, both parties will receive an appearance fee.

I found some related details from the Wikipedia page of the Judge Judy show:

  • The award limit on these types of shows is usually $5,000, the same as “real” small claims court.
  • The appearance fees varies, but is in the neighborhood of a few hundred dollars plus $35 a day if it takes multiple days. They pay may also pay for your airfare and hotel if you are not from the area.
  • Most of the audience extras are comprised of (low) paid (aspiring) actors.

For an honest disagreement, this seems to be a pretty fair arrangement. Both parties will still want to win the case, but both will stand to benefit financially. The show gets cheap material (court shows are much cheaper to make than sitcoms), and the audience gets entertained.

However, in the style of Freakonomics, this incentive structure can create unexpected consequences. Namely, fabricated lawsuits. If you think about it, dishonest conspirators can get a paid vacation to Los Angeles, an appearance fee, seen on TV, and they can split up to a $5,000 judgment. An example per Wikipedia:

In April 2013, former litigants from a 2010 airing of the show revealed they conspired together in fabricating a lawsuit in which the logical outcome would be to grant payment to the plaintiff. The operation, derived by musicians Kate Levitt and Jonathan Coward, was successful: Sheindlin awarded the plaintiff (Levitt) $1,250. The litigants involved also walked away with an appearance fee of $250 each and an all expense paid vacation to Hollywood, California. In reality, all the litigants in question—plaintiffs and defendants alike—were friends who split the earnings up among each other. It was also reported that the show’s producers were in on the sham and knew of the contrivance all along but went along with it. The lawsuit was over the fictitious death of a cat as a result of a television crushing it.

The judge does have somewhat of an “out” with the option of dismissal without prejudice, which means that there is no decision and the lawsuit may be refiled and retried in another forum.

[Judge Judy] Sheindlin has dismissed cases without prejudice when she has suspected both the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) of conspiring together just to gain monetary rewards from the program.

If you have a case, please contact Mr. Simnowitz, and don’t forget to tell me about it if you get on TV!

PSA: Beware When Shredding Your Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

csp_shred0Every credit card is getting a smart chip these days, which means a lot of expired cards. My shredder is rated for 12 sheets of paper at a time, and up until recently handled every credit card, CD, and DVD sent its way. But not the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card. I knew it had a little extra heft due to some sort of metal (aluminum?) sandwiched between layers of plastic, but that fact somehow didn’t register in my shredding fervor… until I heard an awful crunching noise:

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The results: The numbers on the back of the card are still visible, and the magnetic strip may still be readable. My shredder still works, although it has been making some funny noises. Not sure what to do with it now, perhaps industrial-grade shredder could finish the job? Now you know why Chase has started sending folks a prepaid mailer to send back your card when they replace it. 🙂

Benjamin Franklin and Compound Interest: “Money makes money. And the money that money makes, makes money”

bencompWe’ve all heard of the power of compound interest. We’ve all heard of Benjamin Franklin. But have you heard of the story where Ben Franklin let his money compound quietly for 200 years? Here’s an excerpt from the book The Elements of Investing:

Benjamin Franklin provides us with an actual rather than a hypothetical case. When Franklin died in 1790, he left a gift of $5,000 to each of his two favorite cities, Boston and Philadelphia. He stipulated that the money was to be invested and could be paid out at two specific dates, the first 100 years and the second 200 years after the date of the gift. After 100 years, each city was allowed to withdraw $500,000 for public works projects. After 200 years, in 1991, they received the balance—which had compounded to approximately $20 million for each city. Franklin’s example teaches all of us, in a dramatic way, the power of compounding. As Franklin himself liked to describe the benefits of compounding, “Money makes money. And the money that money makes, makes money”

Very neat. A bit of digging suggests it all started out as basically a dare. From a Philadelphia Inquirer article:

Benjamin Franklin, God love him, may have been the first Philadelphian with an addytood. How’s this for an in-your-face response?

In 1785 a French mathematician named Charles-Joseph Mathon de la Cour wrote a parody of Franklin’s Poor Richard called Fortunate Richard in which he mocked the unbearable spirit of American optimism represented by Franklin. The Frenchman wrote a piece about Fortunate Richard leaving a small sum of money in his will to be used only after it had collected interest for 500 years.

Fat chance someone would be dumb enough to try that. Ha. Ha.

Franklin, who was 79 years old at the time, wrote back to the Frenchman, thanking him for a great idea and telling him that he had decided to leave a bequest to his native Boston and his adopted Philadelphia of 1,000 pounds to each on the condition that it be placed in a fund that would gather interest over a period of 200 years.

The trusts for Philadelphia ended up a lot smaller than the trust for Boston, which many people assume is a result of poor management, but perhaps the lower returns were an acceptable result of Philadelphia following Franklin’s original instructions for the money:

“Boston has always prided itself that it compounded the money wisely. Philadelphia has always had an inferiority complex because it didn’t,” said Bruce Yenawine, a Syracuse University Ph.D. candidate in history who has spent years researching the Franklin funds in both cities. “But Boston decided to minimize risks and maximize proceeds. Philadelphia, on the other hand, focused on the other side of Franklin’s instructions by loaning the money to individuals. I think that’s more in keeping with what Franklin wanted.”

Franklin stipulated that the 1,000 pounds (the equivalent of $4,444) be invested and used to provide low-interest loans to “married tradesmen under the age of 26” to get them started in business. Over the 200-year life of the trust, money from the Philadelphia fund was loaned to hundreds of individuals, mostly for home mortgages during the last 50 years. Boston, meanwhile, invested the bulk of the money in a trust fund that Yenawine describes as “a savings company for the rich.”

This NY Times article suggests that the initial funds came from Franklin donating his own government salary:

The 2,000 [pounds sterling] Franklin set aside came from the salary he earned as Governor of Pennsylvania from 1785 to 1788. ”It was one of Franklin’s favorite notions, one he tried to get written into the Constitution, that public servants in a democracy should not be paid,” Mr. Bell said.

Relating this back to personal finance, here is another Elements of Investing excerpt relating a Ben Franklin quote and compound interest:

Think in terms of opportunity cost. Think of every dollar you spend as the amount it could grow into by the time you retire. Ben Franklin famously advised, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” He was right but not entirely right. The Rule of 72 shows why. If you save money and invest it at, say, a 7 percent average annual return, $1 saved today becomes $2 in about 10 years, $4 in 20 years, and $8 in 30 years, and so on and on, inevitably growing. So the dollar a young person spends on some nonessential today would mean that $10 or more will be given up in retirement.

No-Thanks-giving: The Things You Hate The Most

Before we get into being all thankful for family and friends and caffeine and stuff, let’s complain about all the stuff you hate dealing with.

From a WSJ article on why we still hate the airline industry (shocker!), here is a list of what good and services Americans are least satisfied with. Based on the American Consumer Satisfaction Index survey.

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Let’s see what I think about the top 5:

  • Internet Service Providers: Well, they do charge a lot for very mediocre speed and the reliability has been spotty recently. Not to mention they keep fighting Net Neutrality. I wish I had Google Fiber.
  • Internet Social Media: I’m not really sure what this means. I am not very active on Twitter nor Facebook. MMB commenters are all smart and good-looking, but reading the internet comments on major news sites like CNN does make me sad about humanity.
  • Subscription Television Service: My inability to let go of live sports is certainly costing me a bundle, but cable TV hasn’t actively pissed me off… this year. Well, wait, my laggy DVR does appear designed in 1994 with a 386 processor.
  • Airlines: I know that there are hardworking folks in the airline industry, but I just had an entire conversation with a Delta gate agent and they didn’t make eye contact even once. Why provide good service when everyone hates you anyways seems to be the attitude. The problem is that selling cheaper airfare with lots of gotcha add-ons is that it works and they are now making good money. Sigh. I can’t believe people haven’t revolted yet on how seat pitch keeps decreasing every freakin’ year.
  • Wireless Telephone Service: I have no real complaints. There are many options now if you want to avoid full-price, full-service cellular carriers. Basic cell phone service can be pretty darn cheap these days. I guess I’m just still amazed by what my smartphone can do with a data plan while I’m in the middle of nowhere.

Chart: The Reason You Never Get Anything Done

This highly scientific chart shows why many of us are so inefficient. I’m definitely guilty of this one.

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Another insightful comic from XKCD, via Abnormal Returns.

Top 10 Best Dirt Cheap Beater Car Models?

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In 2006, Jay Lamm organized the first 24 Hours of LeMons (official site, Wikipedia) in which cars picked off the street that cost under $500 (not counting safety equipment) raced each other for 24 hours straight. The name and format parodies the legendary and prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans racing series. A penalty might involve welding a huge metal sculpture on your roof to increase weight and air drag. Racing accessible to the masses and a sense of humor? Awesome.

In a recent Car and Driver article, they listed the most successful models after 8 seasons and 104 races. I figure, if you want to know if a car model is durable, race it for 24 hours straight. Here are the top 10:

  1. Volvo 240
  2. 1984–1993 Mercedes-Benz 190
  3. ’90s RWD Lexus (SC300/400, LS400)
  4. Alfa Romeo Milano
  5. Mazda Miata
  6. Acura Integra
  7. 1984–1991 BMW 3-series
  8. Ford Taurus (mostly SHOs)
  9. Ford Festiva
  10. Mazda B-platform (Mazda 323/Protegé, 1991–1996 Ford Escort/1989–1994 Mercury Capri)

The Volvo 240 has gained a near-mythological reputation for reliability, with many claims of 300,000+ miles and 20+ years. (Start noticing how many you still see on the road, even though the last model year was 1994!) Forget owning a Prius, roll up in a 240 and you’ll have some frugal cred. No longer Swedish-owned and losing market share, Volvo’s most recent commercial is still trying to live off the reputation of this model:

I’m not familiar with the Alfa Romeo listed, but otherwise these are older cars that appear to have been designed and engineered with tolerances such that they can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. Older Benz and Lexus models were known for this. Given the race parameters, perhaps it also means that they can be fixed with a standard tools and parts that don’t cost a fortune.

Awesome Travel Hack That Turned Economy Seats into a Flat Bed For Two

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Ever watch those commercials for Singapore or Emirates Airlines with beautiful people sleeping on luxurious beds while flying across time zones? Jason Blum, a film producer known for the Paranormal Activity franchise, figured out a way to get ‘er done without paying over $10,000 a seat, via Businessweek.:

When Jason Blum and his wife flew to Morocco last year, they could have gone first class. The cost, though, was $22,000. And Blum, possibly the most profitable movie producer in Hollywood, never pays full price when a cheaper alternative will do.

Instead, Blum bought a row of seats in coach for $1,800. He obtained the measurements of the legroom void in front of these seats and had a custom, trapezoidal air mattress built for $500. He packed this contraption into his carry-on. Once airborne, he inflated it, creating a combined seat/air-mattress surface large enough to sleep next to his wife. Estimated savings: $19,700.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any photos by Blum. It was probably similar to the SkyCouch from Air New Zealand:

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But that has very limited availability, so I think it’d be cool if he started selling those custom air mattresses to the rest of us!