DIY Gift Idea: Yummy Stuff in Trendy Glass Jars

Forgive me frugalistas, but I’ve only recently discovered the retro trend that I call YSIJ – Yummy Stuff in Jars. A friend of ours recently provided homemade passionfruit butter in classic Ball glass jar, which was awesome. Another friend gave us this cookie mix from Williams-Sonoma, which they sell for $19.95:

Upon closer inspection, it’s a Weck jar, which you can buy for under $4 at Crate and Barrel. Aren’t they sexy?

So for a nice DIY gift for well under $10, simply find/create/steal an awesome cookie or brownie recipe and leave out the butter and eggs. Layer the remaining dry ingredients all pretty-like in the jar, stick a nice rustic-looking label on it, add a bow from extra fabric, and you’re done. You don’t even need wrapping paper. Make them in bulk.

You could also bake something that keeps for a while and put it inside – candied nuts, toffee, trail mix, etc. Or cook something like grandma’s marinara sauce. Or actually preserve something, which I have never tried beyond some easy pickles. After they ingest your gift of love via food, they’re still left with a cool reusable jar.

p.s. These glass bottles with stoppers look like great gift ideas too, even better if you can add a homemade drink to put inside.

(End Martha Stewart Hipster mode.)

What Is Your Holstee Manifesto?

Apparently I completely missed this when it first became popular, but the Holstee Manifesto is a set of ideals put forth by the founders of Holstee, a small apparel company which only sells environmentally-conscious and sustainably-sourced products. (Holstee = Holster + Tee, which I don’t think is even sold anymore.) I discovered it today only due to a LivingSocial deal selling a large poster print for $30, designed by Rachael Beresh.

My favorite line is actually “If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.” (Although it didn’t happen to me… I was just working a part-time gig to help pay for college.)

What would my own manifesto include? Definitely something about freedom, but that could be taken as similar to doing what you love and following your passion. The difference is that I also appreciate being able to do required and difficult things, as long as I get to do it my way. I hope that made sense.

Instead, I suppose I’d add that if you want to “Keep up with the Joneses”, well, the truth is the Joneses are nearly broke, live paycheck-to-paycheck, and will work until they are quite old. Being different than the Joneses is the only way to go; there are many ways to do so but you have to pick one and be *proud* of it.

Fix Your Stuff: Repair Cafes, Fix-It Collectives, and Free Online Repair Manuals

These days when you inquire about repairing something, you’re often confronted with a $50-$100 minimum diagnostic charge with no guarantee that it’ll be fixed. Combine this with carefully planned obsolescence by the manufacturers, and it’s no wonder that people tend to throw things away rather than fix them.

I was reading an AARP magazine article (yes, I read AARP magazine) about a growing chain of Repair Cafes in Amsterdam, where volunteers gather and help you repair your things from appliances to furniture to mending clothing. I think it’s a great idea for people to share their skills and help each other out in the community. Also profiled recently in the NY Times. My skilled 4-Her wife mends my clothing all the time, albeit reluctantly as she’d rather me look like I fell out of a J. Crew catalog…

I was also happy to find out that there are some local groups in the US doing similar things. It might be cool to volunteer at one, even if just to learn how to fix various things.

There are also many online guides to fixing your own stuff. Check out, their Self-Repair Manifesto, and their goal to make a free repair manual for every device out there from cars to iPhones.

[Read more…]

Stop Delivery of Physical Phone Books –

Visit to stop the delivery of those huge phone books. The site is reasonably easy-to-use, although they ask for a phone number and I chose not to provide my real phone number to an industry based on unsolicited advertising. I don’t have a landline anyway, so I don’t see why they should require it. It would be nice if they made the process opt-in, but I know that’s wishful thinking.

I’m sad to say I missed this up until now, and the last few phone books have gone straight from my doorstep to the recycling bin. If you don’t use printed yellow pages, fight the behavioral tendency to do nothing and opt-out today!

Digital Postal Mail / Zumbox Review

Digital Post Mail, formerly just known as Zumbox, is a service that tries to turn all your physical mail into digital format. Hat tip to reader Christina. My first reaction was that it seems very similar to According to TechCrunch, Digital Post Mail has been around for a few years and just received another round of venture capital.

I signed up for the service, and since I already did a detailed review of Manilla, I’ll just share what I see as the main differences between Manilla and and Zumbox:

Zumbox allows you to keep getting both physical and digital mail concurrently. When you link a new provider on Zumbox, you will get a digital version of your mail but your snail mail will keep coming. You can opt-in to go paperless if you want, but it’s not required. With Manilla, once you start accepting paperless bills they will automatically convert you to digital-only (they store everything online so you can still print out the bills if you wish). For both services, they make money by charging a small fee to the provider as they save money on printing and mailing things to you.

Currently, Manilla has more providers available to their service. Zumbox seems to have added many of the major providers (Citi, Chase, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast), but not as many as Manilla. For example, Manilla has State Farm Insurance and my local electric company, and Zumbox does not. Hopefully, the gap will narrow quickly.

Zumbox confirms your mailing address by sending you a verification code via snail mail. Manilla does not, relying only on online logins and passwords. By doing this, Zumbox is able to match your address with all the other organizations that have you on their mailings list, including things like charities and catalog providers. I haven’t finished this process yet, but it’ll be interesting to see what they match me up with and if I can cut down on the junk mail (sorry USPS!).

The Morals of Epictetus: Stoic Philosophy and Personal Finance

I’m still working my way through Poor Charlie’s Almanack about the teachings of Charlie Munger. The book is very dense with broad ideas and includes references to many scientists, businesspeople, and ancient philosophers I’ve never heard of before.

One of these ancient philosophers was Epictetus, who was born a slave but eventually became free and taught philosophy in Rome and Greece. I couldn’t find the “morals” found in the book listed in the same manner elsewhere, so I wanted to share them below. The bolded sentences are English translations of his writings, and after that are my personal notes and interpretations.

First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak. Don’t open your big yap unless you know what you’re talking about. This seems to have changed to “open your yap all day long without knowing anything, and you’ll get your own show on television.”

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has. Appreciate all the many things you have before you complain about the things you don’t have.

If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid. Let others teach you. It’s better to look stupid for a while than actually be stupid forever.

[Read more…]

Do I Have An Obsession With Early Retirement?

After my post counting down my years until early retirement earlier this week, I received a very thoughtful e-mail from reader Tim:

I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for a long time, and think it’s one of the best out there for your mix of personality, short-term and long-term financial tips and advice. But one thing bothers me: the ongoing, almost central theme (obsession?) with early retirement. It seems to be the goal around which everything else in the blog revolves and leads toward.

Why is that? Do you hate your job so much, and can’t even imagine a job you would enjoy enough that you would want to do it whether you were paid or not? It doesn’t strike me that someone as industrious, curious and intellectually active as yourself would really ever retire. I understand there may be other activities you’d like to pursue, but my guess is that most of them would be potentially income-generating. So you’d still have a “job.” And if that’s the case, then why not pursue one or more of those things now, rather than delaying them until “retirement?”

It seems to me that “MyMoneyBlog” is likely one of those things, and I’m very glad you’re doing it. And if one reason is the hope to fully monetize the blog to the point of retirement from your nine-to-five job, then I hope you do that too.

But still, something about that recurrent theme of retiring just leaves me with a hollow, dead feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if we’re all inmates marking time on the wall of a dreary prison cell until our release. Maybe it’s the implied resignation to the assumption that joyless jobs are unavoidable – a bitter fact of life – that I reject. I just don’t like to think that as a society we accept a lifetime of delayed gratification as a given, and don’t rouse ourselves to do anything more about it than make sound financial plans to enjoy ourselves when the pain finally stops.

There are some great questions in there, and really it also showed me that I can improve on explaining my philosophies. I have all these ideas rattling around in my head, and not all of them reach the keyboard. My reply became rather long…

Definition of early retirement. I know that retirement is a very tricky word to use. For too many people, it conjures up images of playing golf and sitting around all day. Financial independence or financial freedom are better terms, and they all mean the same thing to me – I get to do whatever I want. Cook a new dish every day, rebuild a Land Rover Defender or Willys Jeep, volunteer, spend a year abroad, anything. F— You money.

Delayed gratification. Going back to the early retirement curve, a major assumption is that your current expenses are the same as your future expenses. Let’s say your household earns $80k and lives on $40k. Well, that curve assumes you’ll be living on $40k in “retirement” as well. Using a food analogy, getting there is not a crash diet, but requires a permanent change to healthier eating habits. I don’t feel deprived with my current lifestyle as it pertains to spending, otherwise it wouldn’t be sustainable.

A job that I would do forever? I’ve thought about this. Let’s try to design the best job possible. To start, it should satisfy this Career Venn diagram which reminds us to seek the intersection of things that we do well, things that pay well, and things we like to do. In addition, it should provide all the factors that make a job satisfying beyond money: autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward.

Does my current job cause me pain? Does my wife’s job? Not really, we are white-collar professionals so we have a certain degree of autonomy and challenge to our work. But we also have managers, meetings, clients, and politics.

Is there any such ideal job that exists? Honestly, if it had to pay $50k a year and 40 hours a week, probably not for me. I am the type of person that likes to do something for a while, and then move on to something else. Even self-employment has it’s own set of restrictions. Even though blogging is a sweet gig :), having income that depends on advertising is very volatile.

This is where financial freedom comes in, because it means more flexibility. I have realized over time that I will probably need to do something, and that is a big reason why I am happy with a 4% safe withdrawal rate. All the academic studies that calculate this withdrawal rate stuff assume that a theoretical person blindly takes out 4% inflation-adjusted to the CPI every single year. From reading experiences of real early retirees, they adjust and adapt.

Let’s say we want that 4% withdrawal rate to create $40,000 of income from investments, but it ends up that 3% is a more reasonable number. Now, I need to find a job that pays $10,000 a year. I could do all kinds of things that would be kind of cool for $10,000 a year, and I wouldn’t have to work 40 hours a week either. I could do just about anything – web design, tutor high school or college students, teach English in a foreign country, apprentice with a skilled craftsman, or work as a travel guide.

Indeed, the possibilities are endless. One day, if the stars align, we will have children. At that point, we plan on downshifting to working part-time so that we can both enjoy raising kids without all the financial stress that our parents had. Our portfolio can already cover half of our expenses. Once the kids go to school, there will be more time for work, if needed. In the end, I would say that I am obsessed with freedom and autonomy.

Selling Unwanted Gift Cards For Cash: Price Comparison

Updated with current price quotes for 2012!

Now, I always love every gift card that I get… 😉 but what if you’re trying to simplify your life and wanted to convert your gift card to good ole’ fungible cash?

Well, the “old-fashioned” way was to sell them on eBay. A couple years ago, I tested out eBay and found estimated eBay cash-out ratios after eBay auction costs and Paypal transaction fees ranged from 81% for Gap gift cards to 90% for Amazon gift certificates. However, the eBay route adds in hassle and potential for fraud. What if some buyer from across the country says your card arrived empty?

A bunch of new websites have popped up that (1) provide upfront quotes for your gift cards, (2) provide a prepaid mailer to send in your cards, and (3) send you a check. The most popular ones appear to be Cardpool,,, and GiftCardRescue. Many of these go even further and offer things like online redemption using the codes on the back of the certain cards, and instant payouts via PayPal or via gift certificates.

However, I just wanted to run a simple comparison of what different card-buying websites would offer in straight-up cash for a $100 gift card at various retailers. I’m ignoring any swap-style sites, and also sites like CardWoo that make you mail in the card first without any upfront pricing quotes (why would I do that? sounds like an awful idea). Here are the results, updated for 2012:

Gift Card Website Comparison ($100 Face Value, Updated 2012)



Plastic Jungle

$92 $92 $91 $85
$83 $83 $86 $80
$83 $83 $83 $72
$75 $75 $72 $70


When I first ran this comparison in December 2011, the website that offered the highest prices, on average, was However, as of January 2012 the overall winners are Cardpool and PlasticJungle. In either case, none of them had the highest prices across the board so if you can spare the time, trying each of the sites out may earn you a few more bucks. In the end, I would say that these sites do provide a useful service, as the payouts are often even better than what you could net after fees by selling directly on eBay.

The cards to stores that have the broadest appeal like Target and Home Depot have the best cash-out ratios. Something to think about next time you want to buy your buddy a gift card from

I found it interesting that none of the sites wanted to buy an gift certificate from me, as they historically have a very high resale value. I’m guessing that Amazon forbids this somehow, or perhaps you can’t check the balance without adding it to a user’s account?

Graham Hill: Less Stuff, More Happiness (TED Talk)

Here’s a TED Talk I just found by Graham Hill about simple living. Try to find something that you can apply to your life in a positive manner, instead of pointing out ways it won’t work. It’s unlikely any of us will live in a place as organized as his. A quick intro:

Can having less stuff, in less room, lead to more happiness? He makes the case for taking up less space, and lays out three rules for editing your life.

What If Time Was Currency? Don’t Waste Your Time

In Time is a new sci-fi movie about a future where science has figured out how to stop the aging process. To prevent overpopulation, the solution was to allow everyone to live to age 25, and then give them one year to live. Time has replaced money as currency. If you don’t earn more time, then you die. The rich effectively live forever. A cup of coffee costs 4 minutes. The trailer is below:

This storyline made me think of the almost frugal-cult-classic book Your Money or Your Life (get it used for $3 shipped). One of the concepts inside is that working is the same as exchanging your life energy for money. Let’s say you earn a solid living, $25 an hour after taxes. But then there is all the stuff attached – the commute, the clothes, the lunches, the stress (need for vacations and drinks after work). You might really be earning $20 a hour.

If your rent is $1,000, you’re spending 50 hours each month just to pay for that. An iPad costs $500, 25 hours of work. If you spend $100 a month on wasteful things that you really don’t enjoy, that’s another 5 hours of your life every month. In a way, we are sacrificing our lives for money. Sure, you may not die any sooner, but you’ll be spending that much less time on what you really want to do. It just happens so gradually and indirectly, we don’t notice. Try pricing everything out in terms of your real hourly wage. (A cup of coffee might actually cost more than 4 minutes.) Try adding up all the money you’ve ever made, and calculate your net worth to see how much you actually kept.

If you concentrate on maximizing the gap between expenses and income, one day your income from your investments will match your expenses. That’s financial independence.

Steve Jobs said in a great commencement speech that we should find work that we love. Most of us don’t love our work in the way that if we didn’t get paid, we would still go out and do it. Amazingly, he did. If you’re like me and are still having trouble with that, then at least we can reach for the day when we can simply do what we love because we don’t need more money.

Either way, don’t waste your time.

Book Review: The 4-Hour Workweek Expanded Edition

I recently finished re-reading the updated edition of the popular book The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. I read it quickly when it first came out in 2007 or so, but this time I think was more ready for the message.

In the last lifestyle book I read, The Art of Non-Conformity, the goal was to find a convergence between your work and your passion. Ferriss goes the opposite way and clearly separates them. Forget “dream job”, matching your true dreams with a job is too hard for most people. Instead, the ideal job is the one that gives you enough money in exchange for the least amount of time. Now you can pursue your dreams.

This is a critical difference. The overarching goal is now to create automated income and free up time.

Highlights & Notes

Motivation and getting started. The timing will never be just right. Just go for it and correct course as needed. The price of failure is often low, while the price of never trying is often high.

Creating your own income. Includes various ideas on starting your own business with the goal of high income and low time commitment. Resell someone else’s products. License a product. Create your own product. Physical objects are okay, but informational products are even better if you can pull it off. Ferriss himself made his first big money by selling nutritional supplements using ads in magazines. (Not exactly a product to be proud of, which I guess fits into his point above. Good thing he’s great at marketing.)

Shifting from 9-5. Let’s say you don’t want to quit your current job yet. The goal is again to separate work from time. If you can do the work that you spread out over 40 cubicle hours in just 20 hours at home, that will create a lot of free time for you to start that side business. For some, this may be enough to start pursuing your other dreams. Detailed instructions on how to negotiate a remote-working arrangement, starting with a two-week trial and reaching a full-time remote situation.

Time management. As said elsewhere, it’s critical to stop wasting your time and energy on things are really aren’t important. Being busy is not necessarily the same as being productive. Cut out interruptions, stop time-wasters like checking e-mail all the time, and batch tasks together.

Have others work for you. Hire virtual assistants from India. They aren’t just drones, if you teach them a system and allow them to use their own discretion, they can really remove a lot of your workload. Outsource whatever you can, remember that you’re not trying just to maximize profit.

What if I actually succeed? How will you spend your time? Instead of the potentially vague pursuit of “happiness”, he asks why not simply pursue what excites you and makes you feel alive. Ferriss enjoys “mini-retirements” where he does long-term international traveling. People also tend to find satisfaction with tasks that require continuously learning and/or include helping others.


Even though sometimes I have the urge to go against popular opinion, especially when the author’s primary skill seems to be marketing, I have to say that I really enjoyed reading this book. For me, it provided a good balance of big picture theory and practical advice. As with any book of this type, 99% of the readers won’t be able to actually attain a 4-hour workweek. But in return for ten bucks and a few nights of reading, I definitely felt I got good value.

I would recommend anyone who has the entrepreneurial urge to read this book, and I’m keeping my copy around because the included companies and links are useful for future reference.

Minimizing Your Personal Inflation Rate

Inflation. Deflation. Hyperinflation. It’s all people seem to talk about these days. I’m always reading that you should always consider your investment returns after inflation. But what is inflation? Most of the time, they are talking about the Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers (CPI-U) published monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is based on the price of a theoretical basket of goods. Here are the components of the CPI, made into a nice pie chart by from this recent BLS CPI report.

However, common sense tells us that we do not all share the same inflation rate. A long-distance trucker will be much more sensitive to the price of gas than a couple living in Manhattan. A grandmother who has owned her home since 1940 and doesn’t plan on moving doesn’t notice if rents are rising 3% or 6% a year. The CPI could have very little correlation to your personal inflation rate.

In addition, it’s possible to manage our own personal inflation rates by changing our behavior or making some upfront investments. Let’s take a look at the largest components of the CPI.

Housing (42%)
This category includes the cost of rent (or owner’s equivalent cost) as well as utilities like gas and electricity. The most obvious way to deal with inflation is to own a house, either directly or via mortgage. With a 30-year fixed mortgage, your monthly payment is going to stay the same, and your total housing payment is only going to vary a bit as your insurance and property taxes go up. My neighbor used to have a mortgage of $300 a month.

As for utilities, a solution I plan to install is solar photovoltaic (PV)panels. In most states, you can sell back the electricity you generate with solar panels throughout the day, so that it cancels out your entire electricity bill. With a large enough system, you will never have a power bill again. Here is a helpful PDF consumer’s guide on solar systems from the Department of Energy.

The large upfront cost can be defrayed with federal and state tax credits, and the panels come with (about) a 25-year warranty. Other parts, like the inverter, come with a 10-year warranty. If you have the space you could also install a windmill, or contract electricity from other sources.

If you live in an especially hot/cold climate and much of your expense is cooling/heating, a very important area is insulation.

Transportation (17%)
This category includes the cost of vehicles, public transportation, and fuel. I plan on owning all my cars for at 10 years each, so even though it will catch up to me eventually, the annualized cost should remain reasonable. Avoiding the hit of depreciation during the early years, either buy buying used or holding for a long time, is important.

As for fuel, again I plan on using my solar panels to create electricity for my plug-in electric vehicle. Range is currently an issue, but as battery technology improves, I expect that it will be feasible for most households to own at least one electric vehicle.

Food & Beverages (15%)
This category includes food at home, dining out, and also alcohol. Why not grow some of your own food? We are starting to dabble in square-foot gardening, which involves planting small, efficient gardens that use minimal water, pesticides, and labor. Dining out is one of those expenses that is almost all for pleasure and convenience, so if it becomes hurtful then we’ll cut back. I’ve already been cutting back on the alcohol for waistline reasons.

Education & Communication (6%)
I’m not sure why these two are lumped together, but I really don’t see communication costs rising very much in the future. It would appear that data transfer is only going to get faster and cheaper. On the other hand, education costs continue to skyrocket. (Okay, now I see why they are together… sneaky) Even though this is only 6% of the CPI, if you have kids then tuition prices are likely a huge concern. If you don’t have kids (and are done with school), then you don’t care at all.

There are still some limited opportunities for prepaid college tuition out there, which are worth exploring if you accept the penalties for not following their restrictions. An example is the Florida Prepaid college plan.

Any other ideas for controlling your personal inflation rate?