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.

Recap

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 dshort.com 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?

Fitness Resolution? Don’t Join A Gym Until February

New year, same old goals. 🙂 This January, don’t sign up for an expensive gym membership with a contract, or buy a $500+ treadmill that ends up collecting dust. Yes, these might really help you achieve a healthier body, but they could also be a huge waste of money. What people should really figure out first is if they really have the discipline and motivation to stick with any exercise program.

Before dropping any cash, try one of these free fitness programs first. You don’t have to finish, just follow it for all of January. Studies have shown that it takes at least 30 days to create new habits. If you can’t even run around your neighborhood three times a week for a month, why would you buy yourself a treadmill?

I’m sure there’s more good stuff online, please share in the comments. To better health!

Peer-to-Peer Renting: Lease Your Stuff to Strangers, Hopefully Buy Less Stuff

Recent articles in the New York Times and BusinessWeek magazine talked about the growing emergence of websites where individuals can rent out their belonging to other strangers, coining the new term “collaborative consumption”. I like the idea. Not only can you make some extra money renting out your stuff when you aren’t using it, but as a borrower that means you need to buy less stuff as well. In addition, people can use it as a “test-drive” to try out things like a certain model car or an iPad. Here’s a list of websites in this area, please let me know any that I’ve missed.

RelayRides
Peer-to-peer car rentals! Rent your car to strangers by the hour. Started in Boston and now available in San Francisco Bay Area as well. Free to join, and renters start with $25 free driving credit. Prices are cheaper than competitors like ZipCar, which owns their own private fleet. Claims that owners can make $250 a month on average renting out their vehicles. Rates include gas and insurance.

Similar: Spride Share (currently in SF Bay Area), WhipCar (UK),

Airbnb
Rent out extra rooms in your house (or the entire house, a castle, or private island…). Free to sign up. Set your own prices and availability. Airbnb facilitates all bookings and financial transactions. They already have over 50,000 properties in 10,000 cities.

Similar: ParkatmyHouse (rent out driveway or garage space in crowded areas)

Zilok
Technically you can rent out anything on this site, but it has specific categories for cars, vacation sites, power tools, and event rentals. You can rent from businesses or individuals. Looks like a PS3 is going for $20-$25 a day.

Similar: SnapGoods (newer, but more polished website), Rentalic

Share Some Sugar
Can I borrow a cup of sugar? You can also rent out anything on this site, but SSS seems to promote borrowing between people in the same neighborhood for free (with a refundable security deposit). After browsing a bit, I realize that I could use a lawn aerator, if only there was someone nearby with one available.

Similar: ShareZen (more for collaborative ownership of a plane, home, or boat), Skyara (a marketplace for “experiences”)

I suppose the main concern would be either theft or breakage of your property. Most sites have a user rating and feedback system similar to that of eBay, as well as security deposits. The car rental agencies do provide insurance, but I don’t believe the other sites do. In many cases, you can restrict your lending to members of your social network of friends via sites like Facebook.

Of course, the hardest thing about these sites is often getting the critical mass of adequate inventory to rent out to interested customers. Let’s hope one of these gains some traction. The one I want to use right now would be ParkatmyHouse. Combine their inventory with a real-time iPhone/Android app, and you could search for cheap parking almost anywhere. If you live where parking is scarce, you could profit from what is usually just a headache.

‘Tis The Season For Giving… Away Your Extra Stuff

It’s the Season of Giving, so why not give away the things you don’t need anymore? I think right now is even better than “Spring cleaning”. We just spent a chunk of this past weekend making a box of stuff to give to various charities. Here’s why, along with some tips:

  • Get started. In order to break out the Christmas or other holiday decorations, you’re already rummaging around the attic, basement, or garage. Don’t stop there! One helpful tip I read about recently was to get three big boxes and mark them Keep, Undecided, and Toss. Then you can just barrel through quickly without getting stuck on any single semi-sentimental object.
  • Full Closets? Most people probably have gone through all four seasons of 2010 and not worn a lot of their clothes. If you haven’t worn something in an entire year, it’s seriously time to consider donating it. This time of year, places are always looking for winter clothes like coats, gloves, and boots. If you need some extra spending money, sell your trendier stuff to vintage and thrift shops like Buffalo Exchange.
  • Getting kids involved. The young ones are probably very exciting about the incoming gifts. Now that they are a “big boy” or “big girl”, isn’t it time to look through their toy box and see what they don’t play with anymore? Santa may not bring them as much stuff if they don’t have any more room… 😉 Gently used toys can easily be donated, even if you can’t re-gift directly.
  • End-of-year tax deductions. If you donate by December 31st, you can claim any charitable donations as a tax deduction for your 2010 taxes and reap the benefits sooner (assuming you itemize). Here are a few donation valuation guides from a Salvation Army, another Salvation Army, and a Goodwill branch. I used ItsDeductible from the Intuti TurboTax folks last year and liked it.
  • Use the internet to maximize your effectiveness. Sites like Freecycle and Craiglist allow you to give your stuff away to someone who can actually use it. There are also many niche charities popping up here and there, specializing in redistributing everything from sporting goods to business clothes for job-seekers to partially used gift cards.

Take a break from the holiday accumulation frenzy and declutter instead. Even though I put it off as well, it always feels great afterward.

The Rat Race: Does This Cartoon Look Familiar?

ratracepolyp

Let’s get out of the race!

Image credit to artist Polyp. There’s also an animated version that made me nauseous (perhaps that was the point?).

Could You Own Less Than 100 Things?

Another topic I’ve been interested in is the 100 Thing Challenge started by Dave Bruno. If you read a lot of simplicity blogs you’ve probably already heard of it, but it’s a pretty simple idea: Live with only 100 personal possessions. You can always quibble about what is a “thing” – a pair of socks, or all your socks? Your nail clippers, or all toiletries? But you get the basic idea.

The goal of the 100 Thing Challenge is to break free from the confining habits of American-style consumerism. A lot people around the world feel “stuck in stuff.” They feel like their closets and garages are too full of things that don’t really make their lives much better. But how to get unstuck?

Reduce (get rid of some of your stuff)

Refuse (to get more new stuff)

Rejigger (your priorities)

Press coverage has included Time magazine, USA Today, and The Times (UK). Here are some lists of folk’s sub-100 inventories:

Seems like clothes usually take up at least 20 items. Since this challenge basically requires that as many things as possible be digitized, I’ve been eyeing out this $400 Fujitsu bulk scanner out… even though that would be a new thing.

Selling Back Really Old Textbooks Online

In the process of trying to minimize junk, I sold off some pretty old textbooks this week. It’s been over ten years since I first bought any of these books, and the last time I used them was probably about 7 years ago. I had saved them initially for the qualifying exams that PhD students must take early on in graduate school, and then later thought I might go back to school or use them as references at work. They also looked nice on my bookshelf and made me feel smart. 😉

I was about to throw them out since I figured they’d be five editions behind by now and wouldn’t be worth anything, but a quick search ended getting me about $10 per book.

Compare Offer Prices
After looking around, the easiest place to start seemed to be the price comparison engine at BigWords.com. You simply enter all the ISBN numbers at once to your virtual “bookbag”, and then click “Start Price Comparison”. The site then looks up the price offered by buyback sites like TextbooksRus, SellBackYourBook.com, Bookstores.com, Cash4Books.net, FirstClassBooks, Valore Books, and eCampus.

They also look up current lowest asking prices at sites where you can sell it yourself, like TextbookX Marketplace, Amazon.com, Half.com, and TextbooksRus. In some cases like the one below, a buyback site actually offered more than these middlemen before their commissions.

Another option I considered was to drive to the nearest college campus bookstore and run the books through each of their databases, but I decided it wasn’t worth the time and gas for me. This would obviously be much easier for current students.

Book Buyback Online
I just wanted to get rid of them in bulk and didn’t feel like maximizing my price for something that might never sell, so I just went with the highest offers from each of the buyback sites. In some cases, I had to group purchases because some sites had a minimum purchase amount (i.e. they won’t buy less than $15 of books from you).

All the sites had a similar process, and were very simple to deal with. You add the books you want to sell, and then print out a packing slip and prepaid mailing label. Most pay for USPS media mail, although some offer FedEx or other faster service. I just had to drop them off at the post office since they weighed more than a pound. Once they receive and process the books, they then cut you a check (some offer bank direct deposit or PayPal). I haven’t received my checks yet, but the sites listed appear to be reputable.

Let me know if you know of a better way to offload your unwanted old textbooks.

Planned vs. Perceived Obsolescence

I recently watched the film Story of Stuff, which is a film about the lifecycle of material goods. While the video has its biases and has thus become politically controversial, I still think the video is worth viewing with a critical mind. There is some good debate on the film’s Wikipedia page, I don’t want to get into it here.

One thing that I did like was her discussion of planned vs. perceived obsolescence. Here are the definitions from the film glossary:

Planned obsolescence: designing and producing products in order for them to be used up (obsolete) within a specific time period. Products may be designed for obsolescence either through function, like a paper coffee cup or a machine with breakable parts, or through “desirability,” like a piece of clothing made for this year’s fashion and then replaced by something totally different next year. Planned obsolescence is also known as “design for the dump.”

Perceived obsolescence: the part of planned obsolescence that refers to “desirability”. In other words, an object may continue to be functional, but it is no longer perceived to be stylish or appropriate, so it is rendered obsolete by perception, rather than by function. Fashion is all about perceived obsolescence, and it could be said that perceived obsolescence is the number one “product” of the advertising industry.

Non-Consumer Alarm!
This made me think about how companies have made easy it is to identify “non-consumers”, which usually leads to them being mocked somehow. Let’s take cars. Models change very often, even if just slightly, so it’s very easy to tell that my car is 10 or 15 years old. My wife and I are often told by our friends and family that our cars don’t match our job titles/income levels. Same with cell phones. If your phone doesn’t have at least a QWERTY keyboard these days, it’s a freaking antique.

As for clothes, I’m always happy that I’m a guy because my closet of long-sleeved dress shirts, cotton polo shirts, slightly baggy jeans, and cargo shorts have managed to last me for over a decade now. Meanwhile, to be a mainstream woman, you went from flare jeans to low-ride jeans to the new thing – skinny jeans. I won’t even go into shoes (UGGs??).

Try it next time you’re in a crowded area, at work, or visit someone’s house. See if you can pick out who hasn’t bought the newest version of something in the last few years.

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Creating a Completely Automated Financial Household

Meet Bill and Jan. They are my imaginary couple that loves putting their personal finances on auto-pilot. They don’t worry about bill due dates, they never visit the bank, and only check their balances online once a month if there are no e-mail alerts sent to them. (Apparently they also don’t have lips or eyes, so it works well for them…) Let’s take a look at how they do it!

Income
Bill and Jan both elected to receive their regular income via direct deposit, so there are no checks to deposit. Even though Jan does some freelancing, she gets paid via PayPal, which she sets to automatically sweep any money into their bank account at the end of each business day. This feature is called Auto Sweep and is not heavily advertised, you must contact PayPal directly to enable it.

Long-Term Savings
Like everyone else, their 401(k) plans are funded via an automatic deferral each payday. For their Roth IRA, they simply take out $500 per month via an automatic transfer from their checking account for 10 months, which can be set up easily at Vanguard.com or any other major mutual fund provider. If you like individual stocks or ETFs, try automatic investing at ShareBuilder.

Short-Term Savings
For their annual vacation and other savings goals, they have an automatic transfer from their checking to an online savings account like the original Capital One Consumer Bank.

They do keep a certain buffer amount in their checking account, similar to this simple budgeting method. If the balance falls too low for any reason, an e-mail and text message alert are sent to both of them.

Housing
If they had a mortgage, most lenders will happily set up an automatic ACH from bank account each month. If they wanted to set up a biweekly payment plan and it isn’t free, they could simply take out 1/12th of their monthly mortgage payment each month automatically into Capital One 360. Once a year, they send one full mortgage payment to their lender.

If they rented, they would set their Online Billpay service to send a snail-mail check automatically each month and deduct the amount from the bank account.

Utilities
Most utility companies will allow to you sign up for them to automatically withdraw the full bill amount from your bank account. Contact them directly, and when available use your credit card to earn some extra rewards.

Insurance
Instead of dealing with large payments either annually or semi-annually, they have signed up for State Farm Payment Plan (SFPP), which groups their insurance premiums and divides them into one single monthly payment which is taken from their bank account. Check with your insurer to see if they have something similar.

Credit Card Bills
Most large credit cards issuers allow you to sign up a service like Citi’s AutoPay, where you can have the full amount sucked out of your bank account each month. Since the Citi Forward Card gives you 5x rewards on restaurants and Amazon.com, this most of their disposable income as well. To find it, go to CitiCards.com> (Login) > Payments Tab > Enroll in AutoPay.

What else?
With all this set up, all Bill and Jan have to do is show up for work and spend their money wisely. Is there anything else that could make their life even more easy? I thought about using an online grocery store like Peapod, where you can access past orders and possibly create default orders which you only tweak slightly each month.

Motivational Mental Accounting: Work More, Play More?

After a busy long weekend*, I am now a PADI Open Water “certified diver”. It was nice to check off a “To-Do Before You Die” item, although it did cost nearly $500 if you include all the related costs. The cool thing was that while talking with the dive shop folks, I learned that they needed some website help, and they were willing to pay me with some free dives/gear in exchange. Barter! This was interesting, because diving is a very expensive hobby. I was mainly looking to dive the Great Barrier Reef someday, but now I might be able to dive even more than that.

Now, I can directly exchange (extra) work for play. This begs the question: Is it a good idea to use your desire for something enjoyable in order to motivate yourself to work harder? For example, you may try to follow all of the common advice:

  • Pay off all credit card or consumer debt.
  • Have emergency funds for cushion.
  • Spend less than 30% of income on housing.
  • Max out your 401k and IRA.

For most people, this doesn’t leave all that much left for other stuff. At the same time, most of my friends are so tired from the daily 8-5 grind that they have no interest in doing anything “extra” for more money. This might be as small as doing a paid survey for a few bucks, or as big as starting a new business on the side.

When I start lacking motivation, sometimes I try and focus on something short-term and luxurious that I want. In the past, it might have been a gadget. These days, it’s mainly an experience like travel or some sort of lessons (ex. ski, scuba, flying). I tell myself “$1,000 will buy me a flight to Thailand.” I am starting to label my “real job income” as taking care of the current basics and the long-term future (retirement), while my side income pays for the “fun”.

Does anyone else do this? Isn’t this another form of mental accounting? If money is fungible, then you can’t really assign labels to specific income sources. To me, it is using mental accounting, but I’m twisting it to my advantage. 🙂

* I was going to use the term “action-packed”, but given the circumstances I just hope all the Gustav-watchers are safe and sound.