William Bernstein and Safe Withdrawal Rates

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A recurring theme in investing is that you start out learning the simple basics, then you feel like you can optimize things and spend a lot of effort trying to do so, and eventually you realize that simple is probably just fine. No matter how closely you mine the past, you can’t predict the future. As the Buffett quote goes, “If past history was all there was to the game, the richest people would be librarians.” That’s what came to mind when I read William Bernstein on safe withdrawal rates in retirement:

Even the most sophisticated retirement projections contain so much uncertainty that the entire process can be summarized as follows: Below the age of 65, a 2% spending rate is bulletproof, 3% is probably safe, and 4% is taking chances. Above 5%, you’re taking an increasingly serious risk of dying poor. (For each five years above 65, add perhaps half of a percentage point to those numbers.)

Source: The Ages of the Investor: A Critical Look at Life-cycle Investing.

Something to keep in mind when you become obsessed about getting from a 98% success rate to a 99% success rate on a simple retirement calculator from Vanguard or a fancy one like FIRECalc. (Not that I’ve done that, ever, of course…)

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The Role of Luck in Long-Term Investing, and When To Stop Playing The Game

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I am re-reading a series called “Investing for Adults” by William Bernstein. By “Investing for Adults”, Bernstein means that he assumes that you already know the basics of investing and that he can skip to more advanced insights. There are four parts:

A commonly-cited part of the first book The Ages of the Investor is the question “Once you have won the game, why keep playing?”. If you have enough money to buy a set of safe assets like inflation-adjusted annuities, delayed (and thus increased) Social Security payments, and a TIPS ladder to create enough income payments for life, you should seriously considering selling your risky assets and do exactly that. (This is referred to as a liability-matching portfolio, or LMP. You can keep investing any excess funds in risky assets, if you wish.)

A wrinkle to this plan is that you won’t know exactly when the stock market will help make that happen. Before you reach your “number”, you’ll most likely be buying stocks and hoping they grow in value. Let’s say you saved 20% of your salary and invested it in the S&P 500*. How long would it take you to “win the game”?

Historically, it could be as little at 19 years or as long as 37. That’s nearly a two-decade difference in retirement dates! Same savings rate, different outcomes.

This paradigm rests on too many faulty assumptions to list, but it still illustrates a valid point: You just don’t know when you’re going to achieve your LMP, and when you do, it’s best to act.

If, at any point, a bull market pushes your portfolio over the LMP “magic number” of 20 to 25 times your annual cash-flow needs beyond Social Security and pensions, you’ve won the investing game. Why keep playing? Start bailing.

If you don’t act, the market might drop and it could take years to get back to your number again. This is one of the reasons why some people should not be holding a lot of stocks as they near retirement. Some people might need the stock exposure because the upside is better than the downside (they don’t have enough money unless stocks do well, or longevity risk), but for others the downside is worse than the upside (they DO have enough money unless stocks do poorly, or unnecessary market risk).

I find the concept of a risk-free liability-matching portfolio (LMP) much harder to apply to early retirement, as it is nearly impossible to create a truly guaranteed inflation-adjusted lifetime income stream that far into the future. Inflation-adjusted annuities are rare, expensive, and you’re betting that the insurer also lasts for another 50+ years if you’re 40 years old now. Social Security is subject to political risk and may become subject to means-testing. TIPS currently have negative real yields across the entire curve, and only go out to 30 years. (As Bernstein explores in future books, you’ll also have to avoid wars, prolonged deflation, confiscation, and other “deep risk” events.)

* Here are the details behind the chart:

As a small thought experiment, I posited imaginary annual cohorts who began work on January 1 of each calendar year, and who then on each December 31 invested 20% of their annual salary in the real return series of the S&P 500. I then measured how long it took each annual cohort, starting with the one that began work in 1925, to reach a portfolio size of 20 years of salary (which constitutes 25 years of their living expenses, since presumably they were able to live on 80% of their salary). Figure 11 shows how long it took each cohort beginning work from 1925 to 1980 to reach that retirement goal.

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The Subtle Art of Caring About Fewer, Better Things (Book Notes)

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With it’s loud title and bright orange cover, this book has been on the “recommended” list of my Audible and Kindle pages several times. However, when something tries so hard to get my attention, I instinctually tend to ignore it. I’m glad that I got over this initial reaction, as it ended up being full of useful old messages wrapped in new language.

Obviously, if you can’t tolerate reading a lot of expletives, you shouldn’t read something titled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson. You might not want to read this post either, as I’ll be including some excerpts and I’m too lazy to edit them out. F-bombs ahead!

This book isn’t about not caring at all. It’s about caring deeply about what matters to you, while ignoring what doesn’t.

I believe that today we’re facing a psychological epidemic, one in which people no longer realize it’s okay for things to suck sometimes.

You are constantly bombarded with messages to give a fuck about everything, all the time. Give a fuck about a new TV. Give a fuck about having a better vacation than your coworkers. Give a fuck about buying that new lawn ornament. Give a fuck about having the right kind of selfie stick. Why? My guess: because giving a fuck about more stuff is good for business.

The key to a good life is not giving a fuck about more; it’s giving a fuck about less, giving a fuck about only what is true and immediate and important.

So far in 2020, we have gotten an involuntary lesson on this topic. Some of the things we cared so much about were taken away, and we realize it didn’t really matter that much. Meanwhile, many things we took for granted are sorely missed. Simply sharing a coffee/beer with a group of friends in an outdoor cafe/bar. Instead of focusing on the negatives of various tasks, I realize many things that I should have appreciated.

The solution is to consciously choose and accept the hard problems that we want to solve.

Wanting positive experience is a negative experience; accepting negative experience is a positive experience. It’s what the philosopher Alan Watts used to refer to as “the backwards law”—the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place. The more you desperately want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make.

True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.

Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for. People who enjoy the struggles of a gym are the ones who run triathlons and have chiseled abs and can bench-press a small house. People who enjoy long workweeks and the politics of the corporate ladder are the ones who fly to the top of it. People who enjoy the stresses and uncertainties of the starving artist lifestyle are ultimately the ones who live it and make it.

Happiness is not a destination on a game board. You can’t achieve permanent happiness with a certain job title, net worth number, or any single act. We need to keep solving problems. It’s a continuous process that never ends. (As a goal-oriented person, I’m still rather disappointed in this, but I have come to realize it is true.) This is also why it helps to find something to care about greater than yourself.

Life isn’t fair. I also ran across this familiar poker analogy in the book:

We all get dealt cards. Some of us get better cards than others. And while it’s easy to get hung up on our cards, and feel we got screwed over, the real game lies in the choices we make with those cards, the risks we decide to take, and the consequences we choose to live with. People who consistently make the best choices in the situations they’re given are the ones who eventually come out ahead in poker, just as in life. And it’s not necessarily the people with the best cards.

Stop caring about the things that don’t matter. Find the things that do matter, and focus on those. Accept that bad things may happen to you out of your control, but realize you control your response. Take action. Keep taking action. Timeless advice, but good reminders all the same as it is easily forgotten.

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Tiny Beautiful Things: Knowing The Right Path But Afraid

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My favorite non-financial genre is nonfiction travel books, and after finishing the bestseller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, I quickly moved on to her compilation of life advice columns called Tiny Beautiful Things. As they were initially written anonymously, they were brutally honest yet compassionate.

Most people wrote to her in times of personal crisis, usually more emotional than financial, although money was often involved. Here are just a few of her insights and wisdom that I felt could be helpful:

Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.

Every mother has a different story, though we tend to group them together. We like to think that partnered moms have it good and single moms have it rough, but the truth is that we’re a diverse bunch. Some single mothers have lots of child-free time because their kids are regularly in the custody of their fathers. Some seldom get a break. Some partnered mothers split child-care duties with their spouses in egalitarian ways; others might as well be alone. Some mothers of both varieties have parents, siblings, and friends who play active roles in their children’s lives in ways that significantly lighten the load. Others have to pay for every hour another person looks after their kids. Some mothers, single or partnered, can’t afford to pay anyone for anything. Some can and do. Others can and won’t. Some are aided financially by parents, or trust funds, or inheritances; others are entirely on their own. The reality is that, regardless of the circumstances, most moms are alternately blissed out by their love for their children and utterly overwhelmed by the spectacular amount of sacrifice they require.

You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. I don’t say this as a condemnation—I need regular reminders to stop feeling sorry for myself too. I’m going to address you bluntly, but it’s a directness that rises from my compassion for you, not my judgment of you. Nobody’s going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead-end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.

There is no why. You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you’re holding. And, dear one, you and I both were granted a mighty generous hand.

I could put most of the letters I receive into two piles: those from people who are afraid to do what they know in their hearts they need to do, and those from people who have genuinely lost their way.

Don’t judge others. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Somehow this last quote keeps coming back to me. When we ask for advice, often we know the right path but are afraid to take it.

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Serious Eater: The Financial Details Behind Food Blog SeriousEats.com

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If comparing this blog to the restaurant world, I like to think of it as the stubborn Mom & Pop hole-in-the-wall with one location. It’s been around for a long time, but there are no second locations, no franchises, no frozen food line. It was never sold to a private equity firm or some publicly-traded corporation. It owns the building and the land underneath, so it can just keep on doing its own thing.

When I first saw the book Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption, I had no idea who Ed Levine was. I originally thought that Serious Eats was a little food blog run by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt as a side gig outside of his day job, just as I started MyMoneyBlog.com. I don’t live in New York and had read a few posts like their viral posts like the In-N-Out Menu Survival Guide and now use their reversed-sear prime rib recipe every year.

The truth is actually very different, and I quickly became engrossed in the story behind Serious Eats.

  • Instead of a young blogger working out of their tiny studio and a $10/month web-hosting package, Ed Levine was a former advertising executive in his 50s who started out immediately with a salary for himself, a salaried team, and an office space. This was possible due to a $500,000 loan from his older brother.
  • Instead of running lean and looking for profitability quickly, Serious Eats never made a profit from 2006 to 2015. It grew in viewership and gross revenue, but my understanding is that even when it was eventually sold, the advertising revenue never exceeded the running costs (salaries, office space, other overhead).

Ed Levine was obsessed with food and the stores behind it. You can get a taste of his energetic personality in this 1997 NYT Times article “On an Odyssey With the Homer Of Rugelach” by Ruth Reichl.

Her story in the Times called me the “missionary of the delicious.” Ruth described what I did better than I ever could: “Mr. Levine is on a crusade to see that the people who make food get the recognition they deserve. He sees them as creative artists waging a losing battle against mechanization, and he cheers them on.”

Serious Eats was definitely a passion project. However, Mr. Levine never excelled at the financial side. In fact, this was his first true business venture.

But that was before I understood a fundamental truth about individual investors: just because someone has made enough money to invest in a speculative venture like Serious Eats doesn’t mean they won’t be upset if they lose it. That goes double if they are family. People who have made money usually didn’t make it with a casual attitude about money in general.

However, he did raise a million dollars of startup money from family and friends, so you have to give him that. He had the charisma and infectious optimism that convinced people to bet on him:

And just like the folks at a victory party, we really felt we were on a mission: to change and democratize the food culture through food media without dumbing it down or pandering. Maybe art and commerce could coexist peacefully. Maybe they could even complement each other. Maybe my belief that creating good content could and would lead to financial success wasn’t as ridiculous as the money guys seemed to think.

Serious Eats grew in popularity. If you are at all interested in food, you’ve probably heard of it.

Back at Serious Eats World HQ some of our posts were going viral. Kenji chronicled in words and pictures the “In-N-Out Burger Survival Guide,” in which he ate every single item on its twenty-eight-item secret menu. That one post attracted 3.5 million unique visitors in the first year it was up.

However, they never really stopped burning through money. They missed the boom time of website sales before the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. They later tried to sell to a variety of different buyers in 2010 to 2011, but that was a slow period in media acquisitions.

Ed Levine went back and begged and borrowed money from every source imaginable. He borrowed even more money from his older brother, eventually making the total owed somewhere over $600,000 (I lost count). He accumulated $650,000 in personal debt that was straining his marriage, as it was backed by the New York apartment jointly owned with his wife. His wife Vicki later took on a margin loan backed by her personal stock holdings. Multiple close friends lent him $100,000 each. In other words, he was risking all of his closest personal relationships.

In fact, the most harrowing details I’ve had to relive in writing this book have nothing to do with financial security, only the terrifying knowledge of how close I came to doing real damage to the relationship that made it all possible.

You could feel the desperation at this point. It’s all about timing, as if you’re selling an unprofitable growth business, you need buyers with loose money and an appetite for risk. (Look up the current status of WeWork.) Somehow, he finally sold Serious Eats to Fexy Media in 2015. The details are blurry, but it seems that the investors were mostly made whole and Levine was able to pay back all his debts with a small bit of profit. He’s now an employee, not the owner, but perhaps that is for the best.

But thankfully, it’s not quite so personal. Most everyone who works at Serious Eats these days thinks of it as a business first and then, perhaps, a calling. Some people who work at the company may just think of their job as a really good gig. I’m okay with that. Maybe that’s why Serious Eats is doing so much better as a business. Serious Eats is growing up. And that’s okay. So have I.

In the end, this amazing story was powered solely by the energy of Ed Levine (and the equally-amazing support of his wife Vicki). I feel like it really shouldn’t have worked out at all. The climax felt a bit like the ending of the movie The Gambler. You don’t know much about running a website (or any startup), you burn through over a million dollars of money, and your passion is eating and sharing about food. However, he made it out intact and helped establish other talented food writers like J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Max Falkowitz, and Stella Parks.

This reminded of these tweets about taking asymmetrical risks that have been stuck in my head:

Maybe you can try to make the risk asymmetric, but in the end there is no easy formula. I could not have taken the risks that Ed Levine did with Serious Eats. It would have been a foolish risk for me, as I could never tolerate the financial risk nor the relationship risks. However, when I read about others it seems they are compelled to take such big risks, and somehow it their boldness it can all work out. Of course, I suppose there wouldn’t have been a book about Serious Eats to read if it didn’t.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Official Warren Buffett / Berkshire Hathaway Book Reading List 2019

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At every annual shareholder meeting, Berkshire Hathaway publishes an official reading list and sells discounted copies through a local Omaha bookstore called The Bookworm. Both Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have consistently attributed a significant part of their success to their constant reading:

“I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.” – Warren Buffett

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time—none. Zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads—and how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.” – Charlie Munger

Here is the 2019 annual meeting handout. Since they don’t archive these handouts and books are removed each year, I decided to track the changes here. I just bought a used copy of the Lowenstein biography of Warren Buffett and a copy of the Secret Millionaire’s Club (For Kids) from Amazon and the 50th anniversary book direct from Berkshire.

New additions for 2019

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates. From the Amazon page: For the last twenty years, Melinda Gates has been on a mission to find solutions for people with the most urgent needs, wherever they live. Throughout this journey, one thing has become increasingly clear to her: If you want to lift a society up, you need to stop keeping women down. In this moving and compelling book, Melinda shares lessons she’s learned from the inspiring people she’s met during her work and travels around the world. As she writes in the introduction, “That is why I had to write this book?to share the stories of people who have given focus and urgency to my life. I want all of us to see ways we can lift women up where we live.”

Letters to Doris – One Woman’s Quest to Help Those with Nowhere Else to Turn. From the Amazon page: The Letters Foundation is a foundation of last resort that provides humanitarian grants to people experiencing a crisis when no other options exist. These one-time grants provide a hand-up to individuals as they work to stabilize their lives. Established by siblings Warren and Doris Buffett, the Letters Foundation reads and replies to letters from individuals living within the United States.

The Future Is Asian: Commerce, Conflict, and Culture in the 21st Century by Parag Khanna. (Charlie’s Pick) From the Amazon page: There is no more important region of the world for us to better understand than Asia – and thus we cannot afford to keep getting Asia so wrong. Asia’s complexity has led to common misdiagnoses: Western thinking on Asia conflates the entire region with China, predicts imminent World War III around every corner, and regularly forecasts debt-driven collapse for the region’s major economies. But in reality, the region is experiencing a confident new wave of growth led by younger societies from India to the Philippines, nationalist leaders have put aside territorial disputes in favor of integration, and today’s infrastructure investments are the platform for the next generation of digital innovation.

Saudi America: The Truth about Fracking and How It’s Changing the World by Bethany McLean. (Charlie’s Pick) From the Amazon page: Investigative journalist Bethany McLean digs deep into the cycles of boom and bust that have plagued the American oil industry for the past decade, from the financial wizardry and mysterious death of fracking pioneer Aubrey McClendon, to the investors who are questioning the very economics of shale itself. McLean finds that fracking is a business built on attracting ever-more gigantic amounts of capital investment, while promises of huge returns have yet to bear out. Saudi America tells a remarkable story that will persuade you to think about the power of oil in a new way.

Berkshire 50th Anniversary

About Warren Buffett

About Charlie Munger

On Investing

General Interest

Books from past lists, likely removed due to space constraints.

Here are my own posts related to the books listed above:

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Nomadland Book: What Really Happens When You Don’t Save Enough For Retirement?

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I’m reading Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. Essentially, it’s the story what happens to a group of people when their plans for retirement fall apart. Here’s the book blurb:

From the beet fields of North Dakota to the campgrounds of California to Amazon’s CamperForce program in Texas, employers have discovered a new, low-cost labor pool, made up largely of transient older adults. These invisible casualties of the Great Recession have taken to the road by the tens of thousands in RVs and modified vans, forming a growing community of nomads.

You’ll probably retire earlier than you expect. Consider this EBRI chart showing the big difference between when workers expect they will retire (dark blue) and when people actually retired (light blue). One-third (34%) of all workers ended up “retired” by the time they reached 60, but the majority didn’t see it coming (which I assume means it was mostly involuntary).

Going through the book, here is a rough breakdown of the stages that the people went through:

Plan A: Ideal retirement. You have plenty of savings and income in retirement. I’m all set with a rock-solid pension, Social Security, and a big pile of investments.

Plan B: Make everything more modest. I don’t have as much as I’d hoped. Maybe I don’t need that beach condo? Maybe I’ll move into a smaller primary house. It’ll be easier to clean. I’ll just have to take less vacations. No problem.

Plan C: Work longer. Hmm, not still enough. That’s okay, I’ll just keep my job a little longer. I have lots of valuable work experience. I’m still healthy.

Plan D: Find any job. I’ve been laid off, and now I’ll have to find something that is full-time and offers benefits. The easiest targets are retail: Walmart, Home Depot, McDonald’s.

Plan E: REALLY cut expenses. My house is going into foreclosure. I have to sell all my other assets, including whatever life insurance policies, 401k plans, jewelry, and anything else of value that I have accumulated.

Plan F: Ask for assistance from extended family or friends. I can’t find any steady work that pays the bills (or may no longer be healthy enough to do so). I need to find cheaper living arrangements, immediately. I might crash with my children or other family/friend.

This corresponds well with this EBRI survey that I found afterward:

What happens if none of this works? That’s the common thread through many of the people profiled in this book. Not only did Plan A fail, but their backup plans also failed. Many had a late divorce. Many lost their high-paying jobs in their 50s, when they were planning to work until 70. Others had medical issues that racked up huge bills. They worked retail for a while, but it never added up to a decent full-time income. There just aren’t as many jobs for someone in their 60s and 70s. They lived with their children for while, but their kids are struggling as well.

One solution that some came up with in this book with is to change “homeless” to simply “houseless”. You buy a big van or small RV for well under $10,000 and you live in it. As long as you can find a place to park it, you’ve just cut your housing cost down drastically. People figure out to live on $500 a month. You can also now travel for temporary work – Amazon warehouse picker, campground manager, agricultural farm worker. As more and more people do this, they have formed communities and annual gatherings to support each other.

The book has me switching between two feelings: empathy for what brought them to this place, and curiosity about the mechanics of their day-to-day life as modern-day nomads. For now, one big takeaway is that people can and do fall through the cracks. The folks in this book are still taking action and working to survive and hopefully once again thrive.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Book Notes: Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

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I’d never heard of Shonda Rhimes before stumbling across Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person. Apparently, she created some huge TV shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder). However, the title caught my eye and the preview sounded interesting:

With three children at home and three hit television shows, it was easy for Shonda to say she was simply too busy. But in truth, she was also afraid. And then, over Thanksgiving dinner, her sister muttered something that was both a wake up and a call to arms: You never say yes to anything. Shonda knew she had to embrace the challenge: for one year, she would say YES to everything that scared her.

After finishing the book, I can see why Rhimes is such a successful writer because she skillfully weaves complex human feelings into what feels like a casual conversation. Here are some quotes and my takeaways:

The most important thing is to take action.

I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, powerful, engaged people? Are busy doing.

Maybe you know exactly what you dream of being. Or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring, and dreams are not real. Just . . . DO.

You must do the things you think you cannot do. —ELEANOR ROOSEVELT

Things I agree with.

#StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething

ANYONE WHO TELLS YOU THEY ARE DOING IT ALL PERFECTLY IS A LIAR. […] If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I’m probably missing bath and story time at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I am probably blowing off a script I was supposed to rewrite. If I’m accepting a prestigious award, I’m missing my baby’s first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’s last scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy. If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the trade-off.

Once I said Yes to difficult conversations, once I said Yes to saying No, I made an interesting discovery. That discovery was: happy, whole people are drawn to happy, whole people, but nothing makes a toxic person more miserable and destructive than a happy, whole person. Unhappy people do not like it when a fellow unhappy person becomes happy. I am absolutely sure that this is true.

Happiness.

Happiness comes from living as you need to, as you want to. As your inner voice tells you to. Happiness comes from being who you actually are instead of who you think you are supposed to be. Being traditional is not traditional anymore. It’s funny that we still think of it that way. Normalize your lives, people. You don’t want a baby? Don’t have one. I don’t want to get married? I won’t. You want to live alone? Enjoy it. You want to love someone? Love someone. Don’t apologize.

This is the real goal of financial independence, financial freedom, early retirement, whatever label you want to apply. You can do what you want, even it it doesn’t pay especially well. Most negative coverage of financial independence focuses on the idea of depriving yourself. We live in tiny houses, eat lentils and ketchup packets, and never have any fun. In other words, saying NO. However, I’ve always thought of it as the pursuit of being able to spend your time doing exactly what you want! It’s turning your inner desires from “maybe someday” (AKA never) into YES.

Bottom line. This book is another example that we all have our own hidden struggles, and all we can do is choose to face them and take action. Life isn’t fair. Your struggles are hard. Rhimes lost some toxic friends and made many new ones. I’ll repeat my favorite quote here – “You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring, and dreams are not real. Just . . . DO.”

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Spending Diary: The Most Commonly Ignored Personal Finance Advice?

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After finishing The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack, I found it to be a solid all-around personal finance book that joins others like If You Can by William Bernstein and The Richest Man in Babylon by George Clason in the category of “recommended books about money that are short and easily digestible”. All good ideas for gifts for recent graduates.

They don’t shy away from what I think is the most commonly-ignored financial advice: TRACK YOUR SPENDING FOR THREE MONTHS. Even if you don’t track your budget closely after that, this initial spending diary can be eye-opening. Yes, it takes a bit of effort and can be rather uncomfortable psychologically. Here are some book highlights:

Track ALL of your spending…

For three months, keep track of everything you spend money on, no matter how small. That $1.50 bag of Cape Cod Waffle Cut Sea Salt potato chips? It counts, just as much as your four-figure mortgage or health insurance payment.

… for THREE MONTHS.

If you monitor only one month of spending, you won’t gain a full picture of where your money goes. Routine but sporadic expenses such as car repairs, doctor bills, and the emergency trip to the cat’s vet are more likely to occur over a several-month period.

Now, you can pick your “must keep or I’ll wither away” purchases and the things what won’t hurt as much to cut.

You need to determine what day-to-day spending is necessary and unavoidable, what is a luxury but helps you get through the day, and, finally, what is excess. Only then can you avoid falling prey to spending traps.

This allows you to make trade-offs: I’ll take advantage of the office coffee machine, but I’ll use the money I saved to travel to Italy next summer to attend my best friend’s wedding. I’ll drop my landline phone to pay for my gym membership or boost my child’s college savings.

Final tips. You can put everything on a single credit card or debit card, and then go through your purchases line-by-line. If you use cash, take a picture of your receipts and/or purchases on your phone. If you feel comfortable with it, link your account to Mint.com (or similar) and they will help you categorize things automatically. You’ll need to spend a few weeks teaching it (check in every few days), but it gets better over time.

If you can manage to track everything for three months to get an honest (if uncomfortable and scary!) view of your finances, you may find a big gap between what you think you spend vs. what you really spend. Where does your money go every month?

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

The Personal Finance Index Card: Book Version Differences

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After rediscovering the young adult versions of fitting personal finance advice on an index card, I decided to go back and read the book The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack. (I was able to find it via library eBook.)

I noticed that the book version of the “index card” was slightly different. The original card had 9 items, but two of them were merged away into each other (401k/IRAs) and (Pay Attention to Fees/Buy Index Funds). I bolded the new additions below. (You can see all chapters on the Amazon page.)

  1. Strive to Save 10 to 20 Percent of Your Income
  2. Pay Your Credit Card Balance in Full Every Month
  3. Max Out Your 401(k) and Other Tax-Advantaged Savings Accounts
  4. Never Buy or Sell Individual Stocks
  5. Buy Inexpensive, Well-Diversified Indexed Mutual Funds and ETFs
  6. Make Your Financial Advisor Commit To a Fiduciary Standard
  7. Buy a Home When You Are Financially Ready
  8. Insurance – Make Sure You’re Protected
  9. Do What You Can To Support the Social Safety Net
  10. Remember The Index Card

Here again is the original:

Here are my notes on the newly-addressed topics of home-buying and insurance.

Home-buying. This will always be a hard topic because it mixes in emotion, personal history, peer pressure, and all that fuzzy stuff. If you want to own a home, you need to make sure the purchase won’t blow up your overall financial picture. Nothing really surprising, but still good advice.

  • Get your debt under control first.
  • Save up as close to a 20% down payment as you can.
  • Stick with a 15 or 30 year fixed-rate mortgage.
  • Prioritize what you really want and need in a home. Stay within your budget.
  • Location, location, location.

Insurance. There are low-probability events that can destroy decades of hard work, and that’s why humans invented insurance to spread the risk. Here are their cut-to-the-chase bullet points:

  • Emergency fund – Maintain one!
  • Life insurance – If you’re young(ish), just buy 30-year level term insurance.
  • Property insurance – Raise your deductible as high as you can handle.
  • Health insurance – Always sure you stay in-network.
  • Liability insurance – Coverage for at least twice your net worth.

I’m glad that this book still retained its “quick-and-dirty” nature. No single rule will cover every scenario, but it’s good to have a clear and concise collection of the big points along with just enough explanation that you understand the basic reasoning behind it.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Forced Retirement: The Time to Prepare is Now

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Here’s a random thing that happened after becoming financially independent. When I caught this opening scene of people getting fired from the movie “Up in the Air” on TV, I felt sympathy but I remember it used to give me stress and anxiety.

Ever since starting out with a negative net worth due to $30,000 in student loans, I’ve saved money every pay period because I worried about what would happen without a job. I wanted my financial life to be a robust fortress. It was a gradual process and not black-and-white, but one day I realized that I longer had to worry about a boss (or worse, a mercenary consultant that looked like George Clooney) firing me ever again.

Barron’s recently had an article So, You’re Retired but Don’t Have Enough Money to Be Retired. Now What? (possible paywall but it worked for me) which is really an excerpt from the book 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal by Elizabeth White. Essentially, it is about people who had well-paying jobs for a long time, but hit hard times in their 50s and 60s:

I never thought it would happen to me. All my life—working at the World Bank, getting my M.B.A. at Harvard Business School, starting my own retail company—I thought of retirement as golfing in Florida (not that I really wanted to). Even after my business failed—taking most of my savings with it—I bounced back. I reinvented myself as a consultant and earned a six-figure salary. But in my 50s, the Great Recession hit, and the clients were slower and slower to call back. By age 60, it was crickets.

With nothing to speak of coming in, I was running through what was left of my savings. I started to notice friends in the same boat, trying to keep up appearances. A small group of us began to talk. All were 55 and older, well educated, with a history of career choice and good incomes. And then the bottom fell out. None of us expected to be here: in our 50s and 60s, scrimping and scraping or borrowing money from our adult children or 84-year-old mothers.

What is her advice for surviving forced retirement? Well, it sounds a lot like what you would read in an early retirement article.

The key question is not just how to tighten our belts. The real question is: Can we cut way back and still have good quality of life, still find ways to be connected to who and what we love? I believe that the short answer is yes.

A big first step in securing our futures is adopting a live-low-to-the-ground mind-set, which means that we have to drastically cut our expenses to fit our new income realities. But it also means figuring out what matters to you and what your priorities are and then cutting way back on everything else.

Once I get beyond the basics, it’s really about good health, family, and friends for me. I used to eat out a lot, and that’s something I still miss. But the women friends I rely on for sanity are all still here. It turns out we didn’t need fine dining and $12 glasses of Chardonnay to bond us.

You should happily spend money on your priorities, cut back on everything else, and realize that happiness is not about stuff. Sound familiar?

The key difference is that this is presented as a last-ditch solution after your hand has been forced. If you combine aggressively prioritized, lean spending with a solid six-figure career for a while, you have the basic recipe for financial independence. It may be much harder because of our various human tendencies, but it can be done.

We live in a culture that creates need where none existed before and defines quality of life as a metric of income. When you’re making money, all of that mindless consumption goes unchecked. When funds are tight you have to think about it. What do you really need to feel deeply grounded and content? You’ll discover that you actually need very little. It really does not cost much to be happy. I’m spending a tiny fraction of what I used to spend, and the world hasn’t ended.

What if you realized that at age 25 instead of 55?

Bottom line. Forced retirement may make you realize that you can live on a lot less money than you spend now. However, perhaps this book can help those who still have a solid job right now that they can also streamline their spending and thus be better prepared for whatever may happen in the future. I enjoyed the writing style in this excerpt and find it relatable.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Wild Book: What Do You Plan To Do With Your One Wild and Precious Life?

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I’ve been catching up on some memoirs and recently finished Wild by Cheryl Strayed. (I haven’t seen the movie.) I mention it here because the author did a “Big Awesome Thing” in hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and I think achieving financial freedom is also a “Big Awesome Thing”. I thought – What makes a person able to accomplish a “Big Awesome Thing”?

First, instead of rehashing another plot summary for the book, I’ll steal the blurb from Amazon:

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

Cheryl Strayed father also left her when she was young. An excerpt from the book:

The father’s job is to teach his children how to be warriors, to give them the confidence to get on the horse and ride into battle when it’s necessary to do so. If you don’t get that from your father, you have to teach yourself.

In my opinion, the lack of a strong father figure and the early death of her mother left her without the support or belief that she had power over her own life. But by pushing herself to do this seemingly random but difficult task and overcoming many obstacles along the way, she discovered that she did have that power inside. Perhaps each person is drawn to a different “Big Awesome Thing” that can be the first stepping stone to a life lived consciously. Hers was being free in the wild:

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.

After that, Strayed could attain happiness and fulfillment because she had the belief that she could change her own circumstances. Her actions mattered. It was worth trying, taking that risk to make your life better. I fear that many others have lost that self-belief and thus don’t even try.

I enjoyed the following excerpt from a poem that was included in the book – “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.