Internet Archive / Open Library: Borrow Hard-to-Find Books For 1 Hour

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The Internet Archive (IA) is a non-profit digital library with the stated mission of “universal access to all knowledge.” They have a lot going on, from the Wayback machine that archives websites (including this one) to old video games to TV shows to books (also through Open Library).

As a regular user of the local physical library, I often read a book but later recall part of an idea or quote but not the entire context. Since I don’t own the book, I can’t just flip through it and look it up. Recently I’ve often been able to scratch that itch by instantly borrowing the book for an hour via IA.

How can I do this? They operate under the Controlled Digital Lending (CDL) theory of copyright law. My understanding is that they obtain a physical copy of a book, scan it, and then lend out that digital copy on a 1-to-1 basis. Using encrypted digital files, they can ensure that only one person is actually “reading” that book at a time. Once that person returns the book, then another person can borrow it, and so on.

Controlled digital lending is how many libraries have been providing access to digitized books for nine years. Controlled digital lending is a legal framework, developed by copyright experts, where one reader at a time can read a digitized copy of a legally owned library book. The digitized book is protected by the same digital protections that publishers use for the digital offerings on their own sites. Many libraries, including the Internet Archive, have adopted this system since 2011 to leverage their investments in older print books in an increasingly digital world.

They either allow a 1-hour or more traditional 14-day loan period depending on their inventory:

Patrons now have a choice in selecting the loan period when they borrow a book. Patrons can choose a short-term access for 1 hour, or a longer 14-day loan. If we only have 1 copy of a book, it is only available for 1 hour loan. If we have more than one copy of a book, it can be checked out for either 1 hour or 14 days, depending on availability. If there are no copies available for 14-day loans, users can join a waitlist.

However, four major publishers are currently suing the Internet Archive over this practice. I am not a legal expert and can definitely understand how they wouldn’t want the latest bestseller distributed this way as they currently charge libraries a much higher price for lendable eBook versions than physical versions. I can also understand that some authors feel that they are losing book royalties. I certainly wouldn’t want unlimited, unrestricted free digital copies everywhere. But one-to-one for books bought when there was no digital version? Don’t traditional libraries theoretically cut into book sales too? Or do they actually help book sales? Or is the public benefit that makes it okay?

In my experience, every scanned book I’ve read on the Internet Archive would be rather painful to read over longer periods and the text is non-searchable, so the site does not replace my local library nor my regular purchases of new and used books. But I can see how if the convenience improves any further, it could soon make a significant impact.

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 Case For Only Looking At Your Portfolio Balance Once A Year

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There are many excellent insights within Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A useful everyday tip is that you should accept that you have behavioral biases and that they don’t go away even after you become aware of them. (We all think we are more rational than average.) Instead, we should actively construct ways to avoid them.

One example within the book deals with separating noise and signal (meaning) within investing. Let’s say you have a dentist that can invest with a 15% average annual return with 10% annual volatility. For reference, the S&P 500 index has a ~10% average annual return and ~14% average annual volatility. The dentist has good thing going, with the portfolio doubling in value every 5 years on average.

An unexpected factor in his success is the frequency upon which he looks at his portfolio balance. Here’s a chart from the book showing the probability of a positive change in value based on how often the portfolio is checked.

If he were to check his portfolio every minute, he would only see a positive return 50.17% of the time. That is basically indiscernible from a coin flip. The problem is loss aversion.

Being emotional, he feels a pang with every loss, as it shows in red on his screen. He feels some pleasure when the performance is positive, but not in equivalent amount as the pain experienced when the performance is negative.

At the end of every day the dentist will be emotionally drained. A minute-by-minute examination of his performance means that each day (assuming eight hours per day) he will have 241 pleasurable minutes against 239 unpleasurable ones. These amount to 60,688 and 60,271, respectively, per year. Now realize that if the unpleasurable minute is worse in reverse pleasure than the pleasurable minute is in pleasure terms, then the dentist incurs a large deficit when examining his performance at a high frequency.

Again, this doesn’t go away even if you know about the phenomenon:

Regardless of what people claim, a negative pang is not offset by a positive one (some psychologists estimate the negative effect for an average loss to be up to 2.5 the magnitude of a positive one); it will lead to an emotional deficit.

Now, if he were to check that same portfolio only when his monthly statement arrives, he would see a positive return 67% of the time (2 out of 3). Finally, if he has the patience to check only once a year, she would see a positive return 93% of the time. The time scale matters.

Unfortunately, the S&P 500 is not quite that good, but it has posted a positive total return roughly 75% of the time from 1928-2017. (Total return includes dividends. You’ll get a slightly lower number if you just look at the index without dividends.)

This becomes even worse during bear markets when the down days outnumber the up days for a while. Our brains are simply not well-suited to handling that kind of repeated pain. The solution is to block out the noise. Don’t check your portfolio as often and over time, you will hopefully experience a lower likelihood of bailing out during a market drop.

This is the reason why I don’t do monthly asset class returns any more, and only do them annually nowadays. There is too much noise in monthly returns. I wish I could say I only look at my portfolio annually, but that is starting to sound like a good idea too!

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Rational Expectations: Advanced, Specific, Practical Portfolio Advice

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The fourth and final book in the “Investing for Adults” series by William Bernstein is Rational Expectations: Asset Allocation for Investing Adults. In Book 1: The Ages of the Investor, I learned to take advantage of a lucky streak in stocks and stop when I’ve won the game. In Book 2: Skating Where the Puck Was, I learned why it’s so hard to find any “new and improved” asset classes. In Book 3: Deep Risk, I learned about the scenarios that have led to permanent capital loss.

This final book includes the most specific advice about constructing your retirement portfolio. The entire series is great (and honestly not very long even read back-to-back), but this final book is especially dense with additional practical ideas for those that are already comfortable with investing basics. This isn’t at all scientific, but upon counting my Kindle highlights, Book 4 had 75 highlighted passages vs. 33, 25, and 36 respectively for Books 1-3. I’m only going to touch on the few that directly impacted my own portfolio construction.

Stocks. Here is an excerpt regarding how much of your portfolio should be allocated to international stocks.

Deployment among stock asset classes is relatively easier. The obvious place to start is with the total world stock market, as mirrored reasonably well by the FTSE Global All Cap Index, which in early 2014 was split 48/52 between U.S. and foreign equities. From there, we make three adjustments to the foreign allocation, two down and one up. First, the downs: if you’re like most people, your retirement liabilities will be in dollars, so a 52% foreign allocation is inappropriately high. Second, foreign stocks not only are slightly more difficult and expensive to trade but also are subject to foreign tax withholding. This presents no problem in taxable accounts, since those taxes will offset your liability to the IRS, but you lose that deduction if you hold foreign stocks in a sheltered account.

The up adjustment is a temporary one, since foreign stocks, as was discussed in chapter 1, currently have higher expected returns. So at the time of this writing, a foreign stock allocation somewhere in the 30% to 45% region seems reasonable.

Simplifying all that, as of early 2014, the middle recommendation would be roughly 60/40 US/international while the world market cap weighting was roughly 50/50. A little home bias is recommended for US investors.

As of mid-2020, the world market cap weighting is 57% US and 43% International (source), which you might round to 60/40. The adjustments are mostly the same, except that foreign stocks probably have even slightly higher future expected returns as the US stocks keep climbing. If you want to maintain a slight home bias, I would speculate this might change the recommended range closer to 65/35 or 70/30?

Bonds. The recommended list includes short-term US Treasuries/TIPS, bank CDs, and investment-grade municipal bonds. Bernstein is not a fan of corporate bonds.

Sooner or later, we’re going to have an inflationary crisis, and in such an environment, long duration will be a killer. Stick to short Treasuries, CDs, and munis.

Own municipal bonds via a low-cost Vanguard open-ended mutual fund for the diversification. Own Treasury bonds and TIPS directly, as there is no need for mutual funds or ETFs since they all have the same level of risk. Own bank CDs and credit union certificates under the FDIC and NCUA insurance deposit limits.

Asset location. I found this advice about spreading your holdings across Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and taxable accounts to be very useful and practical. Importantly, this may be somewhat different that what you have read elsewhere. I don’t want to summarize incorrectly, so I will just use the excerpts:

To the extent that you wish to rebalance the asset classes in your portfolio, all sales should be done within a sheltered account. If possible, you should house enough of each stock asset class in a sheltered account so that sales may be accomplished free from capital gains taxes. Next, all of the REIT allocation certainly belongs in the sheltered portfolio, since the lion’s share of their long-term returns come from nonqualified dividends.

The real difference made by location occurs at the level of overall account returns. In terms of tax liability, Traditional IRA/Defined Contribution > Taxable > Roth IRA. This means that, optimally, you’d like to arrange the expected returns of each account accordingly, with the highest returns (i.e., highest equity allocation) optimally occurring in the Roth, and the lowest returns (i.e., lowest stock allocation) in your Traditional IRA/Defined Contribution pool. To the extent that this is true, it conforms with the stocks-in-the-taxable-side argument. That said, for optimal tax-free rebalancing, unless your Roth IRA is much bigger than your traditional IRA, you’re still going to want some stock assets in the latter.

It is definitely nice to be able to rebalance and not have to worry about picking stock lots, making sure you have the right cost basis at tax time, and paying capital gains taxes.

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Protecting Your Portfolio From Hyperinflation, Deflation, Confiscation, and Devastation

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The third book in the “Investing for Adults” series by William Bernstein is Deep Risk: How History Informs Portfolio Design. As before, I’m just trying to pull out a few practical takeaways rather than summarize the entire book. In Book 1: The Ages of the Investor, I learned to take advantage of a lucky streak in stocks and stop when I’ve won the game. In Book 2: Skating Where the Puck Was, I learned why it’s so hard to find any “new and improved” asset classes.

The main problem addressed in this book is “deep risk”, the permanent loss of real (inflation-adjusted) capital. This contrasts with “shallow risk”, in which the value of something usually rebounds within 5-7 years or less.

Here are some deep risks that you can offset by purchasing insurance (and be happy if you never have to use it!).

  • Death of income earner.
  • Long-term health disability.
  • Legal risk – lawsuit with large judgment.
  • Select types of asset loss (i.e. theft, building fire).

Unfortunately, there are other deep risks against which you can’t buy insurance.

  • Hyperinflation, prolonged and severe.
  • Deflation, prolonged and severe.
  • Confiscation by government.
  • Devastation (war).

Over an extended period of time, history has shown us that “safe” bonds are often more sensitive to deep risk than stocks. Many countries saw 100% losses for their bondholders, while partial ownership in a business survived wars and regime changes. An example given was in Germany after World War II. Bonds are also at risk for inflation, while a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (a negative bond) can be a great inflation hedge.

A portfolio of internationally-diversified stocks is the most practical way to protect yourself from both inflation and deflation. Historically, inflation is much more likely than deflation. You might have an event in one country, but it would be very rare to have a large majority of nations experience severe inflation and low stock returns all at the same time. In such a case you’d be looking at global devastation.

As for local confiscation and local devastation, you would be looking at foreign-held assets, foreign property, perhaps the right passports, and a plan to escape in a timely manner. This sounds like something that a billionaire might pay someone else to set up, but not so sure how practical it would be for most people.

Bernstein offers his own summary:

This booklet’s primary advice regarding risky assets is loud and clear: your best long-term defense against deep risk is a globally value-tilted diversified equity portfolio, perhaps spiced up with a small amount of precious metals equity and natural resource producers, TIPS, and, if to your taste, bullion and foreign real estate.

I admit that I am somewhat fascinated by worst-case scenarios, and I recommend reading the entire book for the full discussion. But in the end, my primary takeaway is that if you have a globally-diversified stock portfolio, you’ve done most of what you can in terms of deep risk. The rest is the same advice as before: consider TIPS if you have enough money, maximize Social Security, and keep some nice safe bonds and bank CDs for short-term needs (shallow risk).

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Don’t Expect Too Much From Exotic Asset Classes

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If you like having a complicated portfolio and owning exotic asset classes for diversification, you might want to prepare yourself before reading Skating Where the Puck Was: The Correlation Game in a Flat World by William Bernstein. Most of the exotic classes you’ve ever thought about owning will be struck down:

  • Commodities futures? – disaster.
  • Private equity? – nope.
  • Hedge funds? – don’t bother.
  • Gold? – sorry, even the Permanent Portfolio would have been better off historically without gold if you measure since 1980 (after going off gold standard).

The basic premise is “Rekenthaler’s Rule”: If the bozos know about it, it doesn’t work any more.

Even international stocks are not nearly as useful a diversifier as they used to be. The book included a chart of the correlation between the S&P 500 (developed large-cap US stocks) and EAFA (developed large-cap international stocks), but I found a more recent one from Morningstar. International stocks used to offer high returns and low correlations, the ideal asset class to add to any portfolio! Not so much recently:

Now, there are still reasons to invest in international stocks – primarily the “big picture” deep risk of investing in a single country over a long period of time. But your short-term volatility is not going to be dampened much anymore.

So, what is left?

The best alternative asset class for the average investor may be in truly private investments, such as already mentioned, owner-managed (the owner being you) residential and commercial real estate in distressed markets, or in other private businesses in which you have special expertise.

I would be careful with this too, as there are many bad (quiet) real estate investors and failed/struggling businesses that you don’t hear about. Be sure you really have “special expertise”. However, one benefit of owning private real estate or a private business is that you don’t get daily price quotes. Nobody is going to tell you “Well, if you sold TODAY, the best price you could find is 50% of what you could have gotten last month! Tomorrow, it could only be 40%! Do you want to sell?!”. This means less likelihood of panic selling and more long-term investors.

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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.

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.

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:

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.

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.