Monday, May 27, 2013
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the personal finance books I’ve been reading, and the various philosophies that go with the various approaches, I just want to get one thing out of the way.
In the spirit of There are Two Kinds of People in the World, I will say that when it comes to keeping track of things, there are definitely two kinds of people: People who like to track data and people who do not like to track data.
Neither of these approaches is right or wrong, and neither is better or worse than the other.
The benefit of tracking data is that you end up with … data. Data is useful. It tells you exactly what is happening. Data doesn’t lie, it is what it is. This is how much time it took to do that project. This is how you spent your money.
Some people enjoy the process of gathering data, they like to see a story unfold in front of them, they like to have a record of what happened. Gathering data helps some people feel like they know where they are, where they are going, and how long it might to take to get there.
Many people, however, loathe the process of gathering data. They find it tedious and time-consuming and difficult and unpleasant. (It is especially unpleasant when you don’t like what the data says. I ate how much?) It takes all of kinds of energy that they would rather be spending on things they actually enjoy doing.
But just as extroverts have trouble understanding introverts, and don’t see how anyone could possibly rather stay home and read a book than go to a party, people who do not enjoy tracking data cannot imagine that anyone in their right mind could possibly feel differently.
This bias comes up repeatedly in the book All Your Worth by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, which I am currently reading. They emphasize over and over again that their approach does not require ongoing data tracking, because, in their words, “That is not living.”
So before I get into my analysis of the book, I just want to offer this public service announcement.
Life is made up of all kinds of experiences. Some of them are wonderful and some of them are awful and some of them are tedious and some of them are exhilarating.
Everything you do is living. Everything you do is life.
Changing your baby’s diaper and watching a movie and fixing breakfast and breaking your arm falling off a ladder and vacationing in Bali and mowing the lawn and talking on the phone and building sand castles and paying bills and playing tennis and watching other people play tennis and cleaning the toilet and going to the French Laundry for dinner. And looking at your receipts and bank statements to see how much you spent, and adding it up and thinking about whether maybe next month you could spend a little less and still be just as happy.
That is all life, it is all living.
And don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
I’ve been reading personal finance books lately. I am aiming for a comprehensive review with a compare-and-contrast and which kind of advice is good for which kind of person post. Hopefully my vision will not exceed my capacity, and I’ll actually be able to get that done.
In the meantime, all of this reading is making me think of two things.
One is the joke, “There are two kinds of people in the world—people who divide the world into two kinds of people and people who don’t.”
I feel like there are two schools of thought when it comes to managing finances (clearly I am the kind of person who divides the world into two kinds of people), and it’s interesting for me to read different books and think about them objectively and see which paradigm they fit into.
The other is the quote attributed to Henry Ford: “If you think you can do something, or if you think you can’t, you are right.”
In my opinion, the biggest problems people have with finances come from within themselves—thinking they need to do this or that thing, or they can’t make a particular change because … name your reason. Everyone always has a million reasons why this thing that might work fine for other people would not work for me, it just wouldn’t.
But the truth is, if it’s important, and you want to make it work, you will figure out a way to make it work.
So that’s the thought for the day.
If you think you can do something, or if you think you can’t, you are right.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
I worked at a Scrap Exchange event a couple of weeks ago and little girl wanted to make a flower. I showed her a few different ways to make different kinds of flowers, and then I started working on this one.
I like it, and I brought it home with me (and even salvaged it from the van after I left it there when we got back.)
It has a little bit of a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree element to it—I can’t decide if it’s simply sad and pathetic, or if the reason I like it is because it is somewhat sad and pathetic. And this is not a good picture of it either. (I’m having trouble with pictures lately because the place I usually take my pictures is messy messy while I deal with things in other rooms, so I’m taking pictures that aren’t that good and just deciding that they are good enough. Hopefully this problem will resolve itself soon and I’ll eventually be able to put up a picture I actually like.) It actually looks a little better in real life.
But I thought I’d put the flower up for Mother’s Day. I hope all you mothers out there had a good day. And I hope that some of you at least got real flowers instead of a not-very-good picture of Charlie Brown Christmas tree flower. Since it seems like that’s the best I can do at the moment.
Sunday, May 5, 2013
After I started telecommuting (in 1998), it seemed like I’d have a lot more free time in my life, but I didn’t. (I didn’t think about this in advance, but many things actually take more time when you’re working from home. You can’t just stop and pick something up on your way home from work, or rearrange your schedule to leave a little earlier and go to the gym in the morning. When you work from home, everything you do outside of the house is its own thing to be figured out. It’s different, and it was hard.)
I was frustrated that I didn’t have more time and started reading organizing books, because it seemed like the problem was that I wasn’t organized enough, that I needed better time-management skills. I read a whole bunch of organizing books that were not at all useful before I finally read one that was.
The book is called It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys: The Seven-Step Path to Becoming Truly Organized by Marilyn Paul and the main reason I liked it is because instead of giving specific strategies (only touch a piece of paper once! get rid of clothes you haven’t worn in a year!), it helps you figure out why you want to be organized and what is getting in the way of it, so that you can come up with your own strategies that will help you address the things you actually care about.
It’s a self-help book with all of the requisite self-help elements (worksheets, exercises, personal testimonials, etc.), but I have a small weakness for the self-help genre, so that doesn’t bother me. But it might be a problem for some people. So if you look at it and think it’s silly, don’t hold it against me.
One of the things I realized after reading the book was that there were a lot of things in my life I wasn’t getting done because I didn’t really give a * about them. So that was nice to figure out. I just stopped worrying about those things. It was very liberating.
However eventually I’ve realized that a number of things I don’t really care about actually need to get done, so it’s not helping me so much anymore.
So now I’m focusing on some of the parts I skipped over the first time I read it, specifically the part about visioning.
The idea of visioning — imagining what you’re trying to create — feels totally hokey to me and makes me think of Stuart Smalley: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” But I have to say that one idea really struck a chord:
Imagining a different future makes you believe that it is possible. It is very difficult to make something happen if you can’t even think about it.
It’s hard to argue with that.
So I decided that the first step in getting done some of the things I need to get done — especially the things I don’t really give a * about — is to imagine them being done.
I’m as of yet unable to imagine my back porch with a door on it, or my backyard as anything but a poison-ivy infested wasteland (the visioning thing is actually much harder than you might expect), but I’m almost to the point where I can see a house with all of the walls properly painted.
It’s a start.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
I had total sticker shock in the nut butter aisle at Whole Foods last week.
Peanut butter prices had been rising because 2011 was a terrible crop. But then 2012 was a bumper crop, so I had seen a few articles that said that prices should be coming down, that consumers should see some relief from high peanut butter prices in 2013. But then there was also news about the closure of a peanut butter processing plant due to salmonella outbreak that was likely to affect organic brands, because the kinds of peanuts used in the plant were those used in natural and organic peanut butters (those without added sugar and fat). So then it seemed like that might make some prices go higher instead of lower. But I was still thinking that prices might go down.
The Whole Foods 365 store brand of peanut butter used to be $1.99 and then it was $2.19 and then it was $2.79. That’s a big jump. But still in line with peanut butter prices for comparable products at other stores, and still pretty cheap, so it hadn’t affected how I shop.
I generally like peanut butter in any form — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, peanut butter cookies, the divine peanut butter cookie, my family Special sandwich — and I really like those peanut butter filled pretzels that Trader Joe’s sells, but I don’t make it to Trader Joe’s all that often and also they are not cheap, I think it’s around three dollars for a small-ish bag. Then at some point I had a revelation that I could just dip pretzels into peanut butter and it would be basically the same thing. Duh. So I started doing that.
Last week I stopped at Whole Foods on my way to work to pick up some snacks, and was thinking that some peanut butter and pretzels would hit the spot. So I picked up a bag of pretzels and headed to the peanut butter aisle and was stopped dead in my tracks by peanut butter at $3.39 a jar. Gah! That’s a twenty per cent jump! Since the last time I bought peanut butter!
I think if I’d been expecting an increase I might have dealt with this better, but I was actually thinking it was going to go down this year. So that really threw me. I decided I didn’t need peanut butter and pretzels after all (I didn’t) and would think about alternatives.
And then that made me think about what lessons were there for shopping on a limited budget. What do you do when the price of something suddenly goes up? What are the options?
(a) see if there is a brand that is cheaper and buy that instead,
(b) see if there is a different but similar item that is cheaper and buy that instead,
(c) check different stores to see if any of them have the item for less than the store you usually shop at and stock up,
(d) think about whether there is an item that is processed differently that is cheaper, and that you can finish processing on your own to make a comparable finished product,
(e) just go ahead and buy it anyway.
If you always do (e), your grocery bill will just keep going up and up. Most people start with (a) because it’s the easiest. I usually go with (d) because I think that buying less processed, cheaper items and finishing the processing myself not only saves money but also often results in higher-quality food.
An example of this would, of course, be buying dried beans and cooking them yourself instead of buying canned beans. But anything you can buy in a ready-to-eat form and also a raw-ingredient form would apply. Often prices of the raw-ingredient form increase much more slowly than for the ready-to-eat form. It just depends on how much time (and energy) it takes to get to the finished product, and whether that’s worth it to you.
There are some crazy expensive artisanal peanut butters for sale in shops around here, and there was an article in the N&O not too long ago about making your own nut butters starting with raw peanuts, and roasting them yourself, which sounded interesting to me. (As you might have figured out by now, I have a thing for making things from scratch that normal people just buy.)
So then I started pricing raw peanuts and I’m not sure if it would actually be cheaper than buying peanut butter.
Whole Foods had a three-pound bag of shelled raw peanuts for around twelve dollars, so that’s four dollars a pound. The Hispanic stores and Li Ming’s have small bags of raw peanuts in the shell for (I think) around $2 a pound. Stone Brothers & Byrd, which is mostly a garden supply store but also carries traditional Southern foods, sells raw peanuts in the shell in bulk for $2.80 a pound.
Roasted peanuts in the bulk section are about the same price as a pound of peanut butter. Trader Joe’s peanut butter was $2.79 a jar (Whole Foods’ previous price), and I was over there, so I bought a couple of jars. But I don’t like it as well as the 365 brand.
I did buy some peanuts from Stone Bros., and am thinking about roasting them and making peanut butter, but in the meantime, I decided to turn some of them into one of my new favorite things — Bill Neal‘s recipe for Hot and Spicy Peanuts.
If you like the spicy peanuts sold in convenience stores, make these. They are along the same lines, but a million times better, because they are fresh fresh fresh, they don’t have all those preservatives in them, and you can decide if you want them more spicy or more sweet or whatever tastes good to you.
The first time I made them, a couple of months ago, I followed the recipe exactly. The second time, I think I reduced the sugar slightly. This last time, I used three different kinds of Penzey’s paprika — Hungarian sweet, Hungarian half-sharp, and smoked Spanish — along with sea salt, Habanero salt, white sugar, and cayenne. And didn’t measure anything at all.
My strategy now is to mix the seasonings together in a small bowl and taste. When it tastes good — a little salty, a little sweet, a little spicy — it’s ready to go. This is definitely a recipe that you can adjust however you want, and it is very easy. The only hard part is not eating all of them at once as soon as they are cool.
Hot and Spicy Peanuts
from Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp (or more) ground cayenne
1/2 tsp (or more) sugar
1 Tbsp peanut oil
1-1/2 cups raw, shelled peanuts
1-1/2 Tbsp water
Combine the salt, paprika, cayenne, and sugar and reserve. Heat the oil in a skillet or saute pan over medium high heat. Add the raw peanuts (in their skins), shaking the skillet frequently to prevent their scorching. When the peanuts are golden brown throughout (after 8 to 10 minutes), sprinkle the combined dry seasonings over all and shake well. Carefully, but immediately, pour in the water and agitate to help the flavorings coat the peanuts. Serve immediately or let cool. These will keep for weeks in an airtight container.
Yeah, right. Good luck keeping those around for weeks. That’s all I have to say.
I’ll let you know if I decide to roast the peanuts and make peanut butter. Still on the fence about that.