On Spending Less, Earning More

Sunday, June 14, 2015

I’ve been thinking lately about Ignatius J. Reilly, the generally repulsive yet oddly compelling protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s great comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces.

I thought of him often over the winter, because one of the pairs of pants that I ended up wearing a lot was this pair of brown “loose fit” Gap cordurouys that had wide legs and very large, deep pockets. The word that came to mind when I put them on was “capacious.” I kept thinking of the introductory description of Ignatius on the first page of the book, when he’s waiting for his mother at the D.H. Holmes department store — “The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius.”

That’s what I felt like when I wore those pants. Soothing pleats and nooks, with unusually free locomotion.

Lately I’ve been thinking about Ignatius when it comes to reading things on the internet.

I think I may have mentioned previously that I don’t make a habit of reading good, useful information on the internet. Instead I tend to latch on to some thing that annoys me, something I read and pull my hair out and say, “Gaah!!! No! What are you thinking?!?!”

Like Ignatius, who liked to go to the movies so he could throw popcorn at the screen and complain loudly about everything that offended him about modern life (which was most everything). That is me.

I’ve realized that I don’t like reading blogs by people who have everything figured out — “here, look at how great my life is, look at how smart and successful I am.” Those feel boring and pointless to me.

I like a little bit of angst in my blogs. But it’s hard to find the right amount of angst — a little bit can feel real and useful but too much quickly becomes tiresome. But sometimes I’ll find one with just the right amount and it flips me into hate-reading mode. Which then sucks me down a rabbit hole of guilty pleasure. It’s like reading Valley of the Dolls, it’s so bad I can’t put it down.

And I’d gone months and months without any internet obsessions at all but I recently came across an intriguing lifestyle/personal finance blog that I’ve been reading and pulling my hair out over and which has helped crystallize some of my thoughts about personal finance and happiness and life in general.

(And note that I’m leaving off the object of my hate-reading, because it doesn’t seem nice to tell the internet that you hate-read someone who is trying to write a serious blog. So here I’ll just talk about what I’ve learned.)

The PF blogging world has basically two camps in their approach to advising people how to get ahead: those who focus on spending less and those who focus on earning more. Of course most bloggers acknowledge that both strategies play a role, but usually they come down on the side of one or the other as being more important.

The people who focus on earning more tend to be dismissive of the people who focus on spending less — they think you just can’t make very much progress by cutting back on spending, there’s just not enough to work with, and it’s silly to put energy into saving small amounts of money here and there. They think the only way to really get ahead is to make more money.

And on some level, I agree with that — if your income is very low or if your fixed expenses are very high, your options can be constrained.

On the other hand, people usually have more control over how they spend their money than they do over how they make it. So in that sense focusing on spending less can be better because it’s something you can do right now, that doesn’t depend on the actions of people over whom you have no control.

But until getting sucked into reading this blog, written by someone who managed to save over $300,000 in less than 10 years, starting with around $10K and a starting salary of $25K, I hadn’t really thought through the fact that there’s another important difference between getting ahead by making more or getting ahead by spending less.

I’ve realized in reading about someone who has been very successful in achieving financial goals by making more money that there is a huge nonfinancial element to focusing on spending.

If you follow the Your Money or Your Life model and reduce expenditures by tracking and analyzing your spending, you are by way of this process clarifying your values — you are thinking about what you care about, and whether or not the money you spend is being used to support things you care about. You reduce spending on the things you don’t care about and you end up spending much less without any decrease in your overall quality of life.

The process helps you figure out what you actually need and allows you to be happy on much less than you ever could have imagined, and much less than most people spend. It’s like you enter a parallel universe where you always have enough. It’s magical.

If instead you focus on making more, you’re not able to figure out how much is “enough” because you’re not really thinking about that, you can always use more, and more is always better. So there’s no end. (Or maybe you do think about what’s enough but it’s a really huge number — $10 million or something like that.)

Also focusing on making more requires you to keep on keeping on in the economic stew of modern life — as my friend Ann likes to say, you have to stay in the puddin’.

You have to constantly be networking, working on job skills, dealing with bosses and clients. You need to move up the ladder in your office, or find a new job, or take on side gigs.

You need to hustle.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and certainly that approach is the best way to increase your income. But it’s not necessarily the best way to improve your quality of life.

No matter how much money you make or save or spend — or don’t make or save or spend — at some point you have to figure out what makes you happy. The process of making more money generally does not help you figure this out. So you can make a lot more money than you used to while being no happier at all.

I feel like the YMOYL approach almost has an element of therapy to it.

It’s very structured — track what you spend, think about it, figure out how to spend less; track what you save, think about it, figure out how to make more. By focusing on these specific things, you are figuring out what you need and what you don’t need.

By needing less, you are able to let go of things, and in doing that, you gain freedom.

People in your life can’t control you with strings-attached gifts. Employers don’t have the same leverage because you can walk away at any time. Your life overall is less stressful if what you need to be happy is easily within your capacity to generate — if what you need to be happy is as much as you can possibly make by working as hard as you can all the time, you are always going to be behind the eight ball. Your life will always be stressful.

Making more money involves thinking about other people — bosses, clients, customers. Spending less money involves thinking about you (and possibly the people directly connected to you — spouse, children, other relatives).

Spending less allows you to disengage from many things that can cause anxiety — it lets you stop worrying about how what you are buying compares to what other people are buying, or what it says about you or what other people think about you. (Worrying about what other people think about you seems to be a major source of anxiety for many people.)

I truly believe that focusing on what you care about, what you want, what you value, can help get you out of that mindset. It can help free you.

Spending less gets you to this place where you are in control of your life, and where your world feels manageable.

It is the key to happiness.

Or one of them, at least.

(And while on the subject of being happy, I read The Happiness Project while on my trip and I may write about that at some point. I liked it.)

Go forth and be happy. And stay cool if you can.

Step Zero

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

[Ed. Note: This is from the drafts folder, written October 2013. Don’t know why I never posted it, seems good enough to send out into the world. Even though it will bump Julia from the home page, and put Dave Ramsey there. That’s an unhappy trade if ever there was one. But in the interest of Fresh Content, I am hitting the “publish” button.]

For a while, I’ve been thinking of doing a new feature on this blog called Where I Read Books So You Don’t Have To.

I was reminded of this recently when I read Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. Man. Talk about stretching things out. That book is barely a magazine article, it’s maybe a Reader’s Digest article, yet the author and publisher managed to stretch it out for 280 completely excruciating pages. Holy schmoly.

I’ll save the full analysis for a future post, but in the meantime I want to talk a little bit about I what I found to be the biggest flaw with Dave Ramsey’s strategy in that book. (Okay, one of the biggest flaws. There were quite a number of flaws, but I’m going to stick with just this one for now.)

One of the main flaws I found with The Total Money Makeover is that Step One is Save $1,000.

Well, okay!

Most people I know who are struggling with their finances are struggling BECAUSE THEY ARE UNABLE TO SAVE MONEY. How is telling them to save a thousand dollars useful? If they knew how to save a thousand dollars, wouldn’t they just do it?

Maybe I’m missing something here.

So personally I would suggest a few preliminary steps to get people to the point where they can save a thousand dollars.

The very first step is to think about why you want to fix your finances. What problems are you having that you do not want to have anymore? What goals do you have that you will not be able to achieve living the way you are currently living? What do you hope to accomplish with the program you are thinking of starting?

It might seem like you can skip this step, of course you want to fix your finances, who wants to live paycheck to paycheck for the rest of their life, but the reason you want to do this is because it’s going to be hard and it’s going to take a while and you are going to run into things that totally knock you off track. You need to be motivated enough to get through the hard things, to get back on track, to keep working.

I learned this lesson when I was trying to be more organized.

Progress was slow, and sometimes I felt like I tried as hard as I could but I kept ending up back in the same place. When I started to feel like it wasn’t worth it, I just wasn’t going to be able to do it, maybe I just didn’t have it in me and who cares anyway, the thing that worked to get through was to remember what I was trying to accomplish. Not the grand plan of “being organized,” but living in a house that didn’t always have piles of laundry, or not being late. Those are the things that bothered me, so those were the things I focused on. And those are the things I fixed.

I’m still not organized, but I’m not late anymore, and I always have clean clothes when I need them. [2015 note: Hmm, okay. May have to revise this now that I’m in school. I always have clean clothes when I need them, but they are not always folded and put away. Clearly experiencing some backsliding on this particular goal.]

So think about specifically what you want to fix, and why, and keep that foremost in your mind. Especially when it all feels hopeless.

The other thing you can work on if saving a thousand dollars sounds like taking a trip to the moon is imagining yourself saving money.

If you can imagine yourself saving a thousand dollars, that’s great, you can start working on saving a thousand dollars. If not, get it down to an amount you can imagine saving, in a time frame you can think about. How much can you save each week? Can you save twenty dollars? Ten? One? Start with whatever you can think about starting with and build from there.

As Marilyn Paul says in It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys, it’s very difficult to make something happen if you can’t even think about it.

Think about what you want your life to be like. Think about being able to save money. Then imagine yourself doing it.

Step Zero.

Beyond the Occupational Identity

Friday, July 4, 2014

I have nothing to report from my actual life at the moment, decided to look through the archives to see if there was anything partially written but not yet posted that could be finished and put up.

And look, here is something.

I was working on this in the fall as I thought through issues surrounding early retirement and financial independence, about working and not working, and what that all means and where it leads people. Obviously this is something that the early retirement bloggers focus on a lot, and nicoleandmaggie wrote post about how economists define retirement that I thought was interesting. (They also have a good post about the concept of financial independence. UPDATE: And another one about identity and jobs.)

So one of the things I decided to do while thinking about all of this was to re-read part of a book I bought a long time ago, called How to Do Things Right by L. Rust Hills that is a compilation of short works and essays written by the long-time fiction editor at Esquire magazine, who had an interesting and varied career over many decades.

The section I wanted to re-read is called “How to Retire at 41, Or, Life Among the Pursuits.” It was originally published in 1973 as a book called How to Retire at 41: Dropping Out of the Rat Race without Going Down the Drain.

As is often the case when I read an actual book, written before the advent of the internet (or at least before the internet as we know it), by an actual writer, I am struck by how much better it is than so much of what I usually read. Which almost always makes me think I should stop spending so much time on the internet and start reading more actual books.


So I was going to write a nice post about this whole thing, with a point and everything, and hopefully someday I will actually manage to do that, but in the meantime I decided I should just to give you an excerpt from the book. Because it provides some good background and if I ever do get around to writing more, I can just reference this.

The general point, which I’ve been thinking about for a long time, is that one of the challenges of being “financially independent” or “retiring” (sometimes those terms are used interchangeably, sometimes not) is that much of our society is built around work. People typically define themselves by occupation; one of the most common introductory questions in America is “What do you do?” (Which doesn’t mean that it’s not a weird question, it totally is, but nonetheless it is very common.)

Having a job provides a great deal of structure to your life; if you don’t have a job, you need to figure all kinds of things out on your own. And you need to have enough of a conception of yourself that you can give a reasonable answer when you meet new people and they ask you what you do.

About half way through “How to Retire at 41,” the author begins discussing the concept of the “occupational identity” — how you identify yourself with what you do for a living — and considers how one can move beyond that. And I think what he says is worth thinking about.

So here it is:

Beyond the Occupational Identity

Remember that statement of Montaigne’s that we began with, way back when:

If you plan to withdraw into yourself, first prepare yourself a welcome.

We now see it isn’t just a Comprehensive Day Plan you need, or a country place or an old time-consuming boat or an engrossing hobby or whatever (although these help, God knows); what’s needed is some conception of yourself — of, that is, your self — now that you won’t be working. You don’t really realize, until you quit work, just how much of your conception of your self comes from your work — not just from what you do, but how you do it.

Your basic occupational identity — what you did, or “were” — permitted a lot of amplification by the way you did what you were. When you were working, you weren’t (not in your own mind, anyway) just ” an accountant” or “in fabrics” or “one of the salesmen” or “an insurance man” or whatever. You were also the way you did the work: you were the kindly boss, or the efficient second-in-command, or the talented idea-man or the only one in the office who got along with the secretaries, or some such. Whatever you were, you had some sense of yourself doing it, some recognition of the role you’d chosen to play or the role you’d been forced into.

Let’s take fishing, which can be either a work-for-pay occupation or a leisure-retirement pursuit. Say you were a fisherman when you worked, that’s what you did, that’s who you were, a fisherman. Okay, now there’s also the style you used when you were a fisherman. A fisherman-by-trade can be, for instance, kindly like Manuel or whatever his name was (Spencer Tracy) in Captains Courageous; or he can be surly like Ahab in Moby-Dick. There are presumably an infinite number of ways to be a professional fisherman on this kindly-surly scale, and kindly-surly is only one of many polarizations of personality traits, as you know — although, admittedly, perhaps the most important one.

But now, suppose that when you quit work you took up fishing as a retirement pursuit. One assumes here that you weren’t a fisherman-by-trade before, but something else; because you’d never retire from being a fisherman at age forty-one and then take up fishing as a retirement pursuit unless it was just to make fun of me. Say, though, you were (used to be) an insurance salesman, and now at forty-one you can quit work and live off your commissions from the premiums we pay on the policies you sold us years and years ago. You decide to take up fishing as a retirement pursuit. Now the way you fish in retirement is the key thing. You can do it in a kind of elegant, heroic, upper-classy, sportsman-type way — big-game fishing like Hemingway, or elegant dry-fly angling with delicate lightweight rods — that sort of way. Or you can take it up in a kind of messy, kindly, puttery, lower-classish way — in an old rowboat or fishing off the bridge with the neighborhood kids.

You see what I’m saying? I’m saying that once the specific, defining, perhaps confining, at any rate identifying occupation is removed from your life by your retirement from work, then you style or manner, your “you-ness,” becomes the all-important thing, because there isn’t anything much else. The way you do things, the way in fact you do nothing (now that there’s nothing to do) that’s now the only self you have. If when you retire you do some fishing to fill your time, you can sit out there in your rowboat all day long with the pole in your hands, and they’re still not going to say of you, “Oh, he’s a fisherman,” because you aren’t a fisherman. You used to be an insurance man. Now you’re nothing. You’re nothing except the way you do nothing. Everyone thinks of you as nothing — unless you do your nothing in a way that identifies you to people; unless, for instance, you do your fishing (or whatever) in a puttery, kindly sort of way, say, in which case they’ll say, “Oh, he’s (you, that is, are) a kindly soul, just as sweet and gentle as can be.” Or maybe they’ll describe you, identify you, “Oh, he really stirs things up, a kind of troublemaker, but fun to be around.” Personality’s a part of it, of course, but it’s more a matter of individuality, a kind of amplification of personality by consistency of style and manner.

With your occupational identity gone, you have to find another existence for yourself. Remember Thoreau leaning on the fence post, lying on the ice, and so on? Well, now imagine he’s fishing. When he fishes, he fishes as Thoreau, not as a fisherman. He’s not a fisherman, and he knows it. Like him, you have to be able to have the fishing (or whatever the specific nondefining, nonoccupational routine or pursuit you’re up to) removed or replaced, and still be left with enough particularity of how it is done (not what is done) to provide a sufficient sense of self for yourself and others.

Beyond the occupational identity, that’s all there is.

The Holiday Corridor

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I have to make a small confession before I start this post, which is that I am mildly addicted to reading advice columns. “Ask Beth” was a particular favorite of mine back in the day. I also used to love reading “My Problem and How I Solved It” in Good Housekeeping magazine. I don’t know why, I just dig that kind of thing.

A couple of years ago I read this pathetic letter to Carolyn Hax, proprietress of the “Tell Me About It” column (syndicated by the Washington Post and appearing twice a week in the Raleigh News & Observer, which is where I read it) from someone who had a terrible time with holidays, her immediate family was generally dysfunctional and she had no close relatives. She had tried various approaches — volunteering, inviting people from church, inviting friends of her kids — but none of them had panned out. She and her daughter had spent the most recent Thanksgiving “eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers,” and she felt that they were destined to spend the rest of their holidays that way. She wrote to Carolyn asking how she could help prepare her daughter for coping with this sad life.

Carolyn acknowledged that there were some real problems in the letter-writer’s life that she needed try to address, but also pointed out that the rest of the letter seemed to be her taking things to extremes and wallowing in self-pity.

CH’s main piece of advice was that the letter-writer simply let go of the “traditional Thanksgiving script,” and write herself a new one — that she should look at the holiday as nothing more or less than a day off from work, and take it from there.

The reason this letter struck me is not just because eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers sounds like not a bad holiday to me, but because it reminded me of how worked up people get over holidays, and how difficult it can be for people whose lives might not have turned out quite the way they had imagined, to deal with certain situations.

And I thought CH’s advice was generally good, but I would have added one other small bit of advice, which is that the first thing you need to do if, for whatever reason, you find the holiday season distressing or depressing, is to …


And possibly the radio, too.

Just take my word on this. You need to kill the commercials.

You can’t avoid all holidayness — you will have to leave the house at some point, and Christmas decorations are everywhere — but if you have the television on you are simply bombarded with it. It’s a lot easier to ignore front yards with reindeer in them and baking displays on the end caps at the local Stop and Shop than it is tune out a continuous barrage of commercials involving people giving each other expensive gifts and attending fabulous parties with a whole bunch of beautiful people who live in perfectly decorated houses and who all love each other.

That’s just all I can say. Turn off the television. I guarantee that you will feel better the instant the screen goes dark.

[Aside on living without television…
If you are at a loss as to what to do with yourself now that you cannot watch television, my suggestions would be to:

(a) read something interesting (may I recommend David Copperfield, it is 900+ pages long, that’ll keep you out of trouble for a good long while)
(b) get back to an old hobby (knitting, sewing, woodworking)
(c) acquire a new hobby (ceramics, welding, boxing)

Make holiday cards, paint your house, clean the basement, bake cookies for the neighbors, trace your genealogy, dig holes in your yard and then fill them up. Who cares.

If you like having television for background noise, see if you can substitute listening to music, or talk radio (NPR or whatever else you have access to), or even audio books. Whatever you can do that is commercial free.]

This will help you, as Carolyn advised, to “write a new script.” Because you can now think about what is important to you, and what you want to do, and not get all caught up with what you feel like you should be doing based on what you think the rest of the world is doing based on what you see on tv.

The other advice I would give, which she did touch on but didn’t emphasize quite enough, in my opinion, is …

Don’t worry about what the rest of the world is doing.

If you want to be with people, then be with people, and if you want to eat turkey in the kitchen and read newspapers then do that. You can cook and eat a big meal or go to McDonald’s and buy a Big Mac or not eat anything at all. You can spend the day with family, or with friends, or with your dogs, or by yourself. Or any combination thereof. It’s all good.

And if you’re worried about what other people will think, if they will feel sorry for you or just feel like you’re odd, if you do some nontraditional activity, I would give you the advice that someone told me the artist Laurie Anderson gave in response to a question about what other people thought about her and her art. Laurie Anderson reportedly said, “No one else really cares what you’re doing.”

And that is the truth.

No one else really cares what you’re doing. Just do what you want. All the time. But especially during the holidays.

The Sometimes Phone, Part II

Monday, September 23, 2013

[Okay, I lied. No pictures yet. The summary post with the actual how-to will have pictures. I need to finish rambling on before I get to that. Patience, my friends, patience.]

Okay, so I got the phone, and I had already ordered the SIM card (and it was touch-and-go on whether it would arrive before Tuesday so I paid for expedited shipping … don’t wait til the last minute to figure things out, it costs more. News flash for everyone out there, I’m sure no one’s noticed that before.)

And I will say that maybe I’m just kind of an idiot, but the learning curve on all of this turned out to be somewhat challenging.

You have a SIM card. You have a phone. It’s pretty clear where the SIM card goes, there’s a slot in the back, but it’s not entirely clear which way it goes. Though after I did it wrong, it seemed obvious that of course it would go so the metal circuit-board-ish looking side is on the bottom, touching the phone. And I learned that it is possible to remove the SIM card that you put in the wrong way and put it in the right way without damaging either the phone or the SIM card. Good news there.

Okay, SIM card is in phone. SIM card is facing right direction. Still says “No SIM card.”


So then I decide to play around with the phone and get that set up.

One of the reasons this whole thing was especially challenging for me is because I have never been much of a cell phone person, and the only time I use smartphones is when I’m sending a message for a friend who is driving — “on our way, be there 10min.” Things like that. So there were a lot of different ways for me to do things wrong, and I didn’t know what I was doing with anything so had difficulty troubleshooting and narrowing down the range of possible errors.

But I persevered.

I set up the Motorola BLUR account. I figured out the wireless network part and stored my wireless network info in the phone so it would connect automatically.

It now recognizes the SIM card. Progress. (No idea whether that was just a timing thing or the phone account needed to be set up first or what.)

Now let’s see if we can get the phone part up and running.

According to the instructions from Ready SIM, all I have to do is text my zip code to 7850 and I will get a text in reply with the phone number that will go with this SIM card (and that I can then link to my Google Voice number, which is the one I give out as my cell number).

I text the code and it looks like it goes but then … I get an error message. Red X in the corner, “Message not sent.” I do this multiple times. The X keeps coming back.


I try googling, but what I’m looking for is completely vague — phone thing not working. Not surprisingly, nothing comes up. I look on the Ready SIM website for helpful hints, “If you see this, it’s because of that, just do this and it will work.” Nothing. Just their slogan — “So easy your mother can do it” — taunting me.

At 5:40pm, I submit a support ticket. I say, “This may be so easy my mother can do it, but my mother is not here, and I can’t get it to work. What am I doing wrong.”

Then I just give up and move on to everything else I need to do before the trip, decide I will deal with it when I get there.

I was going to Portland, Oregon and staying with a friend I’ve known since middle school and her husband, who are both great. I was getting in mid-afternoon and heading to their house from the airport, they would see me when they got home from work.

[Random aside: I love taking public transportation to and from airports, it makes me feel self-sufficient and it’s usually like two dollars. In Portland it was $2.50 to take light rail and change to a bus that dropped me off half a block from my friends’ house in Southeast Portland.]

I stayed with them last year and knew the lay of the land. I knew they had a wireless network that I could get on, and that I still had the password for stored in my computer.

So I get to their place, no problems, and I get on their wi-fi and check my email (using my laptop) to see if there’s anything I need to deal with and also see if there is any response from Ready SIM.

I have a message from support that says things should work, there is coverage in my area, restart the device and try again. I’m not in the same place anymore, so that seems not so relevant, but I try sending the text again and this time it goes straight through, no problem, right away I get a message in reply with a phone number.


I send a text to my friend I’m staying with saying I’m at her house and telling her this is my number for the week so she can enter it into her contacts. I text my friend who I had been sending GAAHHH WHY IS THIS NOT WORKING messages to on Monday to tell her I figured it out. I make a call to the friend I’m supposed to be doing work things with on Thursday so we can finalize plans. All is good.

And I have a phone for the next fourteen days. I get to see how the other half lives.

And it’s … fine. Texting is kind of fun, but also insanely distracting. People think they are doing two things at once when they are texting, they think they are still doing the thing they were doing while also typing surreptitiously in the background, but I am here to tell you that that is not what is happening. You have no idea what is going on around you when you are texting.

Totally distracting.

I got the unlimited talk and text plus the full data plan since it seemed like that might be useful but I discovered that most of the stuff I look up online when I’m wandering around is dumb, I get sucked into stupid things that I could just look up later. Or things that I really don’t need to know anyway. It was way more distracting than helpful. (Maybe if I used it more or had more apps I’d decide it was great, but for starters, it didn’t do much for me.)

The second day of my visit, I’m having a nice relaxing afternoon walking around Hawthorne and I see something outside of an interesting thrift-type store that I want to take a picture of but discover that I need an SD card to take a picture and my phone didn’t come with an SD card.

Hmm… Is that something they sell all over the place, like phone cards? Can I just go into a 7-11 and get one? Or do I need an electronics store, or big box retailer?

Hawthorne is all funky shops and bars and cafés and I’m thinking I probably can’t get one here but keeping my eyes open for any place that seems like it might have something like that.

I walk past this shop called iDope. It sells iPhone accessories and does repairs and will jailbreak your phone for you and whatever else you need done with your iPhone or iPad.

I think, “Well … maybe.”

So I walk in and it’s a small shop with a guy sitting at a desk with two buddies hanging out. I say, “Do you sell SD cards?”

He shakes his head, “No … sorry, I don’t …” and then he stops and says, “Well, wait. What kind? The small ones?”

I say, “I don’t know, it’s for an android phone.”

He opens a drawer and pulls out an envelope with SD cards in it. He said, “Here, try one of these. These are ones that came in with phones.”

I give him the phone and he puts one in and it says it’s good to go.

He says, “I have no idea what’s on it, but there you go. It’s yours.”

I say, “Great. I now have someone’s porn collection on my phone.”

We laugh about that, and I thank him sincerely and head out the door to take a picture of something. And it works! Cool.

And it would have been an interesting story to get someone’s crazy pictures, but it turns out the card was empty. (Probably better, but still, a little disappointing.)

So I’m in Portland and I have a smartphone, with everything that entails (camera! calculator! clock!) and an unlimited talk/text + 1GB data plan.

The Sometimes Phone.


[And stay tuned for Part III — How does The Sometimes Phone work when it doesn’t have a phone plan?]

Minimizing Cost vs. Maximizing Value

Sunday, September 22, 2013

This started as a comment in the discussion about the first post in The Sometimes Phone Saga, but I decided it deserves its own post.

I replied to a comment about the pay-as-you-go service I had where I mentioned the idea of whether you should try to minimize costs, or maximize value. Which in the case of cell phones generally relates to per-minute costs — which of course you also want to minimize. But because I changed that sentence in mid-thought, I ended up writing “maximize per-minute costs.” Which would indeed be an interesting strategy.

So, just to highlight this, I’d like to talk for a minute about minimizing cost vs. maximizing value.

This concept applies not just to cell phones, but to everything. Sometimes lowest cost is the best value, but often there are nonmonetary factors (quality, convenience, ease-of-use) that go into making one thing a better value than another.

Often minimizing costs in the short term results in additional costs over the long term. If you buy a cheaper thing that is poorer quality, you will likely have to replace it sooner, so the total amount you spend will be more. But if it’s something you’re only going to use once anyway, then quality doesn’t matter and you should just get the cheapest thing.

So, as with everything, what the best strategy is depends on what you are trying to accomplish. (As I’ve learned asking my CPA father questions about taxes, the answer to everything is, “It depends.”)

When trying to figure out which phone service I should get, I ran into a conflict between figuring out which one would allow me to spend the least amount of money overall and which would give me the most use for the least amount of money.

Most of the time I focus on value; I want to get the most for what I’m spending. In the case of the phone service, however, I went with a different calculation — I looked at what was going to cost me the least amount at the time I was signing up for it, regardless of what I would get for that.

This was partly because I wasn’t getting the phone because I wanted it, or thought it would make my life better, but because I felt compelled to get it by external circumstances (people expecting me to have a phone, people telling me I should have a phone for safety, etc.). But also because the calculations to determine most value for a product you don’t have and don’t know how you are going to use are difficult, to say the least.

There are all kinds of factors to consider when deciding which phone service is going to work best.

  • If you like bleeding-edge technology and want to always have a high-end phone (or if you don’t care about this but are in a line of work where that actually matters), then you should get a contract plan where the cost of the phone is subsidized by the monthly cost of the plan.
  • If you talk or text a lot, or don’t want to have to think about whether you’re talking or texting too much, you should get an unlimited plan.
  • If you don’t really care what kind of phone you use and you don’t talk very much, you should look at a pay-as-you-go service or a no-contract monthly plan and get the cheapest refurbished phone you can get. (And in this case, “cheap” might be “free” — many companies have basic phones available at no extra cost when you sign up for their service.)

And if you don’t really know what you want or need, try to get something that will let you figure it out without locking you in to anything for too long.

Everyone’s situation is going to be different, and there’s not one answer that is going to work for everyone. Though it does seem like there are many wrong answers.

I think a lot of people have a contract phone because that’s what the system is set up for, and so that’s the easiest thing to get. They don’t know how many minutes they use, but they know their phone is important to them. They might worry about going with some company they’ve never heard of, that no one they know uses, or they might think that they need a standard plan because they use their phone all the time, without actually looking to see how many minutes they use or need.

Some alternatives to the standard contract phone from one of the big carriers are no-contract monthly plans and pay-as-you-go options from all the major carriers as well as Virgin Mobile, Net10, Tracfone, Cricket, Boost Mobile.

There is Ting , which adjusts your plan based on what you use.

There is Republic Wireless, which combines wifi and cellular networks to offer low-cost smartphone options using their phones, and services like PureTalkUSA, Straight Talk and Air Voice that offer SIM cards and low-cost, no-contract options for people who want to use their own phone.

So basically there is a lot going on in this marketplace.

If you have a phone that you like, and are happy with the service, and the amount you pay seems reasonable for how much you use it, then just go with that.

But if you feel like you’re paying too much for what you need or use, then look at some of the alternatives, and see if anything out there might work better for you.

(And writing all of this makes me think about how I’ve been joking with friends about working as a “frugality consultant.” It seems like there would definitely be an opportunity for people specializing in phone services — you go to them with six months worth of phone bills and they look at it and talk with you and then give you a choice of options with pros/cons/estimated costs and you pick the one you want.

All you personal finance entrepreneurs out there, have at it!)

The Sometimes Phone, Part I

Thursday, September 19, 2013

[Okay I know this is a ridiculously long story but if you wait for me to figure out which parts are actually relevant and edit it appropriately I’ll never get it up. I just need to write and post. I’ll put up a summary when it’s all written with key points. People who want to know about this but have limited patience for rambling writing can just wait for that.]

I had a conversation the other night with someone I know who doesn’t own a car but sometimes needs one when she travels, and she talked about how complicated that is, that the whole system is designed for people who have cars all the time, and if you don’t, you have to get crazy expensive insurance and it feels like highway robbery. (And for any of you who find yourself in this position, she said that the solution she finally came up with is to use Hotwire, they offer relatively cheap insurance with their cars. Now you know.)

I said this is the same problem I have with cell phones, the system is set up for people to have a phone all the time, every day, not to have a phone when they go out of town, which is the only time I want or need a cell phone.

And that conversation inspired me to finally write this post. Because I think I have (more or less) solved the phone problem — at long last, I finally have a Sometimes Phone.

When you say you don’t have a phone but need one sometimes, people say, “Just get a pay-as-you-go phone.” This is always suggested by someone who knows absolutely nothing about pay-as-you-go phones.

It would be nice if you could get a pay-as-you-go phone and then pay when you wanted to use it and not pay when you didn’t need it then when you needed it again put more money on it. However this is not how pay-as-you-go phones work.

When you get a pay-as-you-go phone, you create an account with a carrier and they give you a phone number and you put money on the phone on a regular basis to keep it active. How often you have to put money on the phone depends on how much money you put on in the first place, and the carrier, and all kinds of other variables that I am not remembering right now because I have blocked this whole thing from my memory, because it is such a pain in the ass.

Every carrier is different and trying to compare plans is extremely difficult. I am like a total superstar at stuff like this and even I am unable to properly run numbers and come up with a rational conclusion.

So I will just say that generally what I found is that in order to get a low per-minute rate, you need to buy quite a lot of minutes each month, at which point you might as well just get a monthly plan because you’re spending the same amount.

For a long time (spring 2003 to fall 2012) I had a Virgin Mobile plan that did what I needed and was pretty cost-effective. I had to put on $20 every 90 days ($15 every 90 days if I linked it to my credit card and had it top up automatically) and the rate was twenty-five cents a minute for the first ten minutes a day I used the phone, and ten cents a minute after that. So how many minutes my $15 or $20 got me depended on how I used the phone. Days that I talked more got me more minutes than days that I talked less.

Some carriers charge a lower per-minute rate but have a flat fees for using the phone — like I think AT&T or T-Mobile charges a dollar for every day you use the phone.

Really the only way to compare is to have a sense of how you are likely to use the phone, then run the numbers for the various options through that scenario and see which one works for you. (But like I said, it’s hard. You definitely need a spreadsheet.)

Because I didn’t need to use the phone very much, I didn’t particularly care about the per-minute rate, I just wanted to have a low minimum. Which is why I liked the Virgin Mobile plan.

But when my phone mysteriously disappeared in September 2012, I looked at it as an opportunity to stop paying $15 every 90 days for something I barely used.

Eighty per cent of my life, I am within arm’s reach of a phone. The other twenty per cent I am taking a break and do not want to talk on the phone. If you want to talk to me, you can leave a message and I will call you back when I am again within arm’s reach of the phone.

The exception to this is when I travel.

Traveling without a phone is often complicated, because everyone expects you to have a phone, so they set things up assuming you have a phone. Okay, call me when you get to town.

It is not actually all that complicated to arrange things so that a phone is not required, but in order to do that, you have to tell people you do not have a phone. And saying you do not have a phone makes you sound like some kind of nut job. What do you mean you don’t have a phone.

So I would like a phone when I travel, so I don’t have to make people go back in time and remember what it’s like to make plans without cell phone, or explain to people I don’t see very often why I don’t have a phone. I’m trying to fly under the radar here.

But I do not want to pay for a phone every month of my life just so I have it the few times a year when I am not at home.

At a nonprofit tech group I participate in, I learned about Google Voice, and that you could get a number that you could send texts from. This was a hugely useful piece of information, it meant that I could use my computer in place of a cell phone. Since I am nearly always in close proximity to my computer, this solved nearly all of my communication problems.

Except if I actually needed to talk to someone on the phone when I am not in a house or office with a phone, or with my computer in a place with wi-fi.

I had a trip in June that I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to pull off. I was on the trip and was discussing it a lunch with a friend whose family lives everywhere (mother in France, sister in London, father in Switzerland, in-laws in Mexico), and he said something that I thought was the usual pay-as-you-go suggestion.

I said, “Right, but you have to pay all the time to keep it active, what am I going to do, get a new phone every time I take a trip?”

He said, “No, not a new phone, just a SIM card. You need a GSM phone. An unlocked phone that you just put a SIM card into.”

After we were done with lunch and I was back to my computer, I looked into it a little bit and discovered ReadySIM, which was designed for Canadians who are visiting the U.S. and want a short-term phone plan to avoid the crazy roaming charges the would get otherwise. You get a SIM card with an unlimited phone plan that is good for 3, 7, 14, or 30 days. The three-day card is $15, the thirty-day card is $40.

I almost made it through the trip in June without a hitch.

I ran into traffic driving from Connecticut to Philadelphia and couldn’t call my friend and tell her where I was. I hadn’t told her I didn’t have a phone (had texted her from Google Voice) so she was calling and texting wondering what was going on. Other than that, I pulled it off (though I cheated a bit and borrowed a friend’s iPad, which made surreptitious GV texting easier).

But then close on the heels of that trip, I had a second trip set up for July which was going to be much more complicated. I decided I needed to try to figure out the phone.

I looked online for “unlocked GSM phone.” A whole bunch of places came up, Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart. I’m like oh, great, this is going to be totally easy. Everyone has them. Prices ranged from $20 to $800, there were a million options.

Because it seems like this is going to work, no problem, I order a 14-day ReadySim SIM card. I get the full service one (talk-text-data), I’m totally ready, just need the phone.

But I’m totally busy recovering from the first trip. I do manage to stop at a nearby Radio Shack, but they don’t carry any unlocked phones. I’m busy. I take no further action. I have a meeting on Friday that is in the direction of all the Big Box retailers. I’m like this is fine, I’ll just deal with it on Friday.

So on Friday, I go to the Best Buy Mobile store, which is a Best Buy store that just carries phones and phone service, no tvs or refrigerators or anything like that, I’m thinking this is just what I need, and I walk in and as about unlocked GSM phones and the sales person says, “No we don’t carry any unlocked phones.” I say, but your website says you sell them. She says, “Right, we only sell those online.”


It is now Friday at 4pm. I am leaving on my trip Tuesday morning, my flight leaves at 9:30am. Ordering online, not a good option. And I was so confident that I could get the phone at Best Buy that I took the bus. Which means I can’t even stop at the other stores to see what they have.

I take the bus home and go online and start looking around and calling to see if anyone local carries unlocked GSM phones. I become obsessed with this. All the while kicking myself for being a procrastinating moron.

I call four or five places, I ask if they have unlocked GSM phones, they say no. (Later I realize I should have just asked for unlocked phones, which I’m pretty sure are all GSM phones. I think people who didn’t know what a GSM phone was just said no because they didn’t know what I was talking about, even if they carried unlocked phones.)

I finally call this cell phone store off Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, I ask if they have unlocked GSM phones. They say, “Yup, we do. ” I said, “Really?” They said, “Yeah, sure. Uh huh.”

I find out exactly where they are located and tell them I’ll be in on Saturday.

After my work shift on Saturday, I drive through a thunderstorm to Raleigh and find the store, which happens to be in the same shopping center as TigerDirect, which I had called on Friday, and they told me they carry unlocked GSM phones, but didn’t have any in stock, they should be getting some in next week. Not so helpful when I was leaving on Tuesday morning.

I walk into the little cell phone store, I ask about unlocked phones, the guy is like “Mmmm … no, I don’t think so. We had one but we sold it.”

Gaahhh, round two.

A discussion ensues among the four people working in the store whether or not they have anything that would work for me and what it might be. They say they have a Windows phone that has never been used or put on a network, that might work. It’s over $250. Way more than I want to spend on something that may or may not work the way I want to. Plus Windows. No. They have one other possible option that is also out of my price range, $350 or something like that.

No go. I leave the store.

I decide to stop at TigerDirect, since it’s right there.

They have a little phone display with a bunch of different options and I look and notice that they do in fact have several phones in stock under the display shelf.

I talk to a sales person and tell him what I’m looking for and we look at the what they have and there are basically two that will work, a small Samsung and a Motorola Droid Pro.

I will say right now that I know people love their iPhones and iPads but I cannot tell you how much I hate those effing keyboards on those things. I hate having to switch between letters and numbers and clearly this is a deeply flawed system that everyone has to make a note about typos as part of their signature. Hello. Not good.

The Samsung was tiny and had a touch-screen keyboard. The Droid Pro had a fairly large screen and a physical keyboard. They were both the same price ($139). I bought the Droid Pro.


Stay tuned for Part II about how I actually set up the phone and got it to work (with pictures! I promise!)


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