Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail

Robert Heinlein wrote a short story based loosely on his Naval Academy experiences about a man so lazy that he became successful. It is an interesting parable.


As a youth, I used to escape from reality by reading Science Fiction. That, and drugs. The former was probably a better influence. It has been interesting to live in the intervening decades and see much of the "Sci Fi" of my youth become the future history of the planet.

Future History, of course, is a term coined by Robert Heinlein, the famous Science Fiction writer. Heinlein's work can be somewhat sophomoric and perhaps even ultra-libertarian, but his works often illustrate - cleverly - aspects of human living that are not readily apparent to many.

For example, in Time Enough for Love, Heinlein's character Lazarus Long is seen burning money at the bank he is running on a small planet. A friend is aghast that someone could be so foolish as to burn something as valuable as money. Long explains that whenever his bank has to issue money, he just prints more. Rather than leave money laying about (and tempting robbers) he just burns the "deposits" until someone asks to withdraw money - at which point he prints more.

And it is a story-within-the-story that really tells a significant truth. The underlying value of money is not in the paper and ink, but in the idea of its worth. And like the disbelieving character in the story, most people simply don't get it. After all, money is valuable, right? You can't simply burn it. (And the story pretty much mirrors what our government does on a daily basis - shredded old obsolete bills and printing millions more to replace them).

The Gold Bugs should read that story - and understand that the value of gold is really just an idea that can (and will) change over time. Gold is no "save haven" for investors, as history has shown. Once the idea about its value increases, the supply will as well - leading to a decrease in the idea of its value.

But another story in that same book also made an impression on me as a youth. It was the Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail. It is a funny story, loosely based on some of his experiences at the Naval Academy. A young officer, assigned to a particular task, realizes that the laborious way people were doing it before was shortsighted ("We've always done it this way" - how many times have you heard that?). So he finds shortcuts to make his job easier, because he is so incredibly lazy. Since he gets his work done faster (and better) he gets promoted - again and again.

The story follows him to his private life were a similar thing occurs and before long he ends up a millionaire.

It is an interesting and useful story, in my opinion, as it illustrates several aspects of human nature that we should all be aware of. First, is the tendency of people to do the same things over and over again without questioning why they are doing them - and whether they can be done differently or better. Many inventors who come to me for advice have not come up with earth-shattering inventions. Rather, they have just noticed what others have blinded themselves to - that there are better ways of doing things. And oftentimes, people argue - in hindsight - that such inventions are therefore "obvious". But of course, they are obvious to us now.....

Second, seeing things from different angles is vitally important if you really want to succeed in life. Many folks like to "follow the herd", convinced that there is safety in numbers. There can be safety at the center of the herd, but as I have pointed out before, the grass there is trampled down and pooped upon. And often the herd can be spooked into a dangerous and ill-conceived stampede - sometimes off a cliff!

Third, while blinding ambition is not necessarily a bad thing, many people who are successful become so not through trickery, deception, and sharp practice, but rather through lack of ambition and the use of innovation in the place of hard work. The people who desperately climb the corporate ladder - willing to stab a co-worker in the back at a moment's notice - rarely really "succeed" in life, either on a financial or personal level (or not both). Such success is transitory at best and illusory at worst.

To some extent, I have tried to model my life on Heinlein's parable. My career has not followed the well-worn path laid out by others. And I have tried, through laziness, to find easier ways of doing things in order to cut costs and save money. And 9 times out of 10, it has worked.

Many of my friends who followed the herd have done well, but not spectacularly so. My fellow Engineering grads who went to work for big companies all ended up being laid off eventually. Few ever saw a pension or a gold watch after 25 years of service. And few made it up the corporate ladder to the coveted VP slot and the corner office. At best, most may retire with some modest savings after a lifetime of hard work.

A few who started their own companies did well, on the other hand. But that involved risk, and not everyone who took such risks succeeded of course. Those who failed? Well, they ended up with the same desk jobs as those who never tried.

And the same is true of my time in Government. Many of my fellow workers wanted to "do their time" so they could "get their 20 years in" and retire on a Government pension. A good plan, except for those who died 19 years into the bargain. And 20 years is an awfully long time, in my opinion, to work at any government job.

Many of my fellow law school students followed the path to the big firms, hoping to be promoted to Partner some day and make big money. Due to the pyramid nature of law firm partnerships, more than half never succeeded in their goal. Many of those who did succeed later on decided that the goal wasn't all it was cracked up to be - and ended up leaving.

Myself, I was never very ambitious. I went to Engineering school only because General Motors and United Technologies paid me to go. And when I graduated, I took at job at the Patent Office because it seemed like easier work than designing air conditioners in Arkansas. That, and my boss flat-out told me his department would be closed in 3 years. And when the Patent Office said they'd pay me to go to Law School, well that seemed like the path of least resistance as well.

Working in a law firm was hard work. And being lazy, I didn't understand why 2/3 of the money I made should be paid to cover a fancy office I didn't want, or to pay partners who rarely showed up for work. It just seemed like a no-brainer that I could work less and earn more on my own.

And that is where being lazy came in handy. Law firms like to throw huge salaries at you to entice you to work there. But my reaction was, "Why can't you pay me 1/4 as much and have me come in 2 days a week?" But that option wasn't available at the time. I didn't need the money but once you start making it, it is hard to stop.

One of the mistakes I made when starting my own practice was to follow the big firm model. After all, "that's the way we've always done it" - right? I hired Associates, a secretary, a paralegal, and bought an office building and leased a photocopier. And I was miserable. I had traded one treadmill for another. It took a lot of time for me to figure out that doing the way everyone else does is not the answer.

So I laid everyone off, rented out the office building and went back to doing what I did best - writing Patents. I didn't need to do a lot of work to succeed. And since I didn't have to run a treadmill every day to make money to pay overhead, I could take more time to write the cases the way I wanted to. But it took a long time to realize that model could work - and it took risk. There was no shortage of my fellow practitioners who said "it can't be done" either.

Since then I have tried to live as frugally as possible. I have also made the mistake of falling into the trap of owning things and that is one thing I am trying to change right now. Being lazy, I don't want to work very hard. And when you buy something, you have to work in order to pay for it. In fact - getting back to the first Heinlein story noted above - the idea of money really is represented by work. Each dollar in your pocket represents a measured amount of your labor.

So while a shiny fancy luxury car is a nice thing to have, in order to own it, you have to labor more. Own less, labor less. It is a very simple concept. And when you are spending all of your working hours making money to own things you never have time to use (because you are laboring to pay for them) then something is very, very wrong.

I see this all the time at the Lake. We have a small cottage on the water and were worried that the adjoining properties would be crowded with noisy families all the time. Turns out we needn't have worried. Most people are so busy working - so that can pay the cable bill and their car payments - that they never use their lake properties. Most are abandoned for 9/10ths of the summer.

There is no point in owning something if you never really get to enjoy it. You are better off working less and enjoying more.

I guess I have always been this way. My Elementary School report cards bear this out. "Robert is a bright lad, but needs to apply himself more" was a comment that was made by more than one teacher. I viewed much of school as make-work and busy-work to keep kids occupied, and moreover train us for a life of 9-5 existence.

When all is said and done in life, much of what we felt was critical and important in life ends up discarded. It is like on the last day of the school year, after you leave for the Summer. All those tests and quizzes and book reports and homework - so important to you during the school year - are now just trash to be thrown out. Was it all ever that important?

The same is true with careers. Do something you love - or at least enjoy - but don't take it all too seriously. Because when it is all said and done, chances are, no one will remember you for the work you did at Woodmen of the World Insurance Company.

Making time for yourself is more important than all that - and probably the most costly thing you can really "own" in your life is your own free time. Yet so many of us are all-too-willing to enslave ourselves for the sake of a dream job or a fancy house or fancy car. It needn't be that way.

Looking back, my only regrets were that I didn't have more courage to be more like Heinlein's Lazy Man. It was difficult to buck the norms of society and see things in a different light. The compulsion to conform is strong on all of us, and very few succeed in varying from this in even the smallest way.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try...

Decisions... and Change

Making a Decision can be a painful and stressful experience. But deciding not to decide is also making a decision.

I recently had to make one of the more momentous decisions in my life and it has not been an easy experience. Actually, there have been other decisions in my life which have been more important than this, but at the time I made those decisions, I didn't realize how important they were. I just stumbled into things at that early age, and hoped everything would work out OK. In retrospect, that was much easier.

As you get older, however, things change. To begin with, you appreciate more how decisions affect your life. And moreover, as an older person, you don't have the luxury of a "do over" as much as you did when you were young. Suddenly, each decision in life seems less reversible and more important. You have savings, you have a job, you have a house, and what you decide to do is more and more important.

Many people react to this stress by deciding not to decide. So they stay at a job they hate, at a factory that is closing, and act surprised when they are laid off. "I never saw it coming," they say, but what they really mean is "I refused to see it coming and take action, because that would involve making a decision, and decisions scare me."

Why does deciding scare people? It is funny, but it does. People, as I have noted in my companion Losing Weight Now blog, are afraid of something as trivial as a bad meal, much less investing in the wrong mutual fund. So they shun a new restaurant experience on the premise that the risk of having a bad entree is too much risk to take. Many folks will only try a new restaurant if it gets good reviews or if all their friends go there and like it first - or if the parking lot is full and there is a line out the door.

But not deciding can be worse than making a bad decision. In the recent recession, many folks have lost their jobs or found themselves upside-down on a house and unable to afford the payments. Rather than cut their losses and move on, they cash in their savings to pay the mortgage for a few more months, hoping, against all common sense, that somehow it will all magically turn out OK for them. In the end, they lose the house, go bankrupt, and lose their life savings.

A better decision than not deciding is to decide - to see how things are trending and take action. Short-sale the house and walk away, rather then squander all your savings trying to "hold on" for a few more months. But few people do this, and the reason usually is pride - they don't want to be seen as "giving up" on their lifestyle. So rather than make a smart move and sell when they can, they end up with their possessions on the street and their house being sold at auction.

Thus, not deciding is usually worse than making a "wrong" decision. You are better off taking hold of the helm and guiding the ship than to let the wheel spin and hope your boat doesn't end up on the rocks.

For me, the difficult decision has been retirement. At age 50, I can basically afford to retire now. Or, I can keep working in order to support a large collection of consumer goods. When I was in my 20's, it seemed like having a lot of "stuff" was important. Now, in my 50's, I want to own as little as possible.

So, I could keep going as I was, on the premise that making a decision would be difficult (suppose I chose wrongly?) and to avoid being seen (by who?) as "giving up" - or I could make a decision and change my life.

I decided.

We are going to retire and live on Jekyll Island. I can do this and have one home, paid for, two cars, paid for, and no debt, and money in the bank. So..... why not do it? With reduced expenses, we can afford to travel more and do different things. We will still go North every year to escape the heat, but instead of owning a home up there, we will stay in our RV or on our boat or rent a cottage - for far less than the cost of ownership.

Real Estate prices have stabilized and will not skyrocket anytime soon. So selling now is not "missing out" on some later Real Estate pricing boom. Frankly, in this market, if you can sell for more than you paid, you are doing well, and we are doing well. We can afford to rent a lake cottage for less than what we are paying in Real Estate taxes on our home there.

This will mean a big change in our life and it will mean downsizing a lot. We have two houses full of furniture and two sets of everything you could possibly own - from vacuum cleaners to coffee makers to socks and underwear, to cars and appliances.

And it is a scary decision to make, too. Are we doing the right thing? Are we selling the right house? Most folks would laugh at our indecision - being able to MAKE such a decision is a luxury that most cannot even fathom.

But I think it is the right decision, for the following reasons:

1. We always intended to sell the NY house and move to Jekyll full time. It was just a matter of "when" not "if".

2. Taxes are lower in Georgia than New York, so it would be better to sell there than vice-versa.

3. We are Georgia residents and I am admitted to the Georgia Bar.

4. The Jekyll Property is more likely to increase in value as the island is revitalized.

5. Four golf courses, miles of deserted beaches, bike trails, recreation.

6. Single-level living and 36" wide doors will make for better retirement options.

7. Summer vacation options "up North" by camper are much greater than options for spending winters "down South". Florida gets pretty crowded in January.

The agonizing over making this decision was horrible. Having made it, now we can relax, and it makes a lot of other decisions for us. Now we can concentrate on downsizing and changing our live. And you know what? Change is exciting and fun. It means getting rid of a lot of "things" we thought we would have forever. But life changes and your needs change, so oftentimes, things you thought you'd always have, well, you don't need them anymore.

What do I need with six bicycles and four kayaks, anyway? Time to sell and move on...

Change can be invigorating and a good antidote (or preventative) to depression. Many people stay in the same mode, year after year, and wonder why they are not happy. I prefer to do different things at different times in my life and not feel "locked in" to decisions I made decades ago.

Yet most people do just the opposite - "staying the course" on decisions they made years back, as if they could not be reversed.

My Father preached this false religion, often telling us that "once you decide to so something, you have to stick with it!" - as if changing conditions and events could not be factored in. Perhaps that was his consolation or logic for staying with a job and a family he no longer wanted. "Stick with it" was all he had. But in the long run, change probably would have been a better idea.

I look forward to this next phase in my life. The next decade should be more exciting and fun - with less work to do and more things to do. Less things to own and more places to see. More golf, less work. And less reliance on a "job" to stay solvent from day to day.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Do you need or want Four-Wheel-Drive?

Four Wheel Drive and All Wheel Drive vehicles are very commonplace today - yet made up a small segment of the car industry as little as 20 years ago. Do you need four wheel drive in your vehicle? Or more concisely, does it pass the cost-benefit analysis test?

I've owned a number of four wheel drive and all wheel drive vehicles over the years. Ironically, when I lived in snow country, I never had one. Not even front wheel drive. We made do back then with rear wheel drive cars - often without posi-traction, and still got to work every day, even in a blizzard.

So why are four wheel drive cars so popular today? And do you really want or need one?

The first question is easier to answer. We are a wealthier country today than we were 40 years ago, so we can afford fancier cars, bigger boats, larger houses, giant televisions. And technology has made such consumer goods more "affordable" than before. Still more expensive, but now more affordable.

So four-wheel-drive, once limited to a few people who really needed it, has moved across the board as a commonplace option, like power windows and air conditioning (which 40 years ago, were also rare).

So today, we can "afford" these vehicles - or think we can. But do we really need the complexity and cost involved? What are the advantages to having four-wheel or all-wheel drive? For most people, it is largely an unnecessary expense, as we shall see.

Let me anticipate the response from some ignorant folk. "Well, some people need four-wheel drive to plow snow!" Well, duh. But a Subaru Outback isn't about to plow snow. Others might argue "Well, it snows where I live, I need an AWD car to get to work!" But as I noted before, many folks did just fine with rear wheel drive cars in the past. Why the sudden "need" for all-wheel or four-wheel drive?

And perhaps an explanation of these terms is in order.

Traditional Four Wheel Drive (4WD, 4x4) vehicles have a transfer case, usually two-speed, that can be engaged part-time. New Process Gear, a former division of Chrysler Corp., made many of these transfer cases. There is a 4x4 high range, 4x4 low range, neutral, and 2wd mode. Older Jeeps and 4x4 Pickup trucks used this type of system. A second drive shaft and a powered front axle - usually live, drove power to the front. Early models had manual locking hubs, which could be disengaged to reduce driveline friction. Later models had self-locking hubs which supposedly would engage and disengage automatically when four wheel drive was engaged or disengaged.

Such traditional systems had a 2WD mode, as they could not be driven in 4x4 mode on dry pavement, without chewing up tires or breaking driveline parts, particularly when turning. In the late 1970's GM offered a "full time 4WD" option on their trucks, and it tended to eat tires and get very poor gas mileage. Many upper-end versions of this traditional type of 4x4 may have posi-traction type differentials, or locking differentials, for extreme off-road use.

All Wheel Drive (AWD) is a somewhat different beast. These vehicles usually are permanently in four wheel drive mode, with no shift lever in the transfer case for high or low ranges. Usually, these systems use a Ferguson-type coupling (viscous) or a differential to couple the front wheels to the driveline, so that some slippage is allowed, which permits the vehicle to drive on dry pavement without chewing up its tires. The BMW X5 and entire Subaru line are examples of "All Wheel Drive" type vehicles.  These are not four-wheel drive vehicles, even though they drive all four wheels.

The recent explosion in 4x4 sales has largely been of the All Wheel Drive variety, which is popular in many SUVs and mini-SUVs. Some are based on front wheel drive platforms, with the rear wheels being the added drive wheels. And some, like the Honda CRV, when offered in 2WD versions, simply remove the rear differential portion of the drive train, which is readily apparent to anyone following such a car.

Regardless of drive type - 4x4 or AWD - there are significant costs associated with owning such vehicles:
  1. The added equipment, including the transfer case, drive shaft, powered axle, and other beefed-up components, adds thousands of dollars to the vehicle purchase price - generally on the order of $1500 to $4000.
  2. The added weight of all this equipment (500-1000 lbs) reduces gas mileage of the vehicle considerably, and also decreases cargo capacity.
  3. The added friction of the drivetrain severely reduces gas mileage as well.
  4. The added maintenance for these components adds to the cost of ownership, particularly as the car ages and major driveline components fail.
  5. Other components, such as tires and brakes may wear more quickly in AWD versions of vehicles.
The gas mileage thing is what strikes most people, initially. Many Subaru buyers are chagrined to discover that their little politically-correct wagons are horrible gas hogs. Few Subarus top 30 mpg, with most getting in the range of 25 mpg or less (the "Tribeca" struggled to get 20!). In an era where a front wheel drive family sedan can easily get 30 mpg or more, this is appalling.

BMW offers AWD versions of some of its cars (the so-called "X-drive" which is just a marketing term), and many users report that brake life in such vehicles is reduced, perhaps due to the extra mass of the driveline components. Tire life may also be reduced due to increased scrubbing caused by AWD.

For long-term ownership, the doubling in complexity in the driveline may also be an issue. In addition to the transfer case (which is like having a second transmission) the number of drive shaft segements (and U-joints or CV joints) is doubled. Add in a front axle with CV joints, and there are even more modes of failure to contemplate. The simpler you can make a vehicle, the cheaper it is to own and maintain. Adding AWD adds to complexity, so the benefits had better be worth the cost.

Taken together, this results in a significant increase in the cost of ownership for a vehicle with AWD versus, say front wheel drive. Like anything else, is this additional cost offset by an additional benefit? That is the question you have to ask yourself. And for probably 90% of AWD and 4x4 vehicle buyers, the answer is a resounding "NO".

Why is this? Well, for starters, most people don't live in areas where it snows, or there are dirt roads or other quasi-off-road conditions. 95% of all 4x4 and AWD vehicles are never taken "off road" in their lifetimes, which is a good thing. Most consumer-grade vehicles (even Jeeps) are ill-suited for serious off-road adventures. AWD vehicles in particular, are not suited for off-roading, as they can easily get stuck and have little ground clearance. Tough-looking Jeeps with fording snorkels might look off-road capable. But try fording a stream in one, and chances are, you will void the warranty and perhaps short out one of the many electrical systems in the car.

In short, real off-roading should be done by real off-roaders, using vehicles suitably modified (or built) for that purpose. Taking the family grocery-getter on the Rubicon trail is a really bad idea, even if the vehicle claims to be a "Rubicon" model. Most of these 4x4 and AWD vehicles are sold on the basis of style, not capability. So AWD has become, in effect, the tail fins of our era.

But what about snow? What about it? As I noted before, my generation made do with rear-wheel-drive cars and snow tires for decades and still got to work on time. Many of these had no posi-traction, and thus in effect were one-wheel-drive cars in the snow.

And when the snow is so bad that they are closing the schools and places of employment, what is the point of having a 4x4? There really is no place to go, until everything thaws out. That's what I learned in Washington DC during the "blizzards" they have there. You (and every other jackalope with an SUV) might be able to drive around, but there is no place to go, as everything is closed. And of course, over-confident SUV drivers end up planting their cars in the snowbanks anyway. Four wheel drive is not impervious to snow!

The irony is, many AWD owners don't put on snow tires anymore, convinced that their AWD is an acceptable substitute for snow tires. So they slip-slide on "All Season Radials" and rely on AWD to save their butts.

A front-wheel-drive car with snow tires will handle snow far better than an AWD car with all-season-radials. And you can buy a set of snow tires for far less than the cost of AWD.   If you factor in the extended life of your summer tires as a result, the cost of going to snow tires is really limited to the cost of extra rims and annual mounting. Comparing this to the extra gas used by an AWD, the maintenance and initial cost, you can see that a FWD car with snow tires is a far cheaper alternative.

And with modern traction controls, Front Wheel Drive cars with snow tires can really go places. Traction control has largely supplanted posi-traction differentials in the last few years, and it works really well. I recently drove my car to New York in February. I was taking it North to service it, and one item it needed was new rear tires. The summer tires on it were nearly bald. As luck would have it, it started snowing - heavily - as I arrived. Even with bald summer tires, on a rear-wheel-drive car, we made it home with no real issues - even driving uphill from a standstill. The traction control clanked and clunked, but it prevented wheelspin. 

Still convinced you "need" All-Wheel-Drive? I'm not.

Some manufacturers claim that AWD improves handling, even on dry pavement or in the rain. Subaru is taking this tack nowadays, as its "beauty of all wheel drive" campaign seems to be faltering in view of their horrible gas mileage. While improved handling may be one advantage, I suspect that for most of us, the difference is negligible. Most people simply don't drive like boy-racers all the time.

I have owned a number of these vehicles over the years and still have two. I have my Ford 4x4 pickup, which has a traditional two-speed transfer case and locking hubs. I've had the truck for 15 years and used four wheel drive maybe a dozen times. It has been handy for pulling boats up slippery tidal ramps, but that's about it.  (Note:  Another approach to the boat issue is to mount a trailer hitch on the front of your vehicle, for boat launching purposes, so the rear wheels are above the "slime line" on tidal boat ramps).

It cost maybe $3000 more in purchase price than its 2WD cousin, back in 1995, and over the years, has used a few thousand dollars more in gasoline. It had about 500 pounds less in cargo capacity as well. So far, the driveline hasn't broken, but it has used two locking hubs (the self-locking hubs broke on a long drive to the Keys, and I replaced them with WARN manual locking hubs). If I was to buy a new truck today, I would buy a 2WD version, and save the money.  (UPDATE DECEMBER 13, 2013:  I did.   A new Frontier 4x2 is about $5000 less than the comparable 4x4.  The latter does "look tough" though, which is why young men buy them.)

Over the life of the vehicle, four-wheel-drive cost probably $5000 to $10000 more to own, in terms of initial purchase price, repairs, and mostly, gasoline. The benefits were limited, at best.

With other vehicles, I have had similar experiences. The BMW X5 is a nice tow vehicle for our camper. But the AWD feature is not something that I really use (particularly with its low-profile P255/55 R18 tires) and there really is no reason this car should get only 21 mpg on the highway. Shed of its extra AWD component weight and driveline drag, this vehicle could easily get 25 mpg.

Again, all costs, little benefit.

I recently sold my Jeep. A real one, not one of those plastic buggies they sell today. A 1948 Willys CJ-2A, re-powered with a small-block Chevy. While it was a true "go anywhere" type of vehicle, I found that it spent most of its time in 2WD mode. We rarely took it off-road, even though it had a twin-stick transfer case and positraction, front and rear.

Image sells vehicles, and when I was a young man, I succumbed to this and bought a Suzuki Samurai. Yes, it was a tinny piece of junk, and wholly unsuitable for general transportation on America's highways. But like many other young people, I was drawn to the image of the rugged 4x4 more than anything. The reality of a leaky, bone-jarring ride turned out to be an entirely different sort of thing, however, and I quickly sold it and bought a nice, air-conditioned Camry.

And image is what sells most of these vehicles. Soccer-Mommies want the powerful image of the rugged off-roader, even though they will never, ever take their Suburban even onto the lawn. Young men like the macho image of the rough, tough 4x4, replete with off-road accessories like extra lights and the aforementioned snorkel intake.

And that is the main reason people buy these things - image and marketing. And as we have discussed before, image and marketing are probably the worst reasons to buy any product. Very few of us "need" a four-wheel-drive or AWD vehicle, and yet these vehicles now comprise a large portion of auto sales.

Before you jump on the AWD bandwagon, consider the actual costs involved, both in terms of purchase price, and long-term ownership. Then weigh the alleged benefits. Chances are, the benefits are fleeting or non-existent. Chances are, the only real benefit is to your ego.

For general transportation purposes, a well-made front-wheel-drive car with traction control and anti-lock brakes (automatic stability control) is more than adequate for most people's needs. If you live in snow country, invest in a set of quality snow tires (all four wheels). You'll end up giving your AWD neighbor a ride to work, after he plants his "Outback" shod with all-season radials into a snowbank.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Your Second Career - Plan on it!

Many, if not Most people don't retire from the career they started in. 30 years of service and a gold watch is out. Being booted when you're 50 is in. So expect to have a second career and start planning now for this contingency!

I have discussed before how for many people, retirement is not something they plan, but something that is thrust upon them, often years sooner than they expected. My Father got the boot at age 55 and never worked again, except as a financial consultant on commission for a few years.

Lately, I have been seeing this happen to many of my friends and acquaintances. And it seems to be a popular trend. To some extent, this is a new thing, as companies cut costs by firing older employees. The old days, where you worked for 30 years in the mines and then got a gold watch are out. Today, they boot you after 15 years, and you may end up seeking employment in other sectors - making far less than before.

Unfair? Perhaps. Perhaps expecting someone else to hand you a "job" for life is a bit unfair, too. After all, no one is "entitled" to a job - you have to work for it. But regardless of the social justice issues, if you are out on the street a decade before retirement, you will have to find something to do with yourself. Whining about the unfairness of it all is not a realistic answer.

The following are some real-world examples of the "second career" phenomenon that occurs. For many, this is a painful transition, as we shall see. Even for those who made the adjustment, it was not an easy process, but one that required a re-evaluation of lifestyle values. But for most, it has ended up being a liberating experience, to some extent, as they now see life in a new light.

1. Joe worked as a Real Estate lawyer for a private, family-run company. He handled all the legal aspects of their small Real Estate empire for two decades. But the family decided to get out of the business as the market peaked. They liquidated their holdings and decided to spend the rest of their lives spending it all. Suddenly, they had no need for Joe. At age 55, he is unemployed.

Joe socked away a lot of money over the years, and is very thrifty. He moved to a less expensive city to live, and is enjoying being quasi-retired for the time being. He has enough saved to never work again. He is thinking about perhaps doing contract work or being "of counsel" to a law firm. After 20 years with one company, however, his options are limited, and with the collapse of the Real Estate business, his skills are no longer in high demand. Setting up a Real Estate practice from scratch could be risky, and he could end up losing all his life savings.

Joe did a lot of things right here. He saved money so he would be in a good position if forced into early retirement. His expectations for employment are realistic at this stage in his life - having never worked at a law firm, he knows they are not likely to hire him as an Associate or Partner. The only thing he might have done better was to foresee his inevitable downsizing and take more proactive measures.

But hey, when you have as much dough in the bank as Joe, you don't have to worry, right?

2. Sarah and Bill were independent contractors. They had a steady stream of government contracts when they were in their 30's and 40's. But as they got older, the demands for their services dried up. Newer, younger people were competing with them for business - and getting it. After a couple of years with no work, they decided it was time for "Plan B". They both got jobs at a local winery. They are making far less than they used to, but the money pays their bills, which means they can leave their considerable retirement savings alone.

Again, Sarah and Bill did a lot right here. They squirreled away a sizable chunk of money during their working years, so if they had to, they could stop working altogether (we all have to do that sometime). And they swallowed their pride and took jobs that paid a lot less than what they were used to making. But they are having fun and enjoying life, rather than sitting and moping around. And they managed to get a contract or two in the meantime.

What has been hard for them is to downsize their lifestyle. Cutting monthly expenditures is a lot harder than increasing them. When the money dries up, many people have a hard time giving up on the status things they are used to having - expensive cars, the $10 designer cup of coffee, and things like that.

3. Fred and Frank ran their own business in the big city. After many years of hard work, they decided that the stress was too much and the competition too great. Rather than "ride it all the way down" they sold their business and made a nice profit, and moved to the country. Since they were too young to retire, this meant they had to find jobs, particularly to cover health insurance.

Today, they are both working, but making far less than they used to as self-employed businessmen. But they are happier, though. Less stress and less fuss. They socked away some money and are living comfortably off their reduced incomes, so they don't have to tap into their savings. Plus, they have health insurance - a big plus for folks during those "awkward years" from age 50-65.

4. Ralph worked as an Accountant for a big national firm. He was there for 20 years and made very good money. Then the market tanked, and he found himself out on the street. He applied for jobs like the one he had - with a corner office and a six-figure salary. But with all the unemployed accountants out there, he found the pickings pretty slim.

He refused to consider any related jobs - doing temp accounting work, bookkeeping for small businesses, setting up a tax consulting business, or the like. He always worked at a big company making big money, and that was what he was entitled to. But those jobs are gone for good. And when they do appear, they are given to younger accountants who will work for less money.

Depressed, he sits around the house, watching television and not bathing. It is pretty sad.

Ralph did a lot wrong here - including not saving money for the inevitable. He assumed that he would work at his job until age 65 and then retire. He assumed wrongly. And if he bothered to look at the actual careers of his fellow employees, particularly those senior to him, he would have understood that the odds of him being made Partner in the accounting firm were slim.

It is hard to give up on dreams like that, but you have to move on. Ralph needs to realize that those glory days are behind him - but that many more enjoyable days lay ahead. He needs to get off the sofa and back to work, even if it is just temp bookkeeping work at some small company using Quickbooks. Work is work, and even a few dollars an hour is better than the nothing you make sitting on the couch.


5. Sam was in the military for 20 years and then retired. Having been taken care of from sunrise to sunset for most of his adult life, it was hard to transition to "civilian life". But Sam is a hard worker and almost immediately got a job - any job, just to keep busy. He has enough socked away in retirement, plus his military pension.

But he works part time in retail to make some extra cash. Maybe he wants to buy a newer car, or perhaps take a vacation. Rather than tap into his savings, he works part time to pay for these things. And employers are happy to have someone who is mature and shows up on time. For them, Sam is a godsend, and they are more than willing to work around his schedule to keep him on board.

Sam, like the other characters above, is an composite of a number of folks I know. For people in the military, early retirement is pretty much a given, as after 20-30 years, you are out, unless you have a career path in the Pentagon (and even then, they boot you at age 65). Most folks I know who are former military have planned for the inevitable as a result, and usually start a second career after leaving the service.

6. Arnold worked for a large company that was downsizing. They offered him an "early out" if he would retire, and hand him a cash bonus for doing so. Arnold invested this money in some pretty dubious business schemes and lost a lot of it in the process. Since he was highly paid in his last job, he refused to take any other jobs he considered "beneath him." He never worked again.

While it is tempting to take an "early out" offer from your employer (and in many cases, it is a sign of the writing on the wall, so take it!) you should consider carefully how to invest any early out bonus or other money. Retirement is no time to be starting a business with your life's savings. That sort of thing is for young people, with lots of time, energy, and nothing to lose.

As we age, risk should not be part of our portfolio, and starting a business is about the riskiest thing you can do. You may succeed, but the odds are stacked against you. And if you lose it all, well, you can't just go back to work and earn it all back - you'll run out the clock first!

Invest retirement savings carefully and avoid tapping into them. Take a second job or start a small business that doesn't require a lot of capital up-front (the best and most successful businesses do not require huge investments up front anyway). Doubling down your bet with your retirement savings is probably not a good idea, however.

7. Gerald and Jane worked for many years, he in the legal business and she in retail.  They spent their money carefully, avoiding things like luxury cars, fancy houses or apartments, and expensive clothes.  They took nice vacations, however, and lived well.  After many years of hard work, they decided to take an early retirement.  Their investments had done well in the Stock market and it looked like they could live off these for the rest of their lives.

At first, it went well, but then the market took a turn for the worse.  Suddenly, it no longer looked like an early retirement was such a good idea.  Rather than whine about the unfairness of it all, Gerald found some temporary contract work that paid fairly well, while still allowing him to live a fairly unstructured life.  With a little extra income, early "retirement" - at least part-time, is possible.

They did the smart thing by socking money away and not spending money on foolish status items.  However, perhaps in retrospect, retiring early based on the euphoric market returns of the last decade was premature.  But both are hard workers and have money set aside, and thus will do well, regardless.


8. Tim had a cushy government job as a safety inspector.  It was a good fit for him, as he was virtually unemployable in the private sector.  Tim enjoyed smoking pot - a lot - and was constantly getting into trouble with bosses at work (the whole "problem with authority figures" thing).  He ended up getting shunted off to a job where he would annoy the least number of people, and it seemed like his future was fairly secure.

Then the recession hit and many State governments found themselves scrambling for money.  Laying off government employees, once considered to be unthinkable (or impossible) became a reality.  And Tim's bosses were all-too-happy to put him at the top of the layoff list.

No job is indispensable or "firing proof" - even in government, academia, or the military these days.  You may think "they can never fire me!" but they can, if you give them enough motivation.  Even in the government, if you make yourself a target, management will go to the extra effort.

Tim still hasn't come to grips with reality yet (the pot helps) and thinks the job market will "turn around" and he will find employment when that happens.  What he doesn't realize is that high-paying jobs are just not out there in the private sector, particularly for 55-year-olds who have been let go from the government.  Even lower paying jobs will be hard to find for someone with only academic skills and a pot-induced aversion to working with people.



* * * * * *

The list goes on and on. Early out is the norm these days, not the exception. I know dozens of people who took "early out" or were forced out, long before they wanted to retire. And in many cases, it was a stressful time for them. Assuming that their last salary was what they were "entitled to", they refused to take any subsequent job that paid less. And they refused to cut back on spending and lifestyle, in many cases, until it was too late.

What can you do to plan for an inevitable second career? And if you are given the axe, how can you transition into this second career? Let's take these one at a time.

First, stop spending money like a drunken sailor. The one thing every second career person says to me is that they wished they had saved more when they were making a hundred grand a year. They assumed the big paychecks would continue ad infinitium, so they went out and bought a fancy house, fancy cars, and spend money on booze, restaurants, expensive vacations - you name it.

Then the shit hit the fan, many were alarmed to discover that they had little in the way of accessible savings, and that retirement was nearly a decade away.

So sock away money while you can, if you can, if you have a good-paying job. Don't Assume your cushy job will go on forever - because it likely won't. Conditions change in our economy very rapidly these days. What was once a viable business model is bankrupt in a matter of years, not decades. So a "steady" job with Acme Widget company is no longer a guarantee of anything. Widgets will be obsolete in 5 years, if they aren't already.

Second, keep your ear to the ground at work. Many people claim to be "blindsided" by layoffs or firings. But if you pay attention to the company's bottom line and profit and loss statement, you will know months or years in advance that things are going to go sour. I wrote on this subject before as well. You also should have a good idea about your own job performance and whether or not you are a cost-effective asset to the company. If your work seems too easy and you are highly paid, you are one recession from a layoff. If your boss hates you, or a competing boss wants to take over your department, you should think about these things and take action.

Sometimes this may mean looking for a new job before you are laid off. Other times it may mean socking away your money and thinking about the second career ahead of time.

So what happens if you get the axe and now are out on the street in the worst recession since 1979? Well, relax, it ain't as bad as you think it is. I got a job in 1979. People were hiring back then - and they are today. They just aren't paying a hundred grand for a "human resources manager". You may have to hump a little harder and make a lot less. But life goes on and is worthwhile living. In fact, you may find yourself happier and having more fun than ever before.

First, chuck foolish pride. You'd be surprised how many people get depressed or even kill themselves because they have to sell the mini-mansion and the Mercedes. They spent a decade rubbing their success in everyone else's nose (so they think, no one really notices anymore) and now they have to eat humble pie.

Big deal. So you have to live in a smaller house and drive a Corolla. Welcome to the real world. All that fancy nonsense was just crappy overpriced junk, anyway. You can live well and live on a budget. But that means pride has to go - and that means selling off a lot of crap and not drinking $10 coffees and using restaurants as a kitchen.

You may find this a healthier lifestyle as well. Eating less and working more is a good antidote for the sedentary office lifestyle.

Second, realistically evaluate your options. The big-ticket job might come back - or it might not. But it doesn't hurt to find another job in the interim just to keep busy and put a little money in the bank. Why wait until you are dead broke and tapping into your 401(k) to break down and do what you should have done all along.

Figure out where your skill sets apply and then find jobs in related fields where you could fit in. You might not make nearly as much as before - but it beats sitting around doing nothing.

If this means a temp job, so be it. These can lead to permanent employment. But don't think of any work as "beneath you". Foolish pride, remember? There is honor and dignity in all work, but no honor or dignity in being unemployed out of spite.

I've worked all sorts of menial jobs in my life, from washing dishes, to cleaning restrooms. I was a Teamster once. I delivered pizzas. I tutored calculus. I was even a sex educator. And if the situation should arise where I have to, I'll go back to jobs like that - or others - if it means putting food on the table until I can retire.

The second career is something that you are more than likely to encounter in our new economy. Plan for it, prepare for it. Maybe you'll be one of the lucky few who works at the same job for your whole life, crowing your career achievement by rising to VP of sales and retiring with a fat pension. But today, this rarely happens anymore. Companies are finding it far cheaper to lay someone like that off and hire two younger people in their place. Fresher ideas, more work, and lower price make the choice pretty inevitable.

And the choice is yours. You can sit around and mope all day and whine about how unfair it all is, or you can swallow foolish pride and move on. And from the examples I have given above (which are composites of dozens of people I know), those who move on often find themselves enjoying life even more than when they were chasing false dreams at the "dream job".

And that's what life should be about - enjoyment, not status-seeking.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Emotional Baggage

People, who need people..... are the most annoying people in the world!
Avoid dealing with people with a lot of excess emotional baggage.

The phone rings this morning at 5:00 AM, far too early for a lawyer to be getting up (we get up when the sun is warm, thank you). My partner's co-worker is having car trouble. The car has been towed and someone is sick. It is unclear, as he sounds a little incoherent on the phone. Or maybe it is because it is FIVE AM IN THE MORNING AND WE'RE STILL ASLEEP!

For some reason, he calls us, because he thinks he won't be able to make it to work at 10:00, which is five hours from now..... Five hours? I could walk to work in that amount of time.

So, my partner tells him, in no uncertain terms, never to call at such an ungodly hour again, and what's more, he ain't his boss, so why the fuck is he calling us anyway, and to get a life, for God's sake!

No, actually, that last part didn't happen. Because at 5:00 AM you can't think that clearly, having been rousted from bed. So you say "Oh, well, OK, whatever" and only wish later on you'd read him the riot act.

People can be trouble, that's plain and simple. Particularly people who want to foist off onto you, their emotional problems, financial problems, and other issues. Why do they do this? How does it affect you? And more importantly, how can you avoid it?

The first part is simple. Foisting your problems off onto other people is like "borrowing" money from someone else and never paying it back. You come out ahead, no matter what. So, if you can get your co-workers to "cover" for you all the time, or you can get someone to listen to your long-winded boring problems for an hour, you can transfer some of the stress in your life onto them. And then you get to live stress-free.

Suddenly, your problems and concerns are paramount to everyone else, and if you play it right, you can get them to scurry around trying to "help you." So pretty soon, you've assembled a small army of friends who will cater to your every whim, whether it is giving you a ride to work, helping you move after you're evicted, or just being a shoulder to cry on (on a daily basis). Their emotional, physical, and financial needs of others are just not important!

Now granted, friends should help out friends from time to time.  But in a lot of cases, how this ends up working out is that the emotional baggage people end up taking - and taking and taking - and not giving. Friendship cannot and should not be a quid pro quo, of course.  But neither should it be abusive, either.

How this affects you is also clear, particularly when you are lying in bed at 5:05 in the morning, can't get back to sleep and are more than a little grumpy.  And when such calls end up causing stress in your relationship, you have to wonder at the unfairness of it all.

I mean, think about it.  The caller faces no negative consequences from his acts.   Maybe he gets his shift covered at the widget factory, or a free ride to work.  But the person on the receiving end of such a call gets an argument with their spouse, a lost night's sleep, and extra hours to work.  It is a pretty one-sided deal.

Clingy and abusive people can be stressful to your primary relationship, and because of this, you need to sever ties with such folks early on.  Many a marriage has gone down in flames because one partner has a needy friend who insinuates themselves into the relationship and has needs at all hours of the day and night.  It can be the crazy girlfriend who calls your wife at 3:00 AM with a "crises" of imagined proportions, or the husband's drinking buddy who is always calling from the hoosegow looking for bail money.

In either case, the phone call results in an argument between spouses - if they are not careful and understand these schemes from the get-go.  The one defends their irrational friend's action to his spouse, while the other spouse in turn, feels that the relationship has become abusive.  It can literally drive a wedge between spouses.

And you have to choose which is more important in your life, your husband or wife, or your college drinking buddies or your psychotic unmarried girlfriends? (or, I should add, to your childhood family members, such as brothers, sisters, cousins, and parents)

For most people, the choice should be crystal clear.  Your primary relationship is now to your spouse, and you need to distance yourself from the old crowd once you are married.  Moreover, once you are married, your best friend is now your spouse.  If you find yourself hanging out more often with a buddy or friend, chances are, the marriage won't last long - or it won't be a happy one.

Fortunately, when you get older, you get wiser to the ways of abusive people.  And while we had a good discussion this morning about the 5:00 AM call, we didn't let it get between us.

And that is the best way to deal with such people.   If you feel you are being drawn into an emotional trap by a clingy person, walk away from the relationship.  No one deserves early morning or late-night phone calls, or to be burdened with someone else's problems all the time.

True friendship should be an easygoing and enjoyable experience, most of the time.   If all you are getting is pain and discomfort, then chances are, what you have is not a friendship, but just an abusive relationship. And as they say, it takes two to tango, so ask yourself why you are letting yourself be sucked into such deals.

And as I noted in my That's What Friends Are For posting, there are some folks so obsessed with the need to have "Friends" that they will endure abusive relationships just to fill some inner need to be accepted.

And the emotional baggage people are counting on just that.....

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Woot! Revisited

These USB rotating beacons might be useful for something. I am just not sure what, at the moment.....


I have been stalking Woot! for a month or so now, and while I have yet to see anything I would want to buy, it is has been a fascinating look at the way retailing works on the Internet and in "real life".

So far, the only item they have sold that even might interest me was a Cuisinart paninni maker which was interesting in that I had bought one retail many years ago, and they were selling "refurbished" units for half-price. If they worked properly, it was not a bad deal. If, that is, you needed a panninni maker. I already have one.

And that's where it gets interesting. People buy from the site regularly and call themselves "Wooters". The log in every day and comment on the items for sale and/or buy them. It is a culture of consumerism, frankly.

And the website caters to this hard-core group, of course. Recently, they auctioned off a pair of Woot! rotating beacons, which run off a USB port. Why you would need these, I do not know, unless you are cubicle-bound and felt they would impress the guy in the next cubicle. They sold them cheap enough - enough to make me believe it was a loss-leader. But if something has no real function or use, is it really a "bargain"?

Coupled with this purchase was a bag of unknown stuff, given only to certain people, whose order number matched the Dow Jones average or some such nonsense. In other words, it was a grab-bag kind of deal.

Grab-bags have been around for ages, along with punch-boards, and other forms of primitive gambling. You give someone money, they give you a "mystery bag" or box or whatever. Maybe it is a gold ring inside, or a child's toy, or just some candy. You never know. And of course, as with most of these forms of primitive gambling, it is sort of a cheap rip-off. You never lose very much money on these deals, but you usually lose. And even if you "win", if the stuff you won is not something you needed or wanted, you actually lose.

So you just lose, actually.

Buying a grab-bag is not making a purchase. It is mere shopping - buying for the sake of buying things - buying stuff in the hope that it will make you happy or complete. Shopping is characterized by your purchasing an item based on it being presented to you, not your searching out an item you need and then negotiating a price.

And in that regard, Woot! is pure shopping. They present to you, an item at a price. Usually, the price is merely "OK" and the item is returned, refurbished, or otherwise surplus. Unless the incredible coincidence occurs that they present to you, an item that you have been looking for at that very moment, at a competitive price (and you don't mind having a refurbished item), then you are merely shopping, and chances are, buying something you don't really need or want.

You are buying for the experience of buying, not to make a strategic purchase.

And it is a brilliant marketing strategy, frankly.

Folding in traditional mall shopping with the online experience of a chat room, message board, facebook, or twitter, they create a virtual online community to reinforce the buying behavior. People are herd animals and will do what the herd says to do. And as a result, people visiting the site, who get drawn into the artificially created "community" will end up buying.

Yes, shilling on Woot! Does it happen? Well, ask yourself this, why wouldn't you shill the site? By this, I mean putting up postings from "users" who are actually employees or associates, saying nice things about the products offered.

But even if they don't shill their own site, there are people in this world who will unwittingly shill for you. On every discussion board, there are people who will parrot advertising pitches for products. Think about it - how many people walk around with product names emblazoned on their clothing or even tatoo'ed on their bodies? I'd be willing to bet there is some jerk out there with Woot! tatooe'd on his forehead by now.

So even without shilling, social network sites like this (and that is what it is, Facebook and home-shopping, together on one site!) will tend to produce a Greek chorus of normative cues, praising the products and the site.

And I am not picking on Woot! either. eBay has a similar effect, as people become addicted to surfing the site, looking for things they think they want, but really don't. They "shop" and buy stuff, for the thrill of purchasing. Even Craigslist is this way, and if you've tried to sell things on Craigslist, you know what I am talking about.

On both eBay and Craigslist, you get the chronic shoppers, who pepper you with questions about your item, but rarely, if ever, buy it. Or they say they want the item, but never pay or pick it up, which is frustrating. On Craigslist, these are the "dibs" people - they want to put down "dibs" on your item, but they never follow-up with the purchase.

Separating the culture of buying from actual purchasing is important, if you are going to take control of your spending habits. For many people, the process of purchasing is the whole deal - looking at items, having them carefully wrapped, handing over the credit card, signing the slip, and then coming home with boxes and bags of "purchases". You know what I am talking about, and women in particular are vulnerable to this habit (and are the target of most retailers).

But men, too, can be snagged by the shopping bug. I knew a fellow who went bankrupt this way - going to the mall and trying to find happiness in a Nordstrom's bag. When he finally declared bankruptcy, his closet was stuffed with shopping bags of purchases that were never worn, used, or even removed from the shopping bags. To him, the act of purchasing was the whole deal.

Get off the shopping bandwagon. It only clutters your life. The "must have" Woot! rotating beacons might seem like a neat thing now, but you will eventually toss them in the trash, and wonder why you clicked "I want one" when you did.....

Sunday, July 11, 2010

High School

Americans obsess about High School, which is a huge source of material for books, television, and movies. Some folks either have fond memories of a Happy-Days bobby-soxer sort of high school experience. Many other have nightmarish memories of a Lord of the Flies kind of treatment.


While reading an article about new dystopian literature for youth the other day in the New Yorker, the following quote just jumped off the page at me:

Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake. Adults don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are; your whole life could be over, and they act like it’s just some “phase”! Everyone’s always watching you, scrutinizing your clothes or your friends and obsessing over whether you’re having sex or taking drugs or getting good enough grades, but no one cares who you really are or how you really feel about anything.

Wow, so it isn't just me! What I thought about this quote was not only that is clearly characterized the author's experience (negative, in case you didn't get it) but also something more. It really captured, in a few short sentences, how cruel the experience can be. How parents "dump" their kids into the "viper pit" that is the adolescent social norms of high school. And how Adults smear platitudes such as "these are the best years of your life!" It is a wonder the teen suicide rate isn't higher. If high school truly was "the best year of my life" I would have ended it all long ago.

(Note to teens: No need to fret, life gets waaaay better as you get older. Not only do you get to have all the nice things you wanted as a kid, you get to meet real, honest, and decent people who are not superficial teenage jerks. And a life-long love is something a teenager cannot feel or understand, and far better than a high school crush. Oh, and the sex gets way better. Way better. Way, way better. People like to think that teens are having all this hot sex, but in reality, most have less than many adults. And usually it is awkward and inhibited.)

What made me stop and think (and re-read that paragraph several times) was that for some reason, we allow this sort of upbringing to go on, for decades, unchecked. It is as if we think we have no choice in the matter. High School sucks, except for a few popular people, and that's all there is to it. Worse yet, many people feel this needs to be a metaphor for life - that life sucks and you'll have to deal with jerks all your life. This is, of course, hardly the case.

Life is great. And the great thing about being an adult is the ability to tell some jerk off - right to his face - if you want to. You don't have to tolerate half the bullshit you do in high school. High school is not a metaphor for life, unless perhaps you are serving a life sentence.

In real life, if someone is a jerk, you don't have to hang out with them. You have a lot of choices in life and you should make use of them. You can change careers, change jobs, change your life. Unlike High School, which assigns you to 3rd period gym class, and that's that, you can choose how to live your life - and if some asshole wants to zing you in dodge ball, you can simply refuse to play.

And in real life, if someone punches you in the face, you call the Police and they go to jail. (As opposed to High School, where if some jock beats you, you get detention for "causing a commotion"). What's more, you get to sue them for damages in real life. For some reason, we, as adults, who would never tolerate random assaults at work, expect it as the "norm" for adolescents, who are quite strong enough to do serious injury to one another - or even kill each other.

So why do we do this to our kids? It is an interesting question and perhaps one that is being answered today. After a number of school bully incidents (which should not be confused with school shootings, most of which are related more to mental illness than to school bullying) many schools are taking a more proactive approach to bullying and poor treatment. The school bully should not be the role model anymore.

And many folks are also using home-schooling as an alternative. Granted, for many this is based on religious objections. But the home-schooling movement is also based on the idea that you can give your child a better education at home and also instill better social values as well.

And oddly enough, some of the people who had the worst experiences in High School are the first to decry home schooling as somehow evil. Initially, I was sucked in by this belief, thinking that home schoolers were crackpots. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that an alternative to "The Government School" is not a bad idea. In fact, it is a great idea.

Sending your kids off to learn low-self-esteem, drug use, and teen sex is not necessarily a good thing. But that is what local schools teach, by placing kids in largely unsupervised social situations and then allowing them to sort it out for themselves. Kids egg each other on, and usually this results in lowest common denominator behavior becoming the norm.

Schools like to blame parents for the failures of the children they teach. "If only the parents took time to read to their kids!" the say, or "As a school, it is not our job to instill social values - that is the parent's job!" Both are lame excuses, however.

Schools occupy a large space in a child's life. In terms of waking hours, school occupies more time than parenting (and is second perhaps only to television). And schools - intentionally or not - teach social skills in their little "Lord of the Flies" experiment that has been running for several decades now. By refusing to get involved in the socialization of students, they are, in effect, creating social cues. Deciding not to decide is still making a decision.

Why do schools do this? Why don't we change it? To some extent, it is the nature and structure of schools. Many, if not most, of the teachers are uninspired government workers with little incentive to do anything other than teach to the lesson plan and get through the day. Order and discipline are hard to maintain, particularly in an era where parents appeal every action and get lawyers involved when Johnny can't read. The self-enforcement of the adolescent social structure is used by school administrators much as the system of snitches and trustys is used by Prison Wardens to maintain order there. Why enforce order when you can get the inmates to do it for you?

To those who say that the way High Schools work can't be changed, or argue that somehow this is part of the inherent nature of High School, I say, bunk. College is an interesting contrast to High School and illustrates how changing the social rules and their enforcement affects how people behave. In college, students are given more work and more responsibility - and more freedom. And for the most part, they work harder and spend less time on socializing. And the key thing is, they don't have to be there - they can fail and in fact are quite likely to do so.

Granted, many colleges are turning into extended high schools, and the bad adolescent behavior of high schoolers is finding its way more and more into college. But in a college, you are less likely to be forced to socialize with those you don't care for - particularly after the freshman year. Since you specialize in certain courses as time progresses, you are not forced into social situations not of your own making. And the cost and difficulty of college make it a much more serious business - at least in most cases. Again, the creeping effect High School (and our extension of childhood well into the 30's) is probably having a negative effect here.

But college, at least for me, was an entirely different experience than high school. There was no "social structure" of popular girls and jocks, for example. At Syracuse University, you never saw the football players, except on the field. You didn't share the same space or even knew they were there, frankly. In a school of 20,000 students, it is hard for any one group to be a dominate social force.

So could the lessons of college be applied to High School? Perhaps. Perhaps the first thing we learn from this is that High School is too easy. We send kids off there for four years to basically get maybe 2 years of education. Students spend only hours a day there (from 8 until 2 these days) and most of those hours are spent in "gym", "study hall", and "lunch". There is a lot of fluff in the schedule - a lot of free time. And when you mix teenagers and free time, well, bad things happen.

Rather than extend childhood further and further, as we are doing today in our society (most people in this country do not "grow up" until they are 30, if ever) perhaps we need to condense it - or at least offer this as an option.

When I was in high school, I met a friend who told me he was graduating nearly two years earlier than normal. What a racket! Intrigued, I asked my guidance counselor (a complete loser, by the way, how do you get to be a high school guidance counselor when you've failed at everything else? Or perhaps that is the credential) about this, he said, "uh, well, no, that's not for you."

By taking summer courses and increasing his regular course-load, he was able to knock a year and a half off his high school experience and skip graduation altogether. Sounds like a plan to me! Perhaps they don't want to offer this option to too many people, as they would be afraid too many would take it - and expose how little is actually taught in high school.

And that is the ultimate joke. If you drop out of high school, you can get a "GED" diploma, simply by taking a few weeks of a study course and then a test. The GED is not a joke on the people who take it, but a joke on the rest of use who wasted four years getting the regular diploma.

This is not to say the High School experience was not without some merit. There were a few good courses here and there. But since the content is stretched out over weeks and weeks, with nearly a 3-month break in the summer) it really dilutes the impact of it all.

Perhaps the naysayers are right - you can't change High School anymore than you can change adolescence. Both will be awkward and difficult periods in life.

But maybe as adults, we can change our behavior. We can stop saying stupid things like "These are the best years of your life" - because in most cases, they aren't.

Life does begin at 40.....

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Kitchen Garden

If you like to garden, it makes sense to raise vegetables, rather than flowers or shrubs. A small vegetable garden can be fairly easy to raise, cost little, and put food on your table.

Gardening is a popular hobby in America - one that people spend, collectively, billions of dollars a year on. All the big-box stores have huge garden sections, selling all sorts of accessories to make your home the perfectly landscaped suburban nightmare. People spend hundreds of dollars, if not thousands, on non-native plants that are difficult to grow, and then more on chemicals to kill weeds and bugs or to artificially fertilize the soil.

And the payback for all of this is often only a few sickly-looking rose plants. What's the point in that?

These same folks would decry a vegetable garden as "too much work" or "too much weeding". But that really is not true. And unlike some specimen plant, most vegetables are hardy plants and - here is the big kicker - give you something tangible back in the form of edible food.

Should you plant a vegetable garden? Maybe. A lot of people make big mistakes in planting a garden, and end up frustrated as a result. If you plan a garden carefully, it can be an inexpensive supplement to your weekly groceries, that takes little or no effort to maintain. Poorly planned, it is a maintenance nightmare, produces little in the way of food, and is also an eyesore in your back yard.

START SMALL is the first key. Many folks get overly ambitious and plow up a 20' x 20' plot (or larger) to plant a huge vegetable garden. Such a plot requires a lot of work, from weeding and tending, to watering, and as such, is a bad idea for the novice gardener.

Many folks plant such gardens away from their house, so they are difficult to tend. So-called "community gardens" particularly suffer from this problem, in that you have to get into your car and drive, to tend them. This is not a practical solution for daily living.

Locate your garden near your house. Yes, a vegetable garden can look a bit unruly at times, but the convenience factor is a big plus. Animals are generally afraid to come too near your house, so it helps deter veggie-thieves. Plus, being with watering hose distance makes life a lot easier, as regular watering is the key to a healthy garden.

Fencing is important, too, as deer and rabbits will strip a garden bare in short order. Gardens away from your house, unfenced, will be eaten alive in no time. Most amateur gardeners go through this experience and then give up on the process, convinced it is not worthwhile.

We decided to replant a raised planter with vegetables this year. It is 20 feet long and about 2.5 feet wide. As a raised planter, it is easy to tend, and since it is right next to the house, and a hose spigot, it is a simple matter to tend to it for about 10 minutes every morning after breakfast. Pull a few weeds, give it some water, and maybe pick a handful of lettuce and a tomato.

We planted seeds for some plants. Seeds are cheap, and these were actually given to us by a friend, for free. You can jump-start the process by buying pre-started plants, like tomatoes, peppers, and the like.

I would suggest avoiding some plants, like corn. Corn takes up a lot of space, depletes the soil, and let's face it, looks like hell. And the farmer down the street can sell you a dozen ears for far, far less than what it would cost you to plant your own.

Concentrate on a few simple things that can compliment your diet. Arugula will grow in concrete and it will produce edible lettuce within a few weeks (more than you want!). Herbs are another winner, as nothing adds flavor to a meal like fresh herbs. Tomato plants are great, as fresh tomatoes off the vine are far better to the engineered kind from the grocery.

Picking the vegetables on a regular basis is also key. There is no pre-set "harvest time" for your kitchen garden. Need a salad? Go pick one. Tomatoes are ripe? Eat them now.

If the gardening bug catches on, you might want to think about expanding your garden the next year. But beware, it can take over your life. Before you know it, you are setting up a greenhouse to start your plants early, and plowing up more and more of your land. If you want to make a career of this, fine - many people do.

But for me, I will be content with my little kitchen garden!

Should you Retire Overseas?

Many Americans are finding that their meager retirement savings and Social Security will go a lot further in countries like Panama or Costa Rica.

Retirement can be a difficult thing for many Americans. And this is a shame, too, as retirement should be the enjoyable part of life, after a long career of hard work. But many folks either did not save enough for retirement, or encountered setbacks on the road to retirement, or were forced to retire early. For them, retirement can be a nightmare of poverty and struggling to pay bills, find a place to live, and obtain medical care.

Many are finding that retiring to another country is one solution to this problem. The cost of living in many countries is far below that in the USA, and an income that is "living below the poverty line" here in the USA is considered well-off in most other places.

There are even websites, such as Retire to Costa Rica on Social Security, that can help you make this decision.

Should you do this? It depends. You have to be comfortable with living in a foreign country, where everyone speaks another language, and moreover you are viewed as a foreigner. Many people simply can't handle this. A friend of mine lived in Bermuda for a while, for business, and while he and his wife enjoyed it immensely, he reported that many of his co-workers got "homesick" after a few years. They were tired of being outsiders, no matter how nice the weather was.

And speaking of sick, while many of these overseas retirement destinations have free medical care, many also do not have the extensive high technology medical care we have in the US. Perhaps this is a good thing - you are going to die anyway, you might as well do it the old-fashioned way, as opposed to lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to machines, while they bill Medicare.

Also, conditions overseas require some cultural adjustment. Don't expect to find a local supermarket, fast-food chain, big-box stores, and all the "conveniences" of modern life in America. For some of us, this is a blessing. But for others, well, if you have to have TGI Fridays' potato skins, you may be out of luck.

Roads in some of these countries are challenging. In Costa Rica, driving 30 mph is considered break-neck speed, and bridges are often full of holes that would swallow a car.

Crime is another consideration. While many areas are quite safe, the larger cities can be dangerous places. And some entire countries can be too dangerous to live in, as you would be an attractive target for crime.

In most Latin America countries, there is a huge divide between the very wealthy and the very poor, and this can be hard to adapt to. Many even moderately wealthy people live in walled compounds with barbed wire.

Like any other decision, you should not rush into anything too quickly. Visit the place first, check it out, and talk to others who have lived there for a few years. Better yet, talk to someone who moved back and ask them why it didn't work out. If their value system is similar to yours, chances are, you may struggle living there as well.

For other folks, the idea of living in a tropical paradise and being outside the norm of mainstream USA culture is ideal. Getting away from the "miracle mile" of car dealers, big-box stores, fast-food places, and all the come-ons and cons of modern living is seen as an advantage, not a hindrance.

I would count myself in this category. Buying my food at a local tienda or dining on local cuisine at a family-run restaurant under a palapa is far better than shopping at Wal-Mart or eating at McDonald's. But others might think of such stores as unsanitary (by American perceptions, but American stores just look cleaner, and not necessarily are) and many folks are not adventurous enough to try the local ethnic cuisine ("too spicy!" they say, before they even try it!).

The other thing to bear in mind is that many of these places have already been "discovered" by Americans, and the choice real estate is being snapped up. The image of lying on the beach in sunny Costa Rica may be enticing, but the reality is, most of that land is spoken for, as it was bought up by Gringos for use as vacation homes over a decade ago.

This is not to say bargains don't still exist, but that they are more likely to be off the beach or inland.

Offshore retirement, like medical tourism, is sure to increase over time, as the cost of living in the USA continues to increase and more and more people retire on less than they thought they would have.

For many foreign countries, this influx of retirees can be a good source of income, as they would provide demand for jobs and services which in turn would help out the local economies. The influx of money from America, in terms of retirement savings and Social Security spending could end up being a major source of income for some of these countries.

But like anything else, retirement overseas has its disadvantages, too. I would strongly suggest "checking it out" thoroughly before diving in. While some people thrive in environments like this, others may founder. It all depends on not only your circumstances in life, but your sense of adventure and your tolerance for new things and new ideas.

Shopping Cell Phone Plans - Part Deux


Cell phones are a nice toy to have, and to some extent, necessary in today's society since the demise of the pay phone. But how much is too much to spend on cell phones?

Cell phone plans vary all over the map. No two carriers have the same exact plans, which makes it nearly impossible to cross-shop these plans. Worse yet, carriers have all sorts of different pricing schemes and often offer hidden deals to some customers, so you cannot figure out what is the "correct" amount to pay for cell service.

As I have noted in the past, the more complicated you can make any financial deal, the easier it is to rip off the customer. And the cell phone companies know that by making their billing as opaque as possible, they can tack on all sorts of charges and confuse the customer as much as possible.

So the "$49.95 plan" ends up costing you $69.99 a month, once fees and taxes are added in. For some reason, their billing software can easily calculate the monthly charges when you pay, but when you want a price quote, they can't tell you this.

And if you look online, you can see that you can spend upwards of $100 a month or more for a "family plan" with texting and other services. This is a staggering amount of money to spend - $1200 a year - but many people consider it worthwhile, as it allows them to communicate on a regular basis.

(Again, if you are making $100,000 a year, chances are, only about $10,000 of this is "disposable income", so $1200 represents a huge chunk of your disposable income).

So which plan is right for you - and what are the best deals? I wish I had a simple answer for this, as everyone's needs are different, different carriers have different signal strength in different areas, and there are all sorts of ancillary issues to consider.

Cramming down your cell carrier is never a bad idea. Like with credit card providers, when you threaten to leave, they suddenly want to be your friend and offer discounts. Last year, I moved from a nearly $100 a month plan to a $68 a month plan (taxes included) just by forcing the issue. Having been with AT&T for over a decade (I'm lazy) since before they were AT&T, before they were Cingular - back when they were AT&T (oddly enough), they wanted to keep my business. And I wanted to keep my phone number. So I switched to a 450 minute plan, with rollover minutes, and kept 2500 rollover minutes AND got a bonus 2500 rollover minutes as a loyalty incentive. Yes, they wanted to keep me that bad.

(And don't bother looking for that plan on their website, because it isn't there. It is a holdover from the Cingular days and only offered to former Cingular customers. Go figure).

But you can only go to the well so many times. I called today and they were like "Kindly please go fuck yourself" as they were not about to offer any more discounts, loyalty or not. I'm still racking up rollover minutes every month, but they are not about to offer me a 250 minute per month plan anytime soon.

My needs are unique - most everyone's are. I use my cell phone for business (yes, that is deductible, but you can't deduct your way to wealth) and they are also my main phone number, particularly in the summer. We have a local land-line on the island in the winter, so we use that more for calling then. Plus, we travel all over, so we need a plan with no roaming charges. I don't text, however, so I don't need a text plan (I have disabled this on my phones so I don't get charged for it). We need two phones, as one sits at home on a docking station, connected to our "land-line" phones. Make a call on my 1960's vintage desk phone at my house, and you are making a cell phone call. Ain't technology great?

So my plan, which provides more than enough minutes, no roaming charges, and also allows overseas calls at reasonable rates, seems to fit well. If only it were a little cheaper!

Other folks, with families, need phones for every member of the house. Yea, kids today need a cell phone. Heck, even the homeless need to have them (how else can you get a call-back on a job offer?). And the kids like to text, too, so you probably need that as well. Some carriers have "family plans" that provide four phones or more, and unlimited calling between family members. These are not cheap plans, to be sure, but they do provide a lot of services.

Of course many more folks want to make use of all these high tech data features of the 3G and 4G wireless systems and these fancy new phones - iPhone, Blackberry, Android, etc. If that is your bag, be prepared to pay for these services. Downloading data from the Internet to your phone may be the wave of the future, but already, the network is seeing stress from such usage and there is talk of limiting access or increasing rates for heavy users.

Others use phones less often and use e-mail more. They want a phone just for emergencies or the occasional connection with a friend. Pay-as-you-go plans work well for them, as there is no contract, monthly charge, and if you don't use the phone, there is no cost. These are good plans, in that they train you not to use the phone.

There are as many pay-as-you go plans as there are stars in the sky. Almost every convenience store or office supply store has the "tossable" phones for a few dollars, which are recharged with a "card". These can work great if you are travelling overseas, for example, and want to make calls. You put money on the card and pay by the minute. If you don't use your minutes, however, they "go away" after 30, 60, 90 or 120 days.

Verizon has a plan where you pay by the day - $1.99 per day, for example, with unlimited minutes, for that day. If you don't call for that day, you don't pay. Again, you "recharge" an account with money, and if you don't use that money during a certain period, you lose it. So if you pay $100 on such a phone, and don't use it, it goes away at the end of the year.

Straight Talk is getting a lot of talk as well. The AT&T "customer retention specialist" made it a point to run down this plan, which tells me it is scaring the pants off of them. You pay $39.99 a month for 1000 minutes, or $49.99 a month for unlimited minutes. No contract or commitment, and those prices are the total - no added hidden fees or taxes or whatever are added in later on.

One problem with all these "pay as you go" plans is that if you let the "gas tank" of minutes or dollars run out (In the industry, this is called a "gas tank" model of billing, BTW) you may lose your phone number. If the phone goes "dead" and you have not pre-paid for time or days or whatever, they reassign the number to someone else. For an emergency phone this is no big deal. For someone who needs to stay in contact with people or use a phone for business, it could be catastrophic.

One way around this is to setup automatic billing, so your phone is "recharged" automatically and the number does not go away. This requires a credit card number or an ACH debit to your checking account.

I think a disposable or pay-as-you-go plan makes sense for many people who don't use phones a lot. I hope to be one of these people someday! When I am retired, you can bet I won't be paying $68 a month for phone service (or its inflation adjusted equivalent).

Bundling is the new big thing, of course - AT&T would like me to have my landline, my Internet access, my cell phone and my cable TV (or satellite dish) all on one bill. The problem with this approach is that I don't watch television, so that part of the deal is out. Also, since I have a (703) area code on my phone (Northern Virginia) I would have to change my phone number to a Georgia exchange if I wanted to "bundle".

Many of the "bundling" offers are really conquest attempts. The offerors want you to change wireless services, go from cable to satellite (or vice-versa) or go from twisted pair copper POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service, another industry term) to Cable Telephone. So they offer bundled package deals to get you to switch.

But be careful, some of these bundled deals disappear after a year or so, and your ultimate bill may be higher - particularly if you end up signing up for extra services you don't need. Plus, the idea of one-stop shopping is kind of a fraud, as some of these "bundles" only bundle the billing, not the services, which may be offered by different branches of the company (that hate each other) or by 3rd party services.

For example, with AT&T, there is little or no continuity between the landline business (BellSouth) the Internet Service people, and AT&T wireless. They might as well be on separate planets. And they all say disparaging things about one another. Separate customer service numbers, separate repair crews, separate everything. It is not integrated. And since they don't offer cable, the best they can do in that regard is an affiliation with satellite dish company, that is just a come-on price and a combined bill.

If you really WANT all those services, then such a "bundle" might save a small bundle. But over time, the price may creep back up, once the introductory "teaser" rates go away.

Getting rid of services is one approach to saving money. Landlines are largely obsolete, unless you are using DSL, in which case you have to have one. But for others, an all-wireless solution saves a lot of money. A simple landline contract with unlimited long distance is about $50-$60 a month in most places (with all those mysterious taxes and fees added in). This is as much as a typical cell phone plan. Why pay for both, particularly if you have good cell service at your home?

Most young people today have only a cell phone, and when they get their first apartment, they don't even think to call the phone company. As a result, the disconnect rate in the landline business is on the rise, and for the first time in our history, the population of landline phones is actually decreasing.

A simple $79 docking station can recharge your cell phone AND connect it to your house phones (plug it into a wall jack and just make sure to disconnect from the network at the outside box). Now you can answer calls at home, without having to run for the cell phone. Cell phone amplifiers and antennas (about $100 to $300) can boost signal strength to a full five bars, even in poor reception areas.

So there are options for communications and ways to save money.

I'll keep researching this cell phone thing until I find the holy grail - the $29.99 per month plan that really costs $29.99 per month and doesn't zing you with overage charges or roaming fees or whatever.

Until then, I guess I'll stay put with the plan I have....

Note: Thanks to all who responded to my e-mail and explained their plans and terms to me. Turned out to be the best way to research this issue!