Friday, April 30, 2010
Should You Shop at IKEA?
Thursday, April 29, 2010
The Religion Trap, Part Deux (Beliefs)
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Poverty of the Spirit
1. Low Self-Esteem: If you do not believe you deserve wealth, chances are, it will elude you. This is perhaps one reason why the children of the wealthy (or at least middle-class) do well, even if they do not inherit money from their parents. They simply expect a certain standard of living, and thus work up to that level. On the other hand, if you are raised in poverty and trained from birth to believe that wealth is something "other people" have, then chances are, you will not strive to obtain it.
In my own life, I saw this firsthand among many of my friends. They did not believe they were worthy of more than a lower-middle-class or even poor existence. The idea of becoming a Doctor, a Lawyer, or other professional was alien to them. And to some extent, I believed that myself, which kept me back, until I realized that a lot of real idiots were Doctors and Lawyers, and there was no "magic key" into the club. All you had to do was try - and succeed. And it was not hard to do. Changing my attitude was the hardest part.
2. Low Expectations: Tied closely in with low self-esteem is low expectations. If you are raised poor, your goals may not be great. Get a job, a place to live, get by. But if you are raised in the middle class or wealthy, you tend to assume certain things in life - that you will have money, live well, have a nice place, not have bars on your windows. Expectations tend to be self-fulfilling, to some extent, particularly low ones. If you do not try, you will not succeed. Dream no small dreams.
I had friends whose greatest expectation was to go on welfare, or perhaps Social Security disability. Or others whose only ambition was to wait for their parents to die, so they could live off a modest inheritance without having to work. Or others who hoped only work an unskilled job for the rest of their lives, when they had the talent and skills to do so much more. Why do some settle for so little, when they are clearly capable of so much more? Poverty of the Spirit, I think is partly to blame.
3. Passivity: Many poor people are remarkably passive about their predicament, waiting for government assistance or for good paying jobs to materialize, without taking action to change their circumstances. Low self-esteem and low expectations may feed this passivity.
And perhaps this is why you often see poor people stay on in areas that are blighted or poor. If there are no jobs available in your home town, the intelligent thing to do would be to move to an area where there are jobs. Yet many poor people stay in places like Flint, Michigan, and passively wait for jobs to come back (they never will).
After leaving North Carolina, we drove through Washington DC. We were astounded by the number of "Help Wanted" signs posted everywhere - even on billboards. Citibank had a permanent sign up saying "now hiring". All this in the middle of the worst recession in decades. Who knew? Within a day's drive of Asheboro, there are jobs galore, but yet few people will uproot themselves to overcome poverty.
I grew up in Central New York, which was, and is, a very depressed area, economically, and also has basically 8 months of bad weather every year. Like most graduates, I left the State (New York's biggest export is college graduates) and went to Washington DC to seek my fortune - and found it.
Many of my friends never left Central New York - with predictable consequences. Why is it that people cling to places that are unattractive, have little or no opportunities, and have no future, when jobs are waiting elsewhere? I believe the answer is, in part, Poverty of the Spirit.
4. Misconception of Wealth: When a poor person wins the lottery, what is the first thing they are likely to do? That's right - buy a new car. For many poor and lower class people, owning vehicles is the ultimate sign of wealth. As a result, many poor people squander enormous amounts of their limited incomes on vehicles, as well as modifying, customizing, and tricking out vehicles.
Real wealth, as we know, is not represented by what is parked in your driveway, but by your net worth, which is often not something you can show off to people. Tangible assets, such as Real Estate, investments, savings, and the like are real wealth, not depreciating vehicles and appliances.
Thus, the poor chase after the signs of wealth and status (cars, televisions, cell phones, gadgets, designer clothing, etc.) while failing to invest at all in any real wealth (savings, real estate, 401(k), etc.).
Again, as a youth, I (and my friends) fell for the concept of wealth in terms of owning things, like cars and gadgets, not realizing that real wealth (and power) seldom showed itself off. It is only when you understand the difference between real and apparent wealth, that you can really build real wealth.
As we have learned here, any idiot with a pay stub can drive a fancy car - for a while, anyway. But having money in the bank is something that eludes an astounding number of people in this country.
5. Lack of Imagination: One stop on our pottery tour of North Carolina was a local coffee shop which had WiFi. Now, we've been to a lot of coffee shops, but this place was pretty sad. The coffee was unremarkable and warm. And the selection of "dessert items" comprised a packaged danish. You couldn't spend money in the place if you wanted to, unless you wanted to leave $20 in the tip jar.
The proprietor spend all day on his computer, but failed to really attend to his own business. He had no imagination as to how customers would perceive the place (dank, unfinished, depressing) and what they might want to buy (good coffee, good food). He had no idea how to run a coffee house, and moreover, didn't seem concerned about learning how. He was scraping by, and apparently that was good enough for him. When I asked him about the status of the local economy, he blamed all his woes on illegal immigrants. And yet, no illegal immigrants were running coffee shops.
In poor neighborhoods, you tend to see this a lot. Unimaginative and unattractive businesses, haphazardly run, stocked indifferently, and not well patronized. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule - the barbecue joint that does a slamming business, attracting people from all over. But those are few and far between, outnumbered by the dreary convenience stores stocked with stale, left-over bread and the like. Liquor stores selling only pints of bad booze. That sort of thing. Bars on the windows, a bunker mentality. No imagination, no talent, no daring, no nothing.
As a result, in many poor neighborhoods, the only thriving businesses are often owned and staffed by outsiders or recent immigrants - people with drive, self-esteem, imagination, and determination. The stereotypical Korean Grocery store in the ghetto is a prefect example. They look to see what people want to buy in the neighborhood and then try to fill that need. The local residents have neither the ambition nor the imagination to take such risks.
I think this Poverty of the Spirit results in low expectations of one's self - and also that of others. So a poor person thinks, "I can't run a business like that", and if they tried, they would not have the imagination to see how it could be run, and thus fail. Low expectations and low self-esteem become self-fulfilling prophesies.
I am not sure I have explained the concept well, or completely. It just struck me, traveling through this very depressed (emotionally and economically) area, that there is more to poverty that a low balance on your bank account, lack of opportunity, and poor decision-making. There is something in your mind as well - and perhaps that is the greatest obstacle to overcoming poverty.
I am not trying to run down the poor, only to understand better why some of us succeed in life, while others, in nearly identical circumstances, fail to do very well, or do anything at all.
Poverty of the Spirit, drives out ambition, creativity, and innovation, and thus perpetuates poverty. Breaking free of this Poverty of the Spirit is, no doubt, difficult to do. Ambition and imagination are no doubt crushed early on.
I wish there were easy fixes or suggestions on how to do this. But perhaps recognizing this phenomenon is a good first step.
Engineered Hardwood Floors
What are the pros and cons of this technology?
1. Cost: Engineered hardwood flooring is probably less than half the cost of installing a real hardwood floor and in fact may be competitive with the cost of refinishing an existing floor. It is roughly double the cost of quality wall-to-wall carpet (the cheapest floor covering there is). For this reason alone, many people opt for engineered hardwood. It really is the only choice.
2. Ease of installation: Tied to cost is installation cost. It takes little time to install engineered hardwood flooring, and a typical house can be completely floored in a day or so. Since the material is pre-finished, it requires no staining or urethane to complete, eliminating several costly and time-consuming steps in the process.
3. No fumes or mess: We had a "real" hardwood floor refinished once, and it was quite a process that took several days. The entire floor had to be sanded, stained (optional) and then varnished with a urethane finish. It was dusty, and the fumes were intense. What's more, the sanding dust, when bagged up, ended up catching fire due to spontaneous combustion (which turns out to be quite common in that industry). Fortunately, an astute neighbor called the fire department in time and the installers cleaned up the mess. But others have been less fortunate.
4. Consistent quality: A hardwood floor is only as good as the installer. Sanding, staining, and varnishing all take some modicum of talent, and defects in the final product may appear if stain is not evenly applied or varnish not properly applied and buffed. Engineered hardwoods, on the other hand, are finished in a factory under controlled conditions, so the finish is uniform - almost too perfect (and one way you can spot such products easily).
5. Limited Maintenance: The makers of these products claim they require no waxing or regular maintenance. Just regular floor care products are needed occasionally to clean them. Unlike a hardwood floor, you don't need to mop them, and in fact, you really can't because of the water ingress issue. But as we shall see, it might not be a bad idea to wax these materials anyway.
6. Dimensional Stability: Real hardwood floors can expand and contract with temperature and humidity and do funky things over the years. Engineered hardwood flooring, on the other hand, having differently oriented strands, tends to be more dimensionally stable, regardless of changes in humidity and temperature.
1. Unfinished Edges: Yes, the tops of the panels are pre-finished at the factory and look nice and shiny. But the edges of each panel are not finished, and are in fact, raw wood. This means if you spill water on engineered hardwood floors, it can (and will) seep into the edges and damage the panels. Even water from the dog dish, or from a potted plant can seep into these edges and permanently stain the panel.
The panels do "bounce back" from some staining, so if you end up with a water stain, don't panic and pull up the panel immediately. Wait a few weeks or even a month, and you may see the water stain disappear somewhat. The surface finish may tend to wrinkle, however, which does not seem to go away with time.
I have found that applying a layer of paste wax to the floor helps in preventing minor water damage from spills and the like from staining the panels. We even have this material in one bathroom (not by choice, the installer messed up) and by waxing it heavily after the install, it seems to have resisted water damage.
And of course, regular hardwood floors can be damaged by severe water spillage too, so they are not immune. But for the most part, a well-sealed "real" hardwood floor will not absorb much water, even if you dump a gallon on it. It is more resistant to water problems.
2. Limited refinishing options: Engineered hardwood floors supposedly can be refinished once or twice. I am skeptical, as the veneer is very thin. However, the hardwood floor refinishing business has changed over the years. Gone are the days when we would sand off 1/16" of wood to get down to "bare wood" and refinish. New scrubbing pads are replacing sanding discs and belts, and instead of removing wood, we remove only the top layer of finish and then re-seal.
So today, a "real" hardwood floor has an almost unlimited lifespan with refinishing, but engineered hardwood might only get one or two refinishes out of it. But then again, given the labor cost of refinishing a floor, merely installing a new floor is not that much more expensive.
So perhaps that evens out.
NOTE: Check your floor carefully before trying to refinish it. Some engineered hardwood floors can be sanded and refinished once or twice. Others have such a thin veneer that refinishing is not an option.
3. Lifespan: In the same vein, while a hardwood floor may last 100 years or more, my experience seems to show that engineered hardwoods might last 15-20, depending on care and use. Granted, if you never walk on your floor, have no dogs with sharp claws, or friends with high heels, or small children with Tonka trucks, your engineered hardwood floors might last forever (if you never, ever spill on them). But for the rest of us, who actually live in their houses, the floors will take a beating, and after a decade or so, they might look a little ratty.
However, the lifespan of engineered hardwood flooring is probably double that of wall-to-wall carpeting, so it still is a sound value, in terms of wear versus cost.
4. Appearance: While engineered hardwoods may look "perfect" when installed, because of this, they do tend to look fake. You can tell the difference between engineered hardwood and a real hardwood floor, often because the real hardwood floor has imperfections, and also because a real hardwood floor doesn't have these lines in it where the panels join.
Like a lot of modern technology, the perfection of appearance tends to take away from the character that we associate with real quality. Shiny fake gold trim, for example, is very easy to spot compared to real gold.
5. Maintenance: Although touted as maintenance-free, as my experience illustrates, waxing this material with good old Johnson Paste Wax is probably a good idea, as the raw edges of the seams will wick in any water that is spilled and damage the panels.
Saturday, April 24, 2010
The Parable of the Non-Prodigal Son
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Time is money?
Many folks complain they don't have enough time in the day to get things done. The complain that they want to do more in life, but can't seem to find the time. Businessmen say "time is money" and micro-manage their lives to make the best use of it.
Are all of these people actually squandering time? I think so. And recently I had a revelation.
Yesterday, I played 9 holes of golf and took a three-mile walk on the beach. No, it wasn't the weekend. And no, it wasn't a "vacation" either. I live in two places that are both vacation destinations, and it is easy for me to forget that what I do on a daily basis is what other consider a once-a-year opportunity or luxury.
How is it that I structured my life to make use of my time this way? Was I lucky? Or was it by plan? I would like to think the latter.
When I was younger, I was a very lazy person. To me, doing nothing was the best thing to do. I enjoyed school classes, but studying, doing projects and reports and all that drudgery, was an anathema to me. The best time of year for me was when school was out, and I could enjoy a lot of unstructured time. So perhaps this underlying desire was what motivated me to live the way I do.
During my working years, rather than follow the well-worn path others were taking, I struck out on my own. I lived on less and worked hard, invested my money and did well. At the right time, I was able to sell it all and move out of the big city and live the way I wanted to.
My friends all followed the well-worn path, buying larger homes, leasing fancier cars, and working harder and harder to get that coveted corner office and promotion. And of course, those goals never turned out to be as lucrative as they thought they would be - nor as profitable. It was a carefully set trap, it turns out.
You see, you only have a finite amount of time on this planet. You can make an unlimited amount of money, if you want, but it takes up a lot of your time, and thus subtracts from your time account. And yet many people chase the money, as if it were a scarce commodity, and time was infinite. It is, on the contrary, the other way around.
Consider your typical suburban couple. The complain they have no time in the day to get everything done. So they don't balance their checkbook regularly. They eat out in restaurants to "save time" (it takes longer to drive to a restaurant, order the food, and eat it, than it does to make a simple meal at home). Or they send out for pizza to "save time".
Of course, since they are not watching their finances and spending money on convenience items (to save time, of course!) they have to keep working harder and harder to make more money - so that they can afford all these "time-savers"! It becomes a circular logic, and a rat race. Or perhaps more like a rat on one of those wheels, running in place and never getting anywhere.
Meanwhile, time slips away, imperceptibly, year after year, until one day they wake up and wonder where their lives went. And it happens to most of the middle-class population in this country, year after year.
And where does the time really go? Television takes a lion's share - an average of 4.6 hours a day. Doesn't sound like much, does it? But subtract your sleeping, eating, commuting, and working hours from 24, and you'll see that television is taking nearly every other waking hour away from you.
Just as saving only "small" amounts of money can result in huge increases in your disposable income, saving "small" amounts of free time increases your available free time considerably. If you give up television entirely, you'll find you double or triple the amount of free time you have.
And once you stop paying for "time-saving" conveniences and do things yourself, you won't have to work so hard (which takes time) to pay for those time-savers. It has a snowball effect.
So what can you do to take your life back? To get back the TIME you have been squandering? It is not easy, and it takes courage, wisdom, and foresight. Not many can do it. Most humans, I am afraid, are doomed to lives of "quiet desperation", living as cogs in a machine, until they wear out and are replaced.
But a few of us - the lucky ones - can escape. While it isn't easy, it is totally worthwhile. But it requires that you re-think your whole life and your value systems.
1. Give up Television: Chuck it. Sell the damn thing. Cut the cable. TeeVee is a time waster and also designed to get you all riled up over nothing. The time saved is important, but moreover, the social cues it provides are horrible. Once you dump TeeVee, you'll stop acting like a lemming.
2. Get Control of Your Finances: Knowing where the money goes and why is key. You need to balance your bank and credit card accounts almost daily. You need to know, to the penny, what your net worth is. You need to know, to the penny, what your debt load is, and what your plan is to pay it off (amazingly, most people have no idea of their debt load, and have only vague plans on how to pay it off). Once you know where the money is going, you may be startled to see what you are spending on.
3. Re-Evaluate your Priorities: You may find that much of the money you spend every month is squandered on convenience items and also status items. And again, small amounts of disposable income are important. While it may seem that spending $10 a day on Starbucks coffee is cheap, in reality, even for someone making $100,000 a year, it is a big chunk of the disposable income. Many suburbanites are working like dogs so they can afford fancy cars and fancy houses. They pay a lot for a house in a suburban area, because it is near work. But if you had to live anywhere, would you be paying $750,000 to live where you are now? Ask yourself why you jumped on this treadmill.
4. Formulate a Realistic Escape Plan: If you are not happy with the modern middle-class suburban lifestyle, formulate an escape plan. It isn't easy, but I've seen it done, by many friends of mine. But you have to be realistic. You can't just up and quit your job and assume you'll find work elsewhere. And if you plan on going back to a simpler existence, you have to scale back your spending habits in advance. There are jobs in other parts of the country that pay less. Or you could start and run your own business. Or perhaps you can reorganize your existing finances so you can retire at age 50 - or even 40, if you are young enough and plan well in advance.
It is possible to live a different kind of lifestyle than what your neighbors and friends are all doing. It is possible to take back time in your life and make better use of it. But it takes a lot of courage to buck the norms of society, and not many are equipped to do this. Let's face it, most of us go through life trying to ape the behaviors of others, hoping that no one will notice that we are faking it and we don't really know what we are doing. And the joke is, that's what all of us are doing. Everybody else thinks you've got it together, while you look to them as a role model. Life is quite a farce, it seems.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Should you Unplug from the Grid?
1. Seasonal Disconnects: In Florida, the cable companies offer a "seasonal disconnect" to snowbirds. Instead of disconnecting the cable every time you move North for the summer, they offer you a seasonal disconnect for a nominal fee per month. When you move back, you call them (or the service is automatically reconnected at a certain date). In most cases, they do not actually disconnect service, but rather just charge you less. They offer this, as having 100,000 people connect and disconnect service twice a year is just staggeringly expensive for them.2. Power Disconnect: We have a camp at the lake which has power. Even if the circuit breakers are turned off for the winter, the power company (NYSEG) charges us $15 a month for service. I found out recently that we can disconnect service in the Fall and reconnect in the Spring, with no service charges. This saves $90 a year or more. If we did the same thing for our barn (which has separate service) we'd save another $90 a year, for a total of $180 a year. In the five years we've been there, this comes to nearly $1000 in savings we've missed out on. Bummer.3. Winterize: Many people do not winterize their homes and instead rely on keeping the heat on over the winter (set at 50 degrees) to keep the pipes from freezing. The problem with this approach is that if the heat goes off (power failure, mechanical failure) the pipes will freeze, with catastrophic results. In addition, you will end up spending hundreds of dollars a month to heat an unoccupied house. So the savings in winterizing and "going cold" can be over $1000 a year, or a big dent toward your property tax bill.4. Internet Service: This varies by provider. Some, such as telco DSL services, require you to disconnect service and then pay a reconnect fee, at whatever prevailing rates are offered when you reconnect. This can be a big hassle, as it requires you to reconfigure your modem and start over (which usually requires a call to India and an hour on hold). But others, such as Hughsnet satellite, will disconnect for six months and then automatically reconnect at a certain date, with no fee or charges. It is worth exploring either way.5. Telephone Service: Our local telco offers to put telephone service on a vacation mode, for a nominal fee every month ($5). This way, you keep the same phone number, and don't have to hassle with a complete disconnect, reconnect and new phone number every time. But often such vacation disconnect will trigger a disconnect on your DSL service as well. So you have to be careful. I did this vacation mode one year and they never started billing me for the full rate for nearly two years. Under the law, they could only recapture three months back billing, which of course, was too bad for them.6. Going All Cellular: Of course, cell service is one alternative to having a land line at all. For the cost of two land lines at each home, you can pay for your cell phone, which, chances are, you have anyway. I use a cell phone amplifier and a docking station to connect my cell phone to my house phones and have disconnected from the local telco. This allows me to have one phone number for both houses (and while traveling) and also use my house phones like a land-line, but in fact be making a cell call (and no more running around to find the cell phone when it rings, or having bad service). These are just a few ideas on how to handle owning a vacation home in an economical manner. You can save a lot of money on utilities (nearly half) by unplugging or putting on vacation mode while away. Live better by spending more wisely.
UPDATE 2021: The greatest cost-savings was ditching the vacation home and spending our summers traveling by RV. You can vacation, even on a cruise ship or at a resort, for less money than "owning" a vacation home. It makes no sense to "own your vacation" and this is especially true for timeshares.
However, I did learn a lot from this experience. Today we have only cell phones - no cable TV, no landline, no Internet connection. This cut our communications expenses to less than one-quarter of what they were. Not only that, it means we have robust Internet service (via cell phone hot spot) when traveling.
Friday, April 9, 2010
What is Most Important to You?
It is a simple question, but one that few of us bother to ask ourselves. What are the most important things in our lives, and how are we going about preserving those things?
What are your priorities?
1. Your health and well-being?
2. A Spouse or loved one?
3. Your children or friends?
4. Owning a nice car or house?
5. Impressing people you don't know with your wealth and status?
The last two items on this list sound ridiculous when taken out of context. But for most people in America, items #4 and #5 are the top of their actual priority list, and really important things like #1-#3 are at the bottom.
Think I'm lying? Think about it. The divorce rate in this country is nearly 50%, and children are shuffled between parents like so many chattels. The vast majority of Americans are overweight, eat poorly, and rarely exercise, and have little or nothing saved for retirement.
And yet, we all have fancy cars and are mortgaged to the hilt to have houses we can't afford, right?
So re-read my question again and you'll see I was right. Today in America, we throw away spouses and children - trading them in like the leased cars we drive. We buy status goods to impress "others" - the unseen hoards of people who will allegedly be impressed by our ability to sign a loan document (but in truth, rarely are, as they, too, have signed similar loan documents and understand how little real talent it requires to own things).
It is a shame that in a country that harps about "values" we have so few real ones. And the people who harp about "values" the most seem to have the shallowest - whining about their "right" to inexpensive gas, or blaming the government for their self-induced financial woes.
In case you've really missed the point, what is really important to your own life, as we all will inevitably discover, is not owning things or impressing others, but first and foremost, our own good health and well-being, as well as the welfare and companionship of our spouse and loved ones.
To achieve these goals, you have to look after yourself. And by that, I don't mean going deeply into debt to purchase consumer goods that may make you feel good for a transient moment. Watch your diet, exercise regularly, and try to stay in good health. If you have no major health issues, you are very fortunate, so there is no excuse for allowing your health to degrade by overeating, smoking, and not exercising regularly.
And taking care of yourself and your loved ones means investing for your own future, not spending for the moment. Putting money in your 401(k), paying down debt, having money in your savings account. Yet so many spend all of their income and borrow yet more so they can have a new pickup truck and a deer stand, or a jet ski and a new car, while not funding their own savings or retirement. Once laid off, they cry "foul" as if someone else forced them to spend all their wealth and leave them destitute.
And by loved ones, I mean your real friends and loved ones, not abusive family members or baiting friends. I see many folks, often the same ones obsessed with impressing strangers, try hard to get into the good graces of the local cliques, whether they be in the neighborhood, at school, or at work. They desperately want acceptance from shallow people, who of course, will dangle it right out of reach. Or those who continually try to obtain acceptance from family members, who in turn respond with little more than abuse.
Find true friends and clutch them to your breast. Let the others go, for your own sake and your own sanity.
Take care of yourself, be kind to yourself. Figure out what is really most important to you.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
High Deductible Health Insurance
Sunday, April 4, 2010
It's OK to be a housewife. Be a good one!
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