Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Finances And Health

One reason I stopped posting to my weight loss blog was I realized I was posting about the same thing in both blogs.

A reader writes asking me about my weight loss blog, which I put on hiatus long ago.  Keeping up two blogs a day turned out to be too much.  To recap, we started measuring what we ate every day, and counting the resulting calories and keeping track of them in the blog.  We also started walking and bicycling every day and keeping track of that as well.  And most importantly, we started weighing ourselves every day and keeping track of that.  And not surprisingly, we lost weight, over time - about 30 pounds for me - which made us feel better.

A reader wrote that you cannot control that which you do not track.  Seems like an obvious thing, at least to an Engineer.  How can you avoid speeding in your car, if your speedometer is broken?  I guess you could go with the traffic flow, but if everyone else is speeding (which isn't atypical on most highways today) then you end up speeding, too.  And no, "broken speedometer" isn't a valid excuse to avoid a ticket.

It struck me then, that these are not similar things, but identical things in terms of how the human brain works.  With our finances, we tend to drive along without a working speedometer - or I know I did.  I would charge things I wanted on a credit card and then glance at the monthly "statement" and pay off part of the balance, never realizing how much interest I was paying.  By most accounts, about 70% of Americans do this at one time in their lives or another.   I never looked at prices much, and did just what I pleased, until the money ran out and the credit limits were reached.  But hey, no problem!  You can do a cash-out re-fi and pay off those pesky credit cards and start over again!  Financial GENIUS!

The same is true with eating.  And by the way, only in America do we complain about having too much good food and too much money to spend.  People in the third-world reading my blog must think we are a bunch of crybabies.  They're right.  But getting back to food, we go to the "fast-casual" restaurant we saw advertised on the Tee-Vee and have a heapin' helpin' of brown food - everything fried and in massive portions.  Hey, might as well have an "appetizer" of fried mayonnaise balls beforehand, right?

Once again, we are mystified as to why our lives suck. We followed the herd, why are we getting a speeding ticket (and why is our insurance so high?).  We ate "normal" portions of food - like everyone else - so why are we gaining weight?   We spent money like all our other suburban neighbors did, so why are we "living paycheck to paycheck"?    We did everything right, we did what everyone else was doing, why did it go so horribly wrong?

Oh, and where's my government bailout? Pay off my student loans! Guaranteed annual income!  Guaranteed Jobs!  Mortgage "adjustments"!  I did nothing wrong, I only did what the TeeVee said to do!  Make all the bad stuff go away and fix it all for me!  Waaaaah!

Then, I realized the common denominator in all of these (and many more) behaviors - following the herd and looking to your brain-dead "friends" for ideas as to what is "normal" behavior is a really, really bad idea.  Because most of your friends are morons - let's face it - albeit some of the nicest morons in the world, to be sure!  But their ideas of responsible eating, driving, (politics) and finances are, well, mostly coming from the TeeVee that dominates their living room - and their lives.  If the are under 40, well, it is the smart phone they pray to, rather than the living room wall-screen altar.

Giving up television and other forms of media was the first step in losing weight, getting my finances together and getting my insurance rates down.  And getting older made this a lot easier to do.  When you get older, it becomes harder and harder to over-eat.  It literally makes you feel like crap, as you are putting foreign materials into your body, whose digestive system can no longer handle masses of foreign matter.  There is a reason Grandma got so skinny - like an old cat - as she got older.  You don't see a lot of obese people over 90 years old, only the skin-and-bones kind.   They lose their appetite over time.

Similarly, you lose your appetite for dangerous driving, as your sight and hearing start to recede.  Not only that, having seen a few wrecks, been in a few (which you will, if you are an average American) and knowing people who were maimed or even killed in auto accidents, you will learn, over time, that cutting off five people by driving on the shoulder, 20MPH over the limit, so you can get to a Taco Bell ten seconds faster (no kidding, I saw this just the other day) doesn't really make much sense.   If you get a ticket doing it, even less so.  If you get into a wreck or kill a pedestrian or bicyclist..... what then?

With finances, once you reach a certain age, you realize the amount of money you will earn in life is a very finite number as well as the number of years you have left to earn that money, not to mention the number of years you have left, period.   These are all sobering thoughts.  For us, the revelation came fairly soon - at a time when we could repair (or avoid) the damage from idiotic behaviors.  For others, well, it never happens - they spend money and overeat until they keel over dead of a heart attack, while behind the wheel of their leased car.  And while that might sound like an optimal outcome to some people (no really, some think that) the reality is, such folks are bitterly unhappy for decades with that lifestyle.

The problem is our brains.  Our neural network - that is our brain - rewards us with dopamine or whatever, whenever we do something that enhances not only our survival, but that of our species.  So you have sex, and your brain rewards you with pleasure.  You eat a donut, you get this little rush of dopamine.  You buy a new shirt in the mall, you are high as a kite on the stuff.   Problem is, the rush of acquiring things, for our ancestors, was pretty much cost-free.  A mastodon hide was there for the taking, provided you killed the mastodon first.  You didn't have to put it on a VISA card and pay for it for the rest of your life.

The other problem with dopamine is that it feeds addiction.  You eat that donut and you get a dopamine hit.  So you eat a second donut.  Your brain only releases half as much dopamine this time around, as your body is satiated with food.  So you eat two donuts to get the same dopamine rush, but by then, the brain is starting to hand out the dopamine in smaller and smaller portions, plus the effect it has becomes weaker the more you are stimulated by it.   Pretty soon, you are stuffing your face, trying to re-create that initial "high" but to no avail.   This is the same thing that drives gambling, drug abuse, and other forms of addictive and compulsive behavior.   These are not similar things, they are identical things.

For example, you know, in the back of your mind, when you are being irresponsible.  If you are over-eating, you know it, and feel a little guilty, perhaps a little naughty.  Same with drinking, drugs, fast driving, and spending too much.  It leaves you feeling bad about yourself, as well as slightly bloated and worried about what you've done.  There is also the effect you see when you flop in front of the TeeVee with a big bowl of popcorn.  A few minutes later, you look down and the bowl is empty.  You ate the whole damn thing and didn't even realize you were doing it.  I called it the "conveyor belt" in my weight-loss blog, and the only way to avoid this, is to avoid situations where food portions are not portion-controlled.

If you open a jumbo "family-sized" bag of chips, odds are, you will gorge on them, mindlessly, until you realize what you have done.  Those little 100-calorie bags of chips can be a better idea, provided you don't just eat 10 of those, instead.  Not buying chips at all is the best idea, just as staying out of casinos is a good idea as well. NOT Putting yourself into situations where you will over-spend, over-consume, or engage in self-destructive behavior is the best idea.  That's why alcoholics give up drinking entirely - it is hard to "drink responsibly" when you tend to just guzzle the booze.

But getting back to weight loss, the idea of measuring food portions, exercise portions, and daily weight actually works - just as monitoring your spending, budgeting, and balancing your accounts (and paying off your credit card) daily avoided a lot of financial trouble.   But over time, old habits started to creep in.  Our "FitBits" which tracked exercise, died, one by one.  The Fitbit "Aria" scale turned out to be a piece of junk.  We stopped doing daily weight measures, we stopped measuring food portions, and we stopped measuring exercise - and gained back about half the weight we lost.   Or course, CoVid didn't help, right?  What will we blame our foibles on, now that the pandemic is over?  Have to have some other excuse, for sure.

Well, I noticed my weight was going back up, and moreover, I was starting to feel like crap.  So we went back to the old ways - daily weighing and exercise. I charted this on paper at first, but then realized my new Samsung Galaxy 7 "Active" had an exercise monitor and weight monitor in the "Samsung Health" app.  Mark got a new "Fitbit" from Huewei, so Ding Chow Ping knows all about us.  And a funny thing happened - we lost weight again!  Funny how that works, eh?

But this also illustrates how easy it is to get on and then fall off the wagon - of whatever addictive behavior that is making you unhappy (and that's all we are, I guess, a bundle of addictions).  You might get the impression - a wrong impression - that I am some sort of financial "expert" or hold myself out to be one - like Mr. Money Beard, or Financial Kung Fu Guy.   But I'm just a schmuck like you, trying to figure out this thing called "life" before it quickly comes to a conclusion - and have some fun and moreover, comfort, along the way.

We all make mistakes, and this is to be expected.  You can improve your financial condition, just as you can lose weight.  But that doesn't mean you will be perfect at it, or never make a mistake.  You will spend too much on something stupid, but at least you will realize it and regret it, and maybe program your brain for "next time" to do better.  It is akin to over-eating that extra slice of pizza and realizing, not ten minutes later, that you are bloated and just blew off all the weight loss you had for the last few days.  You just have to pick yourself up and move on.

You have to stay a little bit hungry - fiscally and physically.  We are trying to eat less, by preparing smaller portions, or if we make a lot of food, immediately putting most of it into tupperware containers and freezing it for the next day or week or whatever (which also solves the "too tired to cook, let's order a pizza!" conundrum).   I have learned - or am trying to learn - that it is OK to be a little bit hungry and just because you have a little hunger is no reason to raid the refrigerator for "just a little something".   On the other hand, I have learned to listen to my body (and mind) and realize when my blood sugar or hydration level is going low, and to eat a little something rather than starve myself until mealtime and then over-eat.

However, you can't starve yourself - that's a fat chick trick.   People try to go on radical diets and expect to lose pounds in days, which you can do, if you just become dehydrated.  Water weights eight pounds a gallon, so one easy way to lose a pound in minutes is to go pee.  It is not a effective long-term solution, however.   Fad diets just don't work, and neither do fad finances.  Those "get out of debt!" sites sell the same snake-oil as the "diet" sites with their books and weight-loss-shakes.   Again, this isn't a similar thing but an identical thing, appealing to the same parts of your brain and the same set of neuroses.

Turning around your financial situation can take time - months, years, even a decade or more.  But if you stick with it, and make not dramatic, but small, effective, and permanent changes in your life (which are far easier to do than dramatic gestures that mean nothing) you will eventually succeed.  Putting aside $5 a day (by not going to the gourmet coffee shop with your brain-dead friends every day) can put another $100,000 in your 401(k) over 30 years.  But it takes time, and as I noted before, most people (including me, at age 21) put $500 in their 401(k) and then check the balance the next day, mystified as to why they aren't millionaires already.  So they take the money out and spend it.  Duh!

Similarly, the best and most effective weight-loss strategies are not to starve yourself and then binge eat later on.   You might lose dramatic amounts of weight by starvation techniques, but the losses are never permanent and the effect on your health is awful.   You are better off - as I am still learning - to learn new behaviors - not dramatic behaviors - that improve your life.  What I have learned is that just eating a little less will result in weight maintenance, and a wee bit less than that, weight loss, over months, not days.   It is a lot easier to live with that, than some weird diet where you eat all-of-this and none-of-that or some sort of product sold to you by a company.

Similarly, it isn't all that hard to spend a little less over time.  We shop on price today, whereas in the past we went to the fancy grocery store and bought brand names and never looked at prices.  And the prices can be dramatically different.  A hambuger bun (which makes a great breakfast sandwich, btw) can be eight for 88 cents at Walmart, or $2.98 for for the same sized package at the fancy store.  Some places sell "gourmet" buns for a buck apiece.  Sure, once in a while, it is fun to try these things, but for everyday use, well, you can save a lot and by-the-way, the calorie count is a lot less with the 88-cent package than the fancy Brioche.

Being hungry is hard to do - whether it is "doing without" snack foods, or "doing without" the latest smart phone or video game or whatever.  It always amazes me, how when I talk to someone who is complaining about being broke all the time (and how it is the government's fault) that they have the new Smart Phone XXIV or the latest video game, or "did you see my new tattoo?" or whatever.  It is not that these thing are inherently evil, only that, if you want to get ahead in life, you have to learn to live without at least some of them - or seek less-expensive alternatives.

It is sad, but I know retirees who have combined pensions well over $100,000 a year but live a lifestyle that arguably is worse than mine at $30,000 a year.  They have the latest smartphone, sure - but is it any better than the four-year-old one I have?  I mean, really?    Does their leased car drive any better than my paid-for one?   And is going out to restaurants almost every night of the week and having forgettable meals really better than making really good, memorable meals at home?   I think not.  Sometimes, indeed, Less is more.  Sometimes it is better to stay hungry - and usually a helluva lot more fun.

I digress, but one way I have of reviewing a restaurant is to try to remember what I had there.  If I can't remember what I ate at a restaurant or whether it was any good, odds are, it wasn't very good.  Restaurant meals should be a treat, and memorable.  Too many people use them as a filling station for their stomach - a place to get calories.   In those terms, it is an expensive place to get calories - like paying $10 a gallon for gas.   So why bother?   You can make unmemorable meals at home for less.  But I digress.

Some of the happiest times in my life were when I had nothing or at least very little.  Low-wage jobs and a college class to go to - riding there on my bicycle on the Erie Canal towpath, taking along the lunch I made that morning.  In a way, it was freedom - free from want, and much of what causes want in America is wanting - wanting "things" like electronics, cars, restaurant meals, fancy clothes, and status items.  We buy these things until our paycheck is spent, and place ourselves in financial peril over nothing.  It is akin to becoming overweight by eating crappy food - you don't even get a good meal out of the deal!  But most Americans do this - obesity is an epidemic here.  Again, foreigners look at us and scratch their heads.  We complain about having too much.

Today, I have that same liberating feeling.  Not having debt is its own reward.  You might not realize it, but the nagging nature of debt does wear on your soul, over time.  Sure, you made the mortgage payment this month - and the car payment, and your student loan payment and, well some of the credit card bill.   But you have to do it again next month, like a trained monkey, and for how long can you pull off this stunt?  It wears on you, and I enjoy having less and having it all paid for in addition to the financial benefits of paying less taxes and paying less interest.   It is akin to the mental benefit of losing weight - you feel better physically and feel better about yourself.   But that feeling is a delayed gratification, compared to the immediate dopamine rush of the donut or leased car.

I meander.  But that is one reason I stopped doing the weight loss blog.  I realized I was blogging about the same topic, twice.  Controlling finances and controlling weight are the same thing. They take constant, long-term effort, but not dramatic or difficult effort, just small changes in behavior over time.  What most people want, instead, is instant gratification, dramatic weight loss and instant debt relief.  And I suppose liposuction and bankruptcy might provide those things, but there are far less dramatic and intrusive ways of achieving life's goals.