Monday, October 31, 2022


People at almost any income level can succeed - or fail - based on their life choices.

A reader turns me on to a book he wrote, which is on Amazon as a Kindle download.  It is a book that will be of use to some and piss-off others.  I wrote before about an article I read about a guy who buckled down and put every penny he had toward paying off his debts - his student loans and his mortgage.  And before age 30, he was debt-free.  You'd think congratulations are in order.

Think again - the comments section was full of critical comments about him, saying he "sacrificed" a "social life" just to be financially secure.  It is funny, but a lot of people - myself included - make poor life choices and then act all shocked when they result in poor life outcomes.  They we engage in "sour grapes" and run-down those who make better choices.

Over the years, I have squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more than a million, buying things I didn't need - or even want!  We trade the long-term satisfaction of being debt-free and accumulating real wealth in exchange for the short-term dopamine rush of socialization, buying crap, going to concerts or parties, and of course, drug and alcohol abuse.

One of the early chapters in Unbrokable deals with alcohol and cigarettes.  The author is puzzled as to why people indulge in these things - not only are they not necessary to survive, they actually shorten your life and make you more uncomfortable, particularly as you age. Google "Alcoholic Polyneropathy" sometime for a real scare - it ain't just your liver and kidneys you are damaging!  This is, of course, in addition to your stomach, digestive tract, brain, and well, just about everything.

So why do people engage in various self-destructive behaviors?  That is the real question.  The young person with massive debts doesn't want to pay them back.  They want a new console gaming system, a bad-ass car, some tattoos, concert tickets, the latest smartphone - and so on and so forth.  I know this as this is what I wanted as a youth - different crap, of course, but the same idea.

Robert Heinlein illustrated this problem neatly in his SciFi novella Logic of Empire, which I discussed before.  Wikipedia sums up the plot succinctly:

Two well-off Earth men are arguing about whether there is slavery on Venus, and one of them gets shanghaied there—or so he believes; they later find out that they've bet one another about the topic, gotten drunk, and signed on. Upon his arrival, he finds his contract sold to a farmer. His discovery that it will take him years to work off his debt is compounded by his realization that he cannot get to sleep at night without rhira, an expensive local narcotic, thus increasing his debt every day.

What is interesting is that the "slaves" on Venus could buy their freedom, but few were able to do so.  Most spent their money on drugs, just to make it all bearable, and thus went further into debt, rather than work their way out.  In theory, it was possible to get ahead in that economic system.  In reality, it was damn difficult.

Like a lot of Heinlein's work - and a lot of Science Fiction in general, at least the better stuff - it is not about ray-guns and three-headed aliens, but an allegory about human beings and their problems right here on earth, in the present day.  We fall into the same trap - feeling tired and "wiped out" after a hard day at work, so we order out for a pizza, increasing our credit card debt load a tiny bit and our waistline as well.  Or we have a cocktail, or a bong hit.  I've done all three.  Or people go online and shop to get that hit of dopamine that accompanies it.

When I graduated from law school, we borrowed money to build a pool, as I felt I needed to be "rewarded" for my accomplishment.  I rewarded myself with additional debt and an additional expense.  I don't regret buying the pool (having regrets is foolish) but in retrospect, we would have been better off buying a smaller pool and saving up for it.  It would have cost a lot less, been just as enjoyable, cost less to maintain, and the satisfaction of no debt would have made it more enjoyable as a result.

But we are weak, we human beings, and the marketing people know this.  They sell the siren song of "You'll never get ahead anyway, so you might as well indulge yourself now!" - it is a message in almost every advertisement on television.  Of course, the reality is, you can get ahead, but part and parcel of this is not indulging your every whim.

Our reader has coined the term "UnBrokable" to mean accumulating wealth and having a modest lifestyle, to the point where, being broke becomes nearly impossible.  It is, of course, tempting fate to state such a thing - much as the Titanic was "unsinkable."  Nevertheless, I get what he is saying - if you have no debts and live a comfortable yet modest lifestyle, and manage to accumulate a modest amount of wealth, the idea that you could "lost it all in a heartbeat!" becomes more and more remote.

On the other hand, the guy making over $100,000 a year, who is living in an over-mortgaged house, driving leased cars, and paying monthly subscription fees for a whole host of services they may or may not use (Bundle and save! - NOT!) and has a nagging and intractable credit card debt - he's one paycheck away from homelessness.  And I say this having seen it happen in 2008 when people lost their over-mortgages houses and the leased cars were towed away when they lost their high-paying jobs and never found another job at that salary.

We leverage ourselves - and I say "We" because I did it too, at one time in my life.  I slowly turned things around after starting this blog, realizing that I had a lot of nice "stuff" that I was paying for by mortgaging my future.  And it is not just debt, either.  You buy a car or a boat or a motorcycle or an RV and they depreciate like mad - unless you are using these things all the time, it is pointless to own them. Yet American back yards are full of depreciating motor vehicles that are rarely used.  "It isn't costing me anything to keep it!" the owner claims.  Au Contraire.

Our reader was able to retire at age 40. I had to work an additional 18 years as a result of my poor financial planning. Some folks have to work 10 or 12 more.  Some folks never retire, but die in the harness.  Others claim they will "never retire" but are surprised when retirement is thrust upon them.  It gets pretty ugly.

Of course, there is a happy medium between "living like a monk and eating raman" as losers claim is the only way out, or being an utter spendthrift whose motto is "YOLO!" as they spend their last penny and borrow a dollar more.  You can have nice things in life, the secret is to seek out contentment and not happiness - the latter which results more often than not, in misery.

A young man complains online that Ticketmaster is to blame, because he cannot afford $200 for tickets to the rap battle of the bands, where drinks are $17 apiece.   Of course, it is affordable to go to the local pub where drafts are $1.99 and listen to a local band play - often for free.  But no, he has to have the "status" tickets to the "big name" entertainer.  It is a choice, not a destiny.

Similarly, you can make a nice pizza at home for a few dollars (we buy the crusts pre-made at Sam's Club) rather than spend $20 on takeout pizza.  No worry about tipping the driver, either - and the pizza you make at home is ready before the delivery guy's arrives.  People claim they are "too tired" to cook, but then again, they stay up to midnight binge-watching Netflix.  I wonder why they are so tired?

We all make choices in life.  The real test of character, I believe, is owning up to those choices.  It is one thing to say, "I'm broke, because I blew all my money on stupid shit!" - it is another to say, "I'm broke, because of [Capitalism or Obama or Trump or whatever]!"  People want to externalize their problems, and this rarely leads to real change in their lives.

Our reader has illustrated that it is possible to get ahead in this world, through frugal and careful living and by avoiding or paying down debts.  He'll be as popular as a whore in church.  No one wants to hear those hard truths.  They'd rather tune in to Sooze Orman and hear whether or not they're "Approved!" to lease a new Acura.

It is just human nature.  A trap.  And we all can fall into it, if we are not careful!