in defense of Netflix

I have a subscription to Netflix. I realize this is not frugal. I realize I shouldn’t be watching TV. I do, however, have five points I can make in defense of Netflix.

  1. We don’t have any premium channels other than some Russian language channels. Bubelah really enjoys being able to watch TV in her native language, and I don’t really have a problem with it since otherwise she would hardly ever hear it other than from her family. We canceled all of our other premium channels after we got Netflix.
  2. It controls the quality of our movie viewing. I really liked Rush Hour II. I usually was pretty happy to see it come on TBS, or The Matrix. I thought watching it for the second or third time was no problem. However, when I saw Rush Hour II for the eighth time and watched Sweet Home Alabama for the second time – yes, you heard that right, I am not proud of it – I realized I was really wasting my time. Watching a movie twice is OK. A great movie like The Fountain, Snatch, or The Irony of Fate may be worth watching once a year. But no-one needs to see Blue Streak more than once. With Netflix, I generally ensure that I only watch movies once, although I may use it to see a classic that I haven’t seen in a long time. Right now on my queue I only have two such movies – Wall Street and Dr. Zhivago.
  3. We watch and return movies rapidly. With rare exceptions, we watch a single movie over two nights. After Little Buddy is asleep, the house is cleaned and we’re ready to relax, we’ll usually watch an hour of a movie before turning it off an hour before going to sleep. So we keep one movie two days, return it the next day, receive a new movie the next day. So if I receive a movie Monday, we generally have the next one in our hands Thursday night. Since we have two subscriptions, that means approximately 2-3 movies per week, or approximately 4-7 hours over a seven day period.
  4. I no longer watch any TV other than Netflix. I decided over a month ago to stop watching all TV. I don’t turn our satellite on, ever. Bubelah may watch a program in the evening, and I may watch it too, but for the most part I don’t watch anything except Netflix. If I didn’t have the new movies coming in for entertainment, I might break down and watch The Matrix for the 13th time, and yes, it’s that good.
  5. Netflix broadens your horizons. I have already seen a dozen movies on Netflix that never would have been shown on any channel on American TV. We’ve rented Israeli, Swedish, Russian, Italian and even obscure American films that we never would have seen otherwise. Many of them are good, and some have been uplifting. Some have been horrible, but that’s to be expected. Some have been deeply moving, and I am glad that I saw them.

I know Netflix is not a frugal choice or maybe the best use of time, but I like it and intend to keep it for the time being.

Reading in early childhood

Little Buddy doesn’t watch much TV other than an occasional DVD to keep him distracted when he gets too anxious, but I think we have already managed to make him love books more than TV. I have no illusions that this will always be the case, but right now if you turn on the TV and wave a book at him, he will grab for the book every time. This was a fairly simple process, and there are a few simple ways you could do this, too.

  1. Buy books before the baby is born. You simply won’t have the time or patience the first few months to look. Get a few classics before the baby arrives – Good Night Moon was the first book we got for Little Buddy (other than hand-me-downs from my childhood).
  2. Start reading to the baby in the womb. This is not for any reason other than to get used to doing it. I had almost zero experience reading children’s books. Once in a blue moon I read to a child, but it could not have been more than a dozen times in my whole life. But reading to your wife’s stomach a few times helps relax you and gets you used to the idea of it. There is no need to do this a lot, just a few times until you are comfortable with it. I wish I had done it a bit more than I did, but the few times I did were enough.
  3. Read to the baby when he is born. I read Little Buddy books as soon as he came home from the hospital. I read him books in his swing, then on a mat on the floor, then holding him in my lap as soon as he could sit up. People thought I was wasting my time, but he started focusing on the book as a source of happiness very, very early on, and as soon as he could crawl he would crawl to the books and bring it to Bubelah or to me.
  4. Buy a limited number of books. Only buy a dozen or so books, and learn them well. I can recite most of our “greatest hits” from memory. I have a set of standard sound effects to go with them. I think if I read a new book every night it would be difficult to have the same consistency, and very young kids love consistency. We read “The Little Bunny” hundreds of times, always in the same tone of voice, always with the same “effects” – and he still remembers all of them even now that we don’t read the book as much anymore.
  5. Read to him in more than one language if possible. I am fortunate that my wife is not a native English speaker, so we can have two sets of books. I am further fortunate that I speak her native language, Russian, and that she speaks English fluently. We try to stick to our native languages while reading, to ensure Little Buddy learns the correct pronounciation and accent, but we switch back and forth and in a sense I think that keeps him entertained, too. If you speak a foreign language and can read it – even slowly – try buying a few books in that language, you will be amazed how well children can pick up two sets of words. Little Buddy already clearly understands both languages.
  6. Make reading interactive. Don’t go for more than a page or two without asking a question or deviating from the text. Just as with adults, repetition can lead to inattention. Although I know I said babies love consistency above, they don’t love dull repetition.
  7. Above all, make reading fun. I seldom read any book with Little Buddy without a constant stream of sound effects, tickles, faces and even some running around or lifting him up in the air. Different books have different purposes. Hand Hand Fingers Thumb is exciting. The Runaway Bunny is calming. Both are fun – they just have different cadences, tones and actions associated with them. One of the worst things to do is make reading dry and dull. An infant or toddler probably won’t understand the great majority of the words in a story, but I always show Little Buddy my arms outstretched pretending to exercise when we see that word in one of his books. Now, when he hears that word, he stretches, too. The same goes for grasshoppers, monkeys, balloons, fire trucks and so on.

All of this has paid off handsomely for us. Although we didn’t follow all of these tips all the time, it is a great feeling as a parent to watch your child walk right past a turned-on TV to grab a book and either read it himself or toddle over to you and put it in your hands, then plop down on the carpet and wait expectantly for you to read it.

true rates

I get paid on an hourly rate, and one of the things I do obsessively these days is try to figure out what sort of hourly rate I would need to generate as a freelancer. There are a million imponderables, of course – different rates for different tasks, different rates for different clients, include expenses or not, and so on. But one of the interesting exercises I did was try to figure out what I actually make today on an hourly basis including all of my daily expenses. I learned a couple of things from this calculation.

So for the sake of this example, here are a few of the variables:
Hours 8
Commuting hours 2.5
Rate 50
Tax rate 25%
Lunch 8.00
Coffee, extras 4.00
Parking 8.00
Public transport 5.25
Gas, wear and tear 1.50
Dry clean shirts 0.75

A few of these costs are more or less fixed. The tax rate is a rough estimate. My federal and state rates are higher, but get reduced due to mortgage interest deductions, etc. I usually figure 25% is a fair approximation of what finally goes out.

My parking and public transportation costs are hard to alter. The public transportation is reduced slightly by using an FSA pre-tax benefit card, so that’s $5.25 rather than the post-tax $7.00 per day. The parking is the best rate I can find near my station. I could take a light rail near my house that would cost $6 per day instead of $8, but would increase my commuting hours by another hour per day at a minimum.

Gas and wear and tear on my car is a very rough estimate. I fill up less than once per month, since we don’t use my car for family driving. So for the sake of argument it costs me $50 per 60 days to operate the car, plus a little for wear and tear on the tires, oil, etc. The federal mileage allowance is $.485 per mile (http://hr.blr.com/human_resources/mileage_allowance.htm), and I drive about 4 miles round trip per day, or $1.94. So split the difference, $1.50.

Dry cleaning my shirts costs $.75 per day. I’ve tried to shy away from the fancier shirts and pants I used to prefer that required dry cleaning, rather than just launder-and-press. $.75 is a lot per day, but I think the amount of time spent on ironing isn’t worth it. The shirts won’t look as good and it just takes me too long to do it.

The killer in this calculation was the lunch and extras. I like a salad for lunch most days, and of course the salad bar is a quick and easy option. I get a by-the-pound salad, so a cucumber slice costs a lot more than a piece of lettuce. I started tracking my costs and was surprised that I average $8 per day on salad. This is part of the battle between health and wealth. I need to cut it down, though.

The extras are the worst item. I sometimes want water on the subway. It gets hot and the air is tepid, and a cold bottle of spring water really helps. That costs $1 if I forget to pick up a case from the supermarket. My client doesn’t have coffee machines, so that’s another $1.50 for cafeteria coffee. And inevitably during the day I may want a seltzericon, or an apple. So that may run anywhere from $0 to $4 per day. I recently started drinking black tea at work, since a bag of Tazo high-end black tea costs 20 cents per tea bag and has just as much caffeine as coffee. That should save me about $300 per year.

After all of those expenses pile in, my net is much lower. If you include my commute time in the calculation, that’s about $26/hour, or $208 per day. If you don’t include commute time, it’s $34/hour and $272 per day. I include the commute time since that’s working time – I’m not doing it for fun.

What can I take away from this? All of these expenses are directly arising from traveling in to a major metropolitan area to work. I effectively make $26 per hour on a 10-10.5 hour day. So if I worked from home making $30 per hour after tax, 8 hours per day, I’d be better off. In my industry $70 to $100 per hour pre-tax is a fairly common and easy range to achieve for in-office work. I don’t have a good estimate or remote work, because auditing is typically on-site.

This exercise made me realize two things: 1, if I worked from home I could charge a much, much lower rate than I charge for going into the office and still net more. 2, I spend an awful lot on unnecessary items. As a consultant, I often talk myself out of bringing my lunch, since I don’t know where I’ll be, or I won’t know if they have a fridge, or whether this will be the day my client wants to have a lunch meeting. I should learn to overcome that, because $12/day is ridiculous.

Using these numbers, though, my main thought was that 50% of my rate is gone before it hits the bank account, effectively. That is a sobering percentage.

follow the Poor Dad sometimes

If you spend any time on personal finance sites, you’ll hear about Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Personally, I would credit it with a tremendous amount of influence on my life since I read it in late 2003. This book changed the way I think about money, about priorities and even about life in general. I plan to review it in the near future.An important distinction, however, is that not all of this change was good. One of the main tenants of Rich Dad is ‘maximizing cash flow’, or attempting to push expenditures as far into the future as possible. A very common way of maximizing cash flow would be to take a balloon mortgage, for example, where payments are low or interest-only for several years then escalate.

At the height of the housing boom we bought our current house. Fervently embracing the concept of maximizing our cash flow, we attempted to get an interest-only monthly floating rate mortgage, which would (at the time) have resulted in sub-$1000 per month payments on our half-million dollar home. After 5 years, the payments would shoot up, but we were convinced we could easily refinance or move or somehow avoid that situation.

Fortunately for us, the neighborhood we were moving into did not meet the lender’s criteria for “aggressive” mortgages. It was too new, and there was not enough payment history for the neighborhood for them to measure the risk of default. Our mortgage application was rejected, and we proceeded to obtain a 30 year mortgage at 5.6%. This meant our payments were almost double what we had hoped, and we were not happy.

Three and a half years after being turned down for the adjustable rate mortgage, we still have regular payments. With the increase in interest rates we would be paying almost the same amount on the ARM that we are paying on our traditional mortgage, but it would all be interest. The balloon payment would be looming, and our cash flow would be no better than it is now.

So in retrospect we were saved from ourselves. Despite the fact that we think we are fairly savvy people about finance (she has a degree in finance and I have an advanced degree in accounting) we lucked out by being turned down for the ARM. I doubt we would have done much with the ‘maximized cash flow’ since our first thought would probably have been to invest in more real estate, again using ARMs. Doing so would have compounded our error, and now we would be facing a mounting avalanche of debt.

I think the moral I take away from this is that even when you follow a particular philosophy or guru, you should always consider a worst-case scenario. Sure, the traditional mortgage has cut into my income and made it difficult to consider vacations and larger purchases. That pales in comparison to the ARM worst-case scenario: being forced out of the house.

As a postscript, I still think that Rich Dad, Poor Dad is a critical read for anyone who lives in America. Kiyosaki makes excellent points about working for income versus investing, and made clear to me for the first time that what I wanted to be able to buy was time, not things. Financial freedom is the goal, although I had never heard it put so plainly. So please don’t read this as an indictment of his book. I highly recommend it, but as with anything else in this life you have to be cautious and conservative when dealing with your home, your family or your health. Without these three things all of the cash in the world will be useless.

Other reading:

Rich Dad, Poor Dad:  What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money–That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!

teaching risk tolerance

Re-establishing an exercise routine

I recently went to the doctor for a full physical for the first time in three years. I waited so long because I always had something “more important” to do: busy with a new job, Bubelah was pregnant, Little Buddy had arrived. If you have a newborn at home, you feel like you’re at the doctor far too much. Between shots and colds and the other hazards of infanthood, a visit to the pediatrician on a weekly basis seems normal. So after visiting the doctor and finding out that nothing was wrong other than a cholesterol level higher than ideal (but still within normal ranges) and the fact that I was overweight, I realized I have to get started exercising regularly again. I’ve been exercising but intermittently, and a bad weightlifting episode a few weeks ago really set me back. These tips are almost ‘live’ for me, since I am applying them right now to try to get back in a routine.

Any exercise is better than none. I have always enjoyed running and lifting weights (although a very specific method to build core strength, not muscle mass) and not much else. Running, when you are doing it well, gives you a ‘high’. I have been trying to motivate myself to do push ups or more ‘muscle building’ weightlifting, and I have a lot of trouble with these exercises. I realized that I need to focus on exercise I enjoy, because even if it’s not as effective for my goals, they will work much better than a planned and skipped targeted exercise.

Take it easy. I made a huge mistake trying to ‘lift to failure’ a few weeks ago. Lifting to failure means that you lift the heaviest possible weights you can, for as long as you can maintain good form. The most common sort of weight training is set training, where you lift a moderate weight eight times, then pause, then repeat for as many sets as you are able (usually expected to be 2-4 sets). When I lifted to failure, I was sore for days and didn’t feel like exercising again for almost a week. Before you write that off as a mistake, understand that my intention was to start building muscle mass, and lifting to failure is a good way to do that. After one session I felt some noticeable improvement in my biceps. But the damage done to my workout program from skipping a week makes it a bad idea.

Set public goals. Setting public goals is an idea proposed by many self-improvement gurus. Leo at Zen Habits is a particular proponent of this idea. Make sure people know you are planning on running the next day. Often a mild embarrassment at missing your run and feeling a need to sheepishly defend your decision to skip is enough to make you pull yourself on out the door.

Get ready beforehand. Little Buddy is a light sleeper, and his nursery is right next to the study where I keep my running gear. If I don’t get the gear out the night before, I have to tiptoe with an insane amount of effort into the study to retrieve my socks and running shorts and shirts without waking him. Fear of waking him early, which means a long cranky day for him and for Bubelah, means that I might skip a workout if I forgot and left my gear in the study. So getting everything out and taking it downstairs to the living room the night before makes a big difference! Eat. I have made the mistake before of launching a diet and an exercise program at the same time. For me, at least, this is a bad idea. Weightlifting in particular requires fairly substantial food intake. I try not to alter my eating patterns and my exercise patterns at the same time.

Enjoy. Too often people view exercise as a chore, but every time I work out I feel better afterwards. Even in the ‘lift to failure’ episode above I had a great adrenaline rush afterwards. Try to look forward to working out instead of dreading it. I think these basic tips make it easy to get restarted after a layoff. There are other things that make it easier. For example, right now it’s hot and muggy in New Jersey, which makes my 5:30 AM runs very pleasant. The sun is just coming up, it’s not dry, which helps the lungs, and it’s warm, so light running gear is plenty. When it’s February and freezing I feel much less motivated to run. The weather is always a big motivator, even if you go to a gym. Who wants to drive to the gym in ice and snow, even if the gym is heated? So wish me luck in reestablishing my training program in running and weightlifting (running first, then weightlifting). My goal is to get back in competitive race shape. I haven’t run a competitive race in more than a year now, so I want to get back to that rather than the halfhearted jogging I’ve been doing lately. There’s my public goalsetting!

Pay down debt or invest


There’s a debate you read often on personal finance blogs: if you have a large sum of money, should you use it to pay down debt or invest? The answer is usually dependent on the person’s risk tolerance, but I think it also depends on the nature of the debt.

Debt is a bad thing in most cases. Something you “own” like a house is actually not owned by you. The house is owned by a bank. The bank is just letting you use it. Why? Fail to pay for a month or two, depending on the mortgage terms, and the bank will take back the house. The bank can’t just take 1/360th of the house back for each month you miss, so they will repossess the whole thing and the law will be on their side. To me, this means the bank owns the house.

However, there are better kinds of debt; take a student loan. If you pay for your education with a loan, it can’t be taken away later. You will have that diploma and although you can have your credit rating wrecked or your wages garnisheed by failing to pay that debt, you’ll always have that education. That’s quite different from using debt to own things.

Now if you have credit card debt, pay it down before you spend a dime on almost anything else in your life except maybe health insurance. Any debt where you pay 18%+ in interest is bad debt.

In comparing debt to investing, no investment in anything, ever, is guaranteed. We could plunge into a 20-year depression in October of this year. Unlikely, but the US has a number of unfavorable situations that could cause this to happen, so it is not impossible. If that happens, all of my index funds and money markets won’t be worth much. Investing has no guaranteed rate of return, and in fact can have a negative rate of return quite easily. If you bought Enron stock, your net return was -100%. If you have a stock paying 2% dividends per year with a stagnant price per share, you are not doing as well as you could parking that money in a high-yield savings account.

However, if you can pay down debt you have a guaranteed rate of return. If I have a 5.6% mortgage (I do, lucky me), then every bit of principal paid early is a reduction in the amount of interest I’ll eventually owe. Once that payment’s in, that interest is gone. This makes wonderful sense for something you want to ‘own’, like a house. However, if you look at my student loan example, what’s the advantage of paying early? Nothing, really. I already fully “own” the asset (my knowledge and diploma).

To sum these examples up, what really matters is ownership. If you can pay down debt to own something, I think that will beat investing any day. Sure, the investment might return 11% per year for 15 years. However, it might not, and many, many students of the market have been burned trying to beat it – better students than I. So I think the goal is to look at whether paying down debt increases your “true” assets or just stifles your cash flow by hurrying up payments for something you already own.

So that’s my opinion in the debt vs. investing debate. It does depend on the individual, but I think I would rather be debt-free and investment-poor than highly leveraged with a huge portfolio. If that was a smart idea, people would be using their home equity loans to invest in the stock market, right?

weight gain behind a desk

I am not a dietician, a nutritionist, a doctor, a trainer, etc. Please consult a doctor before beginning any diet program.

supermanweight
photo credit: swruler9284

As promised, a continuation on my story of woe. Once I graduated from college, I got a job with a Big 4 (Big 6 at the time) firm. A job at the Big 4 is a little different from typical desk jobs. You move from client to client every few weeks. As you progress upwards, you may have more clients and so begin to go to one on Monday and another one on Tuesday. By the time I finished my career in the Big 4 I had eight clients (seven small to medium and one massive, year-round monster client). Then I switched to internal auditing which was much the same, only within a single company. So from 1994 to 2000 a typical day for me involved several very negative factors for fitness and only one good one:

  • Long hours. During busy season I would work 80 hours without thinking much of it. I once worked 110 hours during a week, including two days staying in the office until 4 AM. During “slow season” I would still probably put in 50 hours a week or so.
  • Random food intake. Part of the long and very hectic hours was a tendency to do one of two things for meals: either zip off to a restaurant for a long “working” meal with colleagues and try to unwind over rich food, or eating a hurried lunch designed to tide me over until I could “eat properly.” A joke explains it perfectly: “How do you know you work in public accounting? If in the last week you ate at least one meal at a five-star restaurant and at least one meal from a vending machine.”
  • No exercise routine. I never exercised. To put this in perspective: if you work an eighty hour week, your weekdays are probably about 12-13 hours each and your weekends are probably something like 10 hours on Saturday and 6 hours on Sunday.  To put that in further perspective, if you have a 30 minute commute (and I seldom have had one that short) if you leave home at 8:30 am on a weekday morning, you will typically return to your home at 9 or 10 pm.  Tell me where you jam exercise into that schedule, plus do the wash, pay the bills, etc. It’s just not happening.  I joined a gym from time to time, but my main use of the gym was to go sit in the sauna on weekends.
  • Stress, stress, stress. I was stressed almost all the time. Stress causes weight gain.
  • Caffeine. I kept inhaling diet Cokes during this time, and no matter what you may read on the bottle or hear from the company, I don’t think you can drink 10 of them per day and not gain weight.
  • The only good aspect was walking. I did have to walk a lot – back and forth from my desk to the client’s desk, between different clients, to the office, up and down stairs if we were on different floors from the client and often in Russia back and forth to the subway. Walking did not help as much as you would think, unfortunately.
  • So what was the result of this lifestyle? While in the States, immediately after college, slow weight gain. While in Russia, I started piling on the weight. After I returned to the States and started traveling frequently for business (lots of rich paid-for-by-the-company food) I hit my maximum of almost 315 pounds. At that point I was eating out of control and had almost no physical exercise.
    In August 2000 I was walking up a single flight of stairs from the New York subway when I had to pause and catch my breath once I reached the sidewalk. I realized at that point something had to change, and it did…

    15 things I’d say to high school BB

    I read an interesting article at Lazy Man and Money this morning entitled “15 things..”. It got me thinking about what I would tell myself, aged 18 or so, if I could travel back in time and give some advice to myself. So here goes:

    1. Save more. Echoing a comment by Lazy Man, I saved a lot but I could have saved a lot, lot more in my youth. There were a lot of gadget purchases and CDs and dinners out that I could have avoided that would probably pay for a year or two of my mortgage by now.
    2. Don’t stop exercising. The reasons for saying this should be obvious if you read some of my earlier posts on weight gain. I had a long slow period in the mid-to-late-90s where I never, ever exercised. The effects of that still haunt me today.
    3. Pay more attention to your tax courses. I have a master’s degree in accounting, but all of my specialization was in international accounting, audit and other ‘corporate’ areas. In taxes I whisked through a couple of courses simply because the university required it. I wish I had spent more time learning my taxes and building up my expertise in that area.
    4. Don’t move every year. From 1996 to 2000 I lived in 9 different apartments. Now part of that includes three brief stays of one or two months while “in transition” between cities, but I wasted a lot of time and money moving. While I was living in Moscow, it wasn’t so bad; I moved most of my stuff in one or two cars since I didn’t really own any furniture. In New York I wasted a lot of time and money moving, even though twice it was a somewhat involuntary move (Marriott bought my apartment building once, and 9/11 rendered another place I lived almost un-commutable).
    5. … and on a related note, buy a house when you start working and rent a couple of rooms out to roommates. I probably would be sitting on $300,000 of equity by now. And when you move to New York and think “who in their right mind would pay $600,000 for a two-bedroom in Manhattan?” the answer should be you. Some of that money wasted investing with priceline.com could have been spent on a down payment.
    6. Stay in touch with people. In the early 90s, it was tough to stay in touch with people. You had to call, or write a letter, or visit them. Then suddenly we got this neat little thing at work called ‘electronic mail’, or email for short. With a tiny bit of effort, I could have carried a little notebook with the email address of every colleague, acquaintance and friend of mine for the next ten years and dropped them a two-line email twice a year. I didn’t do this. I lost touch with a lot of good people – people I wish I still stayed in touch with for networking purposes, and some I just miss.
    7. Don’t work so much once you do get a job. I had a colleague in the got paid exactly the same as I did. Neither of us stayed with that firm, and as far as I know he went on to do just fine, as did I – but neither of us were making a future at that particular company. I had another colleague who smoked pot constantly and wouldn’t show up for days at a time. He didn’t get fired either. So I wasted a lot of time working very hard at a job I detested (I quit before I finished my three year contract). Who was the idiot?
    8. Don’t join a fraternity in college. Joining a fraternity seemed like a good idea, but other than making some very good friends it taught me nothing other than: (a) laziness, (b) racism, (c) sexism, (d) violence and (e) drunkenness. Sounds like a good deal, all for just a few hundred dollars a semester, huh? I basically spent three years surrounded by violence and ugly behavior that would make most people cringe. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
    9. Don’t worry about trivia. A major drama of my senior year involved a quiz for (supposedly) the smartest kids in school. I lost because of a difference of opinion over which battle of the Civil War was the “bloodiest”. I believe I answered Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the war; the correct answer was deemed to be Shiloh, the bloodiest battle of the war over the course of several days. Did losing the Brawl affect me in any way, shape or form? No. Don’t even enter the stupid contest, high school BB. Spend that learning Russian or just hanging out. It will be time better spent.
    10. Don’t waste a lot of time on TV. You will live in two of the world’s biggest cities, with a million possibilities for entertainment, the world’s best restaurants, cultural events and explosive nightlife, and you will often spend whole weekends watching football. You will even watch Notre Dame play, and you hate their team. Nice going.
    11. Buy a cell phone when you live overseas. I know $1000 for a mobile phone circa 1997 is a lot to pay, but it will be worth every dime not trying to coordinate your daily life from pay phones that never work. Your phone card cost $8 a minute, anyway.
    12. Be kinder to people, particularly women. I have never been cruel, I hope, but I spent a lot of careless years not worrying about how my actions might upset other people, particularly girls I dated or who liked me. I certainly ended quite a few relationships rudely and thoughtlessly, and probably created some real dislike if not downright hatred for myself. I was brutal in some of my work relationships both in my speech and actions. A little bit of compassion or even white lies to appear compassionate on my part probably would have made life better for everyone. I would have lost nothing by being kinder. I guess that’s just life, but I do look back and really regret some of the ways I lashed out at people where no lashing out was necessary. I particularly regret being cold and emotionless when I just could have faked a little bit of pleasantness.
    13. …and related, don’t worry too much about your relationships in the 90s and early 2000s. When you meet the right girl, things are going to be immediately and blindingly obvious. You may think you’ve met the right girl a few times in the late 90s, but when you actually do meet the right girl you’re going to realize that everyone up until her was definitely not the right girl.
    14. However, don’t do vodka shots with Russian mafiosos while out for a fancy dinner with your at-the-time-girlfriend and her friends. That will not end well on many, many levels. Oh, and make sure your visa paperwork is correct before you travel to remote Siberian cities. They don’t like it when foreigners show up with the wrong paperwork.
    15. Don’t work for the Big 4 or a corporation. This one is tough, because of course it has led me to the life I have today. But I do wish that when I was young and more or less free of responsibility that I had taken a few more chances. I wish I had gone to work at a smaller company, or a foreign company or even started a business. I spent a lot of my mid-20s – most of it, in fact – working horrible hours at decent but not exceptional salaries doing work I detested. I wish I had some of that time back, even if it meant I couldn’t afford a slightly fancier apartment or to eat out 5 nights a week. Working in the Big 4 gave me a lot of opportunities, but I always wonder what if…

    That’s actually a good exercise. Feel free to leave a comment if there’s anything you’d tell your high school self.

    10 suggestions for better writing

    I may or may not have any particular professional skills, but one I have is writing. The audit/consulting profession that I’m in requires a lot of very dry technical writing that has almost evolved into its own little niche language. Sentences like “ensure that the failed control has been tested and proven to be operationally effective (e.g. substantive control tests passed) for at least the consecutive number of required time periods” are quite common. The writing is often tortured and the underlying material is dry and brittle.

    George Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, had some very useful and succinct writing tips in his essay “On Politics and the English Language.” A few of them are:

    • Never use a long word where a short one will do.

    • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    • Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

     
    These rules are not often applied to technical writing. Perhaps they shouldn’t be applied, since part of the audience, at least, is technical and doesn’t want simplified language. However, the horrible level of writing I see in my daily work has led me to come up with 10 suggestions for solid professional writing. None of these are terribly difficult to implement, and if most people would take them to heart the quality of their work would certainly improve. I am not perfect in my writing style – I tend to the verbose – but I think these tips could work for anyone.

    1.  It’s the spellcheck, stupid. When did Microsoft Word start performing spellcheck? 1992? Word 2.0? I cringe to this day to get a document containing mistakes that could have been easily detected with spellcheck. I mistype the word “material” almost every time I type it; my fingers get crossed every time. But spellcheck catches my mistake and fixes it automatically. My favorite word processor, OpenOffice Writer, has a spellcheck function, and it’s completely free, so even if you can’t afford Word there’s no excuse.
    2. It should be noted that extraneous phrases like “it should be noted” or “it was noted” absolutely destroy a sentence. Don’t use them – ever. We note it, already.
    3. After about 2 or 3 lines stick a period in your sentence. Very few professional documents suffer from a lack of wording. Any time I see more than two or three lines in a sentence, or more than 4 or 5 commas, I go back and try to cut it into multiple smaller sentences. It makes it easier to read and to comprehend.
    4. Don’t use passive voice. You hear this advice often, but it’s trickier than it sounds. Usually in professional writing you are attempting to dodge assigning blame or responsibility. For example, you might say “The documents in question are prepared on a weekly basis for review by management” rather than “John Smith, accounting clerk, prepares the documents in question on a weekly basis for review by management.” However, writing that continually pounds away in passive voice is boring because it’s not the way we naturally speak: “This Guidance is intended to establish the minimum requirements” is not nearly as strong as “This guidance establishes the minimum requirements.”
    5. Don’t use slang language, or “slanguage”. You have to assume that your average professional reader knows many common terms and abbreviations. I assume in my audit world that everyone is familiar with COSO and the SEC and the AICPA and the meaning of the words materiality, attestationremediation. However, if the document is intended for anyone who might not know the technical usage of those words, I should take care to explain them. Nothing will cause someone to put down a document more quickly than failing to comprehend two or three sentences in a row because they didn’t understand a term. If I told you to remediate the LOB PP in accordance w/ the PY w/p’s, you won’t read much further if you don’t know what that means. and
    6. Read it out loud. I think a lot of people, myself included, never read their own writing out loud (or possibly at all). When you read some sentences out loud, they sound wrong. There is nothing grammatically or stylistically wrong with them, but they don’t sound ‘healthy’. Try reading a line or two out loud and see if it sounds natural. If not, tweak it until it does.
    7. Cut out the fat. I read a lot of technical writing with phrases such as “Thoroughly document the underlying controls explicitly.” While the writer may be making a good faith attempt to hammer home the need to be thorough, this sentence says the same thing: “Document the underlying controls.” Adverbs are unnecessary 99% of the time in professional settings (as are most adjectives).
    8. Don’t be afraid to talk like a human. Unless you work with near-sentient apes or dolphins or computers, I imagine all of your target audience will be human. Humans tend to talk in a fairly direct way: “I want you to finish that project,” not “Management should be made aware when the project has been finalized.” A lot of this style choice depends on the target audience, but whenever I’m writing I try to write like a human first – then if my client wants something tech’d and geek’d up I’ll give them the robot wording.
    9. Read. Try reading a lot. There are a number of good writers out there, both prose and technical. Read a few newspaper articles or blogs and figure out which ones work for you. I imagine if you examine them you’ll realize that often what you prefer to read is categorized by the writing style, not by the content. There are a number of writers I like more for their style than for their content – particularly in finance writing, where the subject matter is often horrendously boring but is made readable and even enjoyable by a light-hearted approach to the writing (Ben Stein and Penelope Trunk, for example).
    10. Learn to type. Another weird suggestion, since it’s a mechanical one, but trust me – if you can type at a high rate of speed your writing will improve. I guess there are great pen-and-paper writers still out there. But for technical writing, it’s almost impossible to write things out by hand. My ability to slam out a few sentences, look at them in Word or Writer and see if they look and sound right, then zip back and retype is critical for my writing.

    As a final note, one of the interesting things you get out of blogging is a release from dry technical writing. In any given day I may crank out 20 pages of audit babble at work – emails, memos, longer position papers, reports or project plans. All of them filter through multiple layers of review and revision, so the work is seldom mine and mine alone. My writing style is buried in avalanche of personal preferences and flat-out bad writing by my superiors. This blog, however, is straight out of my head, and I hope that it will slowly allow me to find a personal writing style separate from my work writing style. Now go home and write a two page essay on a topic of your choice and then read it back to yourself in two weeks.

    Consulting

    Consulting is a tough lifestyle for someone accustomed to the heights of corporate America. I was a fairly senior person in my corporate life, having zipped and lucked my way into a corner office overlooking downtown Manhattan. Only two people in my reporting chain separated me from the CEO of the company. But I had severe problems with the organization and with my boss, and eventually that combined with the incessant travel and never ending corporate politics wore on me. When I got married, I realized that there was a life beyond work and Friday nights.

    So I joined a consulting firm that provided almost no support other than locating clients and taking care of billing and collection. I don’t get a computer from my company, or any sort of review or office supplies or whatever. I rely on my client for that. However, I don’t have the headache of finding clients or chasing after invoices, which is no small thing. And most importantly, they pick up 50% of my health insurance costs.

    I went from commanding multiple teams in far-flung countries to commanding, well, myself. I am in charge of nothing and nobody, and I am often supervised by people who are junior to me and who would have worked one or two levels below me in the past. So I stop and remind myself once in a while about why I do it:

    I never travel. Travel is a lot of fun when you’re single. I visited half the planet while staying in swank hotels and eating rich food. However, after you’ve been to Paris for the fifteenth time it gets boring. The routine of plane-hotel-office-hotel-office-plane gets overwhelming after a while. I keep a journal, and on these business trips I routinely have entries that begin “Stayed up until 2 am drafting the final report in my room.” I wasn’t partying constantly. Now, if I don’t want to travel, I don’t work for clients who require it.

    I have no corporate political affiliation. My previous jobs had a high component of politics; alliances were formed, strategy meetings were held, whispered conversations in board rooms were standard, and after-hours meetings huddled over drinks were frequent. I was sick to death of these things. I was good at corporate politics, but I realized that what “being good” meant was that I was expert at ripping other people down without really lifting myself up. I did do some good – I often used my political scheming to help lift some great people who worked for me – but by and large it was all negative. As a consultant I have no stake in such things, since I have no hope of promotion or fear of demotion. It’s liberating to only worry about the actual work.

    I leave work at 5, both physically and mentally. As I said above, I used to carry my work home with me, and even into my bed and sleep. No more. I am not reachable once I leave work. I don’t check my work email before sleeping. I have no Blackberry. There are no weekend “catching up on my reading” sessions.

    I have no investment in the company. I used to worry about the success of my company. This may seem like a small thing, but as an auditor you have some ability to really seriously damage your company, either through missing something in the audit (Enron, anyone?) or finding something in the audit (Worldcom). This presented me with harsh choices at least three times in my career. Each time, I tried to raise serious issues to senior management and was overridden by my superiors, creating a real love/hate attitude in me. It’s not easy knowing you work for crooked people, because then even your honest efforts only serve to enrich them. Now all I do is my work – my investment is in me and the quality of my work that will be the basis for landing future clients.

    I get paid overtime. That’s no small thing. I used to work 80 or 90 hour weeks and wouldn’t get a dime more; in fact, 40 hours would have been considered slacking. Now if I work more than 40 hours my rate skyrockets. Most clients don’t like the higher rate, so they send me home after 40 hours. I can’t say I hate that – getting home at 6 or 6:30 gives me time to go a few rounds with Little Buddy before he goes to sleep. In my past life, when I wasn’t traveling I often wouldn’t be home before 8.

    I get to quit my job two or three times a year. This is the greatest thing. I had a client earlier this year that nauseated me. Their unprofessional attitudes, horrible physical offices and cruel treatment of their staff made it one of the worst places I’ve ever worked. However, rather than needing to go through the drama of worrying about quitting a job I’d just started, I simply wound down my consulting gig and moved on. I never have to give any of those guys another thought. Even at the good clients I only stay long enough to do good work; when they start making small talk about me coming on board as an employee I usually know it’s time to go

    boosting your career with an overseas stint

    When I was younger, I was largely unaware and uninterested in the world outside the US until I won a scholarship to study in Germany when I was 15. I had a terrific experience, both personally and academically, that inspired me to continue my German studies and someday return to live and work in Germany. One of the main reasons I went into accounting was the knowledge that it was a worldwide profession – business travel, international business, and so on made it likely that I would have a shot at going overseas sometime in my work life.

    During college I decided that I had studied German long enough and that I would fulfill my language requirements with courses in Japanese. This being the late 80s, Japan’s economy was blazing and knowing Japanese seemed like a good idea. However, when I showed up at the registrar to sign up for Japanese I found that the course was full. The university I went to had a fairly limited selection of languages, including mostly the usual suspects – French, German, Spanish and Italian. However, I noticed they had added a course in Russian, so I signed up for that, instead. I had some history with Russian, so I figured I could do fairly well in this language that was, at the time, a pointless diversion.

    In the late 80s there was no real reason to suspect that (a) Russia would ever be particularly open to Westerners or (b) a place that would offer any sort of opportunities to anyone other than academics and writers. That would of course change rapidly but at the time it did not seem particularly likely. So I studied Russian, and my professor – Dr. Don – was a real inspiration and one of the two or three best teachers I’ve ever had. He was young, enthusiastic, friendly and had a real passion for languages and linguistics. I stayed in the class past the minimum requirements and went on to be one of the first two Russian minors in the school’s history.

    So approximately five years later, in late 1995, I was approached by a partner in the Big 4 firm I was working in. I had told everyone quite frequently that I wanted to work in Germany, and the partners had told me they would keep an eye out. Of course, Germany didn’t lack for accountants so the idea of me working there had a slim chance of success. However, the partner told me that they had received an unusual request from the Moscow office for short-term assistance for any Americans. The partner knew I had a Russian minor, and asked if I was interested.

    Of course I was, so I jumped at the chance. I did a phone interview and was all set to go in February of 1996. I flew to Russia and realized on the taxi ride into Moscow that I didn’t even remember the word for snow (“snyeg” if you’re curious). My Russian was very, very rusty. I had a lot of adventures in Russia, both in my initial four month stint and in my return for a year and a half for a different company, and in further visits and business trips there. I will cover those in future posts.

    Today, however, I am going to focus on the five most important outcomes of my work in Russia as it has related to my career since. I think these outcomes are critical if you’re considering working overseas, or want a big-time corporate job. I’m not sure working in England would give you the same cachet as more exotic locations like Russia or Indonesia or China, but it might.

    1. I learned a foreign language really well – not just grammar, but some slang, intonation, and so on. This is only moderately useful if the language in question is Russian, but considering Russia has one of the hottest economies in the world and is used as a lingua franca throughout Central Asia, it is more useful than Italian or German.

    2. I embraced a culture and by doing so, became more open to all cultures. I wasn’t close minded or terribly parochial, but I really learned what it was like to be immersed in a culture fairly alien to one’s own. I can’t say I went native. I lived in an apartment that cost 10 times what the normal Russian could pay. I spent more on a meal and drinks on a date than most Russians would see in a month. I had an Internet connection and a state-of-the-art computer. But I did make friends, and spent time at their homes and talking with them and doing things with them on the weekends that a lot of my colleagues – who uniformly didn’t speak Russian – never did. And that experience made it that much easier for me to relax in the future when I went to other countries around the world (although I never got comfortable with midnight steak dinners in Argentina…)

    3. I learned true independence. If you want to learn how to deal with customer service problems in the US, try standing in line at the Russian phone service center and arguing with a 50 year old grandmother in Russian about your disconnected phone bill. And if that example’s too mild, try going cross-country in a four-wheel drive with two bodyguards to a former prison camp surrounded by radioactive wastelands, then eating lunch with a sobbing drunken bank director choking out patriotic Soviet songs while eating toasted pine cone seeds. If you don’t feel a little bit lost during that experience and a little bit more confident about handling yourself after it’s over.

    4. I gained tremendous work experience. I had to constantly work not only on accounting, but on three different types (US, Russian and international), all while constantly switching back and forth between two languages, managing clients and handling a huge workload. I had been managing a staff of maybe 1 person, auditing $2 million dollars in sales per year companies at home. The next year, in Moscow, I was managing 25 people on an audit of one of the biggest clients of my firm in Russia, with audit fees alone of $2 million.

    5. Finally, and most importantly, I created a massive shining bright spot on my resume that, ten years later, still draws more attention, more conversation and more interest than anything else I’ve ever done. I’ve worked since then in locations from Turkey to Argentina, and nothing compares to the shock and amazement your average corporate worker expresses to me when they found out I worked in Russia. It has gotten my foot in the door at several companies; it has wowed recruiters and it has become an endless source of anecdotes that seem to fascinate people (or it could be just that they are polite but I think I can tell the difference).

    If you’re planning on getting a job in the corporate world, you should consider a stint overseas, preferably someplace that isn’t ‘safe’. At every step of my career there have been people competing with me for positions, assignments and promotions. Many went to better schools, had more certifications, had better connections or frankly were smarter or better looking. But I have yet to encounter many who could top the conversational firestorm I can usually unleash by dropping “that reminds me of the time I got arrested by Russian immigration on a business trip in Vladivostok” or “at least no-one is getting assassinated like the general director of my client in Moscow” and so on.

    I suppose that despite my appearance, my mild southern accent or my calm outward appearance my willingness to go work in the wild East in the mid-90s, when things were just 30 minutes away from total chaos in Russia, makes me look like a super-confident, devil-be-damned risk taker to some people. It’s not true; I am a pretty conservative guy in most of my actions. However, the appearance is enough to provide an ‘in’, and that’s usually what it’s all about in appearance-conscious corporate America.

    Buddhism versus creative visualization

    Probably like a lot of other self-improvement junkies I have always been mildly interested in the idea of Buddhism if not the actual practice of Buddhism. I have not really been exposed to it very often, and honestly most of my knowledge of it comes via movies like Seven Years In Tibet and Little Buddha. I also was very fond of a book, Zen Buddhism, which helped me learn the practice of clearing my mind before sleeping. I don’t think that was the point of the book, but the ability to fall asleep in 5 minutes or less every evening has been a great gift throughout my adult life.

    There are a number of things that appeal to me about Buddhism. There are, however, just as many aspects of Buddhism that don’t appeal to me. Buddhism still has its feet firmly planted in the supernatural, an area that I more or less completely reject. I find that the Great Story, for example, is a million times more awe-inspiring. I look at the Pillars of Creation and think that if something like that is the result of the unimaginable complexity of the universe rather than simply the plot and plan of a supreme intelligence it’s actually more amazing rather than less so. That’s my own interpretation.

    The current Dalai Lama – who for all intents and purposes is the Pope of the Buddhists to someone like me – seems to be a man of the political/temporal world rather than a truly religious person. The idea of a truly religious person, to me, summons up a hermit. If you truly believed in prayer/meditation/etc. as the instrument of God, why would any fundraising or speeches or anything like that be necessary? Specifically for the Dalai Lama, why should he care about Tibet’s independence as a political entity? It seems to me that freedom of religious practice for all people would be a better cause, even if Tibet remained part of China, or an autonomous region like Hong Kong or Macau. In any case, the Free Tibet movement, to me, is about as meaningful as a Free Texas movement. That ship has sailed on off into the sea of history.

    That having been said, the Dalai Lama has some great quotes. I first read this one a few years ago and wasn’t impressed, but for some reason recently it has spoken to me a lot more:

    Today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.(link).

    That’s a nice thought. It’s probably as much as many of us can hope to achieve, and really other than maybe throwing in a little more family-specific phrase to be a good father and husband and son and brother and grandson and whatnot, there’s not a whole lot more to say. I think enlightenment for the benefit of all beings is a pretty tall order out of that list. I think it encompasses vegetarianism and pacifism, achievable goals, and maybe some sort of benign spiritual missionary type thinking, which for me isn’t so achievable (or desirable).

    Buddha himself had a great quote which irritates Bubelah to no end (I paraphrase): “Desire is the root of all suffering.” I think about this quote a lot. It directly contradicts the fundamental premise of creative visualization, a school of thought she follows. Creative visualization refers to the practice of seeking to affect the outer world via changing one’s thoughts. Although various spiritual traditions claim that our thoughts affect the outer world, the phrase “Creative Visualization” came from the New Age Movement. (from Wikipedia)

    Any way you look at that, it’s certainly not saying that desires (for love, for health, for security, for wealth, and so on) are something to be avoided and put aside if possible. So to my mind it more or less contradicts the Buddhist ideal. The question then becomes whether you can integrate these two philosophies into your life, or whether you should strive to attain one and reject the other.

    I look at it this way (today). Ask me a year from now and my mindset may have changed. I apply the Buddhist principle to the concept of wealth, and the creative visualization to health, lifestyle, goals and so on. I try not to desire material things. I do, because I buy new shoes or get Netflix or any one of a number of things. But I do make an effort to consume out of necessity (or what I perceive as necessity) rather than out of pure and simple desire.

    On the flip side, I may want a bigger house, or a different job or a stronger ankle. These aren’t bad things to want. Buddhism just argues that WANTING them is bad. Maybe the Nike “Just do it” slogan is most applicable – rather than desiring health, go exercise. Rather than desiring wealth, go invest or be frugal or whatnot.

    Everyone has to get to a point where they are comfortable with their desires (or lack thereof). Failure to do this will just make you miserable. I have desires which are somewhat unrealistic that cause me a great deal of stress, and I try to eliminate them. Some are very petty – I’d like a neat handheld computer or the full HBO package. Those desires cause a great deal of stress, since you know they are “doable” and only your own self-discipline prevents them from becoming reality. Other desires, like the desire to be fit, may actually be good since the stress derived from them could drive you to overcome obstacles.

    To separate desires, there are a few tests you could apply (bad desire, good desire):

    • Is this something other people would consider selfish or altruistic to desire? (a CD of music your family doesn’t like vs. a CD of singalong songs)
    • Does this desire require a material thing or an action in order to be fulfilled? (wanting to buy a new chair versus learning for yourself how to upholster an old one)
    • Does fulfilling this desire create a new desire, or will it end this ‘type’ of desire? (wanting a new video game machine, creating an unlimited desire for new games for it, vs. buying a book you’ve wanted for a while)

    I’m sure there are other tests, but I think the pattern is clear.

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