Sunday poll – political wish list

(photo of the US Treasury Department)

From Wikipedia: From the U.S. Department of the Treasury website, via Wikipedia:

“The Secretary of the Treasury is the principal economic advisor to the President and plays a critical role in policy-making by bringing an economic and government financial policy perspective to issues facing the government. The Secretary is responsible for formulating and recommending domestic and international financial, economic, and tax policy, participating in the formulation of broad fiscal policies that have general significance for the economy, and managing the public debt. The Secretary oversees the activities of the Department in carrying out its major law enforcement responsibilities; in serving as the financial agent for the United States Government; and in manufacturing coins and currency.

The first Secretary of the Treasury was Alexander Hamilton, best known for being one of the chief authors of the Federalist Papers and founding a party by the same name – one of the two dominant political parties for the first 20 years of the Republic. The current Secretary is Henry Paulson, the former Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. Probably the other most notable recent Secretary was Robert Rubin, President Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury from 1995 to 1999. He was also a co-chairman of Goldman Sachs prior to joining the Clinton administration.

So the question for today is this: if you could wave a magic wand and pick the next Secretary of the Treasury, but you had to choose a ‘financial guru’, who would it be and why? Secretary Orman, who doesn’t follow her own advice? Kiyosaki, who would promptly borrow against the next 50 years of taxes to buy a condominium complex in Dubai? Trump? Kramer? Jack Welch? Jeff Skilling? A personal finance blogger? Go crazy!

guest post at “the giving hands”

I have another guest post up, this time over at The Giving Hands. The author of the site, Pelf, is hosting a series of guest posts as a lead-in to Blog Action Day. It’s interesting to read a blog from (almost literally) the opposite side of the world, so check out a few other posts if you head over there!

Thoughts on: Emerson

Something I’m going to start doing once in a while is reviewing a quote or a phrase or something of the sort that I like – for whatever reason. It may or may not be related to anything that I blog about, but just something I appreciate. I will start with a worn-out overused quote that probably everyone knows. It is, however, probably the core of my personal life philosophy. This quote comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“To laugh often and much: to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded.”

Even if you are not a deeply religious person I still think you need to find some sort of meaning in life. I do not believe that there is some sort of force guiding my every move or interfering in my day-to-day life. I have simply seen too much evidence of evil winning out to assume that there is a kind presence altering the course of events in the world. But I do believe, very loosely and without any formal rules, that there is a concept similar to karma. Good returns good. Good thoughts lead to good actions which lead to good results. Anger leads to hate, hate leads to fear, and fear leads to the dark side of the Force…oops, wait, I’ve heard that somewhere before…

Seriously, though, if everyone in the world followed Emerson’s advice the world would be a better place. That’s also true of many other people’s advice, as well, but this one always struck me because it’s so DOABLE. It does not ask the impossible. Anyone can do something as he describes. It’s actually very similar to George Bush Sr.’s much mocked “thousand points of light” concept (which ironically is probably the lone insightful and kind concept he brought into this world, yet the one he may be most ridiculed for).

So think about Emerson’s quote and pick up a piece of trash that isn’t yours today and put it in a garbage pail – or better yet a recycling bin if it’s recyclable. Play peek-a-boo with your child, or teach them about rocket ships. Tend to a living thing. Those are small actions, but doing just one means your day will be a success no matter how you look at it.

(tip of the hat to My Two Dollars, where I got the idea for a weekly quote post)

Suggested Reading

guest post at “Cash Money Life”

I’ve got a guest post up over at Cash Money Life, so head over to Patrick’s blog and take a look around. I won’t tell you any more about it, just to encourage you to head over there! If you aren’t familiar with his blog I would highly recommend checking out his very detailed series on his thought process around seeking an MBA. If you’ve ever given an MBA some thought, these posts will help you in deciding if it’s really right for you.

today is better than the day before

As I read what is written about self-improvement and becoming rich and dieting and being happy, I wonder if sometimes too much focus is placed on huge changes. Becoming frugal – staying sharply on the lookout for money – losing weight fast – all can be carried to extremes. Here are a few simple ways to make today better than the day before. Nothing more, nothing less. I know every day I should do all of these, but I take them all one by one.

  • Wake up early
  • Stretch or exercise
  • Wear comfortable shoes
  • Drink tea instead of coffee or soda
  • Walk slowly
  • Let someone merge in front of you in traffic
  • Drive slowly
  • Don’t listen to the radio in the car
  • Breathe deeply
  • Meditate
  • Eat less than you did yesterday
  • Don’t eat anything that had eyes at one point
  • Don’t eat or drink anything with high fructose corn syrup
  • Enjoy a piece of fruit
  • Skip reading the news
  • Take off your headphones
  • Get off the Internet
  • Don’t buy anything
  • Reuse something
  • Recycle something
  • Don’t check email first thing on arriving to work
  • Don’t watch any TV
  • Take a nap
  • Don’t curse
  • Be positive
  • Don’t worry about money
  • Take the stairs
  • Don’t say anything negative about anyone
  • Smile
  • Laugh
  • Walk outside again
  • Drink water for lunch
  • Chew your food thoroughly
  • Sit quietly for five minutes and do nothing
  • Hold a door open for someone
  • Read at least one chapter of a book
  • Say ‘hi’ to everyone you pass in the hall at work
  • Make eye contact
  • Leave work early
  • Take off your shoes before you walk in your home
  • Sit down for dinner
  • Read a children’s book to your kids, or even just read it to your yourself
  • Go outside after dark and listen
  • Take a piece of paper and write down 2 things you were grateful for today
  • Take a shower right before going to bed
  • Go to sleep early

I would like to think that none of these are particularly hard to do, but they are. It’s always hard to take the long view and the short view at the same time. But even when we’re all trying to pay down debt and fight the good frugal fight, it’s important to step back sometimes and literally smell the flowers.

saving too much

You don’t always want to save as much as you possibly can on everything.  I can think of at least a few examples where spending the least amount possible is not always a great idea.

1.  Education.  I am a huge proponent of public education for two reasons:  1, the involvement with your community, both for parent and child, is going to happen somewhere – there is no sense in insulating yourselves from it; 2, you’ve already paid for it (through taxes).  That having been said, education – particularly college – is not a good candidate for finding the cheapest option.  At every level you need to find options that are good for you and that really address your goals. 

2.  Health care.  This one is tough.  Of course you don’t want to overspend, but I can tell you that when you are seriously ill, most – not all, most – thoughts about money go right out the window.  Of course in the case of lingering illnesses, such as happened in my family this summer, you still have to worry about the person’s family’s future – will the cost of health care be too much to allow them to keep a house, for example?  And it’s a sad state in this country that we have to worry about the cost of wellcare.  But in general, when you are really sick or injured, you don’t stop the hospital from doing procedure X because it costs too much.  The hospital or insurance company may stop it, though.

3.  Cars and related expenses.  When you read people suggesting ways to save money on cars, I always think "this is a metal box that you get in and drive around in at 60 miles per hour – do you really want the cheapest car you can get?"  I want the safest car, with reasonable mileage that keeps it from being an outright assault on the environment.  I’ll pay a bit extra for the good tires, even though I could get reconditioned ones cheaper.  The premium gas may not be necessary, but the cheapest brand of motor oil probably isn’t, either.

4.  Insurance.  If you live in a flood zone, you can save some money by skimping on the flood insurance.  When the flood comes, though, if your insurance isn’t enough to rebuild your place or buy a new one, why did you bother?  What was the point of saving that money if you can’t use the insurance when you need it?

5.  Babyproofing equipment.  I think the choice here is clear.  If you want to skimp on gates at the top of the stairs for your child, then I don’t think you have your priorities straight.

6.  Food.  This one may be a little more contentious, but I think trying to save money on certain types of food is ridiculous.  If you eat meat, try this experiment.  Go buy some heavily processed, dyed, factory-farm raised chicken, and buy some organic free range chicken.  Prepare them both the same way, but don’t overdo the breading, herbs, spices, whatever – keep it simple.  Try both of them.  Tell me which one was a better use of money.  If you aren’t a meat eater, try buying organic, locally produced tomatos and then buy a Mexican imported tomato from the supermarket.  In both cases, the more expensive option is likely to taste far better, therefore it satisfies you better meaning you’ll eat less, enjoy it more and be less tempted to let it sit in the fridge until it goes bad.  It’s probably healthier, too, but I won’t even use that argument.

7.  This one is the tough one – making money.  If you are starting a business or investing, you don’t necessarily want the cheapest possible option.  Undeveloped property 80 feet from the road with no plumbing or electricity in Montana might be cheap, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good investment.  If you are starting up a restaurant, you don’t want to serve the cheapest possible booze.

I guess the purpose of these examples is to show that sometimes the mania for frugality and savings isn’t always the best idea.  Saving money can’t always be solely about retiring or financial freedom.  Between now and then there is a life to be lived, and lived safely and comfortably.

learning the 3Rs, but living the first two

The phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle" has become well-known around the globe.  Most children are introduced to this phrase at an early age, and even the most hardened anti-environmentalist probably thinks about this phrase occasionally before buying something.  Unfortunately for those of us concerned about the environment, many people think that by recycling they are helping the environment.  Recycling is a key part of sustainability, but it is a last resort.  Living the first two R’s can have a far more signficant impact on the environment.

If you are a tea drinker, no doubt you have dipped your tea bag in hot water, allowed it to soak and then thrown it away.  When you had a second cup, you got a new tea bag and repeated the process.  Maybe you took a recycled paper cup to put it in, but you were walking to work and threw it in the garbage once it was empty.  Most tea bags – particularly high-quality teas, not "tea leavings" like supermarket brand teas – can brew 2-3 cups of tea before the flavor begins to fade.  A paper cup reused 3 times uses fewer natural resources than a ceramic mug (think of the energy necessary to fire the ceramic mug and the water to wash it).

Reusing items like a jar are second nature to most people.  Few of us would buy a glass jar of jam and then throw it away immediately after eating all of the jam that was there, as long as we didn’t already have 50 jars lying around.  Most environmentally conscious people would find at least one more use for the jar – storing some soup later on, keeping pennies in it or even using it for a drinking glass.  However, reusing a tea bag or a paper cup doesn’t come as easily.  Most of us are conditioned to think of a tea bag as a single-use item.  Taking the memo you just got on your desk at work and using the unused side for notes at our next meeting saves a few pages out of that recycled paper notebook.  Reusing items is a powerful tool in the fight to reduce the mountains of trash piling up around the world.  Reusing plastic items can save the energy necessary to create new plastic items; think about plastic forks.  Old t-shirts can have one last life as cleaning rags, instead of using paper towels.  Thinking of creative ways to reuse items can reduce the number of new items being brought into your life, which reduces clutter, saves money and ultimately protects the environment.

However, reusing an item still has a cost to the environment.  Even if you reuse a t-shirt 500 times as a rag before discarding it, some natural resources have been expended and will never be recovered in its making.  Maybe it was a t-shirt you bought on your last trip to Florida that looked so funny at the time but once you got back to chilly New York didn’t seem so clever.  Or you already have 30 t-shirts but you really need one that says "Earth Day 2007." 

By not buying something that you do not need you have taken the most powerful action in support of the Earth that you can take.  If you own a set of plates, you do not need a second set.  If you have a TV remote that works, you do not need a universal remote.  If you have a cell phone, you do not need an iPhone.  Every time you make a choice not to obtain ‘stuff’ that you do not need, you make a choice to support the Earth and not work against it. 

By reducing your purchases of ‘stuff’ you will also encourage companies to rethink their attitudes in the marketplace.  The fashion industry, for example, thrives on convincing people that they need new clothes every year to stay in touch with the latest fashions.  Imagine that you could buy a pair of jeans that were so durable they would last for 15 years, or a tie that would look good for the rest of your life.  That may sound ridiculous but before the fashion industry convinced us to ditch our wardrobe each season clothes were made to last for decades, because that was what consumers expected.  Reducing our consumption would encourage companies to make longer-lasting goods, because consumers would search for the best quality to reduce future consumption.

Recycling is a critical action in support of the environment, and everyone should be active in recycling.  Think the next time you recycle whether you could have reused that item before throwing it in the recycle bin, or better yet, ask yourself if you are just going to go out and buy another one to replace it.  Reusing and ultimately reducing our consumption of goods will have a long lasting effect even greater than recycling!

Sunday poll

The picture above is the Berlin Wall, circa 1985. The large text “Wer mauert…” means, roughly translated, “Anyone who builds a wall, needs to.” I traveled to East Berlin in ’85, my only trip to the Soviet bloc pre-collapse, although I visited every corner of the former Soviet bloc in the 90s after the empire collapsed. It’s a strange reminder when I look at this picture and remember how formidable that wall seemed – and it’s gone now. So many leaders could have torn this ridiculous symbol of oppression down, but they clung to it until it dragged them down. The cost to tear it down would have been so small – the most dissatisfied would have left, but too many people would have had family, friends and lives attaching them to their homes to leave. But knowing they could might have kept them happier.

Studies have shown that regret over missed opportunities is worse than regret over mistakes made, though. I’m sure the Soviets regret trying to physically keep the world out, when they could have allowed more freedom of movement but continued to exist – that’s their mistake made – but I’m sure they really regret not tearing it down 10 years earlier than they did, and staging a big “we’re free – no really, we are!” photo op.

My question for what I hope is not the final hot Sunday of the year: what is your biggest financial regret? Mine’s in the first comment.

professional envy

I don’t usually like to prepare a straight-up reaction piece to other bloggers’ posts, but this one just got me thinking so much that I decided to bump my planned post and go with this one instead.  Lazy Man talked about professional jealousy yesterday in the context of finding out one of his former college classmates was now a VP at a major financial institution.  Read his post first.

Some background:  I stepped off the corporate career ladder about two and a half years ago.  My travel load was heavy, the politics were getting awful and I was increasingly unhappy about my job duties and future prospects.  I decided to make a radical (for me) shift to full-time contract consulting.  I ended up taking a halfway route by working for a company that provides some back-office support but basically leaves me out on my own as far as the work’s concerned.  I don’t have a supervisor or staff or a computer or anything provided to me by my company, other than the marketing and payroll.  So while I’m not completely on my own, I’m about as much on my own as you can get and still get a W-2.

A lot changed for me over the last few years.  I was formerly a senior manager and had been managing staff at a succession of companies over the last decade.  I probably supervised hundreds of people, and even at times supervised other managers, who in turn supervised their own staff.  Some of the staff were wonderful people, who I have stayed in close touch with.  Others were forgettable or downright unpleasant.  Most of them, however, have continued as employees.  I only know of one person who left the corporate fold altogether to establish his own company, and it’s doing very well.  But in general most of my former staff have clung tightly to the corporate bosom.

Some of the good staff people have surprised me beyond my expectations.  About 10 years ago, a young woman was assigned to my audit team at my major Russian client in Moscow.  She was straight out of university, and was extremely shy and tentative.  I worked with her for a couple of years, and was very pleased to see her come out of her shell and become more confident.  Now she is a finance executive for a major European airline company.  I don’t kid myself to think that I played any significant role in her development, but I do give myself credit for not derailing her, at least.  Other staff have gone on to similarly fantastic roles, and I’m always pleased to hear about it.  Some are CFOs of representative offices.  Some are partners in small CPA firms.  Some are happily zooming around the world as management consultants.  Some are simply mid-level managers, but confident and successful at that level.  I could name a half dozen who were junior staff working for me who are now skipping right up the corporate ladder and managing staffs of their own, and I am very proud of all of them.

I mention these stories because I suppose I should be jealous that staff I managed have gone on to equal my professional status, or in a few cases surpass it (and in a few cases, GREATLY surpass it) – but I’m not. 
I don’t feel any jealousy, and I think it’s because I like to feel some of their success is due to me.  Probably no more than .000001%, but I hopefully provided a tiny bit of wisdom and maybe more than a tiny bit of positive feedback and mentoring and coaching, and I’m glad it helped.  I don’t begrudge them their victories.  Life is not a zero sum game.

However, I think the difference in Lazy Man’s case was that he was talking about a peer of his, and I identify with that, too.  I see coworkers who I have never liked; who are less competent, more annoying and simply (in my opinion) worse people than me move ahead and it kills me.  Sometimes it’s because they have discarded their personal life.  Sometimes it’s because they stayed in the corporate race while I dropped out, so it’s just stick-to-it-iveness.  However, sometimes it’s just luck, and that makes me angry.  It shouldn’t, but it does.  I left two companies at exactly the wrong time – in both cases, had I stayed the perfect position opened up within a year and I would have been the first choice for those positions.  But I left, and someone else got the role.  I know that the past is past, but it is hard to know these people are in those roles.  I get sick when I think of some of these people moving ahead in the world.

It’s easier for me if it’s friends of mine rather than just colleagues.  My roommate from my early years in New York, who only had about two years’ experience on me has gone on to international high finance and is dramatically successful, and has done it without (apparently) wrecking his family, and I’m very happy for him.  Other friends of mine have reached high levels in their companies (big and small) and I’m happy for them, too.  One has done well with his own business.   But I don’t feel badly, and I think it’s because we were never in competition.

Lazy Man’s final point in the article sums it all up.  Don’t worry too much about how others are doing career-wise, because it’s not the whole picture to a life.  Just because someone is a VP at a financial institution doesn’t make them happy, or fit, or well-adjusted, or even financially comfortable.  Personal finance blogs will always tell you that "keeping up with the Joneses" is a recipe for disaster.  Keeping up with your friends’/acquaintances’ careers is a recipe for disaster.  I have a different goal than keeping up with Co-worker X.  My goal is eventually to leave my corporate consulting gig while I’m still young and sane and fit, rather than leaving it feet-first in an ambulance or hearse.  My personal goal is to have a business card one day without a title at all.  Hopefully if that card says anything about me, it will say "financially free writer."  That will mean more to me than being CEO of Lehman Brothers or Chairman of GE or Yahoo!-in-Chief would, I think.  I can be happy for everyone who chooses to race up the corporate ladder, because I got off – hopefully before it was too far to jump.

clean up your desk

If you work in an office, chances are good that you work on a desk that is covered in a mess.  Twenty-five years ago when most people still used their desks for writing, papers were a big problem.  With the arrival of the desktop computer, most people added a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse and a host of accessories (printers, external drives, etc.) to their desk – and didn’t get rid of the paper!  Keeping a clean desk is a challenge for even the most disciplined corporate soldier.  I manage to leave every night with a completely organized desk.  I did not come by this easily.  I had a large corner office in my last full-time job, and it was completely full of papers and binders and computer equipment.  When I changed departments, though, I had to move everything and realized I didn’t want all of this junk to follow me to my new office.  Even more, when I became a consultant I lost my office altogether and went back to the cubicle warren.  Here is what I learned:

  1. Death by a thousand paper cuts is the number one killer of desk cleanliness.  If I have an electronic copy of something, I don’t print it out.  If I have to print it out, I only keep it if there are notes on it I need to save – but I quickly add those notes to the electronic document.  Try to keep everything you can paperless.
  2. You’ve got old-fashioned mail! Take a look at the mail you are getting.  At work, you may be getting some professional publications, interoffice mail or credit card bills.  At home you are probably getting a different mail order catalog every day and a million pieces of junk mail.  Try to stop them.  All of them.  Try the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Opt Out service.
  3. File almost nothing.  There are many people who swear by various methods like Getting Things Done regarding filing.  I say file as close to nothing as possible.  If you need to take an action on it, take it and discard.  If you need it for future reference, put an ‘expire’ date on it and stack it up on your desk.  Go through the stack once in a while and discard.  If you have a legal reason to keep a document, do so.  Otherwise I am willing to bet you that you will probably never refer to it again.
  4. Never keep binders.  This one is simple.  Someone else has the binder. Unless it’s something you refer to several times a day, recylce the paper and give the binder back.  In the unlikely event you refer to it, borrow someone else’s.
  5. Use the common printer.  If you have a printer next to your workspace, chances are good that you print a lot of junk you don’t need.  Set up your computer to print to the department’s common copier/printer.  If you have to get up and walk around the office you’ll think twice about printing something – but if you do, at least you’ll get a little bonus exercise.
  6. Don’t put anything on the walls.  I know you think you need some reference material there – phone numbers, calendars, org charts – but you don’t.  All of that information is far more accessible and searchable on your computer.  Get it all down, it’s just visual clutter.  If there’s anything you must have in front of you, move it as far out of your direct line of sight as possible.
  7. No pictures.  I know you think everyone wants to see Junior, but they don’t.  Make your desktop into your picture.  If your company doesn’t let you do that, just keep a few image files in your Documents folder and flip through them once in a while.  If you really need one – the spouse and kids – then do it, but no-one needs to see pictures of you with a fish, or you at last year’s holiday party at Chez Mayonnaise.
  8. Pick a date for purging.  Everything on your desk and on your PC should have a ‘purge’ date.  My trick was this:  once a year I would throw out every single document in my office and delete every single file on my PC older than one year.  I had to keep a few documents for legal/tax reasons but everything else went.  I didn’t even do much critical assessment.  I never missed anything more than a year old.
  9. Before you leave every day, stack up loose papers.  Put a date on every piece of paper if there isn’t one, and keep it in a stack.  Put newer stuff on top.  You’ll be amazed how often you do NOT hunt through the stack to find something.
  10. Bring nothing, take nothing.  Don’t bring junk from home (bills, newspapers, etc.)  Don’t take work documents home.  If you MUST work at home, bring your files on a memory stick or CD, but don’t haul papers back and forth.  Inevitably you’ll end up with junk at home, too.
  11. Be pushy about being paperless.  Tell everyone you are paperless.  Tell them you are saving the company money.  Tell them too much white paper makes you snowblind.  But just tell everyone you prefer electronic documents, at a minimum.
  12. Don’t be embarrassed about being disciplined.  This tip is one of the strangest.  Many people are afraid that they look unproductive with a clean desk.  A particularly sloppy client of mine used to give me a hard time about my clean desk.  Don’t worry – no-one evers gets fired for having a clean desk.

If you just follow a few of these tips, the day will seem a lot more organized to you on a regular basis.  Keep at it – Rome wasn’t built in a day!

illuminating life

There’s an article in yesterday’s New York Times that tells us we’re using an incorrectly shaped glass from which to drink wine.

The theory is that the design of the wineglass — from the shape of the bowl and degree of tapering at the rim, to the design of the rim itself — can affect the way someone experiences the aroma, taste and harmony of a wine. The nuances of a complex red wine, for example, might unfold and beguile in the appropriate glass, but turn harsh and closed in another.

The article goes on to extol the benefits of buying $95 stemware and describes the frightful effect of drinking wine from the wrong glass:

“We started with a typically full-flavored California chardonnay, from Kendall Jackson. In Riedel’s Vinum Chardonnay glass, notes of tropical fruit wafted up and expanded lusciously in the mouth. We transferred the wine into the Vinum Sauvignon Blanc glass, where it seemed to lose depth. Creamy oak and vanilla overpowered the other flavors. It also seemed unpleasantly tannic. Finally, we poured the chardonnay into a “joker” glass — those miserly little wineglasses that you can barely fit your nose into. In this glass, alcohol burned on the nose, and the tropical fruit disappeared.”

This all sounds crazy, right?

I drink red wine. Probably the best glass of wine I ever had was a chianti (Peppoli 2000) at a Roman restaurant, San Teodoro, in May of 2004. Probably the beautiful restaurant, the view on the Forum and simply the fact that Bubelah and I were in Rome had something to do with my pleasant memory of the evening, the meal and most particularly the wine. My recollection of the day includes spending the morning, a clear spring day, in Hadrian’s Villa and then a long evening after dinner walking through a rose exhibit near the Circo Massimo and enjoying some campari in a café while listening to jazz.

At home, I usually use a small tumbler for my wine, and I seldom get out the wine glasses. I enjoy inexpensive Spanish and Australian wines, and maybe an occasional Italian wine. My fallback brand is Yellowtail, although I also like Rosemount Estate. I am not terribly picky, though. I drink Yellowtail because to me it is consistently the best bottle of wine under $20. It’s not harsh, and I actually quite like their Shiraz and Shiraz-Grenache blends, but it’s certainly not inspiring any soaring comparisons to tropical fruit or creamy oak – whatever a creamy oak might be.

I guess my point is that – at least for an unsophisticated wine drinker – the atmosphere surrounding the Peppoli at San Teodoro made the wine fantastic rather than any magical combination of earthy vanilla tones. I doubt the Peppoli was a particularly impressive wine, strictly speaking. I suspect if I drank it sitting at home while eating a plate of leftovers it would not have made such an impression on me. So the surroundings, which might include a fancier glass than normal, probably made the difference in taste and perception. The goal for all of us, then, has to be to create the atmosphere and environment in our lives around us to make the mundane seem transcendant.

Trying to create an atmosphere of beauty in your daily dining – or any part of your life – can have more of an impact sometimes than actually upgrading the things in your life. Imagine, for example, these two scenarios:

  1. Fresh slices of tomato, slices of buffalo mozzarella, olives, bread and olive oil. Glass of red wine, candles, tea after dinner and music – classical, jazz, or whatever works for you.
  2. An expensive filet mignon steak, carmelized onions, butter, rolls, a side of creamed spinach, a glass of expensive red wine with brandy after dinner – eaten on a TV tray while watching the last 15 minutes of Wheel of Fortune.

The first dinner would be substantially cheaper and some would say less satisfying than the second. However, the atmosphere it is delivered in would make it infinitely more satisfying to me. Coming full circle back to the question of drinking wine from $100 glasses, I can say with some certainty that I am sure that if I knew they were $100 glasses, I would enjoy it more. I would probably savor the wine, remember the moment, talk about it, and enjoy it. If I drank the same wine out of a paper cup, it would still taste the same, but some of the beauty of the moment would be lost.

I am not recommending anyone rush out and buy $100 glasses, but I would recommend that you take a few minutes when eating (or doing anything, really) to consider how you will undertake your meal. Will it be rushed, on paper plates and with a TV blaring? Or will it be in a calm, pleasant atmosphere? Making your dining more pleasant can transform the mundane into the excellent, just as drinking a wine – according to the New York Times – can be changed from “burning” to “luscious” by using the right glass. Just make sure someone else buys the $100 glasses!

to tip or not to tip

If you’re careful with your money you probably face a frequent dilemma of how much to tip various people in service positions.  Tipping ranges from the $3 slipped to a doorman who hails a cab to a couple of hundred for some guys who move your stuff cross-country. 

Before I was married, I used to have a "local" in my neighborhood in Manhattan.  That means there was a bar where I could drop by after work with friends and the bartender would have my usual drink set up before I even took a seat.  The waitresses would stop by to chat, and I knew them by name.  I would get the best seat in the house ahead of tourists waiting in line if I came in a group.  The manager let me stay after hours, and invited me to special events.

If you have a situation like this, big tipping is tough to avoid.  You get to know people and they provide wonderful, careful service on a constant basis.  I never left less than a 15% tip even on rare occassions that I was dissatisfied.  I got so many free drinks that often I would just take the amount I was given gratis and just hand it right back over to the waitresses or bartender. 

Contrast this with stopping at a diner on an interstate trip.  You get ho-hum service, perhaps, and ho-hum food.  Do you leave a 15% or 20% tip like you would at a "local"?  And if not, why?  Would it make a difference if you knew that the cook got a fresh batch of salad out for your salad – and would it make a difference if it was just coincidence that he got it for you?

Tipping is an odd case of getting a service, then paying for it.  If you hired a plumber to work on your house and said "you know what?  I’ll pay you what I think it’s worth when you’re done" he would probably knock you over on the way out the door.  Restaurant workers (and maid services in hotels, etc.) do the best they can to provide good service, not knowing if you’ll be the one-in-a-million person who leaves 10 $100 bills tucked under your check or the jerk who asks for 15 martinis and a steak done JUST SO before leaving a 3% tip.  Imagine working at your job that way – if every payday you got a minimal base salary plus a "tip" depending on how happy your boss was with your work. 

It’s hard to balance tipping with being a frugal person. 
I don’t like tipping.  I wish everything was a flat fee.  I wish waiters and waitresses were paid minimum wage.  It’s easy if you’re a regular somewhere to be generous.  If you live in Manhattan and have a super or a doorman, it’s easy to realize that you need their help, and they’ll give it whether you pay or not, so you SHOULD reward them for their help.  It’s trickier when it’s the guy delivering the new couch.  You’ll never see him again.  He did his job.  But it’s hard work, and maybe – just maybe – he could have dinged a wall or tracked in mud, but he took a little care not to.

I don’t know the answer.  I generally tip generously at restaurants but not so generously when it’s "slipping cash" to someone, mainly because I’m embarrassed about it being too much (looking like a rube) or too little (looking cheap) so I often just pretend I "left my wallet upstairs."  What I do know is that in general in life you’ll be a lot happier if you mentally price your tip BEFORE getting the service and then pay it that way after you get it.  Think to yourself "I’ll tip the waiter 15% unless he ignores our table or gets an order wrong or forgets to bring us water," or "I’ll tip the housekeeping service $20 per day as long as the room is cleaned to a T," or "I’ll give that guy $50 to move the couch in unless he dings the wall or messes up the fabric," and so on.  Tipping is an uncomfortable activity for most, and even more uncomfortable for someone who relies on them for a living.