a desperate addiction

Political news is a disease – stay away from the news. I’ve given that advice over and over.  It does not entertain or educate or enlighten.  Unless you plan to do something about it, reading about a tragedy on the other side of the globe will only depress you.  Yet I have a confession to make.  I am addicted to presidential politics.

It started slowly in 2007. I read a column here and there.  I checked out Bill Richardson’s web site.  I drifted by  instapundit and dailykos (no, I’m not linking to them) to see what the right-and-left-wingers were saying, but just once a week.  I gave my mother (a hardcore political junkie) a hard time for her addiction to americablog.  But I was harboring a secret.  I was cruising one political website and news site after another, looking for a quick and cheap fix.  I didn’t care about the consequences, I needed THE NEWS.

Of course after months of furtively reading political news I realize it (a) didn’t even vaguely change my thoughts on who to vote for and (b) didn’t come close to educating, enlightening or even entertaining me. It’s a sad state of affairs to admit you’re addicted to something which doesn’t even really give you pleasure.  I hate the whole sordid business of presidential politics but I just can’t look away.  The personal-finance-blogosphere loves to give opinions on money, but the leadership of this country determine so much of how we save and how we spend that – in a sense – no personal finance issue should be more important than VOTING.  Disagree?  What if the next president changes the tax rate on capital gains?  That would affect your savings strategy.  What if they rescind Roth accounts’ tax-free status?  What if they decide to heavily tax gas to subsidize public transportation?  There are a million possibilities that impact our lives far more than “should I clip coupons”?

regret, shame and recovery

I am ashamed. I waste a lot of time I could be writing, or reading something fun or entertaining or educational or even just silly.  I read about McCain’s latest angry jab at Obama, or Obama’s latest platitude about “coming together.”  I spend 10 minutes thinking about voting for Nader or Barr or writing in myself and then go back to reading about the latest congressional idiocy.

I have a problem.  I need help.  I have to give up presidential politics. Nothing I hear between now and November is going to change my mind, because I already distrust and fear both candidates and the American political systems.  I will leave you with this horrible sobering thought:  I am almost 40 years old, and this is the first time since I was an eligible voter that my presidential ballot will not have the name “Bush” or “Clinton” on it… and that’s only by a narrow margin.

And just in case anyone is wondering about my political affiliation, it is simple:  anti-incumbent.  It’s the only way to go, if you ask me. 

how to lose customers

Soviet telephone, Popov Communications Museum, St Petersburg, Russia_2

Part of the fabric of a modern life is access to the internet. You don’t really think about it but you rely on it more heavily than you know.  In addition, you rely on simple and quick fixes to problems with your access.  You could say the same for most services.  Most of us don’t anticipate a year without phone service, or a year without electricity.

Let me dial back about 10 years to a younger Steve living in Moscow, Russia. I had a home telephone line through the state phone company which had – at that point – resisted efforts by the state to privatize the service.  Cellular phones were available, but considering handsets started at $1000 apiece, they weren’t a reasonable option for your young expatriate-about-town.  I relied on my home phone, which I had jury-rigged up using a half dozen European converters to my Radio Shack answering machine.  I conveniently recorded polite messages in both English and Russian, informing callers that I might be back soon.

As I’m sure my worried parents could attest at the time, my phone service was spotty at best and nonexistent at worst. I tried to keep up with payments, which had to be made in cash to a local branch.  Bills were shoved into my keyless mail box and tended to “fall out”.  I struggled to keep up my payments, but since my mail box was an empty hole in the wall and – unsurprisingly – mail often disappeared, I missed a payment or three.  Service was cut.

After I was cut off I was forced into two dark underworlds – first, the world of Russian payphones, and second, the world of state telephone service restoration. Suffice it to say I did not merely endure – I prevailed.  I stood in the local subway station and called friends for weekend plans.  I abused office calling privileges to call the States.  I threw myself against Soviet power, and was rewarded with a restoration of phone service (after being disconnected for six weeks).  I spent hours in line.  I brandished forms.  I triplicated.  I stuttered my way to glory in Russian.

My point? Simple. In every way that matters, dealing with the post-Soviet state services was easier than dealing with the horrendous post-globalization customer service we have to deal with in America today.  People were nicer, humans were easier to come by, solutions were easier to arrive at and resolutions were clearer.  I love India.  I wish India the best going forward replacing the US as Superpower 2.0.   But let’s face it – India’s really not ready to deal with Steve from New Jersey’s internet access problems.  Steve is needy, and won’t be mollified with reading from a script unless it solves his expensive problem today, or at least promises some chance at a solution in the near future.  Whether or not Megacorp believes he will be, Steve won’t be happy dealing with voice response systems, endless menus and customer service reps from the far reaches of the former British Empire.

I’ve got internet access again for the first time in weeks tonight. It’s nice.  What I don’t feel happy about is the fact that I had to fight for that access.  I’m paying for a service.  I can understand when Google doesn’t perform as advertised – I’m not paying to subscribe to Google.  I’m paying some other services, and I expect at least a pale imitation of service.  If these corporate customer service departments are the future, I’m ready to fold.

Photo:  photo credit: gruntzooki

less than three weeks to live

tirol karlovy vary carlsbad
photo credit: thengineer

Today’s post is a guest post from my wife, Bubelah.

Last night we watched a movie – “Last Holiday” – and it made me think. Starring Queen Latifah as Georgia Byrd, a Louisiana retail clerk, the premise is simple: Georgia’s doctor tells her that she has three weeks to live and she changes everything about her life. Rather than giving in to despair, she quits her job, cashes out all of her savings and decides to blow all of her money.  She sets out to live her life to the fullest in the brief time she believes she has remaining.  She treats herself to the European vacation of a lifetime.  She flies first class, stays in the Presidential suite, eats the finest food and gets every spa treatment on the menu.

It was a cute movie- not grand – but fun enough to watch and thought-provoking at times. I especially enjoyed Karlovy Vary‘s (Carlsbad’s) wintry landscape.  The movie was filmed in Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic and in Tirol, Austria, and the result was amazing.  The movie’s scenery wasn’t limited to outdoor scenery, either:  chefs from the Food Network traveled with the movie crew and prepared beautiful culinary creations used in the movie.
But this post is not just about the movie.  As I said, it made me think.

What would I do if I had only 3 weeks to live?
I have so many things I want to do and see and experience in this life. Where do I start? Mind you, I have two little kids and a husband. And I have my family that I love dearly. In the movie, Georgia has no family and the only relative mentioned is her sister.

Would I cash out everything I saved and blow it on my last fancy vacation or experiences? Here I stop. I pause because I do not know. Of course I would do it with my family and my children. But I have my  children’s future to think about.  Their future is in my hands now while they are still very young. I guess I will agonize about the right decision until my time runs out.

What would YOU do if you had only a few weeks to live?

It is so tiresome to think about the money all the time. It’s like a person who is on a starvation diet.  Once you realize that the starvation diet might not work, you have a tendency to binge.  In the movie, Georgia realizes that her choices have been simplified – she will die soon, and so without consequence she can live life to the fullest.  What all of us have to decide is where the balance is between spending and saving.  Sometimes it’s worth living like today is your last chance at life.

mid year investment portfolio checkup

Fly on the beauty
photo credit: HAMED MASOUMI

For this Monday morning, The Money Writers decided to start you off with a cheerful bit of Monday reading – namely, how did our investments fare year to date? We’re a group of people who take our investments seriously, so we ought to have a pretty good take on the market. The results are surprising.

First of all, if you have any young children reading this post, avert their eyes..there will be blood. It has not been a pretty year in the market, certainly, and my family’s portfolio is no different. First of all, a little background: Bubelah and I share an “operating account”. When we were both working, we contributed to a joint checking account, and we continue to pay all of our expenses out of that account now that she’s not working. However, we’ve never invested jointly – she has her brokerage and retirement accounts, and I have mine. We keep each other informed of what we’re doing, and we take each other’s advice, but neither of us really worries about the other’s asset allocation or investing methodology. This may not be the ideal solution – but it’s what works for us. We keep our cash jointly and our investments separate (and thanks to the largess of the Feds she still gets to contribute to an IRA despite not earning a wage, although most assuredly still working).

So here’s the result. I prepared a spreadsheet with four columns: the first is the name of the investment, the second is the value of that investment on 1/1/2008, the third is the value on 7/28/2008, and the fourth is the net gain or loss on that account from January 1 to July 28. The accounts are ordered from our biggest gross dollar value investment to the least (i.e. we have more money in Vanguard’s High Dividend Yield Index Fund than anything else). If the graphic isn’t clear (and I suspect it isn’t, because I had a terrible time trying to make it appear here), click here.

If you look at that, there’s nothing pretty to see. Not one single investment has appreciated since 1/1. I didn’t buy any on 1/1 of course. Citigroup, for example, I bought in late January, so the price isn’t exact. But other than that, almost all of them were things we held at 1/1, so it’s a good indication of our losses since the beginning of the year. Almost 10% … a 9.85% loss since 1/1. Phew.

I try to remind myself, of course, that there are mitigating factors. Dividends were received, and some of my alternative investments (P2P, etc.) did bear a scattering of fruit. We also have approximately 15% of our net worth in trusty American dollars… yeah, those greenbacks that are losing 3% of their value per month. Thanks again, George/Hank/Alan & company. But the most important point is that many of those investments – such as Mechel and Vanguard Pacific Stock index – had huge runups in the past couple of years that we’ve owned them. We’re not down 9% from our initial investment, just from the beginning of the year. That having been said, nobody likes to be down almost 10%.

So what conclusion can be drawn from this exercise? Only two, in my opinion: (1) get an investing strategy and stick with it even if it doesn’t look like it’s going well in the short term, because there’s no way you’re going to beat the market* and (2) don’t keep all your eggs in the market. Honestly, I am not too concerned. We had a great runup over the past couple of years, and net/net we’re still doing quite well. I would love to see things going better, of course, but you have to be realistic – markets are cyclical.

So to see how the rest of the wealthbuilding group did (and some did better than others), check out how the rest of The Money Writers did:

So if you’re like me (and us) hang in there, work on your alternative income and chicken entrepreneurial projects and your side businesses, and pray for rain…

If you have any questions about my portfolio, feel free to email me – bripblap at the email service gmail.com.

* I always point out that you CAN beat the market if you’re willing to put an inordinate amount of time and effort into studying companies for investment. If you have a day job, or you just don’t like reading the minutiae of 10Ks, invest largely in index funds. End of story.

big picture, little picture

McSephiroth kicking some Kentucky Fried ass with his giant french fry :P
photo credit: VideogameVisionary.com

Early in my career one of my manager imparted this little bit of corporate wisdom to me: there are two types of people in the world, “big picture people” and “small picture people”. These two types of people were complimentary but had wildly different skill sets and worldviews.

Big picture people

In a nutshell, big picture people see the world in grand themes. They think of end games, the needs-of-the-many-outweigh-the-needs-of-the-few and goals. Details are swept aside for the sake of progress. They view everything in terms of an overall objective, and facts and opinions are gathered selectively to support the objective.

Small picture people

Small picture people, on the other hand, agonize over facts. They attack every problem related to a project with equal fervor. They make sure all of the staples are at 45 degree angles, and they view every single step forward as a battle to be won. A goal is not as important as the validity of the points supporting its achievement.

This manager told me that big picture people inevitably rose above small picture people in the working world, but at the same time were incapable of functioning without small picture people. Small picture people were the engines; big picture people were the drivers.

How this applies to us

You can extend this far past the corporate world, of course. Politicians are often big picture, ignoring inconvenient details. Soldiers are small picture people, focusing on task management handed down to them by their superiors. Both are necessary, and a big-picture army private will have just as much trouble as a detail-oriented senator – both will be fish out of water.

One of the most apt criticisms you could make of the writing I do on brip blap would be that I’m awfully big picture. I like to think in terms of grand goals (“achieve perfect work/life integration, have a perfect lifestyle, achieve financial independence”) without attention to the detail to support that (“fix your credit score, maximize your tax credits”, etc.). I confess. I’m a big picture person at work. That’s helpful – one of the reasons I’m a corporate consultant is my ability to take huge numbers of small problems and weave them together into a theme and propose overarching solutions. That makes me, of course, annoying to the small picture people who have to create the spreadsheets and forms and widgets to fix problems in accordance with my recommendations, but you know what? Together, we get the job done.

So extend this to your financial life, or relationships, or whatever you’re worried about. I’m a big picture person, and Bubelah’s much more detail oriented. We try to plan a vacation and I worry about how it will affect our capital purchases or whether it fits into the grand scheme of our finances. She worries about whether we’ll be able to book the week we need, or have access to a washer/dryer for the inevitable piles of dirty clothes. I think it’s a nice compliment of skills, but from time to time it creates conflicts. But as much as it may create conflicts between couples, those conflicts are resolvable. The problem really arises when the individual can’t decide whether he’s big picture or small picture.

I know I’m a big picture guy. But if you’re someone who worries about details AND goals you’re going to have trouble. If you like to hammer away at the small things in life, embrace it. Fire up that to-do list and enter everything on it. If you’re a big picture guy or gal, write out a mission statement and forget about clipping coupons. I’ve got to say something terrible here – this is probably the single biggest argument in favor of marriage (other than providing a stable set of parents for kids) that I can make: finding someone who complements your “skill set” – for lack of a better term. You can of course accomplish this with friends or partners as well. The important thing is to recognize how you view the world – and find someone who can provide the yin to your yang, if I can steal a philosophical phrase.

So recognize where you’re coming from, and (at least according to my manager, who I had a lot of respect for), cast your lot. Don’t try and pretend you love detail if you’re a big picture person. Don’t try and pretend that you love goal-setting if your idea of a good time is wringing out an extra 5% savings. Embrace your “type” and use it to your advantage. Don’t try to be something you aren’t.


As a side note, I’ve continued to have terrible computer AND internet problems – more or less a perfect storm of hardware problems (laptop dies without warning) and high-speed service breakdowns (one service died, and another will be hooked up next week- right now I’m sneaking a neighbor’s unsecured wireless account, and hoping I’m not hurting him while doing it).  I’m hoping for a resolution next week but any irregular posting is probably due to those problems.  Yesterday there was no post because I wrote one, published it, saw the PC crash – and lost the post.  Sleep won out over rewriting 🙂

how to give money to charity

This post originally appeared at Consumerism Commentary, one of the oldest and biggest (and best) personal finance blogs out there. Go check it out!

America loves charity

Americans donate over $240 billion per year to various charities, and that’s simply in terms of money; the contributions in goods and services add even more to that number. This is a brief guide to the biggest questions about charitable giving in the US.

photo credit: nukeit1

Decide what’s right for you. First of all, you need to come up with an idea of the type of charity you want to support. The list is almost endless. There are small local charities that benefit a very specific area, and there are gigantic global charities that help around the world. There are charities that try to offer direct help, and those that try to raise awareness. A few things you should consider before deciding on a charity:

  1. Is it a “good” charity?
  2. How will you contribute?
  3. Will you receive a tax deduction?

Is it a “good” charity?

Make sure you agree with the charity’s stated aims. Try to understand what percentage of your contributions will go where you think they need to go. The IRS has a Form 990, “Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax.” This form is probably your single best piece of information about a charity, because it’s the way the government prevents abuse of tax-exempt status.There are almost 2 million American charities; specifically you should seek out “qualified organizations.” A qualified organization is called that because it qualifies for a tax deduction. These organizations include religious groups, public schools, not-for-profit hospitals, parks and a variety of other groups. If the organization is not qualified there is no barrier to giving to that group, but your donation will not be deductible.

You can view a charitable organization’s Form 990 to find out more about that organization’s mission and programs. The IRS Form 990, “Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax,” can be thought of as the financial statements of a nonprofit organization. The form gives information about the organization’s finances and how money collected is spent. Keep in mind that although some groups may spend more on overhead than others, that does not necessarily disqualify a group from your consideration. Larger nonprofits may have more expenses for outreach or large, multi-year projects. If you have any concerns about how the money is being spent, you should contact the organization and ask them for more information; if they won’t provide it, that’s a good indicator!


How will you contribute?

There are three basic ways to contribute to charity: money, goods and time. All three have value, and you should never let yourself feel badly because you can give one way and not another. A busy traveling salesman may not have the time to work hands-on with a charity group, but he can donate money or goods. A college student may not have extra cash or goods but can certainly contribute time. Everyone can give something:

  • Give money. Obviously this is the simplest way to contribute, and usually it can be done quickly by going to a web site or mailing a letter. Many charities struggle to raise money, and every little bit counts.
  • Give goods. You may think that old, gently worn coat will never been worn again, but there are plenty of organizations who would be thrilled to give that coat to someone who needs it. Clothes, books, almost anything that is in decent condition can be given to worthwhile organizations like the Salvation Army.
  • Give time. A lot of people give money and goods to charitable organizations, but many of them need the gift of your time more than anything. From answering phones to building houses, many organizations deeply appreciate the time you can give them to help them spread their message or even complete their core missions. You can even under certain circumstances donate your professional services to an organization.

Will you receive a tax deduction?

Some people may think that it’s improper to discuss tax writeoffs when talking about giving. The US government has chosen to create an incentive to giving, though, and there’s no reason not to take advantage of it. Of course, if you can only really receive the benefit of these deductions if you itemize. If you give money or other gifts (stocks, goods, etc.) and the charity has the proper Internal Revenue Service (IRS) status, you may be eligible to deduct some or all of your contributions. The rules were significantly tightened in 2007, however. A few basic pointers:

  • Starting in 2007, you need a receipt for ANY donation. The old limit of $250 has been eliminated, so even a $10 bill in the collection plate requires a receipt if you want to deduct it.
  • You may deduct up to 50% of your adjusted gross income in one year for charitable donations (certain contributions, though, may have lower limits).
  • If you give more than 50%, you can carry the excess forward for up to five years.
  • If you donate goods to an organization, it must be in good condition or better in order to be deductible – and if it’s worth more than $500 you have to get a professional appraisal to prove its value.
  • If you receive something in return for your donation, you can only deduct the excess of your donation over what you received; so if you paid $100 for a charity dinner with a value of $30, you can only deduct $70.

Your best resource for figuring out the rules, since they may change once again? Go to the source: Publication 526 from the IRS website (that’s the 2007 version – the 2008 version isn’t ready yet). If you have any concerns, make sure you talk to a tax professional about your specific situation.

While there are a lot of rules surrounding the deductibility of donations and a lot of suspicion over some recent charity scandals, it is important to remember that the great majority of charitable organizations exist for one reason: to help. It’s also important to remember those less fortunate, and extend what help you can. You can even be a little selfish, because one of the biggest benefits of giving is that you’ll feel great about doing it! Remember that you’re a customer, and just like any other time you’re giving up your hard-earned money you should know whether it’s a good idea or not.

a shockey storey

photo credit: jenn_jenn

Once upon a time there was a promising young lad entering the big time. He had a bit of a temper, but he was extraordinarily gifted at his business and was sought after by one company after another. He came on board with several other young promising lads, and combined with the older leaders of the company where he began work, the executives expected great things of him.

From the beginning, though, the lad had trouble. He grumbled about his responsibilities. First he had too many for such a young lad, then the wrong kind for such a promising lad, and then too few for such a talented lad. Nothing was ever his fault – his teammate didn’t give him the reports he wanted, the manager of the team didn’t give him the right types of work, the head of the company just didn’t click with him (but never the other way around).

But one year, things got even worse. The lad moaned and complained and the whole company suffered. Then tragedy struck – the lad fell ill and it turned out he wouldn’t be able to work on the big sale that was coming up that year. As he sat on the sidelines, his colleagues rallied and the slow unassuming lad who took his place did what was needed and didn’t complain. His colleagues were so pleased not to hear the incessant whining and complaining that they rallied and had an unbelievable year. They won one big sale after another, finally defeating even the Foxboro, Massachusetts branch in landing the biggest customer of the year.

So you would think the young lad would learn his lesson, and come back humbled. Without him, his colleagues had rallied to take the lead in their company.  The young manager of the team had become a true leader, and they had succeeded beyond all expectations.  They were happy… except that they dreaded the young lad’s return. He complained and fought with the managers, all before he had started back to work.

Finally, the company had enough. They transferred him to New Orleans in exchange for some muffalettas and daquiris for the next Cinco de Mayo party. Relaxed and relieved to be rid of the gifted, talented young lad who nevertheless simply never fit in and never worked as part of the team, they prepared for another run at the big sale.

And the moral of the story

Don’t be your company’s Jeremy Shockey.

5 ways to learn from others

Before I lost 100 pounds, I had switched doctors about five times in eight years. Each time my health insurance provider changed – and the company I worked for seemed to enjoy doing it annually – I had to find a new set of health care providers. Because of this, I seldom went for checkups, preferring to wait for an illness to visit. The doctor, seeing me for the first time, would not have much of a baseline by which to judge my health. I’d usually see him for a few minutes, get a prescription for whatever ailed me, and leave. If my blood pressure was high (and it almost always was – remember, I weighed 300+ pounds), I was warned to exercise more and eat less salt. For someone who was not exercising at all and eating a diet primarily composed of pizza, that was a tall order. But the sad thing is that the usual assessment from each doctor was “you are doing fine, just eat less, exercise a little more.”

Then I finally settled on a doctor and went to see him a few times. This was already after I had launched into my 100-pound weight loss regimen, and I was quite proud of myself. I told him all about my success to that point, having lost about 40 pounds. I was convinced that he would lavish praise on me for my success.

Instead, he did what (I think) a good doctor – or mentor of any sort – should do.
He told me that wasn’t nearly enough. He pointed out that weight loss was fine but my exercise habits were poor. He told me that while my blood pressure wasn’t high, I was young enough that it should be much lower. He told me that I was still obese and that I shouldn’t be proud of my “success” – only proud of a good start.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Sugar Pond

That was a slap in the face for me. After talking to him, I realized that losing 40 pounds wasn’t enough. I realized that weight loss wasn’t the goal – health was. I started exercising – at first riding an exercise bike, then walking on a treadmill, then running on a treadmill, then running outside. I took the low-carb diet I was on and modified it; I cut out the sausages and red meat and concentrated more on leafy greens, chicken and fish.

I would like to say it was easy, or that my doctor was encouraging.
He wasn’t. He also wasn’t the primary source of inspiration for my journey to health – I was, mostly out of fear. But having a doctor who wasn’t afraid to be in my face and challenge my assumptions about my health helped a lot. Having people in your life who are willing to lose you as a “customer” (so to speak) or as a friend or colleague by putting the truth in your face is rare, too.

Other moments in my life have provided similar slaps in the face: reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad (yes, I know, I know). I was certainly an expert in the earn more, spend more personal finance systems: how to make a lot but never to think about what the end game was (answer should be financial independence) or whether working 15 hour days was really worth that great salary. Kiyosaki at least challenged my assumption that this was the only path I had open to me after starting down my career path.

Nobody likes to hear they are fat, or out of shape, or lazy, or watching too much TV, or spending too much, or working too hard or even dressing sloppily. It is hard to face the truth, and hearing it when you’re not in a mindset to receive it is pointless. But the question is this: why aren’t you ready to accept the truth? Why wouldn’t you want to improve your life? Leave yourself open to good advice. Here are five things to remember:

  1. You are not always right. Most people struggle with the concept that they are not always right, which is odd when you stop to think about it. I understand that I am not omniscient. I also understand that I make mistakes. Yet at the same time, I’m often convinced that “my way” is right and that someone else’s way is wrong. Think politics, for example. It’s hard for most people to accept that their way is not always right. But repeat to yourself: I do not have an open connection to universal truth. The possibility that I am wrong about something is critical to self-understanding.
  2. Listen. Wait for someone else to finish speaking before you start. In fact, wait one breath before launching in. I had a terrible habit for years of finishing other people’s sentences – still do. But I fight it now. Keep your ears open as well as your mind – and that’s hard to do if you are verbally stumbling over other people’s thoughts.
  3. Ask questions. People love to be asked questions. When my doctor criticized my health despite what I felt was a good start, I asked him several questions. His answers reinforced his point even further. I remember one in particular: I asked “well, isn’t this pretty good compared to most other people?” He laughed and asked me if it made the least bit of difference to me whether it was good compared to others or not.
  4. Challenge. At the same time, if you don’t buy what someone’s selling, challenge them. Don’t argue – challenge. The difference, to me, is that an argument is a series of statements. “I like Tuesdays.” “Tuesdays are the worst, I hate Tuesdays – Wednesdays rock.” A challenge might sound like this: “Why do you like Tuesdays so much? Really, what’s the reason?” At least it advances the understanding of what’s being discussed.
  5. Seek out people (or books, or websites, or whatever) with different belief systems. I can tell you one thing from my years writing a political blog – if you spend all of your time around people of one political leaning, read that political leaning’s publications and watch their shows, you’ll have a tough time with the four steps ahead. Expose yourself to other ideas. If you’re an ardent low-carb dieter, read about vegetarianism. If you’re a Christian, read the Buddhist Scriptures. If you’re a firm believer in the evils of Communism, read Ten days that Shook the World. You get my drift.

Keep your mind open to new possibilities… and remember that learning new things is one of the keys to happiness. If it helps you improve your health or your finances or your relationships or your career or your life, too, well, then … schwing! Bonus.  I don’t want to pretend it’s easy – I struggle with these points daily – but being aware of the need to change is half the battle.

i think she knows

Creative Commons License photo credit: Unfurled

…that we are at the end of all things, and the scary things that go bump in the night are coming. In that post six months ago I imagined that zombies would be running rampant in the streets and Drusilla would be fluttering around creeping people out with her singsong voice as the US crumbled into ruins due to the accelerating market crash. At the time, I thought we were near the bottom and that any idea to yank money out of the market was foolish.

Since then Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Countrywide, IndyMac and others have made me realize that zombies are running rampant in the streets, with scary names like Hank and George and Ben. Despite nominal lip service to “free markets” and “balanced budgets”, the US is certainly not above throwing the public’s money into private institutions wildly. They are stumbling over their own feet to throw money at the banks and lenders like a zombie trying to get at fresh brains. And that’s where the current situation gets a bit stickier.

As long as the market was fluctuating on its own, I was calm. I knew that the birth and death of entire industries have occurred in the US without any serious long-term repercussions. Look at the train companies – once they practically ruled America, until the automobile came along. Yahoo ruled search until Ask Jeeves came along (you thought I was going to mention Google, didn’t you)? A shake-out in the financial services industry or investment bank industry was just that – a shake-out. I was wary, but overall I was not concerned.

The stakes have become higher now. Much higher. With an expectation of public bail-outs thanks to the fiscal-conservatives-in-name-only who hand out public money faster than Lenin after a fifth of vodka, a dangerous precedent has been established in the minds of (a) Wall Street and (b) the public. Right now, the public (which includes me, to be honest) expects that the government won’t let any institutions which are “really important” fail. So what will happen if Washington Mutual fails? Or Citigroup? And more importantly, what will happen to the market when one of them fails and the government finally admits it has no more resources to prop up dying banks? Zombies in the streets, cats and dogs living together – chaos.

So how to invest, here beyond the end of all things? Well, if you have the money, keep pumping it into the market, but throw more weight into overseas equities. Unless you have a knack for real estate (and I don’t) or a business to pump your cash into, you are best off continuing to hew to your investing strategy. Don’t sit on too much cash, but don’t go cavorting around without at least some sort of cash backup. I know many people will be counting on the next president to work wonders, but it’s not going to happen. As the government continues to violate every single financial commandment (spend less than you earn, pay down debt, pay yourself first, etc.) you need to grit your teeth and forge forward to protect your financial future. It’s hard to believe that Uncle Sam’s going to have many pennies left in the jar after the next few years.

But it’s important to remember, as it always is, that your financials goals are your financial goals. Do not let apocalyptic market news worry you. That may be easier said than done, but you have to do it. Set your wealth-building strategy and stick to it. Find a supportive group of like-minded people to support you in achieving those goals. Turn off the news and attend to your family, your friends and your work. Focus on what you can control and you’ll be much happier. And buy some zombie repellent just in case.

Creative Commons License photo credit: oskay


I came across this piece in the New York Times. It’s an odd video, and I’m sure I’m person number four million to link to it or write about it. This Matt Harding guy has created quite the little viral video.

Bear with it – it seems a little stupid at first, but it’s an oddly uplifting video. I just thought it was a nice piece to lead into the weekend.

more or less a one year anniversary

“To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.” -Johannes A. Gaertner

I have been writing Brip Blap for slightly more than a year now in its current incarnation. For those of you who never saw the old site (which is probably 99.999% of you), I did maintain a Blogger blog with this name for about four years. It was, at best, a giant linkfest for political articles, primarily about US presidential politics. I would get readers occasionally but it was first and foremost a personal venting forum. I restarted Brip Blap last June with a focused plan to write useful, informative and hopefully sometimes funny articles about life, family, personal finance and whatever else crossed my mind – but always on the general topic of self-improvement. I decided to write this post early on to make sure I would never forget to thank the people who helped me at the beginning. I actually wrote this post last summer (in August 2007).

This version of Brip Blap has been far more satisfying to me, both as a writer and as a person, than the first version. I have been very lucky to receive some encouragement early on from people who had no obligation to help me out, but did anyway. Each one of them kept me motivated when my total number of visitors were tiny and my struggles with learning how to write a coherent post and how to use WordPress were killing me.

So as I hit my one-year anniversary, I would like to first say thank you to: Lazy Man and Money, who was the first person to link back to Brip Blap. His link spurred the first surge in traffic – basically providing the first readers who weren’t related to me. He has continued being exceptionally helpful, both visibly and behind the scenes, and most importantly providing a lot of encouragement over the last year, without which I never would have really gotten started. I owe him a great deal. Thanks to Patrick of Cash Money Life, who used StumbleUpon to ‘stumble’ an early post of mine which then exploded into tens of thousands of page views and expanded my blog’s reach by huge amounts. I would also like to say thank you to Penelope Trunk, who took the time to write me, the author of a tiny little blog, several very kind and encouraging emails out of the blue when I first started. She also linked to a post of mine from her Yahoo! Finance column. That one mention drove a huge amount of traffic to my site. I am still amazed to this day that she did all of that.

But that’s not all! Thank you to Saving Diva, who started commenting on my site when nobody else was. Thanks also to many of the other bloggers who have provided content that inspired me and whose thoughts on my work, both in comments and emails, have helped me improve my writing (I hope): Moolanomy, AskDong, Four Pillars (now Quest for Four Pillars), The Digerati Life, and many, many others. My Two Dollars and Finance Is Personal were the first sites to feature guest posts from me, which I really appreciated. Thanks to every blogger who allowed me to guest post, and thanks to everyone who has given me a guest post. I have also drawn a lot of inspiration from Millionaire Mommy Next Door, and the support of other bloggers like Guinness416 and Mrs. Micah. Zen Habits and The Simple Dollar were real inspirations early on for me, too.

Thanks to my network, The Money Writers. I joined a few months ago and since then I’ve received tons of encouragement from them, plus a lot of technical advice. It’s a great group and if you like my blog they all have the same mindset as I do:

The M-Network blogs have been great. I have some great interactions with all of them and I think they are a great bunch of people and bloggers. Almost all of them have helped me out in one form or another from the beginning and I really appreciate it.

Commentators here at brip blap have been fantastic. If you are a blogger you’ll understand what I mean, but if not let me tell you – the first few times you have someone make a reasoned, thoughtful response to something you wrote … well, it’s a rush. I am terrible about responding to comments, I know, but I read all of them, and I couldn’t be happier to see everyone having an opinion on my blog. It is absolutely amazing as a writer to get that feedback.

A special thanks to anyone and everyone who has read brip blap in the past year, comments or no. I enjoy writing enough that I would do it for my own entertainment, but obviously it’s a lot more fun when someone reads what you write! I was happy when I hit 100 visits and now I am approaching a million. That is quite – for lack of a better word – cool.

If I’ve forgotten anyone, forgive me! I have enjoyed every exchange of ideas over the last year, and every bit of correspodence, traffic, suggestions, good wishes and constructive criticism has been priceless! The blogging community has been terrific. So many people have been so good to me it’s impossible to list them all. There is hope for this world…

I’d also like to thank the advertisers on the site, who I am sure are also faithful readers…

And of course, most importantly I have to thank my family (thanks particularly to you, Mom) and above all my wife, Bubelah, who encouraged me to start writing and who in her relentlessly positive attitude never, ever expresses a second’s doubt that I will succeed at this or anything else I do. Ti moya sertse.

Thanks, everyone. On a personal level, I really appreciate it. I never expected this. You are great.

Creative Commons License photo credit: joeltelling

learn to think bigger

Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

Creative Commons License photo credit: marfis75

When beginning any sort of ambitious self-improvement project – be it paying down credit card debt, investing, losing weight or reading the 100 greatest books of all time – you should have a clear idea of when to cut your losses and try a different path.

I have seen many people attempt to avoid quitting at all costs. You know the type – your friend who insists on watching the movie to the end.  Your cousin who will eat the same brand of pizza that gave him heartburn last time.  People who furiously pay down debt by directing every last penny to paying it down while eating Ramen noodles.  Being someone who can stick to a goal and achieve it is admirable.  Being someone who sticks to a goal that has ceased to benefit from that goal is foolish.

The best example in terms of personal finance can usually be found in investing.
Many investors will establish a pattern of investing that suits them, and then defend that pattern to others (and to themselves) even if it doesn’t work.  A good example is index fund investing.  The conventional wisdom is that it cannot fail.  The truth is that it’s the investing pattern with the best possible return for a non-knowledgeable investor, but even then it’s subject to a number of caveats.  If you happened to be withdrawing your money now, the last eight years would have been essentially 0% returns on those funds.  A dividend-paying stock, or better yet an investment in a single company that had a great run over that time (think Google, for example) would have been far better.

A foolish consistency – an attempt to hew to a failed philosophy – is going to be the road to failure for most of us. If what you’re doing isn’t working, it’s unlikely that it’s going to improve.  I know that persistence is considered to be a virtue, but in investing or life it isn’t.  You have to admit that what you’re doing isn’t working sometimes, and try to find an alternative.  In investing, this is called cutting your losses.  If you invest 10,000 and lose 2000, you need a 25% gain to recoup your 20% loss.  Think about that.

So think bigger. Think about moving past goals.  Think about ambition and think about money like something new, every day.  I’m constantly reevaluating my goals and my ideas about how to generate (and grow) my money, but not as much as I should.  If you get to a point where you’re comfortable, you’re in bad shape.  Life requires growth, in one form or another.  Think bigger.