5 ways to take time off work

At work today, a fellow consultant expressed amazement that I was planning to take Thursday off after having taken Monday off. He couldn’t understand how I was able to afford to take two days off in an average week – let alone two weeks before I plan on going on vacation.

The simple truth is that I have certain rules that, if anyone follows them, makes taking time off a snap.  I have five, off the top of my head:

1.  Pay yourself first. I save money every month before it hits our bank account.  It’s gone and saved before I even realize it exists.  That makes digging into savings tricky.  It also means that I’m not worried about grubbing for a dollar at the end of the year.

2.  Consider whether you need it. Bubelah and I make dopey purchases – we are not ultra frugal.  At the same time, we do not buy useless things on a regular basis.  It doesn’t take much – try not buying overpromoted fashion and consumer electronics for a while and voila, savings.  A little time off is worth passing on the iPhone, isn’t it?

3.  Pay in cash. I use a credit card, for the sake of cash back bonuses, but for all intents and purposes I pay cash; we wait until we have cash in hand to buy anything.  I mean anything.  We paid cash for a new Honda this year.  I paid cash for new rechargeable batteries today.  We don’t buy anything without the means to pay for it.  We never have to worry about the upcoming credit card bill.

4.  Diversify your income. I blog, and I work on a couple of other income streams.  My “other” streams make up maybe 5% of my income, but at the same time that means I’m making 105% of what I would be making on consulting income alone.  Better than nothing, I think.  But that 5% away from work means I can take 5% off my normal work and still come out even, right?

5.  Pick your battles. I have never understood people who won’t take off a beautiful day in summer.  Listen, 20 years from now that extra $100 for a day’s work won’t make a difference.  A day in the sun making a stab at accomplishing that wee bitty thing called life will be worth it.  Maybe it’s better to stay late in the office in February and ditch in summer.  Consider treating yourself to a short two day beach hiatus. If you live near the east coast, depending on what days of the week you choose, you have a good chance of finding affordable north myrtle beach rentals in Beautiful South Carolina. A little fun in the sun might be just the kind of break you need from work.

I feel sorry for so many of the employees and consultants I see around me who will complain about “needing” to work one minute and then about their new plasma TV the next minute. Not because I think they made a bad choice – because it’s not my place to judge – but because they seem unhappy with their choices.  Nobody is every happy trading their time for crap.  Put yourself in a position where you can forgo money for time and you’ll be a happier person.

when does intellectual curiosity stop?

From bookstatistics.com:

  • 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.
  • 42% of college graduates never read another book.
  • 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

If you’re like me, you read that with a chill running down your spine. You read blogs, so you’re reading a lot.  You like reading.  You think other people ought to like to read.

One of my fondest childhood memories is reading “The Hobbit” along with my dad. We had a big illustrated edition – a lot of the cheesy Rankin-Bass stills, where Gollum looks like a frog – and he read it to me in installments.  I don’t remember how many times we read it or how old I was, but I read “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (on my own) before 3rd grade, so it was probably when I was 5 or 6.  But my point is simple:  I remember being almost insanely excited with the idea that another chapter was going to unfold.  A picture would be painted in my mind – by me – and the next day another picture would be drawn.  I would go to sleep in the bunk bed I shared with my brother, my mind filled with trolls and dragons and dwarves.

I read to my son a lot, and have done so since he was born. I’ve tried to with my daughter, with less success since every time I start to read to her my son runs over and insists on sharing (which means reading to HIM).  But I think both kids have an early love of reading.  I don’t read to them for any other reason than a long-term attempt to inspire a love of books in them.  Books have been some of my truest and dearest friends throughout my life, and I think children need to learn early in their lives that a life can revolve around books without TV, video games or the internet.

Bubelah and I talked about intellectual curiousity this weekend, in relation to things I’ve said about a college education. I argue that for most people, college is a crutch.  Their intellectual curiosity is sated by four years in college – they read, they take interesting courses, they graduate and 58% of them never read a book again.  Bubelah thinks college is necessary for growth, and that college forces people to expand in ways they never would on their own.   I say that college can only assist growth – intellectual curiousity, if someone has it, won’t stop with college.  We didn’t decide the argument, but we did agree that there is no excuse to quit learning, ever.

I know my coworkers are weirded out that I sit and read a book in the office pantry while I eat lunch. They are doubly weirded out that I read history, or graphic novels, or fantasy/sci-fi.  The idea of reading anything other than a newspaper or magazine seems trivial or immature to them.   Even though I am not enamored of either of the major parties in the US, every time I hear someone (and it’s usually a Democrat) mocked for being “an intellectual” or “an elitist” I cringe.  When did intellectual prowess or a curiosity about life become a characteristic to be mocked?  I care about history, space exploration, politics, ethics, literature.  I’m a pointy-headed intellectual – and I drink beer and love pro football, too.

Reading is the gateway to knowledge. Of course you can gain knowledge through experience, or discussion, or other avenues – but reading is so freely available and simple that it can only be deemed a great failure of any society that doesn’t encourage it as a core virtue.  I’d like to see America become a place that’s proud of intellectual curiosity, but too often intellectual curiosity is mocked and belittled by people whose idea of culture is determined by TV executives.  Knowledge should be a lifelong goal, not something satisfied by four years in college.

college student finance tips

Peddle Bell Tower II

This post is part of The Money Writers‘ college student finance tips group writing project.

Everyone likes to think that with the passage of time they become an expert. Simply by virtue of their own experience, they become an expert in an area that could be the subject of full-time study.  That’s what giving financial advice to students seems like to me – but I’m going to give it a shot as part of a group writing project by The Money Writers.  I only have three, and in all fairness it’s really only one idea broken down three ways.

1.  Consider if you really need to go to THAT (or any) college. I’ve thought about this idea a lot recently.  I have a relative who’s going to school for art.  A very expensive private school… for art.  Does that make sense?  I suppose it might.  Maybe you interact with other artists, you get to hone your skills.  But do you need an expensive private school education in art?  I majored in mathematics.  I needed help – you need instructors to explain things.  If you’re a writer, you need someone to teach you how to spell, writer gooder, and so on.  If you want to be a dentist, you aim (I hope) on attending dental school.  But if you want to work in accounting, trust me – the Big 4 are hiring just as many people out of state schools as private schools.  You will all make the same.  And if you’re an artist – maybe you should give a couple of years over to art before going to school.  Just sayin’.

2.  Choose a major based on your needs, not your idle ‘wants’. A recent commentator said that they needed to attend a $40,000 a year graphic design school.  If you want to be a doctor, you can afford to gamble on taking on student loan debt.  Your future earning potential is high.  If you plan to be a high school teacher, you might want to think twice about taking on huge debt.  Choose a major based on your needs – or more importantly, go back to step 1.

3.  Don’t bite off more than you can chew. I imagine this is the simplest advice, but the most often ignored in our status-hungry society.  If you cannot afford a $50,000 per year education – if you have to scrape and pull together every last dime – ask yourself:  could you go to a less expensive school?  Would it cripple you beyond belief?  Will people revere your Yale biology degree and mock your Michigan biology degree?  I doubt it.  Take a look at what you can afford.  Remember:  your education will help you land your first j

I rejected a lot of prestigious schools to attend a state school and – very honestly – have never had a moment’s regret for my decision.  My choice would not be for everyone.  But in today’s world, with an uncertain economy, an unsure future and unrealistic expectations, I have to ask:  wouldn’t the best financial tip be not to waste money on more education than you need?

Check out the rest of The Money Writers‘ college student finance tips:

photo credit: lucianvenutian

how the bottom line is destroying companies

Against the Storm

I remember once being at a conference in Indonesia, of all places. I had dragged myself down there from Moscow, suffering (as I would later find out) from pneumonia.  The semi-tropical climate was nice, and I felt much better – but I was still suffering.  I knew that the return flight (Surabaya-Jakarta-Kuala Lumpur-Frankfurt) would be excruciating.  Traveling on Lufthansa on the way to the conference I had been placed in the smoking section, which was – as you can imagine – tortuous for someone suffering from a lung ailment.   I dreaded the return flight, and called my partner to prostrate myself via an international phone connection.

“Please let me upgrade to business class,” I asked.  “I am very sick and I’m headed to the doctor the second I get back.”

“It’s not in policy,” he responded.  I was a mere manager, and managers traveled coach, and didn’t get to complain when they were shoved in seat 76B of the smoking section.  “Take Monday off when you get back.  You’ll be fine.”

Of course I was tortured on the return trip by Dieter and Friedrich’s filterless cancer sticks. My pneumonia tripped and tra-la-la’d into double pneumonia and I passed out at work before being told by my doctor that I was in serious, serious health trouble.  The end result?  I packed it in, quit the firm and left Moscow a year before my contract was up.

I had an extremely good relationship with one of the clients of the firm; this client happened to be one of the biggest and most prestigious clients the firm had. They quit the firm soon after I quit (not solely because of me, of course, but I’m sure it didn’t help). Other than that, of course, life continued on for both me and the firm.

Companies need to realize that it’s not always just about the “big things” like salary and titles. Little perks can make a big difference, and they aren’t always just perks. Letting employees take time off for doctor’s appointments, or letting people come in a hour later and leave an hour later if that suits their lifestyle better. I think in today’s business world, the idea is that you can treat people like dogs (or worse than dogs – dogs have gourmet organic food these days). You can charge airlines passengers for tap water. And in my opinion soon you’ll see the final “perks” start to go as more and more companies decide not to offer health insurance.

Treating people (employees OR customers) like this won’t be sustainable. The human spirit can only take so much abuse. People get tired of feeling like their company’s only recognition of them as human is the biweekly paycheck. Small things don’t cost companies much in comparison to the constant turnover of key employees (or loss of customers). Somehow it all became about the bottom line, but maximizing the bottom line is only going to go so far.

photo credit: WTL photos

the perils of saving

As I tend to do, I’m going to throw out a few statistics from memory and not back them up with links. As part of my 6-posts-in-one-day project, this is post #3.  Today one of my coworkers asked me about my high-yield savings account, since he was keeping his cash in one of those savings accounts that pay .001% interest.  I said that high-yield savings accounts were fine, but inflation was eating so horribly into the value of a dollar that I hardly saw it as a reasonable place to stow a lot of money these days.

Mount Timpanogos (B&W) - 03/06/07

And his reaction explained to me exactly the difference in mindsets between different types of people. Lacking “get rich quick” glittery headlines, he got discouraged.  Since a 3% interest rate doesn’t really offset the American 5% (and growing) inflation rate, he didn’t see the point.  The incremental decrease in loss of value didn’t excite him enough to pursue it – if he was losing 2% or 4.999%, he figures he’s still losing, so why bother?

Getting defensive, even on your loss positions, is the mark of a savvy investor. “Savers” will hold onto something that loses them money forever, like a high-yield savings account, because it FEELS like saving.  It’s not.  It’s money going out the door, moving to Beijing and never coming back.  Make sure that you minimize your losses, even while maximizing your gains.
photo credit: a4gpa

searching for water on mars


photo credit: Lori Greig

I wondered, when I first started this blog, whether anyone would read it. Apparently people do, and I deeply appreciate it.  It’s gratifying beyond belief.  I often wondered over the course of my life – as most people probably do – whether MY thoughts are really worth much.  From my own life I’ve learned that thoughts are immeasurably powerful.  The ideas that shape our lives are, in a sense, much more powerful than the individual actions that we attempt to counteract them.

I will throw out 5 ideas – things that can change your life powerfully in one direction or another, for good or ill. Each has changed my life.

1.  Broadened experiences. I lived in Russia for a couple of years, and I spent years of my life moving from one country to another for work.  I launched myself into each country – the language, the culture, the history.  I have read as much as I can.  I keep trying to learn.  Nothing makes people better than learning “the other.”

2.  Marriage. Nothing will teach you more about the human condition than negotiating life as half of a whole.  The worst enemy and the best friend you ever had require less effort and involvement than your spouse (or partner) will.  I mean this in the best possible way – Bubelah challenges me constantly, and it makes me a better person.

3.  Children. I don’t really think you need to have kids to become a complete person.  That’s a big myth thrown up by the media, our culture, our religious institutions, etc.  But if you do have kids, they will challenge you like nothing else other than having a spouse.  I think a spouse is the primary source of challenge and growth – after all, you’re going to be with your spouse long after the kids are off on their own.  But kids do force you to examine your priorities, and while they can be trying they can be ennobling, too.

4.  Spirituality. I was completely uninterested in religion growing up.  I went through a brief period of interest in religion in my early 20s, where I attended our church multiple times per week and read the Bible constantly.  My views shifted harshly in the other direction as I traveled overseas and widened my perspective, settling in a harsh atheism for years.  Finally I’ve shifted to a more gentle New Thought neutrality.  All of that was irrelevant.  Having the conversation with yourself and the Universe (or whatever) is the important thing.  Whether or not there’s any purpose to our span of days is, in a sense, irrelevant – what’s important is that you FEEL you have a purpose.

5.  Wonder. I read about water on Mars.  If you can’t learn about things like that, or read the newest bestseller with some enthusiasm, your life is over.  Anything new is worth getting excited about.  I got excited about Bigfoot (google it if you don’t know about it).  Hey, life is made up of unknowns…

OK, that’s it – that’s my series of 6 rapidly-written posts in one day.  I have no idea if that was interesting or just annoying, but I was hoping it would shake me out of a routine… hopefully it did!

learning to let go, part 2

I talked about learning to let go before, in the context of letting go of stuff. It’s easy to get attached to stuff.  People keep the tchotke from their wedding, that special mug from the first time they visited Cleveland and the wedding program of their 8th-best friend.  But the hardest thing to let go, at least for people with a frugal or wealth-building mindset, is money.

Life can be viewed as a deprivation, a drunken orgy or a celebration. Some people choose to view life as a grim struggle against impossible odds; the point of the game is to grab at a tiny handhold and survive against the storm.  Others view it as a party without end – credit cards a-flingin’, debt a-massin’ and a good time to be had by all until last call.  And finally, the best view:  a measured balance between saving, spending, thrift and indulgence.

Over light
photo credit: James Jordan

I struggle with spending money for vacations. We haven’t taken a non-family vacation in 3 years now.  We are planning on hitting the Poconos for a week in about a month, and it took me a few minutes to adjust to the idea that yes, we need to spend some money that’s not being spent on the holy grails:  retirement, savings, investments, da future.

Everybody has to strike a balance, of course. But there’s certainly a point at which all of us need to recognize that inflation, history, the weak market, the changing forces of history and pure chance can destroy savings.  Money spent on things that are useful and durable or experiences that are uplifting is not money wasted.  If you buy an asset you will use for years, or take a reasonable vacation you will love for years, it is worth it.  Value your span of days by the level of enjoyment, not by cost.

getting one thing done

As part of my 6-posts-in-one-day assault, I thought I would address my latest productivity attempt. I find that I am an excellent list-maker and sorter, but I have the usual trouble getting things done.  I have decided recently that the focus has to be on getting one thing done per day.  Pick a random item from your to-do list (I use Vitalist) and do it.  Put no pressure on yourself to get more than one item done.

This concept isn’t original with me. Zen Habits has the big rocks concept, but it’s a concept that predates Zen Habits.  Nonetheless, it is powerful.  I get overwhelmed by lists.  The last few days, I have picked one item off the list – no matter how trivial – and told myself, get this one done today.  Everything else can slide.

It works.

The Rock
photo credit: Fr Antunes

no eat, no need money

Part 2 of my 6-posts-in-day project:

When heaven opens up....

Yesterday Little Buddy woke up and called out for me, as he usually does.  I was downstairs and heard the standard declaration on the monitor:  “Papa, I’m awake!”

I went upstairs, and since I was already partially dressed for work he immediately asked me – even before leaving the crib – “Papa, going to work?”

“Well, yes, Little Buddy,”  I replied.

“Why?  Stay home,”  he shot back in a plaintive tone.

“I can’t.  We need money,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.  I have been explaining the concept of money to him slowly – probably a little bit too much for 2.5 years old, but why not?

“Because we need money to pay for things – all the good food Little Buddy eats, the house…” I said.

“Need money to eat?”  he asked.

“Yes,”  I admitted, in a drastic but not at all untrue simplification.

He paused and considered.  You could almost see the light bulb explode in his head.

“Papa, today Little Buddy no eat.  Papa no need money, no go to work, stay home, play all day.”

These are the moments that both break and exalt a parent’s heart.
photo credit: multi_everything

a day of 6 short posts

Today I’m trying something different. I’m going to have six short posts, once every couple of hours starting now.  No reason, I’m just shaking up the blog pattern a bit to try to generate some creativity.  The first post is this one, and it’s two quotes I put on Facebook as my favorites, oddly enough.  I had forgotten I chose these two (I am not at all an active Facebooker).  Here is my question:  what do these two quotes say about the person who identifies them as favorites and puts them out to the anonymous world?

Let us treat men and women well; treat them as if they were real. Perhaps they are.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Kill them all.  God will know His own.

– Arnold Amaury

Stay tuned for five more posts today…

6 in six seconds
photo credit: pshutterbug

the truth about passive income

A few years ago when I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad, the concept of passive income lit my brain on fire. I had never thought of the idea of making money for nothing.  I assumed that money was achieved only due to the hard-pressed exchange of time for filthy lucre.  Kiyosaki, the author of RDPD, assured us that passive income was the key to wealth.

Where is the passive income?

I plunged into research. I identified rental income, investment income and even creating original content as “passive income.”  I had visions of checks flowing in, one after the other, landing in a pile on my desk called the PI pile.  But after time, I realized that the pursuit of passive income was nearly impossible through these routes.  How can you really make passive income?  Inquiring minds want to know, when they aren’t trying to figure out how much of a jerk John Edwards is for cheating on his wife with the anti-heroine of this story.  These are the top 8 “real” ways to make passive income, but even they have a catch – all but the last one.

What Are You Looking At?
1.  Pick up spare change off the ground. You do have to bend over, but you probably do that at work every day, so you’ll at least be getting something out of this transaction.

2.  Marry someone rich. You’ll have to do some work, true, but if you aim high enough we’re talking about a huge return on investment here.

3.  Hook up with someone rich and desperate enough to pay to keep you around – the classic “sugar daddy” scenario.   Granted, you may have to do some work here… but I’ve seen this work out where surprisingly little effort is expected in return.

4.  Have someone else do the work for you; a nice trick if you can manage it.  Ask your buddy the web designer to create a website for you – for free.  Why would he do it?  The exposure?  The joy of being taken advantage of?  Don’t worry – you’re getting passive income!

5.  Win an office lottery pool. OK, you risked a few dollars, but someone else went to the bodega, bought the ticket and checked the results.  You didn’t put much sweat into your share of the Mega Millions, did you?

6.  Gamble. There is, of course, a potential downside here.  But if sitting around sipping free martinis while playing a game and winning isn’t as close to passive income as possible, I don’t know what is.

7.  Invest in dividend-paying stocks. This point is a cheat.  You have to earn the money that you use to buy the stock.  On the other hand, everything that happens after you buy it is gravy.  That income becomes close to truly passive – so the trick is to use windfalls (an economic stimulus check, for example) to invest in dividend-paying stocks.

8.  Be born rich. Yes, you have to be nice enough to great-aunt Milfred to avoid getting cut out of your trust fund, but let’s face it:  this is as close to passive income as you’ll see in this life.

Don’t think you’ll get rich without working for it.  Everything you can generate wealth from takes effort.  Writing a book is hard work.  It may create a wealthstream for years to come, but that’s what you should be aiming for:  wealthstreams, not passive income.  Don’t imagine that there’s a magical key to wealth that doesn’t involve either hard ongoing work or a good bit of upfront work.

photo credit: Christina Welsh (Rin)

site changes, all for the good, I hope!

A brief note to everyone: if you are a site visitor (and not a feed reader) you’ll notice that the comment system has been pumped up substantially.  I’ve signed up with a service (disqus.com) that allows threaded replies (you can reply to specific posts), voting replies “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to set the most popular replies, and the addition of gravatars (images of yourself that will appear every time you comment).  Hopefully everyone will find these changes to the comments fun – and useful.  Please play around with the options if you get a chance – some fun manipulation of the comments can be achieved.

You’ll notice a few other “neat” things being added over the next week, so please let me know if anything doesn’t work – or let me know if there’s any new feature you enjoy.  My goal, as always, is to make brip blap as interesting a place to visit as possible!  Feel free to give me suggestions, too – if there’s anything missing that you’d like to see, let me know.

Opened door to intimacy
photo credit: fab to pix

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