Monthly Archives: October 2009

linklings, rethinking the linking edition


I know I usually publish these link roundups on the weekends, and recently they’ve gotten huge. I may try to do two separate posts in the future, rather than one enormous one each week. Or I may do what I’m doing today – write a lot about a few articles and then just link to some other good ones. But they are worth reading, in my opinion – if you have the time. But last week’s did get a little bit out of control, so I’m ramping back down a bit for this one.

What if You were Required to Share your Finances?: I always think pro athletes have to put up with something most of us would find abhorrent – public announcements of their salaries. You’d have to deal with knowing your teammates’ salaries – some of their salaries might make you mad. You might be playing better than another teammate, but making less, and you’d have to know it. Norway’s publishing the tax records of ALL citizens. I think it would be interesting if we could all look up each other’s salaries. It would make life a lot tougher for recruiters and HR and corporations, but it might be a step in the right direction. We require it of our public officials and expect it of our pro athletes, so why not?

10 Steps to Declutter and Simplify Your Finances: It’s easy to overlook the value of simplifying your finances when you’re worried, first and foremost, about making money. Yet decluttering your finances helps you get a clearer picture of your overall financial position, and allows you to spend less time managing your money and more time making it. I went through a huge decluttering process, starting about a year before I got married. It took two years of gradual change to close all the store accounts (dozens!), checking accounts (3! for a single guy!), brokerage accounts (7!) and credit cards (I had gas cards, airline cards, you name it). Having a clear picture of our finances has made it easier to manage our finances and let us spend more time on other things.

Credit Cards To Charge Good Behavior Fees: I’ve written about the demonization of the credit card industry before. I’ve seen some significant grumbling online about credit card companies starting to charge people for paying off their balance in full. I can’t say I’d be happy if they did it, since we pay off our three credit cards in full every month, but I’d understand. It’s a service, like any other, and we’ve used it for free for years. I know the merchants we use are paying a fee and passing it on to us, and some people think that’s how we are being charged. But really, if I make $600+ a year in cash back rewards, does a charge of $35 a year – or something like that – for the use of the card make it a bad deal for me? Nope. Will I get rid of at least one of our three cards? Nope. Bubelah and I like having one “family” card and two personal cards just in our own names.

Other links:

photo by josef.stuefer

the cruise, the bagel and the black castle


Who doesn’t like to sit around and daydream? I daydream about going on a cruise again. The fact that I daydream about cruises surprises me a bit: I like to think of myself as an adventurous traveler and cruising is not the same as hiking the Gobi. Another person who might be surprised is Bubelah, who probably thinks that I’ve become allergic to vacations since we’ve had kids. But it’s my daydream, and although I can direct my thoughts towards visiting Suzdal, I guess I’m the guy with black socks, sneakers and a t-shirt that says “My wife is a Parrothead, too.”

It’s just a mental break.

Most corporate offices don’t allow access to Gmail or Facebook or, well, anything related to life on the web in the 21st century. I understand, because they’d like to imagine that your “outside” life slams shut the second you walk in the door. The same boss that expects you to check emails “in case of an emergency” while you’re on vacation would turn around and fire you for taking a few minutes a day to send an email from your Hotmail account to your sister who’s going in for a root canal. Such is life.

I tried getting around this mindset once in a while by carrying my little Asus EEE with me to work and taking my lunch at the local Einstein Brothers. I don’t NEED to check email that frequently but taking myself off the clock for a walk to a pleasant little shop with wifi and bagels and some muted jazz is a nice break from flickering fluourescent lights and Outlook. Eating a bagel melt (turkey, tomato and cheddar) with iced green tea and checking in on Brizzly, Disqus and yes, Gmail, is a moment of fun in an otherwise boring-yet-profitable day. And no, I don’t charge the client, although I should: they benefit from me being sharper, less distracted and more alert after going for a nice brisk walk in summerlike mid-October Florida.

It’s a mental break.

Like most parents, I’ve gotten bored with all but the most charming children’s books from time to time. I’ve made up a continuing series of stories revolving around the land of Vegetaria (where Mr. Potato and Ms. Carrot deal with the bumbling-and-grumpy Mayor Pickle, and occasionally visit the Black Castle, home of the Smurfs). I also frequently tell stories about the Big Bad Wolf, who has adventures ranging from the mundane (a light is burnt out! time to go to the light store and ask the Grumpy Old Troll what kind of light bulb we need!) to the weird (he takes a blimp to the clouds and has a picnic in front of the Castle-in-the-Clouds).

It’s a mental break – for me.

What does it mean?

I don’t think of myself as being that creative, but I can tell a children’s story like nobody’s business – off the top of my head.

I don’t think of myself as being subject to the same mental flagellation as a corporate employee – and I give myself permission not to act like one.

I think of myself as one type of person – but when I let my mind wander I’m not that kind of person.

When I let my mind go to the person I am instead of the person I sometimes mistakenly force myself to think I am.

That’s cool.

photo by Darren Shilson

how to keep a customer happy


Ever heard the phrase “the customer is always right?” That phrase comes from the American founder of the British retail chain Selfridges (coincidentally named Harry Gordon Selfridge). Managing customers or clients can be a challenge for anyone in business, from a freelancer to a manager for a big corporation. I use the word “challenge” because Bubelah’s let me know that I use the word “problem” too frequently – but let’s face it, managing customers can be a problem. I work as a contract consultant where I have to sell and deliver, and I’ve learned that there is one surefire way to keep customers happy.

Mistakes are easy to make when dealing with good customers, and disasters are easy when working with stubborn or (they do exist) stupid customers. Too often the seller (who can be selling anything: goods, services or even free services) starts jumping through hoops to repair the situation. Some of the solutions:

  • Offering credits
  • Lower prices
  • More “face time”
  • Throwing around perks – taking a client out for drinks, etc.

None of these solutions are BAD ideas, but they won’t keep the seller’s customer happy forever. You know what keeps a customer happy? If the seller LISTENS.

Am I saying the customer’s always right? Well, yes, but you can’t rely on the customer to always TELL you what you need to hear. Sometimes you have to read between the lines. Sometimes you have to listen to what other sellers are offering your customer. Listening takes many forms, but it’s not the same thing as “hearing.”

Selling is often as simple as listening for your customer’s need rather than trying to tell them how YOUR product/service will help them. Let them establish the need. You may learn something that helps you expand your service or offer them a slightly different product.

I am hired for my professional skills in audit, compliance or finance. Yet I find again and again that if I sit down with clients I’ll find out they have challenges (see, I remembered to use the right word!). They share these challenges without any expectation that I can fix them, sometimes, but I make an effort to understand what their need is and then fix it – or find someone else who can. Maybe I understand their accounting systems, or know someone who does. Maybe I can connect them with a subject matter expert. Perhaps I can lead a training course for their staff or give them tips on the social web (you’d be surprised how many corporate types are unaware of LinkedIn, for example). Listening to what they need doesn’t take the place of doing the work they hired me for, but the extra value – something they might not even realize they needed – will make me more valuable to them.

Don’t assume that doing your best on a service or closing sales of a product alone will be enough. Keep your ears open. Wait one second AFTER your customer has stopped speaking before answering (you’d be surprised how much people appreciate that simple courtesy). Make the time to get to know your customer and never stop listening to what they need. The customer will eventually be right, but it’s your job to help him figure out what’s right.

photo by chanchan222

linklings, passion, pongo and the end of the world edition

What defines a perfect job? Would a job that you love, but that took you away from your home half of the year be preferable to one you aren’t crazy about but doesn’t require travel or long hours? Would high pay trump dissatisfaction? Does passion triumph over low pay? I am not really facing any decision like this, but I’m just wondering what the peak trait of rewarding work is. I’m guessing it’s different for everyone. In fact, as I’ve been reading and listening to blogs and podcasts about the Web 2.0 and the future of work and so on, I’ve been startled by how many people seem to dismiss any problems with low pay and say that ‘passion’ will make it all worth it. Don’t get me wrong, I think passion would carry you a long way, but I’m getting tired of the dismissiveness of the “passion movement” towards people who aren’t following “their passion.”

I keep putting it in quotes, don’t I? I have mentioned this in an earlier post, but I’m just beginning to wonder if I would prefer to follow my passion, for example, or do something I’m not crazy about but that offers flexible hours and good pay. If I had to work 14 hours a day at something I enjoyed, it still takes me away from other things I enjoy. Dunno. Something to ponder. Probably should have written a separate post on it…

Something to promote here: Pongo Resume sent me five (5) promotion codes for a free month of Pongo service. You’ll get a full 30 days of unlimited access to Pongo’s resume and cover letter builder, custom templates, job search tool, interview training, and live support. A Pongo subscription typically costs $9.95 a month or $59.95 a year. You are welcome to (but don’t have to) continue your subscription at the end of the free month, and cancel at any time.”

All you have to do to get a promotion code is leave a comment with a valid email address. If you make the comment about a bad experience at a job that made you start looking for a new one the next day, I’ll pick the best for use in a future post, so if you’re a blogger it might be some good exposure. I’ll award the best one a promotion code and pick the other four at random.

Links! Time travel reference at the end.

5 Reasons To Dump Your Strict Budget: Budgeting will drive you nuts, in my opinion (but if you’re in debt it’s probably useful for tracking purposes). Once you’re out of debt, do this: set aside a percentage of your income every month (at least 15%). Doesn’t matter so much where, but obviously tax-advantaged accounts might be helpful. Set aside the money for fixed costs (mortgage/rent, utilities, etc.). The rest can be spent, but if you spend less than the full amount remaining, you’ll start getting richer. My family does need to start budgeting food expenses, though – treating that more like a fixed cost than an as-needed expense. Hm, maybe a budget’s not a bad idea… what if there were online solutions….wait:

10 Free Online Budgeting Applications: Yodlee’s on the list. If you have a Bank of America account, this is what powers “My Portfolio.” I have to be honest that I don’t understand all the hoopla about Mint – it doesn’t seem to have half as many features as Yodlee, but I guess Yodlee’s just boring because it’s more of a “behind-the-scenes” app. I don’t need an online budgeting application that starts giving me “advice” on better rates, etc. I trust sponsored advice about as much as I trust Bruce Willis’ hairstylist.

What Was the Best $100 You’ve Ever Spent?: Good question. I remember during a long winter spell when we just had Little Buddy I went to Kmart and bought a little car, similar to this Fire Engine Scootster (aff. link). It was a bit cheaper – I think it was $40? – but I expected it to be used for a few days and forgotten. Since then it has been used almost nonstop. Little Buddy still rides it and now that Pumpkin’s running around she loves sitting on it and paddling along.

Wokai: Support Chinese Small Businesses through Microfinancing: I guess all of these microfinancing sites (Kiva, now Wokai) serve a useful purpose, but you definitely need to be emotionally involved in the cause. It’s not really a charity and given the troubles here in the States, I think it makes more sense to support American small businesses through microfinancing (preferably in your own community). But I support charities like the Russian Children’s Welfare Fund, too, so I understand.

Best Things to Buy in the Fall – Find the Biggest Discounts and Sales on These Items This Fall: Fall? What is fall? Haven’t seen any indications of fall down here. I suppose winter clothes are sold somewhere in Florida, but I realized there may not be a good time to get a deal on a grill.

Free High Yield Checking Accounts: Get one, then forget about it. Don’t chase rates.

Joining Pentagon Federal, Real Estate, and Investing: That having been said, the Pentagon Federal Credit Union sounds like a pretty good deal.

Why Don’t Most Financial Planners Plan Finances?: Why are doctors the worst patients? Because humans be kooky sometimes.

Should Parents Have a Financial Double Standard For Sons and Daughters?: Fascinating question. My mother was an only child, my dad had a brother and I had a brother. In my nuclear family, therefore, this wasn’t really something to worry about. My parents have kept a careful ledger of gifts and assistance they’ve given to my brother and me and kept it balanced between us. I have a son and a daughter, though. If she has a $20,000 wedding, should I give my son a check for $20,000 to balance it out? Guess I’ll cross that (expensive) bridge when I come to it.

Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2009 (HR 1207): Audit the Fed! I can’t even begin to understand counterarguments. The most common one (“it will hamper their ability to make decisions”) was used ad nauseum by Dick Cheney. As an auditor, I’m a little biased, but if you are making trillion-dollar decisions that affect the entire country, I think you need some oversight. Promising that you will be good doesn’t work for Corporate America and it sure as hell doesn’t work for the pseudo-governmental bodies like, say, Fannie Mae or the Fed.

Why Relying on Overtime Dooms You to Failure: Yep. If you have a salaried job you probably don’t think about this, but if you work on an hourly basis it’s easy to start thinking “wow, if I work just an extra few hours a week I could…” Nope. I don’t even plan based on working 40, because almost every week includes a day that needs to get cut short for one reason or another. Hope for the best but plan for the worst.

Don’t worry about not being able to contribute more to your 401(k): Yeah. If you sock away the max, you’re doing better than 95% of your countrymen. Or is that countrypersons? Doesn’t have the same ring, does it.

Via kottke:

Phil Greenspun’s finance buddy explains how JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs made $6.8 billion in profit last quarter. Basically they borrowed money from the US Govt at 0% and then bought bonds from the US Govt that paid 2-3%.

What kind of bonds are they buying? Are they investing the money in American business? “No, they are mostly buying Treasuries.” So the money is just being shuffled from one Federal bank account to another, with each Wall Street bank skimming off $1 billion per month for itself? “Pretty much.”

Fortunately it’s not going to matter, because the Higgs boson is going to travel back in time and destroy any bank involved in financing the Hadron Collider. Er, what?

how to make yourself an expert


I know I’ve said this before, but I’ve never had any debt in my life other than a mortgage and a one-time, ill-advised car loan that I paid off three years early. I have taken advantage of “0% down until 2011” types of offers, but I’ve always taken the money needed to pay for the item, set it aside and treated it as if it was already spent. I just don’t do debt.

Would you seek advice from a guy who’s been skinny his whole life – about dieting? I guess you might. Plenty of people are “experts” in things they’ve never experienced. It’s not a prerequisite for dieticians to be a formerly obese person. Conversely, a formerly obese person might not be the best person to ask about dieting. For all you know, they got a gastric band and lost weight without ever learning self-discipline.

Would you take ‘get out of debt’ advice from someone who’s never been in debt? Or career advice from someone who’s always been a career coach and never actually held down a job? Can someone actually be a high school guidance counselor if they’ve never been anything but a high school guidance counselor?

I’d like to think I’m an expert in quite a few things. The guys on CNBC and writing at the Wall Street Journal might also like you to think they are experts. Maybe they are. Maybe I am. I have never taken a course in personal finance. Maybe they haven’t, either. Certification helps – CPA, JD, etc. – but often we assume people are experts because of the way they talk, or dress or because other people tell us they are. But let’s assume we’re talking about “real” experts – people who do understand a particular subject.

Why are experts smarter than we are? They aren’t. They spent more time on a subject, studied more, worked harder or even just experienced something sooner than we did. I can give advice on getting out of debt but I’ve never done it myself. I can talk about the procedures anyone needs to take to get out of debt: stop incurring new debt, spend less than you earn, start paying down the debts and then (optionally) learn how to earn more. Can I talk about the psychology of ‘getting out of debt?’ Freezing the credit cards or cutting them up seems almost childish to me, but I realize that to many people it’s a moment of victory, of success. Someone who’s been thin all their lives might look at my advice on weight loss and think “sheesh, why didn’t he just put down the damn Doritos before he got so fat?” It’s not that easy.

Finding an expert therefore becomes a struggle. In money, should you trust Dave Ramsey, Robert Kiyosaki or Suze Orman, very successful people who are, in part, trying to make money off their advice? Should you trust bloggers, who trudge along the same streets as you? Or CNBC reporters who entertain while they analyze? The ability to trust is different from person to person. By nature, I’m cynical and tend not to trust. By profession (auditor), I tend not to trust.

The lesson: the only expert in your own life is you. If you are lucky, you have trusted advisors without agendas who want to help you: spouses, relatives, friends, teachers or colleagues. At the end of the day, though, don’t assume that someone who isn’t in your shoes can tell you how to lose weight or succeed at work or get out of debt. Take some responsibility for making yourself into an expert.

photo by alancleaver_2000

everyone is special and unique just the way they are


Who doesn’t love a cute and educational children’s television program? If you have small children, I’m sure you’re amazed by the wide array of supportive, nurturing programs that strive to be as educational as possible, given that most of them are commercial ventures. But what are they really teaching, and what does that message mean for the society this generation will construct?

I had the best intentions, before my kids were born, to limit TV time. I still do to a greater extent, I think, than many other parents (I like to think so, at least). I don’t allow them to see anything involving gun violence, up to and including cowboy-cartoon type shows. I try to restrict viewing of commercial programs (Nickolodeon) in favor of PBS and Playhouse Disney and movies. And yes, I know, Playhouse Disney is a 24/7 advertisement for the products of the Disney Corporation, but at least it doesn’t have blatant blaring Bratzz and Transformers ads every ten minutes.

So now that I’m digging a deeper hole for myself, admitting to familiarity with these programs, I’ll start off by naming MY favorite kids’ shows, and why, before going on to the horror at the bottom of the barrel.

The Wiggles: You could argue that the Wiggles don’t teach a thing. These four guys from the land of AC/DC dress in bright primary colors and do little but, well, wiggle around while singing songs about wiggly spaghetti. What I like about it, though, is that they do encourage a lot of movement in kids – my children love to dance to Wiggles songs. They also like Talking Heads, though, so maybe it’s just the music. But it’s the ONLY show I’ve ever seen inspire actual movement, as opposed to zombie-like lounging.

Little Einsteins: The Little Einsteins take a few bars of a classical composition, artwork of some sort and then use these “tools” to rocket around the world to save a moose, help the baby monkey find his lost rattle, and so on. I’m not sure what’s being taught, but I know that constant exposure to classical music in Bugs Bunny cartoons at least made me recognize the music later in life. Unfortunately I refer to “The Ride of the Valkyries” as “the one where Bugs is in Viking drag on a giant horse chasing Elmer Fudd.” Freud, start your engines. Little Einsteins don’t have much Viking drag.

Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: Yes, because of this show my kids have Disney deeply implanted in their skulls. The title song – by “We Might Be Giants” – doesn’t make up for that. But this show surprisingly seldom gets as condescending as many shows (I’m looking at you, Dora) and puts a great deal of emphasis on counting, collaboration and goal-setting without resorting to mind-numbing repetition.

The Penguins of Madagascar: OK, I don’t like my kids watching this show. It’s utterly non-educational. Four penguins who act like a Delta Force team are engaged in constant shenanigans with the preening, annoying king of the lemurs, King Julian. Everyone acts crazy. But the dialogue is snappy – unlike the lethargic, repetitive pace of most shows – and that alone makes it more enjoyable. Not for them, for me.  This show is more fun for me.  I deserve a break, for God’s sake.

So those were some of the good ones. Now for the ones that make me shudder:

Curious George: OK, I like Curious George. I like the books. The monkey’s fun, the artwork’s cute. But think about the very odd living situation of the man in the yellow suit. He lives in a penthouse on Central Park with his monkey. Is it too soon for Michael Jackson references? The monkey creates endless havoc, does exactly what he’s told not to do and is often saved by others who put themselves in peril to do so. This show basically says “go ahead, do stupid and dangerous things and people will chuckle.” Don’t get me wrong – I like a “take chances with life” philosophy, but someone stifling your dreams of becoming a poet is a far different scenario than “George, don’t play on the conveyor belt”.

SpongeBob SquarePants: I told my kids that Sponge Bob was canceled and not on the TV anymore. I couldn’t take it and I saw no other way out. Much like Curious George, the premise of the show seems to be that being an idiot is something to emulate. The running side gag – that a flea is trying to steal the recipe to the Crabby Patties Sponge Bob makes – as a burger-flipper – annoys me. SpongeBob works at McDonald’s-Under-The-Sea. He aspires to nothing, contributes nothing, annoys everyone and harasses his neighbor, Squidworth. No point, no attempt at education, and the products based on SpongeBob are EVERYWHERE.

Dora the Explorer: Quick poll. If you plop kids in front of an episode of Dora, what do they do when Dora asks a question? She asks, pauses about 5 seconds, then says “That’s right!” My kids say nothing. My kids have not learned Spanish, either, as a result of Dora, nor do they need to do so. I’d rather have them watch Telemundo and learn spoken Spanish, not Dora’s Spanglish. Dora is tedious, repetitive and the attempt at interactivity is painful. I’d rather see kids play a Dora game on the computer where they could actually click the mouse around, rather than the stupid effect of having a pointer fly around the TV screen, clicking.  Vaminos to a different channel.

(catchall) Any show that teaches kids that they are unique and special just as they are. It’s a common rant – I’ve heard both Adam Carolla and Anthony Bourdain rant on this recently – but it’s true. I wrote a post about “8 steps to a six figure career.” Not one of them said “you are special and unique, just as you are, and nobody’s like you, and because of that everyone will recognize your specialness and give you a six figure salary. Just for being you. Sweetie.” Even Paris Hilton has to get out there and hustle for attention. She has to distinguish herself from Lindsay Lohan, Tara Reid, a host of minor B-list drunken actresses and singers. Not everyone is special.  People make themselves special through effort, not through entitlement.

Everyone can MAKE themselves special, but even Tiger Woods practices. Kids need to learn that being special and valued and unique is the work of a lifetime, not an entitlement. I made myself somewhat special by learning Russian, living and working for years in Russia. That took effort. Without that, I am just another guy with an MBA from a state university, working the traditional corporate path. I made myself stand out. Children need to be taught that inherent intelligence is NOTHING if not put to use. Special abilities (drawing, music, athletics, language, whatever) are also worthless unless used and developed. The idea that you can sit on your butt doing nothing and call yourself special is laughable, and the attempt at building self-esteem is going to implode when these kids realize, as adults staring at the clock in the cubicle at 4:52 pm, that all of the bubbly anthems declaring that “everyone is special” were a lie.

photo by IntangibleArts

linklings, rumors of winter edition


We’ve finally had the first touch of cold here in Florida – it was actually down in the 60s this morning. I have no doubt we’ll be back up into the 80s later in the day, though. I think for the first time we’re starting to appreciate that we won’t have to deal with winter. I’m sure I’ll miss autumn eventually, but for right now the reports from up north of snow and cold are making me quite happy to be in sunny Florida.

On to the links…

Wealth, Greed, Envy and Shame: Money is morally neutral, in an of itself. How it is used is what makes it “good” or “bad.” Rich people are neither “good” nor “bad” as a class; individuals are. I did have an issue with the comment in the article though: “Unless you amassed your wealth by stealing it from others, I do not understand why anyone would feel guilty.” Stealing is a vague term. Should someone who amassed wealth by an accident of birth feel guilty? If I got rich as a landmine manufacturer, should I feel guilty? Dunno. But I do know that if you want to be a successful person in this life you have GOT to get control of your emotions about money.

Solo 401k Versus SEP-IRA: I’m finding this continuing series very interesting – as Curmudgeon mentioned in the comments in last week’s linklings, it’s a subject even many banks and accountants might not be familiar with.

Crush It! and The Best Books on Boosting Your Income: Eh, I’m getting a little bit burned out on the “do your passion” stuff. I listened to a few of Gary’s talks on work and realized that some of these “Web 2.0” types or however you classify them think of a passion as a 24/7 driving, overwhelming passion. I have my passions, but (especially with children) life is not always about following YOUR passion 24/7. You can be other-directed and not be a bad person.

The Early Adopters Tax: It is true that early adopters pay through the nose for techy items. Doesn’t $800 for an iPhone seem like a lot, today? The speed with which gadgets are improved and made less and less expensive is amazing. I’d like a Kindle, for example – feel free to buy me one if you’re feeling generous – but I don’t mind being a late-adopter. I do want an iTouch after reading this review, though. A completely unrelated point, though, is that with all of the gadgets coming out now you have to think of which ones incorporate your most-needed features. I’d like an iTouch, but I’d like something on which I could easily read ebooks. I like the Kindle, but I also want something that can fit in my pocket. Something has to give.

Extracting the Child Who Stayed in the Nest Too Long: I won’t spoil the answer, but I like the idea for prodding post-collegiate types out of the nest.

Seek Discomfort: Here’s a new productivity tip: every day identify the one item you really, really don’t want to do and do it.

How do you Spend Your Time?: I shudder to think of how my time is spent; I am not good at optimizing my days. This part of the article made me smile, though:

“Hopefully I’ll recreate the incredible time I had in Paris all those years ago when all I had was a stack of books, a mattress on the floor, and a couple of windows. It was awesome. I would literally read until I fell asleep. Then I’d wake up, have a glass of water, write for an hour, and read for another hour. Then I’d fall asleep again, wake up, and go out for a walk in the streets of Paris.

Paris is still there, and I’m willing to bet you can still get mattresses there, too. Walking and water are still quite cost-effective. Trust me, I do this mental exercise sometimes: “oh, I wish I could play lacrosse again someday.” No, I don’t. If I really did, I would do it. If someone dreams of visiting Mars, that’s most likely unrealistic. Other than far-out wishes like that, though, most wishes are relatively obtainable.

You should feel pain when unclear: Great point. You should feel good when you’re clear, and aiming towards a goal. If you aren’t aiming toward a goal you should feel uncomfortable.

A few more links:

Technorati : careers, links, money, rich, saving, wealth : , , , , ,

photo: by bbjee

side effects of transparency


When I started blogging, I took great pains to obscure many of the facts about my identity. For some reason many personal finance bloggers seem to prefer anonymity, and I saw no reason to buck the mold. A few choose to disclose a lot. The longer I have written, though, the more it’s become clear to me that there are very few successful anonymous bloggers and writers (although there are some). I’ve discussed this in a previous post.

But one of the side effects of my decreasing state of anonymity has been a chilling effect on my ability to write about my current (or even recent) client workplaces, robbing me of something that had been a rich source of material at times. I don’t think it’s a great loss – in some senses it’s a relief, since some of those articles tended to the negative – but I have struggled a bit to come up with writing.

There are other subjects I won’t go into as I’ve made the blog more personal and less anonymous: politics, family and religion. Politics is a tough area to avoid. I’ve seen other bloggers claim not to be interested or not to care, but if you’re blogging about personal finance, politics is interwoven into every single thing you write. If I’m talking about my desire for a public health care option, I don’t think anyone’s going to be confused about where my politics are on that issue. If I’m talking about my opposition to the stimulus or cash-for-clunkers, though, I muddy the issue. And you know what I take out of that? Better to stick to specifics instead of trumpeting support for Senator Payola or Governor Sexscandal. I have my strong opinions, but I can express them without touting a party line.

Religion, again, goes without saying. I know (and respect) several Christian personal finance bloggers. I would like to say I know several Jewish or Buddhist or Muslim personal finance bloggers, but I haven’t really come across anyone who evangelizes their views of personal finance using religion. I haven’t seen anything like “Non-Church-Going Personal Finance” or “The Atheist (or Agnostic) Dollar.” It might just be that those types of people don’t want to blurt that out, or they don’t associate their religion with their finances. But since I consider myself agnostic, at best, I don’t see much point in potentially alienating some and giving a false sense of kinship to others.

Family is also tricky. I include almost anyone related to me in this category: in-laws, distant aunts and uncles, Bubelah, the kids. I’m not dooce. I never wanted this blog to be “Steve’s family life blog.” You can throw friends in this category, too. I have strong feelings about family, children and friends and how they interact in one’s life. I have religious relatives. I have relatives who have drastically different political views. I have relatives who simply don’t want to be mentioned on a public forum like this blog.

By taking some of the big issues in my life off the table I hit a brick wall for a while. I’m trying to regain my feet, but I think I have a valuable lesson to learn out of all of this, and maybe it helps to share it. I’ll demonstrate via an anecdote from a conversation I’ve had three times recently, twice with coworkers and once with Bubelah. We were discussing children, and how they make life more fun but at the same time start causing tremendous stress in terms of care: the need to feed and clothe and educate and protect little humans. They take away so much free time that it’s easy to start thinking they interfere with your personal development. They don’t. I guarantee that everyone, no matter how busy with kids and work and life, has time to improve themselves. You can drop to the floor and do 5 pushups. You can read a self-help book while you’re in the bathroom. You can eat something healthy for lunch. Kids don’t make you stop doing all of that: you do.

How does that relate to life? It’s easy to write about your own experience. Hell, a lot of writers make that their entire career. It’s easy to look within, especially if you write on an anonymous blog. That’s not to say that anonymous writing is bad or dishonest. But as you identify yourself, you have to reexamine not only what you write about, but how you write. If you become a small business owner, you have to put yourself out there more than you do as employee #4369 at MegaCorp. That’s a kind of transparency. Every time you put YOU out there instead of an surrogate you’re forced to change.

stunning photo by AMagill

7 Ways to Build & Maintain a Personal Network that Works for You (guest post)


This post is a guest post from Brian who blogs over at In The Money. To get an idea of why he’s started a blog, you can check out his about page or subscribe.

A personal network is one of the most valuable things you can have. You’ll often hear people say, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” If you are well connected, you are more likely to succeed in almost anything you pursue. We cannot do everything on our own and often times, a connection can help significantly. You never know who can help one day, so the larger your network the more you will benefit from it. However, just because you know a lot of people, it does not mean that they are going to help you. Your network needs to be well maintained. Here are some ways to build and maintain your network:

  1. Social Networking – In the age of social networking, it is astronomically easier to stay in contact with people. Instead of having to call people or even taking the time to email them, you can just keep tabs on contacts on social networking websites. The two main websites would be Facebook and LinkedIn. Use these tools to stay in contact with friends and classmates.
  2. Networking Events – There are many organizations that have networking events. Some of these cost money, but a number are free. It is likely that your company has networking events. Try to be involved with those to build your career. Your alma mater probably has a local alumni chapter that hosts these events as well. Class reunions are also a good way to network with people you might have been acquaintances with, but never really knew that well.
  3. Getting Personal – Merely meeting a person is not enough for them to feel comfortable with doing you any favors. If you do not already know the contact personally, try to get to know them on a personal level. The next time you talk to them, mention something that shows you care about them on a personal level. For example, ask how their wife and kids are doing or ask them if they have had a chance to improve their golf score. Friends will be a lot more compelled to help you out.
  4. Constant Contact – Keep in touch often enough so that it doesn’t become awkward to talk to each other. If you don’t talk to someone for years and then ask them for something, chances are you will get nothing. The people who you think are your top contacts (possibly those who refer you the most business/have the best relationship) should be in contact at least every couple weeks. Those whom you think are good contacts to have should have contact every couple months. Everyone else could possibly get a holiday card once a year or get an email/message every few months.
  5. Help People Find Jobs – With the current unemployment rate at a high, many people are without jobs. If you are ever in a position to help someone find a job, let them know about a position or connect them with someone you know who can place them. They will never forget that you helped them when they needed it, and will likely return the favor one day.
  6. Talk to People and Be Open – As an entrepreneur, I quickly learned how important this tactic can be. I have always been a quiet guy and prefer not to tell people too much, but it is so important to tell people what you are doing. People want to help you and if you don’t share things with them, you might never get that help or connected with someone who can help you. My business partners and I have been connected to a number of potential investors and people who want to help our business, just by telling our friends and sometimes even strangers about our business. Next time some asks you how you are doing, be open and tell them more. It’ll pay off in the long run.
  7. Create Goodwill – Do as many favors for other as possible. Not only does this make you a good friend and a good person, but it creates goodwill. One day, people will return the favor and remember that you have done them a favor in the past. This doesn’t just apply to your career, but can benefit your personal life as well. If I go out of my way and give a friend a ride somewhere today, maybe if I need to go to the airport in a few months, that friend will return the favor. Never underestimate the power of goodwill and helping others.

Comment from Steve: #6 could also be titled “ask for help.” I’m always surprised by how reluctant I am – and others are – to ask for help in a job search. I also always surprise myself by how often I agree to do it for others, and how often they agree to do it for me. People enjoy helping others out when they can, so never be shy about asking for help.

photo by Cormac Phelan

linklings, apparently-I-read-a-lot-on-the-internet-this-week edition

brooklyn botanical garden 015.jpg

As the title of the post implies, apparently I read a lot of stuff on the internet this week. I’ve found that ditching Google Reader in favor of the desktop software FeedDemon has made it easier to scan through articles and pick out stuff I actually want to read. I’ve installed that and Raven (for blog editing) on my USB key, making it a bit easier to capture and write up items for the blog. I am definitely not moving in the “cloud computing” direction – sometimes it helps to have desktop software.

The Entrepreneur Fund: One Year of Projected Expenses: I think most books/posts/etc. I’ve read on the subject say that you must have, at a minimum, one year of expenses saved up before launching a business. It sounds daunting, but I think it’s doable. We could live for more than a year off our savings if we ratcheted down our lifestyle (got rid of cable, etc.)

Trick or Treat: Creating a Frugal Halloween: Some good tips – I like the PlayDoh idea. I have noticed that Halloween seems to be exploding in popularity, probably because marketers see that there is much, much more to be sold than for Thanksgiving.

Poll: 47% of Households Will Not Owe Taxes in 2009 – Is That Fair?: Are taxes SUPPOSED to be fair? I think the concept is largely unfair. A large portion of my taxes go to support things I don’t support – wars, certain social programs, pork, etc. So if you get past that, then you can worry about people who don’t pay. But I can’t get past the fact that taxes are almost inherently unfair.

SEP-IRA Retirement Plan for the Self-Employed: Part of a longer series about retirement plans for the self-employed: some good info on something that I, at least, don’t know very much about.

Don’t drop that egg!: I just recently started listening to Dan Miller’s podcast and reading his blog. This was an enjoyable post on the idea that sometimes you fear things so much you can’t even see other opportunities.

Quizzle Offers Free Credit Score and Report: It’s nice to see that you can obtain your credit score in more and more places. It used to be such an (expensive) hassle to find out your score.

Price-Placebo Effect: Are You a Victim, Too?: Yep, if I tell you a bottle of wine costs $250, you’re probably going to think it tastes better – just as most people would tell you a store-brand cereal tastes worse than Kellogg’s. The mind is a weird thing.

PayPal Discourages Use of Credit Cards: Seems reasonable enough – I’m surprised sometimes that they don’t ban them altogether. Surely the fees eat into PayPal’s profit margin.

Results, Results, Results: My resume isn’t as strong with “action” words as it should be. Another to-do item.

Family Finances: How Is Your Financial Status?: There’s a link to an interesting tool that judges your financial health. Our family comes out A+ in every category except retirement savings – mostly because this year we haven’t put aside our savings yet. I decided it would be prudent to wait until we’ve closed on the house purchase to make sure we have plenty of cash on hand.

Accidental Frugality – Can You Live on Half of Your Income?: Yep, you can. Will it be enjoyable? Maybe not. Having been part of a DINK (dual income, no kids), moving to SI-DK (single income, dual kids – sorry, no very catchy), I can attest that you can. You may THINK you can’t, but in reality you can adjust to any income level, up or down.

Finding Affordable Self Employed Health Insurance: I’m working on this right now, actually – I’m on a mission to find an affordable plan. My current thinking is a high-deductible plan in association with an HSA, which would allow us more control over expenses (and perhaps a tax benefit), but even that remains awfully expensive. I just have a dream that someday I can get a health care plan that is completely unattached to my employer/clients/etc. I understand it’s expensive, but I’m tired of being in a constant state of flux (changing employers) or dread (contract work without benefits).

How Often Do You Check Your Portfolio?: Be oblivious. I just checked my portfolio for the first time in a few months as we started the mortgage process. I’m a long term investor – other than rebalancing my funds, I’m just not worried about it.

The Neutral Fallacy: There is No Sideways in Life: I’ve heard variations on this before, but the basic idea is this: in almost anything you do you are either progressing or declining. There is no real stasis. You are either moving forward OR you are not. You are either staying fit OR you are not. You are either getting richer OR you are not. There is no “well, I’m hanging in there, wealth-wise”. Continual improvement is an exhausting idea, but in most parts of life improvement is the only positive choice.

Self control. Willpower. I Need Me Some of That!: Ugh. Sounded too much like me. I have the ability to focus – like anyone else, I can get “in the zone” on tasks and hammer away at them single mindedly. Sometimes. But far too often I’m not really “into it” and can easily spend hours flitting from one thing to another. “Oh hey, look, I need to do the dishes. Let’s check for glasses in the living room. Oh hey there’s that book I was looking for. I’d better put it up. Hey, there are my juggling balls on the bookshelf. Haven’t done that in a while, wonder how my juggling is? Oops, dropped one, oh, rolled over to the patio door. Hey, there’s a beach towel out there. Oh, shoot, I need to turn the dryer on in the laundry room.” You get the picture. Online I’m even worse, sometimes.

10 Scary-but-Exciting Reasons to Work for Yourself: I know, I know, I am an e-myth dope, I confuse my skills with my abilities to be an entrepreneur (i.e. just because you can cook doesn’t mean you’ll be successful owning a restaurant) but I do enjoy thinking about being Mr. Work-for-Meself-Man. And see, I continue thinking about this by reading articles like this one: 5 Steps to Optimize Your Freelance Job Search

leaving the northeast, a retrospective


I was browsing through my archives (I’ve forgotten quite a few of my posts) and I came across Why I Will Not Live in the Northeast Forever. I wrote it almost a year before we decided to move to Florida. Some thoughts…

A constant topic of conversation I have with my wife Bubelah is where we want – or should – live. We live in a suburb of New York City (the only major city growing in the northeast). Our cost of living is horrific. We have a three-bedroom townhouse that cost just shy of half a million dollars in 2004, pre-boom. Our house would go for almost $600,000 today.

Ah, 2007, when we still held the laughable idea that we’d get anywhere close to a 20% gain on the sale of our house (we ended up getting 7% before closing costs – net 0%). Since we’ve moved I’d say that we’ve experienced a mixed bag in the cost of living, although part of it is that we’re still getting accustomed to life outside New York and we’ve made some mistakes (shopping at the most expensive supermarket, for example). Some notable differences:

Food. Food was pricey in New Jersey, and it’s pricey in Florida. If anything we spend just as much on food, although part of that arises from the fact that we aren’t careful about creating shopping lists and we’re picky about organic foods. Some of that will change.

Transportation. Gas was an afterthought in Jersey; it was cheap and we seldom drove long distances. Here we drive much more. My 2-mile commute to the train station in Jersey has been replaced by a 22 mile drive. However, my daily light rail/subway or ferry costs (often as much as $15 per day), parking costs of $4 per day and miscellaneous tolls/fees (all over the map) are gone. Parking is free and gas (and wear and tear) on my old Pontiac are the only expenses. So far, better.

Education. Little Buddy’s half-day preschool was $800 in Jersey. Public schools were horrific, and we faced the possibility of two children attending 12-13 years of expensive private (and religious) schools. Now, we have found a wonderful part-time Waldorf preschool for less than half of that. We live in one of the best public school districts in Florida. Huge savings.

Taxes. New Jersey’s tax burden was horrendous. State income tax rates floating around 4% (for me), property taxes that were increasing to $1200 per month, not to mention the fact that I paid taxes in New York State (and City) as well, since I worked there. In Florida? Property taxes are still high compared to many non-coastal states, but far less than Jersey. No state income tax, and I live and work in the same state.

Housing. We have exchanged our small townhouse with no yard for a bigger house (not much bigger, though, just better use of space) with a large fenced-in yard for 10% less. Association fees are about 1/4th what they were in Jersey. Having a yard does mean some additional expenses that we didn’t have before; termite protection, sprinklers, etc. Other than that, though, I think we’re better off.

And as I mentioned in the old article, we left a place bereft of public services (libraries were awful, ill-maintained parks and horrible roads) and moved to a green place, with wonderful libraries and a beautiful, well-maintained public beach within walking distance of the house.

I don’t think it’s perfect now that we’ve moved – far from it. Establishing yourself in a new city is tough, socially and professionally. The distances from our families are much greater now, and we did leave behind things we loved (Manhattan, although we seldom visited). Florida has its own long term challenges; while not as serious as the meltdown in New Jersey yet, the future continues to be uncertain until the economy rebounds. Florida fell further than almost any other state when the crash came, other than perhaps Arizona and California.

Yet our goal was simple: to get ourselves out of a place and lifestyle where we simply couldn’t see any hope. The education problems, long commutes and steadily mounting cost of living in the northeast made it increasingly difficult for us to visualize an “end game” for our financial freedom. Now, with lower costs of living we have more options and see at least a glimmer at the end of the tunnel.

photo by Old Sarge

how to avoid work while on vacation


We’ve all had that sinking feeling when the cell phone (or Blackberry) rings while we’re on vacation. It’s hard enough to separate your work from your private time on a daily basis, but on vacation you’re even more vulnerable to feelings of guilt and fear of backstabbing. You shouldn’t feel ashamed to be on vacation. If you take a few steps to change expectations before you go on vacation you can make your holiday restful, which is all most of us want.

Spend time with your backup before you go. I don’t care if you work in retail or if you’re a small business owner or if you are a CEO: you have a backup. If you don’t have someone who will take your place while you’re on a two-week vacation, you may want to ask yourself what you actually DO. One of the main sources of stress for vacationers is a concern that the person taking their place won’t be up to the job, creating a mess to be cleaned up on return. Making sure your backup has all the tools he or she needs to do your job will prevent phone calls and emails. Leave a list of contacts. Put flags in an operational manual. Set up calendar reminders with alarms in a shared calendar. Make sure your backup isn’t just controlling fires, he’s putting them out.

Use the out-of-office message. I am amazed by most out-of-office messages. A message like this is not helpful:

“Hi, I’m out of the office until next Friday. I’ll have limited access to email and voicemail.”

Everyone understands that when you’re out of the office you don’t have a flashing red light on voicemail and pop-up reminders to check Outlook. I’m always surprised that people don’t leave more descriptive messages, like this (a la Tim Ferris):

“Hi, I’m out of the office until next Friday. While out, I will check emails once daily – expect at least a 24 hour turnaround on all emails. If you need information about the Oompa-Loompa payrolls, please contact Lucy Dahl.”

Make yourself easily reachable – through a gatekeeper. If you have a colleague or an assistant who is willing to field calls for you, do it. They don’t have to know anything about your job, just be willing to forward on a call. Someone will be willing to do it – offer to do it for them the next time they go on vacation. Here’s the trick: on your out-of-office messages, say something like this: “If you need to speak to me urgently, contact Lucy Dahl at 555-5555, she has my travel itinerary.” Or leave your hotel number. I think you accomplish two things this way: you make it obvious you are reachable, but you put enough of a hurdle that most people will pause before trying to contact you.

Check in on your schedule, not theirs. If you have an hour while everyone’s napping, check in. If you check in during slow parts of the day, you will have a bit of plausible deniability if you turn the phone off for an hour during dinner. Try to get a jump on your calls. Most people won’t want to bother you again if you just spoke to them 30 minutes earlier.

Block out your calendar. If you work in a company where calendars are used to set up meetings and appointments, make sure you set yours to automatically reject all meeting invitations sent to you while you’re gone. I’m not saying you should refuse all meetings, but you should always make sure that someone actually has to contact you directly (via a gatekeeper, if possible!) so they’ll think long and hard about whether you truly need to attend.

Try to keep your damn priorities straight. I know it’s a bad economy, I know Johnny the Intern is gunning for your cubicle, and I know your boss is a micromanager who loves to manage via email, but if you get fired for taking 24 hours to respond to an email you either work in a bomb-defusing special unit or you work in a place where you were eventually going to be fired, anyway. Lighten up and drink a margarita. Nobody’s suggesting you take a runner, but you don’t want to be the guy or gal in the family picture album who never has red eye in the pictures because you always had your nose in your Blackberry. Give it a rest!

photo by muha…

Technorati : relax, stress, vacation, work-life

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