the job as identity

Here comes the sun...

I’ve known a number of retired and unemployed people in my life, and each one of them has said that after the initial euphoria of sleeping late and avoiding surly bosses that they’ve struggled with a number of issues.
These include the obvious financial impact, but also finding a schedule or a pace to daily life, dealing with reduced interaction with others and – most importantly – a sudden realization that they’ve lost part of their identity.

I’ve read the observation in more than one blog/book/newspaper that a reasonable and common conversation starter in America is “what are you?” meaning “what is your profession?” In many Western cultures, but particularly in America, what you DO is a large part of your identity.  Other people can form instant judgments and like to categorize you by your profession.  Professors are tweedy, calm lecturers.  Wall Street bankers are high-powered, intense and stressed.  Construction workers are sexist, self-reliant and tough.  The problem is, of course, that the construction worker might be a fan of Shakespeare and the professor might enjoy watching an occasional boxing match.  A person’s profession doesn’t define them to themselves, but it does define them to others.

Yet your profession does define you. I wrote about feeling liberated when I said I was a writer back in 2008.  That changed a lot of what I thought about myself.  But then we moved to a new city, and I immediately began working as a consultant and returned to my previous life, a corporate 9-to-5er.  That redefined me as a certain type of person.  What type?  I’m not sure, but certainly not a writer – a free spirit, a person unregulated by schedules. I do not create in the way I imagine I could. So once again, my job is shaping me.

I know some people are crushed by the lack of identity when they lose their job. It (the job) meant a lot, far past the monetary gain.  My neighbor back in New Jersey seemed crushed by losing his marketing job.  The job represented HIM.  He was a marketing guy.  I know plenty of people who search for identity and realize that outside of the context of a job, it’s hard to find.  I’ve found it difficult when I’ve been between clients.  I flinched the first time I had to say that I was unemployed after the financial crisis in 2008.  I even flinched the first time I said I was self-employed.  It’s not part of my mindset; I have never thought of myself as a self-employed person.  I was a senior manager, a manager, a supervisor, a Wall Street consultant – a professional.

But the reconstruction of identity, separate from a job, is a critical part of the unemployment process, or the retirement years. I know that for me to become a writer (or whatever else I want to become) I would have to think of myself in those terms.  I can’t think of myself as a consultant; I would have to think of myself as a gainfully self-employed writer.  I like to think that would make me much happier. But at least for the time being my identity is still caught up in my job rather than in my aspirations.

Whether or not your career should mean something about your identity, it is a critical part of who we are and what we strive for. For many people, what they “do” – their job – is not enough.  We want to be defined by what we hope to achieve in this life.   Determining what – if anything – we can achieve is the first step to understanding whether our job is a part of that achievement, or merely a sideshow.

photo credit: chantrybee

Lessons From an Economic Downturn

bad economy

bad economy

As much as I hate to admit it, I tend to be a head-in-the-sand type when it comes to bad news.  I stopped reading the news after I found each day’s trending articles were upsetting me so much that I couldn’t focus on my own work.  And although I am the daughter of a financial planner and have had a lifelong interest in money and investment, I have simply stopped paying any attention to the recent stream of bad news about our economy.  I don’t feel particularly mature for this attitude, but sticking my fingers in my ears and singing “la la la” seems to be working for me.

And, as it turns out, it’s not entirely a bad idea for the average investor when all the news about finance seems to be negative.  I am insulating myself from both panic and panic-driven impulse decisions by ignoring the news.  Since investing is a waiting game, it shows good financial sense when you refuse to be swayed by momentary hysteria.

Weathering an economic downturn is not anyone’s idea of fun, but it can help you to become a better investor—and not just because it helps you to determine when to ignore trends and when to jump on them.  Here are three more important lessons to take away from the current trouble with the economy:

Lesson 1: Diversify!

A diverse portfolio is a healthy one, and it can be no more apparent than when everyone is experiencing a downturn.  If you have a well-diversified investment portfolio, chances are that not everything will be doing poorly all at once, even in a down market.  If ever you see that everything you have is going down, then it’s time to spread your eggs out to several different baskets.

Lesson 2: Know your risk tolerance.

There is no such thing as a risk-free investment.  (I personally believe that this sentence should be embroidered on pillows and given out to investors—along with “This too shall pass” on the reverse side of the pillow).  Thinking that anything is a sure thing is a sure way to delude and disappoint yourself.  A better strategy for dealing with the risk inherent in investment is to know yourself and decide how much risk you can tolerate—while recognizing that lower risk equals lower returns.

For the most part, risk-averse investors are currently watching their (slow-growing) investments at least maintain their value, while the riskier investments taken by devil-may-care investors are tanking.  If you are feeling heart palpitations over your risky investments because of how poorly they’re currently doing, then you haven’t been true to your risk aversion.  Know that nothing is a sure thing and dial back the risky investments a bit.

Lesson 3: Keep some money liquid

Down markets can offer some great bargains on normally high-performing investments.  If you keep some of the money you intend to invest easily accessible in a CD or money market account, you can take advantage of these opportunities while many others are running around shouting about the sky falling.  Taking advantage of the money to be made during a bear market not only requires a cool head, but also some cold hard cash for investing.  Keeping both will set you apart from many others—and help you to maintain your portfolio no matter the vagaries of the market.

Ultimately, it’s important for Americans to recognize that bleak economic news does not signify the end of the world, no matter what the talking heads on television might say.

Emily Guy Birken is a freelance writer and stay-at-home-mother in Lafayette, Indiana.  Her musings on life and parenting can be found at The SAHMnambulist.

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by spDuchamp

was it easier to be simple in the past?

70s bike

70s bike

Minimalism and frugality* have been hot topics since the financial crisis of 2008 dropped the US into a deep recession, a shallow recovery and now apparently the beginnings of a second recession. As I’ve read about the minimalist, frugal lifestyle and thought about my own childhood, I’ve wondered about whether the ability to achieve a simpler lifestyle is more influenced by the times in which you live versus your own desires, regardless of the times? In medieval Europe, people lived a simple lifestyle, for example. In the future, I am sure in 2085 there will still be people living in cabins in Montana without Smellovision or AI robots whose lives will still be far less simple than ours because of the advances in technology. And just by the accident of my birth in America, my life was inevitably less simple than someone born in a remote part of Indonesia.

My childhood in the 70s USA was fairly simple. There were no answering machines/iPads/cable TV/DVRs/Starbucks/organic foods/etc. etc. to waste money on even if you had the desire. So all of the posts from people like myself who cut cable television only bring us back to the status of, well, everyone in the world, pre-1980. When Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegel and Gordon Bowker sold their coffee shops to Howard Schultz and he created what we now know as Starbucks, he didn’t create a new product, but he did create a new way to make people pay for something that used to be, for all intents, almost free (the same thing happened with bottled water). So these types of products – which are now frequently used as examples of things you can quit consuming in order to save money/become more environmentally responsible/etc. –  just weren’t on the table 30 years ago. Nobody was making a smart choice in avoiding these items; they just weren’t available. People didn’t use credit cards widely or get deeply in consumer debt because credit cards weren’t easy to obtain and once you did, few stores accepted them. The only ones that did so widely were gas stations.

My dad was in graduate school until I was 10, and my mom didn’t work. They had limited money and therefore did many frugal things: lots of vegetable gardening, only one car, simple clothes and so on. Some of that was rooted in my parents’ moderately hippie-ish lifestyle choices, and some of it was based on lessons passed down to them from their Depression-era parents, but part of it was simply the way things were – you couldn’t buy a bottle of spring water or diet Coke. You couldn’t waste money on cell phones. You didn’t need to buy organic meats because feeding animals with corn, which then requires they be pumped full of antibiotics, was not a widespread practice.

So I’ve argued with my parents and other people from earlier generations that their simplicity, frugality and more natural/organic lifestyles were often the product of the era in which they lived. Our choices are both more complex and more difficult, particularly concerning food and debt. I am glad we have some of these choices, of course – I love the internet and technology and some (but not all) of the food choices we have today that were either prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable 50 years ago. But the challenge to be simple or to live a natural lifestyle is much greater today, and finding the balance requires more knowledge and a more critical attitude (maybe even paranoia) than it did in the past.

*I know minimalism and frugality and simplicity are not all the same thing, and I often use the terms interchangeably, but let’s assume for the sake of this post that we’re talking about some vauge point in the overlapping part of a Venn diagram of the three. I’ll use the term “simple” or “simplicity” to cover all three.

 Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by NJ..

a letter from Russia, 1996



This is a letter I wrote to my parents, via fax, in 1996.  I thought it might be interesting to see what life was like mid-90s as an American expatriate in Russia….

First of all, let me apologize if the quality of this fax isn’t very good…the fax machine we’re using is pretty old (like most of the stuff we have over here) and doesn’t work that well.

Most of the machinery here is OK stuff, it’s just all 10 years old and heavily used.  So I hope you get this and that it’s legible and all.

The trip over was uneventful.  The KLM flight was great, and I didn’t really sleep the whole way over.  It was too crowded, and I just listened to my CD player.  We all split up in Amsterdam, and the only trouble I had was when I got to Frankfurt and the Russian customs people took a disliking to my computer.  But after a short interrogation by the guards in a little room (they X-rayed the computer, much to my disliking), I got out OK.  Customs in Moscow was a breeze, the driver got me, and took me to the Aerostar Hotel, which was like the Peabody (a famous Memphis hotel) sortof.  It had real small rooms but the lobby was great…nice restaurants, etc.  It was $250 a night, and the firm paid for it all.  But the TV had NBC, CNN, and even Country Music Television.  So that was a boring couple of days.  I slept about 16 hours the first day, and after that I just played on the computer and watched TV.  A burger and fries from room service cost $30.  So I ate sparingly, and on Saturday and Sunday I went for some long walks to the big plaza full of street vendors while the snow poured down.  It was interesting, but I got bored. Ed note:  I can’t tell you how proud I am that most of my commentary to this point related to how much television was available.  Sigh.

Like I said, I have my apartment now.  It’s a very nice one by Russian standards…it costs about $2500 a month.  It’s 3 rooms:  kitchen, living room, bedroom.  I have 2 bathrooms, one with a toilet and one with a sink and shower.  I’ve got a stove, fridge, etc.  It was prefurnished and a maid cleans up once a week, so I can’t complain.  It’s in a big building that’s about half Russians and half Americans.  It’s also only about a quarter mile from the nearest subway station (Metro Kurskaya) so that’s convenient, since they only let you use the company drivers for the first week, until you get used to the city.  I have a TV but it’s a piece of junk…old Soviet one, that only shows 6 channels (and guess what…CNN is channel 7).  It just has 6 buttons, 1 through 6, and so despite the fact that the firm is paying for the full 15 or so cable channels I don’t get CNN or MTV or NBC, which are all on Moscow cable.  Irritating, but not a big deal.  I don’t have much time to watch TV.  When I’m not working, I’m sleeping.  The constant cold seems to make me constantly sleepy.  Fortunately the bed is plenty comfortable and I brought my own pillow, so it’s fine.  The place stays warm (gas heat) and the water is hot in the shower, so I’m not complaining in the least bit.  I send my clothes (all of them) to California Cleaners which costs about $10 for a full load, which is well worth it, in my opinion.  Ed note:  Again with the TV.  And yes, being frozen all day makes you sleepy. Hence my move to Florida…

The city is pretty boring, actually.  It was horribly cold at first, almost unbearably.  For about the first 2 weeks it snowed every day, but the last week we’ve had sunshine and temperatures of 30-40 degrees, so it’s gotten a lot better.  It stinks, too.  It’s not really a bad smell, but it’s just really, really strong.  The American expatriates (expats) all call this scale.  We’ve actually had sunshine a few days, and unless the wind is blowing horribly it’s not that bad, once you get used to it.  I have to walk about a quarter mile to the subway, then I ride it for about 15 minutes, change trains, and then another 5 minutes; then it’s about a half mile to the office.  the firm has 2 offices in Moscow:  Mokovaya Ulitse, and Vtoroi Samotechny, which is where the Oil & Gas and the Banking Departments are.  Our offices are temporary, because there was a fire in our old offices; so the quarters are very primitive.  We have the third floor of this ratty old building, but once you get inside it’s not too bad.  I have carved out a corner in one of the  Russian rooms  with my own desk.  I share a pretty big room with 7 other people, mostly Russians.   The Russians are all OK.  They’re all pretty young and most of them speak great English.  I try to talk Russian when I can but it’s frustrating to try a lot of the time because they, of course, speak English better than I speak Russian.  Still, most of the time now at stores I can order stuff without looking like a total idiot.  I just couldn’t carry on a conversation with someone about accounting (but hopefully I’ll get there). Ed note:  I did get there 🙂

We eat at McDonalds on Prospekt Mir about every other day.  It’s a popular place for expats, since it’s relatively cheap (Quarter Pounder, large fries, and a coke is about 27,000 rubles, or about $6.  My other frequent haunts are Pizza Hut on Pushkin Park (across from the first McDonalds…it does $200 million in sales a year) and the American Diner, which is unique in that the food is not only decent, it’s actually really good.  It’s sortof a 50s style roadside diner…like Arnold’s in Happy Days (the TV show, y’know).  They just serve burgers and all but it’s all really good and you pay for 100% American style atmosphere…60s and 70s music…just imagine the stereotypical 50s diner and you’ve got it.  I love it…frequently here you want to escape from the absolutely unrelenting alien environment and feel like you’re at home.  Food here is incredibly expensive.  A Red Baron pizza from the supermarket is $15, for example.  A bottle of coke is $2.50.  So I usually just eat a cheese sandwich or something for dinner and load up at lunch.  Between the walking and the sparse eating (I’ve actually gone a day without eating anything just because everything here tastes  scale ) I’ve started losing some weight.  I already have to wear a belt with one suit or the pants won’t stay up.  So that’s my suggestion for a weight loss program.  Visit Russia.  Ed Note:  I’m appallled in retrospect by how much I idolized American fast food… oh well.  That was the boy coming from Memphis, I guess.

Safety is still a big concern of mine.  Instead of taking a real taxi, you just throw a hand out and cars will take you wherever.  I try not to do this when it’s avoidable.  It seems to me like that’s just begging for trouble.  I only do that if I’m just dead tired, if I’m carrying a heavy load (like dry cleaning) or it’s after 1am (that’s when they quit running, until 5 or 6, I think).   The metros are very safe, heavily policied, very clean, and very well lit.  If you don’t mind the walk, it’s not really a big deal to take them.  A token costs 1,500 rubles, or about 31 cents.  The only thing about the subways is just the horrible stinking crush you get in the morning.  That’s why I seldom get in before 9 or 10, because to leave earlier than 8:30 you end up with the massive commuter crush.  And let me tell you, it gets unbearable.  It’s bad enough when it’s just full, let alone when people are pushing and shoving for every last inch.  I even missed my stop once because I couldn’t force my way off the metro.  Here’s my route, just to let you hear the weird names:  I get on at Kurskaya Metro (next to Kurskaya Vokzal, a train station) and ride through Komsomolskaya, Prospekt Mir, and get off at Mendelevskaya.  Then I switch to the blue line on Novoslobodskaya and ride it to Tsvetnoi Boulevard, where I get off and walk about 1/2 mile to the office.  It’s about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the volume of traffic, which can get horrible.

My apartment’s on a really heavy traffic street (called  the garden ring …it’s sortof a big ring road surrounding  Old Moscow ; it’s about 10 lanes) and I have yet to walk home, no matter how late, when there weren’t still a number of people walking around.  Plus it’s a pretty nice neighborhood, in general…it has a French supermarket, a Samsung store, a Daewoo stereo store, a couple of coffee bar places, and so on.  Most importantly, right across the street is where the rich expats live….lots of Mercedes and BMWs.  So that seems a more logical crime target if there was any.  I have yet to encounter even a whiff of crime here, yet, though.  It seems a lot safer than everything sounded.  The difference in Moscow appears to be that the closer you get to the center of the city, the safer it gets (police presence is arbitrary; they don’t patrol, they just go crusing for drunk drivers so they can beat them senseless…no joke).  So I’m one metro stop from the Kremlin (the center of the city) and my neighborhood appears to be very safe.

Work here is the same as the US.  I work 10 to 12 hours a day, which isn’t so bad.  They’re a lot less wound up here, and we joke around a lot more.  Still everyone is tense and on edge.  The Russians are all mad because the firm recently quit paying them in US dollars and started paying them in rubles, which devalue almost the second you get them.  The expats are mad because they have big lapses in expense reimbursements, so they end up carrying hotel bills for months before they’re paid.  Most of the expats here are sortof bitter.  They have a great deal (no taxes, higher pay, housing paid for up to about 6 months).   However, the work is unrelenting, and I say that even by the way it seems tough in Memphis.  The level of disorganization is incredibly high.  The Russians don’t have much of a work ethic.  They get in at 9 or 10 and leave at 5 or 6 after a one hour lunch break.  And I’ve only seen 1 Russian in here on a weekend.  Then again, most of them start at about $4000 a year, and work up to maybe $30,000.  So with 50% taxes and a cost of living 2 or 3 times that of Memphis….you decide.  It’s still a lot better than most of Russia, though.

I’ve been working on 2 banks.  The first, Big Bank 1, is just a front bank for Megabank, one of the largest in the country.  The other is Big Bank 2 in Tbilisi, Georgia.  I’m preparing the Russian and World Bank financial statements for them, which is dull work.  But it’s a change of pace, and it gives me a lot more responsibility than I had in Memphis.   I was supposed to go to Siberia to work on Big Bank 3.  We had a small office in that city in Siberia (about 20 Russians, 1 American) which got closed about a week ago, but most of them will be around still, I guess, to help with the last audit.  I’m going to go there an American guy and about four Muscovites.  We’re going to stay there about 4 weeks, then come back to Moscow and finish the audit, and my manager said I could leave then although I have discovered I have an open ended offer to stay here (up to 2 years), with a promotion to senior and good pay (keep in mind, no taxes).  I don’t think there’s much danger of that happening, although the opportunity is interesting.  I also had a good chat with a partner from Dublin who was visiting about maybe going there as borrowed labor next year.  Nonetheless, I’m going to be glad to get out of this town.  I really enjoy the new culture and I’m actually having a really good time now.  I just don’t like cities this big, and this place is huge.   This place is just waiting to explode, though.  There’s a very real and constant dread of the Chechnyans starting to attack…we had a fire at Kurskaya Metro that the Russians thought might be Chechnyans (it wasn’t).  Plus, if the Communists appear to be heading for a win, I think a great many of the the firmers here will be quitting and scatting.  They voted yesterday to reestablish the USSR in the Duma (their Congress).   Fortunately, the presidential elections aren’t until long after I leave.  Ed note:  Obviously there was a bit of paranoia at work here…and I did come back to live here for a few years after the 1996 elections, so it didn’t work out that badly.

Well, anyway, that’s the short of it for now.  I’ve settled into a routine, and I shuttle back and forth to work easily.  I like the people here, even if they’re all a little on edge, and so I’m doing OK.  The amazing thing is that despite all of the pollution and everything, my constant dry hacking cough is gone and in general I feel pretty darn good.  I thought I would be getting sick, but *knock on wood* I haven’t yet, despite temperatures below 0 Celsius daily and walking up to a mile a day out in the cold.

The trip to Siberia is temporarily off, at least until the middle of next week.  Most of the banks are required to pay up front for the hotels and plane fares because the firm, like most businesses in this country, has a cash flow problem.  The bank refused to cough it up on Friday, so I sure wasn’t going to go without any cash or anything.  I don’t want to be paying for everything like some of the expats here.  I’m not into eating expenses.  Ed note:  I did end up going to Siberia; it was a crazy experience and I’ll post some emails from my time there in the future.

So at any rate, that’s my news for now.  I will try to stay in touch and someday maybe I’ll get my email.  I may try the Microsoft Network next…they have much wider access available.  Who knows.  It’s frustrating, I’d really like to have it.

Ed note:  It’s amazing to think, today, in the world of Twitter/Facebook/email/etc. etc. that there was a time when people couldn’t keep in touch electronically, but it was a real struggle in the mid-90s in Russia to stay in touch.  My firm had semi-reliable email, and at home I had “sometime” email.  When traveling in Siberia I was able to send 140 word emails via dialup – basically Twitter by dialup to communicate.  Fun times.  But cell phones weren’t prevalent, email was spotty and therefore I had to do silly stuff like sending my parents a fax like this post …  such was life.

Ed note 2:  Take this letter for what it was worth – a young guy making his first serious foray into the outside world.  I know I sound goofy at points, but that was the way my mind worked at the time.  I’m more enlightened since then (I hope).

Investing for Young People: How You Do It

For many young adults, the notion of investing for short and long-term goals is a scary one, simply because this is such unfamiliar territory. But thinking about investing doesn’t have to feel like studying a foreign language. There are plenty of everyday expenses worth saving for and many great reasons for young investors to set money aside.

Buying a Home

The American Dream has always started with home ownership. It’s important to think about home buying as an investment. In spite of cyclical highs and lows in the market, real estate has historically proven to be an excellent long-term investment. Looking for cheap insurance and utility expenses makes this investment more affordable.

College Expenses

Whether you’re putting yourself through school or saving up to do it for your kids, college is a worthy financial investment because countless studies have revealed that college graduates have better luck with the job market and command higher salaries over the course of their careers. The upfront expense of tuition and books will pay off in the long run.

Paying for Your Wedding

A couple’s wedding day is one of the high points of their lives together. It’s also an event that requires some serious financial planning. It is great to set a wedding date at least a year ahead of time, in order to not only plan all the important details, but also to raise the cash needed to pay for it all. Invest wisely and don’t get saddled with wedding debt when you get hitched.

Travel Purposes

Vacations and business travel are often enjoyable and rewarding, but they can be very expensive as well. It is useful to think about travel in investment terms. Looking for the best value in a plane ticket and hotel fare, for example, helps you get the best return on investment. Saving ahead of time, once again, is very important, because smart investors are sure to balance out their expenditures with their income. A strong yielding portfolio can help make stress-free vacations possible.

Buying a Car

Car payments and car insurance are an unavoidable part of the financial picture for most young people. But this doesn’t mean you have to be resigned to overpaying. Research financial institutions to find the lowest loan rates, and compare car insurance providers to see which ones can furnish cheap insurance you can count on to protect you and your investment in the vehicle.

Medical Expenses

This notion of cheap insurance also applies to medical expenses. Over time, medical care gets more and more expensive, and it becomes ever more important to have quality affordable coverage. Compare several providers and find the right plan to help you control these costs.

Rainy-Day Funds

It’s impossible to categorize all the different areas that young people need to target in their investment activity. It’s easy for unexpected expenses to derail an investment strategy. Factor in a little bit for rainy-day expenses and make sure you’re ready if unexpected costs or opportunities to invest arise.


Just as a general update to the “state of the blog” I’m considering ditching comments in favor of forcing everyone to comment either via Facebook or Twitter or StumbleUpon.  I’m getting so many spam comments that it’s become unpleasant to spend time deleting all of them. I’m coming to the conclusion that anyone who actually wants to comment shouldn’t be afraid to do so via Facebook or Twitter or any number of the options available via my “Share This” option set.  Pipe up if you think comments are vital, but I’m increasingly thinking that I’m better off asking people to give me their opinions on my writing via Twitter or Facebook or other social media.

How to Determine Needs vs. Wants

One of the biggest things you should do as an adult is to learn to distinguish between your needs and your wants. A mark of childhood is the inability to do just this. Most children don’t understand that there is even a difference between what they need and what they want, which is why grocery-store-fits over candy bars are so common in the under-five crowd.

Learning to determine needs vs. wants is a mark of maturity, but it’s unfortunately one mark of maturity that many adults haven’t learned to grasp yet. This is evidenced by the fact that so many people are living well beyond their means, racking up credit card debt to unbelievable levels in order to keep up with the Joneses.

If you’re struggling to rein in your spending – or if you just want to live a more fulfilled life – one of the first things to do is to learn to separate what you really need from what you just want. Here are a few ways that you can do that:

Understand What Makes People Happy

Lately, lots of psychologists and sociologists have been studying what it is that really makes people happy. Sometimes, there really is a link between money and happiness, but that link, it seems, only goes so far.

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, money can actually “buy” happiness on some level. This study found that people were increasingly happy as they made more money, but the happiness leveled out after they hit an annual income of $75,000.

Why is this? Researchers think it’s mainly because at an income of around $75,000, people can take care of their basic needs and fulfill many of their wants. Beyond this, though, the income just buys extra stuff that isn’t really necessary to basic existence or happiness. So, it’s a good idea to get your finances under control so that you don’t have to constantly stress about things like bills, mortgage payments, and retirement, but you don’t need to constantly be striving to make a six figure income, either.

Another study published at the meeting for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology showed that experiences, rather than things, are what make people really happy. In this study, people who spent money on new items they didn’t really need were apt to have buyers’ regret within a few weeks or months. Those who spent money on new experiences like a vacation, though, were more likely to look back on their purchases with satisfaction and to experience more happiness!

Truly Think About Your Purchases

Understanding what makes people in general happy can help you understand a little more about yourself. When you can pay for your basic needs, you’re more likely to be happy because you’ll have less stress in your life. However, it might take some time to learn to separate what you need from what you only want, and then it might take even more time to learn to prioritize your “wants” so that you can spend first on things you want most.

The first step to determining your needs is to write down the things you think you truly need, and then to mull over that list. What would happen if one of those things was missing from your life? Would you actually die or at least experience a lot of hardship? This list will actually look different for different people.

For instance, for some people, having a personal car truly is a need. In the Midwest, for instance, most cities are so spread out that you can’t walk or bike to work, and without a car, you might not be able to hold down a job. In other areas, though, where walking and biking are easier to do, you can more easily live without a car – even though it might be a little inconvenient.

Once you’ve got your list of needs down, it’s time to figure out what you want most so you can spend your discretionary funds wisely, and only after, of course, you’ve taken care of paying for what you need.

Think about some things you’ve been wanting to purchase in the near future. Think about how much use you would get out of these things and how they would add to your life. If you find that they would add a great deal to your life and that you would use them often, put them at the top of the list. You might be surprised at the things you end up crossing off of your “wants” list altogether when you really think about them and find that they would probably end up in a garage sale in two years!

One final technique for determining whether or not you really want something is to delay your purchase of it. Next time you’re in a store and see something you want, tell yourself you’ll go back and buy it in a week. If you still really want it in a week, go for it. Most things you want, though, will fall out of mind within a few days, and you won’t end up spending money on them!

Determining needs vs. wants is an essential skill for adulthood that you should start working on today. Whenever you have doubts about whether you need or merely want something, just think about what your life would be like without it. If you could survive – even with a bit of inconvenience – then the item is just a “want,” and you might be happier in the long run if you don’t spend money on it.

The author of the article, Daniela, blogs at Credit Donkey.

the silence of the fingers, and links

You may have noticed the link posts missing the past few weeks.  Or maybe not, I’m not sure how many people read link posts – I know I seldom do.  I had to have minor surgery a couple of weeks ago, and the time leading up to that surgery and the time immediately afterward I didn’t really feel like working on these posts.  Usually, they seldom take more than a few minutes to complete, but that’s because I’ve been going through my Google Reader starring a few posts for inclusion later.  I hadn’t been reading blogs for a while.

But I do hope to return a bit more to active updating of links and if I can start working up the enthusiasm for it a few posts on off-topic subjects (gasp, didn’t see that coming, did you)…


Mister Rogers and Daniel Tiger

This one might have slipped past the non-parents out there (and even some of the parents) but I happened to stumble across the news that PBS was bringing back Mister Rogers.  "Aw, how nice," I thought, remembering fondly all of the silly puppets and grandfatherly Mr. Rogers, who along with Captain Kangaroo (and Bugs Bunny and Big Bird) provided most of the TV memories of my childhood.

But reading along in the article, I saw that they weren’t going to have a new actor play Mr. Rogers.  Instead, it looks like we’ll be getting another CGI children’s show with anthropomorphic animals.  Take a look at the new ‘lead,’ Daniel Tiger:


Now, Daniel Tiger WAS one of the original characters, but he was an actual puppet, not a cartoon:


Why does this matter?  Call me paranoid, or overly obsessed with the ramming of consumerism down our throats non-stop, but why even imply that somehow this new series will be associated with the old "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" unless the purpose is to fire up parents’ nostalgia (so they’ll let kids watch) and then pump the kids heads full of cute songs and cute critters who will be conveniently available in $14.99 4 inch tall versions at Toys R Us?   Who wants to bet there will be action figures and lunchboxes and t-shirts with Daniel Tiger plastered all over them?  Do we need more babbling animals on children’s TV?  Could we please show them a human grownup once in a while?  This is a larger part of the reason we cancelled cable (although we do still let our kids watch certain children’s shows on Netflix… it’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle).

Fred Rogers was a passionate advocate for children’s television, and I suspect the commercialization of children’s television would have horrified him.  Considering he died eight years ago, he probably even saw enough to be disturbed.  But somehow, I think seeing his calm, imaginative-but-clearly-play-time show turned into some weird CGI fantasy with talking animals would have disappointed him.  It sure disappoints me.

Corporate coffee cost cutting

Over the course of my audit and consulting careers I have worked in a number of different office environments. I have worked in polished-steel and black marble floored high rises in Manhattan. I have worked in banks, in suburban office parks and in drab skyscraper cubicle farms. I have worked in hotels, in family-owned businesses and even once in a closet which had been converted to an office.

Most of these offices spaces shared one characteristic, which seems to be dying away: a coffee maker. I am not a huge coffee drinker, although I like coffee. I have a cup at home and maybe one more when I arrive at the office. However, I have recently cut back on my one cup at work and drink tea I buy at the supermarket instead. Why? Because in the last 4-5 years I have noticed that coffee makers are disappearing.

There may be a number of reasons, first among them safety hazards. But I think the root problem might be a horribly misguided corporate cost-cutting effort. I think most corporations look at a coffee machine and think:

  1. We must be spending a fortune on Maxwell House!
  2. How much does all of that filtered water cost?
  3. Think of how much it costs to replace a coffee machine once every decade – it might be $25 or more!
  4. Think of how much time we lose when employees meet at the coffee machine and chit chat while pouring milk, adding sugar and stirring!!

Three of the last four corporate offices I’ve worked in did not offer coffee. One had a horrific machine that dribbled out some instant powder and then some hot water to make some swill. One served Starbucks coffee, brewed with filtered water and changed out by the office staff once per hour to keep it from getting burnt or stale. And two simply had no coffee available except in the company cafeteria on a different floor.

So how much is keeping a coffee machine on each floor costing the company? At the company where Starbucks was provided, I would linger occassionally talking to someone at the machine, sure, but usually I walked over, got a cup, and was back at my desk in 2 minutes holding a nice, pleasant cup of coffee. It made me more enthusiastic about the work and the company (stupid, I know).

However, at the two companies offering nothing I had to go downstairs to the cafeteria, get some coffee that’s been sitting in one of these giant brew-pots for hours (so it’s too harsh) and pay approximately $1.50 for a small cup. I have to wait in line to pay, and the whole process probably takes 15 minutes or more. I am irritated at paying the money. I am irritated because if I want a splash of hot coffee to perk up my cup after it’s cold, I can’t. You don’t get the friendly hanging-around-the-coffee-pot chatter that’s one of the few bearable moments in most cube farms. And the company loses far more productive time from me.

I understand there may be safety concerns, but I doubt it. I see microwaves and hot water dispensers in break rooms. The technology is there to buy safety or timed coffeemakers, or work with an office coffee vendor to ensure equipment is cleaned and working properly without any effort on your part.

Going outside the office isn’t an option – the nearest coffee shop is a 5 minute walk away so by the time you go out, wait, come back you’ve wasted even more time. Plus, I just don’t like going “off campus” because then I really feel obligated to go off the clock on my hourly rate. I know I should just switch to drinking tea (hot water is free, still) or water, but I really enjoy that morning cup of coffee.

So what do you think? Am I being unreasonable and whiny or are these corporations being penny wise, pound foolish?