Think Ahead to Minimize Regrets

Three articles today, all with the same theme about regrets. Each has a different story to tell regarding personal finance.

  1. Going without a car. It’s easy to do in a big metro area with good public transportation. We all know that. Still, the author does a good job crunching the numbers on how much saving they derive, and how to compensate for the lack of a car when you’re out in the countryside and want to visit natural parks or get groceries.
  2. Bride regrets her expensive wedding. This does hit home due to my recent wedding. In planning my wedding, I had an ongoing conversation with my now wife about costs. We are both frugal people, and in the end came to a happy balance where we were able to have a quality memorable experience by not skimping on the things that matter while not fretting about minutia.
  3. Letting go of FOMO. Also known as “fear of missing out” – it’s supposedly big with the millennial crowd. My personal experience with Bitcoin was reading the first summary of its original release posting on Slashdot, back when I followed tech news religiously. In this article, various academic elite all comment on why they, and many other experts, missed the Bitcoin bubble. Yes, many of them thoughtfully evaluated the technology very early on, like I did, and concluded that it had minimal value except as a tool for money laundering and other illegal activities. None of us really entertained buying because we knew the intrinsic value was likely close to zero. Still, it’s not easy to have that kind of lottery ticket regret when you recognize a bubble early and could have ridden it. The article does suggest ways to mentally cope; perhaps the best one was that other experts similar dismissed it too.
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Unfair Comparisons on Cost of Living

I’m livid after reading Marketwatch’s recent article on cost of living differences, in which it tries to make a blanket comparison between Asian cities and American/European ones.

The key part is in how they designed the study:

The study rated the cities according to how expensive it is to buy basic items there at supermarkets, mid-priced stores and specialty outlets, using the price of food, drinks, clothing, recreation and entertainment and the cost of buying and running a car (including the cost of gasoline).

It also includes recurring expenses, including the cost of renting a home, utility bills, private schools and domestic help.

I understand why they’re doing this – to create an apples to apples comparison. However, there’s a reason the government changed the index of inflation to account for substitutions. Essentially, to have the same or better lifestyle in an Asian city vs an American one, you can go without certain things. The cost of owning and operating a car in Tokyo, Singapore, or Hong Kong is exorbitant because of incentives/taxes against congestion. Plus you don’t need a car to get around anywhere. It’s actually probably faster to take the metro/subway to avoid the surface congestion. Whereas in an American city you absolutely need a car to live.

Another aspect is private schools. I understand why they’d want to keep that in the comparison – the article is geared at high powered corporate expats who want to replicate a western lifestyle in Asia (note that they include domestic help in the calculations). However, again in the US you need to send your kids to a private school to get any kind of decent education. Not so in Asia. There, the locals hardly ever do so because public schools are so good (extremely competitive by world standards). This is anther example of a cost that’s not experienced evenly between Asia and America.

Finally, I’m not sure how they calculate food, but in my experience food in Japan (assuming you eat Japanese style meals) is much cheaper, tastier, and of better quality than the equivalent American ones. Restaurants are also cheaper, mostly due to not having to pay tip.

My gripes about this article are similar to my wife’s experience moving back to the US from Asia.

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Broke at Half A Million

Marketwatch ran an article about how one can still be broke despite earning half a million a year. Preposterous, you say? They do show the breakdown of sample spending for the rich family compared to an average family with $80,000 in yearly income.

Let’s break this down in an itemized manner:

  1. 401k contributions: a good thing, especially given the tax bracket
  2. Taxes: unavoidable, but the rich family should be looking to diversify more into legal tax shelters like mortgage interest deductions and maximizing HSAs
  3. Child care: I can’t explain this discrepancy. Does the wealthy family choose to use a premium service as opposed to the McDonalds of child care? Does that really provide any benefit? Both families have the same number of kids, so there’s no reason for spending to be any different. And besides, those in the know opt for live in Hispanic au-pairs so their kids can get a head start in life
  4. Food: both families eat way too much. I spend $40 per week on groceries (that includes household items like detergent) for myself. Multiply that by 4 gives you $8480 for a whole year. Even if you spend a bit more on eating out, you will still may just top out at what the average family spends. What does the rich family get by spending more? More calories? Whole grain organic quinoa?
  5. Housing: this is a big opportunity to cut back by living in a smaller house for less. A bigger house just adds to the housework, not necessarily truly improving happiness. Likewise, this allows for a corresponding reduction in property tax and insurance
  6. Gas: no reason that this needs to be different between the two families
  7. Life insurance: just self-insure by saving more. This is one of the biggest cons out there
  8. Clothes: do you really need to wear better clothes than the average family? If anything, standing out more in this era of Occupy Wall Street just makes you more of a target
  9. Children’s lessons: I’ll admit, probably a good investment. If anything, Asian families in the Bay Area spend much more in this category
  10. Charity: cut back on this, especially if you’re living on the edge
  11. Debt repayment: probably unavoidable, but you can save on this by studying overseas or in state schools
  12. Miscellaneous: I don’t even know what this means

Notice how I didn’t include vacations on this list? Generally, I will allow one budget busting “splurge”, either in clothing, house, car, or vacations. Among those, the one that gives the most lasting happiness is vacations.

 

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The Trend Towards Minimalism

Feels good to be vindicated, yet again, or perhaps my own behaviour is not so uncommon but merely representative of the prevailing attitude of my generation. After all, it’s “widely known” that Millennials value experiences over things.

As for retail, owners have to adapt or die. Innovative retail stores are experimenting with ways to blend a more experiential type of shopping with brands and goods. As the article recognizes:

“Shoppers are reaching a tipping point around American consumption,” it read. “Feelings of angst about acquiring too much ‘stuff’ is driving a shift toward purchasing experiences rather than things.”

Those of us who are involved in entrepreneurship recognize this. As the older generation dies out, Millennial preferences will increasingly drive profitable product lines. We see this in the traditional media, which initially resisted the move to digital (Napster was merely early) before eventually acquiescing (see: Hulu) to the tidal shift. Those that continue to resist (ESPN, Comcast) face declining revenues from cord cutters.

In general, being “light”, mobile, portable, flexible, and catering to the customer’s preferences for when, where, and how to consume something is the new name of the game. Amazon recognizes this. Old retail still tries to force someone to come into a brick and mortar store and be assailed by rude and unhelpful sales representatives. That’s not a winning approach.

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Minimalist Like the Japanese

I recently published an article about my experiences in Japan. One thing that stood out to me was the culture’s emphasis on minimalism. Part of it probably comes from the lack of space. Japan is an island with a few major cities, and as such people crowd into small apartments the size of shoeboxes in the US. That forces them to be selective with what they own and keep in the home. You can’t really hoard much without quickly being unable to get around.

The other inspiration for their minimalism is their culture’s appreciation of subdued elegance, a leftover from Zen Buddhism. It preaches harmony of yourself with your surroundings, inner peace, and beauty in emptiness (and by extension, empty spaces). It’s definitely an appealing (and cheap) way of interior design your home.

Still, there are some Japanese who take this to an extreme. Some hardcore minimalists have less in their house than some jail cells. You may need to find the best balance that works for you.

Luckily, with the advances in technology, it’s easier than ever to digitize our possessions and have instant access to them from a mobile device anywhere in the world.

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