Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Review: “Mars and Venus Together Forever” By: John Gray

Along with Dave Ramsey’s “The Total Money Makeover” I firmly believe that “Mars and Venus” should be required reading for any couple that has an intent to walk hand and hand through life together. Better yet, if there is a single person of the opposite sex that you care about: neighbor, parent, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece, cousin, etc. this is a must read. The insights on every page of this book were profound, and I found myself learning more than I ever knew and have actually been craving to learn…about myself. The insights into the how and why related to actions I do daily and ways in which I interact with my wife allowed me to take steps back, look at myself from an outside perspective, and realize the good, bad and ugly in regards to how I relate to my wife and the communicative messages that I send her verbal and nonverbal.
            Essentially a summarization looks something like this. Men and women speak different languages to each other. I, speak Russian, and my wife Mandarin (neither plain English). Other men understand clear as a bell my Russian, and women understand without misinterpretation my wife’s Mandarin. But when we communicate towards each other, there is no translator and we find ourselves unable to translate what we really mean and intend to one another, and diplomatic relations eventually break down.    
            This book is the tie that binds and allows my wife and myself to understand what the other person really means and needs to be satisfied in a relationship, and bridges what I consider to be the most important gap, by helping me understand how my actions, attitudes and words impact my wife, both positively and negatively. The first half of the book took me a longer than usual amount of time to get through. The writing was clear and concise, but so insightful that I paused frequently to allow information to process and went back to re-read several selections, you will do the same as well. The second half of the book gives excellent exercises and tools to use, a lot of which I began implementing in daily interactions with my wife immediately. Although I know she will read this, I will say this with reluctance. One section of tools provides insight on how to get a woman to open up and trust you with her feelings and emotions. There are short phrases and prompts that I used, which if used when talking to a male friend would be worthless, but to my wife were invaluable and as I doled out a few prompts that the author recommends, I could literally feel, even over the phone, my wife’s tone of voice change and the content of what she began to say shifted from factual to her true feelings and emotions. Although she couldn’t see me, my jaw had immediately hit the floor with amazement at how this stuff works.
            The end result of these insights, tools and applications is that you will achieve, through baby steps, fulfillment and understanding in your relationship. For me, just understanding where myself and my wife are coming from before we even open our mouths to talk to one another, is just about half the battle when it comes to conflict. From understanding what the man cave is and why I go into it, to just knowing that my wife is not looking to me to solve every problem that she presents, every concept in this book is worth your while to read and know.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

My October Grocery Challenge

In the spirit of pushing myself to new frugal extremes I have set a goal for myself during the month of October. After careful examining our budget and wracking my brain on areas that we can continue to cut, as I am always of the belief that I can do better, and there are two areas that we have decided to slice and dice. We are dropping our monthly cushion budget, known as sanity, by $30 to a monthly allotment of $20, and have reduced our grocery budget by $40 to a monthly allotment of $340. Inspired by “America’s Cheapest Family,” I found myself feeling embarrassed that their family of 7 survives on $300 a month on groceries, and my wife and I “stretch” ourselves on $380. Ideally I would love to trim this down to $200, but we’ll try and baby step our own way there. As a rule of thumb we are heavily restricting our produce buying to items that are below $1 a pound. We essentially did a test run of this during the month of September, and without breaking a sweat come under our monthly grocery budget by over $100. 
            So suddenly now I love pears, celery, bananas, certain kinds of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and corn. I could not have hand picked a better month to cut our grocery bill, as we generally shop on the weekends and October will be a five weekend month. I will certainly keep you filled in on our weekly progress, with receipt tallies and all.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My Broken Television

In what I consider to be my giving the middle finger to our modern day culture I proudly and vehemently give this statement: I do not own a functioning television. For the better part of the last year my wife and I, and the hand me down TV provided to us without fee from my in-laws, lost function of it when digital upgrades occurred. At first we were somewhat shell shocked because of tests conducted with our local stations before the switch (what we thought) proved we would not need a converter box, but alas it has now been the best thing that’s ever happened to us. Gone are my nights watching trash TV and staring at a screen, and replaced are weeknights and weekends that include: talking with my wife, reading books, going to the gym 2 – 3 times a week, bike riding, home cooked meals, budget committee meetings (my favorite), participation in small groups at our home church, and being outside more in general.
            The most impactful part of it though is my now felt sensitivity to advertising. When visiting the homes of others I now mute commercials or talk over them, and I routinely take out and throw away insert advertisements when reading my local fishwrap (which I have found, reading my local fishwrap, has been a lot less frequent lately). It is freeing to have this much time available again and amazing that I used to waste so many evenings watching TV shows, I seriously don’t think I’ll ever go back. Almost straight from the pages of “America’s Cheapest Family,” I plan to have one TV set in my future home, which will be kept under lock and key via some kind of elaborate cabinet, to be viewed sparingly and we will only watch materials that encourage the values that my wife and I want to impart on our children and guests.
            Plus the side benefits are irreplaceable. I have zero subscription payments, my electric bill is that much lower, and I add it to my list of bragging rights in pursuing the ultimate cheapskate. So yes, I have not owned a car for eight years, I grocery shop at Aldi, am a flexatarian, do not have a functioning TV, shop for clothing twice a year at Salvation Army, current housing costs take up 15% of my budget, besides my wife my crock pot is my next best friend, I couchsurf, I take a cooler on vacations and I can tell you ten different ways to get to my local library from anywhere in Chicago, and I’ve never been happier J

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My Father's 65th Birthday Party!

            This past weekend myself, along with my wife and her parents, flew to Los Angeles to be guests at my father’s 65th surprise birthday party, orchestrated by one of my older brothers and my mother. Before getting into a breakdown of the event please allow me to say this: I had an absolutely great time at the event. It was wonderful to catch up with family and friends that I have not seen in a long time and I wish I could spend more time with. It was a pleasure to watch my in-laws as well interact with people that have been involved in my life from the beginning, and it was exceptionally amazing to witness my father-in-law give a loving and heartfelt toast to my father, a memory that will last with me forever.
            The event also presented several opportunities, which I took advantage of, to reflect on the results of my father’s 65 years here on Earth. Although filled with joy at the thought, I am still left with the uneasy feeling that there should have been more. Allow me to explain. Most notably absent from the event included my sister, oldest brother, two sisters and a brother of my father’s, any of his friends from work (all but 1) and school, and none of my father’s 4 grandchildren were present. Who were the attendees of the event? They included a mixed list of my mother’s work colleagues, my mother’s extended family, in-laws and very few of those related to my dad via blood.
            Admittedly, my father has several strained relationships with those that have been close to him during his life. For me, there was an unspoken feeling of awkwardness when the evening affair began as the laundry list of people mentioned above were nowhere to be found. Were they invited? Did they decline? Although I am familiar with some of the stories between my father and those strained relationships, there are several unanswered questions I have that may forever go unanswered.
            A lot of what I feel too leads me to a very uncomfortable place, my mirror. By comparison in this aspect, I have a lot more in common with my father than I would like. My oldest brother, though invited, did not attend my wedding. I have a strained relationship with the other brother, and to some degree with all of my siblings. I have dropped and lost most contact with friends from just about every level of school and can count on less than one hand those that I have worked with that I consider close. In the last few years my wife and in-laws have been a major part of my life. God, maybe I am just like my father.
            But then again, maybe I’m not him. During the course of the event I did make attempts to have conversation with a brother, and enjoyed spending my time visiting and talking with those that mean the most to me in my life. I also don’t run and hide when I run into people that I know to avoid them (yes my father is what you may call an odd duck), and I have slowly come to value and enjoy friendships made with people at our church and look forward to our semi-annual small group gatherings. And, I will be the first to admit not perfect, am and have been making attempts to get to know my siblings, niece and nephews, and in-laws on a personal level. For me, the event was bittersweet because while I loved celebrating the event, the void was felt in my heart of what could have been.
            But deep down I know that I cannot make decisions for my father. I cannot mend fractured relationships or change people single handedly or offer unwanted/unsolicited advice. Instead I can only control my actions and my relationships. A great book that I am reading currently, has been incredibly encouraging in showing me that love and patience, and most importantly listening with an open heart, are the key components in developing meaningful relationships. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book Review: Debt-Free Living by Larry Burkett

Riveting, powerful and rich. These are the feelings that I carried with myself as I read through my first Larry Burkett book. The real life stories in the first half of the book stuck in my mind, and I highly recommend this book to read BEFORE you begin Dave Ramsey’s program. The stories do an excellent job covering real life examples of the dangers of debt and how they slowly creep into our daily lives and encourage us to stomp on the acceleration pedal when using credit. I honestly couldn’t put the book down; the material had excellent depth as it demonstrated the weaving of relationships between our perceived self worth and our attitude towards personal finances.
Admittedly, even from my Christian perspective, the book does get rather preachy in the second half. But the lessons learned and the points emphasized truly are second to none. The exploration into how and why the use of revolving credit creeps into our lives and encourages hyper-consumerism made an instant intellectual and emotional connection that I believe will resonate with you too.
Of course the underlying issue remains: Is practicing sound financial money management common sense or biblical? For me, through self rationalization and implementation of sound/old-school financial management principles, I have found that the answer is, both. Once getting my financial house in order, I found more time and energy to exert on the relationships that are important in my life. A big piece of what I value in religion is the value of relationships that we have with one another. When the stresses that come along with abusing the use of credit and having more month than money were gone, the attention and focus on what I really want out of life: which is valued and quality relationships.    

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Weekend of September 17th

This past weekend was one of the best in memory, and I’ve had some great ones since being married. It really felt like two weekends rolled into one but without the feeling of being excessively tired. On Saturday we headed to Michigan for a family reunion of my wife’s extended family. The food was great, the weather perfect, but most of all I got to connect really well with a cousin of my wife’s. I’ve found that while I am enthusiastically set in my frugal ways and care more about financial well being than buying the latest trends, there is an absence of like minded people in the windy city. Those that hate debt, despise credit, and opt for savings in the same fervor as I. Enter my wife’s cousin, we’ll call him D.A.N (diligent and noble). Dan is just about five years older than my wife, is married with a beautiful daughter and has another on the way.
Now, coincidentally, Dan is who I find myself wanting to aspire to be in five years. He lives in a small town that he loves, lives below his means, appears unassuming with a quick glance but holds within him a wealth of knowledge and the heart of a lion. Dan works harder than anyone I have ever met in my life, frankly I’m in awe. In his line of work he mixes with those that earn over six figures and those whose wages barely keep food on the table daily. Dan is a producer, he loves creating and is energized by his labor, his vocation essentially is a vacation. And through all of this Dan takes pride in his daily life, loves where he IS possibly more than where he is going, and lives below his means. His “new car” purchase, was around $2,000 for a colleague’s used Ford Mustang, YOU GOTTA LOVE THAT! I certainly do. I also do not find it a coincidence that someone with similar values and wisdom, was only a family tree branch away from my wife, I definitely married up with this one!
I am also proud to say that my wife officially joined our church’s choir. This is a gloating point to me because, one of the reasons we fell in love with our home church, was the music. The choir plays an array of progressive and upbeat music. From folk, blues, gospel, and just about everything in between, the worship services that we attend have been blessed with incredible music. And now my wife is a member of that group. She has the voice of an angel and it stirred my soul watching and hearing her share her beautiful gift with the congregation, I am looking forward even more now to weekly fellowship at our church!
If that were not enough, we also took part in our second week, of our first group class of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. I have to say that after a few weeks I am just as intrigued of going through this course in a group setting, if not more, than before the classes began. I’ll lay it out like this: I expected 95% of attendees to have previously heard of Dave Ramsey and have been in the baby step process longer than I (two and a half years as of this writing). I expected to feel scorn and shame that my household completed a fully funded emergency fund and did not snowball our last student loan debt and have one credit card, I fully expected to be schooled in the ways of Ramsey. What I have found in this class is that 95% of those attending are brand new to Ramsey, and by comparison among those that know Ramsey, my wife and I are killing it.
Needless to say, when I learned that our FPU facilitator encouraged overdraft protection on our checking accounts to keep from overdrawing, I just about passed out. I never expected, even in a small pool as the one our class is in, to be ahead of the curve. Thus far my wife and I have sat back and observed, answering a few questions in the group setting but mainly observing. Overall we wanted the experience of sitting in a group FPU class and understanding what stages class attendees are, as we hope to be facilitators in the future. I also expected to be kicked in the butt for what I perceive as “not being 100% Ramsey.” I am on the fence of being an example, a leader, or someone to look to for inspiration in the Ramsey world. Even to this day, I re-read the books and log onto the website to get periodic boosts of encouragement from others on the site, and now I’m looking back wondering “When in the hell did I become that person.” My wife attempted to reassure me that she is always ahead of the curve in everything she does so get used to it (I love how humble she can be J). So for now I will continue tackling our goals one by one and stay on the plan we have set for ourselves: A paid for home in two years, a move to a rural community with a slower pace, and continued financial peace.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review: "The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches" by Jeff Yeager

In the world of living below your means and frugal living, Dave Ramsey is like the coach that gives you an overall philosophy, covers the x’s and o’s and shows you every aspect of how to win the game, while Jeff Yeager is the all-star alumnus whose retired jersey hangs next to the state championship banner his team won. In “The Ultimate Cheapskate,” Jeff takes you on a journey that will make you laugh, provide some awesome insight into the frugal lifestyle, make you chuckle at things you shouldn’t and think twice about how you approach life. This book is an excellent read for forming a defensive strategy with your budget and expenses. The emphasis really struck a chord with me in the fundamental belief that is shared in those of us seeking financial security: Living within your means is not good enough; we need to live below our means.
The single most important piece of information that reinforced and encouraged me in the frugal trail, was making your “starter” home your final home. By not upgrading as your family grows and purchasing a modestly priced home, financial independence becomes that much more attainable. Jeff does an unbelievable job covering just about every aspect of daily life and I am astounded at his objection to the “latte factor” argument (although I find it highly unlikely that I would ever find Yeager in line at any local “Fivebucks,” I’m positive he carries his own cup of homemade joe like the guy in my mirror).
I made a lot of comparisons as I went through it as well, seeing arguably who was the most frugal. And, being originally from Los Angeles, I saw myself as Kobe, and Jeff as Jordan. Jeff has done some amazing feats and sustained his frugal lifestyle for the bulk of his adult life, impressively achieving financial independence all the while not showing concern to the numbers. I, being the rambunctious young new kid on the block, would love nothing more than to dethrone the ultimate cheapskate (yes Jeff, you are the king in my eyes…currently) But thinking about it more, and dropping my competitive sword, I smiled and will always take solace that there is a frugal movement alive and well, and there is a group of us out there making financial responsibility cool.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

My Flexatarianism

            Being a flexatarian flat out rocks. In restricting meat consumption to less than 10% of all meals consumed, our grocery budget thrives, I am in the best shape of my life and I physically feel absolutely amazing. For the better part of this year my wife and I implemented what we call a flexatarian diet. Essentially the majority of our meals are vegetarian, and although we set a goal to only have 10% of our meals consist of meat dishes, have found that we only consume meat when out of town visiting either side of our family, that’s it. Financials aside (absurd I know, but it’ll be quick) I wish I had done this when I was a kid. On the opposite end of this, I reflect back and understand why I felt tired and out of shape for so long, it was from consuming high fat and meat heavy dishes. Now, on the rare occasions when I eat meat, I stick with leaner options such as venison and chicken. Even better, is that since flipping to this diet, I have consistently had the energy to make it to the gym two to three times a week, and on my weight training, I am stronger and physically leaner than I have ever been in my life, even when I worked out like a mad man in high school. As is a common misconception with vegetarians, I would like to go into what our household diet looks like, because believe me, I couldn’t hit the gym the way that I do solely eating lettuce.
            My wife and I have devised weekly meal plans for lunch and dinner. Yes we brown bag to work and eat leftovers, did you expect any less? Below are options that we rotate, and in the mix we also eat daily amounts of fruits and veggies such as oranges, apples, bananas, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower and pears:

·         Vegetarian chili
o   Consists of black/chili beans, broccoli, carrots, corn, salsa, garlic, onions and pepper gently cooked in our croc pot (my other best friend)
·         Indian Curry
·         Egg Drop Soup
·         Black beans and Rice
·         Poor Man’s Dish
·         Split Pea Soup
·         Pozole

·         Poor Man’s Dish
·         Homemade Pizza
o   Artichokes, black olives, onions
·         Taco Salad (meatless mind you)
·         Baked Potatoes
·         Summer Salad
·         Various Pastas
·         Egg Drop Soup
·         Veggie Burgers J
·         Egg Salad

Breakfast is more of a personal day to day choice as my wife and I leave at different times for work. But basically we utilize: scrambled eggs, eggs over-easy, oatmeal, breakfast bars and protein shakes. For me, I get my protein shakes from my local Vitamin Shoppe, 53G of protein for every serving and I take three a day. In addition to these we each take a multi-vitamin to cover all basis for nutrients that we could end up short on for daily intakes.
It’s interesting that on days following consuming meat, I feel lethargic, tired and my stomach feels like an amoebic blob, so I do not do it very often. This is quite the change from the person I used to be. I used to pride myself in consuming mass amounts of processed meat from the local fast food joint and thought nothing of it. So physically and fiscally, going flexatarian has been an amazing lifestyle change. I will never go back to eating meat regularly ever again, and love having even more left over in the monthly grocery budget because of it.
Looking back I am also appalled at the assumptions that eating healthy was unattainable because of costs. THIS IS PURE MALARCHY! When I cut meat from my diet and went heavy on fresh fruits, veggies, and veggie dishes, we did NOT raise our grocery budget. Cut out fast food joints and processed garbage and guess what, like doing a monthly budget, money will magically appear out of thin air. Pound for pound, fruit costs less than meat, literally. And honestly, it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Review: "Who Moved My Cheese" by Spencer Johnson

             This book is a delightful ditty that I love to read from time to time. Although told in what arguably is a childhood story format, this quick read is vastly profound in the subject of change. It reminds me that life is always in constant motion and relationships, work and everything in between is always moving. The ideal place to be is to anticipate and expect changes in life to be constant and always be open to adapting. I love this particular story because it reminds me to never settle and be forward looking. In a personal way, I do get apprehensive wondering about the future. Where I will live, if I make the right decision? And every now and then I find comfort in the safety of what is familiar and think, Well, what’s so bad about Chicago?
             That’s when I find this book to be the handiest. It challenges me to look beyond my comfort level and acknowledge that what awaits around the corner has the potential to be equal or greater than what I know today. In my own life this has been true 100% of the time. There was a time when I was afraid to leave Los Angeles, and I wouldn’t trade my college experience away from California for anything in the world. I once was afraid of leaving my college town for fear of finding employment and being away from my alumni network, and I have been blessed with my current position now that is helping to funnel my dreams. I highly recommend this book to all and hope that you too move to find it, rather than wondering where it went.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Mackinac Vacation

A week of rest and relaxation is exactly what the doctor ordered. I spent last week with my wife on vacation driving up the coast of Western Michigan and making our way to Mackinac Island. And I must say if you ever get the chance, DO IT! In living our frugal existence we have opted to go on stay/nearby vacations, so with less than $1,000 budget, we headed up the coast and loved every minute of it. We stopped in beautiful, picturesque, serene lake city towns along the way. We took in great wine, ate awesome fudge, and implemented our flexatarianism and ate some great steaks and seafood dinners. The best part of it all: In going on this trip following Labor Day, rates for lodging and car rentals were at their lowest, plus, in venturing to Michigan everything was affordable. We offset dining out meals by bringing along a cooler filled with water, pop, fresh fruit and sandwiches. Some of my favorite stops along the way up north: Petoskey, Traverse City, Ludington and Holland. Each are quaint, picturesque lake towns that look like screen savers. The people are nice and exhibit the exact kind of places I want to live in when having children.
Mackinac Island though takes the cake. Access to the island is limited to boat or ferry and once on, your mode of transportation is horse and buggy or bicycle, that’s it. No cars or anything with a motor can be found on the island. Round trip hugging the coast is a very easy 8 miles with gorgeous hiking trails all along the way. I can’t believe I have lived in Chicago for four years and never made this trip before. The most memorable moment came when my wife and I hopped off for lunch by the lakefront, and with our feet in the water experienced a silent euphoria. The point when water washes onto shore and just before it pulls back to the lake, there is dead silence. Even now my soul is stirring remembering that moment and wanting to relive it over and over.
But clearly, what made the trip even more amazing was the time spent with my wife. Getting re-acquainted with each other outside of our daily rat race in the windy city. I’m always amazed at how beautiful, amazing and special my wife is and how I love having her in my life. We have so much fun together, and getting to spend an entire week together, being on the same page and not having the physical separation of work, well it reminds me of how great things are in the present day. Too often I do boggle myself with looking and forecasting the future, that this vacation was just what I needed to be re-assured that things are great currently, and that we are working as hard as we are now to make moments like the one on Mackinac Island happen a lot more often.
Now some quick tips that I learned on this trip:
·         If your wife is better than you at being frugal, let her plan the itinerary
·         On Mackinac Island go to dinner at The Woods, order the duck dinner, you’re welcome
·         Michigan wine tasting, budget for it and you’ll come under on cost every time
·         Go in off-peak seasons, we stayed at The Murray hotel for less than half of their peak season rates
·         Bring a cooler, picnics on the lake are perfect and utilize the ice machines wherever you stay
·         Don’t be a snob: budget hotels are heavenly as long as the hot tubs work

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Book Review: "America's Cheapest Family" by Steve and Annette Economides

Now my wife can attest to this statement with absolute certainty: I love finding challenges. For me, I approached “America’s Cheapest Family” with just that attitude. I have been living a frugal lifestyle for over two years, and this family of seven has been doing for 20+. What are their secrets, what can I learn from them, and what are they doing that I haven’t thought of? Thankfully there were few surprises (which shows me that I’m on the right track) but plenty of things that down right blew me away. I thought that my wife and I had meal planning down to a science, well this family makes my meal planning education look like a diploma handwritten in crayon. With a family of seven, they spend just over $300 per month , and get this, went grocery shopping just once a month, and they weren’t vegetarians! AHHHH! With just my wife and I, as vegetarians, we come just under $400 a month and shop 3-4 times a month for groceries. When coming across this section, the book had my full and undivided attention. Through utilizing careful planning, a separate full box freezer, and a car vs. my rolling cart, this family has me impressed.
But even beyond the tips, tricks and lessons, this book had a deeper meaning that resonated deep within me. And that is this: in living below our means, we have readjusted our lenses in how we approach the world. Rather than spending money to have fun and create bonding experiences with our loved ones (keep in mind I’m not even touching keeping up with the joneses here), being economical really makes you see your world, city, town and region in an entirely different light. You get more resourceful, more cunning, and in my experience, the memories are that much more enjoyable. The family offers year round tips for entertainment enjoyment and living economical which I must say even gave a young(er) “know it all” a few things that caught my eye and that I could immediately implement into my daily life. The overall philosophy though is what made me smile and glad to have this read this book. That there are others out in the world that care more about financial security and family relationships somewhere hidden among those stumbling out of Sunday brunch spots and walking around trashed beyond their minds in Wrigleyville wearing the latest fashion trends and charging their way through life.