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Meditations_AureliusMarcus Aurelius‘ writings are often cited as among the most influential thoughts within the leadership space. As a result, I’m taking my time reading through a translation of his Meditations. He started right off by thanking a group of people who have helped make him the man and emperor that he was by telling the reader what he learned from said person. Here’s what he had to say that he learned his mother:

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

Aurelius indicated that living simply, unlike the rich patrons he saw around himself, was something worthy of pursuing. This flies in the face of the way we see so many celebrities in our world today living. I’m sure it flew in the face of what was generally believed by the Roman society or Aurelius’ day, which is likely why Aurelius called it out. Actually, everything he said there flies in the face of what is portrayed as “having it made.” His list, broken down:

  • Faith (piety)
  • Being charitable (beneficence)
  • avoiding evil deeds
  • avoiding evil thoughts
  • living simply / plainly

This certainly runs counter to the goal of “partying like a rock star,” doesn’t it? As an emperor he surely could have lived the opposite of all of these points. Other emperors did, both before and after. But that wasn’t Marcus Aurelius’ style. He didn’t need that excess / debauchery. He didn’t see how that allowed him to accomplish what he really wanted out of life and allowed him to live a fulfilled life.

By the way, this isn’t the only reference to living simply and avoiding the trappings of the rich that he gives in the “thank you list.” So if you want to “live like an emperor,” give some thought to Marcus Aurelius’ words.

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New mortar & pestle!I used to be a collector. Not a collector in the traditional sense where one focuses on a particular hobby like stamps or coins or tea cups. I mean where if I started to get one of something and there was more variations of it, I felt almost compelled to get the rest, even if I realized I wasn’t going to use them. I have quite a few chess books because of this.

My compulsion to want to “complete the collection” also fed into the desire to get the latest and greatest. Case in point: video game consoles. I had a Super Nintendo as soon as I could “afford” one, I bought a Sega Saturn because of Nights Into Dreams, I made sure to be one of the first to get the Playstation when it showed up and I got lucky and was able to find the Playstation 2 in a big box store where they didn’t take pre-orders. A friend won a chance at an XBOX 360 pre-order but he didn’t want it, so I bought it off of him. That last one may have been the best thing I ever did to break these habits.

At the time, there were only one or two games suitable for young children on the XBOX 360. This was before Viva Pinata! The only game we cared about was King Kong. And for a good long time, it was really the only game we cared about available for XBOX 360 for young kids. Eventually, a co-worker offered to buy the 360 off of me because it was just sitting there collecting dust. I sold it and realized I didn’t miss it. That’s when I realized I didn’t need the latest and greatest. Yes, we have an XBOX 360 again, as my boys are teens and there is Viva Pinata and Kinectimals and other titles intended for a younger audience. However, I’ve still not picked up a PS3 and I’ll probably wait a while on Nintendo’s new Wii offering.

Why does all this matter? Because plenty of folks who were happy with their purchases when they made them are unhappy when they are not SOTA (State of the Art – thank you Shadowrun) any longer. For something like the iPad 3, that SOTA period was about 7 months. And that’s spurred the following posts:

My family’s iPad 3 is only a few months old. We obtained it for homeschool and entertainment and at the time we purchased it, it was more than enough for us. How much have things changed with the announcement of the iPad 4? Nothing has changed. It is still more than enough for us. And the thing is that I bet for all those iPad 3 owners out there, they were fine with their iPad 3 until the iPad 4 announcement. So what changed? Only attitudes and desires. The iPad 3 didn’t suddenly rust and corrode and fall apart. It is still just as capable and powerful as it was prior to the announcement.

When we have something that does the job or more, then it’s perfectly fine not having the latest and greatest. We don’t have to keep up with SOTA. In fact, keeping up with SOTA can cause a lot of stress and worry and certainly impacts our finances. There are better places to spend the time and money. Now, if you’ve got something that’s not doing the job or you had already decided to treat yourself, that’s a different story. But if what you have is working for you, be satisfied with it.

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Eating out is expensive. Even if it’s at lunch due to work, the cost still adds up. When you figure anywhere between $5-10 for a meal on average with 20 work days in a month, that’s $100-200 each month or $1-2,000 per year. If you’re in an area where you can’t find meals that cheap, the cost is even greater. If you’re a parent with a child in his/her pre-teen/teen years, that’s about the yearly cost for braces. So bringing leftovers/sandwiches from home can make a sizeable difference in your budget. That was the initial reason I went back to bringing my lunch to work

However, I had tried to pull my lunch together each morning before I headed off for work. That wasn’t working and I saw a disturbing trend. If I was running close to when I had to leave or if I just didn’t feel up to putting together my lunch, I didn’t. Another situation was when I didn’t have enough prepared to pack for a complete meal, I didn’t want to go through the effort right before work. After all, eating out is convenient. It seemed easier just to say, “I’ll get something down the street,” and head out the door. However, there are some ramifications to this:

  • The cost, which I’ve already discussed.
  • The likelihood that the meal isn’t healthy and balanced.
  • The time it takes just traveling too/from the location which could be spent doing other things.
  • The time spent ordering and waiting on the food.

The answer, of course, is to pack up the lunch the night before. The standard advice for making working mornings easier is to get everything ready to go the night before. Clothes, whatever you’re taking to work, etc., should be organized and arranged so you can wake up and immediately knock out what you need to in order to get out the door and on to work. Lunch is the same way.

The picture is the lunch I packed for myself last night. It’s leftover baked chicken, green beans, fresh tomatoes (from my garden) and strawberries. Plenty of veggies, fruit for dessert, a lean meat for protein – a well-planned meal. Also, since it’s leftovers, we’re not wasting food and I’m getting a meal I know I’ll enjoy. So I’m saving money, eating better, and having more time at lunch for whatever it is I want to do. That time could include going on a 1.5-2 mile walk or working out at the gym without having to worry about the time lost going to a restaurant, ordering my meal, and then waiting for my food to be made/delivered to me. The key is to prepare the meal the night before so the typical excuses aren’t in the way. Save time and cost and eat healthier all by packing your lunch the night before.

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We used to be like a lot of other folks, trying to figure out what to have for meals based on what was in the house. As a result, buying at the grocery store was always a haphazard affair. In addition, there is time and stress in trying to figure out meals and then considering if you have enough time to get the meal cooked. When you add in time commitments like karate and ballet for the kids, as well as church, it becomes easier to grab fast food rather than plan a balanced meal.

About a year ago we said enough with the choosing and cooking a meal on the fly. We instead decided to start planning meals, with the exception of weekday lunches. Weekday lunches would consist mainly of leftovers and/or sandwiches, so there didn’t need to be any planning involved there. A microwave was the most complex cooking apparatus needed and the kids can use it just fine. This helps a lot. It means most weeks we’re only planning 16 meals. Breakfast isn’t that difficult because there are a few combinations that my family likes and we can repeat those. Therefore, dinner has the most variation, especially for the Saturday, when we have the most time to prepare. Because of planning meals out for the week, we know in advance what needs to be cooked. That also means we know about when to get started with everything, which results in a more consistent meal time. It also means we reduce fast food meals to when something happens and we just don’t have time or when we choose to get a fast food meal as a treat. Here’s an example of this week’s meal plan:

Breakfast Lunch Dinner
Sunday, July 01, 2012
  • white rice
  • tuna fish
  • cucumbers
  • homemade spaghetti
  • salad
  • French bread
  • grilled cheese sandwiches
  • sweet potato fries
Monday, July 02, 2012
  • eggs
  • chicken sausage
  • fried potatoes
  • pork tenderloin
  • carrots
  • green beans
  • couscous
Tuesday, July 03, 2012
  • pancakes
  • bacon
  • baked chicken
  • black-eyed peas
  • corn on the cob
  • biscuits
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
  • boiled eggs
  • oatmeal
  • peaches
  • hamburgers
  • hot dogs
  • chips
  • chicken cordon bleu
  • peas and carrots
  • French bread
Thursday, July 05, 2012
  • cereal / pop-tarts
  • brown rice
  • pot roast
  • carrots
  • green beans
  • potatoes
Friday, July 06, 2012
  • eggs
  • bacon
  • biscuits
  • meat loaf
  • salad
Saturday, July 07, 2012
  • pancakes
  • sausage
  • hamburger helper
  • brown rice
  • cucumbers
  • orange chicken w/ broccoli
  • oriental noodles

We know at a glance what we’re having. Also, since we have the meals planned out, it means we can write out a shopping list before heading to the grocery store. This saves money because it reduces impulse buys. It also reduces the time you spend in the grocery store. In our case, I know the layout of the grocery stores we shop very, very well. I have actually spent time learning the layout. Why? Quite simply, because I can organize my grocery list in the order I encounter the items at a particular grocery store. Again, this saves time. However, I did it not so much for the time savings, but because if I am treating grocery shopping like a game, where I’m trying to cross items off my list as quickly as possible, I don’t linger and make the impulse buy. It’s more than just being able to justify buying something that’s not on my list. It’s a simple of matter that I don’t even consider anything that’s not on my list. And finally, we save time because we don’t have to keep going back to the grocery store. We make two trips a week and we’re good. If we weren’t a family of six, I’m sure we could get away with one trip. However, milk, juice, and eggs don’t make it a week.

All in all, here are the benefits we see from menu planning:

  • Eliminates the stress of trying to figure out what to cook.
  • Reduces cost grocery shopping because a shopping list is easier to write out.
  • Reduces time grocery shopping because we’re following a list.
  • We’re able to plan out meals and ensure a reasonable balance for meals.
  • We’re able to reduce fast food meals to when things just go haywire or when we choose to eat out. This is both more healthy and saves money.
  • We’re able to have a more consistent meal time.

If you aren’t sitting down and planning your meals, I hope you consider it. It helps a lot. It will take a bit to find your happy medium as far as time intervals are considered. Some plan two weeks, even a month out. We tried that, and we even tried to shorten the interval to twice a week to coincide with grocery store trips. For my family, once a week seems best. We still need to make two trips to the grocery store, but that second trip is faster and cheaper overall.

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Two nights ago I was a bit tired and it was getting late. I hadn’t done my workout yet and I heard myself saying, “It’s just one workout. It won’t hurt to skip it.” Then I remembered I said this last week and ended up missing 3 workouts as a result. For someone like me who is trying to get back in shape and lose weight, missing workouts is a bad idea. It does hurt, not only because I need the workout to build fitness, but also because physical fitness is no longer a habit. Skipping a workout is giving approval to returning to poor choices. It’s self-destructive. Because I caught myself, I went ahead and did the workout. When I was done, I was glad I did. I didn’t give in to self-destructive behavior.

Then the next morning I read this post from Ben Davis (blog | twitter). He calls himself a

“connoisseur grandmaster of justifying my bad habits”

and I have to say I’m right there with him. It reminded me of a post by Sebastian Marshall (blog | twitter) where he restates a simple truth:

“self destruction is generally counterproductive.”

Giving in to self-destructive behavior tends to give “permission” to make other self-destructive choices. For instance, “I’ve missed yesterday and I really don’t feel that much better today. It won’t hurt to miss another. I’ll get back on schedule tomorrow.” But then tomorrow comes and we reason, “Well, I’ve already blown two workouts for this week, so I’ll just get a fresh start next week.” And that can lead to a decision like, “Well, since I plan on getting back to my diet and workout regimen next week, I’ll eat that second helping of mashed potatoes and maybe a piece of cake, too. I might as well enjoy myself before going back to the grind.” And we’ve built on one poor decision after another with an unintentional plan to build some more.

Therefore, if you can, resist the urge to give in. Do what you originally planned on doing. Even if you can’t do a full workout, do something to reinforce the habit. Maybe you’re finding the urge to open up that college textbook overwhelming. At least start. Typically the biggest obstacle is getting started, just like getting a piece of furniture moving across the floor. When the furniture is at rest, there is friction (static friction)) opposing the movement of the piece of furniture. And the friction at rest tends to be more than the friction when the object is in motion. So it usually take a lot more force to get the furniture to budge than it does to move it once you get it going. Resisting a bad choice and embracing a good one is often the same way. For instance, I found that before I started working out last night, I just didn’t want to. However, once I got started, I looked forward to the rest of the workout. And by the end of the workout, I was glad I had done it. I was glad not just because I had resisted the self-destructive behavior, but also because I made one more step towards a major goal of mine.

 

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When I was a young boy, I can remember helping my mom hanging up the wet clothes on clotheslines we had in our backyard. Truth be told, in Hawaii “helping” should probably be called “playing outside while mom hung up the clothes” but when we moved to SC, and I was older, I did start to help out more. Years later, my parents still live in the same house in SC, but the clotheslines are gone. They rely on their dryer now and up until recently, so did we.

The thing about an electric dryer is it consumes electricity. In our case we’ve got a backyard where a clothesline can go, so we have an easy alternative to running that dryer and paying for the electricity consumed. Not only that, but in the summer months running a dryer is not desirable. The dryer is inside our house, in the kitchen. So that means all that heat generated is a problem. Some of it goes out the exhaust vent, but a lot of it stays in the house. That means the air conditioner has to work harder to cool the house down which means, yes, more electricity. While I’m not going crazy trying to be “green,” it just didn’t make sense to keep using the dryer so much. So we decided to put up a clothesline, take advantage of SC’s normally warm weather (even in the winter), save some electricity, and save some money, too.

At first I bought a simple wire line and we strung it up between one of the trees in our backyard and the chain-link fence that surrounds the yard. That did the trick, but the issue with it is it has to be taken down every time the grass is mowed. It’s at just the right level to be an issue, whether you’re operating a push mower or on a riding mower. I was looking around and found the following clothesline, which we’ve installed and just put clothes on today. It took a little bit because you have to dig a hole in the ground about 20″ deep, then put gravel or small rocks in for drainage, then pour concrete around a plastic sleeve where the post will go in. We did that last week and it takes a day for the concrete to set and another 5 days to cure. Yesterday I put up the post and tightened the clotheslines, because that model has a number of them (my wife estimates it can hold about 3 loads of laundry at a time) and today we were all set since the curing should be done.

One thing I will say is to make sure you have enough concrete. You wouldn’t think a 20″ hole about 12″ in diameter would take a whole lot of concrete, especially when you are covering 3″ or so with gravel and then you have additional displacement due to that plastic sleeve. However, a 40 lbs. bag of Quikrete wasn’t enough. My wife had to make a run to get another 40 lbs. bag after we had started, so make sure you get enough, at least 80 lbs.

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After reading Dave Ramsey‘s book Financial Peace Revisited, I wanted to read a bit more by him. His The Total Money Makeover was relatively recent so I picked that up and dug into it. The lessons of the book are basically the same as the first one:

  • Build a budget each month.
  • Stick to the budget.
  • Pay cash. Stop incurring debt.
  • Put aside an emergency fund of $500 or $1000 (the latter is preferable) because emergencies will occur.
  • Get out of debt with everything except the mortgage.
  • Your out of debt plan should be to rank your debt from smallest to largest, pay off the smallest first, and then snowball the payments.
  • Build the emergency savings fund to cover 3-6 months of unemployment.
  • Invest for retirement.
  • Invest for college.
  • Pay off that mortgage!
  • Invest further.

It’s a bit more fleshed out than with Financial Peace Revisited and this one comes full of stories of folks who have followed the plan and succeeded. Ramsey writes like a life coach, constantly encouraging, sometimes sounding like a salesman to get the reader focused on getting out of debt. He talks about things like having “gazelle intensity” to focus on paying down debt as quickly as possible. I understand why he does this, because there’s a lot to change when it comes to most people’s bad habits with handling money (mine included, which is why I’m reading the book).

The book is organized to teach these principles in “baby steps,” where you work through one baby step before progressing to the next. It’s a good idea, because it allows one to set goals to accomplish and not try to do everything at once (which doesn’t work). Also, Ramsey does a good job reminding folks that the steps will take time. Quick fixes aren’t realistic, but through diligent work, one can become more financially stable. There may be a call to do some radical things, like selling off stuff one doesn’t need, picking up extra hours, etc., to increase income in order to pay debt off faster. The idea is to focus on getting financially fit as soon as possible using realistic methods.

As he talks about these baby steps, Ramsey injects the real world into his steps. For instance, he points out that the statistics show we’ll all have a negative event financially. It’s not a matter of if, but when. So having the emergency fund is a must, even before one begins to pay down debt. Otherwise, what happens is the emergency comes up and one falls back to the credit cards to handle the emergency, meaning one has lost ground. Ramsey points out that if you had to take a small step back, like having to deal with that financial emergency, before you go back to your current step, go back and fix the issue. So, for instance, if you hit your emergency fund to pay for a new transmission, then make the minimum payments on your debts, replenish your emergency fund, and then going back to paying as much as you can on those debts.

Would I recommend this book? Yes. Certainly more so than Financial Peace Revisited. You may not agree with everything Ramsey has to say. However, he does try to present why he believes what he says. And he tries to establish that others have succeeded using his method. After all, it’s based on a few foundation principles:

  • Debt is not a good thing (especially when you factor risk into it).
  • Quick fix solutions aren’t the answer.
  • Hard work and diligence will help one get out of debt.
  • It won’t happen overnight, especially if you have a lot of debt.
  • It’s not just about method, it’s also about mindset. You’ve got to really want to be out of debt.

We’re starting to put Ramsey’s principles into play in my own family and we’ve started to see results. We didn’t get into debt overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight. We’re like a lot of families in that we have credit card debt, we have a car payment, and we have a mortgage. We’re ahead because we do have savings, so we started with an emergency fund, I have the capability of earning extra money fairly easily due to consulting and writing, and we don’t have student loan payments. Also, my current place of employment has a retirement plan similar to the one US civil service employees have. But there’s still a lot we need to do to be completely debt free. And that’s where we’re looking to go. This book will help in that goal.

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