black_son_of_gray's Journal

Where are you and where are you going?
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black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Fri Jan 02, 2015 9:05 pm

Greetings ERE community!

I figured I would start a journal, less as a chronicle of progress towards FI, but more as a record of various ideas that come to me that either 1) I think might be useful to others or 2) that I'd like to get some feedback on.

I'm in my early thirties, work as a scientist (Ph.D.) and fall pretty squarely into INTJ. I live in the Baltimore-Washington DC region. I've been following the ERE blog and forums for years now, and finally figured I'd like to contribute something, even if it is just my two cents. I've had a variety of jobs, some I liked, some I didn't - but I'm actually in a pretty satisfying job right now. So my main motivation with respect to "ERE" isn't necessarily the speed at which I achieve FI, but the personal growth that goes along with figuring out how to the best life possible, with the least cost to myself and others. In some sense, the FI is the byproduct of the personal growth - not the other way around.

Currently my SWR is 17% (I have about 6 years saved), and I am on a fairly relaxed timeline to financial independence (between 5-10 years, depending on career prospects). I currently save about 50% of my after-tax income - which I could easily increase to ~67% with two simple changes: 1) find cheaper rent (60% of my current expenses), 2) sell my car (been bicycle commuting for 7+ years now, drive maybe 1-2k miles a year, unfortunately being an unmarried young male makes insurance ridiculous). After tracking my expenses for about half a year, I can confidently say I run a pretty tight ship. The expenses that keep me from ERE-like savings (75%+) are simply due to compromises and priorities (that I willingly choose).

I suppose I am in a different position than many on this forum, as my SO is already FI. It is an interesting dynamic actually, because she is more frugal than she needs to be (at least in a financial sense) to match expenses at roughly my level. And yet, if I wasn't living with her, I would probably go for monk-like, drastic reductions to my expenses. Alas, some compromises I am more than willing to make!

After dabbling in the market here and there for a number of years, in the last few years I've settled into a Permanent Portfolio split (Gold, Cash, LT treasuries, Total Stock Market Index) - not because I think it is the end-all-be-all, but mostly because the logic is reasonably compelling to me. Furthermore, I don't currently have the time to be a more sophisticated investor. (I like analyzing and researching investments, though, so maybe in the future).

I'm looking forward to sharing my ideas with what seems to be a great community of diverse thinkers!

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by almostthere » Sat Jan 03, 2015 7:45 am


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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Sat Jan 03, 2015 1:12 pm

Musings on "thought narratives" and absolutes

I've found that my mental life is frequently influenced by convenient narratives that I tell myself, like an online analysis of the life I'm living… while I'm living it. I imagine this is true for most people, but I'm not sure. It might be that part of this my personality - In MBTI parlance, I am a pretty strong J (judging) and I wonder if a P (perceiving) does the same. Generally, I don't think this aspect of my mental life is a negative for me, but it certainly can be when the narratives insidiously begin incorporating absolutes.

There's a nice little nugget from Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy- that we tend to generalize events, outcomes, and attributes into absolutes - and that can play real havoc on our happiness. For example, "If the Thanksgiving turkey comes out of the oven dry… then the dinner will be a disaster" or, more subtlety but more dangerously, "That off-the-cuff comment I made to X was actually pretty mean… I'm a bad person". Apparently the way to combat this is to catch yourself when you realize you are making absolute statements and rationalize your way out of them. For example, "I did nice things for X,Y, and Z, so I can't be a wholly 'bad' person… I'm just a person who occasionally slips up with a bad thing, but very often also does good things".

With respect to finances, recognizing one's own mental narratives is key. I've unfortunately developed the idea that I am a frugal person. I wonder how often I've cheated myself out of an enjoyable or memorable experience simply because I want to maintain that absolute narrative in my head rather than spend $20 to see a show. (Honestly, I'm not sure - because I'm generally pretty happy doing nothing!). Living as efficiently as possible is such a tricky goal, because life was never "supposed" to be efficient to begin with - It's like how eating nothing but "healthy" food is probably not as healthy as occasionally really indulging. I suppose the point is not absolute efficiency, but efficiency in the sense that your spending is as close as possible to your real priorities in life. And those will probably shift with time, so the point is to be consistently working on it, without beating yourself up for not being perfect.

As a side note: I experience less narrative and judgement making in the flow state, and when "attending to the present" in a meditative sense. What is the financial analogue of the flow state? Is there one? On the one hand, even FI people need to be thinking about their finances (perhaps moreso if they are wholly dependent on investments) … on the other hand, I would think that it is possible to have an efficient lifestyle where there isn't constant 'maximization/minimization'?

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Tue Feb 03, 2015 10:07 pm

2014 Year in Review + 2015 Goals

  • I started tracking various financial measures in Dec 2013, so I'll start documenting my progress in this journal with the last 13 or so months of data. I usually only update these numbers every few months.
  • Generally, my finances are pretty boring and stable. I mean REALLY boring. I'm almost exactly on the trendlines. The major sources of deviation (other than holiday spending and occasional flight purchases) comes from the fact that I have to pay quarterly taxes (they are not withheld), and market returns (which have been pretty low in volatility).
  • I'm finally at the point where my assets are starting to produce non-negligible returns! Can't wait until I hit the point where asset returns = savings, but that will probably take about two more years (x ERE expenses ~ 10 to 13)
  • Healthwise: I was able to start up and stick with a strength training program, and I am now physically stronger than I've even been. I also greatly improved the flexibility of my hips, shoulders, and ankles - which I am perhaps more proud. I gained about 20 lbs of (mostly) muscle - or at least kept my body fat percentage. Sounds more impressive than it is - I was a stick at the beginning of the year. Now I am a slightly thicker stick. Unfortunately, gaining weight and maintaining it isn't all that cheap when it comes to food costs.
2015 Goals
  • It is going to be an interesting year. My current work position is safe, but can only extend a maximum of two more years. So, inevitably, I need to look for a job. I've already started talking to one potential employer, but that is for a position that would flexibly start sometime in the fall (maybe winter or later?). Couple that with the fact that neither I nor SO want to stick around on the East Coast, we also have an imminent move in the future.
  • I really want to trim down my possessions, in part because I think it would be interesting to live a minimalist lifestyle just to try it out (at least for some period of time, at least a year), but also because I know I'll eventually be moving - and the added stuff just makes it more stressful to me.
  • As far as finances, I'd really just like to at least keep up the trends that I had last year. If I do end up in a new job, it will almost certainly put me at a higher savings rate, probably around an additional (1 x ERE expenses) per year. (That should shorten time to FI from ~9 years to about ~5 years)
  • Healthwise: I have various goals for specific barbell lifts, but I won't burden you with those. Generally, I hope I can maintain another year of consistent working out without major injury. I'd also like to focus more on flexibility in the coming year, mostly because stretching is so enjoyable!

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Sat Oct 21, 2017 10:17 pm

2017 Update (Part I):
Well, it's been two and a half years, so an update is long overdue!

A bit bizarre for this forum, perhaps, but the finances behind my ERE journey are actually pretty uninteresting. I continue to save somewhere around ~50%, although last year was a good bit better because I made some extra money through: 1) some one-off employment opportunities (teaching a few lectures for an evening class); 2) various awards and reimbursements; and 3) an incredibly lucky 60% return on a small REIT investment - my only foray into the market outside of long-held positions associated with my Permanent Portfolio allocation.

Speaking of allocation, I keep making money through my job, but I've been quite reluctant on putting the accumulating stash into standard investments (with the exception of the REIT play, which was just too good looking to pass up). I'm about 60% in cash right now, and here is my reasoning: 1) bonds aren't paying out much, and interest rates may be rising. You barely get more for corporate bonds, but way more risk (spreads are thin). 2) The US market broadly is ridiculous. There is no way I'm buying in at these prices. Even if I found an individual stock that looked reasonably priced (which would take due-diligence time that I don't really have right now), all US stocks seem to be subject to the risk that the FANG stocks melt down and take everyone else with them. I'm quite interested in healthcare REITs for a long play, but there is a lot up in the air on what US healthcare policy is going to be in the next 6 months, 12 months, 10 years, etc.

So I wait. And I'm totally fine with that. If cash is so hated right now, that seems like a pretty deviant decent place to be.

There is one other compelling reason to be so heavy in cash - imminent structural changes in my life…

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by Ego » Sat Oct 21, 2017 10:55 pm

black_son_of_gray wrote:
Sat Oct 21, 2017 10:17 pm
imminent structural changes in my life…
Looking forward to part 2

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Sun Oct 22, 2017 12:04 am

2017 Update (Part II):

Job and impending life changes:

I'm in a weird spot right now, professionally.

On the travails of obtaining a job in The Academy:

As an academic, I'm at that juncture where people typically move "up or out". Last year, I put out applications to about two dozen universities for assistant professor positions. These applications were of two different flavors: 1) Top-tier research institutions (these jobs are mostly running your own research program, and occasionally teaching); 2) Teaching positions at smaller liberal arts colleges (with some limited, largely symbolic research thrown on top of a full set of obligations). My CV shows consistent and solid research productivity, let's say a solid 'B' grade, and a little teaching experience, with some courses in pedagogy, a 'C-' or so, if I'm generous. Of the ~20 applications packages sent out for research-based positions (#1), I got no nibbles whatsoever. This is completely normal. Each of these positions had at least 200 other applicants. A couple of them had OVER 600. To be in the top 10% but less than the top 1% means that you get... well, nothing. Curiously, of the half dozen teaching position applications (#2), I had several phone interviews, one on-campus interview, and one job offer. And I turned it down. (Either I wrote a damn good Statement of Teaching Philosophy :geek: , or search committees looking to fill teaching positions are dealing with a dramatically different applicant pool :roll: )

It was a interesting moment that clarified my thinking about the future. The job was something that I have seemingly been working towards for my whole career: a professorship, and at one of the better small liberal arts colleges in the midwest to boot. But some niggling doubts were rattling around in my skull.

The first was: "Holy workload, Batman!" Is it wrong that I just don't want to have to work that hard? To teach that many classes, I knew that I'd have to be more responsible and hardworking than every before in my life! My suspicion is that this job would quickly and permanently cross the fine line between (enjoyable at low volume) | (miserable at high volume).

Related to that, my second doubt came from my realization that college students are the new high school students, and I don't know if I want to deal with that. That isn't to say that I dislike college students, but professors at these smaller school have ongoing, highly interactive relationships with the students. At some point I'll share my evolving lifestyle preferences with respect to technology, but the short version reads: More and more I find myself interested in a slow-paced, deliberative, analog lifestyle. I don't own a smartphone, and frankly, I don't want to either. So the modern, always "on call" expectations that many students demand of teachers has a deeply chilling effect on me.

The other kickers were that 1) while the benefits were quite good, the pay was actually less than what I make now (yes, lower than my current postdoc pay!). 15% less actually. Granted, that's a "9-months salary", but you more or less have to work the other 3 months to make progress towards tenure (yet another "up or out" milestone, the system seems to love those). 2) The location would be to a place in the Midwest that I certainly don't mind living in (I grew up in the Midwest), but was not previously on my or my SO's short-list of places we would like to live. 3) They wanted me to give them a decision very quickly, precluding the ability to make a second trip to the area (with my SO, who hadn't see the area) before deciding.

The future:
So here I am, thinking about the future. In the next few months, I will be wrapping up a research project that should make me more competitive for a research-based professor position. These positions are insanely competitive, are generally stressful, but pay reasonably well (~90-110k/year). You do have a good deal of intellectual freedom, which is quite a plus! Problem is, I'm not sure I'm willing to put up with amount of work/stress/responsibility required (a similar complaint to teaching). In particular, I worry about the following, highly likely scenario: I get a job, the department gives me ~$500k in startup money to buy equipment for the lab (you'd be amazed at how much a single laser can cost...), pay my salary for a few years until I get a grant, take on a few students, and hire a postdoc/research technician. I work for 5 years, decide I'm "done" because I have enough to FIRE and I'm bored with that I'm doing... and then what? I tell the department "Hey, thanks for investing so much money in me, but I just don't want this anymore"? I tell my students/trainees/employees, "I know this really messes up your life/career plans/degree progress for me to do this, but I just want to do something else..."? UGH. I. Don't. Want. That. Shutting down an academic research laboratory is ugly.

If I leave the ivory tower after my project is completed, what will I do? There are some scary but exciting possibilities.
The math: I currently have 8-16+x expenses. Breakdown: I have 8x my current annual expenses, of which 60+% of my spending is rent thanks to being situated in one of the most expensive counties in the country. I have 16+x expenses if I don't consider rent/housing. Why wouldn't I consider rent/housing? In short, because my SO, who is FI in her own right, is considering purchasing property when we move (we don't want to stay in our current location when my project is completed)- so there could be a lot of flexibility with housing. Another option, is that we could spend a couple years splitting time between our aging parents' houses while we transition into another living arrangement (i.e. seek out/buy a property, discover locations/jobs/projects that draw us to new locations). They have lots of space and wouldn't mind the company.
The options: The standard option of course is to just get another full-time job in a science-related field. My skillset provides me with some opportunities at pharma companies. Or I could become a grant writer. Or develop/sell scientific equipment. A nice plus is that I have about a decade of scientific programming experience, although mostly in an obscure language. Data science isn't completely out of the question. I could probably get a gig as a consultant (a coworker did just that).
Given my financial situation, however, I feel like downshifting into a semi-ERE lifestyle is a real possibility. By that I mean 1) work a part-time job essentially getting paid to learn a new skill or to do activities I already enjoy, or teach university classes as an Adjunct; and/or 2) work on developing a small self-employment enterprise (e.g. seasonally growing produce for a farmers' market; mushroom farming; freelance science writing; creating/coding some niche science-related educational apps, etc.). I wouldn't mind taking the time to go through a Master Gardener program. I have had essentially no downtime in my life since I was 16 (my first job), so it couldn't hurt to have a few slow years to see what starts to excite me. If the majority of my housing costs are taken care of, that means I only need to earn 4-6k per year as a supplement to a 3% SWR on my assets.

So that's where I am right now, mulling over my future direction. I must admit, the downshifting is by far the most appealing option. But the "just a few more years of earning power!" argument also pulls strong on me. A few more years working full-time (3-5, tops) could provide me with a new set of skills and put me more firmly into conventional FI expense ratios (e.g. 25+x expenses). Decisions, decisions....

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by SandyKaryOke » Sun Oct 22, 2017 9:01 pm

This journal is really informative. I'm looking forward to more updates. :)

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by CS » Mon Oct 23, 2017 7:33 pm

I, too, want to know what you decide.

There is something to be said for staying with the folks and letting your nest egg grow. Not everyone has that opportunity (or wants it).

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Tue Oct 24, 2017 10:21 pm

2017 Update (Part III)

Trimming down possessions:
Since my post in 2015 when I really started to think about reducing my "stuff", I've made slow but consistent progress. In particular:

Clothes (reduced by ~65%)
Shoes (reduced by ~40%)
Books, DVDs (A couple hundred books down, maybe 50-60% reduced)
Kitchen (Glassware, plates, "gadgets" - decreased the poor quality, boring, or uninteresting ones moderately, slight increase in enjoyable, pleasant items we like)
Furniture (We now have no beds)
Bicycles (I'm down to one bike! From....too many :oops: )

Some explanation and general thoughts:
  • Part of the reason that it has taken so long to dump stuff is that we didn't want to just throw things in the trash. One of my less fashionable qualities is that I wear clothes and shoes until they are so worn out that they cannot be given away. That's right, categorical rejection from thrift stores - it isn't even close. So we waited until we could find some local stores that will take in all conditions of clothes/shoes (I assume they shred it and make insulation or something).
  • I regret nothing about donating a good chunk of my books to the library. I haven't wanted to re-read any of them, and if I did, I can literally walk <1 mile and go read my old copy at the library. The only books I have acquired since then have been gifts (~5 books, I'll eventually end up keeping 2 - nice hardbacks of some Stoics, which I like to peruse up now and again).
  • My SO and I had two beds for our two-bedroom apartment (ugh, how typical). Now, we have none. At some point we learned of a local organization that accepts good quality beds for donation, which they give to struggling people who are trying to get back on their feet. So we donated a bed, and that freed up a room which was previously 80% occupied by the bed. Turns out, we really liked having an empty room! It's so versatile! Short aside: I had slept on a futon on the floor for about 6 weeks or so while studying in Japan during a college summer exchange program, so I didn't have any qualms about sleeping on the floor (on futons). I brought up the idea with my SO, she was willing to try it. Worked out well, got rid of the other bed. We have now been doing this for a couple months, and overall we both agree this is better than the beds. For one, it is a lot easier to rearrange rooms on the fly for doing something. Also, I find the floor to be a pleasant firmness that is more agreeable with my back (mattresses are often too soft for me).
  • Part of the impetus for slowly drawing down the "stuff" we have is that we do plan on moving in the relative near term (within a year?)... so having less things to move or deal with during the transition will just make things easier.
I've been into running for while now (~20 years). I've more or less come to terms with the fact that, for me, there is something fascinating and compelling about running that just keeps pulling me back in. So I recently started back up. In June. In Maryland. Thankfully, I survived that and am now coasting into the really prime running seasons of Fall, Winter, and Spring.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Tue Oct 24, 2017 10:55 pm

Why the flurry of new posts in my otherwise sleepy journal? Many of you are acquainted with NaNoWriMo - the next few weeks will be my attempt at a PeJoWriMo (Personal Journal Writing Month).

My goals for the next few weeks are simple:
  • Develop a habit of consistent writing. No specific words/day or even 'every day' stipulation - just do it frequently.
  • I have a lot of half-baked ideas that I am still fuzzy on, and I want to see if writing helps me sort them out. Many of them weave in, out, and around ERE-related themes. Many of them, I'm sure, are what a friend of mine would call "epiphanots". But figuring that out is still useful.
  • Improve, in whatever small way, in the craft of communication. Occasionally I run across someone who, in person and in real-time, is incredibly articulate and quick-thinking. I'm really dumbfounded by these people, because I often feel like I am the opposite of articulate in person. It can take me a lot of time (often longer than the flow of a conversation or the patience of a listener) to spit out an idea or grope for the right word. There are quite a few famous quotes out there about needing more time to write shorter. I'm hope that practice eventually leads to improvement at any of these related skills - it would be amazing if I could write shorter faster!

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Thu Oct 26, 2017 11:47 pm

(WARNING: Navel-gazing alert!) The next set of posts will form a three-part web of interrelated thoughts all bent on trying to understand what makes me feel weird about society. By society, I mean the West generally, and the Baltimore-Washington DC area specifically. I have no experience with developing countries.

Some details about myself:
  • I don't have kids.
  • I don't drink coffee or soft drinks or bottled water. I occasionally have a beer, but that is losing my interest as well.
  • I don't have a smartphone. Hell, I almost never have a phone on my person. It's probably at home. It's probably also turned off.
  • I don't wear headphones/listen to music/make calls in public.
  • I don't drive to work. I bike or run or walk.
  • I don't really buy stuff or shop.
  • I don't have a credit card or a mortgage. I don't want one either.
  • I don't care about sports.
  • etc..
Of course, none of these details are particularly extreme - a decent percentage of people probably can claim each one. It dawned on me recently, though, that the combination of many of these traits starts to make me look "extreme". And as you can see, the common theme to each detail is what I don't do. Which brings me to...

Part I: Active vs. Passive Frugality
Confession: A guilty pleasure of mine is the television show Survivor, even though I've only seen perhaps 2 or so seasons (out of an ungodly 35). Many aspects of the show are patently ridiculous, but the one that sticks out to me the most is this: They take a bunch of Americans out to some tropical beach for a few weeks, where they sleep in crude dwellings, deal with the elements, and try to scrape together enough to eat through fishing, killing a roaming chicken, boiling some white rice, or cracking coconuts. Meanwhile, if the cameraman would just pan left... there is probably a local down the beach doing the same thing! For the contestants, it's a game show. For the locals, it's a Tuesday.

So far on my path to FI, I've been a game show contestant. Sure, everything I have in my "I don't..." list saves me money, lowering my expenses and boosting my savings rate. At ~50%, my saving rate is decent for this community, but the dirty secret is that it has been easy. I wouldn't call it "extreme" or really even impressive. I get the sense that many people on these forums (and probably most at MMM, for example) are in the same camp. The entirety of my success thus far has been driven by two things. First, I make decent money. Second, my frugality is mostly passive in its nature. You can read that as: I have very privileged circumstances. After all, it isn't really that difficult not doing something. At least, for me. Not doing something appears to be my superpower (least intimidating superhero: Inaction Man! As a child, he took the marshmallow test, and at the end gave it back to the experimenter! Now, off to sit quietly in a chair...Kapwinnng!!!). In the future, I'd certainly like to further develop the skills of active frugality - the scrappy resourcefulness that creates something of value or "makes do" with very little cost. In the meantime, though, I'm looking forward to exploring just how deep I can go with this passive frugality thing. I've identified two of the biggest sources in my life driving the "I don't..." list, and thereby a good chunk of my passive frugality. In the next two posts, I'll be ranting about technology and pervasive manipulation in modern society...

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by wolf » Fri Oct 27, 2017 12:36 am

black_son_of_gray wrote:
Thu Oct 26, 2017 11:47 pm
After all, it isn't really that difficult not doing something. At least, for me.
In the future, I'd certainly like to further develop the skills of active frugality - the scrappy resourcefulness that creates something of value or "makes do" with very little cost. In the meantime, though, I'm looking forward to exploring just how deep I can go with this passive frugality thing. I've identified two of the biggest sources in my life driving the "I don't..." list, and thereby a good chunk of my passive frugality.
Hi black_son_of_gray. Interesting post. Liked your don't-list and your thoughts about society. Maybe I can add something here.

One of Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi's maxims was: 'Invert, always invert'. So, instead of only thinking about the don't...

What are you doing for your frugality? (now, not planned in the future) Are there already habits, ... which you do?

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by Bankai » Fri Oct 27, 2017 3:09 am

Some areas of passive frugality force you to take action to fulfill the same need. If you don't eat out or buy microwaveable ready meals (passive), you'd then buy 'real' foods and cook using them (active). Thus, what starts as a passive not doing something, often leads to taking action and starting building a skill. Some other examples: not going to the barber/hairdresser (cutting your own hair instead), not owning a car (walking/biking), not watching tv (could be anything you decide to spend this time on instead). Active part could then be thought of as just a reverse of passive?

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by Jason » Fri Oct 27, 2017 7:42 am

Very interesting blog. Maybe the science background shows the benefit of applied intellectual rigor.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Sat Oct 28, 2017 10:22 am

@ CS
My biggest motivations for the "go back and live with parents for a year or so" option are:
  • I have a changed a lot (matured?) since leaving the household at 18. So in that sense, I'm curious to experience a flatter relationship with them. By flatter, I mean that we are all adults with life experiences, and the giant asymmetry of them being responsible for me, taking care of me, etc. is not in the way of me getting to know who they really are as people.
  • I get the sense that they might really enjoy having family around, and it could be a nice thing to do for them.
  • I'd get to routinely go fishing with my dad, talk about books with my mom, and really learn about my SO's family at a deeper level than seeing each other maybe 1 week a year. We are all introverts, so building this kind of connection requires a time and an unhurried pace.
  • Importantly, we would be able to say from the outset exactly what kind of timeline we have for how long we would like to stay. From the parents' point of view, I could understand fears of "boomerang children" - that we are just going to bum it with them forever. Instead, we can say something precise like "We would like to stay 6 months to 1 year, then we will leave to do something else."
@MDFIRE2024, bankai
I do a couple things which you might call active frugality. For example, we do buy mostly produce and make from-scratch meals, I do routinely cut my own hair, I repair and maintain my own bike, etc. Nothing that I would consider to be particularly clever or skillful, and outside of certain activities (e.g. commuting to work in alternative ways, cooking from scratch) these active frugality activities don't actually save huge amounts of money. For example, $60 could pay for haircuts for a year, $100 could probably take care of my bike maintenance for a year. Instead, I pay about $25 per year for both categories combined- but it wouldn't meaningfully influence my savings either way.

Here's an example to try to clarify what I mean by active vs. passive frugality, which, now that I think about it, seems to exist on a sliding scale. Let's say I need a rake.

More Active
  • Make a rake with scrap wood and tools for (<$4)
  • Wait until rake is on sale at hardware store for %50 off ($10)
  • Borrow/trade for rake ($0)
  • Don't do activity that needs rake ($0)
More Passive

A couple points about the non-exhaustive list above. First, it is fairly difficult to figure out where to place the middle items, because they leverage different skills, some of which might be easy or difficult. For example, borrowing a rake from a neighbor that you have a naturally good rapport with is trivially easy. Setting up an exchange with a stranger in a rural setting might take much more active social skill/effort. The bookends of the list, though, I think are correctly positioned. On the one hand, the most active frugality is, as I defined in my previous post as "the scrappy resourcefulness that creates something of value or "makes do" with very little cost". On the other hand, the last item on the list, and what I think characterizes my particular expression of passive frugality, is the "opt-out": avoiding costs by opting out of activity itself. (e.g. I have minimized my daily coffee habit by not having one, my season tickets cost me $0 because I don't have season tickets, etc.).

Second, and where I think some interesting aspects of "lifestyle crafting" come into play, the more active approaches are not necessarily cheaper than the more passive approaches (or vice versa). The hardcore active, technical skills and knowledge-based approach is certainly sometimes the cheapest solution, but I'm not sure that there are reliable trends that would suggest that always doing the more skills-intensive approach is the best option by default.

Perhaps the eminently quotable Thoreau said it best: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone."

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Sun Oct 29, 2017 6:46 pm

On my personal vision of ERE and the rise of modern consumer technology

(Note: There are a lot of modern technology/devices/gadgets (Internet-of-things appliances, Amazon Echo-type "personal assistants", Google Glass (didn't that die?), Juicero (did die), smart locks/lightbulbs, etc). In this post, I focus mainly on the smartphone as a specific case-study of a disconnect that I have noticed between how I want to live my life, how that meshes with society, and "opt-out"/passive frugality. In a subsequent post, I will attempt to generalize)

From the outset let me just say that my personal ERE goal is to construct redundant, stable, self-reinforcing systems of diverse elements (cf ERE Wheaton Scale). Huh? English please. I want to inhabit a lifestyle that I enjoy, that is comfortable, relaxed and varied, but that is also financially flexible/fungible. I'm starting to learn that to achieve that goal involves not only the addition/accumulation/creation of certain things (e.g. most obviously, financial wealth), but also the subtraction/avoidance/"opting out" of other things.

I am sometimes teasingly called a Luddite - by people who clearly have issues with modern consumer technology. Allow me to give you an obviously biased example of what a routine day looks like for me::

I wake up, eat and get ready for work. I hop on my bike for the morning's 3 mile commute, consisting mostly of sleepy neighborhood streets and a convenient bike path, with only a few busy street crossings before arriving at the bike rack outside my employer. During this trip, the people that I pass by are joggers, other bike commuters, mothers/nannies pushing strollers, older neighborhood residents out for a morning walk. Invariably, most are listening to headphones or staring at a smartphone screen. The joggers and walkers, blithely walking down the middle of the bike path (or the middle of the road, seriously!) while plugged into headphones, don't hear my bike bell, don't hear my verbal warnings. I don't want a collision, so I slow to a crawl and carefully navigate around them to pass. I cross paths with a couple of "regulars" - typically older people out for a walk. We say "good morning!" and it puts a smile on my face. When I reach a busy road, I notice something strange: approximately 30% or so of drivers are talking on the phone or looking down at a screen. A number of you are thinking that is a wild exaggeration - but I've counted! I cross the street with a heightened sense of defensiveness because I have nearly been hit by these people on several occasions.

I enter my workplace and start my day. I sit down at my fancy computer, write code to analyze data, perform experiments on sophisticated equipment, etc. Sometimes I attend meetings or lectures - hosted and attended by some of the world's leading experts (TM) working on some of the great mysteries of our time. The lights dim and the Powerpoint starts up. I look around to see some of these world's leading experts (TM), sitting close to the front, pull out their smartphones or laptops, a pale glow illuminating their faces. They summarily ignore the speaker, choosing instead to scroll through their emails. The event ends, people filter out of the room, and I go back to doing my work. At lunchtime, colleagues often simultaneously want to eat as a group, but also cannot resist spending half the time scrolling down a never-ending screen. Before the day is out, I'll probably have at least one conversation end by a person abandoning it so they can attend to a *ding* or buzz. I've had one-on-one conversations with bosses, who, upon hearing a *ding* or buzz from their phone, have abandoned me in mid-sentence (I was the one speaking) to start reading an email. They never looked up again, and I just walked away.

I leave work for home. It's starting to get dark. The same pale glow of screens illuminates the faces of drivers cued up at stoplights. I bike past rows of mostly dark McMansions where the pale glow of screens indicates which rooms people are actually occupying. I have to navigate a few more oblivious joggers before arriving back home.

What's my point?
  • I'm not a Luddite - I use fancy technology all the time. It is part of my day. It is part of my work. I think it is a valuable tool, and I don't want to go back to a time where it didn't exists.
  • I don't hate smartphones. I am still using my first cell phone, dating back to 2006. Why? Because it still works. And the low prices of modern technology have some real human costs. But when my current phone finally dies, there is a good change I'll end up with a smartphone.
  • I'm not even upset with how ridiculous people are sometimes. It's more a surreal feeling - like I'm a stranger in a strange land. I certainly don't feel "holier-than-thou". After quitting Facebook, it took me maybe half a year to stop randomly and unconsciously typing "" into an empty browser window during a temporary lull. I know there are some crazy strong mental tendencies at play when it comes to how people use devices, whether it is understood clinically as addiction or not.
My personal vision of an ERE lifestyle involves having the luxury to take time to do things with intention, without distraction. It means giving the activity/person I'm engaged with full consideration. It involves openness and participation with my local community and neighbors through face-to-face engagement, not isolation through screens and earbuds. To paraphrase someone else: What people call multitasking or "being more productive" does not interest or impress me. I think I could be very happy with a "low-tech" lifestyle. And, if I'm being honest, I'm also scared that if I fully embrace the full range of modern technological offerings, I'll be sucked into the same behaviors and turn into a zombie myself. I have no doubts that I am just as susceptible as everyone else.

So, moving on from here, how do I best go about enacting my preferred lifestyle? My current "technology situation" is the following: I have a laptop (2009), cell phone (2006), mp3 player (2003? haven't used it in years), desktop (2011ish) and cable internet. Until this point, most of my "backwardness" with tech devices has been unintentional: nothing broke, so I didn't replace it. This was also convenient for ERE, because there was no additional spending of money. But things will eventually break, and I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn't just "opt-out" when they go?

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by wolf » Mon Oct 30, 2017 1:29 am

black_son_of_gray wrote:
Sun Oct 29, 2017 6:46 pm
So, moving on from here, how do I best go about enacting my preferred lifestyle? My current "technology situation" is the following: I have a laptop (2009), cell phone (2006), mp3 player (2003? haven't used it in years), desktop (2011ish) and cable internet. Until this point, most of my "backwardness" with tech devices has been unintentional: nothing broke, so I didn't replace it. This was also convenient for ERE, because there was no additional spending of money. But things will eventually break, and I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn't just "opt-out" when they go?
My last digital devices, which I "opted-out" out were a desktop (I replaced it with a laptop), and a tablet (I didn't use it in years). Regarding digital devices I posess a smartphone and my laptop. I find the combination quite good, because I can do so many things with my smarthphone now, that I usually only did with my laptop, e.g. watching videos, reading ERE-posts, searching the web, checking emails, etc. Therefore I like and use my smartphone very much, because it has a low energy consumption and is super fast on and off.

That is the hardware basis, but usage of the devices is another issue. My usage of digital screens is quite high. I don't have any negative feelings about that, but I am aware that I use my devices quite often. My guideline is 1/3 consumption + 1/3 production + 1/3 break/time-off. In the last few months I have read some articles about "digital detoxing". It must be a small trend in Silicon Valley, could that be? So I thought about detoxing/fasting myself.

How often and intense do you use your digital devices? I think, I have read in your journal, that you have also INTJ personality aspects. So, I guess you do also a lot of researching, collecting, analyzing, collecting... data and information. (at least that is the case for me) Do you use digital restriction, such as "not reading blogs" or "avoiding news"? I am interested if you have any "digital best practices" to share?

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Sun Nov 05, 2017 4:19 pm

To be captain of your own ship in a sea of mass manipulation, fight the current by dropping an anchor?

Despite decades of formal schooling, there are only a handful of days that individually stick out as containing watershed, eye-opening lessons. For me, one of those days came in elementary school. I can't remember the class. I can't remember how old I was. I honestly don't even know why it was in the curriculum. But it caused a permanent shift in my thinking.

The topic for the day was advertising and marketing. The textbook and the teacher were using plain language to frankly lay out what advertising and marketers were really up to when trying to convince you to buy a product. We learned specific strategies (e.g. I remember specifically learning about the bandwagon effect), how they appealed to people, and why they were effective. From that day on, I could never look at the candy and tabloids piled up around the grocery store cash register the same way - I now knew that they were strategically placed there to take advantage of people's impulses.

Looking back, it's seems like a fairly unusual thing for a young kid to be exposed to, like I was somehow learning a secret of the adult world way ahead of my time - after all, adults usually don't make a point of telling children that they are actively trying to indoctrinate, cajole, and coerce them. The kids have to try to figure that themselves (many do, some don't). The end result for me, though, was that from a pretty early age, I've had a knee-jerk skepticism of anyone trying to sell me anything, stemming from a semi-automatic mental routine of breaking down a sales pitch into its component appeals/approaches as it is coming at me. I hate feeling like I'm being manipulated.

Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day.
A core concept in YMOYL, "FU" money, attaining FI, etc. is the wresting of control out of systems operated by "other people" and reasserting it for yourself. This is mostly described in a financial sense - asserting the control to only buy things you like or enjoy, having the power of saying "No!" to an obnoxious employer (or any employer), the ability to abstain from the credit system (and all of the attendant hoops to jump through) by just buying things outright or paying cash. Permaculturists describe it as actively cultivating and guiding an interconnected, integrated food-web/lifestyle. Here, I refer specifically to the mental sense of control- pertaining to our running narratives of self/identity, our limited reservoir of attention, our fears - which has a primacy of sorts to these other forms of self-control. In the vein of Emerson, for a life more authentically mine, for a way of life more self-directed, I need to do my best to safeguard my own thoughts from the systems of others who would exert control over me.

Psychologists, behavioral economists, neuroscientists and others in related fields have done a bang-up job in the last 60 years or so in dissecting and cataloguing the numerous faults and bugs in our thinking. At the individual level, it can be really interesting and useful to learn all the ways in which our brain veers off from the "ideal rational observer" - and sometimes this wandering even provides an unexpected perk to our happiness and satisfaction. But there are two big problems with this newfound understanding:

1) We can't fix it. Although the flaws in our thinking have in some cases been extremely well characterized, there is very little that we can consciously do to fix many of these problems. Unfortunately, our mental software is version 0.9, and it more or less can't be patched. The only things we can do involve being aware of the problems, taking great pains to identify the problems, and carefully applying more deliberative System 2 thinking to overcome our System 1 impulse. But these strategies come at large costs of time and effort, and in the end only mitigate the effects of the mental bugs without ever solving them.

2) This knowledge is dual use, with asymmetric incentives. Dual use just means that some new technology or knowledge could be used for "good" or "bad" purposes, however you want to define those terms. For example, knowing the specific details of what makes a virus highly infectious can be used to develop vaccines or epidemiological strategies to combat horrible diseases, but it could also potentially be used to make more malicious bio-weapons. Knowledge of these mental bugs definitely falls under "dual use", and I think that the "bad"-to-"good" ratio is rapidly escalating. Part of this increasing lopsidedness stems from (1) above, because it is difficult to use this information to substantially or permanently improve human thinking. There are some clever ways in which people have used "gamification" to make personal goals or self-improvement easier, as one example of a good. On the flip side, however, there are many and large incentives for using these bugs against people, even if providing some superficially "good" things as well. Consider social networks: they use plenty of mental bug exploits to maximize their "performance" metrics - the frequency of which users check the platform, and the total time spent on the platform - all of which boosts their revenue and power at the same time it makes users more miserable (as mounting evidence shows). Most recently, one could argue that Russia "weaponized" these mental bugs in combination with social media in an attempt to influence the US presidential election.

One of the great battles of the coming decades will be over controlling the attention, behavior, and habits of the average person. At the moment, I'm struggling to figure out a strategy for how to deal with this problem of avoiding mass manipulation. As I have seen with the people around me and their inability to effectively control smartphone habits/addictions (see previous post), this battle is already well underway and only likely to get more extreme and sophisticated going forward. When I look around my world (my colleagues, my local community, my country), something clearly feels like it is "out of whack"/Koyaanisqatsi. Just about everyone I know (including myself) has some mental overlord, ranging from caffeine/alcohol/drug/food intake issues, to smartphone/internet compulsivities, to extreme tribalism/worldview bubbles, excessive consumerism. The list goes on and on. Some of these have been around for a long time, but the new breed of high-tech issues feel the most insidious to me because they are rapidly becoming ubiquitous and difficult to escape.

I realize these definitions are blurry and subjective, and it is often difficult to make distinctions. I don't mean to suggest that I want to avoid anyone ever influencing my opinions or attitudes - that is impossible and ridiculous. I'm more concerned about large, organized attempts by (governments, organizations, businesses) to exploit these mental bugs in ways that leave people worse off, less happy, and with less mental autonomy. I'm not exactly sure where I want to draw a line.

Summary/ WTL;DR (Way too long; didn't read)
I started this whole series of rambling thoughts by noting that what seems to set me apart from others is the collective number of things I don't do. This list of traits, largely composed of things I've passively "opted out" of, has put me on the path to FI largely by default and without much effort on my part. In the last few decades, humanity has made a lot of progress towards understanding the "bugs" in human thinking and decision making, but we haven't and probably won't make much progress in patching those bugs. Moving forward, I'm going to be confronted by choices which may expose me to manipulation from others trying to exploit my bugs: do I eventually come around to adopting those tools/gadgets/practices that I see 1) others struggle with managing, and 2) actively try to control my attention/choices? Do I try to optimize this (80/20), by picking and choosing to tightly regulate my own habits? Or do I make the choice to actively continue to opt-out, intentionally shunning these spheres of manipulation, stepping aside to practice a weird form of "mental" minimalism, giving up the benefits in order to minimize the damage? To be captain of your own ship in a sea of mass manipulation, do you fight the current by dropping an anchor? (Do you extend a metaphor to its breaking point?)

I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out a satisfying way to end this post, pulling all these swirling ideas into one cohesive, punchy finish - but I am drawing a blank. So I'll just end it here. :mrgreen:

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by wolf » Mon Nov 06, 2017 1:38 am

Hi black_son_of_gray! Thank you for this inspiring post. It is about a topic, which I am also interested in. Currently I read "Thinking Fast and Slow", therefore I understand immediately when you wrote about "System 1". As I read the chapters of "Thinking Fast and Slow", I think a lot about the consequences, e.g. the possibilities to manipulate society and humans by politics, media, companies, ... These days a smartphone is omnipresent in many people's life. I read in a psychology magazin that big companies do already researches how to control (manipulate) smartphone users by apps. Unfortunately I think that the majority of smartphone users are not aware of this and their intensive usage of those devices. With interest I follow the "digital detoxing" ideas. Some great thinkers and CEOs of tech-companies want their children to grow with less digital influence (smartphone, games, social media, ...) as possible. I guees if those 1% of humanity (who control those big manipulating companies) do that, there lie some truth in it. Well, reading "Thinking Fast and Slow" and contemplating about biases and fallacies makes me more aware about my personal life and habits.

I am interested in the "list of traits" you mentioned. I have read about some digital devices and habits you "opted-out". Is there more you "opt-out"? How do you proceed from the insight about a trait/bias/fallacy to your real world, e.g. changing a habit or "opt-out" something. Is it from theory to praxis or the other way around? Do you study yourself or do you study society?

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