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Blind Taste Tests in One Direction: Down!

Think of a product you regularly use.  There are undoubtedly both better quality products and worse products out there.  There are also cheaper and more expensive products, but the cheap ones aren’t necessarily the worse ones and the expensive ones are not necessarily the good ones.

Sometimes there is temptation to try new products, which is normal, and there’s nothing wrong with it.  But be careful of tradeup conversations.  How often have you heard something like this?

Jeez, are you still drinking regular coffee?  There’s this company in Hawaii that makes the best coffee in the world.  They train monkeys to swing from branch to branch to pick it so that the soil around the roots isn’t compacted by feet.  The monkeys even eat only organic produce!  They only use organic compost which is gathered from organic farms that only buy organic fair trade fertilizer.  They water the coffee trees with Fiji water too so you don’t get any of those off alkali hard water non-organic free radical blah blah blah….

I don’t debate that the coffee might be the best in the world, I just don’t care!  I’m completely satisfied with my coffee, and am immune to both the novelty seeking angle and the best of the best argument (think Donald Trump talking about anything).  I’m happy to test my daily products against other ones.  My policy is to only comparison shop downhill.  If I need to go uphill, I’ll know, and there’s no reason to train myself into it.

  • Bourbon:  I used to buy midrange Bourbon, around $25-$40 a bottle (it’s cheap here in Kentucky) and was completely happy.  Then one day I tried Heaven Hill Black- about $7.99 for a 750mL bottle.  That stuff is really good!  In fact, to my taste, it’s exactly the same (meaning that I can’t pick the cheaper from the more expensive one blindly and though they are slightly different, equally good to me).  Given that I was satisfied completely with the midrange stuff, it would have been foolish to try it repeatedly against more expensive bourbon and train myself to differentiate.  The old me might have said it’s better to buy the expensive stuff since it’s a disincentive to consume, but the new me has the sense to drink less… of the cheaper stuff.  I really enjoy tasting and trying better, nicer bourbons socially, but I have no desire to stock my pantry with them.  I don’t need to go uphill.
  • Generic anything:  There’s a certain signaling that comes with buying name brand products, both to others and to yourself.  In marketing class, we learned that there are two kinds of people- those who believe name brand is better and those who believe name brand and store brand are essentially the same.  I’d say there is a third category of people like me, who strongly suspect that name brand and store brand are the same but don’t really care if they are slightly differentiated, quality wise.  I have never found a reason to go uphill from store brands.  In marketing, it’s interesting to note that there is NEVER talk about quality, all that matters and exists is perceived quality.
  • Everything is a commodity:  If you’re using a product, chances are it is made from other products.  Going far enough up the food chain, most food starts out as water, nitrogen in the air and trace elements in the ground.  For non-food products, most stuff is wood, elemental metal, or fossil fuel oil (aka plastics).  Rather than testing one product against another, try moving a step down the value chain.  A great example is oatmeal.  Some people in my office buy the $4 oatmeal from Starbucks.  Some people take a step back and buy the little packets of oatmeal with (somewhat mysterious) flavoring powder in them.  I’ve started buying the huge $8 containers of rolled oats from Costco, and they last me for high single-digit months.  I can’t take it much further up the commodity chain without crossing the consumer-producer line.  And eating oats HORSE STYLE (no cream no sugar) is healthier than any of the other alternatives, general carbs aside.  I’ve slid down the chain to bulk rolled oats, and have no interestin going back uphill.

So I’ll be happy to try a blind taste test, but I’ll only do it purposefully for entertainment or to consider swapping down.  There are plenty of things vying for my attention and (potentially) money, and there’s no reason in my world to subject myself to more.  An underdeveloped palate is among the greatest assets in consumer soceity!

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Fear of Death

I used to be pretty ambivalent about the idea of dying.  

At least in the sense of inevitability… it was never anything I dwelled upon.

Something is changing within me- I’m becoming much more afraid of it.  Usually fear is a bad thing, but in this case it’s really good.  And it’s not just because I’m getting older, it’s because of the changes in my lifestyle.

With the changes I’ve made in the last year or two, I’m starting to really enjoy life, a lot.  I’m starting to enjoy it more than I even realized possible, in fact.

So here’s the point… as a fair skinned person with some history of sun exposure, every little change in skin has to be carefully monitored.  I have a place on my back where I’ve been having intermittant discomfort/pain for a couple of months now.  It’s probably nothing, and I hate going to the doctor for various reasons, but…

The old me might have just “let it ride,” but the new me, very interested in living life to the fullest for a long time, has made an appointment with the dermatologist to investigate.

So I guess some types of fear can be a good thing, when you’re living a good life!

 

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The Closet War is Over

The closet war is over, forever.

In retrospect, I can’t even believe how I lived the way I did for so long.

My closet was defined by:

  • Drawers usually filled to 80%-110% of capacity
  • Large stockpiles of dirty (and clean) laundry
  • Clothes on hangars that were tightly packed and unseeable
  • Clothes I hadn’t worn in years, if ever
  • Off season clothes stored in totes in the garage, often missed for years

I didn’t keep strict track, but I estimate I easily donated ten full garbage bags of clothes.  Those of you who see me regularly will not notice any change in my appearance, since I continue to wear the same clothes I used to wear.  Now I simply don’t own the things I don’t wear!

Here’s a particular object lesson- the socks.  I used to have a lot of socks.  Dress socks, blue socks, polka dotted socks, wool socks, white athletic socks, white ankle socks, etc.  There’s nothing I hate more than sorting and combining socks, so my socking experience was a lot like the canonical bag of marbles probability problem:  I would draw a sock, then continue drawing socks until a match was drawn for the first or any subsequent sock drawn.  This is what was in the drawer I was working with:

 

sockpile

The whites and the colors were at least in different drawers, but still, it was a disaster.  There is only one kind of sock I even like!  It’s like a regular athletic crew sock, but black instead of white.  Some kind of cotton-lycra blend.  I would preferentially wear those socks to work, with regular clothes, and even working out (If you can’t get over me wearing black socks at the gym, we’ll never be friends anyway so I don’t care).  I HATE those silk gold toe dress socks.  I also hate having a million different socks to match and mate.  So I simply went and bought a dozen of the ones I like, and ditched the entire sockpile that has been taunting me for all these years.  I’m delighted to go sock up every morning now, because I know exactly what I’ll get.  Plus my sock storage has decreased by about 80% and I’m still right where I was before laundry-wise, needing to do it every 1-2 weeks.  WIN!

One of the hardest things to part with were some sentimental uniforms.  The two sets of submarine coveralls that I wore the entire time I was a submariner (golden shellback, etc.), and the utilites I wore as a speechwriter for an Admiral to places like Kosovo.

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I actually hung them up in the closet for about a week, and after thinking about it harder took them back out, took pictures,and stuck them in the goodwill pile.  In retrospect, the only regret I had was that I forgot to get the ship’s patch off my coveralls, which could have been a meaningful memento at much less volume.

So here is my closet now, which contains all my clothes.  I purposely didn’t tidy it up for these pictures, because I’m so proud that it stays in a state of organization even when it hasn’t been tidied.  This is everything I own, if you see me in hang-up type clothes soon they’ll be hanging right here!

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A Test of Your Addiction to Stuff

I’m fully on board the “less is more” train these days, which a few committed souls ride with great pleasure.  Society (and advertising) teaches us that more is always more, and people in that mode are unwilling to even consider their lifestyle as far as sufficency vs. excess goes.

There’s a large middle ground, made up of people that think they want less.  Maybe they even read the literature in the field (blogs, message boards, books like Early Retirement Extreme). These Middle Grounders may feel a spark of excitement exploring the literature, but never really follow through on changes in their lives.  They may even think they are making progress down the path, and every bit does help, but ultimately they make no meaningful progress.  I myself dwelled in this middle ground for several years.

Here’s a thought experiment to see where you fall on the spectrum:

Imagine that you win a shopping spree to the biggest/best mall in your town.  You get all day to take anything from any store you want, for free.  The only catch is that you can’t resell anything.  If you take something, it has to live in your household until it wears out or is consumed or thrown away.

What would you take?

I’m not sure I would bother showing up.

I love this test, because it forces a test of addiction to stuff without being constrained by financial concerns.  In my case, I’m not “cheap” for the sake of being cheap, rather I’ve carefully considered what’s important to me, realizing that more stuff is simply not what makes me happy, at any price, including free!

For most people, including The Old Me, the amount of stuff I had was controlled and kept in check by how much money (or credit) I had lying around.  I always had a vague sense that I needed more, and would even pass the time looking at ebay and amazon or otherwise shopping online and buying or making wishlists.

Today, I have everything I want or need (side note: the book above compellingly argues that there is no difference between wants and needs, in fact both are false).  Seriously, I just spent several months getting rid of everything I possibly could, why would I want more stuff?  Today, my possessions are not constrained by my income or savings, they are limited by my desire.  That is a powerful state of existence which was a long time in coming.  I actually have everything I want (with a few exceptions, talked about at the end of this article).

I’ll say it again:  My possessions are not constrained by my income or savings.  Most people NEVER reach this stage in their lives, because there’s always something more.  There’s always new clothes, or a new car, or a new laptop.  In fact, even people with 8 figure net worth are often disappointed with what they have- if they could only have their OWN private jet rather than having a fractional share jet card, they’d really make it, know what I mean?

So back to the mall, what’s actually there?

  • Clothes:  I have every piece and type of clothing I can possibly imagine needing.  I have two pairs of jeans (a pair of Levis and a pair of Lucky Brand) that fit just right, and even if I had 50 pairs of jeans in my closet, I would reach for one of those two pairs at “jean decision point” anyway.  I’ve culled down (and tailored) my work suits and am not interested in replacing them any time soon.  This covers about 80% of the mall.
  • Electronics:  We have a giant, relatively new smart TV.  The last thing I’d want is another TV, because it would probably end up in a kids’ room or my bedroom.  We have fine, functional cell phones.  We all have fine, functioning laptops.  The thought of bringing more gadgets into our house fills me with dread.
  • Jewelry, perfume, cosmetics, accessories:  This seems to be a considerable portion of most malls, and there’s nothing there for me.  I guess if I was female I might stock up on consumables like makeup, if I wore makeup.  Would I wear makeup?  That’s a separate thought experiment…
  • Books, movies, CDs, etc.:  I have a library card, and can get any book in print through interlibrary loan or as a pdf online (older stuff).  I can listen to any song ever recorded on youtube or Spotify.  I have Netflix and have been systematically ditching my physical DVDs, not adding to them!  I love media, but it doesn’t have to come into my house as physical stuff.  Again, I’ve been trying to cut down what I have, not accrete more.
  • Kid Stuff:  My kids have everything they could possibly need, and more.  I guess I could pick up some clothes for them, since they always outgrow them.  But the last thing I want to do is buy them more electronics or toys that will bring us further apart.  Kids think they want more stuff (just like most adults), but what they really want is novelty.  Think about Legos.  They love getting new Lego sets, which they put together and play with for a few weeks.  Then the set is dismantled and ends up in the Lego bin(s).  They have more legos of every color and size than they could ever use.  An important life lesson for them is to use their imagination to make stuff out of the tubs of legos they have rather than getting shiny new ones to consume.  I want them to have and use legos, not consume them.  This concept applies far beyond Legos, toys, and childhood in general.
  • Other Stuff:  What else is in the mall? I don’t even know.  I guess if there was a grocery store I’d stock up on things I’m planning to eat anyway, other than that I can’t think of what I’d go take.  I don’t even want to know what else there is, because I don’t want to use my mental energy developing wants for stuff I don’t even want right now.

I guess maybe I would go to Williams Sonoma and get some nicer cookware and knives (basic multi use, no ice cream makers or flan pans or anything).  Maybe I would go get some workout clothes?  Probably workout shoes, since they’re somewhat consumable.  At any rate, anything I picked up would be swapped out one for one with something I have (pan for pan, sneakers for sneakers, etc.).

Will I ever buy anything again?  Sure, when stuff wears out, or I realize I have some unmet need I haven’t explored.  Perhaps I’ll get interested in some hobby that makes me want to buy something.  There are certain things I might upgrade someday, for example, my drums or backpack or something.  I had a desk made last year by Campbellsville Cherry which I love, and perhaps as furniture wears out I would consider commissioning new pieces.

The point is that The Old Me, and even the Intermediate Me (interested but not committed to right-sizing my lifestyle) would have probably backed up the truck and filled it with all sorts of stuff from the mall.  The New Me is truly free from the enslavement of stuff, and it’s the best, lightest, most liberating feeling in the world.  This is how I know I’ve made the leap from being a Middle Grounder to the dark side.

 

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The Emerging Mindset of Continuious Gratification

There is a famous study referred to as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment:

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.) In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.

The interpretation is that in life, the only two choices are instant gratification (bad) or delayed gratification (good), and until recently, my experiences lined up with this interpretation.  Many of the good life choices I have made involved tradeoffs for delayed gratification, and likewise, the opposite is true.  However, what I’ve learned from developing my lifestyle over the last couple of years is that delayed vs. instant gratification is a false choice! 

The mindset that I have begun to embrace is one of neither instant nor delayed gratification; rather it is a choice for continuous gratification.  In a personal finance sense:

  • Instant gratification would be the choice to spend every penny earned and then some through debt- managing finances by affording the payments.
  • Delayed gratification would be the choice to work hard until age 65 or 70, then being able to support a “continuous vacation” retirement of worldwide jet-setting, cruising, golf, a house in The Villages: extreme and frequent consumption.  Such retirees are not incapable of enjoying their hard earned retirement, but they have traded the best years of their life for a long vacation in the increasingly arthritic, childless and variously dysfunctional (use your imagination) years.
  • People who are able to be financially independent in their 20s or 30s or even 40s without a significant windfall are choosing continuous gratification.  They have found a way to be happy on a fraction of their preretirement income, needing investment income to support 20%-30% of preretirement income rather than 80%-130% of income as before.  They wake up each day and choose rewarding activities, personally and possibly even financially, but on their terms.  In short, they are not tied to full time employment for survival, so have infinite opportunities to grow and evolve.

You can always get more money or a new job, but the only truly limited resource in life is time.

An important part of continuous gratification is finding ways to spend the massive amount of free time that financial independence could create.  This is scary because we are wired to not have to be self-sufficient when it comes to time: a lifetime of institutionalization from preschool to college to full time jobs means that almost always, someone is dictating how the most productive 40 hours of the week will be spent.  I’ve written about the importance of serotonin and dopamine before, which are the chemicals that make humans feel good about themselves and what they are doing.  Consider this list:

  • Going for a long run
  • Owning and driving a fast & cool sports car
  • Taking a vacation to the south of France
  • Playing chess with my son and daughter
  • Cooking and eating dinner as a family
  • Collecting rare books and fancy pens
  • Skiing in Colorado

I have greatly enjoyed each activity on this list at different times, but they are very different.  All of them energize and entertain my immensely, but some of them are absurdly expensive and some of them are completely free.  Cost per unit of serotonin is a very important metric, since it decides how much money one needs to retire and how long one must be committed to involuntary full time work.

The problem with instant/delayed gratification people is that they put absolutely no emphasis on “value per unit of pleasure.”  What’s worse, they believe there is a positive correlation between money spent and pleasure.  VERY few people can tell the difference between a $25 bottle of Bourbon and a $100 bottle in a blind taste test… or between a $25 bottle of wine and a $2500 one, for that matter.  In fact, aspirational advertising has taught us that there is positive correlation between money spent and pleasure derived from stuff and experiences.

I acknowledge that there are differences that experts can discern, and the best wines are probably unambiguously “better” than midrange ones.  However, what separates continuous gratification people from instant/delayed folks is that we don’t want to know the difference.  Rather than spending all my money today on the finest wine, or working hard for 30 years to be able to afford the finest wine, I want to responsibly enjoy Botabox wine today and indefinitely into the future, with no aspirations of trading up.  Satisfaction with what you’ve got can be achieved at any level of income or savings, yet is one of the most elusive goals to reach in today’s society.  I refuse to take one marshmallow today or two tomorrow; I prefer a long string of healthy marshmallowless days with no insulin spikes and no cavities!

This article is a brief foray into the lifestyle I’ve been developing for myself over the last year or so.  It incorporates elements of minimalism, Stoicism, continuous gratification, autotelism, personal fitness, diet, financial independence and much much more.  There are a lot of great thinkers who have created this body of study in the last decade or so; I feel honored to have learned from them and eventually contribute to myself over time.  I would very much appreciate any readers that want to come along for my personal journey, documented at www.solexist.com.

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Bump in the Road

I peaked out last night in our Great Purge, and it was for a good reason.  Our curbside trash and recycling containers are so full that I can not wedge a single other thing into them.

I thought about bagging everything up I wanted to throw away, but from a Lean perspective, multiple touches just don’t make any sense.  I can’t wait until tomorrow (trash day) so I can tear through the garage and fill the trash and recycling up again.

We have donated a lot of stuff, but most of the things I’m throwing away don’t even qualify as something anyone would want donated.

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This is half the garage that heretofore was occupied by a bunch of Stuff.  Pretty soon, it will be occupied by the car I almost never drive.  I’d much have it filled up with my (fully depreciated) worthless car – which is actually very valuable to me –  than a bunch of worthless stuff.

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Find the Others

I’ve been reading more of what I call “lifestyle” blogs (in other words, people interested in the same type of lifestyle that I am), and it’s always interesting to find overlap.

I found this post discussing the feeling of drowning in stuff.  They had an “epiphany” which like in my case, allowed them to get rid of stuff.  They used an analogy I’ve thought of many times, which is home storage imagined as one of those 16×16 tile games where one free spot is open.  I too hated those games!

Also I learned that there are Japanese people who can tell you to get rid of all your stuff.  I can tell you the same thing, and in English too, so there!  Great post though, and I’m sure KonMari is doing great work helping people unload.

I promise this blog won’t be only about jettisoning stuff, but since that’s the nexus of my focus right now, it spills in here.

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We Achieved Peak Tubs

Rubbermaid-style tubs are really useful for containing a large amount of stuff.  They stack, they generally don’t crush, and they look neat as compared with the alternative.

But they facilitate hoarding, and are now my public enemy #1.

From a lean perspective, they’re very much like inventory buffers.  In Lean, work in progress inventory tends to mask other problems in the process, and only by depleting and ultimately eliminating WIP buffers will true problems be uncovered in the process.

In a household, these tubs or totes give the appearance of control, but truly they represent the opposite of control.  We have an awful lot of stuff in Rubbermaid tubs, and previously I would acquire 3-5 new ones once or twice a year.  They look neat, but when more tubs are acquired and filled up each year, there is silent and insidious chaos building up that can only be overcome through violent and massive purging.

I am approximately halfway done with the great purge of 2014/2015, and I estimate easily that I’ve emptied 25 tubs so far.  I can’t wait to finish and take a picture of all the empties when I’m done.  Driving a car full of stuff to goodwill or taking a huge load of boxes to the post office from ebay sales is deeply satisfying, but I think the mountain of empty tubs we’ll end up with in a few weeks will easily eclipse all of that.

I think my family has finally achieved Peak Tubs, meaning we now have all the storage containers we possibly could ever use for life.

What is your net tub flow?  Are you acquiring or emptying tubs these days?

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clothesplosion

I don’t have to lay in any fireworks, because there is literally an explosion of clothing coming out of this house right now.

My criteria for keeping clothing around used to be:

  • Does this fit, or have a hypothetical chance of fitting some day if I gain or lose a lot of weight?
  • If the world ended and all other clothes squirted out of the universe like a watermelon seed, would I wear this piece of clothing or just voluntarily frostbite out?

If the answer to both of these questions was yes, I would find a spot in the closet or a drawer or a rubbermaid tub to keep it.

After reading some of Jacob’s stuff at Early Retirement Extreme, I realized that I have more clothing than I could ever possibly deal with because of these absurd heuristics.  Therefore, I developed new rules.

  • Have I worn this in the last six weeks?  If so, keep.
  • If not, is it something I wear regularly in the appropriate season?  If so, keep.
  • Even if I do wear it regularly, how many do I have? If I have too many, pitch.
  • Does it need tailoring?  Then either put next to door to go to tailor, or pitch.
  • If not, is it something of such considerable sentimental value that I’m willing to sacrifice my life goals to hang on to it?  If not, pitch

As you can see from this pile I put together in about 30 minutes, a lot of it is getting pitched.  And it is the best…feeling…in…the…world.  To paraphrase Pulp Fiction, it’s worth having all this crap built up, just so I can pitch it.  At least once.

clothesplosionThis is just one of the mountains I’ve dispensed with since undertaking The Journey.

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Bus Incident

It’s really cold here!  As soon as the door to the 5:14 bus opened, I jumped onboard and ran my card, and it stuck.   Perhaps because of the cold weather?

It made my bus late because a maintenance man had to come with the key and unjam the card.  What’s worse, it was mangled, so he took it and told me I could pick up a replacement with the same number of rides on it today.

The problem is that this morning I don’t have a bus pass.  I had to pay the full fare of $1 this morning, and it’s not clear that they’ll refund the difference (passes are $15 for 20 rides, or $0.75 a ride).  I guess I’ve gotten a great deal more than $0.25 of value of my rides so far, but when you’re saving money, every quarter counts.

Financial Liberty is a process and a journey, not a destination, so while I recognize 25 cents of added expense is pretty irrelevant in the big picture, when does it become relevant?  $2?  $25?  $250?  It’s a mindset.

Update:  I paid my full fare this morning and took the bus all the way to the transit center.  The lady found my mangled card, and seemed very disinterested in giving me a new one (I guess they only come in full 20-riders).  Finally, she slowly counted out 14 single ride passes, put them in the slot, and walked away.  I think from my demeanor, she could tell that I was going to pleasantly and politely wait until I got my rides, but from her demeanor, I could tell that inquiring about my $0.25 was not in either of our best interests.

passes

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