Four Fermented Foods I Love to Make at Home

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A few years ago, my wife bought me a copy of The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. She knew that I loved to experiment with foods and unusual recipes and figured I’d enjoy digging into this book, especially since there was a long tradition in my family of making homemade sauerkraut.

She was absolutely right.

Making fermented foods and beverages has developed into a low-cost hobby of mine over the last few years. I’ve tried and failed and succeeded at making all kinds of strange fermented foods: some that were delicious, some that were not so delicious, and some that were decidedly strange.

After many, many experiments over the last several years, I’ve come to realize that there are really four things that come out on top in terms of things I’d recommend to others. These four items are often being made in our home. They perfectly balance flavorful and useful with being relatively easy to make. (I really enjoy a few other things, but they’re a lot of work – keeping a sourdough starter alive comes to mind here.)

Here are the four fermented food items that I think offer the most “bang for the buck” in terms of making them yourself. They’re easy to make, don’t require much equipment, and use pretty inexpensive ingredients. If you make these even twice, you’ve paid for any equipment compared to buying these foods in the store; if you make them several times, you’re saving a ton of money versus buying them in the store.


Sauerkraut is simply finely chopped fermented cabbage. You simply take a head of cabbage, chop it up into small bits, add some salt to it, mash it around until a lot of the liquid comes out of the cabbage, and then store that juicy salty cabbage in a jar for a few weeks. That’s literally all you do. Sauerkraut is something of a family tradition for me, as my father used to make large batches of it every year in a giant crock in the garage when I was growing up.

My preferred easy way of doing this is to use a large wide-mouth quart Mason jar and put a simple air lock fermentation lid on top. Those are the only two things you need that you might not already have in your kitchen (besides the cabbage and salt). You might also want some glass fermentation weights, but they’re not essential, merely very useful.

The process is about as simple as can be. Go to the store and buy a head of cabbage – weigh it while you’re there and note the weight in pounds. When you get home, take the cabbage head and remove a few of the big outer leaves from the head and set them aside for the moment. Take the rest of the cabbage and chop it up into fine pieces – I usually aim for pieces that are roughly the size of a small matchstick and I discard a small portion of the stem.

To that chopped cabbage, add one tablespoon of salt for every two pounds you weighed in the store. Mix the salt in and let it sit for about 15 minutes, then start squeezing it with your hands or with a blunt instrument. Your goal is to try to get as much water out of the cabbage as you can, and the salt will naturally help with this; you don’t want to discard the liquid, but make a salty “soup” out of the cabbage. Do this for about 10 minutes or so. You’ll be left with a lot of salty liquid and a bunch of squeezed cabbage. Fill a jar about 3/4 full with the wet cabbage, then pour on enough of the liquid so that the cabbage is fully submerged. Take one of the leaves, cut a circle out of it that’s a little wider than the size of the jar, then stuff that cabbage circle down on top, pushing it down below the liquid level. If you have a fermentation weight, put that on top of the cabbage leaf to keep it weighted down so that it’s less likely that the sauerkraut will push up above the liquid level.

Then, pop on the fermenting lid and let it sit for three weeks or so. You might see a bit of white mold on the very surface of it if any of the cabbage is exposed, and that’s okay – you can just toss that part – but if you see any other colors, your liquid wasn’t salty enough.

After three weeks, it’s ready to eat! You can serve it as a condiment or as a side dish with many different meals. You can also experiment with future batches by adding other ingredients to the mix, such as shredded radish, caraway seeds, shredded beets, jalapeño peppers, or minced garlic.

Here’s a great recipe for homemade sauerkraut with more details.


Kombucha is fermented sweet tea. The fermentation process gives the tea a bit of a distinct flavor – it’s still sweet, but it has a hint of pleasant sour to it as well. I personally like to mix it with a small bit of fruit juice.

Again, making kombucha is pretty easy. The only permanent equipment you need is a gallon glass jar, a clean cloth to cover the opening, and a rubber band to secure the cloth in place. If you want to individually bottle it and try to make it fizzy, you’ll need a few resealable bottles – I use these for all kinds of homemade beverages, including kombucha.

You’ll need to buy a bottle of kombucha at the store – this is the “starter” you can use to get your own batch going. I highly recommend the popular GT’s Kombucha brand for this because I’ve personally verified that you can get kombucha started from it. Don’t worry about which flavor to buy.

This part is going to sound crazy, but what you’ll want to do is simply open up the bottle of kombucha, cover the opening with the cloth, use a rubber band to secure it, and just leave it out in the open at room temperature. I’m not kidding in the least. You’ll want to leave it for about a week or two.

What will happen is that a small layer will form at the top of the liquid. It might look more like a small ball, or it might be a layer along the top – both are fine, and the one that forms depends entirely on the type of kombucha you have and the ambient air in your home. That layer or ball is called a scoby, and it’s a key ingredient in making kombucha. This can take a couple of weeks, so don’t sweat it if you don’t see any changes after several days.

Note that, as with any fermentation, if you see anything that looks hairy or black, there’s a problem and you should toss the mixture, but this is a rare occurrence and generally only happens when you’ve messed up a step.

Once that little ball or layer has formed, give it another few days, then you’re ready to make your first batch.

You’ll need 14 cups clean water, 6 bags of black tea, 1 cup of sugar, and your bottle of kombucha. First, simply boil the water in a large pot on the stove. When it reaches a boil, remove it from the heat and put the tea bags in. Let them steep for five minutes or so, then remove the tea bags and let the entire mixture cool to room temperature over a few hours. When it’s at room temperature, add the cup of sugar, stir it thoroughly, then pour it into the clean gallon jar. Then, pour the contents of the kombucha bottle right into the jar, scoby and all. Stir it for a minute or so, then put the cloth over the top of the jar and rubber band it in place.

Let it sit for a couple of weeks. What you’ll notice is that the scoby will grow a lot larger over this time. That’s a good thing.

When you decide it’s time to try it, you’ll want to remove the scoby and two cups of the liquid from the mixture. What you may find is that the scoby separates into multiple pieces or layers; that’s fine. Keep at least one scoby and the liquid. The rest of the remaining liquid is kombucha that’s ready to drink – be aware that it’s not carbonated at all and at room temperature. If you want to carbonate it and add a fruit flavor, add two cups of your preferred fruit juice to the jar, mix it thoroughly, then fill some of the resealable glass bottles mentioned earlier. These will carbonate over the next several days; leave them out on the table and check one of them each morning and evening by simply opening one of the bottles quickly and closing it. When you open one and hear a small popping sound, then carbonation is happening and I would recommend moving them to the fridge and drinking them in the next few days.

The scoby and two cups of liquid that you saved can serve as the starter for your next batch. Just repeat the above process, using your scoby and starter. If the scoby is getting really thick and hard to handle, you can easily divide it into smaller pieces; this allows you to start making multiple batches at once.

Here’s a great kombucha primer from Joy of Cooking.

Fermented Pickled Vegetables

There are a number of ways to “pickle” vegetables. Some of them involve vinegar as a way to introduce acetic acid to encourage the pickling process. Others simply use salt and allow the pickling process to occur naturally. In both cases, you can wind up with a delicious treat.

I personally like many different fermented pickled vegetables. Cucumbers are an obvious choice, but pickled carrots and pickled cauliflower and pickled peppers and pickled radishes are all delicious. I also like mixing vegetables in this process.

My process is simple. I just use a wide-mouth quart jar and a fermenting lid, as described in the earlier section about sauerkraut. I also use a glass fermentation weight or two, as noted earlier. I cut up four cups of vegetables that I want to pickle and put them in the jar – I’ll cut pickles into spears or carrots into smaller long strips or trim down cauliflower florets or cut peppers into strips. If I want to add some spices, I add them now – for example, I like to add peppercorns to many vegetables and dill to pickles. You’ll want to leave at least an inch and a half of space at the top of the jar, if not more. Then, I add three tablespoons of salt to the water and stir it thoroughly, then add that salty water to the vegetables, covering them completely in the salty liquid. I’ll put a fermentation weight or two on top to keep the vegetables down in the brine, then put on the fermentation lid and the ring.

Then, I just let them sit on the countertop or in the cupboard for a few weeks. I usually taste the vegetables at about the two-week mark and then weekly after that until I’m happy with them.

As I noted earlier, this is a delicious way to prepare cucumbers, cauliflower, peppers, carrots, radishes, and beets, among other things. For most of them, you don’t need to add any spices at all, though I like adding peppercorns and dill to pickles at least.

If you’d like to know more about making fermented pickled vegetables, this is a great guide.


Kimchi is a Korean condiment that is made up of a variety of shredded vegetables. I view it as being a “long lost cousin” of sauerkraut, because the two often remind me of each other. Kimchi has a particularly strong flavor, however, and that’s due to some of the more unusual ingredients.

The process for making kimchi is pretty similar to making sauerkraut, actually. You’ll need the things mentioned earlier (wide mouth quart jars, fermentation lids) as well as a blender, as the sauce in kimchi is made up of more than just water and salt. I like to make several jars of this at once, so what follows is a recipe for enough kimchi to fill quite a few jars.

Start with a head of cabbage, three large carrots, and a handful of green onions. Chop the cabbage head until it’s reduced to thin strips, then chop the carrots into long matchsticks. Add half a cup of salt to these vegetables in a big bowl and mix it thoroughly with your hands, then add enough cold water to cover all of the vegetables. Let this sit for an hour or two, then strain off the salty water and save it.

Meanwhile, chop off the green portion of the green onions (and save that green part), then dice them. Put the onions, half a cup of chili powder, 20 garlic cloves, four inches of peeled ginger root, a tablespoon of fish sauce, and four tablespoons of white miso paste in a blender and puree it. It’ll be a very thick paste – add water and re-blend it until it’s like a thin pancake batter or a milkshake.

Take the green parts of the onions, chop them into small pieces, then toss the cabbage-carrot mix, the green onion pieces, and the paste together in a very large bowl. Mix everything as thoroughly as you can; you can/should use your hands, but wear gloves!

Then, just start cramming this stuff into the jars, pressing it down as much as you can. Ideally, some of the thick liquid should move up to the top, covering the vegetables. If this doesn’t quite happen, add just a small bit of the saved salty water until the vegetables are thoroughly covered. I advise you to keep the top of the liquid about an inch and a half from the top of the jar. Put a fermenting lid and a ring on each jar and leave them out at room temperature for three days; they’ll probably start to bubble. When you start to notice bubbling, open each jar and press the vegetables down with a knife, releasing the bubbles. Do it again each day after that. After three days (at least two of which involve noticeable bubbling), put them in the fridge on top of a plate or a pan of some kind, because sometimes this stuff can bubble up and overflow the jar.

This stuff is delicious, but it has a very very distinct flavor that can be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. I’m in the love-it camp.

Here’s a more detailed version of the above recipe.

Final Thoughts

In all four of these cases, these recipes are far less expensive than buying the equivalent amount of that item in the store, and the homemade version is usually tastier because it’s fresher and you’ve selected the ingredients to match what you like.

However, these food items aren’t for everyone. I encourage you to try these things before making batches of them at home to make sure you’ll even like the end product. I really like all four of these things, but I know that even within my own family, some of these things are… not well liked.

If you find these kinds of foods and procedures interesting, I highly recommend the book The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz as a great reference. There are a number of good books on fermentation out there, but that was the one that really “set the hook” in terms of my own interest and discovery.

Good luck! Now, if I could just figure out how to keep a sourdough starter alive…

Read more by Trent Hamm

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Our Financial Reality and the Value of Financial Principles

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Over the last few months, I’ve seen a great deal of criticism of various financial and frugal bloggers who have achieved financial independence of some kind, arguing that their stories of being frugal and careful with their money and the strategies they share are somehow tainted because they earned a high income. Today, I wanted to address those ideas.

For starters, if someone has a good frugal idea, I don’t care if their annual income is $10,000 a year or $1,000,000 a year. A good idea is a good idea and I’ll happily use it. If someone making $450,000 a year suggests that it’s a good idea to cut your spending a little by re-evaluating all of your monthly bills one by one and deciding if you really need this streaming service or that gym membership, the idea isn’t suddenly a bad one because the person with a high income is suggesting it. It is a good idea because it’s a good idea – it works.

That being said, it is true that someone in a very, very different financial situation than my own is probably less likely to suggest a financial strategy that makes sense for me. If someone is making 10% of what I do, their financial reality is probably substantially different than mine and the financial decisions and cuts they make are going to not be applicable to my life. The same is true, of someone making ten times what I do – cutting my monthly budget for artisanal cheese delivery is not going to be something that has any real use for me.

However, the core principle behind all of those strategies, whether the person is making 10% of our income or 10 times our income, is the same. It’s still all about figuring out which expenses really aren’t all that important to me and which expenses are important to me. It’s just the threshold of “important enough to spend money on” is going to be different for each of us.

That being said, I feel like – and have always felt like – Sarah and I are in the ballpark of the average American family. We earn a little bit more than the average American household income, but if either Sarah or I were out of work, our income would be below that average. We have three kids, which are an enormous drain on our financial resources in terms of extra food costs, health care costs, household costs, space costs, educational costs, and so on.

I’ve really only felt that Sarah and I have had an exceptional household income for a couple of years during our adult lives, and that’s when I was simultaneously working at a full-time job with travel requirements while also launching a small business on the side and maintaining another one. I was practically killing myself during that period of our life and I soon decided it wasn’t worth it, so we made some lifestyle changes that severely cut our income. Trust me, working 100 hours a week every week without any breaks for years burns you out in almost every way.

While we might be earning somewhat more than some readers of The Simple Dollar, it’s not orders of magnitude more. At the same time, I know we earn less than some readers of The Simple Dollar. I feel like our financial situation is at least comparable to the vast majority of Americans.

Here’s the thing, though: Regardless of what specific financial tips I’m sharing, I really want to expose the principle underneath, the one that’s applicable to as many people as possible. For example, I recently wrote an article about our experience cutting the cord and eliminating cable television. While I talked a lot about the specific things we did during this process, I was even more interested in the principles behind it: Why did we cut the cable? What was the general process like? What did we consider when choosing which entertainment services to retain?

The reason is that, as I noted above, everyone’s lives are different. There isn’t someone out there exactly like me, and there isn’t someone out there exactly like you. We’re all going to have different interests, different considerations, different income levels, and so on. My parents, for example, are in a different situation with a different income level and they came to a different conclusion about cutting out cable.

What matters most when we share ideas for a better life are the principles, the broader rules that can be used to guide us to the best decision given the specifics of our lives. The only reason I tell my own stories at all is to try to give an example of those principles at work in the life of someone who, though they’re not exactly like you, is hopefully at least somewhat relatable.

So, what’s the take-home message here?

My belief is that personal finance articles are most useful when you can pull principles out of them that you can use in your own life. You can combine an awful lot of specific tips down to a few guiding principles, and those principles line up with the specifics of your own life to guide you to good financial results. They may guide different people with different lives to different conclusions.

At the same time, showing those principles at work in someone’s real life, even if it’s not my own, can be really useful. So, for me, I want to be shown the generally applicable principle, and then show me how it applies in someone’s real life. Even if it’s not my own, the example makes it clearer and more relatable.

The more specific an article gets with tips, the fewer the number of people that will get value out of those tips. While I like big lists of tips, I find that I discard most of them because they’re just not applicable to my life. Even worse, a lot of them are very timely, which means that in a few years, that article won’t be valuable. That’s why I don’t write big lists of tips all that often, and when I do, I’m usually trying to point at some underlying principles along the way.

When you’re reading a personal finance article written by me or anyone, including myself, look for the principles you can use in your life. How can I make better financial decisions in my life? How does this particular tool help me, and if it doesn’t, can I safely ignore it? How is this person applying those principles in their life, and does that make sense, and does that relate to how I might apply them in my own life?

Don’t get hung up on whether the other person’s life story is substantially different than yours. Instead, look for those core principles; almost everyone out there applies many of the same principles in their lives. I use a lot of strategies and principles that would work just fine if I were earning $10K a year or if I were earning $500K a year.

Remember, not everything will apply to you and your life. When you don’t feel like it applies, step back and try to see the bigger picture. It might fit better than you think.

Good luck!

Read more by Trent Hamm:

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Keeping up with the Joneses

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It’s always fun when disparate worlds of geekdom collide. Today, for instance, I learned that the term “keeping up with the Joneses” — a popular phrase in the realm of personal finance — actually originated in the funny pages.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

That’s right: “Keeping Up with the Joneses” started out as a newspaper comic strip. As a comics nerd, one who especially loves comic strips, this makes me happy. (Note: For some strips in this post, you can click on the image to open a larger version in a new window.)

Keeping Up with the Joneses (04 April 1913)

Arthur Mormand created “Keeping Up with the Joneses” in 1913. This comic strip (which was very typical for its time) parodied American domestic life, especially the increasing drive toward conspicuous consumption.

The term conspicuous consumption was itself relatively new in 1913. This concept was introduced by Thorstein Veblen, a Norwegian-American economist and sociologist, in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. (You can download this book for free from the new Get Rich Slowly file vault.) People at all levels of life, Veblen says, buy things “as an evidence of wealth”, to signal financial “prowess”. This is worth an entire article of its own. (I should re-read the book and write it up, shouldn’t I?)

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia’s brief history of the strip:

[“Keeping Up with the Joneses”] debuted on March 31, 1913 in The New York Globe. The strip is a domestic comedy following a family of social climbers, the McGinises: parents Aloysius and Clarice, their daughter Julie, and the family’s maid Bella Donna. Various strips feature the McGinis family attempting to match the lifestyle of their neighbors, the Joneses, who are often mentioned but never seen.

The strip was later picked up by Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World, and was subsequently syndicated in many other papers by Associated Newspapers. The title and central conceit of a family struggling to “keep up” with the neighbors resonated with its audience, to the point that the phrase keeping up with the Joneses became a common catchphrase.

According to interviews with Mormand, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” was based on his own life. He and his wife lived for a time in Cedarhurst, New York, a relatively wealthy community on Long Island. Mormand claimed his family lived “far beyond our means in our endeavor to keep up with the well-to-do class”.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Eventually, Mormand and his family gave up. They moved to Manhattan. There, he used his experience as source material. Mormand claimed that he originally wanted to call the strip “Keeping Up with the Smiths” but it didn’t have the same ring to it as “Keeping Up with the Joneses”.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Some argue that the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” was already in use when Mormand started drawing his comic strip. This may (or may not) be true. Regardless, it was his work that made the phrase a part of the American vernacular.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

While “Keeping Up with the Joneses” never became as popular as, say, “Gasoline Alley” or “Bringing Up Father”, it did achieve some measure of success. At one point, more than 150 newspapers around the U.S. carried the strip. And, for a time, a few of the gags were adapted into short animated films like this one.

If, like me, you are both a money nerd and a comics nerd, you might enjoy browsing this public domain collection of “Keeping Up with the Joneses” strips from 1920. (Again, this is part of the new Get Rich Slowly file vault.)

Keeping Up with the Joneses (16 April 1938)

Mormand died in 1987, at the age of 101. He spent the latter part of his life working as a portrait painter in New York City, but his lasting contribution to American society was coining the term “keeping up with the Joneses”.

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Why financial literacy fails (and what to do about it)

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April is Financial Literacy Month in the United States. This is a pure and noble thing. I think it’s great that there’s one month each year devoted to promoting smart money habits. That said, it has become increasingly apparent over the years that most financial literacy programs fail. They don’t work. And this isn’t just me speaking anecdotally.

In a 2014 paper from Management Science, three researchers conducted a “meta-analysis” of 201 prior studies regarding the efficacy of financial literacy. Their conclusion?

Interventions to improve financial literacy explain only 0.1% of the variance in financial behaviors studied, with weaker effects in low-income samples. Like other education, financial education decays over time; even large interventions with many hours of instruction have negligible effects on behavior 20 months or more from the time of intervention.

To put it in plain English, financial literacy education makes no discernible difference in behavior. People who take personal-finance classes manage their money no better (and no worse) than the general population.

We’re pumping tons of money and time into a fruitless endeavor. All of this push to promote financial literacy accomplishes nothing. Zero. Nada.

Why is that?

Why Financial Literacy Fails (and What to Do About It)

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I have some strong opinions on this subject. Today, let’s talk about why financial literacy fails (and what to do about it).

Note: This afternoon (April 24th) at 4 p.m. Pacific (7 p.m. Eastern), I’ll be part of a Facebook Live interview about this very subject. If you’re free at that time, you should join us!

Why Financial Literacy Fails

Financial literacy fails because it almost universally addresses only one part of the problem: math and mechanics. FinLit (as it’s sometimes called) focuses on facts and figures while largely ignoring behavior.

This is insane.

This is like promoting sex education that talks about penises and vaginas while never discussing what it’s like to be madly in love with somebody, so in love that your brain stops working. For sex education to be effective, it has to deal with real-world circumstances and behavior. It has to teach about psychology and emotions, not just body parts.

The same is true with financial literacy.

In fact, the same is true with actual literacy. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy says that working literacy has two components.

  • The operational piece of literacy focuses solely on knowledge. It involves word-level reading skills such as recognizing words.
  • The conceptual piece of literacy focuses on everyday tasks: “Literacy is the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

The first part of literacy is about mechanics. The second part is about practical application.

Modern financial literacy efforts spend nearly all of their time on the knowledge piece. I’ve reviewed maybe a dozen FinLit programs over the years. Most pay no more than lip service to behavior, to the conceptual piece of financial literacy.

Let me give you an example from my own life.

When I was in high school (w-a-y back in the mid-1980s), every senior in our district was required to pass a class in personal finance. It covered topics like compound interest, the Federal Reserve, how to write a check, and the dangers of credit cards.

I took that class. I aced every test. And five years later, I had the beginnings of a debt habit. I’d mastered the knowledge but not he behavior. The behavior was never taught.

From what I can tell, the kids from my high school grew up to be no different than the rest of Americans. We learned the basics of financial literacy, but it had no perceivable impact on the way we saved and spent and earned. We still made stupid mistakes. We still spent more than we earned. Why? Because facts and figurs are only one-half of financial literacy. (And I’d argue they aren’t even the most important half.)

The solution to financial literacy isn’t to feed people more facts and figures. It isn’t to teach them how bonds work or to explain the sheer awesomeness of a Roth IRA. If we want to boost financial literacy in the United States, what we really need to promote is behavioral education.

Behavioral Finance

Personal finance is simple. Fundamentally, you need to know only one thing: To build wealth, you must spend less than you earn. The end. That’s it. We can all go home now. Everything else simply builds on this.

Why, then, is it so hard for everyone to get ahead?

For some people, the problem is systemic. There’s no doubt that some people are trapped in a cycle of poverty, and they truly need outside help to overcome the obstacles they face.

But for most of us, the issue is internal: The problem is us. In other words, I am the reason that I can’t get ahead. And you are the reason that you can’t get ahead. It’s not a lack of knowledge about compounding and credit cards that holds us back, but a chain of bad behavior.

The math and mechanics of personal finance are easy. It’s the psychological side of money that’s hard.

One of the key tenets of this site is that money is more about mind than it is about math. That is, our financial success isn’t determined by how smart we are with numbers, but how well we’re able to control our emotions — our wants and desires.

There’s actually a branch of economics called behavioral finance devoted exclusively to this phenomenon, exploring the interplay between economic theory and psychological reality. There’s a new wave of folks who are exploring the gamification of personal finance; they’re trying to turn money management into a game. More and more, experts are seeing that our economic decisions aren’t based on logic, but on emotion and desire.

It’s time that financial literacy programs incorporated these new(-ish) approaches into their curriculum.

For years, I struggled with money. I knew the math, but I still couldn’t seem to defeat debt. It wasn’t until I started applying psychology to the situation that I was able to make changes. For instance, I used the debt snowball to pay down my debt in an illogical yet psychologically satisfying way. It worked. And I’ve learned that by having financial goals — such as travel — I’m much more inclined to save than if I have no goals at all.

Behavioral Literacy

The Money Boss ManifestoTo me, the answer to our country’s crazed consumerism and poor financial skills has nothing to do with traditional financial literacy. (Okay, maybe it has a little to do with traditional financial literacy.) Instead, I see two fundamental problems that need to be addressed.

  • First, we soak in a bath of the mass media. We’re constantly exposed to a barrage of programming in which we’re given subtle messages about what people do (or should) consume. We cannot help but be influenced by the power of marketing. (I’ve talked to many people who think they’re immune to marketing. I just shake my head and think, “You, my friend, are the most influenced of all.”)
  • Secondly, we don’t think about our spending. We spend on impulse. Or we spend to subconsciously keep up with our family and friends — to keep up with the Joneses. We spend to make ourselves feel better when we’re down and blue. We spend to show off. We spend on things we think we want instead of the things we actually use and do. We spend because spending is a habit.

Instead of teaching Americans about credit cards and rates of return, we need to be teaching them about behavioral finance. We need to be showing them how to break free from the marketing messages that are all around. We need to be showing them how to set (and achieve) personal goals, especially financial goals. We need to teach skills like conscious spending.

There’s a reason that my core message doesn’t start with math and mechanics. It starts by asking people to think about their goals and purpose. This is the piece of financial education that’s missing in our society. This is what financial literacy education ought to be teaching.

Note: For a clear demonstration of how I’d approach financial literacy if I were to design a program, check out my Money Boss Manifesto. It’s a free ebook that outlines the financial philosophy I’ve developed after nearly fifteen years of reading and writing about money.

The Bottom Line

Sometimes people wonder why we don’t spend more time on the nitty gritty of money around here. Why we don’t cover more topics like where to find the best credit cards or how to create a budget?

It’s because deep inside, I believe these things are secondary. I believe behavior is more important. Building a better budget isn’t going to change your attitude toward saving and spending; but changing you attitude toward saving and spending could very well lead you to building a better budget.

Ultimately, if we want Americans to be smarter with their money, we need to encourage them to consume less media — to avoid advertising — and we need to teach them to master the emotional side of personal finance. We need to show them how to change their behavior. We need to appeal to their self-interest. We need to help them find intrinsic motivation to save.

Each of us needs to dig deep inside to find what it is that’s important to us, what it is that brings us joy, and we need to prioritize that instead of all the other garbage.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon traditional financial literacy completely. But I think a constant push for more financial education is a waste of time if it’s only going to focus on mechanics, to stick to facts and figures. To truly be successful, financial education has to address the behavioral side of money because that is absolutely the biggest piece of the puzzle.

Reminder: This afternoon (April 24th) at 4 p.m. Pacific (7 p.m. Eastern), I’ll be part of a Facebook Live interview about this very subject. If you’re free at that time, you should join us!

The post Why financial literacy fails (and what to do about it) appeared first on Get Rich Slowly.

How to ask for vacation days (Word-for-word email script)

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The holidays are coming up.

You send your boss an email asking to take a few days off for vacation. But what do they say?

“Sorry, we have too much going on. We’ll need you here.”

Today, I want to help you use your PTO vacation days without any pushback. You’ll even get something at the end of this post that can help you get an extra week or two of paid vacation using the same techniques my students use to get $43,000 raises.

But first, let’s look at how you can get your boss to say “Yes” when you ask for leave time. Starting with a word-for-word script you can use when requesting vacation time — even if it’s during a “busy time” for your company.

Script: A simple vacation request email

Subject: Vacation request (October 2nd through October 6th)

Hi Jack,

I’d like to request vacation time from Monday, October 2nd, through Friday, October 6th because I’ll be taking a family vacation over those days.

While I’m gone, I’ll be reachable by email but not phone. I’ll be making sure that we have coverage in the support queue while I’m gone, and I’ll also be distributing a playbook to my team so it’s clear who owns which issues.

Is this OK?



Now, what makes this so effective?

To answer that, let’s look at this email from your boss’s perspective.

What reasons might they have to decline your request to take vacation leave?

  • They’re worried a project you’re working on won’t get done while you’re gone
  • They don’t want your workload to wind up on their desk
  • They don’t want to run around reassigning your tasks to other people

Now let’s see how this email overcomes these objections and gets them to say “Yes” to your vacation leave request.

1. It opens with a friendly tone. Saying “I would like” is a much softer request than stating “I request” or “I’m taking this time off.”

2. The word “because” is strategically chosen as it increases compliance. Saying “because” and giving your boss a reason for the time off (no matter what the reason is) makes it more likely he or she will say yes.

3. Remember how your boss was worried your work wouldn’t get done? Well in that last section you ease that concern by showing him you’ve already thought about that. You’ve even gone the extra mile to ensure any projects you’re working on still get finished on time.

Finally, be sure to send vacation request emails weeks — even months — in advance. It’s far easier for your boss to say “Yes” when they have plenty of time to plan around your absence.

Bonus: Want more ways to build healthy habits? Check out my new Ultimate Guide to Habits.

To recap, here’s how to ask for vacation days:

  • Send a vacation request email weeks in advance.
  • Be friendly.
  • Be sure to use the word “because” when explaining your reasons.
  • Ease any concerns about finishing your projects on time.

The 80/20 Guide To Finding A Job You Love

When it comes to finding a dream job, most of us ask all the wrong questions. You could have the perfect resume, but if you’re submitting it through, you’re still competing with thousands of other people with outstanding resumes.

  • How can you shortcut the entire job hunt?
  • How can you find out what you love — and then find jobs that let you do just that?
  • And how do you get paid what you deserve?

I decided to go in-depth and share detailed strategies, mindsets, and stories about how to short-circuit the process that so many people waste time on. And like the rest of the material on IWT, it’s been tested, refined, and optimized before it ever saw the light of day.

Though this is premium material that I could charge for, I’m making it available to you free because I want you to start thinking about how to apply IWT principles to your search for a dream job. And I know you can find one — even in this economy — in the next few months. It’s eminently possible.

Now, get the full 46-minute video…I think you’ll enjoy it.

How to ask for vacation days (Word-for-word email script) is a post from: I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

This blog is now a teenager: Thirteen years of Get Rich Slowly

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Thie middle of April is a Big Deal in my world.

The trees have nearly finished blossoming, which means my allergies will soon go away. We’re seeing more of the sun, which means the worst of my seasonal depression is behind me. Yesterday, on the 14th, Kim and I celebrated seven years as a couple. And today, on the 15th, Get Rich Slowly celebrates thirteen years of existence.

That’s right: This blog is now a teenager.

In the Beginning

When I started Get Rich Slowly, I had no idea what it was going to become. I had no grand plan or vision. I just wanted to write about money while accomplishing three goals.

  • My primary goal was to document my own journey as I dug out of debt and (I hoped) eventually learned how to build wealth.
  • My secondary aim was to help my family and friends get better with their money too. (Although, truthfully, in my entire social circle, I was probably the person with the worst personal finance skills.)
  • And, third on the list, I wanted to make a little extra money with the site. I figured if I could make a few hundred bucks with it, I could pay off my debt a little sooner.

On 26 April 2005 — a year before I started this blog — I published an article called “Get Rich Slowly!” for my personal site. Here’s what I wrote:

Today’s entry is long and boring. It’s all about the keys to wealth, prosperity, and happiness. Over the past few months, I’ve read over a dozen books on personal finance. Recurring themes have become evident.

These books have embarrassingly bad titles, seemingly designed to appeal to the get-rich-quick crowd: The Richest Man in Babylon, Your Money or Your Life, Rich Dad Poor Dad, Think and Grow Rich, Wealth Without Risk, etc.

Some of the books out there — most of them? — really are as bad as their titles. Others, however, offer outstanding, practical advice. The best books seem to have the same goal in mind: not wealth, not riches, but financial independence.

According to Your Money or Your Life, which I consider the very best of the financial books I’ve read, “Financial independence is the experience of having enough — and then some”. More practically, financial independence occurs when your investment income meets or exceeds your monthly expenses. Financial independence is linked to psychological freedom.

How is financial independence achieved? Again, the best books all basically agree. (To some of you, this will be common sense, stuff you’ve known all your life. To others, like me, this kind of thinking is a sort of revelation.)

Here, then, is my personal summary of the collected wisdom found in these books.

“It’s nearly impossible to get rich quick without luck,” I concluded after summarizing all of these money books. “Getting rich quick is a sucker’s bet. There’s only a slim chance that you’ll have the sort of luck that’s required. You might as well play the lottery.”

Instead, I thought the underlying message of these books was simple: “It is possible to get rich slowly, however, with no risk, and with no luck. All that’s required is patience and discipline.”

Get Rich Slowly 1.0

That original “Get Rich Slowly” article at my personal site proved popular. It went the 2005 version of “viral”, being shared at sites like Boing Boing, Lifehacker, etc.

A year later, I was still searching for a way to earn money on the side to help me dig out of debt. I decided that maybe I could earn a few bucks by starting a site about saving and investing. I actually thought mine would be the first personal-finance blog on the Internet! (Ha — little did I know! There were already dozens — dozens! — of other money blogs out there.)

On April 15, 2006, I launched Get Rich Slowly. It was successful from the start. For whatever reason, the stuff I wrote resonated with readers. They shared the site with their friends and family.

Within weeks, I had several hundred readers. Within months, the audience had grown to several thousand. Within two years, more than 500,000 people per month were coming to the site. It was crazy. It was completely unexpected. I was shocked. And grateful.

Those early days of GRS were a hell of a lot of fun. I was figuring this money stuff out in real time, and writing about my successes (and, yes, my failures) as they happened. I did some stupid, stupid stuff — but as time went on, I got better at managing my money.

Needless to say, writing about smart money management every day — for 1000 days — produces a lot of articles! Certain articles stood out as particularly popular — I think because they were particularly helpful. Anyway, here are some highlights from the first three years of the site:

  • In praise of the debt snowball (28 Sep 2006) — When I started Get Rich Slowly, I had over $35,000 in consumer debt. I lived paycheck to paycheck on a salary of over $50,000 per year. Basically, I was your typical American consumer. To get out of debt, I used Dave Ramsey’s version of the debt snowball. A lot of folks want to complain that using this method is based on bad math, but so what? If math were the issue, I wouldn’t have been in debt — and neither would many other people. The debt snowball works, and that’s why I love it.
  • Are index funds the best investment? (24 Jan 2007) — At first, I was a bad investor. In fact, I was a gambler, not an investor. I took chances on random stocks in the hopes they’d shoot through the roof. Reading and writing about money quickly taught me that pros like Warren Buffett (and many more) actually endorse a simple investment strategy for average folks like you and me. For us, putting our savings into indexed mutual funds is the most reliable long-term investment.
  • Which online high-yield savings account and money market account is best? (21 Mar 2007, although this link is to a recent update) — As I started learning smart money habits, I realized it was dumb for me to leave my money in a big national bank that paid me no interest. But where should I save my money instead? To find out, I polled GRS readers. Whoa! Who knew this simple question would create such a huge response? Readers left over 1700 comments with suggestions about where to get the most bang for my buck.
  • Free at last! Saying good-bye to 20 years of debt (03 Dec 2007) — It took a lot of time and effort, but my new habits finally paid off. Three years after starting my quest, I wrote a check for the last of my consumer debt. From here, I could start building future wealth instead of repaying past folly.
  • A real millionaire next door (13 May 2008) — I used to live next door to an old guy named John. John was a retired shop teacher who had managed to build big wealth on a small salary. Now, in his 70s, he spent part of the year working on farms in New Zealand, part of the year on an Alaskan fishing boat, and part of the year puttering around his home in Portland. Later, I decided to interview him about what led to his financial success.
  • You can’t always get what you want (24 Nov 2008) — Notes from a conversation with my cousin: It’s okay to have something in your life that you hate. And it’s okay to have something you want. It’s natural. The problem is that once you get that thing, you’re just going to hate something else, you’re just going to want something more. It’s not want that’s the problem, but the habit of constantly satisfying wants.

So much happened in my life during these years, both good and bad. It seems odd to summarize that entire period in just a few articles, but I don’t want to overwhelm you. (If you want to read more, check out the archives.)

Get Rich Slowly 2.0

While the early, heady years of GRS were carefree and fun, running the site eventually became work. A lot of work. Plus, all sorts of stuff was going on behind the scenes in my personal life. My best friend committed suicide. I was unhappy in my marriage. I struggled with my weight. It was all too much.

In early 2009, I decided to listen to the offers from people who wanted to buy Get Rich Slowly. Shortly after the site’s third anniversary, I agreed to sell it.

When I sold, I became financially independent. (I was already on a path toward financial independence — or “FI,” as we say — but the sale helped me leap ahead several years.) My plan was simply to walk away and be done with writing about money. Turns out, I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

You see, I love the GRS community. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to continue answering emails, sharing reader questions and stories, and documenting what I was learning about money. Instead of walking away, I stuck around for another three years as editor and primary writer.

During that time, we brought in other writers to help me manage the workload. I was always amazed at how each new voice added another dimension to the site. And our content changed in yet another way because I was becoming much more philosophical about money at this time.

I’d always stressed the importance of psychology; but as my financial philosophy matured, I became even more convinced that smart money management was all about mindset, not math. The math is easy. It’s the emotional stuff that’s tough. Some of the best articles from this era of GRS really get to the heart of these issues, and I hope that what I learned will be helpful to others, too.

  • The razor’s edge: Lessons in true wealth (18 Jan 2009) — This is perhaps the most important article I ever wrote for Get Rich Slowly, although most people would never know it. In early 2009, my best friend took his own life. It had a profound impact on me. Here I wrote about what I learned from Sparky’s life — and his death.
  • How to negotiate your salary (06 May 2009) — I don’t think people spend enough time looking for ways to boost their income. There’s a reason I mention this over and over and over again. Learning how to negotiate your salary is one of the best ways to improve your financial well-being.
  • Understanding the federal budget and The truth about taxes (August 2009) — We cannot have informed discussions about taxes and government spending if we don’t have the baseline information. Because my own education on this subject was weak, and because I wanted GRS readers to be informed, I spent 12 hours researching a variety of tax topics. These two articles record my attempts to provide that baseline information. (I need to update these for 2019, don’t I?)
  • Action not words: The difference between talkers and doers (30 Aug 2010) — If there’s something you want to be or do, the best way to become that thing is to actually take steps toward it, to move in that direction. Don’t just talk about it, but do something. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Just take a small step in the right direction every single day.
  • America’s love-hate relationship with wealth (14 Nov 2011) — While writing about money, I’ve noticed that people in general (and Americans in particular) have a complex love-hate relationship with wealth. People want to be rich — but they’re suspicious of those who already are. Why is that? How can we learn to be happy for the financial success of others?
  • A place of my own (16 Jan 2012) — The toughest blog post I’ve ever had to write: After months of hinting at things, I revealed that my wife and I were getting a divorce, and that I’d moved into an apartment of my own. This post explored some of the implications of that decision. (For the record: Kris and I continue to maintain our friendship.)

Eventually, after three years of lingering at GRS, I reached the point where I was willing to cut the cord. I gradually reduced my involvement until I was ready to walk away. I eased myself out of the site and into the life I’d been hoping to pursue.

The Quinstreet Years

I sold Get Rich Slowly in 2009 but stayed on as editor (and primary writer) for another three years. By mid-2012, it seemed that Quinstreet, the company that had acquired the site, was ready to run the site on its own. Plus, it felt like both the audience and I were both ready for me to leave.

So, I retired. Sort of.

Although I no longer had any active involvement in Get Rich Slowly, I still contributed articles from time to time. Plus, I wrote about money for other outlets.

In 2010, I published Your Money: The Missing Manual. (I’m proud of that book but it’s sorely in need of an update.) From 2011 to 2014, I wrote the “Your Money” column for Entrepreneur magazine. In 2014, I released the Get Rich Slowly course. In 2015, I started a new site called Money Boss (which is now a part of GRS). And so on.

Plus, of course, Kim and I embarked on our awesome 15-month tour of the U.S. by RV.

I’ll confess: I didn’t pay much attention to Get Rich Slowly after I moved on. I checked in now and then, but mostly I ignored it. Looking through the archives, here are some of the articles that stand out during the Quinstreet years:

  • How to handle people who undermine your success (06 Jan 2012, by April Dykman) — April Dykman was always one of my favorite staff writers here at GRS. I loved learning from her progress. Here she shared some thoughts on how to handle haters in your life. As you work toward a better financial future, you will encounter people who think your choices are foolish. April — and the commenters — have some tips for coping with the criticism.
  • The power of personal transformation: Change yourself, change the world (16 Jul 2012, by J.D. Roth) — In July 2012, I spoke at World Domination Summit. This is the written version of that speech, which was all about overcoming fear, finding focus, and taking action. I argued that by finding the courage to change what’s wrong in your own life, you’ll not only improve yourself, but improve the world around you. (This material has become the psychological core of my financial philosophy.)
  • Romanticizing poverty and learning financial independence (03 Jan 2013, by Kristin Wong) — Kristin Wong was another great GRS writer. In this piece, she talks about different perceptions of wealth and poverty — and how those perceptions influence our choices. Her articles always led to great discussions.
  • All you need to know about saving for retirement (15 May 2013, by Robert Brokamp) — Before I left GRS, I brokered a deal with the Motley Fool that brought regular contributions from the hilarious (and smart) Robert Brokamp. He contributed many terrific pieces over the years, but I particularly like this crash course in retirement savings. If you’re wondering where to start, start here.
  • You are the boss of you: How to find success with money and life (01 Aug 2013, by J.D. Roth) — I’ve always said that nobody cares more about your money than you do. But I’ve come to realize that nobody cares more about you than you do. The key to success — in every area of life — is to understand that you control your own destiny. If you want to be successful with money and life, you must act as your own boss.
  • How to track your spending (and why you should) (24 April 2014, by Holly Johnson) — Holly is another one of the great staff writers that GRS hosted during the Quinstreet years. (I’m excited because she’s promised to give me a guest post soon about some of her home improvement fiascos. Should be fun!) I like this article, in which she takes a friend to task for not tracking his spending. He and his wife make a lot of money but they’re constantly broke. Why? Because they have no idea where there money goes.
  • 29 Ways to build your emergency fund out of thin air (18 Jan 2016, by Donna Freedman) — Donna has contributed a lot of great articles to GRS over the years. (And I hope that at some point in the future, I’ll be able to afford to hire her to write here again.) I liked this piece, which provides tons of tips for boosting your saving rate. Saving more isn’t just for building an emergency fund; it’s also important for digging out of debt and, eventually, pursuing goals like homeownership and financial independence.

During the Quinstreet years, the GRS audience dwindled. This was in part due to the way they managed the site. They had good intentions (and lots of smart people behind the scenes), but they didn’t have the same passion for personal finance that I did. Plus, they tended to make decisions that favored short-term results instead of long-term growth. I can’t fault them for their choices — they did what was right for them — but I’m sad that the community eventually collapsed.

Not all of the collapse was due to blog management, though. Even if I hadn’t sold the site, it likely would have faded eventually, and for a number of reasons: the rise of social media, the “death of blogs”, and increased competition from awesome new sites on a variety of niche subjects.

Get Rich Slowly 3.0

In 2015, I “unretired” from blogging. I founded Money Boss, a site where I posted long, meaty articles about managing your money as if you were the CFO of your own life. I had fun. The site didn’t grow as quickly as GRS had nine years before, but after eighteen months, the site had acquired several thousand dedicated followers.

Then, in the spring of 2017, Quinstreet approached me. They asked me if I wanted to re-purchase Get Rich Slowly. Looking at the numbers, I realized it probably didn’t make much financial sense to do so — but I didn’t let that dissuade me. In October 2017, I bought Get Rich Slowly.

In the eighteen months since my return, I’ve published a lot of articles that I think are especially good. Here are some highlights:

  • What the rich do differently: Habits that foster wealth and success (18 Dec 2017) — I’m fascinated by the differences between rich people and poor people. Are the differences mostly a matter of class and economic mobility? Are people born to wealth and poverty and destined to remain there? Or are there observable differences in attitude and action that tend to lead people to specific levels of affluence? From my experience, it’s some of both.
  • Start where you are (04 Jan 2018) — My main message to family and friends who find themselves at forty or fifty and feel behind the curve is: Don’t panic. All is not lost. You’re not too late. This isn’t a contest. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
  • The plight of the poor: Thoughts on systemic poverty, fault, and responsibility (28 Feb 2018) — There are very real differences between the behaviors and attitudes of those who have money and those who don’t. If we want ourselves and others to be able to enjoy economic mobility, to escape poverty and dire circumstances, we have to have an understanding of the necessary mental shifts. The problem, of course, is that it’s one thing to understand intellectually that wealthy people and poor people have different mindsets, but it’s another thing entirely to be able to adopt more productive attitudes in your own life.
  • The forever fallacy (11 Jul 2018) — The forever fallacy is the mistaken belief that you will always have what you have today, that you’ll always be who you are today. The truth is that everything changes. You change. Your circumstances change. The people around you change. Nothing is forever. The challenge then is to balance this concept — everything changes — with living in the present. You must learn to enjoy today while simultaneously preparing for a variety of possible tomorrows.
  • The boots theory of socioeconomic unfairness (26 Oct 2018) — Last October, I spent a week exploring the relationship between cost and quality. Quality tends to come with a price. While there are ways to mitigate some of these higher costs — buy used, wait for sales, etc. — if you want to buy new quality items, you’re going to pay a premium. Because of this, quality is often something reserved for the rich. Like so many things in life, this is fundamentally unfair. But that’s how things are.
  • Why frugality is an important part of personal finance (31 Jan 2019) — Depriving yourself of certain “standard” choices now means you don’t have to lead a life of deprivation when you’re older. When you choose to spend less, you’re not just boosting your bottom line. You’re also gaining the time and freedom that would have been required to earn that money. Thrift isn’t deprivation. It’s wealth.
  • Saving regret — and how to avoid it (27 Feb 2019) — Very few people regret saving money. In fact, research shows that less than 2% of people would save less if they could re-do their earlier life. On the other hand, two-thirds of people wish they’d saved more when they were younger. Poorer people tend to regret not saving most of all. The bottom line: To avoid regrets when you’re older, save more now.

I won’t lie. While I’m glad to be back and I’ve enjoyed the past eighteen months, it’s also been tough. I have lots to say, but I’ve struggled to figure out exactly how to say it. Blogging has changed. Expectations are different. I am different than when I started this site.

I’m constantly wrestling with questions like: How often should I write? (Once a week? Three times a week? At random intervals?) Should I share only new stuff? Or should I republish updated material from the archives? In the olden days, I used to share tons of things from other sites. Should I continue to do that? Or should I focus on my own thoughts? How long should my articles be? (A few hundred words? Or…a few thousand?) What topics should I cover?

If you walk through the GRS archives, you can see how I’ve struggled to find a rhythm for Get Rich Slowly 3.0.

My publication pattern for the past year has been…well, irregular. There are some months where I write and publish a ton, both from myself and others. There are other months — like this one — during which I publish little. (Real Life has been distracting me lately. I have plenty I want to write about, but no time to do it.) And my articles are all over the place.

I’m not worried, though. I know I’ll figure things out. In the meantime, I’m having fun. I hope that you are having fun too. And, as always, if you have any suggestions and/or requests for things you’d like to see around here, please let me know. I want GRS to be a useful resource for you — for all of you.

The post This blog is now a teenager: Thirteen years of Get Rich Slowly appeared first on Get Rich Slowly.

A Day In The Life of my Supposedly Frugal Stomach

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Kicking Ass with Money is much like healthy eating and joyful living. It’s a series of daily habits that get you ahead, rather than a one-time heroic effort that fixes all your problems so you can go back to whatever you were doing before.

Because of this parallel, the subject of food is one of the nicest examples of Mustachian living, and one of the most powerful and efficient things to master.

Your eating choices will drastically affect your budget (especially if you are raising a family), but they also affect your health, energy levels, productivity, and happiness. The path to a great life goes directly across your dinner plate, so it is important to take this shit seriously and not mess around with your nutrition.

I’ve written about food several times before, sometimes with a focus on recipes or costs or general principles. But people often don’t believe me – they think I am either lying about my family’s grocery spending, eating a diet that is poor in nutritional value, or at least spending an inordinate amount of time on meal planning and preparation.

The truth is none of these things, although the actual story may still surprise you. So I thought that instead of issuing vague commandments like the preacher I am, I could share my functional and (somewhat) affordable eating style, even though it’s unusual and surely not for everyone.

So I’ll lay out a single day’s nutrition strategy, and why I think it is a good one. And then you can choose whether to ridicule it on Reddit, or adopt any tricks from it that you like for your own family. Are you ready? Then let’s take a trip into the MMM kitchen!

Alongside the Table Saw, the Cutting Board is also a favorite tool.

The first bit of crazy is that when I’m home, I eat almost the same thing every day. My son eats exactly the same thing every day* for now, and Mrs. MM runs her own show, perhaps with a bit more variety than either of us. This is a unique situation in our family that is different from most, and it adds extra complexity but fortunately not extra cost. You play with the cards you are dealt.

Most Important is your Eating Philosophy

For most people, food is just an automatic routine. They eat whatever seems tasty whenever they are hungry. People with stronger passions (sometimes known as Foodies), spend a large part of their day and mental energy seeking out perfect ingredients and flavors and meals. And for many, eating is an addiction – food calls to them (especially desserts and snacks), and they fight this addiction with varying degrees of success. People with a busy urban social life like New Yorkers get most of their food from restaurants, which throws both the nutrition content and the monthly cost into a randomizing hat.

The problem with all of these philosophies is that each is a huge gamble, with your life as the stakes. Because depending on your body chemistry and the foods you choose, you can end up anywhere on the health scale – I have met sweating car bound 25 year-old office workers who could barely stroll from the parking lot to the building, and also know a ripped 65 year-old carpenter who can still frame a three-story house by himself. The difference in the diets of these two men is as stark as the contrast in their physiques.

So my eating philosophy has always been that of the Engineer/Robot. Design each meal and each day’s food intake, according to my body’s current needs. Since my activity level changes drastically (yesterday’s mountain hike requires several times more calories than today’s work on this blog article), the food intake has to change accordingly. And since I don’t always get things exactly right, the mirror tells me when it’s time to make adjustments.

And finally, I’m a big fan of high standards and not fooling yourself. Stay lean and keep your body in condition to work hard. Learn to use the mirror, the measuring tape, and the scale as allies rather than generators of guilt and fear. If you’re not there yet, keep yourself moving in the right direction rather than being complacent. For example, if my abs get paved over with fat, I’ll adjust the variables below to go into fat loss mode until the problem is corrected. On the other hand, if I’m getting too skinny and trying to put on strength and weight, I’ll add the extra meals back in.

The Weird MMM Meal Plan


I have come to think of Breakfast as the time of Breaking the Fast.. but by now we all know that fasting is good for you, right?  So the design of your breakfast presents an interesting life-boosting opportunity: When you wake up, you’re already in a nice low-blood-sugar state, which means your body is beginning to think about burning fats as a source of energy (ketosis). This means that you can just prolong the fast by skipping breakfast and just enjoying some coffee or water, or take a softer approach and at least have a breakfast that is very low in sugar. So I do this:

  • Espresso Coffee with Whole milk and Coconut oil
  • A handful of mixed nuts
  • A few squares of dark chocolate (85%)

Subjectively, I find this breakfast is satisfying and delicious, but also keeps my body in low-sugar mode so I can begin a day of physical labor without hunger – and potentially work as long as I want, even skipping lunch and running on stored bodyfat if desired. (Note, I make the espresso with this cheap but good espresso machine and heat/fluff the milk and coconut oil together to get the result in that picture).

The end result is this nutrition profile:

note: all nutrient weights are in grams

At this point, you may be asking, “Wait, does Mustache really weigh and analyze his food?” – and the answer is “sorta.” While I endeavor to lead a relaxed, hippy lifestyle, the Engineer/Robot side is always in the background running the numbers. If you have at least a rough idea of the nutrition content of what you are eating, you will have a far easier time getting the results you want.

Mid Morning Snack

After breakfast, I usually bike downtown to a mixture of construction and weight training in the back “prisonyard” of the MMM-HQ Coworking space. After a few hours of this, I am ready for a bit more nutrition:

  • A giant salad
  • Plenty of water, or even the indulgence of a second cup of coffee

These big salads are a big part of my daily food expenditure and effort, but probably an even bigger part of my health. So they are definitely worth it. I make it easier by making salad in bulk every few days, and starting with a base of a pre-made $2.28 Kale Salad Kit from Sam’s/Costco. This provides a bunch of greens and saves much chopping. But I discard the crappy sugary dressing that comes with the kit and use my own olive oil-based dressing, also made in bulk from high quality ingredients also bought in bulk, (like 3 Liter Jugs of olive oil!)

I may throw in a protein bar (30g protein, $1.00) to this snack, depending on the intensity of the work.


After the midmorning snack, I am back out for quality time with the saws and ladders for a few more hours, which feels great on a relatively light load of food because the body is burning clean and lean. The low carbohydrate nature of everything I have eaten so far keeps the hunger level so low that I could even work right through and skip lunch if needed, or if I were trying to lose fat. But since I’m currently at roughly right fat level and not wanting to be any lighter than I am, I break at around 2PM for something like this:

I have been on a bit of a Tilapia binge in recent months, because they are almost too convenient and tasty and easy to prepare. So much so, that I jokingly refer to them as “marriage savers” – there is no need to fret over whose turn it is to prepare dinner, if something with such a good nutrition profile is always in the freezer and just 15 toaster oven minutes away from your tongue.

While the nutrition profile is good, they are still a bit of an expensive source of protein. $2.00 sounds like chump change, but the same protein can be had for under fifty cents from other sources like bean and rice combinations, eggs, or even whey protein supplements.

A cost difference of just $1.50 per person per meal, multiplied over a four-person family’s 372 meals per month makes a difference of $558 per month, or about $96,000 per decade after compounding.

Yes, that is a hundred grand, and this is just the difference between a semi-frugal $2.00 meal component and a fifty cent equivalent from, say, your crock pot.

Imagine, then, the effect that impulse grocery purchases like those little $7.49 packs of sushi would make, if you casually toss them in the cart on a regular basis? A decade of a family’s innocent-seeming Whole Foods indulgence could pay for a house outright, while leaving them no better nourished than wiser meal planning with bulk ingredients.

Put a crock pot and a Costco membership to good use, and just watch what happens to your bank account.

Now, I took that sushi picture on my own kitchen table, so we too are guilty of this indulgence. But we are long past financial independence, and even then it is a rare purchase. The overall lesson is just, again, to take this shit seriously – make sure you appreciate every food purchase above beans-and-rice level as a conscious luxury rather than just a habit. And if you are in debt, no sushi for you!


Another typical dinner – main dish is based on potatoes/veggies plus fancy sausages baked into a cheese-laden casserole.

Around 3:30pm in the afternoon, I’ll walk or bike home from “work”, so I can be there when my son returns home from school – one of the biggest rewards of early retirement. One of us parents will cook him a homemade pizza at this point (I pre-make the personal size shells and keep them in stacks in the freezer), so he can recharge with about 480 calories from a delicious meal that costs only about 50 cents to make.

Then us Adults will usually collaborate to make something like pulled-pork tacos:


On the side, we might add chopped fresh vegetables, more salad, or something more substantial as the appetites require. Like the filets, it’s not the cheapest possible way to get a meal, but at least it is reasonable. Also, we are omnivores, which is a more expensive and polluting way to get protein – but if you’re not badass enough to eat vegetarian you can at least make a substantial dent in your eco footprint by making beef your last choice of meats.

Adding it All Up

Although it took me quite a few hours to collect all this data on what I eat and add it up in a spreadsheet, the results have been quite interesting because I had never done it before. With just the stuff described above, I arrived at this point:


And the numbers were a bit surprising to me, in the following ways:

  • I am spending a lot more on food than I thought. If all three of us ate the way I do, our annual grocery bill would be $8600, not counting additional indulgences or food for parties. Since our real bill is closer to $6000, you can see that I am doing more than my share of the spending. Then again, I do weigh more than both Little MM and his mother combined , so perhaps this is fair.
  • My base calorie level is about right for my age and height for a moderately active person, but on active days I need closer to 4000 calories (if you look up a 185 pound male “athlete” for the baseline)
  • My base protein level is also about right for moderate activity, but on highly physical or weight training days I like to boost that to one gram per pound of bodyweight.
  • So while everything in this article is detailed and accurate so far, I tend to eat a variable amount of additional food to meet hunger needs, scaling it all up and down depending on what the mirror says. I use one or more of the following boosts.


  • Handfuls of Nuts (1 ounce worth, 160 calories)
  • Protein Smoothie (banana, peanut butter, plain yogurt, tiny bit of milk, ice, water, and vanilla protein mix – about 1000 calories and 40 grams protein)
  • 2-3 simple eggs cooked in olive oil with a bit of cheese: 500 calories, 20 grams of protein, 50 cents or so.
  • Avocado toast: 3 eggs, some shredded cheese, avocado, all on a piece of whole wheat toast with butter. A truly decadent weight gainer of a snack, although quite cheap. Leave out toast if you are not trying to maintain or gain weight. 1000 calories, plenty of nutrients about a buck.



*and while I won’t explain this in detail here, parents of children with his personality type will understand without question. It is something people do tend to grow out of as they get older and gain confidence with new experiences.


Exploring the Connections Between Your Social Life and Your Financial Life

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This is the seventh entry in an eight part series exploring the connections between your finances and other areas of your life.

A few weeks ago, I started a series exploring the connections between personal finance and the other “spheres” of my life. The first entry covered the connections between one’s physical life and financial life, the second entry covered the connections between one’s mental and spiritual life and financial life, the third entry covered the connections between one’s intellectual life and financial life, the fourth entry covered the connections between one’s marital life and financial life, the fifth entry covered the connections between one’s parental life and financial life, the sixth entry covered the connections between one’s professional life and financial life, and today we’re looking at one’s social life and financial life.

As noted in the first entry, I tend to view life as a bunch of “spheres,” or areas of focus. I really like Michael Hyatt’s list of nine such “spheres”: physical, mental/spiritual, intellectual, social, marital, parental, avocational (hobbies), vocational, and financial – they cover much of what life is all about. I’ve come to view these spheres as deeply interconnected, in that success in one sphere is usually linked in some significant ways to success in other spheres (and failures are similarly connected) and that knowing the connections can help people figure out how to succeed in both areas at once.

Today, we’re going to look at the social sphere and how it connects to one’s financial life.

What Is “Social Life”?

Social life simply refers to the time you spend with other people simply because you enjoy spending time with them and get value out of that time. It encompasses time spent with family, time spent with friends, and time spent in situations where you’re getting to know people.

This might seem like a common sense definition, but there’s actually a lot going on here. Does social media count here? Does interacting with someone online count as actual “social” behavior? If so, is it weakly social?

For me, digital communication with people really only counts as social if it’s oriented toward spending actual face to face time with that person in the future. For example, if I’m looking at a Facebook picture of someone I haven’t seen in ten years, that’s not really social, but if I’m talking to someone on Twitter about a game night we’re going to have next week, that’s definitely social.

There are many deep connections between one’s social life and one’s financial life. Here are a few of the key ones.

Not having a social life leads to negative health consequences and significant expenses. The social sphere tends to be one of the two areas of life (along with avocational) where people often let it dwindle until it’s almost gone, then lament the disappearance of that sphere. People are more lonely today than they have been in centuries (if not ever) and that decay of social lives has a lot of profound negative health consequences.

In short, if you allow your social life to drift away because you’re too engrossed in other areas of life, you’ll likely find at some point that you’re struggling with loneliness, and persistent loneliness is very problematic for one’s physical and mental health over the long term. Maintaining your social sphere inherently helps maintain your physical and mental health spheres, which in turn helps your financial life.

Your social circle deeply influences your spending choices. It’s often said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. I’m not quite sure that’s true, but I do believe that our closest friends and family members have a large impact on how we view the world, what things we’re exposed to, and what things we think about.

Thus, by extension, our social lives impact our financial lives by the spending choices we’re guided to (or away from) by our social influences.

I personally find it very valuable to cultivate social relationships with people who encourage me to make smart spending choices. Friends who are always nudging me to spend have a profound negative impact on my financial life, whereas friends whose company I can enjoy without any spending pressure tend to have a lifting effect on my finances. Friends who are frugal by nature improve my own frugality; big spending friends nudge me toward spending too much myself.

We can get trapped in a desire to spend money to impress our friends and acquaintances, often those outside of our most immediate social circle. We want to “keep up with the Joneses.” We want to have the burst of social cachet that comes with having the cool new thing. We want to be the nicely dressed one in the group, or at least not be the one that is talked about as being “shabby.”

In truth, this is just the “spotlight effect” in action; because we think about ourselves so much, we over-assume how much others think about us. Yet, many of us find ourselves influenced by these thoughts, overinflating what others might think of us. It’s good practice to stop worrying what other people think and instead behave as we would like to be treated, but that’s often easier said than done.

Friends can help greatly when you need to borrow something or have a major task to accomplish (like moving). Friends can be incredibly useful when you need something in a pinch. Whether it’s a cup of sugar, a foot in the door at a job, a truck to haul a couch, or an afternoon of help getting ready to move, friends can make all the difference and keep you from spending money on services and products (and they’ll likely make the activity more interesting anyway).

Naturally, this comes with some expectation of reciprocation, so it means taking on a helpful role in the lives of friends as well.

Here are five low cost strategies I use for maintaining and improving my own social life.

Strategy #1 – Keep Room in Your Life for Social Activity

As I noted earlier, it can be very easy to let our social life dwindle away in the face of all of the demands of our other spheres of life. Our health, our jobs, our marriages, our immediate family – all of that stuff often takes priority over having a good social life, and so we’ll steal time here and time there from our friends and social connections until, one day, we wake up and realize those connections have dwindled away, and we’re feeling lonely.

Not only is loneliness a bad destination, we also miss out on a lot of fulfillment along the path to loneliness if we let our social lives be sacrificed at the altar of career and family and Netflix and smartphones.

Don’t let that happen. Block off time on your calendar each week for social events. Make sure you’re doing at least something that involves interacting face to face with people that you don’t have to interact with (meaning people outside of your professional, marital, and parental spheres).

It can be anything you want it to be. It can be a dinner party. It can be a dinner out with friends. It can be a community event. It can be a meeting of a group or organization of some kind. It just needs to be something where you go there with the intent of interacting with others (or people come to you with the intent of interacting).

Do this on a weekly basis at the absolute very least, and ideally more often than that. More importantly, block off time on your calendar for these things, and do that each week. Don’t let these things slide by, because that’s a direct road to a dwindling and disappearing social life and a bout with loneliness.

If I look ahead at the next few days and don’t have something social on it, I’m either looking at the community calendar or I’m contacting some friends so that there’s something social on there.

Strategy #2 – Be Proactive in Terms of Meeting People

While people might come to you socially by calling you up and texting you and contacting you and inviting you, you can’t rely on that for social contact. It’s not reliable, and many friendships will fade quickly if you rely on it due to short term scheduling difficulties, introverted natures, missed communications, and so on.

If you want to have a social life, you have to be proactive in terms of meeting people (to begin the process of building new friendships) and also maintaining the friendships you have. You can’t just expect people to come to you. You can’t expect everyone to always have the ideas and always ask you. You can’t expect people to keep asking if you have to say “no” with any regularity. It simply won’t happen outside of maybe one or two super close friends. They’ll get the vibe that you don’t want to associate with them any more and they’ll fade out rather quickly.

If you want to grow your social circle and your social life, those people are not going to come knocking on your door. They’re not going to run into you on the sidewalk. You have to go out there and find them.

For me, this means being involved in the community. This means putting in the work to find groups to be a part of so that I have people with at least some common interest to associate with. This means putting away my introverted tendencies and actually talking to new people, which can be hard for me.

It’s not easy. It’s much easier to just look at my phone or read a book. It’s also got a high failure rate – I don’t just go to one event and click with tons of people and suddenly have tons of friends. At the same time, it’s incredibly rewarding. I have more good friends at this point in my life than I ever have, as well as more acquaintances and people I know and who know me. That’s not a typical thing for an American male approaching middle age.

How does this happen? It’s simple, and it has just a few pieces to it.

First of all, I go to lots of community events that seem interesting to me, and I don’t go there with the intent to just stand around. I go to participate. I go to talk to people because I know that the other people there are like-minded and have at least some overlap with me (we live in roughly the same area and have at least some overlapping interests). I dive into lots of little sub-groups.

Second, when I go there, I make it a point to be social. I use everything I’ve learned from Dale Carnegie (here’s a summary) and make a sincere effort to get to know people. If I click at all with someone, I usually find them on social media and follow up in the next day or two with something meaningful (more than just “HI! REMEMBER ME!?”).

The vast majority of people I meet don’t click deeply, and that’s fine. Over time, some of those people do grow into friendly acquaintances and sometimes eventually blossom into friendships. The key is to find groups and community events you’re comfortable with and enjoy.

Strategy #3 – Plan the Social Events and Invite People To Go

One thing I’ve found is that social contact sometimes fades because no one takes the initiative to plan anything. Often, this is due to a sense of misguided politeness as they feel like they don’t want to push whatever idea they have on others, and sometimes it’s due to a sense of being overly busy and feeling overwhelmed. Quite often, people just want a clear invitation and a sense that they’re personally invited and wanted at the event.

If you want to be social, be that person that starts the event. Come up with something to do and invite people to it. Make the plans, so that it’s just a matter of the other people showing up.

Want to have a game day? Plan one, set a date, invite some people. Want to have a dinner party? Plan one, set a date, invite some people. Want to have a movie night? Plan one, set a date, invite some people.

Sure, some will say no. Sure, some others might just no-show. That’s going to happen, and it’s usually not a slight to you. Forgive it to an extent, unless it becomes a long streak of “no”s or no-shows, in which case you might want to just do something with that person one on one. Don’t just assume that the person doesn’t want to be friends with you any more – instead, assume that the person is struggling with something, because that’s much more often the case, or maybe they’re just disorganized. Let them show you that the friendship is over directly if that’s the direction they want to go on – don’t just assume that it is because the other person has some challenge in their life.

You won’t always have to do this – well, for some friends you might because they’re apprehensive about the planning for some reason – but you’re almost always better off picking the thing and the time and the place and just inviting people rather than trying to get everyone to fish for ideas. Step up and be the social leader.

Strategy #4 – Make One-on-One Contact and Catching Up with Friends Into a Routine

Over the course of every few months, I make it a goal to touch base in some direct one-on-one way with everyone in my social circle. I’ll send them a one on one text just checking in on them (a “Hey, how you doin’?” kind of thing) or I’ll stop by some place where I know they’ll be and have a chat with them or I’ll plan on having lunch with them.

My goal with these things isn’t to talk about myself, but to find out how they’re doing, especially if I haven’t seen them lately. Are they doing okay? What’s going on in their life? Do they maybe need someone to talk to?

Friendships ebb and flow all the time, but it’s easy for a friendship to just fade away not due to intent, but due to a natural low point in the relationship when you’re both busy with other things at the moment. Maintaining that thread keeps the friendship alive and allows it to bloom again in the future, and it quite often will.

As I write this, I can’t help but think of several friendships in my life for which this is true. I have friends that live far away that I contact fairly regularly in a deliberate one-on-one fashion, just to see how they’re doing. I can also think of several cases where friendships that would have otherwise faded gradually grew into something deeply valuable again.

I do this rather mechanically by using smartphone reminders and such. I don’t want to accidentally forget about a friend and let that friendship die, so I set a reminder to keep in touch every month or every other month. My phone tells me to “get in touch with Person X again” and then I follow through. It works really well.

Strategy #5 – When a Friend or Acquaintance Needs Help, Do It (Especially If It’s a Multiplier)

If a friend needs help and I can reasonably give that help, I give it, no questions asked. I don’t expect anything in return.

Don’t I feel used or unappreciated? Nope, not a bit. I choose to help. It is my choice. No one is making me do it. I would feel used if I was forced or manipulated into it, but that’s a different situation entirely.

What I find is that, if I use this policy, a lot of simultaneous good things happen.

For starters, that friend that I’m helping is almost always in a better place because of my help. Their life is better, and a rising tide lifts all boats.

That friend is usually appreciative, and the friendship we have is strengthened because of it.

The opportunity to help is often fun, and it usually feels good.

That friend usually thinks highly of me, and that often comes up when I’m not around. Again, this isn’t an “always” thing, but it’s a “usually” thing. A friend that you’ve helped without any need of reciprocation is usually going to say good stuff about you when you’re not there.

Also, when I do need help and send out a call for it, a lot of people are willing to help me because they know I’ve jumped up to help them in the past. Again, this isn’t a universal thing, but if I help ten friends and then I need help, I’m likely to get an offer from at least a few of them.

It’s worth noting that the best opportunities to help friends are what I call “multipliers.” Those are situations where the value of the help to your friend is many multiples of what it cost you to help. For example, spending a few hours helping your friend move boxes so they don’t have to hire a moving service when they give you some pizza and a drink and you have some laughs and conversation together is a big win. Putting in a good word for a friend when they’re trying to get a job is a big win. Giving a key piece of advice regarding something you know a lot about is a big win. Those should always be given, as it lifts your friend’s boat quite high with little effort from you.

Final Thoughts

Your social life is a valuable part of your personal happiness, as well as a key support for your physical and mental health. It has many connections to your financial life as well. Thus, supporting your social life is incredibly important.

The big ingredients in a healthy social life are time and attention. Set aside some time and some attention for your social relationships and you’ll find that you’re paid back with far more value that you ever would have expected.

Good luck!

The post Exploring the Connections Between Your Social Life and Your Financial Life appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

My $3500 Tiny House, Explained

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Meet “Timothy”, the new tinyhouse-style conference room at MMM HQ.

One of the nicest new trends of recent years is really the revival and rebranding of something very old: the smaller dwelling.

Over the last few months, I have built just such a structure, and it has turned out to be a rather cool experience. In fact, I’m typing this article for you from within its productive new confines.

Technically, it’s just a fancy shed. But it is functioning as a freestanding office building, a sanctuary, and would even make a pretty fine little dwelling for one person, if you were to squeeze in the necessary plumbing. It’s a joyful place to spend time, and yet it only took a moderate amount of work and less than $3500 of cash to create it.

The experience has been so satisfying and empowering, that it has  reminded me how much we rich folk are overdoing the whole housing thing.

The latest and most distant Las Vegas Suburbs – still expanding (actual screenshot from Google Maps)

For decades, we have been cranking up household size and amenities in response to increasing productivity and wealth. In the 1940s, the typical US household had four people sharing 1000 square feet, or the equivalent of one large garage bay of space per person. Nowadays, new homes average around 2600 square feet and house only three people, which means each person floats around in almost triple the space. We have also started placing these dwellings in bigger expanses of blank grass and/or asphalt, which separate us further from the people and places we like to visit.

The funny part of all this is that we prioritize size over quality. Houses are sold by the square foot and the bedroom and the bathroom, rather than the more important things like how much daylight the windows let in or how well the spaces all fit together. And we settle for the shittiest of locations, buying houses so far from amenities that we depend on a 4000 pound motorized wheelchair just to go pick up a few salad ingredients.

Meanwhile, smaller houses and mobile and manufactured homes have continued to exist, but they have sprouted an undesireable stigma: those things are only for poor people, so if you can afford it you should get yourself a large, detached house.

My Tinyhouse Dreaming

Ever since my teenage years, I have dreamed of casual, communal living. 1992 still ranks as possibly the Best Summer Of My Life, because my brother and I lived a leisurely existence in the utopian garden-and-forest expanse of our Mom’s half acre backyard complete with swimming pool, fire pit, and pop-up tent trailer.

We lived at the center of small, historic town, with very little for teenagers to do in the summer besides find a way to get beer, and find somewhere to drink it so we could play cards and make jokes and if we were really lucky, find romance. And in these conditions, Mum’s backyard came to the rescue of our whole social group.

People would show up in the morning and just linger and come and go all day, swimming in the pool, grilling up lunches and dinners, playing cards at night or watching movies in the impromptu movie theater I had set up in the old detached garage. There were last-minute multi-person sleepovers every weekend. Leftover spicy bratwurst for breakfast cooked over an open fire in the morning. The fond memories from this early-nineties teen utopia live on in all of us*. So naturally, I have wanted to find ways to recreate that carefree feeling ever since.

According to people who actually study this stuff, the key to a really happy community and warmer friendships seems to be unplanned social interactions: you need to run into people unexpectedly every day, and then do fun stuff with them. To facilitate this, you need to live close enough together that you encounter one another when out for your morning stroll. Smaller, cheaper housing is the key to this, as well as a key to spending a lot less money on isolating yourself from potential new friends.

Weecasa resort (image credit Weecasa)

Need a few real-life examples? Right next to me in Lyons, Colorado, someone (I wish it were me!) thought up the idea of creating a resort out of tinyhouses called WeeCasa. Consuming less space than just the parking lot of a normal hotel, they have a beautiful and now highly popular enclave where the rooms rent for $150-$200+ per night.

Two friends of mine just bought a pair of adjoining renovated cabooses (cabeese?) in a Wisconsin beach town, with plans to create the same thing: a combination of a pleasant and walkable lifestyle with fewer material strings attached, and a stream of rental income when they’re not there.

Another friend built her own tiny house on a flat trailer platform, and has since gone on to live in a beautiful downtown neighborhood, both car-free and mortgage-free except for a small parking fee paid for stationing it in her friend’s back driveway. The monetary impact of making such a bold housing move for even a few years of your youth, is big enough to put you ahead for a lifetime.

Even my neighbourhood of “old-town Longmont” has recently inflated to the point of tiny starter home selling for $500k, for the same reason: people really want walkable, sociable places to live and house size is less important than location. While I’m in favor of this philosophy, I’m not in favor of anyone having to spend $500,000 for a shitty, uninsulated, unrenovated house. So we need a greater supply of smaller, closer dwellings to meet this higher demand.

But that’s all big picture stuff. The real story of this article is a small one – a single 120 square foot structure in the back of one of my own properties right here in downtown Longmont, CO. So let’s get down to it.

The Tinyhouse Conference Room

An interior view of our new workspace.

Nearing its one year anniversary, the “MMM-HQ” coworking space has been a lot of fun to run so far. It has been a mixture of quiet workdays, heavy workouts, evening events, and occasional classes and markets. (We have about 55 members and are looking for a few more, so if you happen to live in Longmont click the link above.)

But with only one big room as our indoor space, some members have felt the pinch of needing a quiet place to do longer conference calls or client meetings.  So the plan has always been to build a couple of new spaces, and at last I have one of them mostly finished. And I made a point of documenting the whole process so I could share any ideas and lessons learned with you.

What goes into a Tinyhouse?

As with any big construction project, I started with a spreadsheet of steps and materials.

Here’s the complete list of steps and materials. You can click for viewing or download an .ods version for tweaking.

To save time, I tried to think ahead and get everything in one order **- most lumber shops will do free or cheap delivery on large orders like this.  Of course, I ended up only partially successful and had to go back for missed objects, but I added those to my spreadsheet so your order can be more complete than mine.

At this point, it was just a matter of putting it all together, an effort which took me about 120 hours (three standard weeks) of work, spread out very casually over the past three months. Most of the work is standard house framing stuff, but just for fun we can step through it in rapidfire style right here.

The Super Simple Insulated Floor

Normally when building a small house, you’d dig a hole and pour a reinforced slab of concrete, as I did for the larger and fancier studio building at my main house. But in this case, the goal was fast, cheap and simple. So I just raked out a level patch of crushed gravel, compacted it with my rusty homemade welded compactor tool (“La Cruz”), and then started laying out pressure treated 2×6 lumber.

Here’s the 12×10 floor platform. Note the little support rails which allowed me to tightly fit in the foil-coated foam insulation between the joists. Most joints are done with simple 3.25″ galvanized framing nails, but I added Simpson corner brackets on the insides of the outermost joists for more strength.


Once I had those floor joists super square and level (hammering in stone shims under corners and joists as needed), I added a layer of standard 3/4″ OSB subfloor and nailed it down judiciously with the framing nailer to ensure a very rigid base. Then started to make the walls.

I used the floor as a convenient work platform for building the four walls. I built them flat and even added the 1/2″ exterior sheathing in advance, then tilted them up with the help of a friend or two. This method makes for heavier lifting but higher quality, because you get a perfectly straight and square wall almost guaranteed. Plus, it saves time because sheathing is a fussier job to do on an already-installed wall.

Once all four walls were set up and locked in place, I created the roof frame, which is really just a rather large wall. I did this on the ground, but had to compromise and skip the pre-sheathing step even though it would yield better quality, because we needed to keep it light enough to lift. If I had really strong friends or a telescoping forklift like real framing companies have, doing it all on the ground would have been a big win.

Framing and roofing.

A Metal Roof (of course)

I wanted a relatively flat-looking roof, so I cut wedge-shaped 2x4s and nailed them to the tops of the roof rafters before adding sheathing. This results in a slope of only 2%, but with a careful underlayment job and the seamless nature of metal roof sheets when compared to shingles, I have found it is nicely watertight. If in doubt, you can add more slope or use a rubber EPDM roof. The other advantages of metal: longer lifespan, lighter weight, and better protection from summer heat.

Insulation and Siding

Various wall layers revealed, insulation, lights, super frugal wood floor!

On top of those handy pre-sheathed walls,  I added 1″ foil-covered foamboard, then some stained cedar fenceboards to create the reddish exterior you see in these pictures. Although the cedar gets quite a few compliments, it was an experiment I wouldn’t repeat: the boards expand and contract in changing weather and leave visible gaps at times. Next time, I’ll use more wavy metal siding, or something prefinished with an interlocking tongue and groove profile.

Electrical was done exactly the same way you’d wire up a normal house, with outlets and switches in AC Romex-style wiring. But on a tinyhouse like this, you might choose to have it all terminate at a male outdoor receptacle on an exterior wall like an RV or camp trailer, so you can run the whole thing from a good extension cord.

Insulation was just basic batts in this case, but you can use spray foam for even better performance.  I drywalled everything using standard 1/2″ “lightrock” wallboard, hoping to keep the structure weight down in general, in case this thing ever needs to be moved with a forklift.

For lighting, I used these LED lights I found at Amazon at $4.20 per fixture.

The bare drywall stage – one of so much promise.

The Final Touches – Interior Trim, Furniture and Climate Control

At this stage in the construction story, I had something that looked like any other ready-to-finish example of modern house construction, and it was such a happy and familiar feeling. It’s a blank canvas but also a very solid one upon which you can create anything – an office, a bedroom, music studio, living room. Or if you’ve got the pipes for it, a kitchen or even a bathroom with a fancy shower.

Normally by this stage in building a house, you’ve spent at least $100 per square foot, so you can imagine the pleasantly Mustachian feeling I got when I arrived here at about $22.

So to keep the frugal trend going with the floor, I decided to try just smooth sanding the raw OSB with a good belt sander and clearcoating it with this really tough floor urethane. It came out looking pleasant, and is very durable and mud/gravel resistant. But I found the sanding was a slow process – throwing in a basic but attractive engineered wood floor at under $2 per square foot is probably a better idea next time at only slightly higher cost, unless you are building a big enough space to justify renting a real floor sander.

I made my own trim and window jambs by buying three 4×8 sheets of 3/4″ MDF and slicing them up on the table saw. Like the floor, this adds a bit of labor, but the benefit is you can get nice beefy trim in whatever dimensions you like (and even throw in some matching custom shelving and built-in cabinetry!) and save a couple hundred dollars per room.

The portable air conditioner occupies only one shelf.

For furniture, I picked out a mixture of stuff I already had, an Ikea desk frame from Craigslist, and a nifty chairside table from a local big box store.

Finally, I added some simple but effective climate control by just throwing a low cost portable AC from amazon up on the shelf (it vents through a 6″ hole I cut to the exterior). In the winter, I’ll just stash that little air conditioner somewhere and replace it with a silent oil-filled electric radiator for heat.

By plugging either of these machines into a wifi-controlled electrical outlet, I can even control the heating and cooling from anywhere using an app on my phone, as I already do for the various patio lights and ventilation fans I have in my life.

So do YOU want a Tiny House?

The real point of this article is just to share the idea that small structures can be very useful for many things. They are quicker and cheaper than creating a traditional house or building an addition onto one. They may allow you to have a guest house or home office or even an AirBnb rental in space that was formerly just a water-sucking part of your back lawn. Many cities allow you to place small things like this in your yard without requiring a building permit. And if you have the skills to build these things, you can even create an instantly profitable business cranking them out to satisfy the strong demand.

As for me, I’m hooked – later this year I’ll build a second one of these things here at MMM-HQ. And perhaps I’ll even get a chance to help someone build yet another in a tropical seaside location this winter, as part of my ongoing “Carpentourism” habit.

Happy downsizing!

*except my Mum, who still regrets letting so many teenagers run free and attract the ire of the older neighbors and occasionally the police department. Sorry Mom..  but also, thank you so much!

** I also took advantage of the large chunk of spending for a tiny bit of “travel hacking“, picking up an Amex Platinum card that gives me about $1000 of cash/travel credits only if I can spend $5000 within the first three months. For travel hackers, timing the acquisition of a new rewards card to coincide with a chunk of planned spending can be a useful way to squeeze the travel budget into an existing renovation budget.



Welcome to fifty: My first health scare as a middle-aged man

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Three weeks ago today, I had a major health scare.

Because it was Monday, I was at the family box factory. I had just finished running payroll and had taken paychecks out to the shop. I exited the building and *bam* my chest just sort of seized up.

“Ouch,” I thought. But, being a Roth, my thought process didn’t go much farther than that. (We Roths don’t like doctors and we tend to deal with injuries for weeks or months or years before having them looked at.)

On the way back to the office, I stopped to talk to my cousin Duane. He was digging in the dirt, prepping a spot for his summer garden. We chatted about blueberries, tomatoes, and greenhouses. We admired the warm spring day. After a few minutes, I realized that my chest still hurt.

“I don’t want to alarm you,” I said, “but I’m having chest pains. It’s probably nothing. But just in case it is something, I thought you should know.”

I walked back to the office and sat down at my computer. Instead of going back to work, however, I googled heart attacks. I read the list of symptoms. I wasn’t experiencing anything except chest pain but still…Every site said the same thing: Don’t mess around. If you’re having chest pain, have somebody drive you to a doctor.

Duane came in. “Are you feeling okay?” he asked.

“I’m still having chest pains,” I said.

“Do you want me to drive you to the doctor?” he asked.

I debated things in my mind. “It’s probably nothing,” I thought. “Or maybe it’s a panic attack like twenty years ago.” In 1998, I experienced two similar episodes that turned out to be panic attacks. I was under a lot of stress then. I’m not under a lot of stress now.

“Plus, if I go to the doctor, it could end up costing a fortune. My health insurance sucks,” I thought. “But if it is a heart attack and I don’t go in, I could end up dead.”

“Well?” Duane said.

“Tell you what,” I said. “I know I’m not supposed to but I’m going to drive myself to urgent care. If you don’t hear from me in fifteen minutes, come find me.” (There’s only one logical route from the box factory to the nearest clinic.)

I gathered my stuff, hopped in my pickup, and drove slowly to the clinic.

Hurry Up and Wait

At urgent care, they expedited my case. Within minutes, I’d been hooked up to an EKG machine. While he worked, the doctor asked me lots of questions about my past and current health.

“Everything looks normal to me,” he said. “Your blood pressure is high, but the EKG is good. So is everything else. Are you still having the pains?”

“Yes,” I said. “And they’re now in my back too.”

The doctor frowned. “I don’t think you’re having a heart attack,” he said, “but we should make sure. I want you to drive yourself to the nearest emergency room.” He gave me a printout that explained my situation and wished me luck.

Twenty minutes later, I was in the ER for the first time in my life. (I’ve been there for other people but never for myself.) A nurse ran another EKG. “Everything looks fine,” he said, “but we’re going to do some more tests.”

Hospital Monitor

First, they drew blood. Then they ran chest x-rays. Then they ran another EKG. Then they ran a CT scan. “Oops,” the doctor said when he saw the results of the CT scan. “They didn’t scan the right spot. That’s my fault. I goofed up. I pressed the wrong button. I guess we’ll do an ultrasound to check out your abdomen instead.” So, I got an ultrasound. Then more blood tests and another EKG.

Can you guess what I thought when the doctor admitted he’d run the wrong test? That’s right: “I’d better not be charged for this!” In any other business, if the service provider makes an error, the customer isn’t charged for it. Is that the same with hospitals? We’re going to find out.

After five hours of tests and waiting, they let me go.

“I’m not sure what’s wrong,” the doctor told me. “Your blood pressure is high, but you’re the healthiest person I’ve seen all day. Follow up with a heart specialist. Go enjoy the sun!”

Paying for Pain

Since that heart-attack scare three weeks ago, life has been a whirlwind. We’ve been planting trees and bushes and flowers and seeds. We celebrated my birthday. Kim had knee surgery. Plus, there’s all the rest of Real Life to take care of.

I tried to follow up with the recommended heart specialist but he’s out of my network. “You should find somebody on your own insurance,” his office staff told me. I haven’t done that yet.

Last Friday, two other things happened.

First, I had to go back to urgent care. (When was the last time I sought medical help twice in three weeks? Has it ever happened?) I have miserable allergies this time of year, but my throat seemed even more raw than normal.

Turns out, I have a simple canker sore…on the back of my throat. The doctor prescribed a numbing agent. “Your blood pressure is pretty high,” he said before I left. “You might want to have that checked out.” He suggested that I buy a blood-pressure monitor while I was picking up my prescription. So I did. (Nothing says “I just turned fifty” like browsing blood-pressure monitors at the pharmacy.)

When I got home with the meds and the monitor, there was an Explanation of Benefits waiting in the mailbox. I opened it to learn the initial cost estimate for my ER visit. (For non-Americans, the Explanation of Benefits is a statement we receive after health care but before we receive actual bills. My understanding is that it’s an estimate of what is being billed to whom. But it’s not always 100% accurate.)

According to the Explanation of Benefits, I’m on the hook for $6858.49. That’s enough to give a person a heart attack! (Haha.) I’m under the impression that my insurance plan covers all emergency room visits, so this number could change. Right now, though, I assume I owe nearly $6900 for my four hours in the ER.

Hospital EOB

A Change of Heart

After-Visit SummaryOver the weekend, I tested my blood pressure several times. It’s high. I haven’t figured out my new blood-pressure monitor well enough to state definitively that I have hypertension, but it seems as if I’m pre-hypertensive at a minimum. In any case, it’s clear that I need to make some changes.

Over the next few months, I want to:

  • Scrutinize the hospital bill. I want to know what I’m being billed for and why. (I’d better not be charged for the mistaken procedure in the ER!) As much as I hate phones and confrontation, I might have to use both. Good thing I just read this article on how to fight expensive medical bills. I’m curious to see what I’m actually billed for compared to the estimates on the Explanation of Benefits.
  • Look into health savings accounts. This is one of my financial blindspots. I’ve never read about HSAs, so I don’t know the pros and cons. I don’t know anything about them. From what little I do know, it sounds like an HSA might be a way for me to cushion unforeseen medical expenses.
  • Get serious about my physical (and mental) fitness. For the past few years, I’ve been coasting. I’ve been overweight and out of shape during most of my adult life. In 2010, I lost fifty pounds and gained muscle. I was the fittest I’d ever been. I maintained that for a few years, but have gradually softened. I’ve made occasional half-hearted efforts to change. It’s time to give 100% effort again.
  • Find a primary care physician. I had a primary doctor I liked but when Kim and I left to explore the U.S. by RV in 2015, my doctor moved. I haven’t had a regular doctor now for four years. This is enough of a passive barrier to keep me from seeking medical help. Dumb but true. I need to find a new doctor.
  • Find a therapist. Like last year, I’m struggling with depression this spring. It sucks. It’s not as bad as it was in 2018, but it’s still enough to sap me of motivation. I need to get some help.
  • Be proactive with my heart health. My family doesn’t have a history of heart disease. We have a history of cancer. I’ve been worried about cancer all this time, but what if I should have been caring more for my heart? Fortunately, managing high blood pressure doesn’t seem too onerous.

There’s on other thing I’m going to do — especially if my final bills do amount to $6900 and I can’t get them lowered.

My health insurance carries a $7900 annual deductible and $7900 annual maximum out-of-pocket expense. If I end up owing $6858.49, then there’s only $1050 left until I reach the maximum I can possibly pay this year. That gives me a strong incentive to get as many medical procedures done this year as possible.

Final Thoughts

I’m glad that I didn’t have a heart attack. I’m disappointed with myself for allowing my fitness to erode, but I’m trying not to beat myself up to bad. I can get back in shape. And I can lower my blood pressure. It’ll take time and effort, but it’s doable.

In 2012, I was worried about my lack of energy. I asked my doctor to run some tests. “You have nothing to worry about,” he said when the numbers came back. “You’re one of the healthiest 43-year-old men I’ve ever seen. I’m serious.”

No doctor would say that about me now at age fifty. But if I apply myself, maybe in a few years my doctor will tell me, “You’re one of the healthiest 53-year-old men I’ve ever seen.”

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