Category Archives: Think

Why The Founding Fathers Were Broke

Why the founding fathers were broke, and why in the grand scheme of time and humanity, it doesn't matter.

It’s so interesting to me how many versions there are of the founding fathers.  From politics to religion, many different people associate many different ideals with each one, sometimes correctly, sometime erroneously, and sometimes both.  These were men founding a democratic republic in a world where Western society was still largely ruled by monarchies.   They had a lot of ideas.  They said a lot of things.  Over the courses of their lives, they sometimes contradicted themselves.

Their situations changed from birth until death, too.  They were born British citizens, and died founders of a new country that not too many people wanted to do business with.  Many of them were, in fact, broke after the birth of America.

George Washington

Washington had some rich parents.  His dad made his living farming, and he inherited his estate (Mount Vernon.)   Washington himself made some money as a soldier, rising to the rank of Major during the French and Indian War, but gave up the whole military thing for a while to go back to his farm and marry into some more money.

He then led American rebels against British forces to win the American Revolution.  He lost more battles than he won, but he also won the war.  Post-war, America’s trade was limited as most of its ships had been destroyed and Britain cut off any economic ties not only with England itself, but also the British part of the Caribbean.  We had taken on massive amounts of debt to fund the war.  Inflation was out of control.  To top it off, we had defeated Britain, but didn’t really have a replacement government ready to go.  At least not one everyone agreed on.  So fixing the economy took some time.

What that meant was that while Washington owned a lot of land, the people he leased it out to weren’t necessarily paying him what they owed.  It was a huge class issue, and the government at the time slightly took the side of the tenants, lightening burdens for debtors (who, at that time, could face prison.)

It’s pretty common knowledge that Washington was reluctant to take positions of power.  He wouldn’t have take command of American rebel forces if it hadn’t been for idealism and honor.  But he mostly took the presidency because he was broke.  When he was president, he was very generous with funding programs and guests, putting everything on his tab while waving away a salary.  When he checked out, Congress paid him back everything he had billed, but the money had lost most of its value to inflation.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was also born to a wealthy, land-owning family.  (It should be noted that both families utilized slave labor.)  He also married a wealthy widow.

I don’t mean to assert that either marriage was loveless, but it’s worth noting that neither of these men married someone of a different economic status than themselves. Though Sally Hemings did bear his children after his first wife passed away, there was definitely a massive imbalance of power in that instance–that’s not love either.

Essentially the same thing happened to Jefferson as it did to Washington.  During the war, he had racked up some personal and business debts.  After the war, when he tried to pay with American money; the Brits that he owed to flat out turned it down, saying it wasn’t real currency.  He was in trouble.  And then his father-in-law died, passing his debts on to Jefferson.

Jefferson still lived a life of high society, though.  He outspent what he earned.  He served as an Ambassador to France, and the President, keeping up appearances all the while. He kept on racking up debt.  He lived long enough to see another period of economic turmoil in 1819, which didn’t help.  And he cosigned on a pretty big loan with a friend.  The friend died a year later.

He made some bad decisions, and could not catch a break.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was not a president, or a great military leader, but was a shining example of the pen fortifying the sword.  His pamphlet, Common Sense, rallied the American people to the cause of independence.

He was born solidly middle class, and married a house servant purely for love (which was abnormal at the time.)  She passed away in childbirth, and then he married a teacher.  He tried his hand at many trades, but was pretty much broke all the time.  At the worst of it, he and the teacher split.

He came to America, and found his calling as a writer for a magazine.  As things heated up between the American colonists and the British, he firmly chose a side and wrote his epic pamphlet.  It tipped the colonists’ feeling of trepidation in confronting the crown towards outrage and a willingness to fight back.  It was the unifying force behind colonial political opinion.

During the war, he served as a military secretary.  While he was serving under Washington, he wrote a series of pamphlets called American Crisis that kept the troops’ morale up.

After the war, he was broke again.  He went to Congress to try to get payment for all he had done to help win the war.  They gave him land (we can all guess how that turned out, based on the previous two landowners,) and $3k reimbursement for money he had spent on war-related efforts.

Paine was fiery, which was what the colonists needed at the time.  But as a result, he wasn’t very tactful, and made a lot enemies.  He lived in France during their own Revolution, and was imprisoned by the Jacobins.  They meant to execute him, but by some lucky miracle the guy who was supposed to get him out of his cell forgot.  Before anyone could notice the error, Robespierre had been beheaded.

He wrote more pamphlets,  hung out with Napoleon, came back to America, and convinced Jefferson to make the Louisiana Purchase.  But he never really had any serious money.  He died penniless.  I’m not sure if he didn’t manage his money well, or he got into a career that didn’t pay well.  It was probably a combination of both.

They weren’t all broke.  And why does it matter?

Then there were men like Benjamin Franklin.  A rags to riches story.  A man who was not only constantly curious, but also invested in and expanded businesses he knew inside and out.  Maybe not the best family man.  Sound familiar?

The point is this: as we make our journeys through life, money can make us comfortable.  It can make some things easier.  It can be a powerful tool.  But it does not dictate the legacy we leave behind.  Today, does it matter that Washington struggled financially?  Not a bit.  In fact, if he hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have been our first president. The fact that Paine was essentially penniless for most of his life didn’t stop him from uniting a people to revolution.

We are important.  No matter who we are.  No matter how much money we have or don’t have.  We can make positive changes in the world around us, because the most important currency doesn’t lie with dollars and cents; it lies with inspiration and ideas.

Praying for Wealth at Fushimi Inari

Totes want to go here! Planning a trip to Kyoto, Japan right now!

You know those pictures you see of orange tori gates lined up one after another, creating a fantastic tunnel?

Those pictures are of Fushimi Inari in Kyoto. Visiting there was a really cool experience for my sibling and I while we were on our trip to Japan.

What to Know Before You Go to Fushimi Inari

If you’re taking a JR train to Fushimi Inari, you’re in for a treat. It’s a super quick train ride away, and you’ll be met with the first orange tori gate when you step out of the station. You literally just have to walk across the street.

Once you pass through this first gate, you’ll enter a huge complex with places to pray and shops to purchase souvenirs. From there, you’ll enter the first tunnel of tori gates. Bear in mind that this path will take you up a mountain–wear appropriate clothing for your trek!

The gates get thinner the higher up you go up–the most condensed section is right there at the bottom.

The Story Behind the Gates

We were told that when you pray at Fushimi Inari, you are undertaking an obligation. The complex is set up as a shinto shrine dedicated to wishes for wealth. Should your wish be granted, you should use a portion of your money to donate another one of these orange gates.

That means that the tunnel created by the gates isn’t just a cool way to get people to come pray; it’s a manifestation of the success people and organizations have had since offering their prayers.

It’s also why the gates are closer together at the base of the mountain rather than the top; odds are that by the time you visit, there will be more gates up at the top than when I went as more wishes for wealth are granted!

Am I Praying for Wealth or Something Else?

When we made it to the main shrine, I threw in my go yen and prayed. I found myself praying for wealth, sure. Because that’s what you do when you’re there.

But I also found myself not so much desiring material gains for material gains’ sake. I found myself praying for the things money can grant: independence, freedom (hopefully to travel some more!), and the ability to be an actor in my own life rather than a passive vessel. To create my own path rather than being forced to walk upon one I had been told to travel.

Because it isn’t ever really about money. It’s really easy to fall into the numbers trap, measuring our success with a calculator in hand. But the reasons we pursue money are our true driving motivators, and we should never lose site of them. They’re what keep us grounded, and what can push us to keep going when things get hard.

I’ll be sure to let you guys know if they ever end up erecting an orange gate in my name.

 

What would you pray for at Fushimi Inari, besides the obvious request for cash?

 

Financial Lessons Learned From Marilyn Monroe

I had no idea Marilyn Monroe was so fiscally responsible! It does make sense that there were some money flaws, too. Nobody's perfect.

Or should I more properly state, “…from The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe,” which is a biography by J. Randy Taraborelli.  The bok was a great, anything-but-dry reconstruction of a life that both confirmed some of my assumptions and opened my eyes to realities that fly in the face of decades of gossip.

Monroe lived a sad life, but in all honesty, after reading this book, if I had met her in real life I would undoubtedly feel bad for her and want to help her, but I’d also probably be annoyed and find the woman a bit melodramatic. She had a hard childhood, but she made it sound oh-so-much worse for publicity’s sake.

Her ultimate demise was the pharmaceutical drug culture endorsed and encouraged by her industry at the time, which is a sad, shameful thing. Then again, it would appear that when she was at her best she was such a joy to be around–such a duplicitous character.

But isn’t that the case for all of humanity? We all hold within us light and dark.

Anyways, as I was reading I ran across a ton of financial lessons: some good and some bad. Any quotes I use are from Taraborelli’s work.

Don’t Let Any Man Hold You Back

From a young age, the men in Monroe’s life tried to keep her down. Or, more appropriately, tried to turn her into their ideal of what a woman should be: a home-making, doting wife that had no concerns outside of her marriage and family.

That wasn’t unusual for the time, but Marilyn wanted more. From a very young age she had a very specific goal of becoming a star. She chose her career over her marriages with Jim Dougherty and Joe DiMaggio, and while she may have never achieved ultimate happiness, she certainly achieved her goal.

If You’re Worth More, Demand More

Marilyn struggled with her relationship with her contractual overlord–Fox–for much of her career. After being cast for a film where she would play yet another dumb blonde (which frustrated her as she wanted to break out and take on more serious roles,) she found out she was being grossly underpaid compared to her peers.

To quote Taraborrelli’s account of the pursuant interaction:

“‘I’ve been in this business a long time, and I know what’s good for you,’ one executive told her.  ‘I’ve been in this business a very short time, but I know what’s better for me than you do,'” was Monroe’s reply.

YAS, Marilyn!

You know what? Her attitude worked. She didn’t have to do the movie she was disgruntled with, and when she resigned she got a $100,000 bonus.

Later on in her career she would establish her own production company to further her point and use as leverage to get paid more money. She was never paid commensurate to what she was worth, but she sure knew how to prove her point.

Show Up for Work

Monroe was constantly late to work. It frustrated the bejeezus out of her coworkers. Towards the end of her life it started getting so bad that a lot of times she wouldn’t even show up, citing one illness or another.

Granted, she was addicted to the meds her doctors were prescribing her and may have inherited a mental illness that hadn’t manifested itself in full-force until later in her short life, but her tardiness and constant absence eventually got her fired.

Lesson learned: show up to work.  So you can keep your job.

Your Home Doesn’t Have to be Lavish

Marilyn Monroe spent a good part of her childhood in a foster home that she cited as an adult was quite horrible, but in all reality was very loving. It was, however, modest.

Yet when she became a star, she didn’t go out and buy a mansion. In fact, her home as a grown woman was actually smaller than the one she spent her younger years in. Only a few rooms large, she loved it because it was her own and enjoyed entertaining there with no hint of shame. Had she managed the rest of her finances properly, she would be a personal finance role model.

Know Where Your Money’s Going

Towards the end of her life, her accountant advised Monroe to stop spending so lavishly. He had no idea where she was spending her money, and apparently neither did she. She only had $13,000 to her name.

Considering what she was making, that sure wasn’t a lot. It impacted those she left after she died. While she intended to leave $5,000/month to her mentally-ill mother for her hospitalization and care, her mother had to be removed from the high-class facility she was being treated at during her daughter’s life because the money simply wasn’t there.

Leave Your Estate to Someone

When Marilyn Monroe died, she was broke. The money she left to her family had already been spent.

But then, years later, something happened. All the work she did during her lifetime starting earning her money, and it all went to her estate. She had left part of it to her psychiatrist, and a larger portion to his acting coach.

It seems like an odd choice, but apparently it was a good one. When the money did start rolling in, her wishes regarding her family were fulfilled. And the owner of the estate (her coach’s widow) works hard to uphold her image and has the deepest respect for her. It would have been such a shame to just let that money go into anyone-who-could-grab-it’s hands.

 

 

What have you been reading lately?  Check out more recommendations on the Around the World in 80 Books Challenge.

Climbing Mountains at Iwatayama Monkey Park

Deep lessons! Definitely makes me want to visit this monkey park next time I travel to Kyoto, Japan!

When we wake up each morning, we have no idea what the day has in store for us.

Sure, we can have plans. Sure, we can set goals.

But along the way, plans can become derailed. Obstacles can pop up between us and our goals. Emergencies can happen, taking precedence.

While this all sounds rather negative and pessimistic, believe it or not, this fact of life can be a beautiful thing. We can make new connections with people we didn’t know existed. Sometimes those people become a big part of our lives. We can conquer those obstacles, giving us confidence in our own strength. And we can adjust our plans to include beautiful experiences we didn’t see when we were further back on the path, our view of the future obscured.

The Day I Woke Up Not Expecting to Climb a Mountain

mountain view kyoto japan

After our Girl Power Tour of Arashiyama in Kyoto, we had one more item on our itinerary: Iwatayama Monkey Park.

We followed the walking path down from the bamboo forest, by a beautiful river, and over Kyoto’s iconic bridge. From there, we were under the impression that we’d have a short walk to the monkey park.

It was short. We walked up some stairs and paid the 550 yen each admission fee.

I don’t know what we were expecting after that. We knew the monkeys weren’t this close to the base of the mountain. Maybe there would be a gondola to take us up?

Or maybe we just hadn’t thought that far ahead.

In the heat and humidity of Japanese springtime, we realized we were going to have to climb this intimidating mountain. I’m susceptible to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, even when I am incredibly fit. Which I am not at this point in my life, though I am working to change that.

It hadn’t rained in over a week, and the humidity clung to us like a wet blanket, making us sweat out of every pore. We weren’t the only ones disillusioned by the unexpected hike; I saw a woman in wedge-heeled sandals sulking up the mountain with her family. At every turn on the winding path, there were fellow tourists catching a breath. Stretching. Resting.

At a certain point my sibling asked if we should just turn around. This was going to take forever. But we already had sunk costs–the people who run this place were extremely smart to put the ticketing booth at the bottom rather than the top of the mountain.

We decided we didn’t want to let a mountain defeat us. So on we trudged. When at last we reached the top, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the city of Kyoto. I hadn’t known it was quite as large as it is until I saw the mountaintop view.

We were also rewarded with spectacular experiences we would have missed had we given up and turned around, taking the easy but far less enriching path.

Bonding with Monkeys

little monkey eating on perch kyoto

Okay, we didn’t so much bond with monkeys as much as encroach on their natural habitat. The animals allow you to do so because there is a feeding station set up in their home, and because of trained experts keeping their behavior in check at every given moment.

When we first rounded the final stretch of the path before reaching the mountain’s crest, there were some free-range monkeys messing around in the woods. It was honestly a little unnerving; these are wild animals, and this was their territory. Fortunately, one of the people working there came along with a clicking device–unafraid to herd them back to the safer area up at the crest.

When we reached the top, we stood feet away from monkeys searching the grass and floating sakura (cherry blossom) petals for bugs to eat. We saw them grooming each other. I paid a tiny fee to feed them some apples–by hand!

We got to see babies play fighting with their siblings. Adults expressing their disinterest with humans after they realized you were out of food. That one a-hole monkey that no one wanted to groom. I felt kind of bad for him.

It was a fantastic experience–unlike any other animal encounter I’ve personally had before. After a few minutes, the angst of being around wild animals subsides as you realize the trained and vigilant staff has everything under control.

Reading the Signs Along the Way

unhappy monkey

#NotADocileMonkey

Another big reason that we felt comfortable was that along our arduous hike, there were signs at every resting point, instructing you how to–and how not to–interact with the monkeys. They showed you the faces of docile monkeys, angry monkeys and scared monkeys. You got instructions to not bend down next to the monkeys, and to not look them directly in the eye or smile at them. And you definitely needed to turn your flash off for photography.

Unfortunately, some who hiked faster than we did appeared to miss these instructions. As they blew by the rest stops, they missed clues that would have told them not to look directly in these monkeys eyes, or not bend down next to one with their infant for an Insta-worthy photo op.

Luckily, the staff were on their game. The few situations that did arise were extremely minimal because they were excellent at their jobs and headed off problems before they really unfolded.

But it could have turned out a lot worse if even one of those situations had slipped under the radar.

Lessons Learned from Iwatayama Monkey Park

monkey without friends

I did not expect to learn so much from a tourist attraction, but I really did glean a lot of insight from our trip to Iwatayama Monkey Park.

Sunk Costs Aren’t Always a Bad Thing

We often like to talk about the sunk cost fallacy in personal finance. The most ubiquitous example is gym memberships. Often people will continue their memberships because they have paid so much for it already–even though they don’t use the gym they’re paying for access to. This leads to more money spent on something you don’t even use rather than calling it quits and accepting the losses.

That’s real.

But in Arashiyama, I came to the realization that sunk costs can also be a great motivator. Even though we had only spent about $5 for the privilege of our hike, the fact that we had already paid the money kept me going. Had we not spent that money up front, I would have been more likely to acquiesce to the idea of turning around, thus denying myself a fantastic experience.

Go Your Own Pace–And Read the Road Signs

monkey looking for bugs in floating cherry blossom petals

While I was determined to climb the mountain after we had gotten started, I knew due to past experience that I was going to have to take it a lot slower than some of these people passing us because I needed to avoid passing out. I was cognizant that this made my sweaty self look less than other people facing the same obstacle, but I also knew my own body and that things would turn out better if I paced myself.

By pacing myself, I didn’t rush past those important instructional signs along the way, teaching me how to interact with the monkeys safely. Sometimes being the first to the top isn’t the most important; sometimes it’s all about being as prepared as you can be when you get there–even if that means your journey takes a little longer.

The same can be applied to our financial goals. It’s rough when others get somewhere more quickly than we do, but they’re not facing the situation with the same set of life experiences and past financial baggage (or lack thereof) that we are. Everyone’s money journey is different, and getting to the top first doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be the one who enjoys it the most.

You Can Climb Mountains

There was a point at the beginning of the hike where I wasn’t sure if I could do it. Climbing a mountain was not something I had envisioned myself doing when I rolled out of bed that morning, and the monkey park might not have been on our to-do list if we had known what a Herculean task it would be.

But partially because of the sunk costs, partially by pacing ourselves, and partially through sheer determination, we made it to the top. We were rewarded with breathtaking views, a new perspective and enriching experiences.

You might look at that mountain and think it was nothing. But for me, it was a hard thing to conquer.

I’m nothing special, but I can do hard things. And you can, too. Your mountains might look different than mine, but you can conquer them. Once you do, you’ll find new perspectives and a sense of pride at the top.

 

Be sure to follow on Instagram for more pictures of monkeys and Kyoto in general!

When I Get Spendy

Totally needed this read. When something aligns with your values but not your budget, it's so hard to stop yourself from spending money!

One of the first steps in a positive financial journey is identifying the things that are important to you; the things you’re willing to spend money on, and the things you’re willing to sacrifice other creature comforts for.

It’s really easy to get high and mighty about our priorities. We judge others when their financial “must haves” are different than our own–when their lifestyle choices differ from the ones that would bring us joy.

Let’s cut that out.

But let’s also recognize those moments of inner conflict. Those moments when temptation can beguile us into spending money against our own values or self-interest. These are the moments when we can become fiscally irresponsible, or compromise our own belief systems in order to save a buck.

As a frugal person who also has incredibly strong convictions, I’ve seen both sides of this coin. While I typically have no trouble sacrificing in the name of financial stability, I definitely have moments of conflict. In an effort to showcase my imperfections–and hopefully help you get introspective about your own–I thought I’d talk a little bit about those challenges today.

When Spending Money on What I Value is Bad

I’m a sucker for great art. The kind of art that speaks to the soul rather than realism. It doesn’t have to be by famous artists as we all have the capability to tap into the stream of human consciousness regardless of name recognition, and I don’t mind paying a little extra to support someone who has created something that moves my soul.

The problem?

Art isn’t a necessity. At least not for me.

I might really like the visual presentation of a piece, or the melodic or disharmonious chords that somehow wedge their way into my heart, but purchasing these items is a luxury.

I tend to forget that when I’m feeling depressed, though. When we get depressed, we tend to look inwards a lot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; that journey inwards can help us identify what is wrong in our lives and how we can fix it.

But for me, that also means the connection I make to others’ works seems more powerful during these periods. The connection takes over my rational thinking–and my pocketbook.

Most of the time I’m able to stop myself from going on a spending spree, but there have been a couple times in my life where I paid more than I had budgeted for “extra stuff” because I needed that piece that spoke to me.

What I’m getting out of art in those moments is connection to an artist who was thinking deeply–or at least inspired me to think deeply. Rather than spend over $100 on something I can’t afford, a better way to get this need met is to seek out the people in my life who I know I can have those deep conversations with. That’s difficult to do when you’re feeling low, but it’s also a much healthier way of coping than making a purchase.

When I Have Zero Regrets Blowing Cash

I have itchy feet. I was a military brat, and at a young age became accustomed to relocating every few years. Every time I moved I learned a new vernacular, cultural norms (yes, even on moves within the US,) and discovered a new part of myself.

I love that feeling. It’s a type of fresh independence that reminds me how very little I know and how very much I can change.

I don’t move as often as I did when I was a kid, but that feeling of being on a road destined for discovery has never left me. Hence, travel has become an important part of my life. I need to change the scenery. Get outside the day-to-day. Learn something new from people I would have never met had I stayed in my own little bubble.

Travel is expensive, though. Or it least it can be. I’ve found a ton of ways to cut back on the costs via travel hacking, utilizing services like Airbnb and not being above hitting the road even when a flight would be so much cheaper. These habits definitely help me sate my wanderlust on a more frequent basis.

But sometimes, travel is just expensive. The hotel I reserved in Tulum was crazy pricey, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing where I traded luxury and a feeling of security for cold, hard cash. About ten years ago I flew across the continent, then across the Atlantic to Germany to visit one of my dearest friends. Those tickets were crazy expensive. But spending time with him at that juncture in our lives was something that was worth every penny. (Chilling in Bavaria was an added treat.)

Even when my travels aren’t super frugal, taking a trip is something I never regret. I learn things about myself and the world, and those memories and lessons stay with me for a lifetime.

When Ethics Are Worth the Spend

Last year, I switched to clean energy. Our state allows us to pick our energy provider, and I picked the most ethical one in my area that uses Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to power my rental with solar and wind energy.

It’s about two cents per kilowatt hour more expensive that getting the generic energy. But I want my kids to have a habitable planet when they grow up, so I put my money where my mouth is. This is absolutely impacted by the fact that I can swing an extra $20/month; these alternative energy options aren’t available to those on programs which help low-income individuals like CAP, and in my humble opinion, that’s beyond whack.

I recently moved and made sure they were my provider of choice immediately.

When Temptation Attacks Your Values

Then, there are times when my values are at odds. When I moved into this new place, I received an offer to switch who generates my gas bill. My green provider is only for electricity at this point.

They were offering me a decent airline mile bonus to make the switch, plus I would be getting extra miles for each dollar I spent on my bill every month. Besides that, the rate was two cents lower than what I’m paying now. The frugal travelista in me was all, “Hell, yes.”

Then I saw that the energy they provided was from natural gas–a product of fracking in my area. Fracking has messed up water cleanliness in parts of Western Pennsylvania, and has causing unnatural earthquakes in places like Kansas in recent years. It’s a really terrible way to desperately go after diminishing resources, and something I’ve signed petitions and advocated to my lawmakers to make stop.

Those airline miles, though…

They were tempting, and I almost got to a place where I was rationalizing that I as one customer didn’t make a huge difference.

But I stopped myself. If I wanted to travel so badly that I was willing to do further damage to the planet beyond gasoline or jet fuel, what kind of example would I be setting for my children? That we should try to do better only when it’s fiscally advantageous?

I’m missing those airline miles, but I know not giving into temptation is the right thing to do.

Last year I met up with my mom’s cousin on one of my sojourns. We were talking about my grandfather–specifically what his travels looked like. If you brought up a kink in the plan related to money, he’d always say, “We’ll find a way to make it work.”

And he did. He was very financially responsible, and he found ways to afford the things that were important to him, like travel and time with family. I know I can do it, too. I’ll absolutely still find a way to make travel work, and I’ll do it in a way that doesn’t involve fracking miles.

Full disclosure: I’m sitting on a fair amount of miles right now, anyways. I always like having more than I need, but I don’t want to get all holier than thou without giving you the full story. 😉

 

 

What are your values, priorities and temptations—and how do you manage them within the constraints of your budget?