That New Car Smell

A few years and two kids into our marriage my wife’s car broke down on the highway. Not a meandering, country-road kind of highway where some kind soul might happen along and ask about your well-being, but a six-lane urban interstate where you might get the finger from a passing motorist just for having ever been born. She had our first two kids with her at the time and was five months pregnant with number three. It was July and the temperature was in the upper 90’s. She was not happy.

There was no way we could do without a second car, so we did what any typical American family with two incomes and a good credit rating would do and went to a dealership.

We wanted a safe, reliable, fuel-efficient vehicle, one the whole family would fit in – the five of us (all three kids were in boosters or car seats,) plus Grandma and Grandpa. I drove a mini-van on a daily basis, which the whole family would fit in, but it was on its last legs. It had a gazillion miles on it and, more importantly, no air-conditioning. We didn’t trust it to take extended trips and, at least during the summer months, didn’t want to anyway.

At the dealership, we found a cross between a mini-van and an SUV that got relatively good gas mileage. It had a third row of seats and the rear seats folded down to create more cargo room. Although the young salesman who sold us the car didn’t convince us to buy the extended warranty and myriad other things which make the dealership money and rarely benefit consumers, we still drove away in a $25,000 car that was, in the blink of an eye, worth $15,000.

The broken-down old car had been towed to the house where it sat immobile in the driveway for months. The transmission needed replaced and I couldn’t think of a good reason to spend the $1,500 required to replace it.

We talked about donating it to charity, but I couldn’t fathom how giving away a broken-down car would benefit anybody. Besides, I reasoned, what if my mini-van broke down; then what would we do? It was backward logic, but I had no reasonable explanation for my desire to keep the car. My wife’s insistence that we do something with it finally convinced me to have it fixed, so I dug out a credit card with enough room on it to pay for the repairs. A few weeks later, we heard about a family who needed one, so we gave it to them.

We never regretted giving away the old car after spending $1,500 to fix it, but still lament our spur-of-the-moment $25,000 decision to buy a brand new one. It was a good feeling knowing we had a reliable vehicle, but the $475 car payment (financed over five years) added that much more to our already long list of monthly burdens. Every time we thought about selling it to buy something cheaper, we rejected the idea because we owed more than it was worth. Why trade a good car for one less reliable and still owe money?

The experience left me bitter. My wife was slightly less bitter, mostly because although we’d paid too much for the car, at least it had air-conditioning. My mini-van still didn’t.

With or without air conditioning, in the future, we promised to pay cash our next vehicle and never, ever buy another new one.


Freedom vs. Freedom

Today I’m pondering the idea of re-entering the workaday world.

Two years ago I quit a job I didn’t like to pursue whatever I wanted.

The world was my oyster, the possibilities endless. I was free to do as I pleased. True, I had no source of income, but I did have plenty of money in reserve and had every intention of creating a source of income.

I’m a smart guy, lots of skills, entrepreneurial spirit, vim, vigor, etc., etc. If others can do it, so can I.

Two years ago I was full of confidence that I could create a source of income. I could be free and have money. I could have my cake and eat it too.

But over the course of the last two years, the source of income I’d intended to create never materialized (for a whole host of reasons,) and I convinced myself (and my family) that we don’t need money. We don’t need things. We don’t need to travel.

I convinced myself (and my family) of these things because I couldn’t find a way to retain my freedom and have money.

If the choice is between freedom – defined as my time being my own – or money and things, I choose freedom. If having money means I have to go back to a 40-hour-a-week-job, I don’t want it.

Not that we’re deprived. We just don’t have the freedom to travel. We don’t have the freedom to pursue many of our various interests because our financial resources are limited.

And therein lies the dichotomy: Because I’m free, I’m not free.

Money will purchase a certain degree of freedom, a certain type of freedom. With money, I have the financial freedom to do stuff. Without money, I don’t.

In order to get money (apparently,) I have to give up my time. I can either have my cake, or I can eat it. But not both.

Wait, how could I eat the cake if I didn’t have it in the first place?

See how confusing this is?

It’s possible (because we live in the realm of endless possibilities, don’t we?) for me to find a job I love, doing something I’m passionate about. Then I’d have it all.

Wouldn’t I?

Real Food

Fast food is quick, easy, and (ostensibly) tasty. But it makes me feel like crap and costs way too much money.  I don’t want it.

Processed foods I can buy at the grocery; pre-packaged meals, frozen or boxed, heat-and-eat meals, plus an entire aisle of chips, another aisle of soda, an aisle of “ethnic” foods, an aisle of canned soups and sauces… All of which seem quick, easy, and (ostensibly) tasty. But it makes me feel like crap and costs way too much money. I don’t want it.

I know it costs way too much money because eight years ago when the majority of our family’s meals came from a restaurant or from a grocer, we spent way more than twice as much as we do now.  And I felt like crap.

So, if I don’t want fast food or any other kind of processed food, what can I eat?

The answer is whole, organic, unprocessed, untampered with, unpasteurized, unadulterated food.

appleAn apple from the tree in our backyard is food.

Edible food-like products from eating establishments and grocers are not food.

There’s a pervasive myth that eating healthy is expensive, that the average person can’t afford to eat organically-grown, locally-grown, GMO-free foods.

I will not say it is easy in modern American society to eat real food. I will say that eight years into our journey, we’ve found ways to eat the healthiest, most wholesome foods available and save money. Lots of money. And feel better.

Follow these three simple rules to drastically improve your diet and health:

1. Don’t consume anything that contains high-fructose corn syrup.

2. Don’t consume anything from a restaurant unless it’s raw (like a salad).

3. Don’t consume anything from a grocer unless it’s raw (like fruits and vegetables).

Ok I know what you’re thinking: “That’s not simple!”

But it really is just that simple. It might take time to implement. It might take time to figure out how. But it can be done.

Vanilla Extract

VanillaextractThis is vodka bottle. Inside is vodka. Oh, and vanilla beans.

In other words, vanilla extract.

Wanna know what it tastes like?

It tastes like vanilla extract.

We paid $10 or $12 for the vodka and $5 or $6 for organic vanilla beans. Spent maybe $18 for what amounts to 25oz of pure vanilla extract.

We could have gone to the store and bought vanilla extract for around $2 per ounce. But what fun is that?

The Bottomless Water Bottle

Years ago we bought four of these reusable, recyclable water bottles for about $7 each.

At the time I thought they were expensive. In retrospect, they were among the best investments I’ve ever made for the environment, for my health, and for our bank account.

How so? It’s simple. I fill this water bottle straight from the tap in the morning and drink from it all day, filling it up whenever it gets low. When I leave the house, this water bottle goes with me. On the road, it’s easy to find places to fill it up.

Because I carry my water bottle wherever I go, I drink from it. I don’t get the urge to stop at a convenience store and by a 320z. plastic or styrofoam cup of something syrupy and carbonated.

When I’m thirsty, I drink water. Water’s good for me. Water’s free, or nearly so. Reusable water bottles are the ultimate in simplicity.

Tap water, incidentally, gets a bad rap. We hear about impurities and so on, but who’s badmouthing tap water? Companies that sell water filtration systems and bottled water are. Come to think of it, anybody who wants to sell any kind of drink would want you to think your tap water is tainted.

The Story of Bottled Water tells that story more succinctly and better than I can.

The Beauty of Footprinting

photo thanks to

Generally, we think about our ecological footprint in terms of how our decisions affect the planet, the environmental impact of what we personally own, buy, and throw away.

But calculating your footprint and finding ways to reduce it has other consequences you might not have thought of.

Try this: take the quick, simple quiz on  and see where you stand. After taking the quiz, you have a snapshot image, a mental picture of your ecological footprint.

Now, take that mental image, forget about the environment for a moment, and instead focus on how simple your life is. Or rather, how complicated your life is. Imagine ways to reduce your footprint from the perspective of simplifying your life. Think about all the things you own, the money you spend, and what you throw away.

Would reducing each of these parts of life make things simpler? If life was simpler, would you have more time and energy to focus on what you want to do, instead of what you have to do?

OK, now, still holding that image of your current ecological footprint in your consciousness, forget about the environment, forget about simplicity, and instead focus only on your finances. Think about all the things you own, the money you spend, and what you throw away. Would your financial situation improve if you focused on reducing your footprint? Would you have more money if you consumed less and had fewer things to maintain, repair, replace, and throw away?

By reducing your footprint, you inevitably make your life simpler and less expensive while simultaneously living a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle.

Financial Independence

Boil the concept of money management down to its most simple elements, and you must do three things:

  1. Spend less than you earn.
  2. Get out of debt.
  3. Stay out of debt.

It doesn’t get much simpler than that. And yet, those three concepts can be exceptionally complicated.

Nonetheless you have to do them. There is no other way to become financially independent, short of winning the lottery or some other sort of windfall. Even still, although by some lucky stroke you might get rich overnight, if you fail to understand and practice basic financial management principles, chances are, you will not be rich for long.

Each of the three must be done in order. You cannot stay out of debt until you’re out of debt in the first place. You cannot get out of debt until you spend less than you earn.

A fundamental truth in money management, and one far too often overlooked, is that you cannot save money until your debts are paid. You may be tucking away money in some sort of savings vehicle while paying minimum payments on your credit card, but your net worth – assets minus liabilities – will always be reduced by the amount of debt you have. What good is it doing you to sock away money for retirement, kid’s college fund, or a vacation fund, when the most basic elements, namely spending less than you earn, being out of debt, and staying out of debt, are not met?

You will never be free of financial worries until you accomplish the three goals of spending less than you earn, getting out of debt, and staying out of debt.

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