Archive for May, 2007

Solace On a Low Budget

May 31, 2007

Feeling blue? Expecting a visit from the termite inspector? No way to pay except a credit card?

We are expecting such a visit, though I hope we’ll muster up some other way of paying. Though we’ve been making substantial inroads, lately our credit card debt has been increasing. Yes, increasing. Each frugal bone in my body sheds a spartan tear at such a time — to flagrantly mix metaphors.

In any case, the wife is reading Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and I can attest it is one of his most entertaining books. It describes a period where he lived as a bum, and how that affected his mind, outlook, health.

At five bucks or library cost you can’t go wrong.


The Blogger and the Parking Ticket

May 31, 2007

The good news is I got my first comment on my blog! I was startled to get the moderator email. Thanks Hazzard!

But I was quite pissed off the find that I got a parking ticket for not curbing my wheels on a grade. Never got that one before. I suppose it’s a good sign that I don’t just shrug it off as I have in the past. At least in the short term.

In general, I don’t think it’s healthy to get too worked up about these things. On the other hand, forty dollars! That ain’t frugal!

$40. I felt like I dropped three martinis or something. Very disappointing. Especially after eating a cheese sandwich and an apple for lunch.

Denial Revisited

May 30, 2007

Of course, it’s not the denial that hurts. It’s when it breaks down. When you can no longer fool yourself. I’ve been messing around with the evaluation mode of YNAB Pro (You Need a Budget), and it looks pretty good to me.

Searing Pain of Denial

May 27, 2007

Today was a DWL, no question. Took the kids to Houston’s and, as Bizarro says, dropped some serious dime.

Also started looking at our budget. Outflow is twice inflow. It is so much worse than I had anticipated, time to start deferring loans, hacking away at everything in sight, setting some serious goals.

John Horgan on Why He Ditched Buddhism

May 25, 2007

I mentioned that meditation might be used in the service of debt reduction. That would be very goal-oriented, and un-Buddhist in its intent. It’s an established trend in secularizing Buddhist practices while underplaying its ethical and religious elements.

A fantastic book in this vein is Buddhism without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. Get it at the library, or buy it used for $3.95 (plus shipping).

Veering wildly off the topic of debt-reduction. But there’s so much romanticism of Buddhism by disenfranchised Christians and dreamy me-generation seekers. Horgan knows his stuff. Some may find it irritating.

So does Alan Wallace, from a different perspective.

Narrow Scrape with the Service Industry

May 25, 2007

Yesterday my wife took one look at the recently filthy, rust-colored basin of our bathroom sink and threatened to call a plumber. Even the kids had migrated their toothbrushes and step stools to our bathroom.

“Don’t do it! I’ll buy one of those wrenches.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’ll get drain-o or something.”
“Okay, but I can’t take that sink anymore.”

I ended up buying a snake from the hardware store. About $20. I must have saved at least $10, right?

What Does Buddhism Have to Do With Debt Reduction?

May 24, 2007

Probably not much.

You might connect it with meditation practice, though. The practice of meditation is not central to Buddhism — at least as it’s currently practiced in much of the world. The front and center status of meditation is mostly a facet of monastic life, or Western Buddhism, which takes its cues largely from Thai forest monks of the Theravada tradition.

Walk into a Buddhist temple of first-generation Cambodian-Americans or third-generation Japanese-Americans, and you won’t likely see anyone sitting on a zafu. You might find something resembling church.

Nevertheless, engaging in a meditation practice could be a sensible step toward debt reduction. So much of our debt is the result of impulse purchases. Witness my pal in Vroman’s bookstore, handling something called “The Wine Deck.” A cleverly packaged deck of cards with facts about wine. No home would be complete without one.

“That’s your credit card debt right there, dude.”

These things turn into crap before our eyes, clutter our shelves, packed away in our cupboards, drawers, and even, ugh, rented storage space.

One small part of what we do when we meditate is to observe the contents of the mind. The ebb and flow of feelings and thoughts. In this practice we learn that that these unceasing processes are fleeting. As we develop the ability to observe thoughts, emotions, impulses, we gain the insight that we are not those impulses, we are separate.

This is very simplistic, and represents only one broad style of meditation, generally referred to as insight meditation.

Interested in learning more? Try this.

Ostrich Frugality

May 23, 2007

I’m starting to hate the word frugal. It’s just too close to frumpy, and has a kind of constricted back-of-the-throat quality. Given that, I’ve changed the focus to finance psychology, rather than frugal psychology. For starters, finance is a much more searched engine friendly word. And there’s the frump factor.

Some of us need to stick our heads in the sand frequently, just for survival. We make an impulse purchase — in my case it was pecans at Ralph’s — and just hope for the best. Now Ralph’s doesn’t strike me as a particularly risky venture, but pecans are another matter altogether. The pecan is a stealthy and vicious beast. An innocuous little bag, can, in some neighborhoods, end up dinging you $8.99.

That’s a lot of beans. By comparison I found a great deal for domain hosting. Thinking about getting a domain? Want your URL to look nice and clean? I am. $1.99 domains!

I am off to that expensive pecan neighborhood today — the Beverly Hills-adjacent Pico Blvd district. Off to my psychoanalytic training world. Only one seminar today, but it’s a 12-hour day. Better fix lunch.

How Can I Reinforce My Frugal Lifestyle?

May 21, 2007

How to maintain what can be at times a dismal proposition? Of course there’s attitude. Most of us agree that is tantamount. Back in the ’50s there were a group of psychologists called behaviorists who would have tut-tutted the whole idea. “It’s just a matter of reinforcement.” It could be positive. It could be negative.

Regardless, you want to find the right schedule of reinforcement for your frugal lifestyle. Most likely you’re going to need rewards. The most effective (least prone to extinction) schedule of reinforcement is variable ratio. In English, this means that from time-to-time you are reinforced positively. Perhaps with a gelato. Your gelato should be fairly randomly applied. If you have gelato every Friday then that’s less reinforcing.

(That’s why they give people opiates in the hospital on a predictable schedule, say every 4 hours. People in the hospital are much less prone to becoming addicted to opiates. Unless they were addicts to begin with, of course.)

You could also punish yourself each time you moved way out of the financially responsible zone. But I’m not sure that’s a good model.

If you are just beginning a program of debt reduction, frugality, reining in the finances, whatever you choose to call it, you might want to institute a continuous schedule of reinforcement.

In English, this means you find some way to reward yourself for each and every act of financial responsibility. This is good for initiating reinforcement in the short term. It will quickly become ineffective as you get used to the rewards. After a week or so switch to randomly timed rewards.

Research supports the idea that punishment is not very effective in reducing behavior. It is a temporary measure. So reward yourself. The question is how. It’s up to you. More on this.

On Obsession and Frugality

May 19, 2007

I’m afraid frugal isn’t a pretty word. It conjures up images of people reusing garbage can liners, unplugging every appliance before they go to bed (I’ve started doing this, sparing the refrigerator). In other words, when we focus exclusively on one aspect of our lives things can get a little, err, ritualistic. Which is okay, in measure.

Here’s a piece by Scott McCloud, totally unrelated to frugality, but brilliantly illustrating (pun intended) some of the things that fuel unbridled obsession. I hope you’ll take the time to read it. It’s that good.

The So-Called Secret

May 19, 2007

As a pre-licensed post-doctoral intern of psychology I learned of the phenomenon, the “secret.” I’m supposed to be studying for the national licensing exam, but I digress.

The “Secret” makes me, not to put too fine a point on it, want to puke. How appropriate then, that I first heard about it from someone in an eating disorder group. Eating Disorder patients tend to be, as a gross generalization, quite disturbed in their thinking. She was citing the secret as the reason she was quitting the program. She was going to do it on her own. I sincerely wish her luck.

The problem is, asides from blaming the victim, this particular self-help program appeals to the most deluded of our patients. They often display what we call Magical Thinking, and it means that they can simply will things to happen. This is the healthy phase that children go through around age 3. It can be observed in the “superhero” play at this age.

It doesn’t work so well for adults. There are a surprising number of realms where magical thinking seems to sprout up in adult life, and most of it strikes me of cases of desperately wishful thinking. 3000 self-help books published each year, according to John Norcross, Ph.D. strongly suggest that a) if they work, they work fleetingly and b) these suckers sell like hot Krispy Kreme donuts a few years back.

Well, I’m off to the Museum of Natural History with my daughter to instill a love of science and skeptical thought!!

Adults: $9, Kids her age: $2. I can’t swing the free Tuesday this time around.

Starbucks Envy

May 19, 2007

On Wednesday my two morning patients were each guzzling hot, store-bought coffee during our sessions. One of them had an attractive red thermal mug. These were hard moments. In my non-frugal, money-bleeding past I was often in the habit of having ‘first cup’ at home and grabbing some absurdly overpriced and hyped brand coffee, nonetheless very soothing.

But Friday is here and we met some friends at a newish gelato place on Sunset. Fantastic coffee. Perhaps the best in Los Angeles. The kids go ape shit on gelato. We are ecstatic about our afternoon espresso. $15-something. Then a jaunt to the Bright Spot for some so-so diner food. $59 (three adults, three kids).

As Bizarro Debt Reduction guy says, a DWL — A Day Well Lived — no shame in blowing some dough now and again. Actually, it was great.

What’s Your Worldview?

May 17, 2007

One of my patients asked me this. Think about it. How would you answer?

I’m feeling very behind on the blog, but can one be behind on a blog? Here are some thoughts from an early psychologist on attitudes toward money:

The next point to be decided on beginning the treatment is the money question, the physician’s fee. The analyst does not dispute that money is to be regarded first and foremost as the means by which life is supported and power is obtained, but he maintains that, besides this, powerful sexual factors are involved in the value set upon it; he may expect, therefore, that money questions will be treated by cultured people in the same manner as sexual matters, with the same inconsistency, prudishness and hypocrisy. He is therefore determined beforehand not to concur in this attitude, and in his dealings with patients to treat money matters with the same matter-of-course frankness that he wishes to induce in them towards matters relating to sexual life. By voluntarily introducing the subject of fees stating the price for which he gives his time, he shows the patient that he himself has cast aside false shame in these matters.

In case you’re wondering, it’s Sigmund Freud.

Nagging Doubts

May 6, 2007

At the Crowne Plaza because they had more “reasonable” prices. Budding psychologists complain that they aren’t making any money. But they’re eating at the Crowne (sp?) Plaza! I tote a Trader Joe’s bag. Contains some leftover BBQ chicken breast from Gelson’s, one banana, one apple, one granola bar. I was feeling pretty awesome at not spending money at the Crowne Plaza, or Sheraton Gateway, for that matter. But eight hours of EPPP psych prep drains you of even that jubilance…

Total beans spent today: $11.00 on parking.

Professional Expenses That Kill

May 5, 2007

I’m off today to study for the EPPP, the national licensing exam for psychologists. This is a formal workshop and I’ll be there from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., both Saturday and Sunday.

Workshop cost (includes test prep materials, etc.): $1200
Cost to take exam, roughly: $600

Time spent studying for exam? Many, many hours. I’m not queasy about taking tests in general, but this is a test you really want to take seriously and pass the first time. Many smart people have underestimated it and failed.

10 Horrible Things You Don’t Want to Do In Grad School Because They Are Financial Suicide

May 5, 2007

1. pay for compact discs, meals, drinking binges on credit cards and be shocked when you wade through the pile of bills on your desk only to discover you’ve doubled your APR and incurred multiple late fees
2. eat out at restaurants, especially like almost always
3. maintain the same spending habits from when you had a job
4. take classes that you could probably test out of because you’re afraid you’ll miss out on some illusory ‘experience’
5. not have a budget, and not track your spending
6. take out unnecessary student loans
7. visit ATM machines like they dispense coca cola
8. not consolidate student loans before you graduate
9. worry about what you’re going to do after grad school, when you could be investigating options
10. viewing fellow students as horrible nuisances and thinking that you’ll network after you graduate

I’m embarrassed to say I was guilty of most of these. Now I am doing post-doctoral training in clinical psychology and eager to make some dough, liquidate some junk, kick this consumerism habit, get back in charge — you know? I have over $150,000 in student loans and roughly $50,000 credit card debt. Watch me get out of this…

I’ve been touched and inspired by the frugal debt reduction blogs.