Archive for the ‘delusions’ Category

More On Slow Driving

June 26, 2007

Surprising Results.
I’ve been applying myself to the slow driving project, as inspired by a post at zenhabits. You can check it out here. Today the small revelation was that using the slow-driving method took me exactly the same time as my usual surface-streets commute.

This surprised me a little since a) I drive about 12 miles, and b) In the past I’ve done my fair share of weaving, engine gunning, strategic passing, and all kinds of less-than-genteel, impatient and unsafe driving habits, and I honestly thought that might reduce commute time. On one day, today, all that behavior just comes out in the wash. Same commute time. While I’m not sure about today’s result, my usual commute time is a very consistent 45 minutes.

Getting into numbers.
The math bug got to me again. I idly compute that regardless of how I drive my average speed is 16 m.p.h. That’s Los Angeles for you, given an 8 a.m. start. So you could average 35-40 miles per hour (while on a roll, so to speak) or average 25 miles per hour, but average commute speed is 16 miles per hour. That’s got to translate to some savings, right? What I’m curious about is whether the gas mileage will vary. I’m sheepish to admit just how curious! I suppose it’s a harmless diversion.

The psychology of the thing.
I have to admit it was satisfying pulling up next to the Prius at the stop signal, the one that zipped by me a few minutes earlier. We all end up at the same stop lights. If this result is consistent, it strikes me as another example of our desire to maintain an illusion of control over our lives. Road rage would be the result, then, of a false belief — namely that how fast we drive (on surface streets) makes much of an impact on arrival time. More sane measures, like allowing a reasonable amount of time for transit, leaving on time, are in order.

Dream within a dream.
I was in for a check-up yesterday. Just before my doctor said, “I’m going to check out your prostate now,” we were chatting about how Americans really don’t understand mortality. He noted that a tremendous amount of health care dollars are spent on the last 30 days of life, and high-tech treatments.

“You know, in Europe if you get lung cancer they just send you home.” I was a little shocked by that statement. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be sent home with lung cancer. But I think his point, that there are limits to what we can do, especially at an advanced age, is simply not something we want to hear. And this very strong desire to feel that we have control is at the root of it. We spend a lot of money to feel in control.

Less stress.
Of course, if you have to use the freeway your results may vary. I avoid it. On the freeway, going West towards Santa Monica, commute times would fluctuate wildly. Since I’m in a business (therapist) where showing up late would be highly frowned upon, I can’t afford to be late. The nice part about this slow driving is that I really am more relaxed during my drive.

The long drive.
Stepping back a bit, I think this whole debt reduction/frugality thing is a slow drive. What we are trying to do is put some steady, consistent habits into motion. Those sudden lurches, like paying off more debt than we can actually afford, can come back to haunt us.

Today I have a huge chunk of free time in the afternoon before my evening clients. I’m going to take a little R and R. Set out to the Century City AMC, with free movie pass in hand. I won’t be buying popcorn, but of course I will be driving slowly.

Scanning the Horizon For Black Ink

June 25, 2007

Dear Diary,

I think we might be doing too much laundry. It seems it’s all I do. Of course, this is one of the first times in my life that I’ve done multiple loads of laundry in a row, so that may have something to do with it. Maybe we’re wearing too many clothes. And then there’s the dishwasher. Its hunger knows no bounds. Forever gorging and disgorging flatware and china.

Everything is mixed up. I went to a new gas station. Who knew that gasbuddy could point out a station right under my nose, even closer than the habitual haunt, with cheaper gas. In fact, looking at some old receipts I was appalled, simply appalled at the price I’ve been paying for gas.

But this Saturday, intoxicated by the sheer madness of a mid-day gas purchase, I forgot the receipt, so my number crunching will have to wait another day. My number-cruncher alter-ego is seething with anticipation. We bought the gas at high noon. It was about 83 degrees Farenheit. Twenty full degrees warmer than the usual Saturday run. So it was, perhaps, high volume gas. How will I ever sort it out the cost-benefit analysis?

What strange ways I’ve taken up. Pulling plugs out of sockets without a thought. Driving 55 m.p.h. (but trying not to piss people off, if possible). Being very aware of when I can coast down a hill. Noticing with no small amount of smugness the other drivers ludicrously weaving in and out, spilling their precious fuel — and then arriving at the light at the same time as I do. Thinking very seriously about whether we are laundering too much.

Have I studied a whit for the EPPP, the national licensing exam for psychologists? No. Not of late. I have drifted into a fringe subculture of frugality, blogging, and plug pulling. Does this mean that I am figuratively “pulling the plug”? One wonders.

I wonder if there is a parody of personal finance sites out there. There must be, no. Maybe an Onion piece? This drifting into the trees, losing sight of the forest. I have lost sight of the budget. Just for a few days, but it nags at me. The budget. There’s where the goodies are. Not this niggling penny pinching. The big plans, the straight and narrow, the total control — the end of debt. How far off is it? When shall we strike it? Like a sailor up the rigging, looking for land, I scan the horizon for black ink. Thirsty.

National Debt — Boomer Legacy?

June 21, 2007

Recently in my listening this track has struck me as being somehow related to the frugalist mindset.

Papa’s faith is people
Mama she believes in cleaning
Papa’s faith is in people
Mama she’s always cleaning
Papa brought home the sugar
Mama taught me the deeper meaning

Thoughts about this?

Since I’m not a baby boomer, I won’t list the artist, but you can check out her extraordinary fan website here. It includes tons of cool stuff like all the alternate guitar tunings for her songs, full lyrics, art, etc. As fan sites go it is stunningly competent, thorough, and useful.

Speaking of boomers — Ken Wilber (shudder?) has an interesting book called Boomeritis. One of the premises is that boomers eat their young. Highly pertinent regarding parenting we’ve observed. The book itself might be okay if it was the first of his you’ve read, but otherwise is mind-numbingly repetitive. Still, the guy obviously knows a lot and has lots of interesting ideas. Beware of New Age sentiments. To be fair, he is as critical of New Age marketing as the next skeptic.

If you’re in a reading type of mood, have bent toward social commentary, I highly recommend this book by Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism. A lot of it relates directly to spending habits, consumerism, current trends in helicopter parenting (eternal hovering). I just did a search on this site. I am dumbfounded that I’ve not mentioned this before. Dumbfounded.

My dad (depression-era generation) driving in parking lot: “Okay, here we go.”
“What?”
“Look at this, crikey. It’s a very interesting phenomenon. The me-generation in action. Look at them.”
The couple in front of us are wandering through the parking lot in front of traffic, seemingly oblivious to their holding it up.
“It’s a fascinating phenomenon. Other people simply don’t exist!”

My dad is, as he likes to put it, “a trained social scientist.” So he does have a frame of reference in his observations. Not sure I’ve connected all the dots here. One thought is that when the baby boomers are gone, it’s possible that the cycle of debt slavery at the personal and national levels, if it hasn’t collapsed already, will begin to subside.

Another thought is that with the boomer parenting in evidence, living without limits and incurring debts as ways of being in the world are actually going to get worse. Bummer. Must think good thoughts!

Debt Reduction: 7 Crucial Habits to Cultivate

June 19, 2007

The field of psychology has a history of debating just how people learn. Is it through reinforcement? Social modeling? Good examples to follow? What you want to learn is how to cultivate the good personal finance habits so you can eliminate credit card debt and get on with your life. You want this. I think I can help.

  1. Reward yourself. The sooner after the thrifty behavior the better. Rewarding yourself before, during, or some time remote from the behavior will not have the desired effect — creating a positive reinforcing association with the habit you are trying to cultivate.So reward yourself right after you defer the impulse purchase, make a menu plan, buy gas in the wee hours of the morning… Make sure the reward is something you love, ice cream, playing soccer, spending time with the kids, whatever it is for you.
  2. In the beginning, reward yourself often. If you are just beginning to develop habits they require constant reinforcement in order to stick. This is in the beginning. So for the couple of weeks reward yourself as often as you can, again, as close to immediately after the desired habit as possible. We start to believe, somewhere in our brains, that looking for bargains actually causes ice cream to materialize.After a couple of weeks you need to taper off the rewards, otherwise they become meaningless. But in the beginning, continuous reinforcement is powerful. It is the strongest reinforcement schedule for establishing a habit. This is well documented by lots of empirical research.
  3. Make your rewards non-routine. When I say non-routine, what I really mean is unpredictable. After continuous reinforcement, which has limited utility, unpredictable rewards are the next strongest reinforcement schedule.A good example? Slot machines. This is why people get hooked. The reward is unpredictable, but it comes, and that has a powerful effect on people. This is not to say that routine rewards are not good, they are fine. But mix it up a little.
  4. Make it a ritual. This may seem to contradict the last point, and in a way it does. But ritual has its own power. Going for gelato after the kids clean their room every Saturday may not be, strictly speaking, as reinforcing as a random treat, but it sure will work miracles on Saturday!More importantly ritual provides continuity in our lives, comfort in order, and helps us focus on what we value. I would not rely solely on ritual, as it is not the most powerful reinforcer, but having a ritual or two can be very powerful.
  5. Join a community with similar debt reduction goals. Truly the internet is fantastic for this. You can go to personal finance blogs and read about things that people on the outside generally are very reluctant to talk about, including their big financial blunders, how much money they make, how they choose to spend it, how they got into credit card debt, and what they are doing to get out of it.Community offers a variety of food for thought, ways of looking at things you might never have come up with on your own, handy tips, as well as the emotional support that comes from knowing your predicament is not yours alone. Do not underestimate the power of being able to identify with people you like and respect.
  6. Find a debt guru. I am not a big fan of gurus. They tend not to live up to their initial radiance. So gurus aside, find someone you like and respect who has walked the walk for longer than you. It might be someone you’ve known personally for ages, or someone you strike up a rapport with on a personal finance blog. It’s probably more effective if you actually know the person in actual time and space. Have an appreciation for their personality and how they make their finances work for them.I know a lady in her late 60’s (I’m guessing) that I’ve known since I was about five years old. I now recognize her as being a titan of frugality. We saw her during our vacation. She offered to take us and the kids out to lunch. She said “we can go to [crappy chain] or [a local Chinese restaurant].” That part was a no-brainer. The chinese food was good and inexpensive. When my wife remarked that she wished our kids were more adventurous eaters, that she wished our kids would eat sushi, my guru bridled. “You don’t want that. That’s expensive!”Now that might sound cheap. Her point was that if you can avoid fostering expensive habits in your kids, then avoid it. When they grow up and get jobs they can acquire whatever expensive habits they like. She had picked both restaurants because they were adjacent to parks, planning to take the kids there if they got squirrelly. She had thought of everything. Would it surprise you to know this lady grew up in the Mid-West?
  7. Consider psychotherapy or some kind of debt counseling. This may strike some of you as very non-frugal. It is not for everyone. It may seem draconian (the expense!) or even counterproductive. It may fall under the heading of “treatment of last resort.” But some of us are really going to need some outside help if we are going to make substantial changes in our habits.Debt counseling may be an excellent option. Another is psychotherapy. If you are overwhelmed with negative thoughts that have evolved into larger attitudes and the way you are in the world, a good cognitive-behavioral therapist might be able to help you get some perspective.Are some feelings — regret, vulnerability, powerlessness — hard for you to get a handle on? Do you tend to be very energized and optimistic only to collapse when faced with the outcome of your decisions? This sort of pattern tends to be entrenched. Even when we know exactly what we need to do in order to get out of debt, save money, whatever the goal is — we stumble. This can be very frustrating and lead to plummeting self-esteem and self-punishment, not to mention mounting credit card debts.A good psychodynamic therapist, one that looks at some of the deeper meanings you attach to money, may be able to help you make sense of and even overcome this type of problem. The goals in this sort of therapy are ambitious, including making adjustments to our character. You can’t change your character, but you can modify it in ways that are helpful. Are you are confused about how your finances got to be such a mess? Then you might want to pursue psychotherapy.

Zero Dollars and Zero Cents

June 5, 2007

I need to study for the licensing exam. I’ve come to realize that I am using my zest to blog about debt reduction and the states of mind it evokes as an out. Do I detect hostility in the would-be post below?

You gobble peppered sausage in a break room washed by fluorescent bulbs. You chance upon a bottle of wine from back in the day. You cast a blue tarp over the Volvo in order to save on car washes. (The garage door is broken, the birds vindictive). It is not easy this frugal living — but it is good. Today I spent nothing. Zero dollars and zero cents.

This is like the feeling of hiking for those that do not exercise. A sense of rustic pride. Self reliance. I’ve spotted a hummingbird!

I had a very delusional client who claimed that a hummingbird visited him every day for weeks. That it was the spirit of his mother. This was not a cultural thing. He stretched my credulity to the point of exhaustion. So I associate hummingbirds with delusions.

Who am I kidding that this financial responsibility is going to last? I’m sure we’ve all felt this. Another fad. Another enthusiasm. I mean many of you have posted about the physical clutter in their homes. What about psychical clutter? Those things taken up and then cast aside. Enthusiasms that don’t last.

How do we keep on the path? I’m hoping Maxed Out will be a good motivator. It’s not that I’m slipping or even teetering. I really don’t want that to happen.

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