Category Archives: Live

Are prices in Canada higher than in the United States?

I’ve noticed that many prices seem to be lower here in the United States than in Canada. Am I imagining it? With the help of my Canadian friend Annette (an experienced shopper), I decided to find out.

Methodology

I selected a basket of 20 common retail items (food, alcoholic beverages, and fuel), and compared the prices for these items in Vancouver, Canada (my home) and San Antonio, Texas (my location when this crazy idea struck me). Annette and I gathered regular retail prices (not sale prices) not including sales taxes from comparable retail outlets (to the extent that they are available in both cities) within a few days of each other. The American prices were converted to Canadian dollars at the current exchange rate. Where quantities or package sizes differed, the prices were adjusted to equivalent volumes.

Findings

The table below shows the items we checked, the U.S. price, the Canadian price, and the percentage difference of the Canadian price compared to the U.S. price.

Product U.S. Canada Percnt
Frosted Flakes (760g box) $3.92 $7.23 84.6%
Cheerios (396g box) $2.90 $5.02 73.3%
Milk (3.78L = 1 gallon) $4.32 $4.56 5.4%
Eggs (12 Large Grade A) $1.71 $2.63 53.5%
Coors Light beer (24×355 ml cans) $20.39 $43.99 115.7%
Corona Extra beer (12 x 330 ml bottles) $13.25 $25.69 93.9%
Yellowtail Cabernet Sauvignon (750 ml bottle, Australia) $5.07 $12.99 156.2%
Woodbridge Merlot (750 ml bottle, California) $8.64 $13.99 61.9%
Coca Cola (12 cans) $3.04 $5.97 96.4%
Coca Cola (2 Litre bottle) $1.41 $1.87 32.9%
Chicken thighs skin-on, bone in (per pound) $5.04 $4.98 -1.2%
Ground beef (85% lean, per pound) $3.25 $6.28 93.0%
Ground beef (89% lean, per pound) $3.79 $7.98 110.3%
Ground beef (93% lean, per pound) $5.08 $9.88 94.5%
Bananas (per pound) $0.49 $0.58 18.5%
Fuji Apples (per pound) $1.70 $1.19 -30.1%
Yellow Onions, medium (per pound) $2.43 $1.28 -47.3%
Russet Potatoes (per pound) $0.90 $0.48 -46.5%
Gasoline (regular, per Litre) $0.91 $1.34 47.9%
Diesel fuel (per Litre) $1.01 $1.41 39.4%

Analysis

Vancouverites are paying a lot more!

Of the 20 items on the list, 16 were more expensive in Canada. 3 produce items were significantly cheaper in Canada (apples, onions, & potatoes), and there was a trivial difference in the price of chicken thighs. All other items were between 5% and 156% more expensive in Canada.

The price differences were the biggest for wine and beer (61% to 156% higher). The probable reasons for this are: a government monopoly on alcohol distribution in British Columbia, high government taxes on alcoholic beverages, and restrictions and tariffs on importing alcohol into Canada.

Grocery items (other than the few that were cheaper) were between 5% (milk) and 110% (ground beef) more expensive in Vancouver, with the remaining 9 items between 18% (bananas) and 96% (Coca Cola) more expensive.

Vehicle fuel was priced 47% higher in Canada for regular gasoline and 38% higher for diesel fuel. This is due, in part, to higher taxes.

I recognize that this was a very limited sample size (20 items, 2 stores, 2 cities, none of which were randomly chosen), and so few general conclusions can be drawn from these results. But it does confirm my suspicions. In my experience, groceries, alcohol, and fuel are consistently more expensive in Canada than in the United States.

Why is this the case? What can Canadian consumers do about it? Stayed tuned for more on this topic.

Premature Blogging

Blogging confounds me (Premature Vexation).  I really enjoy writing (Premature Satisfaction) and sharing my stories (Premature Narration), but I have a hard time living up to my own standards (Premature Expectation).  I want to create things (Premature Generation) that I’m proud of (Premature Gratification).

I have a desire (Premature Compulsion) to blog about much of what I do (Premature Exhibition).  I have no shortage of ideas (Premature Inspiration).  So, why not just keep a journal (Premature Rumination)?  Am I really that interesting (Premature Presumption)?

I find it useful to remind myself (Premature Clarification) why I do it (Premature Intention).  I blog to record (Premature Documentation) my experiences (Premature Observation) and to capture my learnings (Premature Education).  I also enjoy writing (Premature Creation) and sharing with others (Premature Contribution).  I want to stay in touch with family and friends (Premature Connection) while traveling (Premature Migration).  I also enjoy the attention (Premature Recognition).

But I struggle to balance accomplishment (Premature Completion) and self-examination (Premature Reflection).  Perhaps I should just focus on being (Premature Meditation).

As it is, I can’t keep up with my ideas (Premature Production).  What else could I be doing with my time (Premature Substitution)?

Perhaps I’m over thinking it (Premature Contemplation).  Maybe I just need to chill out (Premature Relaxation).  I’m too blessed to be stressed (Premature Agitation).

Rather than lengthy monologues (Premature Recitation), I’m going to (Premature Resolution) choose topics (Premature Selection) carefully (Premature Reservation) and keep my writing (Premature Communication) to the point (Premature Condensation).  Rather than engage in mental self-gratification (Premature Masturbation), I will empathize (Premature Association) with my readers (Premature Subscription).  So I’m stopping now (Premature Termination).

Yes, there are 42 ‘premature’s in the post (Premature Repetition).  If you’re lost (Premature Confusion), please see this post (Premature Explanation).

Less Personality and More Character

When I was a young, if you asked a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, they would almost certainly name a profession like doctor, teacher, or police officer.  Often the response would include a more glamorous profession of the day like cowboy, astronaut, or in Canada, ice hockey player.  If you ask this question of a child today, you’re likely to get the response “I want to be famous” or “I want to be rich”.  This is because many of the people kids idolize today are not famous for doing anything in particular.  Many celebrities are now famous simply for being famous.  Not because of their skills or contributions, but because of their personalities.

“It used to be about doing something.  Now it’s just about being something.”

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in the Iron Lady, 2011

As a society, we have become obsessed with celebrity and fame.  There are more celebrity magazines than news magazines.  More people vote in TV talent shows that national elections.  I am not immune to this.  After seeing Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek at a film premiere in Madrid, I felt it worthy enough to write about.  Why, after a brush with celebrity, do we feel good enough to tell others about it, like we have accomplished something worthwhile?

Celebrities are our modern day royalty.  Even the Windsors have trouble competing with them.  The human race has always worshiped heroes and idols, back to the earliest days of recorded history.  It is part of our nature to glorify and follow leaders, to gossip, to compare ourselves and to take great interest in the downfall of others.  This fascination is nothing new, but it has become more common and more intense, enabled by a steady diet of real-time, hyped-up, paparazzi-fed celebrity news.  We have witnessed the apotheosis of Britney, Kim, and Paris and now worship a new pantheon of gods.

I do not blame these individuals.  Their success is a result of our celebrity obsessed culture.    It is made possible by those who reward their actions by consuming reality, celebrity, and gossip TV, magazines, web sites, advertising, and product endorsements.  I too am one of these consumers.

I believe that fame and wealth should be a by-product of one’s actions, not objectives in and of themselves. They should be a consequence of making an outstanding contribution to the world.  In recent years, many of the top graduates in mathematics, physics, engineering, and computer science have been lured into a career of working with esoteric financial derivatives that are many degrees divorced from the real world.  I think it’s a shame that many of the world’s greatest minds are now working on Wall Street teaching computers to beat other computers, rather than solving the world’s problems.  No longer are the professions of doctor and lawyer the pinnacle of society.  We prioritize financial work more highly as evidenced by the fact that the rewards available here far outweigh those of almost all other professions.  Except for the non-profession of ‘celebrity’, which is prized the highest of all.

Celebrities enjoy disproportionate riches, power, and privilege.  As a result, many people are willing to do almost anything to get into the media’s spotlight.  Although I believe in the free markets, it seems to me that in many cases people are excessively rewarded for their appearance, bad behaviour, or other trivialities.  Because celebrities can become famous these days for the most inane, inconsequential, or outlandish things, many people have the notion that anyone can be a star regardless of their abilities or contribution.  Like winning the lottery, many people seem obsessed with this prospect, even though the odds of it happening are infinitesimally small.  Instead of working on developing their skills, they delude themselves into thinking that talent isn’t really required.  Have you seen the American Idol auditions?

The focus on personality continues in self-help books that promise a quick fix by changing our behaviour.  It is common to promote the idea that we can ‘fake-it-till-we-make-it’ through some sort of behaviour modification.  That if we somehow change how we look or act or talk that we can enjoy success.  These things do not work long-term.  But there is an alternative that does.

It is far more productive to focus on one’s character.  Time spent on self-awareness and self-improvement to become clear on our values, our beliefs, and what we stand for has long-lasting results.  It is far better to become clear on who I am and then to have my actions flow naturally from this.  Living a life that is congruent with my values is the only approach with lasting effect.  Trying to constantly control my actions and my image or to project a character that is not who I really am is a doomed exercise.  Trying to alter who I am by changing how I act won’t work.

“It’s not about how to achieve your dreams, it’s about how to lead your life, … If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself, the dreams will come to you.”

— Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

I want to have the clearest possible vision of who I am.  I want to know myself, what I believe in, and what is really important to me to the degree that I will automatically act in accordance with it, and if not, the dissonance will be so apparent that I’ll quickly correct my course.  I believe that focusing on my character rather than my personality will pay the greatest dividends.

Do you know someone who worships at the altar of celebrity?  How does society’s focus on personality rather than character impact your life?

Premature Conversation

I’ve started to play a word game with a few friends (Premature Competition)

The object of the game is to insert creative 2-word phases into any conversation. (Premature Interjection)

Each phrase must begin with the word “Premature” followed by a second word ending in “tion” or “sion” (Premature Formulation)

The Rules (Premature Regulation)

The 2nd word of each phrase must be:

  • A real word.  Anything other than the clichéd “ejaculation” (Premature Definition)
  • Directly related to the preceding statement made in the conversation (Premature Expression)

The 2nd word of the phrase should be:

  • Stated without delay (Premature Hesitation)
  • Not used recently (Premature Repetition)

Extra credit is given for words that:

  • Are as creative as possible (Premature Imagination)
  • Are as esoteric as possible (Premature Obfuscation)
  • Have never been used between the players before (Premature Invention)

It’s not as hard as it seems (Premature Complication).  It’s more fun than it sounds (Premature Objection), especially when you’re drinking (Premature Intoxication).  Once you get the hang of it (Premature Acquisition), I think that you’ll enjoy it (Premature Speculation).  You decide (Premature Existentialism).  Don’t delay (Premature Procrastination).

So, what do you think (Premature Interrogation)?  Do I have too much time on my hands (Premature Occupation)?

My Experiment in Community

When I started the latest incarnation of my blog, I gave careful thought to what I was doing (The Blog) and why (Why am I blogging?).   After 6 months of active publishing, I think it’s time to take stock of how I’m doing.  Here is my self-assessment.

Of the 4 objectives I set at the beginning, two were inward facing and two outward facing:

1)    To Create — This blog will be a creative outlet, an opportunity for me to bring into being something imaginative, entertaining, and occasionally, hopefully, inspired.

Publishing the blog has been stimulating and I have enjoyed the creative process.  I’m producing something that I’m proud of.  Some posts that I’ve particularly enjoyed writing from a creative perspective are The S&M Motel, Elisabeth, and Flamenco).  I hope that you’re enjoying reading and commenting on the blog.  With the goal of making it better, I welcome your feedback on my writing or any other topic.  Your suggestions are genuinely and greatly appreciated.

2)    To ReflectThis blog will encourage self-reflection, an indispensable activity on my journey of self-realization (the pursuit of self-knowledge). The blog will also be a journal of sorts, a record of memorable experiences, learnings, and other musings.

Writing encourages me to reflect on my experiences and to organize my thoughts.  I have definitely written about some topics that I was trying to process (e.g. Coming to terms with an alternative lifestyle, My Struggle with Stuff, Dachau, No Good Deed Goes UnpunishedParting is Such Sweet Sorrow), or where I wanted crystalize my thinking (e.g. Why Dream Big?, Why Live Boldy?, The Decline of the American Empire, Is Life Getting Too Complicated?).  As an added benefit, the blog also documents many of my memorable experiences in words and in pictures, the way a scrap book or photo album might.

3)    To Create Intimacy —  By sharing of myself, this blog will enhance my existing relationships and possibly develop new ones.

The blog has allowed me to stay in better contact with some family and friends while we travel.  I have also shared it with some new friends that we’ve met on the road, some of whom are now following too.  I think that I was a bit naïve (or overly optimistic) when I began about the complexities of online communication and relationships.  Despite the fact that the feedback I’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive, not everyone has responded favourably.  Not everyone cares or wants to be reminded about our gallivanting around the world.  People have busy lives and this blog competes for their limited time.  And, surprise surprise, not everyone agrees with what I have to say.  Although I never write with the intention to offend, I sometimes write about personal topics that are not often discussed, and I can occasionally be controversial.  Sometimes I don’t communicate clearly or people have a different interpretation.  Sometimes I suspect they just flat-out disagree with what I have to say.  I hope that they will find sufficient value to continue participating.

When I share my thoughts or beliefs or something that I’ve learned, I try to write them in a way that that is meaningful and true for me.  I don’t think that I have all the answers, and I try to avoid preaching to others.

Don’t tell people how to live their lives.  Just tell them stories, and they’ll figure out how the stories apply to them.  – Randy Pausch

I had hoped to receive more comments on the blog and to generate more dialogue, but I’ve learned that discussion of any in-depth or serious topics online is challenging.  Still, I greatly appreciate it when I do receive comments or feedback from others, and I’m willing to risk discussing some more weighty topics in the comments if you are.

4)    To ContributeI want this blog to be of value to others — one of my contributions to the world.  I’m optimistic that someone will learn, grow, or be inspired.    That someone will dream bigger or live more boldly that they otherwise would have.

I write this blog with others in mind.  I try to share stories that they’ll find interesting or stimulating in some way.  Ultimately this comes down to personal preference, so I try to write things that I would enjoy reading, and I get occasional guidance (usually on things that I shouldn’t write) from my wife Diane.  I hope that this blog helps to make the world a better place.  OK, that sounds like an overly lofty goal, but the sentiment is correct.  Although I have no direct evidence that it has occurred, I hope that I am helping to inspire others to achieve their dreams.  If you want to share a story about how this blog has touched or inspired you in some way, I’d love to hear it.

In addition to my 4 stated intentions, each of which has implied benefits, I have also benefited from increased learning.  To write about a topic I need to understand it first.  Although I’m not a journalist, I want to write with integrity, so I do my best to make sure I know what I’m talking about, and I try to check my facts.  As a result, I’ve learned a lot more about my subjects than I would have otherwise.

I’d like to thank-you for making May the most-read month ever for this blog.  There were over 1700 views of DreamBigLiveBoldly.com in May.  I must admit that I was secretly hoping that the blog would grow into a larger community.  It’s one way to get feedback that people enjoy my work.  If you know anyone that you think might enjoy the blog, would you please let them know about it.

How do you think I’m doing against my stated intentions?  What are your suggestions on how to make the blog better?  (Live Boldly. I can take it.)

Some Things I’m Doing About My Struggle with Stuff

I wrote previously about My Struggle with Stuff, my challenges with materialism, consumerism, and accumulation.  Apparently, I’m still thinking about it.  I really want to master my stuff, rather than the other way around.  Below are some of the things I’ve tried with varying degrees of success.  Note that I don’t claim to have any sort of mastery in this regard.  It is definitely a work in progress.  Although I’ve read a lot about simplifying one’s life, I still have a long way to go.

  1. Substitute experiences instead of buying things.  e.g. I go for a bike ride rather than buying something.
  2. Try to keep my home clean and organized such that everything has a place.  Accumulations of extraneous stuff then become apparent.
  3. Purge my home periodically.  I always keep a ‘things to get rid of’ box so that excess items have a convenient place.  At least once a year, we go through each room to remove anything we don’t want.  We purge our clothes twice a year with the changing of Vancouver’s two seasons (summer and wet).
  4. Hold a garage sale every couple of years.  Donate anything that doesn’t sell to charity — don’t let it come back into the house.
  5. Try to buy things used.
  6. Rent or borrow things that I’ll use infrequently.
  7. Shop less.  Never shop for recreation.  Shop with a list at specific stores where I buy consumable items, rather than those that accumulate.
  8. When I buy something new, get rid of the thing it replaces (or something else if that isn’t possible).  Ideally, nothing comes into our home without something else going out.
  9. And finally, I’m living for extended periods without my stuff.  Perhaps more than anything else, this reinforces that I’m don’t need most of the things that have accumulated in my life to be happy.

A particular challenge for me are things that I already own that have value but that I don’t use (e.g. furniture, antiques, art, and other collectibles).  Although we display some of these, the remainder sit gathering dust in the dark recesses of our home, unused and unloved.  I find it very difficult to throw them out away because they have value, but even harder to find them new owners.   Finding buyers requires non-trivial work.  Taking them to auction or selling them on Craigslist apparently requires more effort than I’ve been willing to summon.  And so they sit.

Do you struggle with stuff?  What are some of the things you do to manage it?

 

Is Life Getting Too Complicated?

Is life becoming more and more complicated?  It sure seems like it.

Do you remember the days when telephone service was simple? When a handy person could maintain his own car?  When you could buy things without handling fees, fuel surcharges, and 3 types of tax?  When you didn’t have to program your household appliances?  When service was provided by a real person?  When banks and government filled out their own forms for you?

It seems like there is a growing amount of overhead to my life.  More things that need to be done that weren’t there a few years ago, like negotiating with my telecom providers, programming my thermostat and smart phone, using software to do my taxes, etc.

A few years ago, lamenting my lack of leisure time, I estimated the effort required to conduct my life, adding up all the time required to complete the things that needed to be done (e.g. my job, commuting to work, eating, personal hygiene, sleeping, exercise, food shopping, housecleaning, home maintenance, taxes, and many other necessary activities).  It turned out that my sense that there were not enough hours in the day was correct.  To my dismay, I found that over a year, it wasn’t possible to do everything and get 8 hours of sleep a night.  I was literally running on borrowed time.

Maybe it’s me.  Perhaps the complexity of life hasn’t increased over time.  Perhaps I am just becoming more set in my ways, less adaptable as I age (despite my efforts to resist this trend).  Or perhaps I have too much time on my hands, and my personality is such that I fill all the available time with things that seem important but aren’t.  Or perhaps the vast amount of information made available by the Internet is to blame.  There’s never a shortage of data, analysis, and contradictory opinions to wade through when making a decision these days.  Plenty more opportunities for a second guessing, analysis paralysis, and buyer’s regret.

Perhaps things are, in fact, getting easier but I just keep trying to do more and bigger and better, always at the limits of my capacity.  Perhaps there is a new Parkinson’s Law to be coined here, the notion that people will always fill all their available time with activities to just below their breaking point, and then perpetually struggle to manage the complexity.

Some think that the solution to this problem is to make things even more advanced in order to make them simpler to use.  Apple and Google have both had success with this as has Logitech with their ‘1 remote to rule them all’ (the integrated Harmony remote control). This is fine if things work as they should, but can make things even worse if they don’t.  I spent hours recently trying to recover from a computer virus and several aspects of my life (banking, blogging, etc.) were paralyzed during this time.

I’m not complaining about the many wonders and benefits of modern life.  I use and benefit greatly from computers, the Internet, online banking, digital photography, smart phones (I drafted this article on my iPhone), satellite navigation, the 1000 channel universe, personal video recorders, etc.   I love my remote control.  I’m not a Luddite nor do I especially yearn for days gone by, other than the occasional pang of sentimentality.  For the most part I choose to use new technology and tools voluntarily for the many benefits they provide (though in some cases it is getting very hard or impossible to opt out these days).  What I don’t like is the considerable effort it takes to re-establish my life after a power outage, battery failure, computer crash, data loss, identity theft, major version upgrade, or other intractable problem.  I also dislike the seeming constant overhead of staying current, upgrading, switching to something better, migrating my old stuff, and generally making any decision more complicated than what to eat for dinner.

I wish my live had all the benefits without all the overhead.  I suspect that an ancient Roman might have thought the same about his life.  He may have complained about how his new chariot required more maintenance than his old cart.  Perhaps only the tools have changed, but not the challenge of keeping on top of it all.

Do you think life is getting more complicated?  How do you manage it?

My Struggle with Stuff

I’m a hoarder by nature.  Not a ‘reality television, can’t move around in my house and as a result they are taking me away’ kind of hoarder, but a ‘you never know when you might need it’ type.  I’m hesitant to get rid of things for an abundance of reasons, real and imagined.  As a result, the natural trend in my house is to gradually accumulate more and more things over time, unless there is a concerted effort to counteract it.

When my wife and I returned from our last big trip, where we each lived out of a small backpack for 10 months, our home and the stuff in it were overwhelming.  The space was simultaneously refreshing (after many months in tiny rooms) but also daunting.  Our stuff, unused and unmissed for most of a year, seemed excessive and overpowering.

Currently, we have our possessions in a storage facility.  For your information, virtually everything we own squeezes into a space 10 feet wide by 30 feet long by 10 feet high.  The combined accumulations of our lifetimes fit into 3000 cubic feet.  I figure that’s at least 1000 cubic feet more than it should be.  I think our stuff could be down-sized considerably.  Ironically, we pay a non-trivial amount of money each month to store and insure these unused belongings.  Over the anticipated period of storage, we will have paid thousands of dollars to store things that we don’t need, and yet didn’t get around to purging before we left.

I feel like George Carlin in his famous comedy routine with stuff strung out all over the world.  I have a house (currently rented) with a few possessions inside.  The bulk of my stuff is in storage 10 kilometers from that house, and I have some things on loan or stored at the homes of 4 different friends over a 40 kilometer radius (can you believe it?).  While traveling, I have a carefully selected subset of my things with me, the majority of which are stored in the S&M Motel.   But I was staying in a guest house in Germany for a week, where I had some of this stuff spread across 3 rooms (bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen).  And, when I left for the day, I took a backpack of only the most critical items with me.  I’m a bit like an intercontinental rodent with stuff squirreled away across several time zones.  The time and effort to manage this pack train seems silly.  Reconsolidating and organizing my things, should I ever choose to do it, would require 5 to 15 days of solid effort and thousands of dollars.  But paring my stuff down to what I really need would require even more effort and likely some emotional trauma.

While traveling, and to a great extent while we’re at home, the things that I use on a regular basis are pretty basic – clothes, toiletries, the items necessary to sleep and eat, and a few things that I use for recreation.  My needs are simple and few.  My wants are unbounded, ever increasing, potentially unsatisfying, and move constantly out of reach.

Distinguishing between a need and want is often a challenge.  I need air, water, food, clothing, shelter, and security.  Pretty much everything else is a want –- house, car, bicycle, television, etc.  My wants often include things that I confuse with needs — e.g. “I need a car”, “I need a job”, even “I need my spouse”, or the famous and often repeated advertising slogan, “I need a vacation”.  These are all wants, and I find it useful to remind myself of this fact, in the same way that I find it useful to remember that some things are privileges rather than rights.

For much of my life I have been too materialistic, having more concern for material things than spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or cultural values.  I want there to more to my life than ‘more’.  It is better to emphasize other, more important areas of growth such as thought, feelings, relationships, nature, philosophy, the arts, sport, and science.  There are paths of progress other than growth, expansion, and conquest.  e.g. peace of mind, integrity, tranquility, beauty, a healthy sustainable environment, family, friendships, community, meaningful work, leisure time, good health, fun, and making significant contributions that help others.

Research has shown that having lots of stuff doesn’t buy happiness, in the same way that money doesn’t buy happiness (although it can perhaps rent it for a while).  The spice I get from buying things dissipates rapidly, leaving the aftertaste of reality again, but now with an added dollop of remorse.  So I’m frustrated with consumerism, a preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods, even though I sometimes get swept up in it.  Shopping should be neither recreation nor sport undertaken for the short-lived high it provides me.

The trend to bigger houses, vacation properties, larger and more cars, and more stuff to fill all of them seems to be never ending.  The average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950’s.  I too have a big house.  This has occurred during a period of growth and general prosperity (despite how much people complain about the economy) but has also been achieved at the expense of more work, more stress, and less family time.

Having a lot of stuff also conflicts with my desire to sustain the planet.  It’s contrary to the first item in ‘Reduce, Re-Use, Re-Cycle”.  Even if I buy things used or made of recycled materials, it still requires a lot of resources to make, house, and heat them.  Like many of us, I had a whole room in my house full of junk that I never used.  On this topic, if you haven’t seen the short video The Story of Stuff, I highly recommend it.

George Carlin was accurate when he compared one’s house to a waste processing facility.  New stuff comes in the front door where it is cherished (or hopefully at least used) for a while in the core rooms of the home (bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, family room).  Eventually that stuff makes its way to the lesser rooms of the home (guest room, junk room, etc.) before finally arriving in the garage, the last stop on the way to the garbage heap.  Everything is a consumable item, some just take longer to consume than others.

Some might say that I’m “the pot calling the kettle black”, because I spent most of my adult life trying to acquire resources, and now that I have some, proclaim that this is somehow a baser pursuit.  To this I say, you might be right.  I now have the luxury to place more of my focus on other things and I am being critical of some of the very behaviours that got me to this point in my life.  This is true.  I am struggling to free myself from the rat race of acquisition and retention.

Like it or not, as we age, we all begin a process, gradual or otherwise, of downsizing our stuff.  With many seniors this can be sudden and traumatic when they can no longer live on their own and have to give up not only their house but the things that they’ve accumulated over a lifetime.  It is far better to take ownership of this process while I still have the faculties to manage it.  I don’t want to live in an aging shrine to my past life, dreading the day when they come to take it all away.

What do I really own?  At best I am but a temporary custodian of the things around me.  I do not own them any more than the air I breath.  At some point, everything I have will transition to someone else.

You can’t take it with you. Anonymous

This fact is even more apparent in my case because I don’t have children, so I don’t even have the illusion that my things will ‘remain in the family’, the artifice of somehow retaining ownership across generations.  Now, as on our death bed, we own nothing.  And yet they sit there taunting me, costing me money, and filling my space and thoughts…

Do you struggle with stuff?  How do you deal with it?

Coming to terms with an alternative lifestyle

Even after I had decided that not working at a job was an option for me, it took months to transition to my alternative lifestyle. The hardest part of this was the mental shift required. I’ve had to deal with all sorts of issues and insecurities that came up. I wasn’t expecting to encounter these during what is normally considered to be an agreeable life transition. Many ‘retirees’ (early or otherwise) face the same issues, and many of them never deal with them effectively.

Why do people with lots of money continue to work, often very hard? I suspect that some of them are doing it for the best reason (that they love their work), but many (perhaps most) are doing so for less authentic reasons (e.g. fear or jealousy). I’ve faced visceral issues such as, “Will I go hungry in my old age?” and “Who will look after me when I’m old?” and more esoteric ones such as, “What if I fall behind my friends?”, “What will people think of me?”, and “Is how I spend my time worthy?”

Although each of these took (or is taking) some time to address, we decided to proceed despite our uneasiness. Live boldly! Some of these are issues of risk that can be quantified and assessed. It is possible to evaluate them objectively. The others are insecurities that can be tackled.

Worrying was the fact that one’s 40’s and 50’s are typically one’s most important earning years, when people pay off their mortgage and make serious headway towards their retirement savings. Each additional year worked usually has the concurrent financial benefits of increasing retirement assets or benefits, while lowering the remaining years of cost and life by one. Although financially advantageous, it’s the last item that can be problematic. Life is short enough already. Additionally, both retirement income and expenses are variable. Rates of return, taxation, reliability of pensions, health and other factors all contribute to the uncertainty.

Offsetting the ample incentives to work longer are the facts that life expectancy and quality of life are uncertain. My parents both worked long and hard to subsequently enjoy short and health-challenged retirements, having giving most of their precious time to their employers and leaving the bulk of their largest assets, their pension plans, unexploited. Even if one lives to the statistical average for their demographic (the best guess for most people), research shows that spending drops considerably as people age, even when controlling for health.  People can only spend so much money as they get older. Having more than this may be unnecessary and you can’t take it with you. So, working longer doesn’t add much value after a certain critical threshold has been reached.

In the end, all the financial issues come down to the question of “how much is enough”. Most financial planning books begin with an assumption about one’s income requirements in retirement, when this is by no means given. Retirees are less likely to have the sedate lifestyle once touted by society. They are more apt to travel and enjoy the fruits of life. Given this, deciding how much is enough can be, or should be, a much more considered process.

As for my issues of insecurity (e.g. image, jealously), these can be addressed also. It does not matter what the opinions of others are as long as what I know that what I am doing is right, and then I am impervious to criticism. I will run my own race and what other people think of me is none of my business. Taking these principles to heart however, takes both time and practice. Ultimately, like everything, how I live my life is a choice. I will try to live the lifestyle that is optimal for me, regardless of societal conventions. This means coming to terms with my own issues and insecurities, and not focusing on the perceptions of others.

Are you living an ‘alternative lifestyle’? If so, how are you dealing with the issues and insecurities that you face?

How can we afford to live like we do?

I’d like to be able to report that I’m one of the impressive people who travel continuously, funded fully by a sustainable income from a  location-independent business, e.g. http://manvsdebt.com/     Although this could happen eventually, I’m not currently actively pursuing this. But people often ask how can we do what we do.

The key to financial independence is having the correct balance between financial inflows and outflows on a continuing basis.

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.

Charles Dickens in David Copperfield, 1849

On the Income Side

Both my wife and I worked full-time for over 15 years.  We each worked for one primary employer during this period, and we were both successful within our organizations.  During this time, we utilized ‘pay-yourself-first’ techniques to pay off our mortgage at an accelerated rate, and to invest in equities (mutual funds in RRSPs and rental real-estate).  We also received a small inheritance with the passing of my parents.  As a result, we currently have passive income to fund the majority of our lifestyle, and we are slowly drawing down the principle of our investable assets.  In our sixties, we expect to continue doing this (at a reduced rate), as well as receive government benefits (CPP) and a modest defined-benefit pension from my employer.

There is still considerable uncertainty as to whether these income sources and eventually the liquidation of the underlying assets will provide a life-long source of income.  There is lots of published information on this topic (e.g. Unveiling the Retirement Myth by Canadian Jim Otar, many related technical articles at http://wpfau.blogspot.com/).  Both the magnitude and sequence of investmen returns have such significant and variable impacts on the probability of outliving one’s assets that unless the majority of one’s income is annuitized (e.g. defined benefit pension, secure government benefits, annuities, etc.), or one has huge assets relative to one’s expenditures, one can never be totally certain nor completely secure.

As a result, we don’t rule out the possibility that we might need to find additional sources of income.  We also might choose to work or own a business for the gratification they might provide.  If so, we will only do things we are passionate about, so they don’t feel like work.

On the Spending Side

There are several things which make our lifestyle, if not feasible, then much easier than it might otherwise be.  We do not have children.  We are both in good health.  We live and travel according to our own rules, not those of others.

We try to live a cost-effective lifestyle, obtaining maximum benefit at a reasonable cost.  I’d call us frugal (hopefully not cheap), but only to the extent that one can be deemed as such while living what some consider a desirable lifestyle.  As a result, we prefer long duration, low budget travel.

In this process, we have traded some of the material benefits we might otherwise have enjoyed (a bigger house, a newer or second car, some of the latest toys) for far more satisfying and lasting benefits like authentic experiences, good health, leisure time, intimacy, and making contributions to others.

Most Importantly

The single most important thing that makes our lifestyle possible is a change of context.  A simple but powerful change of perspective.  Like many people, I’d always imagined that I’d work hard until my mid-fifties or later, trying but never quite living a balanced life, then retiring to start pursuing my dreams in earnest with the time and health that I had left.  This all changed in the blink of an eye, when a conversation with a friend opened my mind to the possibility of something else. I experienced the pre-requisite paradigm shift that made our lifestyle possible.  Without this, I’d still be working too hard, commuting too far, and stressing too much.

The limiting factor is never time nor even money.  It is imagination.