Buying the best, when good enough will do

May 30, 2013

One of my challenges is the desire to buy the best when good enough will do.  I’m fairly analytical by nature, so I’m a thoughtful shopper for most items of consequence.  Like most people, the more costly or important the item, the more effort I put in to making the acquisition.  My level of effort may be more or less than yours for the same purchase, but I suspect that I’m closer to the detailed-oriented end of the shopping spectrum than most.

Note that I’m not talking here about buying something that isn’t really required.  That’s a different issue (see My Struggle with Stuff).  I’m referring to buying something that is required, but buying it bigger, better, or otherwise greater than I really need.  I can think of many cases when I’ve done this, though there are perhaps more that I’m not yet prepared to admit to myself.  e.g. Buying a 60-inch television when a 50-inch television would have been more than sufficient.  Buying a new washer and dryer both with the latest and greatest steam feature, something that I don’t fully understand and to the best of my knowledge that we’ve never used.  Buying a triathlon-specific bike when a road bike would probably have been adequate.  There are many other examples.

When it’s happening, I am usually aware that I am choosing the deluxe option, but I somehow find it difficult to resist.  It is far too easy to rationalize my choice at the time of purchase and characterize it as being justified under the circumstances.  For example, ‘This item is better quality and will last longer’ or ‘It’s something that I’ll use frequently’ or ‘I don’t buy this item very often so paying a little extra isn’t an issue’.  It is impressive what hoops of dubious logic I can leap through in these situations.

Occasionally I’ll get feedback about my extravagant purchase decision.  Sometimes it comes from my wife.  Other times it arrives as a result of natural consequences.  In 2009 my wife and I trekked for 3 weeks in Nepal.  We purchased some high quality, expensive outdoor gear specifically for this trip, though we also intended to use it later.  Due to a delay in shipping our gear failed to arrive in Nepal in time so we were faced with outfitting ourselves in a single day with duplicate (and therefore redundant) equipment.  Through a combination of rentals and purchases, we obtained the minimum kit that we thought was required to complete the trek.  This last minute gear was more than sufficient and was superior to what many others (and specifically the Nepalese porters) wore on the same trek.  It demonstrated very clearly how our original purchases were more than was really required.  Now some of this might be attributed to hindsight (which is 20-20), but it made it apparent that we could have saved money by buying less costly items in the first place.

When I think about it rationally, not during buying fever, I believe that there are a few instances where ‘buying the best’ (or better than the minimum requirements) is justified:

  • where the additional features or quality are absolutely essential (e.g. any lesser item cannot satisfy the primary requirement that the item is intended to fulfill)
  • when safety of life and limb are at stake (e.g. a good rope for rock climbing)
  • when there is a real financial payback for the additional features  (i.e. one’s benefits are increased or costs reduced sufficiently to pay for the extra expense of the item over its life)
  • when there is a real financial payback for the additional quality (e.g. the item will last longer and delay the cost of purchasing a replacement long enough to lower the average usage cost per time period)

It is common to try to cast a non-qualifying purchase to fit one of these, or to justify it with convoluted but invalid rationalizations.

The book The Millionaire Next Door highlights the fact that most self-made, financially successful people understand these principles.  They typically buy high quality items, maintain them properly, and use them for a long period of time, resulting in a low usage cost per period of time (often lower than items with a lesser initial purchase price).

Of course, what one actually purchases (as opposed to what one desires to purchase) is partly impacted by how much money one has.  Everyone, including those afflicted with my condition, are limited by what we can afford or can finance.  Although this may put an upper ceiling on purchasing, it does not limit overspending on particular items.

Note that this challenge is worsened in those areas where items become obsolete quickly.  The latest gadget is almost always better, but it comes at a premium price and loses value quickly.  In these cases, buying more than is necessary comes at a high cost.

So, what are some of the things I do to try to tackle this challenge?

  • Don’t rush major purchases.  Like the old adage ‘sleep on it’, take time to confirm that the item is really required and that the purchase is justified.  Today’s must have items, if not purchased immediately, often turn out to be less than essential.
  • Learn to delay gratification (no, this is not a sex manual).  Often another solution to the requirement will develop.  e.g. I find that sharing my desire with friends will often result in a creative alternative solution being suggested.
  • Evaluate my purchases carefully.  Differentiate between needs and wants (more information on this in My Struggle With Stuff).  Satisfy the real needs and be thrifty when spending on wants.
  • Consider price in the evaluation.  Feature for feature, the most expensive item will often win out, but not when the extra cost is considered.  Benefits-for-the-price should be evaluated instead.
  • Do those things that can result in avoiding the purchase in the first place (see Some Things I’m Doing About My Struggle With Stuff).
  • Save money on inconsequential purchases so as to be able to afford (with full consciousness) the occasional splurge purchase.  Note that there needs to be some hard limit on this loophole as I can always justify why I need to splurge ‘this time’.

Do you share my challenge of buying something better, when something good enough will do?  What do you do about it?


Are Canadians paying too much? What can we do about it?

May 2, 2013

Canadians pay more for most retail goods than Americans living just across the border, despite the fact that the Canadian dollar has been near or above parity with the U.S. dollar for several years now. We are constantly reminded of this when we see American advertisements on television, when we shop online, when we buy books and magazines that have 2 different prices on the back cover, and when we visit the United States. My recent investgation into this matter (Are Prices Higher in Canada than in the U.S?) confirmed my suspicions. The price differences in certain product categories are glaring – gasoline (20-35% higher), automobiles (other than economy models), groceries (especially dairy and poultry products), alcoholic beverages, etc. Are we being gouged?

Our unelected Canadian Senate recently looked into this matter, releasing its study on the reasons for price discrepancies for goods between Canada and the U.S. (The Canada-US Price Gap).  They did not look at the price of services, which are harder to compare, nor supply-managed goods (e.g. eggs, poultry and dairy products, which we definitely pay more for but are a political hot-button issue). Although their report was anything but definitive, they concluded that in many cases retail prices are higher in Canada, and the reasons for this difference include: lower economies of scale, a higher level of retailer concentration, higher transportation costs, higher Canadian tariffs and taxes, the high volatility in exchange rates, and different regulatory requirements (like bilingual packaging and product safety standards). For its part, the Senate recommended that Canada review its tariffs, better integrate safety standards between the 2 countries, and consider an increase in the minimum threshold at which low-value shipments from the U.S. are taxed. One of the biggest reasons for price differences that they identified is country-specific pricing by international manufacturers who charge more in Canada simply because Canadians appear willing to pay more.

In order to maximize profits, manufacturers attempt to segment the market, creating real or imagined differences that allow them to sell their products at different prices in the two countries. An example of this are car manufacturers who don’t allow their warranties to be transferred between the two countries. Some manufacturers charge Canadian retailers 10% to 50% more than U.S. retailers for identical products. Manufacturers try to justify this by saying that their higher prices subsidize the cost of maintaining operations in Canada and are necessary to compensate Canadian distributors and wholesalers who face higher costs than their American counterparts. But they also openly admit that they charge more because Canadians are used to paying more (which seems like a chicken-and-egg situation to me). Manufacturers may price more aggressively in the U.S. because in order for their brand to succeed globally, it is essential that it be a success in the U.S. American consumers benefit from this effect. In fact, market segmentation allows manufacturers to lower their prices in the United States, effectively subsidizing their prices using earnings from higher profit territories like Canada.

In addition, American retailers are more competitive. They enjoy lower labour rates, higher productivity, and are quick to respond to competitive pressures. Many Canadian retailers have failed to pass along to consumers the benefit they’ve garnered from a stronger loonie.

Ultimately the price gap is about Canadian’s willingness to pay. Sellers simply believe that Canadians will pay more, and they appear to be right. Canadians don’t shop as aggressively as Americans, and aren’t as quick to seek out deals. Canadian retailers and consumers are failing to put the sort of pressure on manufacturers needed to bring prices down.

This situation won’t improve by itself. Neither the increase in the Canadian dollar nor the arrival in Canada of giant U.S. retailers like Walmart and Target has had a significant effect. So, what can we do about it?

  1. Shop Local

    Where possible, buy locally made or Canadian made products that provide good value for the money. This doesn’t solve the problem of higher prices for Canadians, but at least the profits are going to Canadian manufacturers.

  2. Switch to cheaper brands or basic commodities

    As the Canadian economy has matured and we have become wealthier, we consume more and more differentiated goods rather than basic commodities. The manufacturers of differentiated goods are able to increase their prices as long as consumers demand their products. e.g. They can charge more for Pizza Pockets than no-name pizza snacks, and much more than for wheat flour and tomato sauce.

    Canadians can increase competition and lower prices by switching to cheaper brands whenever possible or using basic commodities instead. e.g. Buying generic brands in the grocery store. Buying unbranded products. Buying commodity items like bulk foods, fresh produce, etc. Choose brands that don’t practice country-specific pricing (or that minimize it) and that are competitively priced to those in the U.S. Manufacturers will lower prices if Canadians don’t pay their marked-up costs.

  3. Check prices and shop smart

    The Senate report noted that, “As more Canadian consumers become aware of smartphone applications and Internet sites for price shopping and comparison, and become price-savvy consumers, competitive pressures in Canada will increase and the price for products in Canada will converge to U.S. prices”.

    Compare prices and buy where things are cheaper. Price comparison web sites make this easy (e.g. Shopbot.ca, ShopToIt.ca, PriceGrabber.ca, NextTag.com, Shopzilla.com). Smart phone apps that scan bar codes and compare prices make this even easier (e.g. RedLaser, Google Shopper, Amazon Price Check, Pricegrabber).

    Choose retailers that offer prices competitive to those in the U.S. Retailers will lower prices if we shop elsewhere.

  4. Speak up

    Let manufacturers, retailers, and governments know that you’re fed up with paying more, and that you’re voting with your wallet. Join consumer associations that advocate for fair pricing.

  5. Shop cross-border

    Canadians have a long-standing tradition of cross-border shopping. 75% of us live within 161 kilometres (100 miles) of the U.S. border. The total number of Canadians travelling to the United States by automobile is closely correlated with the movements of the exchange rate. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 an average of 3.4 million Canadian travelers crossed the border into the United States by automobile each month, including 2.4 million Canadian travelers (69.7% of all Canadian travellers) who made same-day trips (which likely involved some shopping). Duty-free exemptions for Canadians were increased effective June 2012, making it easier to bring back more stuff. Although the duty-free limit for same-day trips is still zero (unlike Americans who get $200), Canada Customs often doesn’t bother with smaller purchases like groceries.

    Shop online. The price advantages of shopping in the U.S. (or even other countries like England) often more than make up for the costs of shipping, a customs broker fee, and duty (if applicable). More U.S. companies offer free shipping to Canada, and downloaded items (like music, movies, and software) don’t need to be shipped at all. Many items are duty-free under the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Canada Customs doesn’t charge duty on items valued under $20 Canadian (an amount which has effectively increased with the rise in the value of the Canadian dollar relative to the greenback).

I can hear some patriotic Canadians squealing, those who believe that we have an obligation to ‘Buy Canadian’. Hopefully I’ve covered that with my Point #1 above. Please note that while we are smart shopping, I believe that Canadians should continue to pay whatever sales or other taxes are required. I believe that in the long run, Canadians will be better off if our manufacturers, retailers, and government remain competitive in the global market. Competitive retail pricing will benefit all Canadians, rather than line the pockets of international manufacturers.


Are prices in Canada higher than in the United States?

April 17, 2013

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

April 5, 2013

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

March 21, 2013

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

March 6, 2013

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

June 8, 2012

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

May 12, 2012

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?

May 5, 2012

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

November 6, 2011

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?