Wednesday, August 2, 2017

How Trustworthy Is Your Favorite Personal Finance Guru?

Stage presence doesn't make you an expert.

It's a startling return to good old-fashioned personal finance advice!

Recently, as part of a book review, I noted that personal finance books by "gurus" are usually bad. This is because gurus make their money from selling you advice, so they're incentivized to make personal money management look so hard that you feel you need ongoing guidance - and lots of products.

Here are three questions to ask yourself about your favorite personal finance guru.

Do they try to make personal finance look complicated?
Personal finance, when it comes down to it, it's not that complicated. Sure, some people have specific, complex scenarios for which they need specific, professional help. Businesses and individuals with complicated situations might need the help of an accountant or a tax lawyer. But if you are typical individual looking for general personal finance advice, the principles are pretty simple. Spend less than you earn. Invest in index funds. It's not rocket science.

Gurus make a living from convincing you that it's complicated, too hard for you to understand after reading just one book. No, you need lots of books. Also workbooks, videos, seminars, software, and a special "university" where you can work your way through a sequence of classes and then get trained to teach them to others! It never has to end!

If you read enough personal finance books, you start to notice that the content is pretty similar from book to book. Outliers with unusual content are usually wrong, or, at best, needlessly complicated. Just because a guru has released a ton of books, it doesn't mean you need to read them all. Just because a book exists that's niche-marketed to your specific scenario - Personal Finance for the 29-Year-Old Long-Waisted Pansexual Guitarist/Barista With Astigmatism and a Wry Smile - doesn't mean it will be any better than good' ol Personal Finance for Dummies.

The hard work of personal finance isn't learning the principles. It's actually doing it. It's actually setting up that retirement plan, or that will. It's changing your habits. It's convincing yourself not to spend, day after day after day. Gurus can tell you what to do till they're blue in the face, but, unfortunately, they can't do it for you.

And while it can be comforting to read the same tips over and over in order to reinforce fiscally-prudent thinking (and, perhaps, convince yourself you are doing something), it's not necessary - or frugal - to keep on paying for that repackaged content.

Are they trying to sell me something?
Gurus make their money by selling content. There's nothing particularly wrong with that model, as long as this content is actually worth the money. A person who has written a great book deserves to be paid for their work.

The problem for personal finance gurus is that generic financial advice (that is, advice that is not tailored to a particular person and situation) is not only relatively simple, but it's easy to find from numerous sources, Many of them are free. You can get books out of the library, or look things up on the Internet. There's nothing behind a paywall that you can't find somewhere else.

Any guru who tries to convince you that they, and only they, have the secret to financial success and they will only tell you if they give them money… is just trying to make money.

Some gurus do this in pretty subtle ways. Often, they'll offer free content with a mix of good, fact-checkable advice, and plugs for their other products. Some of their advice is designed to create a need for additional products from the guru's line. How handy that this guru who recommends that everyone have a living will offers a Make Your Own Living Will Kit.

You can't trust someone's advice if they will profit from that advice.

Do they have any conflicts of interest?
This is related to "trying to sell me something," but more indirect. A guru who owns a real estate firm may not personally be trying to sell you real estate, but they still have a vested interest in promoting the idea that real estate is the best investment. A radio personality whose show is sponsored by a home security company is unlikely ever to tell you, "You don't really need to pay for a home security system."

Conflicts of interest aren't as obvious as direct sales pitches; they're insidious, and what's more, they're hard even for the most well-meaning person to avoid. Even trustworthy people can convince themselves that what's best for you so happens to line up with what's best for their wallet. The best thing is to simply disregard any advice that touches on a topic of potential financial sensitivity to the speaker - which, again, means you need to be aware of how they're being paid. Ad sponsorship? Affiliate links? Commissions from referrals?

Follow the money.

Do they, actually, have any expertise on this topic?
Gurus cultivate an aura of omniscience, but they're just people like anyone else, and they can get things wrong. They can overestimate issues they have personally experienced, and underestimate issues they have not; misunderstand the complexities of math or law; jump to conclusions; interpret ambiguous data in ways that seem to confirm their prior assumptions; ignore inconvenient exceptions; and become bull-headedly stubborn about random things, just like the rest of us.

There is no formal training for being a guru. It's more of a personality thing. If you're charismatic and you have a clever way of putting things, that will carry you far as a guru. Knowing your stuff is less important.

That's not to say that they don't often say true things. Quite often, their advice lines up with the generally accepted personal finance principles. When they differ from that generally accepted set of principles, though, it's important to be skeptical. What's more likely: that they discovered some super-smart new take on this stuff, or that they're wrong a little bit?

If a guru is making a claim that nobody else is making, they should be able to clearly explain their reasoning, why they think the conventional wisdom is wrong, and what special expertise allowed them to see this differently than other people. Don't accept a confusing explanation as "ehh, probably true." Because people see gurus are wise teachers, they are too quick to give confusing explanations a pass as "probably just too smart for me to understand." This is not warranted. Really, it's far more likely that they're either intentionally obfuscating, or they just don't know what they're talking about.

Conclusion
Personal finance gurus have their place. A lot of the things they say are true; maybe, if you haven't heard them before, revelatory! These folks wouldn't be so successful or have such rave reviews if people didn't find their advice genuinely helpful. I do think that people like Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman have genuinely helped a lot of people. But it's not necessarily because their advice is unique or special. Most of what they say is good, old-fashioned, time-tested, common-sense, freely available advice. They just have good marketing and a big reach.

The problem comes when you don't realize which pieces of their advice are core personal finances principles, which are their own particular peccadilloes, and which are actually costing you money. It's good to fact-check your gurus with impartial sources. But, if you're going to do that, you might as well start and end with those impartial sources - skip the gurus altogether.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Complicating your wardrobe by getting confused about your gender identity


In my capsule wardrobes post written a couple of weeks ago, I noted how funny it was that my wardrobe is divided between masculine-of-center casual clothing and femme business clothing. I said that I'm not interested in business menswear, but I think I knew after I wrote it that it wasn't strictly true. It's more like, I'm insecure about looking good or professional in men's clothing, and I'm conflicted about my gender identity and how I would like to be perceived, and the collision of work dress codes and gender presentation brings up a big can of worms that I don't know how to deal with.

So let's try to untangle that, shall we?

My history of gender weirdness
Around when I hit puberty, I began to want badly to be a boy. I cut my hair short, wore only baggy black T-shirts and carpenter jeans, and did a sort of half-assed job of chest binding with sport bras. I diagnosed myself with gender dysphoria from my brother's DSM-III (I mean, I also diagnosed myself with ADD, narcissism, and borderline personality disorder, mainly due to normal teenager behavior, so I'm not sure how much stock to put in that.) I got a few friends to use a male name and pronouns for me, but I didn't tell my parents or teachers. I was shy and found it difficult to ask for what I saw as special attention from adults.

All signs pointed to me growing up trans, but the weird thing is that around when I was about 16, the feelings ebbed. I never strongly identified with being a girl, but I no longer had that intense yearning or body hatred. I was dating and I wanted my girlfriends and boyfriends to be attracted to me, and I believed (and still do) that I looked more attractive to people in clothes that accentuated my curves, rather than hiding them. I wouldn't say that a girly gender presentation ever felt "right," but it didn't feel especially "wrong." It was so much easier to go with the flow of being seen and treated as a girl.

Since then I've cycled back and forth pretty regularly when it comes to my fashion sense and general Look, though I have never identified as male as clearly as I did at 14.

Sidebar 1: Internal identity vs. external perception
Your internal sense of your gender is generally only noticeable when it's at odds with the way other people see you. That's why trans people are able to articulate it clearly, but cis people sometimes claim they don't care what gender they are. The fact that it's "right" allows it to be invisible to them, kind of like how white people think it would be easy to be black because they don't notice race in their everyday lives.

In Whipping Girl, Julia Serano poses a thought experiment:

I do believe that it is possible for cissexuals to catch a glimpse of their subconscious sex. When I do presentations on trans issues, I try to accomplish this by asking the audience a question: “If I offered you ten million dollars under the condition that you live as the other sex for the rest of your life, would you take me up on the offer?” While there is often some wiseass in the audience who will say “Yes,” the vast majority of people shake their heads to indicate “No.”

Personally, I would be the person saying "yes" and it's not me being a wiseass. I'd do it for free - but, crucially, I wouldn't pay to do it, or at least I haven't so far.

Occam's razor would suggest that if I don't notice my gender identity most of the time, it is probably because it is aligned with my birth sex. But maybe I am that weird person who has a weak gender identity.  

Sidebar 2: Male vs. butch
Certainly, there are women who dress in a masculine-of-center way and still identify internally as women. Butch women aren't men. There are also men who dress feminine-of-center identify as men. There are men who were assigned female at birth and wear women's clothes and like it and are still men. Life, as Mallory Ortberg says, is a rich tapestry. You can't tell someone's gender identity by the clothes they wear, and clothes are not the end-all be-all of gender expression.

But, when it comes to analyzing myself, I use clothes as a crutch. I look at what I wore at any given time, and I use that as a reflection of how I was feeling at that time. I typically translate men's/androgynous clothes = male-ish gender identity because that is the way it feels to me. Even though I dress like a butch woman, look like a butch woman, quack like a butch woman, I've never truly felt like a butch woman; I mean, I'm definitely not femme, but I don't really feel like any kind of a woman.

Some unsorted facts about my wardrobe and why I dress the way I do
  • I feel more "me" in casual, androgynous clothes like T-shirts and jeans.
  • If the Job Fairy told me that I never needed to work in an office again (I could work from home or retire early or whatever), I would immediately give away all my feminine clothes.
  • I don't hate wearing feminine clothes. It doesn't make me feel agonized or dysphoric. I do occasionally look in the mirror and feel like I am looking at someone else, but it's not a bad feeling. More continual surprise: "oh, that's me?"
  • It's not necessary for me to wear skirts/dresses in the office. There are women who do not.
  • I'm curvy and look more clean and put together in clothes that are tailored in a way that accounts for boobs and hips. I can look schlumpy in men's clothes. I worry that that makes me look unprofessional.
  • I associate the way I look in business masculine clothes (khakis, belts, button downs, ties, etc.) with an unattractive, unsatisfying, sexless, internalized gender-nonbinary-phobic stereotype: more "It's Pat!" than David Bowie.
  • Skirts are more practical than pants for hot weather.
  • I continue to feel embarrassed about asking for "special treatment," like being referred to by male or gender-neutral name and pronouns, when gender isn't a huge problem for me in my daily life, and especially when I continue to "confuse people" / "not earn it" / "not uphold my side of the bargain" by failing to dress/present/behave consistently masculine. (For the record, I would not apply the same "you must be this manly to earn a 'he'" standards to anyone else that I do to myself.)
  • I worry that I will be seen as childish if I publicly experiment with gender presentation and fail to provide consistent, confident messaging around who I am and what I want.
  • The times when I have had the highest self-esteem in my life correspond with times I have dressed more masculine more consistently.

Figs 1 and 2: 1999 and 2010. I am the coolest.

The reality that sometimes it's too complicated to explain to other people
Okay, so what if my identity is "pansexual androgynous male who crossdresses frequently and has a biologically female body and doesn't usually mind"? That doesn't mean anything to people. That's silly. I can't ask people to honor that. This is the kind of special snowflake, can't-possibly-be-true assertion that makes people laugh you back to Smith College where you belong. I mean, really.

Just say "female." At least, that's what I've done so far in my life.

I'm in a weird position that very few people have the luxury of being in, of making an extremely pragmatic decision of whether to go ahead with any kind of transition. Of course, it's easier not to. There's also the concern that if I elevate all the junk I mentioned above, if I round it up to "trans enough!", if I make any demands or ask for any kind of acknowledgement of my Special Gender Issues from other people, I am hurting the cause of people who feel genuine, intense dysphoria on a daily basis. They need medical treatment and social support; I don't. I'm going to be fine. This is minor optimization for me, so what right do I have to inconvenience other people?

My spouse, the Frugal Croissant, is exasperated with me. "What pronouns do you want, though? It's not an inconvenience for me, and you don't have to worry about 'earning it', whatever that means. Just, what do you want?"

I don't know. Because the default "she" has never felt ideal, but isn't so non-ideal that it really bothers me. "He" seems like a real big ask from someone who's worn dresses 4 times in the last week. "They" is probably the most logical option, but it feels so awkward in my mouth, how can I really champion and defend it to other people?

But maybe I'm making too much of what I think other people want or would be bothered by. Maybe I need to get over myself and learn to be okay with making unreasonable demands on people. Like a man.

Reality check: gender fluidity is neither frugal nor minimalist
Every time my internal guy-feeling bubbles up, I donate my dresses and get more Wranglers and lumberjack shirts, and every time it ebbs I toss those and get skirt suits and fashion scarves because it's "time to grow up" and "dress like an adult" and that apparently means dressing in line with what looks good/normal/professional on my body. Really, I should keep everything, because the cycle is going to come around again, and I should know that by now. I KonMari completely different things depending on where I am in my gender butterfly lifecycle.

All this is to explain why I spent so much on pants just now.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Wardrobe Exercise: What Are My Capsules?

My wife's been out of town, so I may have gone a little stir crazy today. (Though you'll notice I still haven't posted my purchase review for June, for shame reasons.) I pulled out all my clothes and sorted them into capsule wardrobes.  

Summer Work Capsule
Consists of: 5 dresses, 3 cardigans, 3 skirts, 1 button-down shirt, 2 short-sleeved shirts, 4 infinity scarves.

Not shown: 2 blazers, 3 shoes (pumps, flats, sandals), 2 handbags.

Notes: I haven't worn the button-down shirt once this summer, but it looks great on me. Actually, I should probably count it in the winter or perhaps "transitional season" capsule since it can be worn in any season. It looks good with pants or a skirt.

Winter Work Capsule
Consists of: 8 v-neck sweaters, 5 scoop neck T-shirts, 3 pairs of slacks, 1 wool skirt/leggings combo

Not shown: 2 blazers and 2 handbags (same as in summer capsule), ankle boots

Notes: The skirt gets worn rarely, largely for temperature reasons. When is it ever the right temperature for a warm, knee-length skirt? I used to include a bunch of camisoles in this wardrobe, but I switched over to the scoop neck T-shirts because they protect my sweaters better. I don't like scoop neck T-shirts on their own, but they layer better with V-neck sweaters than V-neck t-shirts do.

Summer Casual Capsule
Consists of: 1 hoodie, 1 sweater, 1 cap, 1 belt, 3 button-down shirts (1 short-sleeve plaid, 1 rollable long-sleeve pinstripe, 1 rollable long-sleeve plaid), 3 solid color T-shirts, 6 graphic T-shirts, 3 pairs of shorts, 3 pairs of jeans, 5 tank tops

Not shown: backpack, sneakers

Notes: I liked the look of a button-down over a tee or tank, with jeans. This is the first year I've gotten into shorts in a big way. This year I'm into bold yet masculine florals: floral swim trunks style shorts, a Hawaiian print T-shirt from the H&M men's section. I even have a floral carabiner.

Winter Casual Capsule
Consists of: Same as summer capsule, but with shorts, tanks, lightweight button-downs, and floral T-shirt removed; 4 flannel shirts and a beanie added.

Not shown: Two thermal henleys which I couldn't find.

Notes: This is the capsule with the most overlap. I guess I really just have one, all-season casual capsule - it's not like with the work wardrobe where the change of seasons leads to totally different clothes.

Performance Capsule
Consists of: down jacket, windbreaker, 2 bandanas, wool half-zip, sweater (same as in casual capsule), lightweight insect repellent hoodie, earbuds, running belt, 2 running shorts, sport bra, bikini, hiking pants, yoga capris, yoga pants, 2 lightweight wool T-shirts

Not shown: running shoes, hiking boots, various other bits of winter layering gear (hat, gloves, base layers, etc.)

Notes: This isn't really a cohesive capsule in that it's not things I'd necessarily mix-and-match together; it's really more like 3 mini-capsules of hiking, running, and winter outdoor gear.

Leftovers: Things That Didn't Make Any Capsule
I didn't do this scientifically (I probably missed some things), but here were some items that jumped out at me at the end for not having "made it" into any capsule.
Consists of: 1 suiting dress, 1 party dress, 1 coat, 5 slouchy linen T-shirts, 1 short-sleeve button down, 1 casual t-shirt, 1 performance/running t-shirt, 1 long-sleeve plaid button-down

Not shown: a big basket of strappy tanks which I think are my wife's??????

There are a variety of reasons I didn't include these things in other capsules.

The suiting dress isn't really part of a current capsule - I find it too formal to wear to work - but I wear it to job interviews and other more professionally formal occasions (with a blazer.) The party dress is part of a sort of fancy mini-capsule for weddings and things, along with a pair of tights and heels. Both of these dresses anchor what are essentially one-outfit mini-capsules.

I stockpiled linen tees in post-summer sales the last couple of years, after really liking them one year. They are quite cool in the summer, and I still like them in theory, but I don't wear them as much now because I find them too casual to wear to my current workplace, and I find that on weekends I tend to reach for more traditional T-shirts that pair better with jeans. If I just had one or two of these, I'd probably fold them in with my other T-shirts, but it's weird that I have five.

All the things on the right side of the picture probably do belong naturally in one of the capsules that I already presented. The coat and performance shirt go in the performance capsule; the t-shirt and 2 button-downs go in the casual capsule. But I didn't include them for some reason. The fact that they escaped my notice when I was putting together my previous photo collages: random coincidence, or Deeply Meaningful?

Thoughts
What this exercise really brought home for me was this: first, I have done a fabulous job of transitioning to my True Summer color palette. Just look at all those pinks, blues, turquoises and seafoams.

Second, my wardrobe is surprisingly modular. It was easy to divide things into capsules. And I really don't mix-and-match across capsules; there's only one item that could be reasonably counted in all of them (my navy crew neck sweater). Almost nothing resides comfortably in both my casual and work wardrobes, except underwear (not shown).

I know that some people like versatile pieces which can be dressed up or down, taken day to night, etc., but for me, that just doesn't work at all. I like to wear completely different things in the different areas of my life.

There are a few reasons for this. First, when I dress casual, I like to dress casual. I don't like "dressy casual," and I prefer to just wear jeans and a T-shirt when I can. I can't wear these things to the office (anymore - I no longer work at an Anything Goes tech firm), so already, my wardrobe is divided by formality.

It's also divided, oddly, by gender expression. My casual look is tomboy/androgynous/soft butch/masculine, and my work look is quite feminine (in the summer anyway). I can't explain it, but I feel more comfortable in androgynous clothes when I'm relaxing, and more confident in feminine clothes when I'm trying to be professional. I just have no interest at all in very feminine casual clothes -- the closest I get is unisex clothes that are pink (e.g. a hot pink Carhartt beanie). I'm also completely uninterested in dressy masculine clothes (suits and ties, wingtips, etc.) I think it's cute when other women wear three-piece suits, but I don't want to rock that look myself.

You can see that some of the "leftovers" are things that fell into that awkward area. The linen tees, for example, are causal but maybe too femmey to go with my more androgynous casual look. Same for the plaid button-down, which has so far escaped donation by being on-paper similar to plaid button-downs I have in my casual look, but I never choose it because it's more drapey and feminine. It looks like something that goes over a strappy tank, not a brewery T-shirt.

The green short-sleeve button-down doesn't have that problem so much, but I think it's just plain not my color. Too yellow - maybe better for a Spring.

This exercise has helped me to clarify some things about my wardrobe, and to explain why I don't like some things I've always thought I "should" like (and therefore occasionally buy-then-donate). Maybe a similar exercise would help you, too!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Onebagging Minibreak Successes & Failures



Photo Credit: Stefan Kunze


My wife, the Frugal Croissant, and I recently took a four-day, three-night mini-break to a seaside town. As vacations go, it wasn't the most frugal, but it wasn't the worst. Here's what we could have done to make it cheaper:

  • Drive, instead of taking the cruiselike passenger ferry. But we don't have a car, which is probably a larger savings in the long run.
  • Crash with friends. This would have required us to limit our destination choices to places where we already had friends. Friends of ours (from our own town) who visit this location often have, over time, made friends here and now crash with them, so that's another option, but it's a long game!
  • Make our own meals. We ate out for lunch and dinner each day, because we stayed in a bed-and-breakfast where we didn't have kitchen access. Had we researched places where we could have lived more dorm-like and less hotel-like, we might have saved on food. But most of those places probably require you to stay for longer.
  • Camp. This would have allowed us to stay for cheap AND make our own meals, and there's a campground in the area! But we would have had to bring a tent, sleeping bags, cookware, and other camping gear, so again it's something that would be a lot easier to do with a car. People do backpack with a tent, though; I know it's not impossible. And it's a relatively low-difficulty backpacking trip, since the campground is walking/biking distance from grocery stores and other amenities. So, maybe an option for the future.
  • Come in the off season. Which we might do at some point - but it's a different experience.

Here's what we did do to curb expenses:

  • Come in the "shoulder season," that transition period between off season and high season. This is cheaper than high season, and while some events and amenities aren't up and running yet, there's still a lot to see and do.
  • Book accommodations months in advance. Croissant set a calendar reminder to book in late winter, when people are still thinking about fireside hot cocoa, not beachside margaritas.
  • Get up in time for breakfast at the bed-and-breakfast. Something we have failed to do in the past.

An Experiment in One Bagging

You wouldn't think it would be hard to one-bag (well, two, if you count my purse) for three nights, but I found it challenging. At times, I felt I'd overpacked because my bag was overstuffed and heavy and there was no room to add souvenirs. But I also found that I didn't have enough clothes. So, I guess having problems in both directions means I struck an okay balance??

Here's what I think I did right:
  • I planned my luggage around what bags I would want at my destination. I correctly predicted that my days would be divided into two segments: a morning/early afternoon adventure in nature, and an evening stroll around town. For the adventure segment, I'd want my hiking daypack. For the evening, I'd want my purse. So I made it my personal challenge to use those bags and those alone as my luggage.
  • I brought a range of clothing options for different weather scenarios. The forecast predicted cold and rainy, so I brought my rain jacket, hat, sweater, and hoodie… but in the spirit of optimism, I also brought shorts, sunglasses, and lots of sunscreen. I was glad to have them when the weather miraculously turned out warm and sunny all weekend! But the cool weather gear was still nice to have for the ferry.
  • I wore my most unwieldy things while traveling. This was my jeans, jacket, sweater, and hiking boots. (Luckily it was also coldest the first day.) I'd considered wearing my sneakers and not bringing a second pair of shoes at all, but I was glad to have the boots when I got there - they were definitely the right shoe type for tramping through the woods.

Here's what I might have done differently.
  • Don't double up on pants. For such a short trip, it's probably fine to only have one pair of long pants. I could have worn my stretch nylon hiking pants as my main/only pair of pants, instead of packing them and wearing jeans on the trip and most of the time at night. With that said, I'd be singing a different tune if I'd really messed them up (falling in mud, say, or getting them full of thorns, both of which I very nearly did). If the forecast had been right I would not have been able to wear my shorts comfortably. So, maybe this was the right call after all.
  • Don't double up on layers. Even if it had been cold, a sweater or hoodie would probably have been fine, no need for both.
  • Do double up on T-shirts. I brought exactly three shirts for three days (in addition to the camisole/button-down combo I was wearing on the trip over). I didn't count on the fact that I'd get dirty and sweaty and want to change shirts between the Adventure Segment and the Evening Segment of the day. I ended up designating one shirt as my Evening Shirt and rewearing it each night because it was the only one that didn't get too dirty.

    I did bring an extra camisole, thinking I could mix-and-match it with the button-down, but after a day of travel the button-down was too sweaty to reuse, and I didn't feel comfortable wearing just the camisole. An extra standalone T-shirt would have been much more useful and taken up hardly more space.
  • Maximize differences between shoe types. I should probably have brought my sandals instead of sneakers as my second pair of shoes. I definitely would have preferred sandals to sneakers on the beach. If I were only going to bring one pair of shoes, my sneakers would be the ones to bring, but if I'm bringing two, then sandals and hiking boots together give the most variable range of footwear options.

Overall I think we did fine for packing, but there's definitely room for improvement. I'm looking forward to honing my one-bagging skills in future trips. It's fun to try to get things as small as possible, and I love not having a wheeled suitcase to bounce around.