Should you buy the best? Should you look at ratings?: A deliberately controversial post

This post suggests that not trying to buy the best will decrease your stress.

It is true that we on the blog are big proponents of satisficing.  The paradox of choice is awesome. (Here’s our book review.)  For many things we’re happy to just buy what’s good enough rather than trying to optimize.

However, sometimes spending a little extra effort and money to get quality is worth it in terms of happiness and decreased stress in the long run.  Unlike the author of the original post, I get a lot of pleasure out of using a high quality pot or pan. We’ve had the target knock off Le Crueset and we’ve had the genuine Le Crueset, and after a couple of years there’s a big difference between the two. Sometimes spending the extra money and research is worth it.  (And maybe we are still technically satisficing with a high bar.)

Our method of satisficing is usually to go on Amazon and look for the highest rated item in our price range and just buy that.  (#2 does that sometimes when the method below fails; I trust Amazon reviews far, far less than #1 does.  #1 notes that the important Amazon reviews are the negative ones, not the positive ones, so it is important to check out the one and two star reviews before committing.)  We used to use Consumer Search but then they stopped updating as frequently so we don’t use it as much.

#2 says:  my answer to what to buy is usually on either Sweet Home or the Wire Cutter, depending on the item.

Do you try to buy the best?  How do you feel about optimizing vs. satisficing?  Does it vary by the decision you’re trying to make?  How so?

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Saving isn’t necessarily “easier” for people who save more: A deliberately controversial rant

One of those bloggers who makes a ton and spends a ton and is always complaining about debt/bragging about purchases/letting other people buy hir necessities often talks about how it’s just *easier* for other people to not spend money on luxuries and trips.  Other people just don’t enjoy such things as much as zie does.  Other people aren’t *really* sacrificing.  Other people don’t know what it’s like, having friends who like to go out and spend money, wanting to go on trips, wanting to buy nice things.

Every time I read something like this, I want to say @#$#@ you.  I mean seriously.  You are not a special snowflake.  @#$@# you.  Sacrifice is NOT fun.

It isn’t easier for me to not have things I want.  I don’t get my kicks from saving instead of spending.  I would *love* to take vacations and eat out all the time and live someplace amazing and buy all sorts of fancy stuff.  But I don’t.

Why don’t I?  Two main reasons:

First:  That feeling you’re always complaining about?  The one where your budget comes up short and you don’t know where the missing money is going to come from?  The one where you’re getting lots of sympathy from your blog followers?  That one.  I HATE that feeling.  I hate it so much that I have something called an emergency fund.  I hate it so much that I set my fixed expenses low enough that there’s some extra every month.  So much that we’ve never had consumer debt and we paid off our loans ages ago.

Second:  You know how your family bails you out when you don’t have money for a broken appliance or the kids’ tuition or a whatever the latest emergency is?  Yeah, I don’t want my parents, my parents who make less money than I do, to be bailing me out as an adult.  I don’t want them to @#$3ing sacrifice their wants because I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my own.  Emergencies happen on a pretty regular basis and you should plan for them.  If you can’t, then you can’t really afford those trips with friends.

So yeah, @#$@ you.  Sacrifice sucks for everybody.  That’s why it’s called sacrifice.

And maybe it’s easy to spend less for people like Mr. Money Moustache or Frugal Woods, but you don’t have to be an early retirement extreme junkie to be responsible with your finances.  And even with MMM and FW, it may just be that their values for the environment or for early retirement are stronger than their desire to spend.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have a desire to spend, just that there’s something more important to them than spending.

It’s not easier for other people to not spend.  It’s easier for you to let people bail you out or to have those regular feelings of panic than it is for the rest of us.

Are posts that are “raw” and dramatic more honest than posts that are happy or emotionally even?: A deliberately controversial post

Not necessarily.

Just like the accusations that (some? all?) people are making up their happy perfect lives, there’s also no doubt bloggers who are either dramatizing or possibly even making up their own drama so that they have something to write about.  Some people who seem as if their lives are trainwrecks seem that way not because they necessarily have horrible things happening to them, but because, like the (possibly fictional) “perfect” bloggers, they want attention.  They love being thanked for their “honest” and “raw” posts.

So they talk about fighting with their horrible lazy awful partners.  They talk about their horrible children.  They talk about their problems with money that they have created by taking on too much debt.  Some (that you will occasionally read news stories about) go so far as to make up diseases and put up crowd-funding.

It is true that there are people stuck in horrible relationships, or whose children have real psychological problems.  There are people who, through no fault of their own have money problems.  There are people who have life-threatening and chronic diseases.  And some folks with real problems do blog about them.

However, the Venn diagram of having a real problem and blogging about drama is not an “honest” and “raw” single circle.  There’s overlap, but it is far from complete.

Drama posts can be just as fictional as “perfect” posts.  And just as likely, some “perfect” bloggers are not lying about things going well for them.  Honest writing and happy writing may be completely uncorrelated.

Your turn, Grumpeteers.

Should people exchange gifts at all at traditional gift giving holidays such as Birthdays or Christmas?: A deliberately controversial post

I know we just had a deliberately controversial post, but Mel’s comment got us thinking.  Specifically the parts where she writes:

I guess I don’t really see the point of gifts for adults. Either you have the money to buy yourself something when you want it (or the ability to save to get it), or you don’t but there is the expectation that someone else should spend their money on you for something you want.

Later she adds this about kids:

Our kids are saving all of their money for a big trip when they’re in high school, as Josh and I did when we were starting high school. I want them to have that experience of travel, so I feel okay purchasing toys and such now. Again, I rarely do it on their birthday. It’s more that they express that they want X, and if I think it’s a sound purchase, I get them X. In that way, they are never disappointed.

So that’s actually two potentially deliberately controversial statements there if we add them up.

First:  Should we give gifts to adults at all?

This one is a hard one.  Over the years the number of adults we exchange gifts with has gotten smaller.  We have stuff.  They have stuff.  We’ve moved, they’ve moved, we’ve met a lot of other people with whom we are at the same level of intimacy and we couldn’t possibly give gifts to all of them.  And so on.

DH and I don’t really exchange gifts, but #2 and her DH do.  This partly matches our different financial situations — DH and I share finances and #2 and her DH have more separate finances.  Except DH will often do something for me for Christmas and my birthday– like he’ll do some icky chore we’ve both been putting off, or he’ll buy me something I’ve been wanting out of his allowance (often sleepwear), or he’ll do something that makes me cry like turning my name into a poem to hang on the wall.  I suck at reciprocating.  We also bake cakes for each other on our birthdays.  And it is true that we could do these things at any point during the year, but it really does take one of these standard gift deadlines to, for example, clean out the shower grout.

I would be perfectly fine stopping gift exchanging with DH’s family, though I would have to come up with some other way of delaying purchases given that they have pretty well learned just to buy things off my Amazon list (though DH’s brother always ends up getting me duplicates because he doesn’t buy them directly off my wishlist, and my SIL is especially good at picking things off my list that say “lowest” priority or, the one time nothing is labeled “lowest,” giving me a generic item that isn’t on the list and gets given directly to charity*).  I would also be fine stopping gift exchanging with my sister who refuses to use my amazon wishlist because it is too impersonal and then demands to know what I want instead.

#2 and I have exchanged gifts for many years.  There are three reasons for the gift exchange over the years.  1.  Back when we started we were both poor and I, at least, had a guilt thing about buying myself stuff I really wanted.  So near the end of the holiday season, we would both sweep in and buy books on each other’s wishlists that said “highest”– maxing at just enough to get free shipping.  2.  At other points one or the other of us will be making real money while the other is still in school/unemployed/on leave/etc.  In those cases, the rich one would sweep through the amazon list and the poor one would send thoughtfully curated used books (like Ex Libris or a biography of Dorothy L. Sayers).  3.  Imposing our preferences on the other person.  You will own this book because I say you will.  Mwahahaha.

I like giving gifts.  I like giving gifts that make people happy.  Mainly though, if I’m being honest, I like imposing my preferences on the people I love (or at least who I like).  Gift giving is a time that I can indulge in that whim in a socially appropriate way.  There’s also a small element of charity with some of our gift giving– holidays are a time that we can write a check to badly off family members and they can give us something nominal in exchange (like fudge).

Receiving gifts is a bit bittersweet.  I love getting stuff off my amazon list from #2 or from my family or DH’s parents.  I love getting thoughtful stuff from DH and the kids.  But… we’re doing a lot better off financially than DH’s siblings and I’d rather they kept their money, especially if we can’t give more than we receive in terms of dollar amount.  I just do not understand the large amount of gift-giving that their family does each year.

So I guess bottom-line here is that I don’t know.  Among people who know each other and can afford it, these special times work as a nice way to be nudged into thinking about doing some gift giving.  Some people prefer no gifts at all or prefer to give “whenever” gifts.  But “whenever” gifts can be uncomfortable if they’re extravagant because the reciprocity aspect can be confusing.  So who knows.  With adults, you do you and be gracious about others doing what they do.

#2 says, for me it’s really just fun to give and get gifts.  I have money to buy my own books, but it’s a nice treat when someone buys them for me.  I like finding a gift that fits the person I’m giving it to, something I think they’ll enjoy that they haven’t thought of.  I also find it sweet and wonderful when people donate to charity in my name, particularly charities I support such as kitty ones or child’s play.

Second:

Should we batch up children’s gifts for standard gift-giving holidays (birthdays etc.) or should we give them throughout the year when requested by the child?

This probably depends on the family, but I like batching up the gifts so they’re only given at Christmas, birthdays, and to a small extent Easter.  (Though my MIL does send small presents somewhat randomly throughout the year.)   In the same way that my amazon wishlist keeps me from spending throughout the year, the hope is that getting presents later at specified times will teach them patience and give them the ability to delay their wants when they are older as well.  Anything that they want sooner, they will need to use their allowances on, possibly saving up to buy.

I realize this is an empirical question and I have read precisely zero research on the topic, so who knows.

So there, that’s our second deliberately controversial post about gifts.

*Every year I fight the suspicion that my SIL doesn’t like me and convince myself that it’s just that we have really different tastes.  Every year it is a fight.

What do you think?  Should we get rid of adult gift giving entirely?  Should children get gifts throughout the year or only at specified times?

Secret Santas and White Elephant Games Aren’t Frugal: A deliberately controversial post

One of the common suggestions for how to get holiday expenditures down is to suggest a Secret Santa or White Elephant exchange at the office or family gathering.

For those who aren’t in the know, the Secret Santa is where you put everybody’s name in a hat, and then each person pulls out a name.  You are only shopping for one person.

The White Elephant is a gift exchange in which you bring in one gift, usually something humorous that nobody would want, wrapped in a package.  Then a game is generally played in which each person picks a package from the pile or exchanges a package with someone who has already picked a package.  (This is involves a lot of crying/screaming when it’s played at children’s parties.)

Jimmy Fallon mentions the problems with Secret Santa in this clip.  Even when there’s a spending limit, these never seem to work out well.  If you don’t know the person, you’re likely giving them something they don’t want.   Chances are pretty good that in any pairing, either someone who doesn’t know you will get you or you will get someone you don’t know.  So you’ll end up with junk you don’t want or you’ll give someone junk they don’t want.

The White Elephant is even worse– you have to buy something that is actually already junk and bring it in.  Sometimes the rules state you bring something from  home that you already own but don’t want, but if you own it and don’t want it, then why do you still have it?  On top of that, sometimes the junk is truly junk, and sometimes the junk is actually something nice.  More often though, some number of people bring actual gag gifts that get a laugh and then take up space, and some people bring things that are pretty nice, making others (who didn’t get the nice gift) feel jealous or (who followed the rules) uncomfortable.  In the end, most people end up buying crap nobody would want and taking home crap they don’t want.  It’s a very American sort of game.

I seriously dislike both these games and would rather not participate.  I don’t see the point in anonymous reciprocal gifts.  I don’t like being forced to give things to people who I don’t know very well who don’t need stuff.  I’d rather keep my money and buy my own junk (or not buy it, as the case may be).

What suggestions do we have?  We suggest that offices not have these kinds of games, and that if they do choose to have them that they be voluntary and neither explicitly nor socially mandatory.  As for families, we really think it’s better that if someone is worried about money that adults not exchange presents at all rather than having one of these silly exchanges.  But that’s just us.  We still exchange presents with everybody.  Maybe the joy some families get from having different senses of humor than we have outweighs the annoyance of crap being exchanged.  Maybe it’s worth it to some families.

But it still isn’t frugal.  At least, not as frugal as not participating would be.  Still, if this is the only option for not having a full gift exchange, it’s better than nothing.

What are your thoughts on these kinds of gift exchanges?  Do you participate?  Have you participated?  What’s your philosophy on anonymous gift exchanges?

On budget constraints, endogeity, and interconnectedness: A deliberately controversial post

I was reading another mommy blog off a blog roll and came across an article talking about another article.  The original article made the argument, Fly-lady like, that if your life is a mess, then your bathroom floor is a mess, and to make your life less of a mess, you need to clean your bathroom floor because this is all interconnected.  Sort of a broken windows hypothesis for your life.

How do you know your life is a mess, asks the article?  The proof is whether or not the area behind your child’s car seat is sparkly clean.  Ignoring for the moment that that test says that all but the most OCD or wealthy enough to afford servants have lives that are messes, there are several logical and mechanical reasons that making a causal link from cleaning your house to cleaning your life doesn’t make sense.

Let’s start with the mechanical arguments.  As Laura Vanderkam is fond of noting, there are 168 hours in a week.  Every hour you spend cleaning behind the car seat is an hour you don’t spend organizing your paid work, your meals, your finances, your exercise routine, or anything else that people find worth organizing that makes them happier.  I’m guessing that area behind the car seat that is just going to get messy again ranks pretty low on most people’s priority list.  (Unless, of course an apple core got wedged there, then clean away!  But the example in the article didn’t include potential for rot or bad smells.)

Adding to the time-based mechanical arguments is research on willpower.  If cleaning is unpleasant, it takes willpower to do.  We have limited reserves of willpower that are replenished with sleep, rest, and food.  Willpower used on cleaning behind the car seat is willpower not used at work.  Or it is willpower to be replenished with sugar leading to unhealthiness.

Finally, even if there is a correlation between having a clean bathroom and feeling together with the rest of your life, that doesn’t mean that the clean bathroom *causes* you to have (or to feel like you have) the rest of your life together. There could be endogeneity.

Endogeneity comes in two flavors.

The first is reverse causality.  Here, feeling together would be the cause of the clean bathroom, not vice versa.  Maybe you have free time from being organized and good at delegating so you can clean the bathroom.  Maybe you’re so awesome at work and confident in yourself that you can easily hire a housecleaner.

The second source of endogeneity is omitted variables bias.  That means there is something else that causes both your bathroom to be clean and you feeling like you have your life together.  An omitted variable could be something like, being Martha Stewart.  Or having a really low sleep need and high reserves of will-power.  If you only need a few hours of sleep per night you have more time to do everything and to have a clean bathroom.  Or maybe having a partner who is supportive and enjoys cleaning– that could lead to both clean bathroom and the rest of life working.  (Just like having a partner who acts like an additional toddler rather than a caring and sharing adult can lead to messy bathrooms and unhappiness in other areas.)

 

Do you think that if you want to be perfect at one thing, you have to be perfect at everything?

Should you battle feelings of inferiority by putting other people down?: A deliberately controversial post

Here’s our premise:

We don’t think people should feel inferior to other people.

Using feelings of inferiority to attack other people is not cool (even if they never know they’re being attacked).

There’s no point in negatively comparing yourself to other people because (with only a few arguable exceptions) someone will always be better on any dimension or set of dimensions.  Instead, focus on what you like, who you want to be, and how you can get there from here.

On personal finance sites, people will often say things like, “The Joneses may have that amazing house, but they probably have lots of credit card debt.  They probably have no retirement savings.”

But you know, some of the Joneses value housing or cars or what have you and although they are on track savings-wise, they’ve chosen to spend their money on the things you can see rather than other things you can’t.

And what’s really mind-breaking is that some of the Joneses got lucky and have high incomes.  Some of them made good choices when they were younger and are reaping the rewards of that now.  Some of them just have more money than you do.

And that’s ok.  (At some level we might want to argue about higher marginal tax rates and less corporate welfare, but for your average Neighborly Jones that’s probably not a first order concern.)

Yes, it might make you feel better to tell yourself that they have debt and you don’t.  Or they are stealing from their wealthy parents.  You can look down on them and lose all neighborly feeling.  And forget about learning anything from them.

And what happens if you find out that’s not true?  That they really are on track financially.  Do you go back to feeling inadequate and inferior?

The same kind of thing happens on mommy blogs.  The value-set is different than on pf blogs, of course.  Instead of houses and cars and retirement accounts, things like craftiness and cleanliness and “doing it all” (whatever that means) are the comparison sets.  But they say the same thing, well, this person with this pinterest page seems perfect, but there’s some area of her life that’s imperfect that she’s not showing me because she has to keep up her perfect persona.  (And the blogger saying this always posts the obligatory, “see my house gets messy so I’m not perfect” pic.  No offense to any blogger who has done this, but your house isn’t really messy.  Really messy is what you get when you don’t actually care if the house is clean.  And you shouldn’t have to pretend it is messy in order for people to like you.  You really shouldn’t.)

[Ah, you say, telling yourself that someone else has unadvertised weaknesses doesn’t hurt anyone… she’ll never know.  But the thing is, everyone else reading your comment gets the message that it’s not ok to succeed in all areas.  That we have to find and advertise weakness even where none exists in order to make people feel better.  It’s a way that patriarchy keeps strong women from achieving.  We’re always damned.]

We’ve posted on this topic before.   And I noted that I have work-friends who I admire who do everything I care about better than I do.  They’re amazing.  I could lie to myself and say their relationships aren’t as good or their kids aren’t as cute, but their relationships are good and their kids are cute (I do prefer mine of course, but that’s because I’m me and they’re my kids).  Heck, at least one of them is a great cook to boot.  For all I know they’re good at crafts too (who knows?  Not something we discuss at conferences.).  But I don’t have to lie to myself that they have hidden weaknesses.  Their amazingness about things I care about doesn’t diminish mine.  It just gives me something to shoot for (and means I have good taste in friends, and must not be completely obnoxious if they’re willing to hang out with me).

Finding our worth through comparisons of other people is never a winning proposition.  We are all amazing and growing in ways that are unaffected by other people’s accomplishments.  We all have our own preference sets that define what we care about.  We all have our own constraints that we’re working against.  We’re all different people with different starting points, different advantages, different preferences.  That’s a good thing!  There’s always going to be someone better at what we do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy and proud of what we’ve accomplished or enjoy what we like.  Focusing on our internal locus of control is a much better way to lose those feelings of inferiority than trying to tell negative lies to ourselves about external things we can’t control.

The patriarchy wants us to feel inferior. We don’t have to listen to it. The first step is knowing that it’s ok not to. We don’t have to be worse than other people in whatever way just so they’ll like us.

Or maybe we do have to pretend to be worse than some people in order for them to like us… but maybe those people aren’t worth being liked by. Because who needs friends who want to tear us down instead of build us up?

So no, we don’t think that people should use feeling inferior as a reason to claim other people have weaknesses. That’s really only a band-aid solution to feeling self-confident anyway. It’s much better to stop doing the comparison to begin with, because there’s always going to be someone “better” at whatever it is you’re comparing yourself on.

Ok, Grumplings!  Do your worst (or best… whichever!).