Being frugal is for everyone

Everyone smart, that is. I read an article claiming that being frugal is for the rich, and I wanted to use it to point out a common fallacy: that because there may be larger societal-level factors at play, it doesn’t matter what the individual does. This simply isn’t true. Sure, making coffee at home instead of buying Starbucks daily won’t make you a billionaire, but it also can’t hurt your finances!

In general, there’s too much of this type of argument. “Look there! A Big Societal Reason that explains the unfortunate situation you find yourself in. See? Not your fault. All you have to do is continue to call it out.” In other words, we are taking from people perhaps the last thing they have: their agency. Even worse: we’re taking any sense of control they have over their own life outcomes. Is it ever useful to have individuals with little power focus on the larger scheme of things that may take generations to fix? Especially to focus on those factors as an excuse to ignore very simple choices that they can make for themselves every day?

I find that there’s no contradiction in saying that the U.S. health care system is one of the most inefficient in the world and also that personal expenses should be cut where possible. The latter won’t fix the former, but I think everyone can agree that a financial setback hurts less when there’s a savings/investment cushion to fall back on. And such a cushion can be built, at least in part, by frugality. Put another way, the fact that you’re saving money by going to clothing swaps rather than J.Crew in no way detracts from whatever work you do towards getting single payer health care enacted. You can do both. What’s harmful is saying “there are problems much larger than my shopping habits” and using that as an excuse to do nothing to reign in unnecessary spending.

The author brings up financial savvy and either growing up with wealth, or having high income as factors which are “glossed over and not given the weight they deserve.” While I agree that it would be useless to take advice on financial independence from a wealthy heiress like Paris Hilton (who has a situation that few could hope to replicate in their own lives) the popularity of bloggers like the Frugalwoods or Millenial Money Man comes from their situations having the feel of replicability. Financial independence blogs generally share that critical piece that not everyone was raised with: information. They take the form of “I did this, and so can you. Here’s how.”

What is the complaint really? That the masses are being deceived into thinking that being frugal like Warren Buffett will make them billionaires like Warren Buffett? That really it isn’t frugality that leads to financial independence, but starting with a high-paying job and parents who taught you about finances? That mitigate, on an the individual level, the harms from the less than stellar economic prospects we’ve inherited from previous generations absolves them of the bad decisions that put us here? I don’t think any of these are true, but even if they were, I wouldn’t take any of them as an excuse to throw aside the useful tool of frugality in favor of complaining about what a sad financial situation we were born into. We can acknowledge a bad system without ignoring the things we can do to make our own lives better.

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Discontinued Amazon Dash buttons

Once upon a time, if you bought an Amazon dash button, you could get a $4.99 credit loaded to your account which could be used to purchase anything shipped from and sold by Amazon.com. Then, a few days before Christmas last year, that all ended.

Some folks had bought dozens, even hundreds of dash buttons and never got around to activating them to get the general $4.99 credit. Loophole closed, the credits now apply to only items you buy when pressing a dash button. What to do with all those?

Discontinued dash buttons

Until a few days ago, there was a list of all discontinued dash buttons. Now it appears to be a blank page, but maybe it’s being updated. Discontinued means that the dash button will no longer be associated with any products you can order. When setting up your dash button, you’ll know it’s discontinued if instead of products to choose from, you get the message “There are currently no products available. Please try again later.” If you never activated a dash button and it has been discontinued, you can contact Amazon support and request your $4.99 credit, saying that you were unable to get this credit upon first use of dash button because you are unable to associate the dash button with an item to purchase. Your credit will be granted as a courtesy credit which is good for anything shipped and sold by Amazon. This is even better than before because it isn’t added to your orders $4.99 at a time like dash button credits originally were. So you can use all of your credits on one order if you want!

Use the credits

For the buttons you have left over that still work for ordering products, you can get the credit and then use them on any item ordered via physical dash button. Meaning, if you have a Nerf dash button, you can add that credit to your account and then use it to buy Goldfish crackers if you want to. Here is a list of all items you can order via physical dash button, sorted by price. Ordering by dash button means you can also get around the add-on shipping minimum. So if you have 50 dash button credits you still need to use, you can get 50 boxes of chocolate chip cookie dough Lärabar (if you have the Lärabar dash button).

Good luck. Hope you didn’t procrastinate like me.

Am I a typical MoviePass user?

I know that the analysts are all down on MoviePass, saying it’ll die by the end of summer. I know the stock of its parent company HMNY has tanked and investors are having trouble finding enough shares to short. But I love MoviePass, and I wonder how many other users are like me.

Before MoviePass, I would see maybe 1 movie a year in theaters. A blockbuster like the latest Bond film. I never ever bought concessions because the ticket price was already over $10. I only watched big-budget films with action scenes that would make it “worth it” to watch in a theater.

Now, I see movies 3-4 times a week. I buy popcorn about half the time because the ticket was “free.” And I’ll watch anything, even indie films I’m not sure I’ll like.

AMC has “no intention” of sharing profits with MoviePass. If all large theater chains decide the same, the analysts will probably be right about MoviePass dying soon. But AMC would be making a mistake. Even if they give up 20% of ticket sales and concessions to MoviePass, they’re still making 80% on my activities. Let’s make a conservative estimate that I go to AMC theaters twice a week and buy a large popcorn every other time with MoviePass. Then over the course of a year, they’re making about $1600 (80% of $2000) from my activities. Versus my previous habits, where they’d be making about $15 a year (100% of $15). That’s more than 2 orders of magnitude.

If MoviePass goes bankrupt, it will have been a good run. But theater chains shouldn’t fantasize that customers like me will continue going to movies several times a week and buying the same amount of concessions without MoviePass. It won’t happen. I’ll go back to my old habits without MoviePass because movie ticket prices are a poor value proposition for me.

I can’t be all that rare. MoviePass only had about 20,000 subscribers before its price drop from $30/month to $9.95/month. Now it’s on track to get over 3 million by August. How many new users are like me? If there are enough of us, maybe we can make the case to AMC and other chains that they want to work with MoviePass before it’s too late!

“How can I help” is a stupid question

This post was inspired by the comic “You should have asked” which addresses division of labor in the household. The problem isn’t unwillingness to help: it’s not even noticing that things need to be done.

Now, saying “what can I do?” is is absolutely acceptable in the workplace when you’ve finished all your assignments. Or, it should be, because the person you pose that question to is your boss. And your boss gets paid more than you do to think about what you should be doing and when. Asking this of a spouse or significant other implies it’s their job to know all the household tasks and their priorities. Do they get paid more than you for housework? No. No one except the outside help gets paid for that. So it’s equally your responsibility to not only do the work, but to figure out what needs to be done, and when. Funny thing is, it seems that often, people who are blind to basic household details like “the compost needs to be taken out” are actually quite good about being proactive at work.

Anecdote time! I knew a guy who constantly checked his phone for alerts from work. He even did this when out at dinner with his girlfriend. His girlfriend asked him whether he would be constantly checking his phone for texts from her if he were out to dinner with his boss or CEO. He said “no.” She told him “Then don’t do that when you’re out with me.” His response? “Do you pay me?”

Maybe that’s the solution to this problem of “emotional labor” that often falls more on the woman’s shoulders. It seems that men are usually good about being proactive at work. Because they spend time thinking about what needs to be done. They spend time figuring out what is important to keep track of. They notice changes and they know what should be done in response to those changes. They should treat their home life as a job. No, not because their wives or girlfriends pay them, but because it is as much their responsibility as anyone else’s to clean the toilet or pack sunblock and swimsuits for a beach day.

Here’s an example: menu planning. It may seem that the spouse who says “I’m cool with whatever, I won’t complain about whatever you make, I’ll eat anything” is already great. However, think about the person who says that in a planning meeting at work. “I don’t care what I work on. I have no ideas. I’ll do whatever.” Is that acceptable? As I said, it should be more acceptable at work because there is someone at a higher pay grade whose job it is to think about tasks and delegation. But at home, that’s not the case. Most of those who shrug off this responsibility at home would say that you can’t go into a work meeting and give a response like that because it shows you don’t care about your job and you’re slacking. Or worse — that you are a weak team member who doesn’t even understand what your job entails.

The fundamental issue at play is that many men still do not consider their home life as being as critical or important as their work life. So they ignore it and dedicate very little time to thinking about what needs to be done to keep the home running smoothly. This may be fine, if the division of labor is agreed to and accepted by both parties. But if there’s tension or stress at home, a good starting point can be to think of domestic duties as a second job that’s just as important.

Tale of two rides

SF Muni

Yesterday I took the bus downtown. At first, there weren’t many other passengers. A teenaged white girl sat with her feet on the seat next to her, facing the back of the bus where I was sitting and had a phone conversation that I could hear every word of. A family of French tourists boarded. They also didn’t stop chatting.

Then a young black man got on with a grey pit bull: an muscular, overgrown puppy who he could barely control. This dog hadn’t been fixed, and was trying to mount the laps of other passengers or root around under their legs. To get the dog under control, the man yanked the leash and raised his hand suddenly, making a warning sound. The dog flinched and behaved for a few minutes. Then started trying to mount passengers again. The man whipped the dog with his leash to get control. This replayed throughout the ride. The man also started talking on his phone, recounting his adventures in shoplifting. He was annoyed that a sales clerk at a clothing store kept checking on him and asking him how things fit when all he wanted was to be left in peace so he could pop the security tags off the clothes. He also said “I got a watch and an iPhone 8 from the Apple store yesterday. It was so easy, like, someone just left them lying around. I’m about to go back to there.” Ironically, he also said he finally got called back to interview for a security guard job at Stonestown. While talking on the phone, he played tug-of-war with the dog and its leash. When the dog got overly enthusiastic and pulled to hard, the man would hit the dog on his nose. The French family looked on in horror. To exit the bus, I had to step over the dog and avoid its curious nose.

Total duration: ~1hr

Uber ride

N and I walked 1 block and waited a few minutes for our Uber Express pool. Inside, there was already another passenger, but he had considerately taken the front seat. He and the driver were debating the Trump tax cuts, and the driver was insisting he just heard that middle class married couples would be paying thousands more. The man in the front said “I doubt that, I’ll look it up.” He and I ended up reading the same Fox news article saying the New York Times had to print an embarrassing retraction on their tax cut analysis. We laughed about that. He told us he was on his lunch break that day when a homeless man shouted “Faggot!” at him. His response? “10 points for accuracy!” We also laughed about this. Our ride was done in no time. The driver declared “5 stars for you!” as we got out.

Total duration ~ 25 minutes

For 2 riders, the two rides cost about the same. The latter took half the time and is much less likely to force me to be in close proximity with the sort of person who considers shoplifting to be his god-given right (or at least something that makes him feel proud enough to brag about). Not to mention the animal abuse. I actually don’t mind the extra time or walking that public transit takes. What makes Uber worthwhile for me is the people I can exclude from my commute. If SF Muni wants to be competitive, they can rescind the all door boarding policy and make sure everyone pays. After all, Mr. Animal Abuser/iPhone Thief probably wouldn’t bother with the bus if he weren’t stealing service.

Disability as a status symbol

Moving towards a model where the only people who can afford to have profoundly disabled children are the ultra-rich would benefit society in general. This post was inspired by the Twitter dramatics involving Sophia Weaver and her mother. Though not the most eloquent, the Twitter troll did have an interesting point: that it would benefit society to force parents to pay out-of-pocket for any medical resulting from refusing to abort a fetus known to have medical problems. Here are some advantages of such a policy:

Decreased burden on the health care system

According to the article, the Sophia Weaver has had 22 surgeries, a feeding tube, colostomy bag, seizures and choking spells and will never be able to speak or live a normal life. She requires 24/7 nursing care. The argument goes that the life of someone with a disability is not worth less than the life of someone without. But is their life worth 10x more? 100x more? Then why should the health care system spend 100x+ more on them?

More respect for the disabled

If the only people who can afford disabled children are the ultra-rich, then people born with disabilities will become increasingly rare. And because their parents will be, say, the Kardashians, they’ll also become prized status symbols. Being a status symbol might get disabled people more respect. Knowing that all their medical expenses are being paid for by their family, and not by the government will also help.

Better quality of life for more families

People may feel guilty if they decide to abort a less than perfect fetus. But if it were clear all medical expenses would be paid out of pocket, they wouldn’t have to feel badly about it: policy is forcing them to do so. The quality of life for the family would be much better without the disabled child: less worry, less stress, more disposable income and freedom.

Discourages selfishness

I would not want my worst enemy to live the life Sophia Weaver has been forced into. While I’m sure her family is doing everything they can for her, the initial choice to make her live like this was cruel. Her parents didn’t want to give up their child, so a lifetime of feeding tubes, seizures, colostomy bags, choking spells and an inability to ever develop language is what she has to look forward to. It should not be possible for anyone to choose such a life for another person.

Unwilling taxpayers don’t have to be complicit

Federal money can’t be spent on abortions because some taxpayers have religious beliefs against abortion. Similarly, those taxpayers who have moral or philosophical objections to forcing a disabled child to live will not have to be complicit if medical expenses have to be paid out of pocket. Those who support the decisions of parents like the Weavers can start their own insurance fund, and any form of public insurance can exclude abnormalities detected in-utero as “pre-existing”.

Tangentially related note: the tweet that Natalie Weaver had removed is a perfect example of how “hate speech” is often nothing more than speech we disagree with — it read

“It is okay to think that every child matters however a lot of them do not. Hence the amnio test…should be a mandatory test and if it proves negative and the woman does not want to abort then all bills accrued after that is on her and the father.”

It’s an opinion about policy. It doesn’t come close to Twitter’s definition of hate speech, which involves promoting violence or making direct attacks or threats.

Why I don’t read sci fi*

I know, what a snob. It seems strange that I don’t, given that science fiction is probably one of the favorite genres of those in my social group. But I have reasons!

Bad writing. People are quick to make fun of the writing abilities of authors of romance novels like 50 Shades of Gray and Twilight and bodice-rippers. But somehow the same formulaic overuse of adverbs and descriptions of things no one cares about is fine in sci-fi.

Unnecessary terminology. I get it. It’s often set on a different planet, in a different universe, where people look different, etc. But it doesn’t matter. The distracting new terminology is never necessary. Remember Dune? I tried to read that book, and the author made up so many new terms for mundane things that there was a glossary. I wish I were joking. No, somehow it was necessary to call a poisoned needle on a thimble a “gom jabbar”.

Endless descriptions. Again, people make fun of Jane Austen novels for going on and on about curtains or clouds. In sci-fi books, the author should describe the scenes to an illustrator and or leave them mostly to the imagination. Long descriptions + bad writing make it hard for this reader to continue.

Lack of compelling characters. The characters are not written in such a way that we can imagine them well or start to care about their struggles. It’s as if after all the effort spent on making up new terms and describing a different world, the author doesn’t have the energy to describe the main characters or give the reader an idea about their motivations or personalities.

Lack of generality. One oft-cited feature of good literature is that there is a timeless portrait of the human condition. It gives us a way to understand ourselves or others better, or see society more clearly or through a different lens. In contrast, science fiction is more of a “what if”. Because it’s speculation on a “what if” situation by a single author, it doesn’t usually give insight beyond what that one person thinks will happen in the event the setting is real. Which makes it less like literature and more like a conspiracy theory.

In the end, reading sci-fi feels to me like a slog through a technical paper written by a crackpot. Maybe amusing for a page or two, but depressing and unreadable after that.

* Asimov is an exception. His work (I, Robot at least) reads more like moral philosophy edge cases illustrated in allegory and he didn’t do anything too frilly with descriptions and terminology.