Friday, January 30, 2009

Worshiping at the shrines of commercialism

It was Sunday again and the worshipers were filling the malls in their weekly devotions at the New Age Church of Commercial Enterprise. The crowds begin showing up before the doors even open to avoid sitting on the back seats. The music plays incessantly, repeating the words of veneration emanating from the Cathedrals of Consumption (Kowinski, William Severini. The Malling of America: Travels in the United States of Shopping. [United States]: Xlibris Corp, 2002).

Shopping has become the major cultural activity in our "united states of shopping" and many people have substituted a trip to the mall for sabbath worship. Although the actual day of observance is sometimes disputed, there is little dispute among Christians as to the existence of a sabbath day. See Exodus 31: 16-17 16 Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual acovenant. 17 It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in asix days the Lord bmade heaven and earth, and on the cseventh day he drested, and was erefreshed. See also Mosiah 18: 23 And he commanded them that they should observe the asabbath day, and keep it holy, and also every day they should give thanks to the Lord their God.

In an article entitled "The Sabbath--Holy Day or Holiday" Elder Charles Didier of the Presidency of the Seventy asked the questions "Now is the time to ask ourselves: Is the Sabbath a holy day or a holiday? Shall I worship the Lord or worship pleasures and recreation?"

We may ask ourselves the same questions.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The time to prepare for a layoff is before it happens

This week the news has been filled with gloomy predictions regarding employment. Major companies announced the lay off or laid off over 40,000 additional employees. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 7.2 percent in December of 2008.

The time to prepare for a layoff is long before it happens. One of my friends confided in me that they will lose their home in a couple of months due to a layoff. But if you have no contingency plan in place, this could be a natural consequence. It is difficult in these times not to take an "I told you so" attitude but my heart goes out to those suffering, even if it is from their own choices. I feel so bad for those who are out of work and for their families.

President Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lifted a warning voice back in 1998. You can watch and listen as a prophet of God gives advice on the coming hard times, more than ten years ago.

President Hinckley said, speaking of his counselor, James Faust;

President Faust would not tell you this himself. Perhaps I can tell it, and he can take it out on me afterward. He had a mortgage on his home drawing 4 percent interest. Many people would have told him he was foolish to pay off that mortgage when it carried so low a rate of interest. But the first opportunity he had to acquire some means, he and his wife determined they would pay off their mortgage. He has been free of debt since that day. That’s why he wears a smile on his face, and that’s why he whistles while he works.

I urge you, brethren, to look to the condition of your finances. I urge you to be modest in your expenditures; discipline yourselves in your purchases to avoid debt to the extent possible. Pay off debt as quickly as you can, and free yourselves from bondage.

If you had given heed to President Hinckley's warning more than ten years would have passed and possibly, you would have freed yourself from the bondage of a mortgage. Possibly, you would not have ridden the waves of speculation in the housing bubble and you would have taken the time to pay off your mortgage and become debt free. There is certainly a lesson here.

I hope that if you were not one of the prudent ones who paid off your mortgage that you will take heed in the future. You will not continue to bind yourself through costly interest. As you seek work, seek also to follow the counsel of a living prophet. Get out of debt!

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Compulsive Shopper

Even in the best of economic times, a compulsive shopper can court financial disaster. In a crashing economy, compulsive shopping is even more destructive. In families and particularly between husband and wife, money management or the lack thereof, is one of the major areas for disagreement and disharmony. From a Los Angeles Times article, "A study published in the October 2006 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry found that at some point in the lives of an estimated 5.8% of the U.S. population, shopping will become a source of shame, a cry for help, the cause of job losses and broken relationships, a road to financial ruin. They are “compulsive buyers” – troubled by intrusive impulses to shop, prone to lose track of time while doing so, plagued by post-purchase remorse, guilt and financial woes and sometimes given up on by loved ones."

The article quoted by the Times is called Estimated Prevalence of Compulsive Buying Behavior in the United States, published in Am J Psychiatry 2006 163: 1806-1812. The article notes that for "some adults, shopping is also a leisure activity (1), a means of managing emotions (2), or a way to establish and express self-identity (3). For others, the inability to control buying urges brings significant adverse consequences (4, 5). Uncontrolled problematic buying behavior has been referred to as uncontrolled buying (4), compulsive buying (6), compulsive shopping (7), addictive buying (8), excessive buying (9), and "spendaholism" (10)." [numbers are to references in the article].

The article notes that "[t]he adverse consequences include guilt or remorse, excessive debt, bankruptcy, family conflict, divorce, illegal activities, such as writing bad checks and embezzlement, and even suicide attempts." In my personal experience, I have seen nearly all of these consequences.

I think there is an appropriate quote from Blaise Pascal (1623-1662):

Qu’est-ce donc que nous crie cette avidité et cette impuissance, sinon qu’il y a eu autrefois en l’homme un véritable bonheur dont il ne lui reste maintenant que la marque et la trace toute vide, qu’il essaye inutilement de remplir de tout ce qui l’environne, en cherchant dans les choses absentes le secours qu’il n’obtient pas des présentes, et que les unes et les autres sont incapables de lui donner, parce que ce gouffre infini ne peut être rempli que par un objet infini et immuable, c'est-à-dire que par Dieu même.
(Project Gutenburg)

Translation: What does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object, in other words by God himself.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Diderot Effect

The Diderot Effect was first described by Denis Diderot (1713-1784) in an essay entitled Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown [Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre]. Wikipedia explains the Diderot Effect as follows:
The Diderot Effect is the result of the interaction between objects within "product complements", or "Diderot unities", and consumers. A Diderot unity is a group of objects that are considered to be culturally complementary in relation to one another. For example, items of clothing, furniture, vehicles, etc. McCracken describes that a consumer is less likely to veer from a preferred Diderot unity in order to strive towards unity in appearance and representation of one's social role. However, it can also mean that if an object that is somehow deviant from the preferred Diderot unity is acquired, it may have the effect of causing the consumer to start subscribing to a completely different Diderot unity.
In simpler terms, the Diderot Effect describes the propensity people have to either complete a set of something or to make things match. Carried to an extreme, like some people I have known, purchase of new curtains ends up with the purchase of a new house, i.e. you need new furniture to go with the curtains, new carpeting to go with the furniture, new paint to go with the new carpets, then on to a new house for the new furniture and so forth.

This compulsion can only be overcome by recognizing the effect before the second purchase. You do not need new dinnerware because you bought a new set of glasses. Unfortunately, almost every ad you see tries to tell you otherwise. HomeDepot's success in "home improvement" depends, to a large measure, on people upgrading everything all the time. This effect is particularly pervasive in the area of fashion. You buy a new shirt and need matching tie and pants, or a new skirt and need matching blouse and purse.

Part of the effect also concerns the desire to have items that will fulfill a supposed need, i.e. if I just get a little bit faster computer, I will be able to do my work that much faster and better. Although some of these desires may be valid, to avoid a never ending spiral of purchases, you have to evaluate each purchase in terms of real value added and whether or not you will really use the newer or replacement item. If you haven't used that camera for a year, will purchasing a new one really change your pattern of use?

Being prepared includes the idea that you can actually cope with modern life and prosper, not just survive. Prosperity comes through making right choices consistently. Buying something new is not bad, by itself, but it can be, if you fail to understand that prosperity does not mean having new everything.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Deciding between needs and wants

How we chose to spend our time and resources decidedly influences our spiritual and material well being. An important factor in that choice is our ability to distinguish between needs and wants, between those items of our material culture that improve our life and those that have a negative impact on our spirit. As Evita sings:

And as for fortune and as for fame
I never invited them in
Though it seemed to the world
They were all I desired
They are illusions
They're not the solutions
They promise to be
The answer was here all the time

The choices we make concerning our possessions will affect our spirit. As it says in Moses 3:5; "For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.... And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them"

If we can recognize the spiritual nature of the physical world, we may be able to begin to separate those physical things that we need, food, clothes and shelter from those that we only want and can live without. There is a danger that this consideration alone, in its extreme, can lead to asceticism and withdrawal from society. But, contrary to this form of extreme denial, we can achieve a higher potential by focusing on a balance between the material and spiritual. Much of the fear we experience comes from our concern about our material well being, when our concern should be directed more to the well being of our spirit. We should consider whether acquiring another physical item will in itself add to our spiritual well being or decrease our ability to appreciate what is really important to our lives.

It is basic human nature to trust in the security of objects, however, security never comes from the acquisition of more objects, no matter how many things we have around us it is never enough to make us secure. We always believe that one more (fill in the blank) will make us truly happy. When true happiness comes as a condition of the soul, the result of righteous living in accordance with eternal principles. True happiness is a conscious decision. The security we all seek, to overcome the fear of loss comes only from this willingness to do the will of God even in difficult circumstances.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The cost of status consumption

Branded selling is so pervasive in our society there is virtually no refuge from viewing advertisements aimed at convincing us that we must purchase a certain named product. Even the lunch trays in airplanes are now covered with ads. It is amazing that years after purchasing a car, the owners are still driving around with a decal and or a license plate holder advertising the dealer where the car was purchased, many of whom have long gone out of business. Even the receipts you get at the store now carry a heavy dose of advertising and special sales promotions.

Our susceptibility to brand advertising is linked to our propensity to make status purchases. We may be able to find exactly the same quality or even the same goods at Walmart or other discount outlets, but we still pay more for the same product. The generic oat cereal may be exactly the same as Cheerios, but we buy the brand. I have known people who would literally rather die than eat cracked wheat. Not because they didn't like the flavor etc. but because they associated eating cracked wheat with poverty. The same people would pay five times more for cosmetics or clothes, simply because they came from a prestigious department store rather than from an outlet.

It is absolutely undeniable that consumers will purchase brand-oriented products and pay a large percentage of the price for advertising when the higher priced products are only symbolically different but not functionally different from lower-priced products. For a good discussion of this phenomenon see Schor, Juliet. The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1998.

If you doubt this conclusion, go into any mall and sit and watch the people who pass by and see how many logos and trademarks you can count on shoes, shirts and pants.

Why is this an issue? Do our children really need babygear from Fisher Price? Will our child's development be stunted because we don't buy him a GeoAir or her a Snuggle-Kins baby swing? will our lives be of any less value if we drive a Hyundai rather than a BMW? Thinking about how and why we make purchases is one large step to financial independence. It is also part of living in the world and not being of the world. If we purchase a toy for our child or grandchild and find it in pieces scattered around the house, doesn't that tell us something about the real value of the product? Think of all the great men of history who grew up without Legos?

Let's think about our needs and not our wants.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Buying into status

One of the biggest challenges to our overcoming materialism and our dependency on our possessions, is the problem of our purchase of status goods, items we purchase to demonstrate our social position to the world around us. Each culture and age had or has its status goods, whether they be a string of beads or $250,000 Porsche. We are so immersed in this code of status that we are hardly aware, most of the time, that our purchase decisions are governed not by quality or price, but by how our neighbors will view us.

In extreme cases, our dependency on material goods can affect our relationships with our family and friends and can even destroy our happiness and enjoyment of life. The huge overhanging credit card debt in the U.S. is only one symptom of this dependency.

This fixation on status extends to every level of our material cultural lives; from our cars and boats to our living room furniture, from our shirts and pants to the kind of watches and jewelry we wear. We also establish our status by the types of activities we participate in. How many of you know someone who "just returned from a trip to ... [name the location]. To the extent that we allow status and cultural "norms" to determine what and who we are and what we buy, we are slaves to materialism.

It is sadly true that our social class can be accurately inferred from the inventory of products we own. This was early recognized by studies by Francis Stuart Chapin a t the University of Minnesota beginning in the 1920s. See also Schor, Juliet, Sut Jhally, and Loretta Alper. The overspent American why we want what we don't need. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2003 at page 35.

In order to break out of this pervasive system, we must first recognize our dependency on our material goods. We can only begin to make purchasing decisions based on our needs, if we recognize the difference between our needs and our wants and further, recognize the role material goods play in the perception we have of ourselves and our status in society. If we do not realize our addiction to status producing material goods, perhaps we need to go through the classic 12 Step program for addicts:
  1. We admitted we were powerless over our material purchases—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His Will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
This program was designed for alcoholics but it will work for those who cannot control their purchases also. We all know someone whose buying habits we consider to be out of control, but how many of us recognize those tendencies in ourselves. If we would be prepared for tomorrow's coming hard times, we need to overcome our bad spending habits today.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Inch by inch, row by row

I'm gonna make this garden grow... It is amazing how a connection to the soil and growing things is fundamental to our well being. It is also important to our survival as individuals, as a society and even our survival as a race on this earth. It is also amazing how far away from the soil our society has drifted in its never ending pursuit of prepackaged, preprocessed, almost pre-digested food. I was standing the line at my neighborhood supermarket some time ago, I was supposed to get some vegetables for dinner. I believe I had a couple of artichokes, when a younger girl, probably in her twenties, asked what they were. I guess I stared at her for a second to see if she was serious and explained that they were artichokes. She wanted to know if we ate them or what. Now, giving her the benefit of the doubt, I do have to admit that some people probably do not eat artichokes regularly. But, because of the question, I got into a discussion with the attendant, and she indicated that this was a regular experience. Younger people did not recognize vegetables.

This experience has actually happened to me twice. I have also read about people having similar experiences. We have almost always had a garden, unless we were renting or living abroad, and over the years, I have found that most people cannot identify the plants growing in the garden. They do not recognize squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, or nearly any other plant. If you show most teenagers a vegetable, not only will they not recognize what it is, they will find it impossible to tell you whether it grows on a vine, a bush or a tree. Living in a warm climate, like we do, we have citrus trees. Many people who visit us have never seen a grapefruit or orange growing on a tree.

I see this as a problem. If we lose the ability to grow food, who will grow our gardens? When you visit the vegetable section of the supermarket, you will find little stickers on all the products, usually telling you that the produce was grown in Mexico, Chile, the Philippines or somewhere else. I recognize that there are adults who grew up hating to eat their vegetables. As for me, I love so many kinds of vegetables that I can't imagine that attitude. You cannot match the quality and taste of garden fresh vegetables with any factory farm produced Styrofoam imitations. Also, growing your own food, you become aware of what goes into it and you don't have eat ten or fifty different kinds of pesticides.

I am not always successful in growing any specific kind of plant. Recently, we discovered a strange plant growing in our garden. I wasn't sure what it was, since I hadn't seen that type before. I was pretty sure it wasn't a weed. When it started to flower, we realized that it was an okra plant. Now, we didn't particularly like okra. But because we had this huge plant, we learned how to prepare and cook it. We had a wonderful gumbo that we really liked. I can assure you that we would never have purchased okra in a store, but the growing experience helped remind us of a whole new aspect to gardening. Learning again to use and prepare new foods from scratch.

Part of the security of overcoming a dependency on our material society is learning the self sufficiency of growing your own plants and food, even in small quantities. I have found that even a small window box garden can produce delightful food and add to your understanding of the natural and real world around us. By the way, take time to educate your children as to where and how we get our food. Grow a garden, get in touch with life in our real world and become more prepared to face the challenges of the future.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

There is still no free lunch

The phrase referring to no free lunch has become such a staple saying in our society that the whole phrase "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch," has become an acronym: TANSTAAFL (said tan-staffel). The phrase itself comes from Robert Heinlein's classic science fiction book, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The development of the concept of the lack of a "free lunch" has been attributed to the work of economist Milton Friedman. In the context of being prepared for hard times it is important to remember this principle, everything has an economic value. Just because we do not get paid (in cash or equivalents) for what we do, everything connected with our lives has a value or cost to the society.

If I chose to live on the street as a homeless person, with no belongings other than the clothes I was wearing, my life and existence would still impact the rest of society. Just one example, there are a multitude of public and private organizations and agencies that primarily monitor and assist the homeless. By being homeless, I create a need and a motivation for these organizations to exist

How I chose to spend my time and my resources will always have an economic impact on me, on my family and ultimately on everyone else in the world. There is no such thing as "free time." If I chose to watch television instead of working or if I chose to work instead of spending time with my family, in every decision there is always a cost associated with that decision. When I choose to spend my money on present gratification, rather than on food storage or some other method of being prepared, that choice will ultimately impact society as whole, especially, if I cannot support myself and my family and become a burden on the church or government's welfare system.

You may not be able to chose whether you are rich or poor, but you can chose how you allocate your resources. For example, the savings rate in China has been quoted as being as high as 50% in both the public and private sectors. Although some sources quote a much lower rate but in the U.S. the rate is less than 10%. There are likely many reasons for this difference, some cultural and others social, but it is undisputed that the higher standard of living in the U.S. does not result in a higher savings rate. It is also undeniable that by any standard in the U.S., the average Chinese standard of living would be considered very low.

Being prepared to face the challenges in the future implies a realistic knowledge of the cost of the various components of our economic life. Not only should we be aware of the cost of our food, shelter and transportation, we should also be aware of the cost of our decisions to spend our time in different ways. If we do make a decision to play a video game or watch a movie, we should do so knowing that the choice has an economic impact because there is no free lunch.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fuel economy -- is it a real concern?

Even though the price of gasoline has moderated in the past few weeks, price increases are inevitable. One of the important factors in preparedness is evaluating the cost of our transportation needs. Gasoline price increases draw a lot of attention to fuel costs as a component of the overall cost of owning and operating a vehicle. If you are in the category of those buying expensive luxury cars, then you probably don't spend much time worrying about the gas costs. On the other hand, most of us are concerned about the extra expense of $4.00 plus per gallon gasoline.

Although most of the current car ads emphasize fuel economy, there is a real question about the relative importance of this particular component of the cost of operation. For example, if you are purchasing a $20,000 car on a contract at 6% interest, your interest cost alone, without compounding or any extra charges, would be around $1200 a year. Fuel costs would vary with the fuel economy of the car and the miles driven.

Focusing on the fuel costs, the Environmental Protection Agency has fuel economy guides for the present car years and for many past years. Even a brief review of the reports, shows that fuel economy varies dramatically. For example, minicompact cars vary from 13 mpg to 32 mpg. Assuming gas at $2.50 a gallon and an average of 15,000 miles driven per year, the cost of gasoline alone can vary between approximately $2,900 a year at the low end, to $1,200 a year at the high end. The largest range in efficiency is found in midsize cars which vary between 11 mpg on the low end, to 46 mpg on the high end. You can immediately see that any cost savings from buying a higher mpg car can be negated by the cost of borrowing money to purchase the car in the first place.

So what does it cost to own a car? The actual cost includes depreciation, interest on your loan, taxes and fees, insurance premiums, fuel costs, maintenance and repairs. has a True Cost to Own calculator. For example, a standard 4 dr hatchback, 2009 Toyota Prius costs $39,236 with an average cost per mile of $0.52. This cost compares very favorably with Nissans and Hondas in the same category. By comparison a 2009 Corvette Z06 costs $101,164 and the average cost per mile is $1.35. A car like the Corvette depreciates over $9,766 in the first year alone. Even by the fifth year, the car is still depreciating over $5,700 per year. Even the Prius depreciates from $4,246 in the first year, to about $1,655 in the fifth year.

Even with gas at $4.00 a gallon, for an average of 15,000 miles per year, even if you drive a Prius (or practically any other car) the depreciation cost exceeds the cost of fuel and that staple of the Arizona family, the 2009 Chevrolet Suburban, costs, depending on the model, over $1.00 per mile to drive and loses $19,244 in depreciation IN THE FIRST YEAR alone.

Since such a large part of a family's expenses go to transportation, part of being prepared in order to survive, includes knowing the true cost of your choice of vehicles. Fuel economy is only one of the very expensive factors to consider in purchasing a car.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

You are not prepared if...

With the euphoria of a new presidential administration, you could almost believe that the end of the hard economic times will come as soon as the U.S. government starts spending the trillions of dollars it doesn't have. A look the current economic reports still gives pause for concern. November figures (the latest to be released) show a steady increase in unemployment and layoffs. The Consumer Price Index fell again in November by 1.7 percent.

The question still remains, are you prepared for the hard times? A Google search on the phrase "prepare for hard times" showed over a million responses. The Web sites tout everything from preparing for a coming nuclear attack, unlocking your brain's potential and secret Masonic rituals as the answer to preparation. Not having anything to sell at the moment, except some junk in the garage, I think the answer is really quite simple.

President Gordon B. Hinckley said:

We can so live that we can call upon the Lord for His protection and guidance. This is a first priority. We cannot expect His help if we are unwilling to keep His commandments. We in this Church have evidence enough of the penalties of disobedience in the examples of both the Jaredite and the Nephite nations. Each went from glory to utter destruction because of wickedness.

We know, of course, that the rain falls on the just as well as the unjust (see Matthew 5:45). But even though the just die they are not lost, but are saved through the Atonement of the Redeemer. Paul wrote to the Romans, "For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord" (Romans 14:8)...

We can set aside some water, basic food, medicine, and clothing to keep us warm. We ought to have a little money laid aside in case of a rainy day.

If we fail to head this counsel, we are not prepared.

We are not prepared if we are still in debt other than for a home and perhaps one car.

We are not prepared if we are still buying things we do not need.

We are not prepared if we do not save.

We are not prepared if we do not have a basic supply of food, medicine and clothing.

We are not prepared if we are not studying and learning.

The list can go on and on. Heed the counsel given by the Lord and be prepared.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The lure of materialism

Recently, I had two experiences that caused me to ponder the relationship between the way we spend our money and our perception of ourselves and our status in the community. Both experiences involved attorneys who were much younger than I was. In each case, each of them had recently gotten a job with a perceived higher salary and prestige. Notably, in each case, the attorney had purchased new Mercedes automobiles. The first time that this happened I dismissed the purchase as that attorney's problem and not mine. The second time this happened, with another attorney friend, I began to be very concerned.

In both cases, the attorneys were already driving very nice cars. These purchases were apparently not made out of necessity to replace an existing clunker. I attribute the purchases, rightly or wrongly, to status and nothing else. This type of spending is a symptom of the new consumerism and has been called conspicuous consumption. It is the antithesis of being prepared to face the vicissitudes of the current financial crisis and is essentially putting our trust in the arm of flesh. See Proverbs 11:28 and D&C 1:19

I am not concerned about purchasing Mercedes automobiles, as such, or any other particular brand, but in each of these cases the decisions appeared to be made based on status. This phenomenon has been studied extensively by Professor Juliet B. Schor. Her book The Overspent American was a bestseller a few years ago.

Not only is the problem what we buy and why we buy it, but the problem is buying anything at all solely for the purpose of appearances. One way to address this problem is through a strict budget, making decisions in advance as to how or why we are going to make purchases and setting realistic limits. I ran across a touching example of this in Burning Bushes and Blackberries. You should also read the comments.

I remember hearing about a neighborhood, just north of mine, where the young children who showed up at the bus stop wearing the "wrong" kind of clothes were unmercifully persecuted. Recently, in a library, I watched a four or five year old child throw a tantrum because his mother wouldn't let him borrow an R rated video he apparently knew all about.

We buy food and consume it until we are overweight. We buy beyond our means and live lives of desperation trying to make ends meet. A negative reaction to this type of purchasing is not limited to a few crazies living out in the desert. There are organized groups trying to help people get control of their lives and finances. One of these groups is called The Compact.

When we are coming out of a buying season with visions of people being killed by anxious buyers looking for bargains, I think it is time to really reflect on how we view purchasing and possession.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Teach yourself to fish -- acquiring survival skills for a modern world

There is an old quote, supposedly a Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." I suggest that, figuratively, you may want to teach yourself to fish, that is, learn the skills you need to take care of yourself in this modern world. Here are some challenges for areas where learning will enhance your chances of survival in threatening financial times:

1. Learn how the system works. This challenge involves learning how the systems around work in the real world. For example, learning how the banking system works so you can get errors in your bank account corrected and find all the hidden charges you are paying. Another example, learning how the insurance system works so you can get lower insurance rates and actually have the coverage you need. Ignorance in this area results in people always thinking the system is out to get them. They live in a siege mentality all the time because the never understand how to manipulate the system to their advantage. They are the people who show up in court ready to defend themselves without knowing what is going on. They are also the people who end up paying more for everything, especially for repairs, because they don't understand how their car works, or their computer, or their dishwasher. Ask yourself, can I fix a leaking faucet? If the answer is no, then you are someone who needs to learn how the system works.

2. Use the right tool. One day a friend and I were trying to fix the front steering arm ball joints on my car. We worked most of the day trying to separate the ball joint to remove the steering arm. (If you don't understand what I am talking about, go back to No. 1) We finally gave up. The next day we talked to another friend about our problem. He said, we needed a ball joint fork. We got one and the job actually took two minutes. The point here is that there is usually a specific tool to do a specific job, whether it be taking pictures, camping, snow boarding, flying a kite, whatever. If you always get the right tool, you will be able to do the job without hiring expensive outside help every time. Buying the right tool is usually cheaper than hiring someone to fix the problem. Sometimes you may just need to rent the tool, however.

3. Anticipate trouble. This is a variation on the motto of the Boy Scouts, be prepared. But more than being prepared it is a frame of mind that says that things will go wrong and what can we do about it. For example, when traveling in a car long distances with children, you can assume that someone will throw up. So you plan for the inevitable or you clean up throw up. There is a simple solution, always carry a throw up can or bowel. If someone even thinks about getting sick, make sure they have the No. 10 can well available for use. If you are always thinking about what you are going to do if you lose your job, you probably will come up with a strategy to make some income rather than going to work at MacDonald's.

4. Learn how to dodge the ball. This challenge can be conquered by staying awake and watching what is going on around you. You should always be acquiring new skills, getting additional education, learning everything you need to take advantage of opportunities as well as avoid the anticipated trouble. Now is the time to go to school to acquire that degree or learn how to do upholstery or bake bread or sew. When is there ever going to be any more time? It is always heartwarming to hear about a wife who goes back to school to support her newly disabled husband, but why wait until the guy is disabled? Go to school now. Take an online course, attend continuing education classes. Don't just take some fluffy feel good stuff, but learn real skills like welding or tire repair. Learn how to make flint arrowheads. Learn how to fly or whatever, but always be learning a skill. That is how you dodge the ball.

5. Get off the couch. If you are going to play computer games then become the best and compete nationally. There is always a challenge. We used to have state and county fairs and people could show off their handiwork. Today we have the same thing, only it is all on the Internet. Learn how to do something really well. Become the best whatever and then get in the Guinness Book of Records, or at least try. Life is too short not to try. Try looking at the oldest performing ballerina for inspiration.

Get to work. Tempus fugit.