Gas prices

I put some gas in my tank this afternoon. Regular unleaded was $3.92 (and 9/10).

Who’d have ever guessed that someday we’d consider $3.92 cheap?!

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Budget vs. Lifestyle

Let’s talk a little about budgets and income.

Your budget (and you do have one, right?) consists of:

  • Income
  • Expenses
  • Savings

In a zero-based budget, no income goes unaccounted for.

[ Income – (Expenses + Savings) = 0 ]

Let’s say you’re cruising along with your nice zero-based budget, and suddenly your income goes up? Let’s say you get a raise or promotion at work, or maybe you take a part-time job to make a few extra bucks. Could this actually be a potential problem?

But that’s a good thing! Well, sure it is, and congratulations! For smart people, things won’t change too much. The extra money will mean extra savings, a bigger emergency fund, a thicker cushion against the slings and arrows of life.

For others, however, that extra cash will represent a potential lifestyle upgrade. It’ll go directly into the expenses (new car, nicer home, more stuff, etc) portion of the budget, and the savings will stagnate. The frugal instincts may weaken, and soon it will feel as if the raise never even happened.

We see this a lot with recent college graduates in their first real jobs. They’ve been living like poor students for the past four years, and become intoxicated by their first decent paychecks. And so they jump right into a spendy lifestyle they really have no business having…. at least not until the student loans are paid.

Now, what about the folks lurching through life without a budget or any sort of spending controls? That extra money will fix everything, right? Not necessarily. Habits don’t change that easily. If your spending is out of control at $20,000 a year, it will probably be that much more out of control at $30,000.

The smart person will maintain the budget, increase the savings, and keep moving along according to their goals… you do have specific goals, right?

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Economics 101– Part 1. Scarcity and You

Economics?! Gross! Who wants to read about something so dry and dull as economics?

Keep reading, friend. You might learn something relevant to your life.

Part 1. Scarcity and You.

Let’s say you have twenty dollars in your pocket.

Let’s say that twenty dollars is all you have until next payday.

Now, what will you do with your twenty dollars?

  • Do you go to the movies with your friends?
  • Do you go out to lunch with your co-workers?
  • Do you buy your favorite band’s new CD?
  • Do you pick up a few groceries?
  • Do you put a few gallons in your gas tank?
  • Do you buy a new paperback book to read at the beach?

One thing for sure– you can’t very well do all these things with with your twenty dollars. In an ideal frugal world, you will stay home, eat peanut butter sandwiches, listen to the radio, and read a book from the library, but that’s just me.

Still, there are so many possible choices vying for your twenty dollars. Your choices are endless… yet your money is finite. That twenty dollars is all you’ve got.

This is the basic dilemma of economics– scarcity. The idea of scarcity is that people have unlimited wants and needs… yet the available resources to satisfy them are limited.

Economics is concerned with scarcity and the choices we need to make: if I choose to spend all my money on a movie, popcorn and a drink, I can’t very well gas up my car, as well. However, if I go to a cheap matinee and forgo the snacks, I have money left over to put at least some gas in my tank.

When you live within your means, you become very conscious of the choices you make.

Each time you make a choice, any number of alternate choices are given up. This is called opportunity cost. A dollar spent on one thing is a dollar you can’t spend on something else.  If you go thirty dollars over your entertainment budget, you have thirty dollars less to spend on, say, groceries.

Time is even more scarce than money. If you choose to spend the evening watching TV instead of studying for an exam, that time is gone forever. If you choose to limit your child to only one after-school activity per season, he/she might be missing out on all the other activities, but the decrease in stress may be worth it.

The concept of scarcity seems so obvious, but a lot of people just don’t get it. There’s a lot of denial surrounding scarcity. This is a major reason why credit card debt is such a huge problem– too many people view their available credit as an ATM whenever the “wants” outnumber the available dollars.

Scarcity is very real. You can’t have it all. Unless, of course, you’re Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.

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Shameless Verizon commercial (you guys don’t really believe this stuff, do you?)

Earlier this afternoon, I heard a radio commercial that made me shudder. I tried to find a clip of it online to post here, but couldn’t. I’d love to share it with you.  Maybe you’ve already heard it, or will soon.

And hopefully my fellow listeners were able to engage their critical thinking skills. A serious media literacy intervention is desperately needed here.

It was one of Verizon’s “man-on-the street” interview spots, which I generally find annoying. That’s another rant for another day. Now, apparently, according to the fellow interviewed in the new commercial, men who use Verizon Wireless have better luck with the ladies!

Women will just swarm around you if you use the Verizon network.

Huh.

The young man being interviewed sounds quite confident in his assertion that Verizon will make you breathtakingly popular with the ladies.

And why? Because, he explains, Verizon Wireless is a smart choice… and women like men who make smart choices.

Women like men who make choices based on believing stupid radio commercials? Really?

No!

We are to conclude that if you switch to Verizon, your lonely days are over. You are about to become a player, son. Bring that hot tub up to a boil. It’s party time, big guy.

It’s an admirable stretch, a courageous leap of logic.

But am I the only one who finds this really, really distasteful?

I’m not even objecting to

(a) the notion that women would ever possibly be attracted to something so inane as a man’s wireless service,

or

(b) even the assumption that men would be dumb enough to believe it.

It’s simply the blatant emotional manipulation that’s going on here that irritates me. This sort of advertising has been going on forever, but (aside from maybe the men’s body spray ads), it’s almost always been far more subtle– basically implied but unspoken. An attractive woman invariably appears, and it’s all because the man has used the product.

Sure, they may have meant the Verizon commercial to be funny and ironic… or, worse, cleverly presented as funny and ironic, which is an entirely different and far more dangerous animal. When an ad dances on this fine line, it throws the listeners into confusion– “Wait, are they serious, or is this a joke?”– and confusion is exactly where the advertisers want us. We’re more vulnerable there.

But, like the proverbial “lovely and talented” bikini-girl writhing on the hood of the sportscar, the time-honored advertising technique of associating a product with increased attractiveness still gets under my skin. Advertisers wouldn’t be spending their budgets on this stuff if it didn’t work, though, right? Sigh.

Okay, back to Verizon.

Facts:

  1. This particular radio station clearly targets male listeners age 18-24*
  2. Sex sells.

So, even if the commercial was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, it may still be effective. I wonder how many guys paused long enough to actually consider switching their wireless network.

Well, then. Maybe Verizon Shameless Wireless has a winner here.

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* I’m a female listener, age north of 24, but I still like to rock.

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Is your sense of entitlement making you poor?

I remember my dad often saying of my sister, “She’s got a big a$$.”

He didn’t mean that she literally had a large rear end, because she most assuredly didn’t. No, this was his vulgar way of saying she saw herself as a princess. You see, a lowly chair wasn’t enough for her; only a throne would do. Her delicate, royal tushie needed plenty of room, plenty of luxury.

A lot of people have a similar sense of entitlement. But where does it come from?

Sure, a person brought up in a wealthy home may be accustomed to the finer things, and then go through life trying to continue that lifestyle. On the other hand, a person who grew up in a poorer home may make a subconscious decision to have all the nice things he or she was denied as a child.

While these two people’s motives come from completely different backgrounds, they’re really two sides of the same coin: both have a sense of entitlement, a sense that the world owes them something.

Now, I’m all for self-esteem. There’s not much real self-esteem these days, but a whole lot of false self-esteem. That’s another rant for another day. Entitlement, really, has nothing to do with genuine self-esteem.

I recently read an interesting op-ed piece called The Unfortunate Age of Entitlement in America. The author, Anthony B. Robinson, views the entitlement problem as both psychological and spiritual.

Entitlement is the handmaiden of the ego, the sign of a neglected, malnourished soul.

The dangers here are real, if not immediate. Let’s say a person decides she wants a 2008 Lexus. Why? I don’t know. Because she wants people to view her as sexy and stylish and successful… you know, better… or dare I say it, of a higher social class. She works so hard, and she’s been through so much, and everybody at work has a nicer car than she does, and… and… and… well, she deserves it, by golly!

Now let’s say her financial situation is better suited to a 1999 Toyota. There’s nothing wrong with an older Toyota, of course, as long as it gets her to and from where ever she needs to go. If it’s paid for, even better!

Whoops! Too late! She’s just signed away her life to finance that new Lexus. Now she’s saddled to that huge monthly payment, higher insurance premiums, and other assorted costs. Her sense of entitlement has just put her deeply into debt.

How much status do we place on things? I’ve been a vegetarian for ten years now, and I often come across people who can’t believe I would intentionally eat a meal of rice and beans. To them, prime rib or steak is the ultimate meal, and anything less is for peasants.

Adopting a frugal lifestyle can be an incredibly difficult thing for some people. To a person who feels entitled to having everything he wants, when he wants it, the thought of scaling back must be terrifying. The way our economy is going, though, it’s becoming more and more necessary… and not always voluntary.

Think about your own lifestyle. Are there things you absolutely wouldn’t cut back on or give up… not because you couldn’t live without them, but because you’d be too embarrassed for others to see you “coming down” or “lowering” yourself? Are there things you spend too much money on (gifts, meals, entertainment), because others expect it of you?

A lot to think about, I know.

RECOMMENDED READ:

The truly wealthy don’t always live the wild, gaudy lifestyles that we’ve been led to believe. Check out The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas J. Stanley & William D. Danko.

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The irony of WALL-E

Ever since I saw the first WALL-E teasers and trailers online months ago, I’ve been dying to see the movie.

I suppose that’s effective marketing, and I fell for it.

Once the initial “awwwww, how cute” factor was established (the robot WALL-E is an adorable cross between Spielberg’s ET and Short Circuit‘s Johnny 5, with a vague twist of Woody Allen), the movie’s bigger concept pulled me in.

The Pixar film gives a subversive yet playful look at what we’re doing to ourselves and our planet. Issues of sustainability, environmentalism, consumerism and humanity in general are illustrated in a thoughtful and humorous way.

*** WARNING: May contain spoilers ****

Through rampant consumerism (fueled by the WalMart-esque mega-corporation Buy N Large), humans have trashed the Earth to the point of it being uninhabitable. The Earth has been evacuated to make room for an army of WALL-E robots programmed to clean up the Earth. Probes periodically visit Earth searching for signs of life.

Our leaders originally expected it to take about five years for the Earth to once again sustain life, at which time the planet would be re-colonized. As the story goes, innumerable generations of humans have lived on cruiseship-like space stations for seven hundred years.  What was spun to be viewed as a vacation of sorts has turned to a lifestyle in itself.

During their time away, humans have been bombarded by BuyNLarge’s aggressive branding and robbed of physical activity and real personal interaction. As a result, humans have gradually become morbidly obese lumps in flying wheelchairs, devoid of all creativity and motivation. In short, humanity has lost all its humanity.

The film perfectly and cleverly illustrates America’s love affair with uncontrolled consumption, and our destruction of the planet with tons of disposable plastic crap. The film’s message is clear: we are responsible for turning the Earth into a giant rotating landfill. We need to rein ourselves in and regain our humanity.  As the captain of the Axiom (the space station) says in the film, “I don’t want to survive! I want to live!”

The tongue-in-cheek website for the fictitious BuyNLarge corporation has a scary, Big Brother feel to it. There is an exquisite irony in the products sold in the BNL Store, such as t-shirts, hats and coffee mugs all with the BuyNLarge logo. It’s difficult to tell if these products are being sold in earnest, or with intentional irony. Furthermore, the Disney-Pixar officially licensed products machine has gone into overdrive, releasing WALL-E kids’ books and lunchboxes and action figures and video games and plush dolls…

I wondered how and why a major studio would release a film that so sharply criticizes consumerism, which the movie-marketing machine so desperately depends on. I guess they just take an attitude of “Business as usual, and hope nobody catches on… and if they do, hope they think it’s intentionally ironic.”

Anyway, I loved the movie, for what it’s worth.

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When worlds collide

My friend Troy snapped this gem recently.  It speaks volumes.

How the mighty have fallen.

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