Virus Interest Rate Oil Elections Change

We’ll get through this. (Reality check. Most of us will get through this; but that’s true of every moment. None of us are immortal, yet.) Opening a bottle of dishwashing detergent reminded me of other threats that we got through, and changed our lives. Predicting the outcome of this crisis is a foolish and unnecessary game. Looking back, however, is helpful. And, ironically, helps us imagine possibilities. 

Working from home means getting to play in the kitchen. Yay! I don’t work from recipes, so each meal can be an experiment. I live alone, so only my taste buds and digestive tract are at risk. (Meatloaf, just so you know.) 

Cooking = cleaning, and cleaning led to dish soap. 

Start filling the sink. Realize I ran out of dish soap. Grab a bottle of it from under the sink. Tilt. Squirt. And nothing. Oh yeah. There’s a little safety cap, a cap inside the cap that supposedly proves that no one tampered with the product. That and child-proof caps permeate consumer products. It wasn’t always that way. Packaging is a relatively new idea. Thank the Industrial Revolution for packaging. Blame several people for abusing a trust by lacing or poisoning various things. Welcome to decades of yet another step in the manufacturing process. Welcome to decades of frustration from folks who can’t get past the safety features. 

Cars. Seat belts. Air bags. From dangerous simplicity to safe complexity. 

A world war inspired the US Interstate highway system.

Go back several centuries. The Black Death (bubonic plague) killed millions at a time when we didn’t have billions of people, undermined centuries of royalty, created a middle class, and either unleashed creativity or set civilization back a few hundred years – at least in Europe. Other areas had their versions of pandemics. Some societies were exterminated. Others were decimated. Others recovered. That was the beginning of learning to wash our hands, but it took centuries until we knew the why and how of basic hygiene. But, we learned. At least the survivors did.

Insert your own existential crisis or historical episode in the Comments. This could be a book, but I’m only trying to catch some ideas in a post.

We thought the collapse of the Soviet Union was a triumph for democracy and a defeat for communism. Stay tuned for that while watching China, and also while watching democracies around the world. We could be in a transition that will discredit the use of labels. North Korea is a democratic republic? The United States and the United Kingdom aren’t acting very united. ‘Socialist’ Sweden is a kingdom. “Communist” China is officially a republic (which is acting very capitalistic.) Russia is a federation. Switzerland is a confederation. Out of more than 190 countries, only about a dozen are labeled democracies. The US (united or not) makes no such claims. Maybe that’s why we’re having an identity crisis. 

I was in a telecon today. Once a week our real estate brokerage where I am a broker (was Tara, is Koetje, will be … something to be announced in a month or so) holds team meetings. Everyone has to get together to coordinate information. Now, a rapid retreat from meeting in person as we meet online instead. But, historically, it probably will be seen as an advance by necessity. Meetings weren’t necessary a hundred years ago. Economic and environmental conditions necessitated several such shifts. Information and services took over when factories failed or moved. Factories took over when farms failed and markets moved. Farms for profit were preceded by farms for subsistence which were preceded by hunting and gathering. Sometimes the moves were opportunities. Sometimes they were necessities. Sometimes they were both.

Someone asked me what I thought was going to happen with the real estate market on Whidbey Island because of the pandemic. They understandably wanted an answer for next week or month. I dodged and concentrated on now. Some people are backing off. Some people are more interested in moving to an island (Rural Distancing). The only thing I know for sure is that things won’t go back to ‘normal’. (Note: Gun sales are up, and I can hear semi-automatic rifle fire from about a mile and a half away.) 

Currently, over 7,000 people have died from coronavirus. Just sticking to deaths by disease (not a pleasant topic, but that’s where we are): Small pox inspired vaccines. So did polio. HIV/AIDS changed the way some people lived and died; eventually leading to treatments, and also highlighting the reality of the diversity of relationships. ‘Gay’ rights (an overly restrictive term) joined civil rights, womens’ rights, and the realization that labels are terrible at sticking to people because people are people, not labels. 

True crises and small events create permanent changes. We have never gone back to the way it was before.

Coronavirus has reached around the globe. (A fine reason for there to be a colony off-planet. Lifeboats, please.) There’s an economic oil war that’s largely hidden. Those two circumstances and a few other long term trends inspired the US Fed to drop its interest rates (which is more likely to affect banks than mortgages.)  At the same time, political uncertainties in the US are mirroring upsets in other countries. Meaningless wars continue as police actions or covert actions or proxy battles. Social injustices are easier to recognize. The environment in which these are happening is an environment that is changing more slowly but more dramatically. Normal? Nothing’s normal.

Any one of those items is enough to caution guessing about the future. I know I’ll speculate more, but later.

Each threat is real. We’ll get through this – as long as we recognize that ‘we’ is a very general term, and that things will never go back to ‘normal’ because normal never existed. 

Rather than trying to outguess every news item or rumor, I’m keeping in mind that by this time next year (2021), some things will look the same, some things will be different, and some things will be part of history. 

In the meantime,

  • Spend less than you make. (ALAYCPYB)
  • Invest the rest. 
  • Wash your hands.
  • Vote.
  • Take care of yourself.
  • Take care of your self.
  • Take care of others.
  • Care.
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Popcorn And Wine And A Virus

I imagine this place will be a lot quieter within weeks. That was one of my thoughts as I shopped at the community grocer (The Goose). Almost by current requirement, the aisles were busy, toilet paper was sold out, as was hand-sanitizer (unless I missed it). People were stocking up on non-perishables at the same time they were loading up on comfort food. Beans and rice versus chocolate and cookies. Decide for yourself which of those are necessary. So many people were buying so many things that won’t go bad soon that I wondered how long it will take some of them to use what they bought. My main goals: unpopped popcorn and boxed wine. Somehow that became a bill for over $100. 

It was encouraging to see so many people trying to decide what to do. People with earthquake preparedness kits tend to be well-stocked, but with things that assume the power is out and the water is off. Quarantines don’t happen that way. So, an excuse to fill the fridge and freezer with butter, cheese, meat, frozen veggies, frozen pizzas, and maybe something to experiment with in the kitchen. (Ah, must remind myself to buy a box of stock. Typically I make it from scratch, but if I can’t get to the store then I miss a key ingredient in my soups, chilis, and stews.) As easy as it is to make fun of people buying weird things (who really needs that much toilet paper?) I’d rather see a store filled with people over-reacting than finding it empty because they are under-reacting. 

Previous posts include lists of things I put into my kit.DSC_5840 I usually have a large supply of beans and rice (despite doctor’s orders), cans of tomato sauce, and of course, a casual wine collection. I didn’t need much, but peer pressure and the fear of missing something pulled me into the store. This time the staples include ground beef, frozen fish, bulk oatmeal, basically flexible ingredients that can become part of many things. I also bought the wine and popcorn, as well as tonic water, smoked salmon, and tea, of course. Staples and comfort food, just like everyone else. 

As a real estate broker, I’m watching for people who want to move from dense urban areas to rural areas that have social distancing built in. One of the relaxing aspects of living in a house surrounded by vacant lots is that bacteria and viruses have a lot more than six feet to travel before finding another human. Folks on acreage may not even be able to see another person. No touchies? No problem. It’s not like we all have to share the same elevator or hallway. Will a pandemic reverse the trend to urbanization? Here’s one instance where density is the problem, not the solution.

I’m not going to predict how this coronavirus pandemic will proceed and conclude. I’ve studied history. Predictions fail too easily. Prior to immunizations, contagions like bubonic plague and smallpox killed major portions of the world’s population. This doesn’t look as bad as that, but we are also very aware of our ignorance. Fortunately, some countries and companies are working on treatments, cures, and eventual vaccines. I am, however, wondering how our response will shape our future. 

We continue to recover from our response to 9/11. Homeland Security, TSA, ICE, and the surveillance state have affected basic freedom and privacy. Even our tendency to video each other and share the imagery changes how people express themselves and what they reveal in conversations. It is too easy to have reactions taken out of context and repurposed without permission. Now, we’re being taught to follow basic hygiene that we should follow in healthy times too; and we’re being taught to avoid each other, don’t touch, and stay home. Add that avoidance to the paranoia from ‘stranger danger’ and see a world change from the sort of place where people literally lend a hand to people they don’t know, to seeing almost anyone as a threat of some sort. As if they were to cough, and we’re already ready to run.

 

“Wondering if there’s some virus that was going to hit us harder, but it can’t because we’re all so busy washing our hands and sanitizing everything.”

We’re depleting the stores of basics and panic purchases. We’re washing our hands and avoiding contact. Group events have been cancelled. Considering some countries and their successes, we’re not doing enough, but we are doing something. While everyone is concentrating on a novel coronavirus, those same precautions may be saving us from something new or something old. I’m sure some PhD student will eventually quantify whether there was a reduction in colds and the flu. We may be fighting one battle poorly, but we may be succeeding against others without realizing it.

The Great Recession taught frugality by choice or necessity. Maybe this novel coronavirus is teaching us basic hygiene by choice and necessity. 

I hope it doesn’t also teach people to withdraw from community, to not trust each other, and to see each other as a threat. As my favorite physician (OK, naturopath, but that isn’t alliterative) emailed;

“Remember, joy is an antimicrobial.”

That advice is inserted within a comprehensive list of proper procedures, but it is the piece that impressed me the most. These are serious times, but making every moment too serious makes living too difficult, too stressful. “Do your best”; which is different from “be perfect”. Find joy. It’s always there, but we can cover it with worries. Peel back worries, respect them as you must; but respect the joy just as much.

 

 

91-gmktmyrl.sr160240_bg243243243(PS For my experience finding joy despite circumstances, read my book: Walking Thinking Drinking Across Scotland. While this may be a plug, that book was inspired by a moment during my walk across the country when I realized how close joy is, and how easily I can hide it from myself. Sounds trite to some, but it changed my life.)

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Simple Sayings

Some days are just like that. Sounds vague? Sure. But, the feeling persists. Tough times and bad fortunes can happen to anyone. Accidents happen. We can’t control everything. Good efforts may plant seeds that take decades to sprout. In the meantime, it is necessary to cope. 

A mix of good, bad, odd, and just stuff filled me to overflowing. Overwhelm can happen even while sitting still in this weird world. I’ve lived along that edge long enough to respect what my body whispered to me, then told me, then bopped me on the head with. I’m taking a couple of days to recuperate. I won’t call them a vacation, because, as many of my friends in the new economy know, vacations are becoming rarer. But by necessity, I’ve taken today off and will (almost) take tomorrow off. (I know me. I’ll at least check emails and such.) 

As I sat and sipped multiple cups of tea today, eventually a few old phrases refreshed themselves in my memory. Thank one of the coronavirus memes for the inspiration. It is the one about people stocking their pantry and practicing self-reliance. To some, it seems radical and innovative. As the meme said, being prepared is something that  was considered normal a century ago. I’m not old enough to remember the Depression (even my parents were kids then), but I do strive for preparedness. Here are a few other old phrases that are valid regardless of modern politics and pending disasters (keeping in mind that modern politics may be more than a pending disaster.)

Pardon any lack of attribution, but I’m partly doing this to cheer myself on in difficult times.

  • Wash your hands.
  • Don’t cough or sneeze on others.
  • Spend less than you make and invest the rest – if you can. (As Long As You Can Pay Your Bills – #ALAYCPYB)
  • Know your self, your values, and ignore the ads.
  • Caveat emptor. (Let the buyer beware.)
  • There are no guarantees.
  • Treat people the way you want to be treated.
  • Treat people as if they are people, not labels.
  • Vote – or shut up.
  • Run for office, if you think you can do better.
  • Share. Shared pain is diminished. Shared joy is amplified.
  • Remember that no one should be above the law, and if they think they are, remember that their illusion may be temporary.
  • It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.
  • One person can’t save the world, but we can each help at least one other.
  • Commit random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.
  • Say thank you and please.
  • Praise in public. Criticize in private.
  • Everyone can change.
  • Nothing is everything.
  • The only constant is change.

It isn’t a comprehensive list. It hasn’t been researched. That would be too academic. For me, coping benefits from comfortably familiar concepts proven regardless of technology. Some of these concepts were valid in the Dark Ages, and some of them are based on lessons learned then. One simple measure of their effectiveness: I feel better now. And, that can be enough.

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Waiting And Tea

Step one (and two): fill the kettle and turn it on. Listen to it burble while beginning to type. There’s a lot waiting in this weird world. Even deciding to sit and sip a cup of tea takes time. Maybe that’s the best way to wonder and ponder about the rest of 2020.

20200302_150850

The world waits for news about the coronavirus. Are there just a few scattered cases, or will clear out every big box store while preparing for a quarantine that may not happen? We wait, and buy.

Climate change is accelerating, but climactic change takes decades, or has already become apparent in some regions. For the folks for whom it is affecting, they wait for institutional responses to cover what individuals can’t. (Pardon me, time to pour hot water over dead leaves. Set timer for 4:44 because I’m too lazy to take the time to hit the 0s for 4:00.) For the rest of us, climate change is something that will probably change lifestyles, too; but the urgency is lacking because it looks like we can delay (even though it may already be too late.) Some are already moving, self-appointed climate refugees. Many more wait for more news.

Politics has become an every moment issue swinging on tweets and memes; but for people in the US who aren’t running campaigns or involved in the major parties, there’s little to do except wait until November. (Beep, beep, goes the alarm. Sipping will commence after heat transfer transfers some of that heat to the local climate. I’ll wait so I don’t scald my mouth.) Only 245 days until the US Presidential election. That’s 245 days of waiting to vote. Add a few to find out who won, assuming the election isn’t a chaotic mess. Only 323 days until the US Presidential inauguration. That’s 324 days of waiting to see if the US will have a lawful and peaceful transfer of power. A lot of life decisions are waiting on that outcome.

(Oops. Mutiny Bay Blend, the tea, is still too hot. Must wait longer.)

Economies are hard to judge and measure. It takes months to aggregate data, which is why recessions are announced months after they’ve begun. For a couple of years, as this recovery extends and possibly over-extends, there has been talk of an inevitable recession. Recessions, really almost any economic trend, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy because humans are human and don’t always only react to objective data and analyses.

The financial markets don’t wait. They trade on nano-second intervals. As rumors run around the world, the markets are playing bumper cars with each other as traders try to outguess the randonmess of today’s chaos. Not a stabilizing force. Traders value volatility, even when nothing is volatile.

Because of the markets and the economy and who is going to rule the world (or at least one major chunk of it) it is understandable if people wait, redirect, and actively manage their plans.

If you are old enough, think back to the months before the Great Recession (the Second Great Depression). What did you do then? Now that you’ve seen the recession and the recovery, what advice would your today-self give your then-self? Regardless of what I would do, ask yourself what you did, what you could’ve done, and maybe get an idea of what to do now.

Knowing what I know now, I should’ve hung onto FFIV, then bought a house for cash. Knowing what I knew then, I knew I had to move out of that rental as quickly as possible for health reasons that are too scary to describe. Financial health traded for medical health.

The tradeoffs aren’t as easy as one-answer-fits-all. No one knows you better than you know your self.

Finally, the tea is at just the right temperature.

Waiting is one way to gather all of the data, read the analyses – and watch the world go by until it is too late to act. Rather like letting tea get too cold.

Acting impulsively is one way to gamble on trends, taking on risk in the hope of an eventual reward that others will be too late to acquire. That can be like drinking the tea before it cools. You can burn yourself that way.

Feathered PebblesToday I’m waiting on news from at least three sets of clients, feedback about a writing assignment or two, and postponing some work items (like publishing my latest photo essay book, Twelve Months at Possession Beach) until I get paid. Waiting can be the only response, sometimes.

Waiting isn’t easy. It is one of those human qualities that are virtues and values and hard to exercise. Patience takes practice.

Acting isn’t easy. Making decisions, committing to them, then acting on a plan can be intimidating enough that it becomes easier to talk and plan – and notice that something changed in the meantime so talk and plan – and repeat – and never act.

There are billions of people. There are billions of balancing points between waiting and acting. The benefit we have is the ability to access memories and histories. Events spiral and echo. This time isn’t like the last time, ever. I look back at my responses to hopefully guide me to wiser decisions about personal choices. I can read and study history about how climate and politics disrupted governments and individual citizens. Frequently governments have fallen. No government has been immortal. The species survives, however, and I see lessons in how individuals adapted.

People say “I can’t wait.”, which is ironic because that’s usually said about things where waiting is required. I don’t know how the virus, the climate, politics, and the economy are going to change. But I can move when it is to my advantage, position myself for the most likely scenarios, and wait for the rest.

About an hour after I started typing, my tea is cold enough to turn into iced tea if I had some ice cubes. That’s OK. If I tried to optimize the time for my tea consumption there’d probably be one moment when I should drain the cup. Life doesn’t work that way. Act, wait, act, wait. Boil, steep, wait, sip, wait, wait, enjoy, wait, finish.

Finish my cup, post this article (and share using the hashtag #TomTea), then see what’s happened in the meantime. I see Notifications blinking at me. They can wait just a little while longer.

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Coronavirus Implodes MicroVision

When bad news hits, I prefer to wait a day before writing about it, unless telling the story is therapeutic. A company I’m invested in was hit by ripples from coronavirus. It wasn’t because an employee was infected. It was because quarantines in China closed factories, which killed supply lines, which severed supply chains. Just as MicroVision was expected to announce a major product that would make them profitable, their hopes were punctured by something out of their control. The stock was down over 50% after hours. The reason I’m writing this now, however, is because some people are physically shaking from the news. I’m not hurt as hard, but I’ve been there and know that words delayed can arrive too late. Hence, I write.

Pandemics sound academic. They rarely happen, thanks to the efforts of the medical profession. The health care system may have flaws, but that seems to be more on the accounting and insurance side. Emergency responders respond well. They and others keep contagious infections contained. There’s an atmosphere of constant vigilance because they know that if something significant happens, it isn’t going to wait for hearings and meetings. That’s why coronavirus is a threat; it isn’t that it is deadlier than usual, it is because it seems to be highly contagious, spreads rapidly, and yes, is more than deadly enough. Hence, China’s quarantines and factory closures. (Personal Pandemic Prep)

My original MVIS shares are twenty years old. If they were human they could vote, serve, and be told it was time to move out and get a job. MicroVision has worked on a technology that has the ability to revolutionize display technologies. Shine light on an oscillating mirror, and either display or capture an image. Build it onto a chip and use micro-electronics for the lights, and a projector shrinks to nearly the size of the camera in your phone, and sensors can fit into almost any electronic device. So what? Imagine how much of a shift it was to get rid of the cathode ray tubes that powered televisions and early computers. They were big, fragile, somewhat radioactive, and wasted a lot of energy. Think back as screens got thinner, flatter, and sturdier to the point that they can survive pockets and purses (mostly). They aren’t radioactive, but they use rare materials from exploited regions, and quickly become hazardous waste. MicroVision’s displays have no radioactive tube, no glass, no screen, and use incredibly little power. It is easy to imagine why investors could be so eager to buy into a small, inexpensive company that could radically reform the technical world.

Screenshot 2019-02-25 at 13.58.38

But, it never seemed to happen. Skip the ‘seemed’. It didn’t happen.

At this point it is easy to dive into a critique of two decades of management. While none of the CEOs succeeded (and today’s news kicked out the most recent one and introduced a new one), they were all well-paid. Millions of dollars went to managers who never produced a profit despite incredible technology and potential. I might delve into that managerial review another day.

Today I want to reach out to investors who welcome innovation and potential to slide from the label of investor to speculator. Big risks and big rewards are the reality, but it is too easy to think big risks equal big rewards. There are no guarantees. When the risks lead to rewards, it can be marvelous. Hey, that’s one of the reasons I retired at 38. (See my book: Dream. Invest. Live.)Dream Invest Live cover When the risks lead to – well – nothing, it can be traumatic. That’s one of the reasons I became un-retired. (Not the only one, but that story is leading to the sequel. A bit much to go into right now, but read about My Triple Whammy for those details.)

I remember shaking. Dendreon (DNDN) finally succeeded, technically. They developed a real cancer vaccine, FDA-approved and all of that. It was a monumental struggle, but the succeeded at saving lives where no other treatment did much more than mild improvements. That produced dancing, not shaking. One of the first quarters when we expected to hear about real-world successes and real-world profits, they announced they missed their revenue target. It wasn’t that they weren’t successful. It was that they weren’t successful enough quick enough. They made hundreds of millions of dollars, but the stock market didn’t care. Follow the DNDN tag on this blog that long story. Not only did the company fail, but lives that could’ve been saved have been lost. Tens of thousands, potentially. The shaking commenced.

When that stock sunk, I shook. I felt sorry for so many of my friends who also invested in it. I called a few to commiserate and console. As Spider Robinson observed; “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased.” I also became aware of yet another aspect of our society where people in pain are likely to be reviled rather than comforted. Individual stockholders trying to do better than a mutual fund are treated as if they are privileged pariahs who don’t deserve sympathy. I’ve had people tell me they are glad to see it happen, even when the folks it happened to only had as much as their accuser. Turning that around is unrealistic, and is why I encourage people shaking with the shock of lost dreams and lost finances to reach out to each other. As contentious as online forums can be, they can also be a source of community in time of need.

One irony is that, for some of the companies I’ve invested in and watched crumple, their technologies and services can eventually succeed. Good ideas don’t die easily. The employees who developed them can move on and find fertile ground for them elsewhere. Intellectual properties, like patents, can continue. The benefits to the world may be delayed, at a cost, but new champions can carry them to their goal. Shareholders may not benefit directly, but after a company implodes it helps me to know that there may yet be indirect benefits.

As a society, we stumble. We’re terrible at getting something right the first time. We haven’t had one consistent plan since the days when the only plan was to survive another day. Yet, we continue to move. Whoever said it doesn’t matter, but; “There is chaos under heaven and the situation is excellent.” I’m having a hard time with ‘excellent’, but agree that this is the way we progress. Try. Try. Try.

The coronavirus may or may not be a pandemic. It is certainly disruptive and deadly enough. We can’t manage every risk, predict every scenario, control every situation; but we can help each other, recognize each other’s pain, and find a way to keep trying, trying.

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Personal Pandemic Prep

As some regular readers know, sometimes I plan a post, and sometimes an idea needs to be worked out by writing about it. (Note to writers, the planned posts don’t get more traffic than the extemporaneous ones. Overthinking happens.) Recently I heard a story on NPR about the people quarantined in their homes because of the coronavirus, which now has some other name. (For a brief amateur’s description, mine, of why some are worried, read Practice Pandemic which can lead to other sources.) Hearing the story about a person trapped in their house reminded me that the disaster you prepare for may never happen, but the preparations can be valuable, anyway.

The person NPR interviewed has been quarantined at home for over a month. The emotional progression went from worry with a bit of guilty pleasure at time off, to pragmatic concerns about supplies and how much longer they have to stay home. The atmosphere sounds more spooky than quiet patience.

The thing that made me think was how this is so unlike other disaster scenarios. In earthquakes and storms, after the event the survivors have to deal with outages of power, food, water, medicine, etc. Surviving the event leads to rebuilding a life. Emergency preparation kits concentrate on food, water, shelter, communications, and health. In this viral disaster, at the start almost everything is available, infrastructure isn’t damaged, few people have died, but the survivors don’t know if they will survive. Even if they do survive, how do they live while exercising a prisoner’s version of patience?

Power, electricity, and usually water are delivered via a network. There’s no need for people to contact people. Sewer or septic are hands-off (mostly). In a quarantine, food and medicine are the pragmatic supplies that may be difficult to deliver, and the lack of community and human contact can affect the mental health. At least some semblance of community exists with social media, but Liking someone’s post is not the same as a hug.

Hello, well-stocked pantry. Hello, home-grown veggies. Hello, chickens and eggs, as long as birds aren’t what is spreading the disease.

I like the idea from a recent library Emergency Preparedness presentation. The focus was on earthquakes because Whidbey Island has several fault lines under it, has more for neighbors, and has a celebrity fault that is the Cascadia Subduction Zone. (Minimalism Meets Emergency Preparedness)DSC_5840 The idea is simple. Buy canned goods by the case. Keep the case intact and handy. Watch the Use-by date. When there’s a good sale or when the Use-by date is close but not too close, donate the old case to a food bank, and replace it with another case. Of course, buy cans of something you’ll eat. Duh. Add that to pantry staples like rice, beans, and pasta. The diet may get dull, but that’s manageable. Stocking the pantry is also a good reason to keep a well-stocked bar and wine collection. During a quarantine there may not be much driving, so maybe there can be a bit more drinking.

For most people, one obvious downside (assuming they are one of the healthy ones) is a lack of income. The bills probably won’t stop coming. Rainy day funds exist for a reason. Folks with online jobs may not have a problem. Folks with portfolios that only have local stocks might have an issue. There’s even worries about the coronavirus’ impact on the international economy. Supply chains are looking risky for electronics. (MVIS, are you OK?) If delivery companies can operate, probably wearing impressive protective gear, then people working from home may have the least disruption – as long as they aren’t distracted by having all the kids at home, in the house, all the time.

Weird as it may be, writers may finally finish their books. If artists have enough supplies, there might be a reason to have a post-quarantine studio tour. Houses may finally get cleaned, painted, and lots of little chores finally completed.

A rule of thumb is that no plan survives past its first step. The corollary is that having no plan can be the worst plan of all. Minimalists, frugal folk, and pragmatists may be best prepared even without trying. But maybe in a case like this it can be a good idea to not be too minimal because the pantry may have too little, too frugal because paying for shipping may be safest, and concentrating on pragmatism too much can amplify anxieties for too long.

Preparing for something like a quarantine, a pandemic, is a weird mix of worry and protection; while also being forced to be patient, do less, and take care of yourself – and your self. Still shaking my head at this weird world we are in. Despite so much to think about, one thing I can do is spend a bit more time and money in the bulk food section of the grocery store. And maybe stock up on some alcohol, for medicinal purposes. (Really, because several stiff drinks may be necessary to cope with such uncertainty.)

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Taxes And Pay

Death and taxes, something we all have in common – or not. Technology is working on redefining death’s schedule. More about that some other post. Taxes, well, all for one and one for all doesn’t apply as we’ve seen billion dollar corporations and individuals pay far less than their share. But even looking back on one person’s life, mine, it becomes obvious that here in tax season it’s possible to have a completely different experience from year to year, or person to person. We got into this mess because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Oh, if we could pave a road with good intentions. Where would it lead?

Dependents

I started as a dependent. Folks just a little older than me were born as something the US Internal Revenue Service paid no attention to. Now, kids are starting with Social Security Numbers and are counted by their parents for tax breaks. It may not mean anything to the kids, it didn’t to me, but so begins the tax journey.

Cash Under The Counter

Shh. My first jobs were paid without any paperwork. Nothing was reported to the IRS. Why would it? Parents pay kids for lots of things. There are even these things called allowances. Imagine that. Tax-free! Eventually, my Dad paid me to do things at his office, too. A real job, and one that I did, but didn’t leverage. I learned how to do a job and be responsible and dutiful, but didn’t think about learning about business, logistics, customer service, etc. Of course, being 11 years old, getting woken up at 5AM on a Saturday to work until Noon usually meant that when I was done with my tasks all I wanted to do was take a nap. Being a janitor in an oil depot was…less than inspiring. The only paperwork was a few dollars I received that my Dad pulled from his wallet at the end of the shift.

Summer Jobs and W-2

Summer jobs existed, way back when. I hear they’re harder to get now, possibly because senior citizens are handing onto simple jobs to bridge financial gaps after retirement. Mine started small, staffing something new and radical at the time, a self-service gas station. They liked the idea of a tall high school student who might intimidate the thieves who regularly held up the station. Then the boss saw my six foot height came with less than 150 pound weight. Not intimidating, but I worked cheap. Never got robbed, though!

From there, a more substantial summer job, working in one of the local steel mills. Irvin Works, a sheet metal plant that was over a half mile long. Guess who got to sweep it. Here’s your broom. Here’s one end of the building. See how far you can get to the other end in eight hours. Also, join the union. Not optional. Oh yeah, and stay alert because any one of the over seventy furnaces may open without warning within a few feet of the broom. (There was a warning, but the siren wasn’t much louder than the furnace.) In 1977 I was paid $9.75 an hour, a rate that some consider reasonable in 2020. Really? At least by the end of my third summer there I’d advanced to the title of hooker. Really. There’s a crane. It has a hook. The person who works on the thing being hooked or unhooked is called the hooker. Good pay. Layoffs without notice.

And paychecks. Finally, paychecks – and deductions, and eventual tax forms which flowed from yet another form, the W-2.

A Career Job and W-2 and Not Much More

Graduated college, got a job with Boeing, and those W-2s got bigger numbers. For a while, filing taxes got easier. I was living on every other paycheck and saving the rest. The IRS came out with the 1040-EZ, which worked for me because my finances really were easy.

Then Came Stocks and More Complicated Forms

Eventually I saved enough to return to college to get my Masters, which I did. During that period I became a more determined stock investor. Enter capital gains and losses and keeping track of transactions, something most people didn’t do because they either didn’t save, or let mutual funds take care of things, or hired someone to deal with details. The stack of paperwork and arithmetic grew rapidly. The tax form may only need a few bits of information, but the supporting documentation made file folders bulge.

Then Came A House and More and More

After my Masters I went back to living on only half my paychecks. Now, instead of the money accumulating in a bank account, it went into stocks, lots of different stocks. (See my book, Dream. Invest. Live., for details.)Dream Invest Live cover At least the paperwork was familiar, and computers were becoming more common. That helped. A practiced savings plan and frugal lifestyle meant I saved enough for a downpayment on a house. Oh dear.

Setting aside my lack of experience with house maintenance, I was a first-time homebuyer, tax codes encouraged homeowners to track expenses to account for money spent on improvements. There were benefits to reducing taxes when the house was sold, a detail that isn’t as important, now because I think the code changed.

The tax task grew because those forms were getting more numerous.

Then Came Marriage and Help

Skip ahead a few years and welcome to the married world. Two incomes. No kids. Many of the same issues and forms, but now there were three times as many accounts: mine, hers, ours. Help! Which we found by hiring a tax accountant. It was still work to compile the documentation, but someone else figured out the forms, the tables, the deductions, walked us through the results, we signed, and we were done. Especially with the addition of rental property, it was a relief to have professional help.

Then Came Retirement and Divorce

For one year I celebrated an early retirement at 38 years old because the two of us shared common habits of frugal living and determined investing. The taxes didn’t change, though, because only one of us retired. There was a period when we were both retired, but it was so short that the taxes didn’t change much.

Single and Retired

Finally, a simplification in taxes. I was retired and living off my portfolio. One or two trades a year satisfied my expenses. No W-2. No rental income. No house, except for the one I rented. Back to simplicity. If only it could last.

Triple Whammy and 1099

My Triple Whammy. My taxes remained simple because my portfolio imploded. The main complication was paying penalties for early withdrawals from my retirement account. When you aren’t making money, there’s little to report; but sometimes it takes several pages to prove that zero or nearly-zero really is a very small number. To make sure I got every advantage, without spending much money, I enlisted Turbo-Tax.

For years, the only change was the number and size of my 1099s. I was fully engaged in the Gig Economy, dutifully reporting my income, while working seven days a week and not being able to pay all my bills. (Hence My Mortgage Modification.) I probably could’ve benefited from professional help, but how could I hire someone when I couldn’t even pay my mortgage? My Turbo-Tax sessions became anxiety sessions.

Add Real Estate and Help

Recently I became a licensed real estate broker. Oddly enough, the forms haven’t changed. Brokers are independent contractors, a common term in the Gig Economy in a profession that’s used the term for decades. Trying to understand a new business and its own special tax codes was too much. The total income had changed enough to be encouraging, barely. A small mistake could make a big impact. I hired a tax account, yet again and was glad. And will do so again. I’ve already started collecting the documentation. I’m also working on closing a large enough deal to pay the taxes, but that’s another story.

Everyone Else

When I hear politicians and economists and ideologues talk about tax policy, they frequently speak as if everyone is having the same experience. There’s some mention of the taxes of the rich versus the taxes of the poor, but I see the taxes that are a mess. There is no generalization. People living off W-2s have a different experience from people living off 1099s, people concentrating on the forms for capital gains and losses, trust fund and annuity and retirement incomes. Each person can have a mix, and a mess. It is amazing that anyone gets it right, even with professional help.

Tax season affects us all, but each of us experiences a different effect. “Get your rebate now!” A rebate? Are you kidding? My 2018 taxes are still on my credit card, dwindling, but still there. Self-employment taxes don’t seem to care if “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is barely profitable. There are taxes based on revenue, not income; an irony considering that the Internal Revenue Service manages Income Taxes but sometimes taxes revenues even if there is no income. Another reason to be impressed with any entrepreneur who finally breaks into profitability.

Even writing this post reminds me of how little I know. Some tax professionals are probably shaking their head the way some health care professionals shook their head at my issues with the health insurance (not healthcare) companies. And yet, work at almost anything else in life for fifty years and expect to get much better at it. The only thing I’ve gotten better at is recognizing when asking for help is a good idea.

Each of these tax codes was passed for what seemed like a good idea: deductions for kids, an easy form for simple finances which has since be eliminated, using Social Security Numbers for taxpayer identification even though it wasn’t supposed to be used that way, et al. Et al, now means over 2,500 pages of US tax code. If you haven’t read and understood it, how do you know you’ve filed your taxes correctly?

I am glad I’ve found someone to rely on. I barely understand my taxes. My accountant is a professional and human, so I expect her to know much more than me, but I don’t expect her to know everything and everything’s implications. If I can’t understand my taxes fully, I won’t make claims about someone else’s, what works for them and what doesn’t. What I can state is my great desire for someone somehow to greatly simplify the situation fairly. With the way the US is going politically, and the increasing debt and deficits, this unsustainable situation is going to change. If everything eventually dies, maybe that will apply to the US Tax Code, too.

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Super Bowl Ads 2020

Here we go again, though by the time you read this, there they went again. Welcome to another of my personal finance exercises. The annual event that is the Super Bowl Ad Campaign is something I pay attention to because I want to see what everyone else is paying attention to, besides the game. (Begin soap box moment.) After a bit of research into the NFL I admit that I can’t get enthused about old billionaires exploiting  impressionable young people by turning them into multi-millionaires, well, that part is OK,  to hurt each other in billion dollar stadiums funded by municipalities that don’t supposedly don’t have enough money for roads, education, or their unluckier citizens. (End soap box moment.) Consumer spending is a major component of the US economy, and this is one way to see a summary. This year adds the flavor of political ads, which affects the economy, too. Thanks to every advertiser that at least makes their ads entertaining.

The process is simple. Watch as many of the ads as reasonable. Watch for trends. Listen for the messages, and also what seems to resonate with others. It isn’t comprehensive. Starbucks started by specifically not advertising (wisdom) , until they got so big that they had to (folly?). Great ads don’t make great products or profits. Bad ads can ruin reputations. But, in general, ads are one way to measure management strategies and effectiveness. So, I’ll put this draft aside as I watch the ads collected on AdBlitz’s YouTube channel, make notes as I go, then sift through to learn what I saw. You’re saved that hour or two of waiting. I wonder what I’ll see, hear, and write. I might even feel something.

(Note: This took long enough that it passed from me drinking tea at the start to whiskey by the end.)


What was there

  • Cars will be electric and smarter than you. (Even Hummer will be electric.) Your phone will be smarter than you. Your house will be smarter than you.
  • Diversity has progressed from rare token appearances, to accepted but uncommon, to the obvious norm, but has yet to progress to people being treated as people regardless of their DNA. For decades I’ve assumed that anyone can do anything. Evidently, this is still news. (Meeting one of the first Sea Gals, the Seahawks cheerleaders, as she taught one of my first karate classes helped. Could kick my butt, literally and repeatedly.)
  • Astronauts that are women? This is news? Hope they got paid for the ad. They deserve to be better paid than the football players. I wish they’d been part of the ad on Mars rather than a beauty cream ad. Their accomplishments make appearances inconsequential. 
  • Rich people have more fun and can get away with more stuff. Break the law in your fancy car? OK. 
  • Movies are fantasies. In the Depression, it was musicals. Now, it’s fantasy action.
  • SUVs are statements, not vehicles for sports or utility.
  • The majority of ads aren’t showing what they’re selling, and if they do, the products are more likely to be props. They’re selling sizzle and hoping no one cares.
  • What is it with mattresses? That’s a trend. 
  • Exercise equipment comes equipped with electronic coaches. Evidently, we need more than internal motivation – something I am reflecting on as I type instead of working out. But hey, people are working out in those and other ads. Note: Workout clothes are equipped with pockets for phones. 
  • Facebook/Google/Amazon are your friends. (Please don’t break us up with anti-trust regulations.)
  • Don’t cook. Either meet us in the parking lot or we’ll deliver it to your door. Convenience rules.
  • Food is defined by either what’s not in it, or an excess of spices.

What wasn’t there

  • No politics? At least not on AdBlitz. I was saved from that. Thanks.
  • Sorry, MVIS. – A separate and long topic.

Familiar favorites (that have yet to convince me to buy their products or services)

  • Old Spice – Make fun of ads. Yes!

New names (the real benefit for investors like me in such an exercise)

  • Genesis/cars – Not for me, though I recall a friend talking about Tesla years ago. He should’ve listened to himself.
  • Takis/food – Not for me, because snack food isn’t for my approach to investing in positive products.
  • Quibi – A ten minute YouTube? Sure, but why? And yet, such simple innovations can succeed spectacularly. Something to watch – in many ways.
  • Purple – Plastic mattresses may be comfortable, but I doubt they’re practically sustainable.
  • Pro-Form – Glad to see workout equipment do well, but I think the long term customer base may someday transition to something simple like working out because they want to.

Well, that was over two hours of, blink blink, watching YouTube. Whew. It was worthwhile, though. The tone is less dire than during the Great Recession; but the emphasis remains excess for the rich as something they deserve and distraction for those without. The ‘us’ is more about people than country, which will be interesting to compare after November’s US election. Automation and the surveillance state is a given with cautions that are treated lightly rather than seriously, not a surprise considering the companies aren’t selling luddite solutions. Artificial intelligence has taken the place of the Internet. The Internet enabled entrepreneurs. Artificial Intelligence could do so, too; but it looks like the corporations are in control. The diversity was the most positive part, for me; and as I alluded to above, I look forward to it being treated naturally rather than under a spotlight. That may take a generation or three. Few made great claims about where they’re going, almost as if no one has confidence of what will happen by this time next year.

I am sure there are more ads I didn’t see. Fine. I’ve seen enough for my purposes. Time for my eyes and conscious mind to relax. My subconscious will filter through. In the next day or two I’ll read other interpretations. I always learn something from the conversation. This year, however, I didn’t find something that inspired me to buy or invest. Maybe next year.

An aside. We had a rare, sunny Sunday, today. I took the time to work in the yard. There was yard waste to chip and spread. It should be no surprise that power equipment with whirling blades would have a warning label. This one came with several languages, which unintentionally made a comment about ads. The English part of the warning label said “WARNING!”. Beside it was another language’s warning “AVERTISSEMENT”. Echoes of irony.

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Shop Different Shops

We silly humans. We set boundaries and us-versus-them distinctions naturally. We remain tribal, despite being ‘civilized.’ Give us a few generations and that might change. There’s something frugal and personal we can do in the meantime that breaks those borders and saves some money. Shop in different shops. Even better is shopping in different local shops.

Ah, life in a rural community. Food is more a than commodity when you regularly drive past fields, orchards, and ranches. The life you see may be the life you eat that means you can sustain your life.

Ah, life in a small town in a rural community. It is easy to get to know the people farming and ranching, or at least get to know their names. Getting to meet them may require showing up at breakfast places while most people are asleep, as the farmers and ranchers are already done with their first set of chores. Muddy boots are optional.

It’s also possible to meet them at their farm stands, when they deliver a food subscription to your front porch, or at farmers’ markets. Say hello (and pay on time.)

Despite such proximity, most people shop at groceries. Farm stands rarely carry everything else like toilet paper. One stop shopping is certainly convenient.

You may have noticed that I use the word ‘grocery.’ Within the bottom 25 miles of Whidbey Island there are several places to buy food. In addition to the farmer-proprietor places, there are five or six favorites. Some are small and only have enough room for groceries, nothing fancy. Some are called supermarkets, but that’s relative considering the size of Safeways and such in the Big Cities. All provide at least some nod to local produce, dairy, seafood, and meat. A trip to the store can be like visiting several farm stands without having to navigate muddy parking strips.

I have a preference, like most. My preference is The Goose, an ironic name for a place where I buy chicken. “The Goose is the result of a one-of-a-kind partnership between Goosefoot, a non-profit organization, and The Myers Group, a family-owned business.” That’s a sentiment I appreciate, a community grocer run by a non-profit and a family. It is also very convenient, to me, at least for now. My real estate office is part of the same partly-paved/partly-gravelly/partly-puddle-y parking lot, sort of. This is great. While I usually bring my own lunch, it is a treat to walk across the lot, browse the shelves for sales, then buy lunch from the deli. Then, before I head home, I can walk back to the grocery, pick up the deals I like, then head home. I get to save money and have a very nicely stocked pantry.

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As much as I like it, I know others who drive right past it. Payless, a few miles away in Freeland, has a loyal following. It is probably the biggest of the stores. The Star Store in Langley is also only a few miles away. It may be the smallest, but it has high-end ingredients. Jokingly, it is the place for free-range/organic/fair-trade/shade-grown/sustainable whatever. Head down-island instead of up-island and get to Red Apple in Ken’s Corner, (which recently was bought by an employee, as I understand). Farther south is Clinton Foodmart, a place that gets busy in waves as hundreds of ferry riders swing past on their way home or to their vacation destination. Each has a loyal following.

The surprise to me is how many only shop at one store. The Goose is my current favorite, but at various times each has carried that label, except for Payless. Currently, I work by the Goose. Previously, I worked by or commuted past each of the others. Rather than a few random visits, I’ve had opportunities to get to know each place. The Goose’s deals are good, but I also know that the others have their highlights. The Star Store has single-serving steaks that are just the right size, and gluten-free deli choices. Red Apple’s my choice for produce like onions and such. Clinton’s Foodmart may have the widest gluten-free selection. I hear good things about Payless’ bulk foods, but don’t know much about them because I never worked near there.

Only shopping in one store, grocery or otherwise, develops loyalty and makes life simpler. But, visiting other stores helps find better prices, breaks habits, introduces new ideas, and spreads the wealth.

It isn’t just true about shopping. It is too easy to stay within self-imposed, arbitrary borders and to only consume what’s within. There’s loyalty and simplicity there, but that can come at a high price.

I also am glad to be able to mention the place for food that impresses me the most, the Good Cheer Food Bank. Food banks have stigmas. I don’t know about the rest, but Good Cheer is centrally located to all of the groceries I mentioned, doesn’t care or ask about income (at least they didn’t ask me), and has a surprising selection. Of course, they have beans and rice, pasta and sauce, and other basic staples; but on occasion they seem to get someone’s surplus, which might be salmon or fresh produce. I’ve been part of the gleaning crew (the Good Cheer Gleaners) who harvested local fruit and delivered it there. The stigma some have about food banks are yet another arbitrary boundary, another us-versus-them example.

Shopping in different shops is more than simply saving money. Breaking stigmas and crossing borders are ways to meet the rest of us, and to realize there is no them.

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Tea And Frugality

Sitting beside me, and somewhat inside me, is a cup of Formosa Oolong, a tea with a name that would cause a controversy if mentioned in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, it is welcome, which isn’t a surprise to folks that follow me on social media, particularly Twitter (@tetrimbath). There, my tea habits inspired a hashtag, #TomTea. It started as a silly idea, but sometimes silly things are more important than serious things. Regardless, I have Starbucks and frugality to thank for a beverage I enjoy every day.

Millions of people know Starbucks because of its coffees. I know it because of its teas and spices. Way back then, Starbucks had one store, it was in Pike Place Market, and I was playing tourist in the Big City (Seattle) which was near the Boeing plant where I just got a job.

It might seem strange, but I made it through college getting a degree in Aerospace and Ocean Engineering without resorting to coffee. I relied on tea. I fell asleep a lot, but it is hard to tell if that was from not enough caffeine, or the fact that studying frequently meant only three or four hours of sleep each night. Many tea bags were wrung out as I tried to balance keeping school costs down by finishing on time versus getting high enough grades to get a job afterwards.

Picture a newbie to the PNW. This was 1980, when Seattle’s reputation was for dreary, not dynamic. Tourism was happening, but Boeing was the big thing. Still, Pike Place was already known as a draw for tourists, but mostly for locals who wanted more authentic choices. The hour or so drive made it impractical for me to shop there, but it was novel and I didn’t know what else to do on the weekends. (Hiking and skiing and bicycling and sailing kicked in later, but that is an entire shelf of stories. Go to my Amazon Author Page for more.)

Wander into the Market. Roam around because the booths were varied and the people were friendly; but don’t know what to look for because shopping without branding was a culture shift and an education. But, ah, Starbucks. At least I’d heard of them.

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Step in. Find a skinny shop with a counter at the back of the space, a long line of shoppers, and a wall of coffee, teas, and spices. Check the original logo. Coffee, Tea, Spices, and a more graphic depiction of the mermaid which has subsequently been sanitized and recolored. Finally get to the front of the line, ask for a cup of tea, and begin an education.

It was obvious that I wasn’t going to get just a tea bag and a cup of hot water. The person working there (I don’t think they used the title ‘barista’ much then) took the time to describe some of the teas, the benefit of loose leaf, the proper way to brew it, and the proper way to store the leaves. A cup, hot water, a tea-filled strainer shaped like a spoon, and directions to have one of the very few seats at the window counter. Spend four minutes watching the people go by, then remove the tea, maybe let the cup cool a bit, and enjoy.

This was better than yet another cup of Red Rose or Lipton or Tetley. This was a bit of a ritual, but not too much of one. It was also a welcome introduction into a West Coast culture, not the tea, but the concept of treating a customer as a person, not a transaction; and the idea that a little education can become the basis of a long term relationship.

That day may have been the turning point when it would’ve been just as easy to become a coffee drinker. Instead, it was the time when I started exploring other shops, blends, flavorings, and experiments that continue forty years later. As an investor, it was the day that planted the desire to own some of their stock, something that happened about six months after SBUX went public. (For more of that story, dive into my book on personal finance, Dream. Invest. Live.)

Now, I drink about a liter and a half per day. Sometimes it is one type in a thermos, doled out as I work. Sometimes it is strong black tea in the morning, shifting to oolongs, then greens, and maybe some herbal infusions by the end of the day. There’s much to learn, and no need to do so. That’s relaxing, too.

In addition to the flavor, I appreciate the frugality. Tea is cheaper and simpler than coffee. Dead leaves are relatively easy to keep from going stale. A tight tin kept in a cupboard suffices, nicely. Bulk loose leaf can cost as little as under $2 per ounce, and an ounce can last weeks. Good loose leaf tea, in particular, can last longer because the same leaves can be used more than once, hence one ounce lasting a long time. I don’t test this overnight, but I’ve used the same leaves five times without noticing much degradation. The caffeine was probably mostly washed out in the first steep, but some use that as a way to organically and cheaply make decaf. Toss out the first cup, make another, and then another, saving money with every extra cup. Or in the summer, make one pot with fresh leaves, then use those leaves in a sun tea jug, or the opposite.

No need for the equipment necessary for fancy coffee concoctions. Hot water, dead leaves, and a way to strain out the leaves is all that’s necessary. Get fancy, use a tea kettle to actually get water at 190F-210F. Get fancier, pour the hot water into a tea pot where the leaves can steep with room to bloom. Maybe use a French press instead, because it gets the word ‘French’ involved. Then, either wrap the pot in a cozy (not quite my style, but useful), or pour the tea into a thermos. Milk, lemon, honey – scotch – are all optional. No need for thousands of dollars spent on a cappuccino machine.

Just like coffee, all true teas come from only one species of plant. How that’s grown and processed, and where it is grown create varieties that keep it from being dull. Oolong isn’t green, and not black, and not Pu-Erh, and not white, and not – well, there’s undoubtedly something else out there. I’m not an expert, just an enthusiast. Explore there a bit, though, and find how easy it is to create blends that have never been branded, to develop mixes that are customized to one set of taste buds.

If I want a ‘breakfast’ tea, I know to buy Assam and Keemun, and mix them by pouring them into a jar. I now tend to skip flavored teas because they might use oils that stain my teeth and cup. Infusions (what many people call herbal teas) are even easier and more frugal. My current favorite is a blend of herbs from my yard (lemon balm, mint, maybe some rosemary or sage or lavender), plus some local weeds (nettles from a friend’s yard), and a bulk spice like rooibos or honey bush (great name) or licorice.

Currently, combining the collections from my kitchen cupboard and my office desk drawer I can choose from about two dozen teas. Some are getting low, so I just ordered more from Dandelion Botanical, and intend to order some more from Joyful Alchemy. I don’t need more. I just want more.

Living a frugal life is not about saying No all the time. It is about knowing when to say Yes. Good tea is an affordable indulgence. I might be in the midst of trying to deal with insurance and mortgage providers, conversations that tie into monthly thousand dollar expenses, but beside me will be a cup that is simply filled guilt-free. That’s one way to combine caffeine and calm that I can appreciate.

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OK. So sometimes a tea bag is handy. Maybe it is time for me to educate a local coffeeshop or two.

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