BOOKing myself in for next year.

How I hate to miss a goal.

I set a goal to read 80 books this year. Actually, in my first flush of enthusiasm, I set it at 100, but then when my mad maths skillz kicked in and I realised that was 2 books a week, I brought it down. Once I’m retired I could do that no worries, but nowadays with the job and the commute and life itself, I thought 80 might be more manageable.

But clearly not.

Ryan24 said to me, “Why don’t you just read some Dr Suess books? You’d reach 80 by lunchtime!”

I have 2 books on the go, but I think I’ll leave them to start off 2019’s reading target with a (slight) headstart.

I read mainly novels, with the bulk of the non-fiction books being about North Korea. I did my research both before and after I went there earlier this year. (Links to my posts about North Korea are at the end, for those who are interested in peeking inside the bubble.)

But seeing as this is the FI/RE blog and not the personal blog, which ‘Money’ books did I read this year and what did I think of them?

  • The Quest of the Simple Life – Dawson

I heard about this one from The Simple Dollar. This book was written over a century ago and is the autobiography of a man who was living, working and raising a family in the middle of London and his realisation that he wants something more out of life – something simpler. It’s not a ‘personal finance’ book as such, but it’s interesting to peek back into the past. All those tiny house/homesteading/frugal living blogs being written at the moment aren’t coming up with new ideas! Here’s a link to Project Gutenberg for a free pdf. Never say that Frogdancer Jones hasn’t given you anything!

  • First-Time Investor: Grow and Protect Your Money – Merriman

Honestly, I don’t even remember this one. I gave it a one-star rating on Goodreads so there’s clearly a reason why it’s slipped from my mind. No linky-love for this one.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to preorder this one! I love the original ‘Millionaire Next Door’, so I was very keen to read the update. I liked that the FIRE movement was mentioned quite a bit and it was pleasing to see that the tried-and-true ideas fleshed out in the original still hold true today. Seiko watches rule!

This was one of the books I bought to research which book I was going to give my sons and nieces for Christmas this year. These guys have a podcast on property investing, but this book is primarily about budgeting and keeping track of your money.

It wasn’t really what I was looking for. Their tracking system was great if that’s what you’re looking for, but it was so involved to set up that I knew that it would turn the kids off ever getting a plan for their money. This book is more for people who are already self-motivated to do something about their finances, not someone who’s just dipping their big toe into the water.

I’d recommend this book to someone who doesn’t mind the initial slog of setting up a system that will clearly be very beneficial as time goes on. Will I do it? Nah. Too many numerals for me…

  • The Beginner’s Guide to Wealth – Whittacker and Whittacker

This is the book I ended up buying for the 19 – 26-year-old sons and nieces. I wrote a review here.

Many people are familiar with the blog Freedom is Groovy, written by Mr and Mrs Groovy. I love this blog, as they’re people in the same age bracket as myself, who also started late and who have really made things move and shake as they’ve gone along the path to FI.

This is a good book to read, particularly if you live in the US. The writing style is clear and conversational, so the information gets absorbed easily.

  • The Mandibles : A Family 2029 – 2047 – Shriver

I read this novel when I was in North Korea. This is a fascinating look at the breakdown of society when the US has borrowed so much money that it defaults on its loans. If you know even a smattering of how the financial system works, this is a gripping read. Even though I read it back in April, I still think about incidents and characters. It’s worth the time to read this.

I wrote a review here. It’s rare for a novel to have this much financial information in it.

Oh, how I loved this book! After I read it I bought another one to give to my brother-in-law for Christmas. It’s all about growing up in Australia in the 1960s and ’70s. I’ll be writing a ‘Lessons from Literature’ post about it soon, because there are so many observations he makes about money, finances and how things were different back then.

It’s his memoir. It brought back so many wonderful memories, but also brought up things I had never heard before. I had no idea, for example, that Australian women had to get their husbands’ written permission to get a passport right up until 1982…

Yikes!

Again, it’s not a finance book as such, but there’s a lot about money woven in.

********

That’s it for 2018 ‘Finance’ books.

I’m looking forward to reading ‘Atomic Habits’ by Clear early next year. I got the school library to order it in, so with a bit of luck, it should be available when I get back. There are a few bloggers releasing books next year too, so I look forward to reading them. Of course, I’ll be reading with an eye towards which book should be the next one I purchase for the kids’ Christmas presents.

I’m setting my next Goodreads target at 80 books again. Why not? Though seriously, if I stopped reading blogs, Facebook and Twitter I’d probably be able to get 150 books under my belt!

Oh! Nearly forgot. Here are the links to the North Korea posts I did, with all the photos and info of what we did when we were away.

Dancing With Frogs. This is my personal blog, where I write about anything and everything, including travel. I wrote exclusively about my China and North Korea trip in the entries from April 2018 – September 2018. Just look at the drop-down menu at the side and you’ll be able to find them. Lots of photos and stories.

On this blog, I wrote 4 pieces, summarising the more ‘finance/advertising’ type of things that I saw.

#1: Where Leaders Are Larger Than Life.

#2: Where A Picture Says A Thousand Words.

#3: Teach The Children Well.

#4: The Bigger, The Better!

Happy New Year everyone! Let’s all make 2019 a year to remember, for all the right reasons!

 

 

Lessons from Literature 7: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

I first read this novel when I was 15 or 16. We had driven up to the Gold Coast to see my Dad’s parents for Christmas. Grandpa told me I could borrow anything from the bookshelves to read and I wanted to take something down to the beach with me while I sunbaked.

I’ll never forget the horror of reading about life in the bitter cold and privation of a Soviet gulag while I was in the burning sun, eating icy poles and swimming in the sea when I got too hot. The contrast made the novel even more terrifying, if that’s possible.

Solzhenitsyn was actually a prisoner in a gulag in the 1940’s and 50’s, so this account is totally authentic. Even as a teenage girl in the 70’s I could feel it. This novel, while dealing with a setting and situation worlds away from our lives in the modern-day West, still has echoes and lessons that we can take away with us.

If you haven’t read it – do yourself a favour and pick it up. It’s a slim volume. It’s worth it for the last 2 sentences alone.

  • “The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o’clock as always. Time to get up.”

Doesn’t that sound exactly like the alarm feels on a weekday morning? Mine normally goes at 5:30 – I didn’t realise until I read this that I get a sleep-in compared to the gulag! I’ll feel slightly better now.

  • “Shukhov never overslept. He was always up at the call. That way he had an hour and a half all to himself before work parade – time for a man who knew his way around to earn a bit on the side.”

Honestly, if this doesn’t make you feel guilty for not having the time for a side-hustle, nothing will! Shukhov carefully manages his time and uses every scrap of time that he has to himself as productively as he can.

  • “The commandant set great store by that order. Nobody dared argue with him. The warders grabbed lone wanderers, took down their numbers, hauled them off to the jailhouse – but in the end, the order was ditched. Quietly, as so many loudmouthed orders are.”

Anyone who has had to work under an incompetent or impulsive manager would know all about this one.

  • “Apart from sleep an old lag can call his life his own only for ten minutes at breakfast time, five at lunchtime, and five more at suppertime.”

Of course, life isn’t exactly like this on a work day, but honestly – doesn’t the job take up a HUGE portion of the day?

  • “Amazing how time flew when you were working. He’d often noticed that days in the camp rolled by before you knew it. Yet your sentence stood still, the time you had to serve never got any less. “

I don’t think this needs any elaboration…

  • “But when the camp suddenly needed a bricklayer – Shukhov thought he might as well be one. If you can do two things with your hands, you’ll soon pick up another ten.”

Here, Shukhov shows the value of flexibility and being willing to step outside the box and learn new skills. He gets slightly more food as a skilled worker and he also keeps his mind active – both things that will vastly improve his chances of survival in the camp.

  • “Easy money had no weight: you didn’t feel you’d earned it. What you get for a song you won’t have for long, the old folks used to say, and they were right. “

Lottery winners anyone? How many times do you hear that within 4 years a huge proportion of them are financially worse off than when they bought the winning ticket? A similar thing seems to happen with generational wealth – if a person/couple builds enormous wealth, it’s rare for their grandchildren to still be wealthy.

  • “But even after eight years on general duties he was no scrounger, and as time went by, he was more and more determined not to be.”

This is one of many times in the novel where we see that Shukhov’s sense of self is hugely important to him and is at the heart of how he continues to survive. He has some ethics and standards that he refuses to give up, while others have been left by the wayside. We all know people who seem to live for their job and appear to have very little in their lives left over for other things. These are the people who crumble when, for whatever reason, their career is taken away from them. Shukhov isn’t one of these people.

  • “He could barely stand, the Captain, but he kept on going. Shukhov had an old horse like that at home once. He took good care of that old horse, but he worked himself to death. And then they skinned the hide off him.”

This quote follows on from the other in the way that some people give their all for their jobs, believing themselves indispensable. And yet – when they eventually leave, there’s always someone to replace them. That last sentence is brutal – I don’t believe I work for a business like this but I’ve heard plenty of horror stories that make me believe that there are companies around who drain every last thing that they can from their workers.

  • “In jail and in the camps Shukhov had lost the habit of scheming how he was going to feed his family from day to day or year to year. The bosses did all his thinking for him, and that somehow made life easier. But what would it be like when he got out? “

This made me think about how daunting people find the thought of not having a regular pay packet coming in any more once they hit retirement. This leads to the ‘one more year’ syndrome, where people are financially set for retirement but quite bring themselves to turn off the wages tap and start to draw down from their portfolios.

  • “Your foreman matters more than anything else in a prison camp: a good one gives you a new lease on life, a bad one can land you six feet under. “

The horrifying thing about ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ is that, while we might say this metaphorically, he means it literally.

  • “The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favours, it always wants more tomorrow.”

THIS IS THE BEST QUOTE! I’ve never forgotten it and it’s helped me so much when I’ve ever had to deal with ephemeral little wants and indulgences that I might enjoy at the moment, but I’d completely forget about a day or two later. I don’t know how many chips, snacks and other little things it has saved me from buying.

The very best thing about reading is that, while most books fade away after you’ve finished them, some stay with you forever. ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ is one that you’ll never forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons from Literature 6: The Mandibles: A Family 2029 – 2047.

The Mandibles: A Family 2029 – 2047 by Lionel Shriver is one of the novels I was reading when I was away in North Korea and China. Kind of ironic, really, because it deals with what happens when the US government runs out of money to service their trillions of dollars worth of loans and defaults. Guess which country rises up to take advantage of the situation?

This is a relatively slow moving but gripping read. We see through the eyes of one reasonably privileged family what happens as their society gradually unravels at the seams. Shriver has clearly done her homework on how financial markets work and the implications and consequences when things start to turn pear-shaped. Most of us in the FI/RE community have started to scrape together a working knowledge of how the financial world works – you’ll find this novel VERY interesting indeed.

I loved it. I found it scary as hell, though the little titbits she puts in about other countries are very clever, particularly what happens to Australia and Japan. I think I gave it a 5-star review on Goodreads – it’s well worth using the link I gave at the beginning of this post to pop across and buy it. (I don’t get anything from it – I just provided it as a resource for Aussie readers. US readers will find it at Amazon.com)

I’ve put out another blog post on my trip, for those who are interested.

Day 2: Beijing. 

Lessons from Literature 5: The World According to Garp.

This was the novel that brought John Irving into the limelight. I first became aware of this story when I saw the movie – my first movie with John Lithgow. One of my favourite actors.

The World According to Garp, written in 1978,  is a quirky novel, with characters and situations that are still memorable today. Jenny Fields is a single mother who gets pregnant with her son, TS Garp, under very unusual circumstances. The novel follows Garp through his life, from his childhood with his incredibly independent mother, through to his marriage with Helen and his life with her and their kids.

  • Helen was at school every day; she had agreed to have a child only if Garp would agree to take care of it. Garp loved the idea of never having to go out. He wrote and took care of Duncan; he cooked and wrote and took care of Duncan some more. When Helen came home, she came home to a reasonably happy homemaker; as long as Garp’s novel progressed, no routine, no matter how mindless, could upset him. in fact, the more mindless, the better.

Garp chooses to be a writer, a SAHD while his wife is proud to go to work and be the major breadwinner. They chose their partners in life well… always a good thing to do to succeed both financially and in life. She was an English professor who had no ambition to be a writer – she liked to read – whereas all Garp wanted to do was to be a writer. Choosing a partner in life whose ambitions dovetail in with your own is one of the best ways to get ahead.

  • “You know, everybody dies. My parents died. Your father died. Everybody dies. I’m going to die too. So will you. The thing is, to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure having a life. ” (Jenny Fields)

In other words, enjoy the journey, not just the destination. So many people appear to discover FIRE, get excited and then put all their energies into investing, retirement funds and getting out of debt while forgetting to take some time to smell the roses along the way. Both Garp and Jenny Fields lived life according to their own terms, particularly Jenny.

  • Death, it seems,” Garp wrote, “does not like to wait until we are prepared for it. Death is indulgent and enjoys, when it can, a flair for the dramatic.

What a great way to say that you should make sure to live while you’re alive.

Here’s the quote that matches up with the clip from the film. See opportunity when it presents itself to you and act upon it!

  • “We’ll take the house. Honey, the chances of another plane hitting this house are astronomical. It’s been pre-disastered. We’re going to be safe here.” Garp.)

Lessons from Literature 4: Washington Square.

I studied this in year 12 Lit, back in the day. How I loved this novel! It’s a short read, beautifully restrained and the quiet anguish of it all is never overblown or melodramatic. In 1949 it was turned into a movie called, “The Heiress’ and they did a terrific job. It’s worth hunting down the movie for a quiet afternoon in.

But what can we learn from the story of a thwarted romance between a fortune-hunter and a plain, dull girl from a wealthy family?

Dr Austen Sloper is a wealthy doctor in New York in the mid 1800’s. He is an intelligent man but has become emotionally crippled after the death in childbirth of his beautiful young wife and the death, a year before, of their bright young son. Unfortunately, his view of his daughter Catherine, now in her twenties, was that she was :

  • “… not ugly… was decidedly not clever; she was not quick with her book, nor, indeed, with anything else. She was not abnormally deficient… Doctor Sloper would have liked to be proud of his daughter, but there was nothing to be proud of in poor Catherine… Her greatest desire was to please him… What she could not know, of course, was that she disappointed him, though on three or four occasions the Doctor had been almost frank about it.

When Catherine meets the dashing and handsome Morris Townsend, who immediately pursues a romantic relationship with her, the doctor views the whole situation with a jaundiced eye:

  •  I am told he lives upon [his sister]… lives with her and does nothing for himself… The position of husband of a weak-minded young woman with a large fortune would suit him to perfection!

The bitter irony of this novel, and one of the reasons that it’s so good, is that the doctor isn’t unreasonable as such. He doesn’t necessarily want his daughter to marry a rich man. He knows she will have money enough for two. What he doesn’t want is for his fortune that he so carefully earned to be given away to a man who only values Catherine for the money she brings. He sees Morris Townsend as the adventurer he is, unlike his naive daughter, and he is unwilling to simply hand over his fortune.

Totally fair enough.

So far I think we can all agree that Dr Sloper is in the right. Not one of us would want a lazy, unemployed, money-hungry son-in-law to walk in and start living in our spare bedroom with a hungry young family at his heels. Dr Sloper has every right to protect his share portfolio, property and superannuation from a guy like Morris.

However, it’s his cold, almost surgical analysis of the situation and the total lack of empathy for his daughter’s distress that takes the ‘personal’ out of personal finance.

  • And as she pronounced her lover’s name Catherine looked at him. What she saw was her father’s still grey eye and his clear-cut, definite smile. She contemplated those objects for a moment, and then she looked back at the fire; it was far warmer.

Catherine was unfortunate not have the internet at her disposal. A quick google of his name or a scroll though his Facebook profile would probably have revealed much that Mr Townsend would rather have remained hidden. As we all know, careful selection of a mate is imperative for a solid financial underpinning of a relationship. Being on the same page is a must.

Unfortunately for her, however, the men proceed to play an almost cat and mouse game with absolutely no regard for her feelings and affections. As time goes on, Catherine develops a much clearer vision of what the two men are like and what she herself values in life.

  • From her point of view the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring. Nothing could ever alter these facts; they were always there, like her name, her age, her plain face. Nothing could ever undo the wrong or cure the pain that Morris had inflicted on her, and nothing could ever make her feel towards her father as she felt in her younger years.

In her later years, her father threatens to drastically reduce the money that he will leave her in his will unless she promises him that she will not ever marry Morris Townsend. However, Catherine has gained the wisdom to know that she will have ‘enough,’ (an extremely valuable part of becoming FI), and so she refuses to submit to his bullying and emotional blackmail. When, after he dies, she is advised to contest the will after she is left only 1/5th of her father’s estate, the rest being left to charities, she tranquilly replies that she:

  • “…like[s] it very well.

She, like all of us who are working to attain financial stability, has learned not to be swayed by others’ expectations and has attained a dignity and purpose in life that suits her. She could have been far wealthier, but she chose to remain true to her values instead of selling her soul to ‘The Man’.. in this case her father. She calmly told him that she wouldn’t tell him this, turned her back on his expectations and quietly went her own way, determined to live her life on her terms, just like someone who has amassed their “F U money’ and doesn’t have to put up with an untenable situation.

The novel and the movie end on two different images. The novel sees her settling into the parlour and picking up her embroidery after telling Morris he’s dreamin. (That’s a little ‘The Castle’ reference for the Aussies reading this.) The movie has her lighting a lamp and going up the staircase, away from Morris who is banging on the door. Her face gets steadily more resolute and serene as she rises.

Catherine has reached the stage of being a perfectly independent woman, sure of what she wants to do and how she wants to live, knowing that she has the means to live that way. She has attained self-knowledge and a quiet dignity because of this, which means that she will no longer be a plaything to be pushed around. The Man has no hold on her and she is free to do whatever she wishes. Her home is paid for, she has enough investments to live a comfortable life and her needs are few and easily paid for with the resources she has at her disposal.

Sounds like FI, doesn’t it?

 

 

 

Lessons from Literature 3: The Neapolitan Novels: The Story of a New Name.

The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante are a series of 4 novels following the friendship between two girls in 1960’s – 70’s Naples. I’ve just finished the second novel and this passage stood out to me. This is when Elena visits Lila, her friend who married a wealthy (to them) shopkeeper when she was 16.

  • Maybe the wealth we wanted as children is this, I thought: not strongboxes full of diamonds and gold coins but a bathtub, to immerse yourself in every day, to eat bread, salami, prosciutto, to have a lot of space even in the bathroom, to have a telephone, a pantry and icebox full of food, a photograph in a silver frame on the sideboard that shows you in your wedding dress – to have this entire house, with the kitchen, the bedroom, the dining room, the two balconies, and the little room where I am studying, and where, even though Lila hasn’t said so, soon, when it comes, a baby will sleep.

Keep your expenses manageable and take pleasure in the small, everyday ‘luxuries’ and appreciate them. Sounds very ‘Mustachian’ to me!

Lessons from Literature 2: Sense and Sensibility

Ahhh, Jane Austen. What an amazing writer. One of the best days of my 2015 trip to Europe was when I went to her house in Chawton, which is now the Jane Austen Museum. It’s SO much better than the more famous one in Bath, as this place has so many of Jane’s own things. I blogged about it here.

‘Sense and Sensibility’ is the quintessential “A Man is not a Financial Plan” guidebook. None of the story would have happened if the second Mrs Dashwood had had her wits about her. In her youth, well before the novel begins, she married a widower, Mr Henry Dashwood, who already had a son from his previous marriage. Under the laws of his estate, the vast majority of the land, house and money legally have to go to the first son when Mr Dashwood dies. She will be left with virtually nothing.

Now, the second Mrs Dashwood has no visible means of supporting herself. She has no real education, no career path and no income of her own. But she blithely marries Mr Dashwood anyway because YOLO ain’t love grand,  spawns 3 daughters and then is perturbed to realise once she’s a widow that her husband, although he had years to get his financial affairs in order in order to provide for his daughters, had instead spent his money on a lavish lifestyle, keeping up with the Joneses and keeping a large stable full of expensive, Ferrari-like horses. Serenely expecting her stepson to do the right thing and cough up some of the money he inherited, she’s dismayed to discover that he has no such intention.

Consequently, she can’t financially support her daughters, (all of whom are equally untrained to forge a career path) and it’s only through the generosity of a distant cousin who offers them a cottage in the boondocks to live in that she’s even able to put a roof over her daughters’ heads.

She didn’t even have an emergency fund in place, let alone a share portfolio or a tidy sum tucked away in index funds. Talk about immediate gratification-type thinking coming back to bite you!

Listen to this passage, which describes Mrs Dashwood’s attitude when they move to their new rental:

  • “As to the house itself, to be sure,” said she, “it is too small for our family, but we will make ourselves tolerably comfortable for the present, as it is too late in the year for improvements. Perhaps in the spring, if I have plenty of money, and I daresay I shall, we may think about building. These parlours are both too small for such parties of our friends as I hope to see often collected here; and I have some thoughts of throwing the passage into one of them with perhaps a part of the other, and so leave the remainder of that other for an entrance; this, with a new drawing room which could easily be added, and a bedchamber and garret above, will make it into a very snug cottage. I could wish the stairs were handsome. But one must not expect everything, though I suppose it would be no difficult matter to widen them. “

She has clearly been watching too many home improvement shows. I’m surprised that a granite bench top and ensuites for all the bedchambers weren’t on the list as well. However, Austen is onto it. Look at what she says in the very next paragraph:

  • In the mean time, till all these alterations could be made from the savings of an income of five hundred a year by a woman who never saved in her life, they were wise enough to be contented with the house as it was…

By the end of the novel, Mrs Dashwood resigns herself to staying in the inadequately-sized cottage and her daughters are well-looked after. Phew! It all worked out well in the end but Mrs Dashwood had to go through a steep learning curve to be able to learn how to live within her means. Of course, once Elinor and Marianne were off her hands she only had Margaret to feed and house. I can tell you from experience that feeding one child is FAR cheaper than feeding 3 of them in their 20’s. They eat like horses. Mrs Dashwood’s grocery bills would have been through the roof before the girls moved out.

All of the trauma and heartache the girls go through in this novel could have been avoided if Mr and Mrs Dashwood had followed these few simple rules:

  1. Pay yourself first – take at least 10% of your income and tuck it away into investments.
  2. Don’t go into debt.
  3. Spend less than you earn.
  4. Have some splurge money, but don’t go crazy.
  5. Invest all that’s left.
  6. Don’t believe handsome young men who flirt with your daughters are always eligible husband material.

Austen isn’t usually thought of as a personal finance writer, but I believe she has many observations that still hold true today. Perhaps she should be looked on as the first FI writer?