It’s that time of the year where we look back to a full year of fruitful harvest, and a new year of possibilities! Here are a few things we can do in this new decade to get 10% happier.
1. Declutter start from the physical world first. Clean up your desk and you can have a clearer mind to do important work. Clean up your hoarded past, be it the old t-shirt you got from a race or random gifts received from relatives. Say goodbye to the past items so you can enjoy your life now.
2. Digital Cleansing. Try thistraveling without social praise. Delete your instagram and only install it on the days you use to post photos, then delete it right away. Delete all your social media apps and install only when you have something to share, or better yet, maybe you will never have the urge to get on it again.
3. Say goodbye to friendships of the past.
Evaluate what are the reasons we are friends with people in our lives.
Friendships should be people who support us, people celebrating our success and our failures, people who can give us a helping hand and not pass on judgments. A friend may not do ALL of that for us, but they should be doing at least a couple of these.
Say no to the friend who sneers at our success, lifestyle change, goals, crazy dreams. Say no to the friend who makes us feel indifferent. Say no to relationships that puts us down, makes us feel small. You will find after saying no and being true to who you are, you find not pain of severing the old friendship, but relief, joy, and happiness.
I had gotten some snoozing in this morning and woke up wondering if I ought to cut out some more expenses in my life. One of the things I am consider is whether it is still worth it to keep my very fancy Chase Sapphire Reserve card considering the hefty annual fee of whopping $450.
Short answer is yes. *See update below, it’s a ‘no’ as of January 2020.
After the initial honey-moon phase of euphoria from the 100,000 sign-on points (in this case 50,000 points for people applying now), I believe initially I calculated that these 100,000 points were worth about 3-4 years of annual fees. Since I’ve had this card for more than 4 years now, it is time to re-evaluate whether to keep the card or not.
Of course the Sapphire Reserve card is more than just the two factors (points + foreign transaction fee) I calculated on the google sheet. Some of these notable benefits are actually hard to calculate how much value it is worth, and predict whether or not you will be using it for the next year. So I did not include it in my pure and shiny mathematical calculation.
The card reimburses for Global Entry / TSA Precheck which I didn’t have for the past 12 months, so this was not taken into consideration. If you want, you can always add $20 (prorated from $100 of 5 years Global Entry) to your saved amount.
Sapphire Reserve also gave you access to Priority Passwhich is a lounge access when you are at the airport. I have personally used it when doing international travels and have shitty layovers in Atlanta. This would have cost me $50. Arguably though, Ms. Money-Long-Hair would not have gone to lounges and spent this $50 had I not have the Priority Pass, so technically this “saving” should not be considered into the calculation.
Sapphire Reserve also has trip insurance (used once to claim for missing bluetooth earphones $150), baggage delay insurance, travel incidental and emergency medical coverage. However, I did not consider these as I seldom use them in all the years I have had this card. Therefore it is swept under the “nice to have” category but should not influence my decision.
The simple rationale behind this calculation is that the money converted from the points earned is greater than the annual fee.
Right off the bat, there is a $300 travel credit which is automatically applied when you put a charge on the card that constitutes as “travel” for Chase (cha-ching!). So, for the sake of the calculation, my savings needs to be bigger than $150 for it to worth my while.
Like most people, when I applied for the Sapphire Reserve, I had the Sapphire Preferred card which I downgraded it to Freedom Unlimited (no annual fee!). This card gives me 1.5 points on every purchase. I use the Freedom Unlimited as a catch-for-all for transactions that are not travel and meals (x3 on sapphire reserve). Therefore, anything I accidentally put on my Sapphire Reserve card that doesn’t give me +3 points is not really a “plus” in my calculation.
Foreign Transaction Fee:
Of course sometimes this is unavoidable when you travel internationally and want to put the charge to this card to avoid foreign transaction fees, which brings me to part two of the calculation: anything I spent outside the country on this card saved 3% of transaction fee.
Here’s for the tech / financial savvy and impatient people:
No more reading, and plug your numbers into this Google sheet I made this morning (instead of doing actual work). You can click “make a copy” from the “file” tab and enter your own values.
Here’s the step by step for the rest of the world or people who likes to read.
Go to your chase sapphire reserve statements (online or on paper) and look for the section where it tells you how many points you’ve been collecting each month.
Enter the “+3 points” numbers (there are two, one for travel and one for dining) and “+1 points” to the Google sheet.
Look for any foreign transactions you have had in that month. Add this amount to column E of the sheet. Usually for me, when I use the Reserve card, I’d choose local currency. I have found that Chase’s exchange rate usually comes out ahead than using US dollars at the merchant when you swipe your card.
See the result!
I was surprised at the amount of money saved after the annual fee is $300+! Getting charged foreign transaction fees would bother me so much that I would have kept this card even if it was just breaking even with the annual fee. Although, knowing that I have spent this much money in the past 12 months was also another dose of medicine for me to lower my expenses! I will be re-evaluating my spending again to see what are the essential purchases some other time.
*January 22, 2020 update:
Since reading Your Money or Your Life, I have reduced my monthly spending to about $1,000 and putting only about $300 qualifying purchases (travel and meals) on the sapphire reserve card. This has basically rendered the card not worthy of the whooping $150 annual fee ($450 – $300 travel credit). Thus, I have downgraded this card to Chase Freedom Unlimited with no annual fees and planning on not using it for a while.
In the meantime, I am still doing some travels outside the country and I have found great alternatives to share with you!
Hardly the most competitive rewards card out there because you have to be a hard-core Walmart-fan to benefit from this. But, considering I live in Walmart Central (Northwest Arkansas), the cash back feature is great. I am using this card for the no foreign transaction fee feature as well. I’ll test it out this August in Ireland and report back!
Betterment rolled out their checking account (Visa debit card) late 2019, and I received one for the ease of transferring money between my chase bank account and Betterment. This debit card does not have foreign transaction fee (though Visa charges 1% foreign transaction fee but it’s still better than 3% on a normal credit card!). I am planning on using this card as a backup where MasterCard (Walmart Capital One) is not accepted.
Scott Adams’ book about how to win at life is pretty hilarious. Maybe it is because he is the creator of Dilbert and have mastered sarcasm. It was a page-turner. He had a lot of lessons learned through his life and career.
Three things that really stuck out for me:
1. Goals vs. Systems
He explained that one should not just have goals, but we should have systems to repeatedly able to do something. It almost seems like he’s saying having a goal makes a glass ceiling for you, that you will stop once this “goal” was achieved. Instead, we should have a system where we are working towards this goal, and stick to this “system” which will be foolproof. This made me think about my friend Daniel’s Youtube Channel “goal.” His goal was to be able to document interesting people’s lives around him. He should also have a “system” which prevents him from procrastinating and sending the video out immediately after he shoots it.
2. Deciding vs. Wanting
If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it. Deciding to succeed is so much different than just “wanting” to succeed. This makes me think of all the bad times and bad moods I have. Deciding to be happy is different than “wanting” to be happy.
3. Pick a delusion that works
“My main point about perception is that you shouldn’t hesitate to modify your perceptions to whatever makes you happy, because you are probably wrong about the underlying nature of reality anyway.”
“Free yourself from the shackles of an oppressive reality. What’s real to you is what you imagine and what you feel. If you manage your illusions wisely, you might get what you want, but you won’t necessarily understand why it worked.”
Some book notes:
Good + Good > excellent : you are better off being good at two complementary skills than being excellent at one.
The point of a conversation is to make the other person feel good
Imagine a specific confident person you know, and do bad impression of him/her to overcome shyness
Research shows that people will automatically label you a friend if you share a secret
Experts are 50% right on anything that is unusually complicated, mysterious, or even new
Association programming – simply find the people who most represent what you would like to become and spend as much time with them as you can without trespassing, kidnapping, or stalking.
Happiness formula: eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, imagine an incredible future, work towards flexible schedule, do things you can steadily improve at, help others, reduce daily decisions to routine.
Pay attention to your energy level after eating certain foods; find your pattern
Deep Work, recommend borrowing from library instead of purchasing
One of the highly recommended business books to me through friends.
1. Quit social media.
I have done this experimentally from time to time. Instagram and Pinterest are my biggest draw and biggest time sink. I only download them for the time I really wanted to use, and delete right away. I find this an easier middle ground than no social media at all. This also makes me realize that if I had gone completely without social media, I’d probably do ok.
2. Organize your email time.
Have a time set aside to review emails but otherwise turn off email notification. This is very helpful for me because sometimes these email notifications are totally “Corporate click-bait” such as “CEO announcement” or “RE: Feedback on your workpaper.” Because nobody is going to contact me via email if they are trying to get a hold of me. If you really need me right away, you know you can reach me by text or call my phone. I have set up the understanding with my boss that if he needs me to respond right away, then he needs to call / text me. Otherwise, I will only review emails when it is in my allotted times (twice a day).
3. Finish your work by 5:30
I have adopted this motto fully, whether I am productive at work or not. But I do feel guilty when I am not productive and have been distracted at work all day. So the new goal is to implement some of the strategies to not keep being interrupted and be more productive at work in order to go home feeling satisfied and making tomorrow an easier day.
4. Having process-centric response to an email
Instead of having a one/two liner email that requires lots of thoughts, we should spend the time and better serve the recipient of the email to take action on it.
What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?
5. Schedule every minute of your day
I find it very helpful if I start my day with a to-do list prioritized properly. The book suggest having scheduled every minute of your day also makes you respect your time more. However, to most of us who over-estimates how much we can accomplish in the short-term timeframe, it is important to emphasize the importance of scheduling downtime if you are going to schedule EVERYTHING. I think I shall give it a shot this week to have everything scheduled and bulleted out and see how closely I can get budgeting my time.
After many researches and calculations, here’s the basics understanding of solar panel and its financial impact. I have set up a calculation to show you how many years it will take to break even, and you can use this to decide whether it is worth it.
1. Figuring out how many kwatt you will need
You can use this estimate tool PVWatts. After entering your zip code, you should be able to see ”SOLAR RESOURCE DATA” on the next page. Click on “go to system info” on the right hand side and get more details on your zip code.
Based on this analysis, I use 5,665 kwatt a year, and a solar panel producing 4 kwatt will be sufficient cost cutting. Installing enough solar panels for 5 kwatt may be harvesting more electricity than I use and result in me helping the utility company collect energy for free as the utility company only “return” how much is used and does not give you cash for collecting extra energy in a year. Side note: this analysis is surprisingly accurate based on my monthly electric bills.
2.How much does it cost to put in solar panels?
Mr. Money Mustache built his systems around $1.08 per watt – which is super cheap. By his dollar per watt ratio, I should be looking at spending at least $1.08 * 4,000 watts = $4,320.
But reality check hits me like a giant frying pan on the head. I called one of the local companies here, and they gave me a quote of a wapping $21,000 for a 4 kwatt system, claiming that I only have to pay $87 a month and pay it off in 25 years. WOW! Maybe they think I am made of money, or stupid, or BOTH! 25 years of paying the solar company instead of the utility company? Why would I ever do this and dig myself a giant hole and be buried in debt?
I followed Mr. Money Mustache’s link to a DIY website where you can purchase the solar panel kits and install it yourself. The panels for 4 Kwatt is $6,300 and I am estimating labor cost (of hiring a handyman to install this panel with me) will probably cost me between $500 – $2,000 which brings my dollar per watt close to $1.50.
*Pro tip: There is a tax credit of 30% of the solar credit. IRS form 5695 for residential energy credit. This credit will be phasing out from 2020 onward. Tax credits are “dollar for dollar” off the tax bill you owe to the IRS, so it is correct to think that 30% of the solar installation and material costs per IRS instructions.
How many years of using solar panel would break-even
This is where the important part of calculation comes in to decide whether it is worth it for you.
Cost of the system / annual electricity bill = Break-even years
In my example, it will break even in $5,810 / $908 = ~6.4 years.
6.4 years to earn the money back I spent on the solar panel sounds reasonable to an average household planning on spending 10+ years. Since I am not planning on staying in this area for more than 3 years, it is not likely I will benefit from the solar panels. Once this house becomes rental property, the tenant will be responsible for the utilities. Therefore, I would be investing this money into saving someone else’s utility bills.
Of course, the house you buy may be a permanent resident of yours. In that case, I think solar panels are a great idea this year considering the tax credit is phasing out.
There are other steps to be considered if you decide to make this a DIY project (and it will be cheaper and more rewarding I am sure). Here’s more details from MMM on obtaining a permit, and you may need to hire an electrician at the end to connect the power harvested by solar panels back to the city grid.
Overall solar panels are a great way to reduce electricity bills (just electricity, nothing else!). There are many other ways to conduct an audit of electricity usage in a house. It is not the only way to save money and conserve energy. By just looking at my electricity bill trend, it is very easy to notice that I have spikes in the summer and winter for using my A/C and Furnace. If we set the thermostat a little lower in the winter and a little higher in the summer, it will also save utilities.
After the calculations above, I realized that solar panels aren’t for me at the moment, even with the enticing tax credit in 2019. It certainly is a great way to long-term energy efficiency. It makes me happy to go green and save the planet, but for now, I will stick with my space heaters and recycling efforts.
For the rest of you who are considering installing a solar panel, I hope this is helpful to evaluate whether solar panels are right for you. And happy sunbathing 🙂
Brian Grazer – American film / television producer and occasional as screenwriter. Notable pieces: A Beautiful Mind, Arrested Development, Apollo 13, Splash, etc. Brian wrote a book about how curiosity is underrated, and how it has helped him become good at what he does. He has had many conversations with people of all walks, from the father of atomic bombs to survivor of terrorist torture. I love asking questions ever since I was a child. I’ve always wondered about how things work, why are things the way they are, religion, politics, archeology, who we are. I’ve always considered myself curious and I thought I was just going to get to validate the fact that curiosity is great for a person’s soul. On top of all of that I expected, I learned a lot more from Brian’s book.
1. Doing nothing can be a very powerful action unto itself. Brian described a situation where he wanted to talk to someone who is the CEO the company, and he thought about reaching out but doesn’t know where to start. He ended up doing nothing, and his work spoke for him when he got to meet the CEO of the company. Curiosity isn’t always about asking the question, or asking for an opportunity.
2. Convincing someone else to be onboard with you is to give them the power to lead.
Talking to Tom Cruise and asking him to help be an example for the rest of the cast to save money. “Can you be the team leader here with the cast and crew? Can you be the guy that sets an example?”
3. People should ask their bosses questions:
“what are you hoping for?”
What are you expecting?
What’s the most important part of this for you?
4. Anti-curiosity: there are times you should not be curious
Because I don’t need someone casting doubt, when they’ve spent an hour thinking about the project, and I’ve spent three years thinking about it. If they’re saying no, I need all my determination and confidence to grab hold of the idea and take it to the next person with the same level of passion and enthusiasm. You can’t get anything done trying to absorb and neutralize everyone else’s criticism.
5. How to have a Curiosity conversation:
“I’ve always been curious about your work, I’m trying to broaden my sense of that world, and I was wondering if you’d be willing to spend twenty minutes talking to me about what you do, what the challenges and the satisfactions are.”
“I’ve always been curious about how you ended up as [whatever their profession is], and I was wondering if you’d be willing to spend twenty minutes talking to me about what it took to get where you are – what the key turning points in your career have been.”
“I am a vice president at the local hospital, and I have a lifelong interest in astronomy. I was wondering if you’d be willing to spend twenty minutes talking to me about your own work and the current state of the field. I appreciate that you don’t know me, but I am writing out of genuine curiosity – I don’t want anything more than a twenty-minute conversation, at your convenience.”
Be clear that you want to hear their story. You’re not looking for a job, you’re not looking for advice about your own situation or any challenges you’re facing. You’re curious about them.
Even if the person you’re talking to is someone you know well, be respectful – treat the occasion with just a tinge of formality, because you want to talk about things you don’t normally; dress well; be on time; be appreciative of their time even as you sit down to begin.
What was your first professional success?
Why did you decide to do [whatever their job is]?
Tell me about a couple of big challenges you had to overcome.
What has been your biggest surprise?
How did you end up living in [their city]?
What’s the part of what you do that outsiders don’t appreciate?
6. Be grateful: thank the person you spoke with for sharing their stories.
It seems that the world thrives on tragedy, catastrophe, and fiasco these days. We complain about the weather, jobs, spouses, bosses, in-laws, the president, and that one coworker who got the promotion and totally didn’t deserve it.
When have we become so oblivious of the things that we already have? Our freedom, liberty, abundant source of food, air quality, the occasional polite strangers that help us out.
Happiness is a choice, and we can choose to be happy.
If we know that happiness is relative, then the next logical choice is to make happiness a conscious choice.
Here’s my story of making one small decision to be happy.
This summer, I bought my very own first lawn mower to mow the lawn myself; and it was an electrical one. The first time I used this lawn mower, I realized that I have to use an extension cord. I didn’t realize how hard it was to not accidentally sever the cord by running the mower over it.
Of course, I cut the extension cord with the mower half way through mowing the lawn. I was distraught and slightly embarrassed at the same time. Mowing seems to be such a mundane everyday life and I can’t seem to manage that!
It took me a while to let my emotions subside. It felt hard to cheer myself back up afterwards. As I was driving to the hardware store to pick up another extension cord, I was playing the scene in my head over and over. This trivial mistake is fixable, almost funny!
I needed a mindset shift. I can acknowledge what happened and how I felt, and still remain happy. Even though I still felt bad, my emotions were not as acute. I instantly felt relief after giving myself permission to be happy.
A lot of times we are hard on ourselves. We struggle to achieve the whirlpool of expectations from the society and we are frustrated that we fall short of that.
But we are in control of our own happiness. Happiness does not come from being able to afford that designer bag, or having 1,000+ likes on a photo, or the newest smartphone. No matter where we are, we can make the decision to be happy, now.
And also, I bought a gas mower. The End.
I don’t know why we take our worst moods so much more seriously than our best, crediting depression with more clarity than euphoria. . . It’s easy now to dismiss that year as nothing more than the same sort of shaky, hysterical high you’d feel after getting clipped by a taxi.
But you could also try to think of it as a glimpse of reality, being jolted out of a lifelong stupor. It’s like the revelation I had the first time I ever flew in an airplane as a kid: when you break through the cloud cover you realize that above the passing squalls and doldrums there is a realm of eternal sunlight, so keen and brilliant you have to squint against it, a vision to hold on to when you descend once again beneath the clouds, under the oppressive, petty jurisdiction of the local weather.