What I Learned from Track Every Dollar for 6 Months

I have always read about money management and negotiation for salaries. I’ve always wanted to become good at managing my own money but never seem to be able to apply the practices in these self-help books to my life. It will usually be a flash of excitement, then I will give up fairly quickly.

Last September, I started reading Vicki Robin’s book on “Your Money or Your Life” and it has made some gradual but significant changes in my life. One of the habits that stuck with me after reading this book was to track every single dollar coming in and out of my life.

Here are things I have learned after tracking every single dollar for 6 months.

  1. I stopped eating out & going to coffee shops.
  2. I stopped feeling guilty about spending money.
  3. I projected how many more years I need to work.

Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash
  1. I stopped eating out & going to coffee shops:

If I had a dollar every time I swear to not eat out anymore, I’d be financially independent just from that. I could never stop myself from habitually eating out. It is especially hard when you are hungry after a long day of working, and there is one thing on your mind, food. I was spoiled growing up eating whatever I wanted, and I kept that going well into my adulthood. So when I am hungry, my default is whatever my brain wants now, I must do everything I can to make that happen.

I realized that each time I eat out, I am spending approximately 2 hours of my salary ($30). That is 25% of my daily hard work to be just one restaurant meal. 

After starting to track my expenses, somehow I was able to limited going out to eat at a restaurant to only 2-3 times a month. In the past 2 months, I only went out once (but that might have been the Coronavirus. . . ).

Tips I have learned:

Evaluate your restaurant spending after the restaurant visit. When I do this, sometimes I consider the spending worthwhile and sometimes I don’t. It is intriguing to find out after a day or two whether I found that restaurant outing was worth the money.

The times that are worth it:

  1. It’s a friend I am not super close to and I don’t want to be weird and invite them home for a meal.
  2. I went to a new restaurant that I’ve been meaning to try.

In those cases, I put a little “+” sign next to the expense, and write out the reason.

The times that are NOT worth it:

  1. I have had stomach issue afterwards because of certain allergies the restaurant cannot accommodate.
  2. The restaurant is not great: service is slow, or food is mediocre.
  3. I was super hungry and just wanted something instantaneously.

In those cases, I add a “-” and also note down the reason. This helps me to see what are some of the reasons why I want to go to a restaurant, and when I regretted going. It has helped me cut down on the times I go to restaurants.

Side note of getting super hungry and making bad decision, I have also started making food that can be frozen for a later date, like dumplings and buns. They have saved many nights where temptations were high, and Mr. CodeJunkie all of a sudden whips out the freezer drawer and finds my favorite food (Chinese food!) and gently guiding me from the being hangry and wanting to eat out.


Photo by Andy Lyon on Unsplash
  • Coffee:

I love coffee, especially specialty coffee, lavender flavor with almond milk. It usually costs $4-$6 (yes I know, I can’t believe I paid for this). I also love the social aspect of sitting in a coffee shop, listening to the low murmuring of people, and strike up a conversation with the stranger sitting next to you. I write blogposts in coffee shops because I feel that’s the place when inspiration comes. Sometimes I get a little peckish so I will order a beautifully made macaron, or a cupcake. These all add to my coffee shop bills. 

I realized that I could make coffee at home, and also add as much almond milk and lavender syrup as I want. I can also put it in a fancy cup, and stare out of the window while typing on my MacBook, pretending I am solving world hunger.

I stopped going to coffee shops altogether.  Truth to be told, I don’t think I am making that many more friends by going to coffee shops. I stopped drinking coffee altogether since last year, and have found tea to be more suited for my body.

Exceptions would be when Mr. CodeJunkie and I visit new places, I usually find hipster coffee shops for him to enjoy a cup of black coffee, and me, probably some sweet treats. Those coffee shops usually comes pretty neat neighborhoods to wander in as well.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

2. I stopped feeling guilty about spending money on travel

My relationship with money mostly looks like when an ostrich facing unpleasant but life-threatening danger: by burying my head in the sand. On the one hand, I want to be the millennial that purchases experiences rather than physical things. I want to travel around the world and see everything. On the other hand, I feel guilty when I spend money on traveling, from flights to expensive hotels and fancy restaurants. I would be spending money during vacation without a budget (no guardrails!), but when I come back from vacation, I am scared to look at my credit card bills. I told myself, this is a “one-time-a-year” expense.

Vickie’s book encouraged me to look into the fundamental reason I want to travel. Is it for the social praise? I’ve definitely done some of those before: like visiting the Eiffel Tower. None of those things actually added much value to my experience. Rather, I just wanted to have an iconic photo and be able to put it on Instagram.

The book led me to question if those types of travel are the things I actually enjoy, and would want to keep doing. It also begs these fundamental questions.

  • What are other things you enjoy during your travel?
  • Can you get them without spending that much money?
  • What is the fundamental value of traveling?
  • Does destination change this value?
  • Can your destination be closer, have less expensive food options, a different time of the year, and still achieve the same result?

If we remove the social praise aspect from travel, what is left for me is to see the endless possibilities of  ways to living. I have met people who believe in things that I might consider completely outrageous or impossible and they teach me that there is never one way to live your life. Because of that, I changed my travel destinations to different and less touristy places in the world. I started appreciate local hikes and greeneries. 

I also made a more conscious effort to not bring my phone (or put it on airplane mode with downloaded maps) when I am traveling, or even just going on hikes. I find that I am able to focus on the present better instead of using the energy to think about the best places to take an insta-worthy photo, or whether I should wear makeup to look more photogenic.


Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

3. I projected how many more years I have to work

Being able to account for every single dollar coming in and going out of my life, I started building mathematical projections. I built one within google sheet but there are numerous sources online that helps you do this. If you want to learn more about my spreadsheet, let me know and I am happy to share a cleaned-up version of it.

When my total monthly expenses (blue) equals to my monthly investment earnings (orange), I can stop working. The investment “earnings” are calculated by using my total investment divided by 25, which is the 4% rule. Surprisingly, I met that in April this year (by accident). I have to continuously meet this in order to retire. But this also shows you, the less you spend, the faster you will get to your retirement (if nothing else changes).

I realized I am closer to become financially independent than I thought. This has helped clear my mind on what I should prioritize in my life.

Overall it was a success for 6 months, to be able to tell you exactly where I spent my money. Here’s a summary of it if anyone is interested.

What are your biggest expense after mortgage? Do you track your money? What’s your best way to save money?

(Almost) Zero Waste Gardening Progress

I am a bit of a black thumb when it comes to keeping plants alive. I am genuinely surprised I was able to keep my dog alive for this long. 

Here are some of my gardening this year and tips to battling the black thumb!

1. Use the waste to create new life

My “Infirmary” in the kitchen.

  1. Eggshell seedling tray: Since learning this trick of making eggshells as seedlings, it’s such a brilliant idea instead of buying those cardboard paper seed starter trays. Eggshells are free, easy to come by. I have tried cracking the egg carefully on one end and preserving most of the shell, and found that really unnecessary. Cracking the egg in the middle like usual gives you enough shells to make two seedling pots! I usually poke a hole with the chopstick (from the INSIDE guys, don’t be an idiot like me trying to crack an empty shell end from the outside. It doesn’t work, folks!). I find it also easier to transport these seedlings to pots, and the eggs decompose way faster than the cardboard boxes for the roots to extend into the bigger pots.
  2. Vermiculite: I usually fill these egg shells with vermiculite I bought from Home Depot. Vermiculite itself encourages root growth, so it’s fantastic for seed starting and propagating. Since it’s so expensive, I try to only use it when necessary. Seeds usually sprout religiously around 70-75 degrees (unless you’ve roasted your sunflower seeds…then you should just eat them).
  3. Seeding pads: If the temperature outside is still too cold, you could try this $10 heating pad, which I have found to be very useful! You can also use this heating pad to make mead in the winter.

I just read online that my chamomile seedlings are too bunched up together, and I need to thin them out. I just gave them a little trim this morning, let’s see if they will survive the seedling stage this year.


2. Regrow your vegetables

Before I met Mr. CodeJunkie, I have never eaten leeks before. The leeks in America is so big it looks alien to me. It looks like a giant version of the green onions which didn’t sound appetizing at all. Mr. CodeJunkie loves it; and once I’ve tried it, I realized that it’s surprisingly refreshing. Now we eat a lot of leeks when we cook twice-cooked pork (a Chinese dish from my hometown Sichuan). One day Mr. CodeJunkie asked if we could grow leeks with the stem we have leftover, and we tried it. The leeks we bought from Walmart seems to be extremely eager to not be completely eaten. You can almost see the growth overnight. Now we just put the leftover leeks into some water, wait for it to root, then plot it down into soil. They seem to be loving it.

I also grow green onions in these pots too, considering they look so similar. The newly grown leaves taste so much better and fresher than store bought that now I am considering having an herb garden collection!


3. Compost

I have watched a lot of composting videos about the brown and green ratio, vermicomposting (with worms; this guy from the youtube is so excited about worms…), pile composting in the backyard, etc. The most clean and no-brainer I’ve found is the Trench Composting method. It basically means you dig a hole and bury your kitchen waste. I don’t necessarily dig holes in the yard. I have a raised garden bed and use one of them as my composting area, where I dig and bury the kitchen waste

If you live in apartments, then you might like this vermicomposting indoors. I wish I had the organization to be able to do this, and not have a dog that eats almost everything who will certainly want to personally investigate this worm bin.

What are some ways you find helpful to reduce waste and/or grow new things?

A Letter to My Boss Who Doesn’t Believe in Working from Home

Photo by Dillon Shook on Unsplash

February this year, prior to the pandemic of COVID-19 that drove everyone to work from home, I had a conversation with my boss’s boss’s boss (boss-ception!), the SVP of our company. During this conversation, I proposed an improvement be made to allow the flexibility of work from home without needing an excuse (a sick child, a plumber at the house, etc.) 

Of course it was not well received at the time. Even though he acknowledged my desire of working from home can be completely honorable and beneficial to him and the company in the short term, he doesn’t believe that we can succeed / advance in the company if he allows us to work from home. He believes that there are certain optics employee should maintain. Socializing with coworkers daily is something he values highly. He likes walking around and being able to greet everyone. (Little did he know that within a week from our conversation, COVID-19 will force him to eat his own words and allow everyone to work from home!)

He’s not alone in thinking that way and he has his reasons for doubting if employees would be productive working from home. I would argue that giving employee the flexibility to work from home is the best thing for everyone long term.


In Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, Ariely describes two types of norm; social norm and market norm. A neighbor helping to move a mattress inside of your new home is an example of a social norm. If instead, you offer your neighbor $1 for moving your mattress, it could very well send them storming off angrily. Why? Because how dare you undervalue their labor to $1, and insult them with the fact that helping you now is only worth a dollar?

Dan Ariely argues that 1) social norm trumps market norm, 2) people should not mix social norms with market norms (watch this short video where he explains it).

Changing something from social norm to market norm decreases the amount of efficiency, and changing it back decrease the efficiency even more. Ariely used an example to describe this phenomenon. A daycare was having trouble getting parents to pick up their children on time at closing, so they decided to impose a fine on parents who picked their children up late. This led to more parents picking their kids up late because what used to be a social norm (i.e., not being on time & inconveniencing others) is now market norm (i.e., a fine). Therefore, people are happy to pay the fine and have their guilt wiped away. Realizing this mistake, the daycare removed the fine after some time. Now there are even more parents that are late, because now there is no penalty on picking their children up late at all!

Moral to the story is, whether businesses decides to go with social norm (the warm and fluffy feeling of “we are in it together”) or market norm (“time in exchange for money”), they should stick to it, and not switch back and forth.

Reality is usually the opposite.


Social norm operates better than market norms, even in work environments. 

Ariely argues that social relationships have a lot of advantages. They protect us from future fluctuation. They give us trust and confidence. Even though it might be financially inefficient to circumvent and hide money aspect into gifts and favors, it is still a good deal because you get to keep something that is very valuable which is social relationships.

This is why, most companies choose to operate under social norms for their day-to-day working environment. Just like most other companies, my company wanted to use social norms to build a strong bond with employees to motivate them to work harder. We had a “flex-Friday” work arrangement where every other Friday can be taken off if the employee worked an extra 8 hours into the rest of the two-week period (e.g., an extra hour a day from Monday – Thursday for two weeks). 

After a year, they decided to no longer allow flex-Friday or work from home because someone abused this flexibility. The company announced that employees can only work from home under unavoidable circumstances such as a sick child, water leak etc. If someone is working remotely, he/she is required to respond to emails within 15 minutes to prove that he/she is working. In a sense, the company has imposed a “fine” (15 minute response time) on working from home.

This has stirred up quite a bit of backlash from my colleagues. Nobody was really happy that they are being punished for someone else’s mistake. To take it one step further, if we follow the logic of replying to emails within 15 minutes if working remotely, it is sending a message that (1) if I work from the office, then I do not have a deadline on replying emails, and (2) the social norm of being an adult and getting my job done turns into: as long as I respond emails within 15 minutes I can take the day off!

Now this is becoming a similar mistake the daycare has made from Ariely’s example by switching between social norms and market norms. Now even if the company remove the 15 minute deadline and allow employees to work from home, it will only give employees even more procrastination with no guidelines.

If companies choose to operate under a social norm, they should keep the social norm to best motivate employees. Flexibility at work means the willingness and ability to respond to changing circumstances and expectations readily. Companies always assume employees should be willing to respond to changing circumstances at work to show flexibility towards corporations, but the same level of flexibility is not given to employees in return. By providing flexibility to employees, companies show that they trust their employees as adults to do what needs to be done. By providing flexibility, companies can still show that the social norm is the dominant force at work. 


Although at this time when I am writing the article, we are knee deep in the quarantine zone and everyone is working from home (the lucky ones who gets to keep our jobs).

I fear that once the quarantine is over, we will resort back to the old ways and have learned absolutely nothing about our ability and capacity of working from home. Worse yet, maybe my boss would even magnify all the negativities and difficulties he had faced during the quarantine time, and use them as reasons why he should not allow employees to work from home. 

I am not advocating working from home for everyone. I have had colleagues telling me that they find working from home more distracting because of young children, or because they do not have designated work spaces. I only argue for the option of working from home for those who desire it.

I argue that if companies give more flexibility and allow employees to work from home (or work from ANYWHERE), they will see the increase in employee’s productivity, longevity, and job satisfaction.

The previous decades were filled with digital disrupters of industries: Airbnb, Uber, Tesla reimagining the new world in travel, hospitality, and transportation. I would make the bold statement that in the next 10 years, working from home is inevitable. Companies would attract and retain more talent if they become the first in disrupting our office culture, and allow working from home to become the new norm, the new social norm.

The Upside of the Pandemic

COVID 19 Map

COVID 19 (Coronavirus) has been in the news for a good month now. I bet I am not the only one tired of every single accidentally subscribed company’s “Important COVID-19 Update” email clogging up your inbox. This doesn’t even include work emails, various social groups, gym, or the library. Even my previous dentist that I don’t go to anymore sent me an email about how they were going to limit seeing patients. All the headlines from news articles are about the most updated status of how many people have been infected with the virus. The world now officially moved from talking about Trump 100% to talking about Coronavirus 100% (half of that is probably still about Trump dealing with Coronavirus).

My company, along with many other big companies, have asked their employees to work from home until at least April 3rd. I took a bike ride out today and yoga studios, restaurants, bars, and food trucks are all closed. There are a few brave coffee shops still open but they are only doing curbside pickups. I started sharing work-from-home memes and gifs with my friends.

While everyone is panicking about the stock market, their 401k’s, and whether or not they have enough toilet paper to last for a whole year, there are also many unprecedented unmentioned upsides to this pandemic.

1. This pandemic has forced many companies to re-evaluate how they have repeatedly told their employees that they “cannot work from home.” 

As it turns out, there are a LOT of s&*t we can do remotely. Don’t have a monitor at home? Company can ship you one. Need to fill out an I-9 that needs to be in person? Someone else can verify it. A lot of “must be in person” meetings all of a sudden can be virtual. There are virtual town-hall meetings, virtual scrum stand-ups, even virtual marathons! Not to say every job can be remote, but certainly a LOT of office jobs do not require the employee to be chained to a desk. Next time your boss tells you to be in the office “for optics reasons,” there might be a great historic datapoint how “optics” does not actually increase productivity. 

2. It has forced people to learn how to cook!

This is just as wholesome as it sounds. Because with all the restaurants closed, delivery services halted, many people who used to be relying on restaurants and take-out like UberEat, Grubhub, and Postmate now are learning how to cook (because you can only eat ramen noodles so many times in a row).

There is a new wave of social media sharing on the successful and not-so-successful home-cooking. Here’s a very addictive channel on the basics of cooking (Basics with Babish). I certainly have started to become more creative with my cooking as the local grocery aisles are starting to look like this:

3. There are way less cars on the road so we can bike / run!

One of my biggest complaint about this small town in Arkansas is that people probably lived their whole lives commuting by cars, even though it could be just a 15-minute bike ride instead. People are not used to pedestrians or cyclist on the road when they are driving. There are no sidewalks on the road, no shoulders to pull-over, and no sharing the road with a bike. Most of the time, drivers are courteous, and they wait for a good time to pass. But there are other times I have been almost clipped, almost hit, honked at, and yelled at for being on the road with a bike. 

Thanks to Coronavirus, the whole town is almost silent! With no traffic on the road, and 65 degrees weather, it is like heaven. I almost wish this would last a bit longer. 

4. It is a great time to experiment on spending less and love more.

Since everything is closed, there is no place to spend our time and money. People started reaching out to their friends across the state, country, and ocean to ask whether they are doing alright. Although, sometimes it is your annoying ex-dentist reaching out.

This reminds me very much of Mr. Money Mustache’s article about what if everyone is frugal . I wonder if this would be what the world is like if we all-of-a-sudden decided to all become frugal and consume only what we need. Maybe we don’t need all the clothes, food, cars, or other status symbols that we buy to make ourselves feel more worthwhile. All the material things are dwarfed by the threat of our health and loved ones. 

 

*If you’ve never played Plague Inc., it is a cool game that simulates what a pandemic is like! I always name the virus after my pet princess Tali just so at the end of the game it would say “Tali has eliminated Earth.” This may also give you some hope that it’s actually kind of hard to infect and destroy the entire human race.

In Searching for a Perfect Small Mountain Town

In light of the desperate desire to convince Mr. CodeJunkie to move to Colorado, we made a week long trip out there in January to see what it’s like to live next to the mountains. I have conducted a very caveman style experiment of comparing living expenses in Colorado vs. Bentonville.

I visited two grocery stores while in Colorado. One in Estes Park outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, and one in Colorado Springs (Old Colorado City King Sooper). Below are the results.

NW ArkansasEstes Park,
Colorado
%
Banana$0.42$1.38228.57%
Coconut Milk$1.98$4.99152.02%
Jasmine Rice$17.48$27.9860.07%
Salad$4.96$7.9860.97%
Seltzer Water$3.38$4.9947.63%
Chicken Thighs$8.65$22.06154.96%
Ground Beef$13.97$10.83-22.51%
Shin Noodles$6.76$7.297.84%
Total$57.61$87.5051.90%

Estes Park was noticeably higher than Bentonville (by 52% to be exact). We noticed it even before walking out of the store because a bag of groceries usually costing us about $50 at home were $105 that night. The only thing on this list that was cheaper than Bentonville was the ground beef, which actually isn’t very true because in Estes Park we only found 80% lean beef while we usually eat 93% lean at home (more expensive beef). 

NW ArkansasColorado Springs,
Colorado
%
Dark Chocolate$3.18$2.99-5.97%
Banana$0.21$0.49133.33%
Potatoes$2.47$1.99-19.43%
Sausage$4.98$4.990.20%
Barilla Pasta$1.28$1.4916.41%
Coconut Milk$1.98$2.3920.71%
Noodles$2.88$2.79-3.13%
Jasmine Rice$17.48$19.9914.36%
Total$34.46$37.127.72%

Colorado Springs was a lot more friendlier to my wallet than Estes Park. Some of the items are even cheaper than Bentonville, which is surprising considering Walmart pride themselves to be “the lowest price retailer.” 

Even though Colorado Springs is quite comparable to Northwest Arkansas in terms of groceries, real estate is a slightly different story. A 3 bedroom 2 bath usually costs about 220k in Bentonville will cost at least 300k in Colorado Springs. This alone will set us back for a good 80k (which is about 1.5 years) behind on our early retirement calculation. However, the impeccable location near the mountains, rock climbing areas, and many impressive hiking spots makes Colorado Springs an easy decision.

Colorado Springs is a great next-step city in the next 2 years. In the meantime, we plan on visiting Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, and Washington in hoping to find similar small economical mountain towns not too far away from a good airport. Comment below if you have any suggestions!

Exploration for the Soul

Photo by Fabrizio Conti on Unsplash

In 2006, I got accepted by a small liberal art college in America. I bought a one-way ticket flew from China to the U. S. with two biggest check-in suitcases the airline allowed, and settled in the Mid-West for four years.

The first trip is for adventure, a new life. Along the way, I learned the American culture, religions (mostly Christianity, some Muslim, Mormon, Buddhism). I earned dual degrees in Accounting and Philosophy (mainly because I couldn’t decide to either go with my passion or have a secure job).

I was hungry to learn every aspect of being an American, and what the American Dream really means to an immigrant. I made a lot of friends, who taught me how to drink, what ‘formal’ is, kept me on track with homework, and how to find a summer job.

Years later, I took a month to visit Europe. I packed everything I needed for a month in a backpack and visited London, Edinburgh, Paris, Florence, and Venice.

I was going through some emotional pains in my life and feeling some turmoils from my career. I decided to quit my job and say goodbye to my marriage. After the two big pillars of my life, marriage and career, crumbled to the ground, I wanted to put my own needs first. I didn’t know exactly what I need, but I thought it’d be cool to see Europe. I realized for the first time that I have been rather harsh with myself in the past, holding myself up to a ridiculous standard trying to be a great worker and a fantastic wife. As it turns out, I should care less about what others perceived of me, and treated myself with more kindness.

This trip taught me to look at myself from a loving friend’s perspective. In turn, I am more patient and understanding of other people’s turmoils in life, and I understood more on the importance of mental health. I learned to enjoy being alone with myself.

Over time, looking back on all the travels I have done, I have grown tired of visiting the famous sightseeings / instagram spots of the world. I started to appreciate the smaller things in life, the way people live in different parts of the world, sometimes by choice, sometimes in their own circumstances and limitations. In Japan and Europe, people living with minimal possessions, with more intentions; in Lesotho (Africa), people trying to survive only on eating local fruits and grains while struggling to find clean water; in China, people submerged in capitalism while desperately looking for the purpose of life; and in New Zealand, people who touches every tree, every patch of grass, completely immersed in nature. It is mind blowing to see that one culture’s taboo is another culture’s treasure.

We can choose to live however we want despite the society and the people around us. It is hard when you are the abnormal one in comparison, but it’s a choice you make. Do you design the life you want to live, or let others tell you what a perfect life is suppose to look like? What is the way you want to live?

For me, the exploration of different ways to live a life never stops.

How I Quit the Big 4

Photo by Simone Hutsch on Unsplash

February 2020 marks three years since my last day at the largest professional services firm in Los Angeles. In spring 2017, I told myself that I will no longer be working for consulting companies. I quit the Big 4 and packed everything I had and moved to a small town in Arkansas.

I thought I would miss being in the Big 4. After all, there were some great, brilliant, and damn inspiring people working there. When I was searching for jobs outside of the Big 4, I was also reading online articles about people quitting consulting for a smidgen of validation. I was scared to see what my life would be like in the industry. Scared that I may make the wrong choice, that I have to go(crawl) back to the big 4 because I miss the money, the status, the flight & hotel points, the vast amount of exciting projects, and awesome opportunities to run into Hollywood stars once in a year (PwC audited Oscar). How can I leave all of that behind and still be happy? Surely I would be missing the bougie office and the prestige of working at THE biggest professional service firm in the world. What if I don’t like industry? What if all my coworkers are dumb, inefficient, incoherent, backward, bible-thumping conservatives living in the deep south?

I took the leap. Honestly, to this day, I don’t know what made me finally change my mind and accept this job offer but I did. As it turns out, after I quit, I never looked back (for at least 3 years until I started writing this article!)

It’s understandable that people want to go into the Big 4. There is a lot of fantastic career experience to be had and to put on your resume. If someone coming straight out of college asks me whether they should go into the Big 4 or industry, I’d still recommend going into the Big 4 first. It is almost another schooling system except you also get paid (low-paying slavery). You learn some hard stuff, like how to work with the manager who micro-manages everything, how to work under pressure (because the client must have it NOW and it’s always an emergency), how to learn an industry quickly and be able to bullshit some stories back to your client. You learn some other stuff that you probably won’t need, like a snobby taste for coffee (because EVERYONE talks about it), wine, and food, constant competition with your coworkers on who has the most hotel/flight points and highest status of the privilege of living in a fancier tiny box-sized room for days on end, and all the fancy watch brand you’ve never heard of. You love the font Georgia and you spell out numbers under 10.

In the midst of all that, passing the CPA exam, and wondering whether you’ve completely lost your soul along with the will to live, your client calls (yet again) for ‘follow up questions’ on the report you sent over, life has sped up and passed you by. Oh sure, the firms tell you that there is “work-life integration” (they don’t call it work-life balance anymore because there IS NO balance.). They showcase single moms rocking a partner position while feeding their 2-year-old baby, with a subtitle “the firm is so flexible with me through all my life stages.” You drink the cool-aid and dream about one day becoming a partner at the firm. How fabulous and glorious would that moment be?

Quitting PwC gave me another opportunity to see the world from a different perspective, one that is not completely driven by fame and status. I started to discover my own meaning of life, something that’s other than how much money I make, my staff level, whether I’ve been put on an international project, and where have I gone on exotic vacation resorts.

Life started for me after the Big 4. Since quitting, I’ve bought a small house, planted five fruit trees, ran three marathons, learned how to rock climb, and hiked & camped outside multiple days in a row. I have renovated my fixer-upper, learned how to paint, how to use chisels and planers, and even a circular saw! I had no idea that any of these were waiting for me at the end of the tunnel outside of the Big 4.

If you are still in the Big 4 and wanting to quit, you are burned out and felt there is nowhere to turn, it is time to take action. The worst that could happen is you spend a year in the industry and hate it. You can always go back (proven by my friend who went back to PwC Ireland that had a better work-life balance). But trust me, you probably will never look back.

How to Say Goodbye to the Past

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 this traveling 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. 

Chase Sapphire Reserve Card Experiment

Photo by Ales Nesetril on Unsplash

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.

  1. 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. 
  2. Sapphire Reserve also gave you access to Priority Pass which 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.
  3. 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.

Points: 

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. 

  1. 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.
  2. Enter the “+3 points” numbers (there are two, one for travel and one for dining) and “+1 points” to the Google sheet.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

  1. The Walmart Capital One Card

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!

     2. Betterment Checking

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.