Nov 28, 2018

Yes, I'm Still A Fat Fuck - But I'm Doing Better


It’s been more than 7 weeks since I acknowledged that I had devolved into a fat, lazy shambles of a human being again. I figured it was time for an accountability check.

I did break down and buy that gym membership – and one for my wife – on November 6th, and have diligently exercised at least every other day, not counting the week of Thanksgiving.

Thus far, after two actual weeks of exercise, I weigh the same 265 pounds I did when I decided I was disgusted with my health and fitness and needed to make a change.

But I do feel a lot better. I have more energy now, after just two weeks of working out. I look forward to going to the gym to get my fix of endorphins each day. I think my wife is enjoying an energy boost of her own, as well.

The last time I undertook to lose a ton of weight, in my 20s, I had the benefit of a higher metabolism and a bicycle commute that ensured that I was burning a few calories, even on days I missed out on visiting the gym. This time things will be more difficult.

In fact, I doubt exercise will be enough this time. Thankfully, my primary care doctor has referred me to a nutritionist who can hopefully help me adjust my diet to help lose weight and improve overall health.

On A More Important Note


While we’re on the subject of primary care doctors, let me tell you a dirty little secret: I’ve gone for approximately 10 years of my life without any health care provider whatsoever.

Some of that was due to a lapse in insurance coverage – after I left a job in a large university health system, I entered into the journalism profession at such a low salary that I couldn’t afford insurance premiums. Any healthcare services were provided by community health clinics and urgent treatment centers. During this time, my wife also went without health insurance, a primary care doctor, and any women’s health services.

I would venture to say that our chinchillas received better healthcare than we did. At least they had a set veterinarian and some established continuity of care – Cheryl and I had nothing.

Keep in mind here that I have some chronic issues that should be monitored by physicians – I have asthma that can be exacerbated by issues with my cleft lip and palate (I become congested very easily and have issues clearing out congestion once it reaches my lungs – an allergy exacerbation almost always eventually becomes full-blown bronchitis if the symptoms are left untreated). I have cerebral palsy and a sensory processing disorder.

In recent years, thanks to a hospital visit resulting from a car crash, I also discovered that I have an autoimmune condition called sarcoidosis that causes benign masses to sprout up in various places throughout my body. I believe that condition to be in remission now, but when it flares up I can suffer from masses in my lungs, eyes, lymph nodes – even my brain. This is a condition that definitely needs to be monitored by a doctor.

Thankfully, I’ve been a relatively healthy person despite these chronic health issues.

I'm A Dumbass


When I started blogging about financial independence, I realized that health is probably the one topic more central to everyone’s lives than finances.  If we’re not healthy enough to enjoy our wealth, what’s the point of working towards financial independence? Does anyone really want to spend their retirement in poor health?

Ignoring preventative healthcare is one of the worst financial decisions a person can make. Failing to regularly go to a doctor and monitor one’s health can lead to expensive hospital visits, surgeries, prescriptions and other interventions down the line. It can also shorten your lifespan and greatly increase the cost of living during retirement.

If one of the central rules of personal finance is to invest in yourself first, then one of your first investments in yourself should be in maintaining or improving your health.

I couldn’t really advocate for others taking control of their financial situations while I ignored my own health. I had insurance, but I had never really exercised it the way I should have.

In short, I was being a hypocrite.

Here was a problem that I had the resources to confront, but my own inertia – out of fear, shame and regret – was preventing me from doing so.

Confront The Shame


I was ashamed that I was fat and living a sedentary lifestyle. I was ashamed that I hadn’t kept up with my health over the years (I even lied to family and friends about going to the doctor). I was ashamed that I had spent so much time losing momentum rather than building it.

I let all that shame hold me back when I could have just picked up the phone (or opened an internet browser) and made myself a damn appointment – and I’m lucky that all my shame didn’t lead me to have a major health crisis like a heart attack during that time.

This is the same kind of shame that keeps people from addressing their personal financial situation, changing their lifestyle or improving their relationships. It’s not unique to me, you, or anyone else. I think it’s secretly universal – even the most intelligent and seemingly proactive people we encounter are bound to some extent by their own personal shames and fears.

What’s important is that we find within ourselves – and each other – the courage to address the root problems in spite of the shame we feel. I encourage anyone reading this to consider when and where shame has held them back from making an important improvement in their lives, acknowledge the shame as an obstacle, confront the actual problem at hand and then tell their story to hopefully inspire someone else.

It’s okay to be afraid. It’s not okay to let fear dominate your decision making.

I’m happy to say I had my first primary care appointment in four years on Nov. 16. While I’m not exactly falling apart, there are a few health issues other than my weight that I must confront, including, for the first time, higher than normal blood pressure.

I have a slate of appointments with specialists coming up over the next couple of months, and I will try to document my progress on becoming a physically healthier person as I write about my financial progress on Robbins’ Nestegg.

Nov 9, 2018

How I Got Over Alcohol


I’m an alcoholic – but it’s not what you think.

I would never claim to suffer the struggles of people with serious addictions to alcohol wherein they have developed a mental or physical dependency to the drug.

Actually, I’ve never had a mental or physical dependency on recreational drugs. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve used them – and not just the benign ones like marijuana and mushrooms, or the legal ones like booze and cigarettes – but the addiction just doesn’t happen for me. I put down cigarettes cold turkey, and I’ve been able to curb my drinking without the intervention of medication, a therapist, or a program. Habitual drug use was no more difficult to cease than a one-time experience using a drug.



I am, at my core, not an addictive person when it comes to recreational, mind-altering substances. And I know I am very, very lucky for that fact.

My Problem


That doesn’t mean I’m not an alcoholic. Alcoholism means that one consumes alcohol in a manner that creates mental and physical health problems – while I was never dependent on alcohol, I certainly did abuse it for a number of years.

My problem is that when I would drink, I would drink too fast, and I would not stop drinking until unconsciousness set in.

Starting in my teenage years, I was a binge drinker. I actually came within inches of washing out of college because of the volume of alcohol (and a few other, somewhat more benign things) I was consuming. At my first school, I literally fell off of a bridge due to my drinking – but because of a drunk’s dumb luck, I landed on my feet and walked away. Drunk dumb luck is an actual phenomenon I witnessed while working in the emergency department – for some reason, drunk drivers are a lot more likely to survive and/or walk away from the accidents they cause than other victims. Some emergency department physicians believe that this might be because alcohol puts their bodies in a more relaxed state, making it less likely they suffer traumatic injuries due to motor vehicle collisions.

Nevertheless, at the time, I didn’t register my survival due to drunk, dumb luck as a warning sign, and neither did most of the people around me. A second drinking incident on the same college campus resulted in the shattering of three of my front teeth, a disorderly conduct ticket and a hospital visit. I still failed to absorb the lesson life was trying to teach me.

During my first few years of adulthood, weekend evenings were often a haze of intoxication. I slept with people whose names and faces I no longer remember, I said embarrassing or hurtful things that friends would have to remind me of the next day and I would, at times, be the slurring, stumbling, vomiting loudmouth at parties.

Because I was drinking large quantities, I wasn’t drinking well. High Life beer, bottom-shelf whiskey, plastic 1.75 liter bottles of vodka, boxed wine. With good alcohol, there’s the possibility that one is enjoying the process of drinking and the aesthetic qualities of the drink. With cheap alcohol, you’ve given up and you’re pretty much admitting that you’re just trying to get shitfaced.

On nights where I was at home alone, or at work, or just not around alcohol, I didn’t drink, and I felt no urge to drink.

The Downward Spiral


When we met, at a young age, and went on to be married, my wife was troubled by my relationship to alcohol, but not troubled enough to raise it as an issue except the embarrassing moments when I would reach for the keys while blind, stinking drunk. While I would never dream of driving intoxicated while sober, at a certain point a young, male drunk person can be in denial about their own condition and try to get behind the wheel – and even argue with those trying to protect lives by taking their keys away.

I have no idea why Cheryl stayed with me through this phase of my life, but I’m glad she did.

My friends weren’t much help to me at this time. Most of them were poets and musicians and heavily drinking right beside me. Some of them were bartenders and servers who encouraged my habit.

Fast-forward to when we moved away from Lexington, Kentucky to northern New York. I no longer had this circle of support for my habit – but I no longer had much of a social life at all. I didn’t have an artistic community in which I could develop my crafts and find friends.

Through this, I continued drinking heavily – but the big difference was that I was now drinking at home, mostly alone, and mostly out of boredom.

Cheryl took a job laying out the weekend newspaper on Saturdays – since we shared a car, I was often her chauffer to work. The office was 25 miles away from our house (the paper had changed our home office in the middle of our lease, so we were stuck with a terrible commute in a very rural area of the country).

One day, after dropping her off, I stopped by the liquor store and bought a liter of vodka and a pack of Red Bull. It was in the middle of winter, college basketball was at one of its early season peaks, and I was ready for a day of chores, roundball and drinking Red Bull and vodka. The games were competitive, and after a few hours I stopped doing chores to watch sports, keeping a pint glass full of my intoxicating concoction.

I’m not exactly sure when I passed out, but I woke up after the sun had set to Cheryl’s text message telling me she was almost done at work and it was time to head to pick her up.

I knew I was still drunk and right on the verge of passing out again. I got behind the wheel anyway.

My dim recollection of that 25-mile drive to the newspaper’s office is that I couldn’t keep the car between the lines on the road. It was somewhat of a miracle I made it to the office in the first place – the area had a sizable Amish population clopping around in dark-colored buggies, a weekend influx of Canadian border-crossers who drove well below the speed limit and a population of college students who drove too fast and paid too little attention to the road. There was almost always a police presence on the road between home and the office.

But I made it there nonetheless, untouched and uninjured. In fact, I made it there so quickly that Cheryl was still putting the finishing touches on the Sunday paper before “putting it to bed,” so I stood in the office and tried to keep her company as she worked.

That is when she stood up, grabbed me by my arm and walked me out of the office. She pointed out that I wasn’t speaking clearly or coherently, couldn’t walk in a straight line, and wasn’t even able to stand up straight and still. She was horrified that I had gotten behind the wheel of our car, and even more horrified that I wanted to drive her home.

It was one of the low points of our marriage. She threatened divorce for the first time ever in our relationship, and as drunk as I was, I could tell she was serious.

I promised to change – and I did.

Step one was 30 days without alcohol entirely. She wanted me to prove that I was serious about changing myself. As I was not addicted to booze, that wasn’t a difficult accomplishment.

But abstaining from something does little to address one’s problem with that thing.

When I eventually let alcohol back into my life, I still was a poor gauge of how drunk I was getting. I still wanted to drink with everyone else at the party. I even still tried to get behind the wheel after drinking a few times – but I did stop fighting those who told me it was a bad idea.

That was my first moment of clarity.

A Reflection And A Divergence


My second moment of clarity came more recently. I have a friend back in hometown Lexington who kept drinking heavily while Cheryl and I were having our argument in northern New York. He was in declining health after a devastating divorce. We invited him to stay with us after we had moved to New Jersey, and eventually he did.

I have never been more disappointed in or worried about a friend in my life than I felt in the 1.5 years we spent with him in our house.

Every day he would come home from work a little earlier than us – taking the train – and would usually be stumbling, slurred-speech drunk before he made it to our doorstep.

He drank Fireball Whiskey and High Life beer every day. Every day – and pretty much all day if he wasn’t working.

He would try to hold profound discussions about science and philosophy and culture with us, but be utterly incoherent because of how drunk he became.

He would on a regular basis try to ply me with cheap beer and terrible whiskey.

He would become combative and say hurtful things to Cheryl – at times, it seemed like he was intimidated by her intelligence. Mind you, this was one of the smartest, kindest people I had ever met, but he was so drunk that he did not recognize his own belligerent behavior, and so often intoxicated that he no longer was able to keep up with us intellectually.

On quiet, peaceful evenings listening to jazz and soul, he would try to change the music to loud, aggressive songs.

He would attempt to dominate conversations with drunken rants, ignoring or refusing our attempts to redirect the tone or subject matter.

What’s worse, he would take offense whenever anyone pointed out his behavior, and storm off away from gentle attempts at intervention.

Gradually, I came to recognize in my friend some of the same behavioral traits that I had displayed when my drinking was worse, and it firmed my resolve to keep cutting back on my consumption or stop drinking entirely.

He eventually moved out of our house and back to Kentucky – and though we still love him very much, Cheryl and I are relieved he’s no longer living with us. We worry constantly about his well-being, though, as he’s returning to a circle of friends that will enable and support his habit, and he’s become so frail in recent years that alcohol may very well end up being the end of him.

Our divergence is striking. 

While my friend was spiraling deeper into the bottle, over the past 7 years I:

Stopped drinking more than one or two drinks while alone. Yes, I still enjoy intoxication, but it’s never something that I crave. I might have a glass of wine on a quiet Friday night at home, or a little snort of bourbon on Saturday afternoon, but a fifth of bourbon that once disappeared within a weekend now lasts me more than a month.

Stopped drinking on weekdays – as Cheryl and I were among the first 9-to-5 professionals in our social circle, it wasn’t a big deal not to drink on weekdays, so I just stopped.

Stopped drinking rotgut. When you’re living on a modest income, a drinking habit or hobby is a gigantic sandbag on your personal financial health, especially if you prefer top-shelf booze. That’s why there’s bottom-shelf cheap liquor and terrible tasting domestic beer at rock-bottom prices. It makes sure you’re able to keep getting drunk as life spirals down the drain. Now, when I occasionally drink, I drink good bourbon and higher quality beer. Trust me, it’s much better, I’m not trying to maximize my intake and it makes sense to splurge a little here.

Stopped trying to keep up with everyone else at parties. They have their ways of loosening up and having fun, and I have mine. Mine is less expensive and typically results in me being coherent and able to drive at the end of the night.

Stopped hanging out at bars. I still go to see live music, and Cheryl occasionally drags me out to one of the local watering holes, but there was a period in my life where almost all of my social activity took place at a bar. Now, in the latter half of my 30s, I can’t imagine spending hours upon hours, night after night, in a bar surrounded by drinking people. Take the alcohol away and it’s just a circle of familiar people. No bar necessary.

BUT

I did not stop drinking. Abstinence has no place in my life. Alcohol is just another substance, and I have developed the strength and discipline to use it like a responsible adult.

As far as regrets are concerned, I’m not sure I would be in such a good place now if I had not made serious mistakes and taken stupid risks along the way. I do regret driving drunk and putting people at risk, but otherwise, it’s been a life well-lived, avoiding the precipice of addiction.

A nice consequence of not being a boozehound anymore is that I can save additional money towards financial independence and/or retirement. In my drinking days, I would sometimes spend $200 or more a week on alcohol at bars and restaurants and to drink at home.

Now I can squirrel that money away to create a better life for Cheryl and I and to secure a future – and I am.

Nov 2, 2018

It's Okay To Let The Days Go By


It shouldn’t be any secret that I’m a music buff. I learned to play my first musical instrument when I was 5 years old, and I’ve been collecting music since I was able to buy my first cassette tape. I guess you all now know for sure that I’m a child of the pre-CD era.

Well, as I was recovering from bronchial and throat infections last weekend, Cheryl and I decided to attend a concert (the tickets had been bought before the illnesses struck) by Pink Talking Fish.

Pink Talking Fish is a cover/tribute band of sorts, in that they play setlists constructed entirely of other musicians’ material, as their name suggests, for the most part songs by Pink Floyd, The Talking Heads and Phish. I can’t recommend their music enough.

On Saturday, they played a Halloween-themed concert event in Asbury Park by covering Pink Floyd’s seminal “Dark Side of the Moon” album, interspersing songs by The Talking Heads and Phish between classics like “Breathe,” “Brain Damage,” and “Money.”

Let me be clear – I love “Dark Side of the Moon” – the production work on the album remains immaculate to this day, I can sing almost every guitar solo by heart (but I’m rubbish for lyrics) and overall the suite deserves its standing as one of the greatest rock albums every recorded, if not the best.

But let’s face it. “Dark Side of the Moon,” like much of Pink Floyd’s catalogue, is depressing. Particularly in its focus on death and fear of mortality. To me, the centerpiece of the album is “Time.”

The song is full of brilliant David Gilmour lyrics suggestive of mortal anxiety:

“And then one day you find ten years have got behind you./No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.”

“The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older/Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.”

“Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time/Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines.”

Every time I hear it, I re-examine all of the “frittering” and “wasting” I’ve done with the time that was given to me. I didn’t really leave home until 22. I didn’t really have much of a long-term relationship until the same age. I didn’t get a bachelor’s degree until I was 28. I didn’t start my career until I was 30. I’ve done a hell of a lot of frittering.

Every time I hear “Time,” I think about the finite bounds on my life, and how they always feel like they’re holding me down. At the recent Schwab IMPACT conference in Washington, D.C., a presenter mentioned that advisors’ could think of their clients lives in three 8,888-day segments (approximately 25 years): Birth to gradualtion from college, graduation from college to mid-life crises, and mid-life crises to death. I’m well into my second 8,888 days – nearing the top of the hill, if you will – on the old conception of longevity and life.

And I never do find the time to do all the things I want to. I want to go back to school and learn a new trade. I want to have kids. I want to develop side gigs and hustles to feel more productive and generate additional income. I want to travel. I want to start playing music again. I want to be financially independent – and I want to do it myself without thinking about or using my family’s wealth. I want, I want, I want. All of the time-anxiety makes me feel regret that I wasn’t doing any of this stuff before – and any failure to make progress leads to more fear, anxiety and regret.

But before Pink Talking Fish finished their set on Saturday, somewhere between “Any Colour You Like” and “Brain Damage,” they dove into a very different classic song: “Once in a Lifetime” by The Talking Heads.

David Byrne has a way of writing lyrics that make you think, but I’ve never considered “Once in a Lifetime” to be one of those songs. Most of the song consists of his manic ranting of rhetorical questions:

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house/With a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself, well/How did I get here?”

But it also includes a refrain that responds directly to David Gilmour’s time-anxiety.

“Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down/Letting the days go by, water flowing underground.”

David Byrne would have us “surrender to the flow” (to borrow a Phish lyric) – time passes no matter what you do. Things are going to happen to you no matter what you do. You inevitably will change, and more often than not, evolve for the better and make progress no matter what you do.

And because it can happen without much intention or effort, one can feel like an imposter.

“This is not my beautiful wife… This is not my beautiful house.”

And then, buried near the back of the song amidst a repeated refrain of “Same as it ever was,” a point where radio stations may already be fading out the volume, Byrne delivers the master stroke against Gilmour’s time anxiety:

Time isn't holding us up/Time isn't after us.”

To me, Byrne is telling us not to worry about “Letting the days go by,” because time as we know it is just an arbitrary measure, and it flows and feels differently for all of us. There is always time to make things better. There is always time to evolve. There is always time enough for accomplishments and achievements. We can’t let ourselves be dragged down by time anxiety. We shouldn’t measure out the remainder of our lives with coffee spoons like some sort of modern J. Alfred Prufock.

David Byrne has it right!

I’ll close with what has become a cliché motivational quote, but nevertheless one of my favorites as I proceedethrough middle age:

“It's Never Too Late To Be What You Might Have Been.” – George Eliot

Oct 10, 2018

What Am I Doing?


I have never been a great goal setter, thus I have never been good at achieving my goals. I am more of a learner than a teacher when it comes to living life with purpose and focus. I’ve always drifted kind of like a tumbleweed, taking my time.  It’s easy to blame my parents – I come from a lower-upper/upper-middle class background, my parents were both working professionals and I lived my childhood in comfort and was well-supported as a very young adult.

Then I fell in love and was married at a young age before I had started my career. I didn’t have to strive to define myself and for others to recognize myself like many young people – since it was in the days before social media had swept over our lives, I felt little social pressure to conform and catch up to peers my own age. I was happy being a late bloomer.

Nevertheless, in my experience covering financial planning, I’ve recognized the importance of laying out long-term goals, and in my research into the financial independence movement, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of setting aspirational five-year goals as well.

I’ve spent too much of my life waiting. As a result, I have several life goals I may not be able to accomplish.

Being a father.


This is, without a doubt, at the top of my list. I want to be a father more than anything else in my life right now. I’m not sure if my wife and I can have children – we’re financially stable, we have a nice environment in which to raise a child, but I’m 37 and she’s 39, we may have waited too long and it breaks my heart. I would trade everything else just to achieve this goal.

Going back to school...


..but maybe not for a degree. I want to earn several professional designations to become a well-rounded financial planner and expert. This will not only become a second line of business for myself, but it will also augment my skills as a financial writer. Journalism is one of my passions, but I see myself becoming more than a journalist moving forward.

Starting a side-gig


Maybe more of a “co-career” than a side-gig, as I would take my financial planning work at least as seriously as my writing.

Retiring all auto debt, most of the student debt


I wrote in my financial blog about my goal to pay down the $8,000 or so I still have left on my car and the nearly $32,000 in outstanding student loan debt my wife and I still carry. I think five years is plenty to come most of the way to achieving both goals – retiring both types of debt would mean paying down an average of $8,000 in principle each year, which may be biting off more than I can chew. I will write more about my escalating debt pay-down method in the future.

Buying a second car.


Cheryl and I have shared a car throughout the 15 years of our relationship, but if we’re going to have kids, we will definitely need a second car. Living in New Jersey with potentially changing commutes, a second car is more likely than not to be a necessity for us anyway. Unless I find a way to pay with cash, this complicated my debt-related goal above.

Traveling outside the U.S.


I’ve already traveled internationally – but Cheryl, my wife, has not. I would love to take her on a journey to Europe, the Caribbean or Asia while we’re relatively young.