The FIRE (financial independence/retire early) community is a growing demographic still trying to find its way. The FI part of the equation is easier to understand than the RE part. The issues revolve around the definition of retirement and what constitutes the appropriate lifestyle once FI is reached.
Some of the wealthiest individuals of the last half century provide an example. When Sam Walton was the richest man alive on the planet he still drove a beat up old pickup truck. He saw no reason to spend money on a new truck when the one he had was comfortable, did the job and gave him pleasure (a bit of a status symbol). In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Warren Buffett confessed he has been semi-retired for decades. Charlie Munger, Buffett’s right-hand man at Berkshire-Hathaway, joked Warren is good at doing nothing.
Like Walton, Buffett doesn’t go for the extravagant spending so common among the rich. Buffett’s suit is off the rack and he eats at McDonalds. He also lives in the same home he bought in 1958.
This last week an email arrived chastising me for my frugality. I was reminded my net worth is at the top of the list on Rockstar Finance. (I haven’t updated my net worth status in a while so the number listed is a bit shy.) The sender was concerned over how it looked for a blogger like me with an eight figure net worth to have an annual spending habit in the low twenties.
I responded with the same stories on Walton and Buffett above. I also reminded the concerned reader spending more would not make me happy and I was in no way interested in what people thought of my spending habits. If folks think I’m cheap that is their deal and doesn’t concern me.
What the reader missed (and he was exceptionally polite, and worried my spending level might offend some) was what really mattered in my life: joy and happiness.
Living in the boondocks makes it easier for me to spend less. The nearest retail outlet is nearly a half hour drive. I could shop online, but I tend to break out in a severe rash when engaged in the shopping experience. (For Father’s Day — yesterday here in the States — I wasted spent $3 in gas to visit a restaurant in Forest Junction (my old haunt) for a free glass of milk and dish of ice cream for the whole family. Life really is good in boondock country.)
At the end of the day I really don’t want for anything. I have a beautiful, loving wife and two awesome and wonderful daughters. Books are on my shelves waiting for consumption. The level of contentment I feel is greater than any other activity or spending could bring me.
There is a difference between happiness and joy; joy is more important. I’m happy most of the time, but always joyful. I found the right path to a joyful life at an early age. I was lucky. The noise of urban living never distracted me. My grandparents lived downstairs of the farmhouse and we lived upstairs until I was in middle school. Growing up in the 1960’s and 70s with grandparents you were sure to hear the lessons they learned living through the Great Depression. Like most kids, the lessons had a hard time sticking. As I grew older I remembered the stories and took them to heart. It made a difference.
There is a significant difference between granddad and me. Grandpa, who we called Doc, would never in a million years have told anyone his net worth. It was none of your damn business. I’m more open, but experience is showing me I should have listened closer to my grandparents in that arena too.
Growing up on a farm in a very rural area of 1970 Wisconsin meant we did things differently. We had more fun than you can imagine. My brother, uncle and I played cops and robbers on our bikes every summer. The dog days of summer always had a water fight or two. Those were good days I miss tremendously. They are gone now and only exist in here (pointing to my temple).
As hard as life was we always found time to laugh and tell jokes. We worked and played hard. Free time frequently meant a quick run to the creek (we pronounced it “crick”) to fish. When we were older we raced around the back forty on mini-bikes. The best we could do was 40 mph; we could also jump ramps.
We missed out on nothing. Nothing! I was as oblivious to the world at large back then. Buried deep in the recesses of my mind I was aware of a brave new world that hath such people in it as I am now.
We were happy as a tight knit family. We felt joy with rare exception. These days we play cards Friday night at my parents’ house. Afterwards I hug my mother and father and tell them I love them. Yes, even my dad. You see, money will never buy you the things that matter, will never buy you joy. And the happiness money buys is fleeting.
Money, after a certain point, is nothing more than a game to occupy one’s time. Money is a scorecard in the grand scheme of daily life. Nothing more.
Back to the FIRE Community and the Nouveau Riche
The FIRE community is comprised of highly intelligent people with honorable intentions. Lately we see the focus turning more toward the FI part of the equation. I like to pretend I had a bit to do with that.
Retirement is still a hotly discussed topic! Professor Jordan Peterson said it best when he stated most people don’t have a career and will never have a career. What they will have is a job. A job is what you do to keep a roof over your head and put food on the table. It is rarely a lovely experience. It’s work you have to do to earn money. A career, on the other hand, is something you enjoy immensely. Only 5% of people ever have a career. Most only have a job.
That explains the reason why so many in the FIRE community want to save like crazy so they can check out of the job and into a life that fills them with joy. Too many people trade a traditional job for a self-imposed job: income properties, small business or side hustle even though it doesn’t bring fulfillment, only a bit more free time.
Warren Buffett is pushing toward 90 and still goes to the office. I understand his drive. There is a certain comfort in doing what one loves. Charlie Munger is 94 and spends a serious percentage of is waking hours reading. He, like Buffett, is still dedicated to learning daily even at their age. Some might argue it’s a waste of time, but Buffett has expressed on numerous occasions the pleasure he gets searching for good companies to buy at a good price.
Retirement is a trap! I see plenty of people in this demographic on my social media pages. They fill their days with all kinds of activities. Before long they are doing things that create value. This is no surprise. The human spirit is designed to build, grow, share, experience, create. One recently semi-retired member of the community is working on stained glass projects. Good for her. Many start blogs or podcasts. Many travel, at least for a while. Then they invest in real estate (the other RE) or start a business or fill their days with a variety of side hustles.
Hear the Wisdom
My grandparents imparted powerful advice to us kids all those years ago. It shaped and formed our lives. Warren Buffett admits he is semi-retired. What he is really saying is that he has to do something to fill his days so it may as well be something he enjoys.
The uber-successful seem to never want to quit. Elon Musk had it made financially and put it all on the line to start a litany of businesses which promise to revolutionize the world we live in. Steve Jobs worked until his body gave out less than a month before his death. Even then he worked as much as possible from home.
Here is an old and often told story:
A scorpion came to the edge of the river and wanted to cross. The river was wide and deep. The only way across was if he received help.
The scorpion said to a nearby frog, “Frog, please take me to the other side of the river. I can ride on your back while you swim across.”
“Are you crazy!” said the frog. “If I let you ride my back you will sting me as we cross the river and I’ll drown. Scorpions sting frogs; it’s what scorpions do!”
“Why would I do that?” said the scorpion. “If I sting you while crossing the river I’ll drown with you. My request is honorable. Let me ride your back across the river.”
The frog saw the logic of the scorpion’s argument. The scorpion would die if he stung the frog while riding his back across the river.
The frog relented and allowed the scorpion to climb on his back. The frog stepped into the river and started swimming across. About half way across the scorpion stung the frog. As the poison started working the frog began to drown. The scorpion fell into the water as well.
“Why?” asked the frog as he started to go under. “Why did you sting me? Now you will die! Now you will drown with me!”
The scorpion replied words of wisdom before he went under the waves, “I am a scorpion. Scorpions sting frogs. It’s what scorpions do.”
Do not be fooled. We are what we are. Our minds and bodies were not made to be unproductive. We play and work to our happiness, joy and health.
You and I are human. Humans play, love and create. It is our nature. It’s what humans do.
Don’t be in a hurry to RE. FI is an honorable and noble goal I strongly encourage. Find the things which bring you joy and happiness, then do them. And don’t let anyone convince you to live their version of life because therein lies sorrow.
Wealth Building Resources
Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?
Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.
PeerSteet is an alternative way to invest in the real estate market without the hassle of management. Investing in mortgages has never been easier. 7-12% historical APRs. Here is my review of PeerStreet.
QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. Quickbooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.
A cost segregation study can save $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregations studies work and how to get one yourself.
Amazon is a good way to control costs by comparison shopping. The cost of a product includes travel to the store. When you start a shopping trip to Amazon here it also supports this blog. Thank you.
Burnout sets in post-tax season. Long hours working leads to exhaustion only to be repeated the next day eventually takes its toll. Recovery is less certain than in the past. Age is part of it, but the new tax code and demands from a wider audience also play a role. Due to these factors there will be significant changes to this blog going forward.
The most notable change will be the publishing schedule. Tax season became so overwhelming something had to give. I reduced the publishing schedule from three times a week with a “Stalking” edition on Saturday to twice per week.
What surprised me was the increase in traffic when I reduced the amount of material published! I was warned about this by several bloggers. Nailing the equivalent of five or more average-length novels per year to the blog can burn out readers. It was even causing some to unsubscribe. I might be slow, but I eventually catch on.
The end of tax season may account for much to the uptick in traffic after the publishing reduction. Regardless, my desire to write in other venues is growing. Whether traffic climbs or not, the new publishing schedule will remain. Monday and Thursday are the new publishing dates, replacing the Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule in effect for the past year or so.
The “Stalking the Accountant” posts are reduced from every Saturday to the last Saturday of the month only. (This “Stalking” post fulfills next week’s weekend post.) I’ll share some of my personal activities in “Stalking”, as always. Other matters will also be addressed where regular posts would be inappropriate.
Since our last “Stalking” publication we had a few drawings for money! On March 30th Gina V. of Florence, S.C. collected a $50 Amazon gift card for opening an email of the latest TWA post. In honor of the end of tax season a drawing on April 16th from a list all of subscribers made Charlie M. of Las Vegas, Nevada the proud owner of a $250 Amazon gift card.
My previous writing schedule made it difficult to honor my commitments to other writing projects. With the extra time I will work hard to mend bridges ignored. When I publish in other venues I’ll keep you updated on social media and weekend editions here, if allowed.
A reduced writing schedule also means I can focus more on quality. Quantity is fine for certain issues, but digging deeper is required in many instances and if time is short the quality tends to be the same.
Five or so years ago I wrote a series of articles on a content farm dealing with and winning an IRS audit. The articles were short, yet valuable. Changes at the IRS and in the tax code require I update these pieces. I will re-write the entire series with a massive expansion. Because these articles will be a virtual bible for the accounting industry they will not be published in the traditional manner here. Each section will be unavailable until the entire series is complete. Each section will be available for purchase with the whole series available at a lower price than individual article purchases combined. People who want to audit-proof their return may wish to buy that specific article. Tax professionals will want the entire guide. The best part is I will update these articles in real time so once you purchase a section you will have access to future updates. The IRS Audit Manual should be available by late summer or autumn 2018.
Warren Buffett has a 20-slot punch card philosophy to investing. I will apply the same methodology to this blog.
Over the decades I’ve written more material than I can count. Writing for me is personal with a side benefit of a modest income. My interests are catholic (little c) so writing the same genre for too long starts to feel stale to me. When I decided to become proficient writing flash fiction I set a goal of 2,000 stories. When I hit 2,000 I was done. The end. Finito. Goodbye.
The Wealthy Accountant has been my most enjoyable writing to date. I write what I know and enjoy talking about. But money is more a side discussion in my personal life. I’m more of a business type of guy than a money talker. Truth is money is pretty straight forward. Control your impulses, spending less than you earn and invest the excess. Even a bad investment is better than no investment. A million words on frugality and investing starts feeling stale to me.
Business is a different story. Writing about running a successful enterprise is endless. Reading another story of how someone paid off debt and retired at any age seems rote. Business is a bit more challenging; value creation more involved.
Over the last several months I’ve included hints of the future around this blog. I published Countdown Clocks. It should have been a dead giveaway. Subtle hints didn’t seem to connect unless readers are keeping it a secret from me. Then I made it less obvious.
On the Where Am I page below the calendar are the words “All good things. . .” printed backwards. Below this is a large bold number. The number is a countdown clock. When it reaches zero this blog will have 500 published articles. The IRS Audit Manual and other private publications here do not count toward the total. When the clock reaches zero I will stop publishing here. By applying a sort of 20-slot punch card approach I will need to focus on what is most important rather than filling column inches. Everything has an expiration date and so does this blog. (Come to think of it, so do I.)
What I’m Reading
The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine will Remake Our World by Pedro Domingos. Not only interesting, but concerning. Computers are starting to learn from the massive reservoir of information gathered each day. The future will be radically different from even the recent past. With all good comes some bad is all I can say.
What I’m Watching
Brian Greene on the B-Theory of Time. I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately; the kind of time experienced in an Einsteinian world.
What I’m Listening To
There is a publishing opportunity to write a story on the rollercoaster ride of blogging. The Karen Carpenter story will play a central role.
Now I’m off to spend more time with my family. I’m sure you understand.
Less than two months ago I faced the second largest ethical dilemma of my career. About eight years ago I faced my biggest ethical challenge. I will share both stories here today and the outcome. My struggles should prove fertile ground for contemplation of your own moral judgment.
As a society we think of certain people as more prone to ethical lapses. This might be the result of the professions involved. Police officers make repeated ethical decisions every day. Judges, prosecutors and even jury members must deal with their personal ethics and that of others. But law enforcement or military personnel aren’t the only ones thrust into serious choices. Attorneys and doctors are forced into making decisions that might not seem ethical at first, but they are often forced to make a choice and fast. No choice is an ethical choice all too often with serious consequences.
Your favorite accountant also faces ethical issues. I’m enrolled to practice before the IRS (EA) and that means I have an ethical code of conduct forced upon me (Treasury Circular 230). But it isn’t enough! Every decision I make in my office has some level of ethical consideration involved. The bare-bones guidelines governing EAs is only a framework. Many decisions must be made quickly in the gaps.
Non-professionals also deal with ethics. The demand to choose the most ethical route might be less rapid-fire, but everyone still faces tough choices from time to time. By revealing my two most difficult decisions of my career I hope to get you thinking about choices you make in life and the moral and ethical issues involved. There is no doubt the comment section will be lively with this one as opinions vary widely when ethical choices are discussed.
I Did it Right and Paid Hush Money
This one happened less than two months ago and is still a festering thorn in my tail.
In Wisconsin we have a personal property tax for businesses only. In January a form comes in the mail to list all the business assets outside the building. Computers are exempt from the tax, but desks, phone systems, copiers and faxes do count. The value of the property is decreased each year for depreciation in estimated value. The value is then taxed at the rate real property rate.
My client received his personal property tax forms in January two years ago. The report is due March 1st. This is a serious issue. Most business clients don’t have their financials in to me by the time I need to file the personal property tax report. When most clients are quizzed on new purchases they generally draw a blank until they need a deduction on their income tax return. By then it’s too late for the personal property report.
As preparer I’m required to sign the return attesting the report is true and accurate to the best of my knowledge under threat of perjury. Even though the return might be wrong, I don’t know this until after the fact and usually after the due date.
The client in question purchased a large piece of equipment two years ago. It was missed on the first return for the reason listed above. Then, last January, we added the new equipment to his disclosure. This added close to $100,000 to his business’s personal property. His bill from the municipality would jump from a few hundred dollars to $2,000.
Last December the bill came in and he flipped. We did everything right, but he was mad we didn’t cheat on his personal property tax report. After several rounds of debate he demanded I pay him half the tax owed.
Here is where the ethical dilemma turns ugly. His business and personal return alone isn’t enough for me to even consider such an outrageous demand. But he’s connected to one of my five largest clients. Losing all that business will be noticeable. I paid the $1,000.
You can grill my tail in the comments. You are 100% right. I was wrong to pay half his tax bill in the name of saving a client.
Of course, you know what happened next, right? Well, in December he got his personal property tax bill and in January he got the forms to report this year’s information. My office manager filled it out last year and filled it out the way the client wanted this year and put my name on it to sign. I refused. I made it abundantly clear this office will neither prepare nor sign another personal property tax report for this client ever again! If he wants to cheat I will have no part of it.
My office manager hand delivered the personal property tax forms back to the client with my response. She pointed out the offending machine and he made it clear he will not report it.
Things have been frosty since. I did the right thing except for writing a check. In the end it is almost a certainty I will lose one of my biggest clients and all work connected to them. It probably would have been better if I cut ties immediately.
The ethical dilemma above is clear to see in hindsight. I did a lot right and also committed what I consider a grievance error.
Every option available creates an ethical problem. If I comply I’m an accomplice to fraud. If I do what I did I only pushed the unethical act back on the client. And if I fire the client I push the ethical issues to the next tax professional. As you can see, even no choice, standing like a deer in the headlights, is still a clear choice with ethical implications.
What would you have done? Do you think I was wrong? Would you have written a check to keep a client? Paying a client’s tax isn’t illegal. I committed no crime. I was only asked to prepare a false return and refused. Morally the ground I stand on is higher. But we are talking ethics, kind readers. The decision isn’t always so clear cut in such cases.
My Greatest Ethical Challenge Ever
I have a reputation for handling very difficult cases against the IRS. I have a tax attorney in D.C. on speed dial. Her rate starts at $1,000 per hour. For the dirtiest cases we call her in.
The case in discussion here didn’t involve outside help. I did this one all on my own.
Sometimes when an accounting or tax firm gets into tax trouble I’m called in. It makes for a unique situation, for sure. The IRS usually laughs when they see me defending the competition. When I was done with Revenue on this case the laughing had stopped.
The tax firm involved had about $800,000 of profits annually. They are a slightly larger firm than mine. An audit revealed some irregularities and the IRS assessed them with $1.2 million in back taxes, penalties and interest. It was rightfully owed.
The auditor made a few errors in assessing tax. When I pushed back I was threatened with preparer penalties. I was called into the IRS office. I brought the only paperwork I would need. The agent made it clear I was in serious trouble. This is when I pulled out the federal court paperwork already filled out. You see if you want to attack a tax professional you don’t do so in Tax Court where you need to prove your innocence. You go to federal court where you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. I finished my argument with, “You file any penalties against me and I file this in federal court. I want to see the prosecutor dumb enough to get his butt chewed by a federal judge over preparer penalties against an individual who DIDN’T PREPARE THE RETURN!”
The auditor swallowed her tongue. I remember her words clearly, “I’m glad you told me this.” I’m sure she did. Of course she could have looked at her paperwork before she levied the threat to back me off a case. As I left I turned back and very quietly said, “You’re going to regret doing this.” I was pissed.
Six months later the IRS couldn’t collect a penny and the auditor was gone.
Through a series of procedural maneuvers I backed the IRS into a corner. Eventually they sent a guy from the appeals office in Dallas. That’s a long trip for little ol’ me.
The meeting with the appeals officer, client and me happened in my conference room. My client was grilled for assets. He kept professing he had few assets. Most of the client’s income was off the table. (That story would be a long post in and of itself.) At one point the agent asked the client if he had any expensive jewelry. My client said no.
But that was a lie! He just bought his wife a $25,000 ring. I saw the receipt. That was one nice rock!
When the inquisition was finished I filed the coup de grace and had my client deemed uncollectable. Not bad for a guy who owed over a million and pulled in close to a million annually.
One of my CPAs at the time asked me if what I did was ethical. I defended myself by saying it would have been unethical of me NOT to defend the client to the nth degree. After all these years I’m no longer certain.
As happens all too often, the client dodged a bullet and went right back to the well. This time he brought a bigger shovel. I took a pass. He was no longer a client. But there is no doubt in my mind I enabled his behavior.
I take a big chance sharing these stories. I kept the details vague for a reason. All information that would lead to identifying the client has been removed.
Tax professionals are a large part of this blog’s readership. IRS agents and state revenue departments also drop in unannounced. By sharing my ethical standards I expose myself to risk of sanction or retaliation. However, these issues are too important to ignore. Hiding from the truth doesn’t make my profession better. Only by sharing my experiences and choices can the demographic grow.
When over a million dollars are on the line we are starting to talk serious money. The ethical implications are huge.
I never said a word when the agent asked my client about jewelry. If I were asked I would have told the truth. But I wasn’t asked and the IRS agent had no reason to believe I had additional information.
What are the ethical implications? If I spoke up I would have betrayed the client I was representing. Can you imagine an attorney throwing his client under the bus? I felt it was the same thing. Now I’m not so certain.
Enrolled agents have virtually no privilege with clients. People need to understand licensed tax professionals (CPAs and EAs) have to comply with most IRS requests for information or face penalties and/or sanction. Only attorneys have privilege with clients.
This final story bothers me on two levels. First, the size of the amount due was large. This wasn’t a minor issue. Once you cross into seven figures the gloves come off. The second problem for me was my actions enabled the client. He went back to digging a new hole.
The worst part of this ethical dilemma was why I did it. An IRS agent pissed me off by her low level of professionalism. I used my 30 years of experience to gut her just because I could. It sounds like smart talk, but because I won the game I actually walked the talk. And when the dust settled I had to contemplate my CPA employee’s comment: Was what I did ethical?
The real questions should be: Why don’t I fight at that level all the time? For one I don’t have the energy. And second, most cases don’t have the facts to accomplish what I did.
Time for a Debate
This is where you can tell me how wrong I am. The second ethical issue above is a large number while the first issue above is highly questionable.
What would you have done? If you hire a tax pro would you expect that kind of defense? When it comes to taxes is it anything goes? I hope not. I think my moral compass is better aligned than that.
Treasury Circular 230 is clear on the matter. Section 10.21 states tax professionals governed by the rules of Treasury Circular 230 must inform the client of errors and the consequences. In other words I have to tell you if you are cheating when you probably already know you are cheating! I also have to tell you the potential penalties. There is nothing in there saying I have to fire the client! However, I think it’s clear I’m not allowed to sign a return attesting its accurate when I know it isn’t. But I can still keep representing the client. Talk about a conflict of interest (which is covered in the circular, too).
I hope we can get a lively debate in the comment section. The personal property report issue is what triggered this post. I’m very interested in how you would handle the situations I had.
My goal is to get you to think about the ethical implications of your decisions. Many times life gives us all bad options and not much time to make said choice. Doctors make life and death decisions in a heartbeat. The police, prosecutors and judge can destroy an innocent life with one bad decision.
And tax professionals can make or break the personal finance issues of clients. Retirement, early or not, is affected by tax choices. The answers are rarely crystal clear.
This isn’t about right or wrong. It’s about making a choice when all the answers are wrong. About making the most ethic choice of those available.
Countless blogs and websites provide lists on how to save money. Turn out lights, turn down the heat in winter and the library are good ideas. Mr. Money Mustache has a strong drive to bike. On several occasions he has published on the benefits of biking. Biking is good for your health and cuts energy use. Reducing or eliminating what he calls a “clown-like car habit”, you cut spending by serious coin.
Like many readers I undertake a number of these ideas. I keep my house 60 degrees F in the winter. To keep warm I wrestle Mrs. Accountant and the kids to keep them away from the thermostat. I use natural lighting whenever available.
The farmstead is a whisker more than 15 miles from my office. I bike about 100 days a year. The savings are modest, but noticeable. A 30 mile round trip costs me about $15 according to the IRS mileage rate. My vehicles are purchased used and run for a couple decades before they are replaced so my vehicle cost is less. I estimate my real cost per mile is closer to 30 cents. This means every bike ride to the office allows me to keep an extra $9 in my pocket, tax-free. (You don’t pay an extra tax for not spending money.)
A Lesson from Walmart. Yes, Walmart
Back around 2008 Walmart started to examine its energy costs. The idea was to offer affordable compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) to customers; the thought being CFLs lasted longer so Walmart would soon have more shelf space for other products. The energy savings customers experienced would likely be spent at Walmart on other items.
The discussion eventually turned internal. What if Walmart used CFLs in their stores? One idea was to replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs in the ceiling fans on display. Of the 3,230 stores Walmart had at the time, the average store had ten ceiling fans. Each ceiling fan had four bulbs.
Each bulb produced a minor savings, but when the Law of Large Numbers took hold Walmart stood to reduce their utility bill $6 million per year! Management had an easy decision.
Since then Walmart has expanded their energy philosophy to include utilizing as much natural lighting as possible and electric semis to deliver products to stores around the U.S.
CFLs cost more than incandescent bulbs upfront, but the longer life of the CFL (8-10 times as long) and energy savings more than cover the initial capital outlay. Total savings from reduced energy use is several times the entire upfront cost.
Lesson from a Humble Accountant
My memory is slipping with age. I can’t remember the exact year I transitioned to CFLs and later LEDs. What I can share is how I determined when it was a good idea to make the switch. Regardless the exact date, I was an early adaptor.
We will focus on my office to keep the discussion simple. I used the same thought process to transform my lighting at home.
Lighting is an important consideration in a tax practice. Eyes get tired easy enough looking at a computer screen all days and trying to decipher smudged and faded documents. Security lighting and signage are also important.
The outside of my office building is covered by floodlights and security cameras. The entrance light is always on. Security lights and the sign are on a photovoltaic trigger. This means the two lights at the entrance are on 24/7 and the sign and security lighting average 12 hours of operation per day — more in the winter, less in summer.
I forget the exact wattage used so I’ll stick with 100 watts per bulb when incandescent bulbs were used. My research showed an equivalent CFL used only 26 watts. Each hour of operation used 76 fewer watts per unit.
The hourly savings didn’t amount to much. However, when a light is operating an average of 12 hours a day 365 days a year we get 4,380 hours of annual use. 4,380 hours of use times 76 watts of reduced energy consumption per hour equals 332,880 fewer watts used per year. Reduced energy consumption of 332 kilowatts times $.12 per kilowatt and we save 39.84 per unit! We have twelve units.
The lighting replacements paid for themselves in less than a year! And they lasted longer.
Inside the office we have 40 of those 4-foot tube CFL bulbs. We use as much natural lighting as possible, but we still operate half the light banks most days.
The typical office uses what is called a T12 linear fluorescent bulb. Each bank has two or four bulbs. T12 bulbs use 40 watts.
Offices are turning to smaller T8 bulbs. The length is the same but the diameter is a bit smaller. T8s kick out the same light as a T12 and tend to last somewhat longer (modestly in my experience), using 32 watts per hour.
The office has on average 20 lights on each day for 10 hours. Two-hundred lighting hours using 32 watts instead of 40 watts reduces electricity usage 1,600 watts per day or 320,000 watts on a 200 day work year. (I cut the work year to adjust for reduced summer hours.) 320 kilowatts time $.12 adds to a modest $38.40 in saving per year.
T8s are easier on the eyes and don’t fade as much as T12s. You might remember seeing one side of these linear bulbs in an office turning black. This happens as the bulbs ages. The bulb still works, but output is reduced. T8s have fewer problems with dimming as they age. For accountants this is a blessing for our eyes.
Security lighting has since converted to LEDs which use even less energy. We’ll forgo the math to keep the story moving. Lights with heavy use are worth the extra cost of LEDs. Security lights, the sign and the entrance are LED lights. LEDs also weather the outdoors and cold better.
LEDs have one additional advantage. Incandescent and CFL lights blast light in every direction. LEDs focus with a narrower footprint. This means our security lighting is brightest where we want it.
No More Complaining
You can hear the groans when Mr. Money Mustache reiterates once again the necessity of biking over an automobile. The complaints follow fast on his heels. You can’t haul stuff with a bike. (MMM proved that wrong.) It’s too cold, hot, dark, rainy, blah, blah, blah. You can’t bike where I live because of the piles of snow, or, it’s too far to bike.
MMM doesn’t buy the complaints and neither do I. Small changes can add up to big savings. There is a point of diminishing returns. As my office lighting energy use has declined, every additional capital expenditure to reduce energy use further has less bang for the buck. With security lights now using 12 watts per hour of operation I need to focus elsewhere to reduce energy use.
Driving sucks a lot of cash out of the pocket. Lighting can put a few dollars in your pocket per month; biking can keep hundreds in the First National Bank of Wallet. My commute is a hefty 30 miles round trip. If Pete knew this we’d need the paddles to bring him back. (Don’t walk into the light, Pete!)
Even driving an older vehicle squanders $9 per commute, or $45 per week, or $2,340 per year. (I think I’m going to be nauseous.) Biking when the sun is shining (as I do) cuts perhaps as much as $1,000 per year from my transportation budget!
It’s true. Our frugal efforts alone will not change the world. At best it will allow us a lifestyle with a smaller carbon footprint. A couple thousand tax-free dollars doesn’t hurt either.
Where it starts to add up is when we work together as a team. When thousands and millions start adopting better choices in lighting and transportation the numbers become mind-boggling.
An unenlightened major corporation like Walmart was able to shave $6 million per year off their energy bill. The number is already big enough to make a difference.
Now it’s your turn to join in.
Save yourself, save the world. Love frugal without giving up a thing.
Compare LED prices at Amazon. A few minutes of math could lower your energy bill.
A clickbait title like above requires some quantification before we begin. It’s not what you think. Fewer than one in a thousand have a clue what I am about to reveal. And the personal finance ramifications are incredible. If you live the story the cost can be a million or more; it can even cost your life.
J Money from Rockstar Finance recently sold his site so he could focus on his blog: Budgets are Sexy. J’s work over the years is legendary. His work has helped countless people in desperate need. As he exited the building he had cash remaining in the community fund. I was contributing $10 per month and added $500 to the Debt Drop program in September in honor of Suicide Prevention Month. The community fund was ending as new management took over Rockstar.
J emailed bloggers asking any who would be willing to take $100 to do a good deed in their community and write about it. I answered I would, but didn’t need the $100; the $100 would be my contribution and the idea I had would require a bit more than $100. J’s original goal was to enlist 20 bloggers; he now has 21. Another example of how the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) community is making our world a better place.
Before we begin, would you hand me the box of tissues next to you. What I am about to write is very personal and painful. This is a story about how I almost sold my business and walked out on life. I had the pills in my hand as I contemplated ending it all. A moment that should have been filled with joy changed my perception of life and love forever.
And it started from my misconception of sex, or more accurately, gender.
The Gift of Life
I’ve become so numb, I can feel you there
Become so tired, so much more aware
By becoming this all I want to do
Is be more like me and be less like you.
—Numb, Linkin Park
Mrs. Accountant and I waited to have children. I wanted to be financially secure before bringing a life into this world. The truth is I never wanted children. Deep down I felt I’d be a terrible parent and the thought scared the wits out of me.
When we decided to have children Mrs. Accountant was so happy; I prayed to God the day would never come.
Finances were better than they ever were when I was growing up in the backwoods of Nowhere, Wisconsin. I remember our kitchen table when I was a young child consisted to two sawhorses with a piece of plywood laid across them. I was too young to know how poor we were. Then I grew up.
Now it was my turn to start the next generation. Mrs. Accountant had difficulty conceiving, not that I was complaining. For this crazy accountant it was all fun without a baby bump. I was happier than a pig in, ah, you know what I mean.
Then the inevitable happened. Our first child was on the way and I adjusted to the New World Order.
Regular doctor visits indicated everything was going smooth. We attended Lamaze classes. These sessions were designed to give the mother confidence in giving birth, as if she had any choice at this point. Dad was there to learn a thing or three, too. Unfortunately, fate would exempt me using the newly acquired knowledge.
It was right after the holidays when Mrs. Accountant didn’t feel well one morning. Within an hour her water broke and we on our way to the hospital. The baby was due February 28, over a month early.
The doctor suppressed labor to give the baby time to develop more before breathing air. Eventually the wait had to end. Our first daughter entered this world early and spent 19 days in intensive care at Theda Clark hospital in Neenah, Wisconsin.
In the end it was a minor problem modern medicine could fix. Life was good.
Until we tempted fate again, that is.
The Son of Cronus Awaits the Fool
My brother and I are five years apart in age. It’s only a coincidence my daughters are exactly the same number of years apart in age as well.
Waiting to have children is a double-edged sword. I was 31 when my first daughter was born. If we wanted another child we needed to make up our mind soon.
I wanted more time before we added to the herd; Mrs. Accountant felt her biological clock ticking. I’ll give you one guess who won.
Since it took time for Mrs. Accountant to conceive the first time we needed to get to work. (It’s good work, but the pay is, well, shall we say, awesome!)
We were prepared this time around. Medical issues with our first daughter meant we needed a specialist to prevent a repeat. We found an OB-GYN with ample experience with delivery issues. What could possibly go wrong?
The pregnancy went smooth. Soon the happy day arrived and it was time for baby number two.
Due to the emergency nature of the previous birth I wasn’t allowed in the delivery room. This time I would see the magical moment my child would enter the world with my own eyes.
Our first child came cesarean. The doctor decided it would be best to do the same this time around so no labor issues could ruin what was so far a picture perfect pregnancy.
As reluctant as I was to have children I was eager to see the process in action. Three doctors were working in the delivery room as I watched. The incision was made and then widened a tad before the doctor’s hands massaged my child’s head through the opening.
Once the head was out the rest of the baby slid out easy.
The OB-GYN said, “Congratulations sir, you have a son!”
Another doctor immediately said, “Look again, doctor. Sir, you have a daughter!”
All I remember is mumbling, “It’s both.”
I actually called my child “It.” I was so numb I felt nothing. It? What was wrong with me?
The delivery room was dead quiet from that point on. Mrs. Accountant kept asking what was wrong. For once in my life I couldn’t find words.
Boy or Girl?
The doctor closed the incision as I was shown to a waiting room. I was informed the doctor needed to make some calls to figure out what to do.
I was allowed to see Mrs. Accountant. I managed to explain what had happened.
The birth certificate read:
How could I face the world? My child, my baby, was a. . . A what?
The first question people ask when you have a child is, “Boy or girl?”
I had to answer, “I don’t know?”
People think you are pulling their leg when you say it.
It was the middle of tax season (no comments on my planning skills). Mrs. Accountant needed rest so I went home to pick up my oldest daughter from my parents. My office is between the hospital and home.
Bev was still working when I stopped. I couldn’t even enter the building I was trembling so badly. All I could get out was, “I’m not coming back.” I tried to tell her to sell everything; I was done. Bev feared the worst and I wasn’t in good enough shape to tell her what happened. Even driving was a stupid thing for me to be doing.
If you think this story has nothing to do with personal finance you’re going to see how wrong you are. This story is perfect for a tax and personal finance blog.
We had insurance; thank God for that. The medical bills approached a million dollars in the first few years and the out-of-pocket was substantial, too. My wealth at the time was working toward the second million. It is a blessing I had the financial ability to make sound medical decisions without considering money.
Our child needed several surgeries the first few months. The gonads were purplish masses and precancerous. It was, as the doctors said, a “medical imperative” they be removed immediately.
The gonads hadn’t dropped so they were deep inside in the position of ovaries. They were removed when she was three weeks old. That was surgery number one.
Our baby had ambiguous genitalia. There was a distended, though not fully formed, penile structure and a vaginal opening. The urinary tract exited both and was certain to cause infection soon if not corrected.
A decision had to be made in the gender of the baby. The University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison did a genetic test. The results was X iso Yp.
In laymen’s terms it meant our baby was conceived male. After a few cell divisions the Y chromosome became isolated. Our baby, my baby, had ~15% of her cells with the XY chromosome, or male, and 85% X. XY is male; XX is female. When you only have X instead of XX it’s like have no sex chromosome at all! In such cases the human body tends toward the androgynous, or feminine. This explained the ambiguous genitalia.
In my mind X meant girl. 85% beats 15% so girl it is. The doctors also encouraged us to choose female for our child. One, it’s easier to make a female medically. Constructing male organs are usually less functional and our child would always tend to be more feminine in appearance. And two, the genetic test said girl and my analytical mind would have taken any result with greater than 50%. It’s how I’m wired.
That was surgery two. There were many more to follow.
Guilt took over. It was my fault our daughter was deformed! The Y chromosome only comes from dad and my genetics failed. The guilt was overwhelming. Get me in a corner talking about this and I still fight back tears. The wound cut deep and the pain never went away.
All the while the stuff above was happening I fell deeper and deeper into depression. One night I went out to the barn and put my head in a noose. A few nights later I emptied a bottle of pills in my hand. In either case I stopped short. Don’t ask me why. The pain was so deep there was no feeling left.
As this was happening I attended a support group from Reach Counseling. Only a few children are born each year in Wisconsin with such issues. I was told once an average of two babies per year in the state have what my youngest daughter has. A traditional support group wasn’t available.
This support group had every sex issue known to man in it. Victims of abuse and even a few sex offenders attended. (Many sex offenders are victims of sexual assault in their childhood and seek out support groups to deal with their issues.) And then there were the odd couples like Mrs. Accountant and me.
I thought the whole thing was stupid at first. There was a young woman dealing with a childhood of sexual assault while her dad was there due to assaulting his daughter. Several men were dealing with sexual assault issues from their childhood. Then there was a guy I affectionately called Dudeman. Every sentence he said ended with “Dude!” He was a good guy, just weird.
Every Thursday our group met and talked out our emotions and problems. I broke down every week. “My baby’s an abomination and it’s my fault,” I cried. It was an emotional roller coaster with the only ending a bad one. I shirked my parental duties for a pity party.
Shortly after my daughter’s second surgery I was in the support group crying when a young Asian man dealing with assault issues of his own turned to me and said, “In my culture you would be the most popular man in the village. Your daughter is special. Every man would want your daughter as his wife.”
He was from Laos. His childhood wasn’t easy. And here was this man who could only speak broken English telling me my child is a gift!
The pain and guilt have never gone away, but that was the day I stopped thinking about me and started thinking about my little girl. She is NOT an abomination! She is a GIFT! I was acting like an a$$. My daughter needed her dad and not some sanctimonious coward trying to find the courage to end his life.
The tears stopped instantly. I continued attending the support group for about a year. The young man from Laos eventually moved on. I doubt he even knows he saved my life and gave a beautiful young lady a good childhood.
My youngest daughter reaches the age of majority in a few months. She is a happy person filled with joy and dreams. Maybe I wasn’t such a bad dad after all.
Reaching for Help
Then I got an email from J at Rockstar Finance.
The moment I read the letter I knew I had to participate and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
I hated Reach Counseling at the time. They symbolized my greatest failure in life, or so I thought. Now, almost 18 years later, I wanted to contribute to the organization that changes the lives of so many, changed my life.
Reach Counseling helps sexual assault victims in northeast Wisconsin. They also have programs to help sex offenders rebuild their life. The work never ends.
Even if you read the news poorly you know of all the women coming out in the #metoo movement. The Silence Breakers are Time Magazine’s people of the year. The number of people floating through my social media feeds raising their hand as also a victim of sexual assault is depressing. Most people knew back brain about the casting couch. Harvey Weinstein isn’t a total surprise.
The real surprise is the massive swell of victims silently suffering finally coming out to be heard. I’ve seen plenty in my days and know the devastation sexual assault causes. Almost from the beginning of this blog a woman reached out to me for help. She was sexually assaulted by her step dad since she was three or four years old. The assaults went on for years. She is in her forties now and struggles with the issues. She is intelligent and hard working. She is a survivor! Now I help her with personal finance issues so she can have the life she deserves, the life her stepfather raped from her.
I contacted Reach Counseling and showed them the email thread from J. I spoke with Kim Massey at Reach and explained to her what I wanted to do. Mrs. Accountant came with me. She said I was shaking as I told the story. The emotions are still there as I fought back tears. I haven’t evolved as far as I pretended.
The goal is to pay it forward. I can’t pay Reach back for what they did. Sure, I can donate money and I did: $500. But there was much more I had in mind.
I outlined a three pronged program serving victims of abuse, sex offenders and those at risk of abuse. I surmised if money is the number one reason for divorce, financial issues might pay a role in sexual assault and the healing process.
The issues people face when assaulted runs deep. Emotions run wild as the victim of crime tries to deal with what happened. And the kids still need food on the table.
Women are disproportionately affected. When I donated the $500 I had no string attached. I was informed a few hours ago by Kim Massey (I’m writing this the night before it’s published) some of the money was used to help a single mother with two children ages 9 and 12. They just moved into an apartment and have no furniture. The money was used for a Christmas tree and some gifts for the kids and even something for mom. The unspent money is in a fund for other families. I was told “. . .this gift filled their house with joy!”
J reminded me why I write this blog in the first place: to help people understand money better. I am working with Reach to build a program where I personally help people with serious financial issues. They need this advice more than anyone. I will use my experience and knowledge to make my community a better place.
In the past I’ve raised funds for Special Olympics. Now The Wealthy Accountant will adopt Reach Counseling, contributing a significant portion of its income to their cause along with my time and talent.
Please join me in this important work. Together we can do more than any person alone can. Support organizations similar to Reach Counseling in your community. Consider donating to Reach as well.
The workload is endless and demanding. You can read more about Reach Counseling and contribute here. No gift is too small. Consider an automatic monthly gift. This community is blessed with so much we can make a difference. You never know who you will help. It could be a woman fighting to survive after an assault; you might help a young girl break free from a violent and abusive environment; or maybe you’ll help a crazy accountant who needs a knock up beside the head to understand his child is a gift, a beautiful, wonderful gift.
Reach Counseling also has a crowd funding fundraiser going on right now. If you think men can’t be victims of abuse, think again. There is a moving video at this link of a man who found Reach after childhood abuse. It gave him a new lease on life.
Christmas Eve and Christmas morning I’m going to raise my glass in a toast to the single mother with two children struggling to survive.
May you have peace, my friend. May you have peace.
Note: I’ve attempted writing therapy on this issue in the past. I always cover with something different to get the true story out. You can read an earlier attempt here.
In the United States healthcare has gone from crisis to tragedy. Double digit increases in insurance premiums for many years on one hand and a tax code that forces you to pay up on the other is a painful experience for many family budgets.
The current tax code contains a health insurance mandate; have health insurance or pay a tax penalty. Congress has unsuccessfully tried to end the mandate, but the current tax bill might contain language ending required health insurance coverage.
Even if the health insurance mandate ends there is the problem of affordable insurance. If you are fortunate enough to have an employer paying most or all of your health insurance premiums you are lucky. Small employers are far and few between who can shoulder the cost of healthcare. And large corporations are scaling back the employer paid portion of healthcare benefits.
An anomaly of the current economic expansion is the lack of wage increases. For employers covering health insurance the cost of each employee is exploding due to rapidly rising health insurance premiums even when they offer modest wage increases at best. It might be a good idea to have a Plan B.
Then we come to you, dear readers. Many of you are either running your own small business/side gig or are planning on early retirement. The FIRE (financial independence/retire early) community has one vital flaw! Saving and investing a large portion of your income creates a large net worth fast. Unfortunately, healthcare is probably your single biggest expense, even more than housing if you retire early before you qualify for Medicare!
The Right Man in the Right Place
A few months ago I was in Dallas at FinCon 17. I was busy with demands from readers and other bloggers keeping me from the sessions (now available on YouTube). That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything. No matter where I go I always pick up several tidbits of information I can use personally or for clients.
On Day 2 I decided to walk the vendors. Before long I was interrupted by adoring fans. I asked Mrs. Accountant to run the obstacle course of vendors and clue me into the ones I might be most interested in. It was a good strategy.
Mrs. Accountant knows the dire straights my clients are in (not to mention our own escalating health insurance issues). She had a list ready for me when I had a break.
I formulated a plan with my research. I was aware of most of the companies involved. What I needed to do was connect the dots. No one company provided a comprehensive solution. Like a jigsaw puzzle, I assembled the pieces into what is a working program to cut health insurance costs in half while reducing out-of-pocket expenses at the same time.
Connecting the Dots
My strategy uses a three legged chair. Each leg provides benefits, but if you are lucky enough to be able to use all three legs you are golden.
Medi-Share was the first stop. Medi-Share is NOT insurance, but satisfies the tax mandate requiring insurance. If the mandate is lifted Medi-Share is a powerful consideration for handling your healthcare needs regardless.
There is one very serious drawback to Medi-Share. Medi-Share is faith based and therefore is only available to Christians. Many readers will have no problem with this requirement; however, people of other faiths or no faith will probably not be accepted into the program.
Medi-Share looks and feels a lot like health insurance. You pay a monthly Share amount similar to a premium. The money is deposited into YOUR separate bank account which is completely different from insurance. There is an annual amount you pay first which feels like a deductible.
But it is different. As other members have medical bills come in the medical bill are matched to other members with excess funds in their account. The bills are matched until all medical bills of members are paid. Medi-Share uses technology to handle the management of member accounts.
The best part of Medi-Share is the dedication to wellness. Insurance companies have an incentive to keep costs high! Health insurance carriers can only have a certain percentage of premiums as profit so they are incentivized to waste as much as possible to keep premiums as high as possible as 20% of two billion dollars is more than 20% of one billion dollars. The more expenses the more profit the insurance company can keep.
Medi-Share is focused on quality of life and provides support to keep medical costs down while providing maximum health and wellness. Medi-Share is non-profit so they are service based versus profit driven.
The Second Leg
Medi-Share’s program cuts medical costs be half or more for most people. The U.S. has outrageous medical costs, but when common sense is added the cost become more reasonable.
If you don’t qualify for Medi-Share due to faith issues you can still use Leg 2 of The Wealthy Accountant program.
The way Medi-Share keeps medical costs down is by utilizing technology and preventative care. You can use the same tools to reduce your medical bills.
Leg 2 is a company called amino (they don’t capitalize their name).
Have you ever tried to get a hospital or doctor’s office to give you a firm number on the cost prior to a procedure? It’s impossible. You get every excuse and runaround imaginable! They act like they have no idea what it costs and have no way of finding out until they got you by the throat! Amino fixes that.
Amino tracks virtually every medical service provider in the country for cost and quality. Doctors and hospitals are not allowed to advertise or buy their way to the top of the list. You get an unbiased view of your medical choices based on price.
With amino you can track you insurance deductible (or Medi-Share share amounts) and even set medical appointments right through their portal. Finally, they analyze your bill.
Anyone with high deductible insurance (that should be all of us), paying their own medical costs and those using Medi-Share and other similar faith based healthcare management systems can’t afford not to include amino in their health management mix.
The Final Leg
Now that you have Medi-Share to manage medical bills and amino to get the best price on medical care, you need a tax deduction!
What I’m about to share is a down and dirty outline of an incredible tax advantage. As time permits I’ll roll up the sleeves and give this one topic an entire post. From the providers of this third leg it seems even accountants have a lot of questions on this. I’ll give you the details to get started so you can maximize your tax benefits.
The third leg is a Qualified Small Employer Health Reimbursement Account (QSEHRA). This only works if you have your own business or side gig. If you have an employer you will need them to engage this leg of my program as a traditional HRA or QSEHRA.
The first thing to remember is QSEHRAs only arrives recently (December 2016) with what is known as the CURES Act. There are still some issues needing clarification. I will share generally accepted interpretations.
QSEHRAs are only for small employers WITHOUT a group medical plan and with fewer than 50 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees. A FTE is defined as an employee working 30 or more hours per week or 130 hours per month for 120 consecutive days.
Section 213(d) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) states a QSEHRA can cover any DOCUMENTED healthcare expense, including health insurance premiums. As I understand it, Medi-Share payments would qualify. If I discover different I will update this post so check back if you plan on using this tax strategy in the future.
The employer funds 100% of the QSEHRA! There is a limit to how much an employer can fund: $4,950 for an individual and $10,000 for a family annually.
Caution: If employees receive a subsidy from a Healthcare.gov policy the subsidy is reduced by the amount of the QSEHRA provided by the employer. Talk to your tax professional on your specific situation and the tax consequences if you receive a federal subsidy.
The most important part of this leg is DOCUMENTED. You will need someone to manage your QSEHRA. Your accountant isn’t the person to do it!
I recommend Take Command Health. I was impressed by the depth of their knowledge when I met them at FinCon and through follow-up encounters. If you are planning on a tax break you may as well make sure it sticks.
The Triune Healthcare Solution
Healthcare and medical insurance are causing more gray hair than old age. No one solution solves the problem for everyone. Many readers should find value in all three legs. Others can benefit from only one or two legs. Regardless, containing and managing medical costs is a primary concern in most households.
To recap, there are three steps to taking control of your healthcare needs and costs:
- Use this link to review and join Medi-Share.
- Review amino and determine if their service will save you time, money and hassle.
- Have the government give you a juicy tax break with a QSEHRS managed by Take Command Health.
You will have lots of questions, I know. Leave your questions in the comments section below versus sending me an email. Many questions are repeats and it helps me manage time better. Some questions might take some research as the CURES Act is still being interpreted. Check back often to see if I found an answer for you.
Here is to clean living.
The Gallup World Poll publishes a report on their findings involving the happiest people on Earth every year. This year National Geographic magazine has an article in their November issue discussing the results, written by Dan Buettner, author of Blue Zones of Happiness.
Certain nations top the list every year. Costa Rica, Denmark and Singapore report more happiness than other nations. The United States, a nation fond of bragging about its freedoms, isn’t all that happy.
Money isn’t the overriding factor either. Costa Rica, for example, is relatively poor compared to the U.S or Canada. There has to be something other than money causing people to report unusually high levels of happiness.
The National Geographic article starts with a Costa Rican who socializes virtually every day with a select group of friends, sleeps seven hours a night, walks to work, eats healthy foods, loves his job and the people he works with, volunteers weekly, attends church services and enjoys soccer. It sounds like an awesome life! I encourage you to buy the November 2017 issue of National Geographic to read the details yourself (or see your library).
Before we get too excited (or defensive) we need to examine what criteria are used to determine happiness. Five questions were asked about social life, financial health, community, physical health and purpose in life in the poll. The poll asked about positive and negative experiences.
For most nations (and people), Western views of happiness (having a lot of stuff, early retirement, travel) are not overriding determinants in happiness. Yes, free time makes a difference in the level of happiness people experience, but total retirement doesn’t lead to overall happiness if your life isn’t already in balance. Having lots of “stuff” is considered something which makes people happy. In reality it appears the opposite is true. Once the basics are met, more stuff makes us less happy.
Costa Rica, Denmark and Singapore top the list while not always recognized as First World nations. They are! I’ve been to Costa Rica and personally experienced the happiness the people of this nation experience.
Denmark and Singapore are small nations based on geography. Both nations have a relatively high level of income and standard of living. Taxes are high in Denmark, providing a safety net which seems to reduce economic levels of stress. In Denmark when the water rises all boats float higher, unlike in the U.S. where there are decided “haves” and “have-nots”.
The Happiest Place in the U.S.
Even though the U.S. is modestly happy, some areas of the country are happier than others. My good friend, Pete Adeney, aka Mr. Money Mustache, would be happy to know Boulder, Colorado is listed as the happiest place in the U.S. Pete lives a hop, skip and a jump from Boulder and continuously espouses the benefits of living right and happiness.
What makes Boulder, Colorado and the surrounding area such a great place to live? First, you have to credit the people and the way they chose to live. Biking, walking and other outdoor activities are an integral part of life around Boulder. Outdoor activities lead to better health and more positive interactions with neighbors and the community.
Buildings are limited by law how high they can be. Rather than fund more roads and parking, taxpayers voted for 300 miles of additional bike routes. How many communities are so enlightened?
In some parts of the nation the soda tax is contentious. Chicago eventually ended their soda tax after so-called negative experiences and reports of lost sales by retailers to surrounding areas. Boulder didn’t have such issues with a soda tax. Boulder voted in a soda tax and kept it, using the funds raised to provide resources for health programs for kids.
Another hotly debated issue is food stamps, aka, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The city of Boulder, not the state of Colorado, pays recipients of SNAP an equal amount compared to the federal benefit, effectively doubling the payment. This allows the poor to eat better quality food which leads to better health and a greater opportunity to secure gainful employment sooner. No wonder Colorado led the nation out of the 2008 economic crisis. What blows the mind is how stubborn other regions of the U.S. fight such obviously successful programs. And Colorado does all this with a below average tax levy.
A Man of Our Times
Pete Adeney is man ahead of his time. He retired at 30 and still provides massive benefits to his community and the world. He has preached many of the fundamentals of happiness in his blog.
His message is relentless even in the face of opposition. He believes people should bike or walk virtually everywhere. Living close to where you work, shop and play are vital in his philosophy. Only rare travel outside one’s city is the only time a carbon fueled vehicle should ever be used.
On the surface most people think this means Adeney is encouraging human powered transportation to save money. While this is true at some level, his attitudes are based upon “living right” and maximizing happiness, as well as environmental concerns. Walking and biking are healthy activities which allow people to enjoy life. When you are limited due to health, happiness declines.
Recently Adeney bought an old building in downtown Longmont, where he lives, and remodeled it as his blog’s world headquarters. It serves as a community center where people can meet and educational programs are provided. Of course the venue will contain heavy doses of his philosophy. And it should. When one of the happiest guys I’ve ever met has something to say, I listen.
The community center is only the start. I’ve noticed a change in tactics recently from his Twitter feed. No longer is he satisfied with preaching the good word, he now encourages people to become active in their local community by voting and attending meetings where elected officials discuss issues with the public. He acknowledges he doesn’t always get his way, but is always optimistic. He should be. He is a happy guy in the happiest place in the United States.
How Happy Are You?
Now we get to the real issue of this post. Maybe you don’t live in Boulder, Colorado or anywhere near all the wonderful people of the surrounding communities. Maybe you never had a chance to break bread with Pete or his kind.
I hear the complaints already. Our community doesn’t have bike paths or that you live 38 miles from work. There are two things you can do about it: keep complaining or change the circumstances.
Guys like Pete are smart. They are not disillusioned. Progress is slow even in the great state of Colorado and the happy communities of Boulder and Longmont. Pete recently reported attending a public meeting with officials to present his ideas. The results were mixed.
He didn’t give up! In the last week he tweeted a local voting guide. Adeney knows national elections get all the press, but local elections are where you can make a real difference! Your vote has more punch in a local election. Fewer votes mean your vote is a bigger piece of the pie. And every decision a local official makes affects you locally. National politicians make decisions that may have nothing to do with your community at all.
Happiness is between the ears. Several factors contribute to how happy you feel. Belonging tops the list after health. If you are healthy and feel wanted by family, friends and your community, you are well on your way to feeling happy.
Weather, incidentally, has only a marginal effect on happiness. I live in a cold part of the U.S. (NE Wisconsin) and it has some effect on my well being, but only a small amount. Outdoor activities are different where I live. Skiing and other winter sports occupy several months of the year. Biking is difficult in January (even dangerous), but hiking and walking are possible in almost any weather. Those who partake in seasonal outdoor activities report higher levels of happiness.
Doing Something about It
You can complain or do something about your level of happiness. When you are actively involved in the solution, even when results are limited, you feel better about yourself. Demanding someone else do something about it still leaves your opinion unheard!
You have significant control over your spending, even if income control is somewhat limited. Side gigs can fill the income void if necessary. Keeping spending reasonable compared to your income is your choice only, with the exception of people with medical issues.
Socializing makes people happier. You can always find a group who welcomes you. Groups who exclude others are less happy as they need to justify their negative behavior. I recommend a social life with people who energize you.
Purpose in life is something you must find through personal examination. Once you determine what juices you, pursue the dream! No one can stop you except you. There is always a way as readers of this blog will soon discover as I share a personal story of redemption and growth. Hardship isn’t the issue either; it’s the opportunity to expand beyond what you dream possible.
Physical health is largely a product of your eating and exercise habits. Eat good food; walk, hike and bike. The secret formula to a long happy life.
Finally, community provides an environment for you to live in. Make it a good one. All the members of a society compose a community. Your active involvement makes all the difference.
Never let anyone put you down. You will fail. That is not a character flaw; it is life. Failure doesn’t define you. How you deal with failure does!
Happiness is partially a choice. Many of the happiest nations are happy because they choose to be. Your active participation is what determines your level of pleasure and happiness. Climate and current conditions are only minor obstacles of the way to a happy life.
You can choose to move to a happy community, but you still need to be active in the new community or it will be just like the one you came from for you.
Or, you can make your community a better place to live. The choice is yours. Because the happiest place on Earth is in your head.
Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin provides a multitude of services to the poor in my community. Everything from help with medical, job search services, to the iconic Goodwill thrift store are there to benefit the poor. Another program is the Financial Information and Service Center, otherwise known as FISC. FISC provides personalized counseling in financial matters: bankruptcy, student loans, budgeting, credit card debt, and delinquent taxes.
Every year FISC calls me in to speak to their group. Counselors from around Wisconsin come to hear my message. Sometimes it is an informal presentation more along the lines of an inquisition (Q&A session). Other times we fill a large room and food is catered. A few of the counselors are clients as a result.
The FISC counselors are not tax professionals or even trained in tax matters. For their worst cases they refer their client to my firm. And so it was this past week. A man in his mid 30s had serious tax problems. When no one else can help there is always me. I take a limited number of impossible cases each year. These people have limited funds for my services so I charge a very low fee or just do it pro bono.