5 Reasons Why Travel Is Expensive and How We’re Making It Affordable

Ivan here.

We haven’t published a travel post in a while, though we’ve been doing a lot of it this year. In the past seven months, we’ve made eight trips out of Los Angeles: San Diego, San Francisco (twice), Albuquerque (twice), Taipei, New Orleans, and in July, Portland, Oregon for a wedding.


Cost Breakdown of Our Portland, Oregon Trip


 Downtown Portland, Oregon

Downtown Portland, Oregon

Jennie was a bridesmaid for the weekend, so we didn’t get to explore the city as much as we wanted. But we still ended up enjoying ourselves anyway: we had the reception lunch on a boat going down the Willamette river, sampled different food carts downtown, went to an Oregon winery and a Portland Timbers game, and I found a book I’d been looking for at Powell’s Bookstore.

Here’s the full cost breakdown for our 3 day trip:

  • $300 (Winery and limo ride for the bride. Split evenly between the bridesmaids)

  • $100 (Gift registry for the bride)

  • $150 (2 nights at an Airbnb)

  • $25 (Taxes and fees for 2 round-trip tickets. We used the Southwest Companion Pass and paid with points)

  • $200 (Food + other costs)

Which is a total of $775 for a long weekend. Pretty reasonable by American wedding standards (though I’d argue those standards are arbitrary), but it made a significant dent to our $2,800 monthly budget. But fuck it, we knew this was coming and had planned for it. Relationships are more important than hitting a number. At least that’s what Jennie tells me.


Why is Travel So Expensive?


This segues into the topic of this piece: why do so many people think that travel is expensive? Now I’m not going to argue that it isn’t, because obviously, travel involves privilege. What I am going to argue is that most people’s expectations of what travel “should look like” makes things far more expensive than it needs to be.
 

5 Reasons Why Travel Is So Expensive

I can understand why a two-week vacation in Europe costs more than two weeks living at home. But I don’t know why the same vacation to Mexico or Southeast Asia should cost more. That doesn’t make any sense.

Here’s what I suspect:

Traveling isn’t the expensive part - the “vacationing” is.

For some reason, people treat “vacations” as something separate from their everyday life. Whenever I hear the phrase “you’re on vacation. Live a little.” I can’t help but wonder - what does that say about the life that happens before and after the vacation?

Here’s a “vacationer’s” idea of what travel looks like. It goes a long way to explaining why people tend to overestimate the cost of traveling abroad:
 

1. They travel when everyone else is traveling.

Spring and summer breaks, festivals and national holidays are the only times that some people are able to take vacations. What’s worse, people tend to gather at a few “trendy” Instagrammable destinations. By the laws of supply and demand, this means that businesses there can charge these customers whatever they want.
 

2. They book things impulsively.
 

 Source:   Google

Source: Google

Since fuel prices are way below its peak in 2014, airline tickets are cheaper than they’ve ever been in history. Low cost airlines are now advertising sub $400 round-trip tickets to Europe and Asia. It’s like Black Friday every single day of the week, which makes it harder for travelers to stay disciplined and on-budget. “Amazing deals!” make people forget that flights are only a tiny fraction of the total cost of their trip.
 

3. They overload their itineraries.

Cramming too many activities into 1-2 weeks is the quickest way to spend the maximum amount of money for the maximum amount of stress. It’s a trap that all beginner travelers fall into. A few years ago, this was us.
 

4. They pay multiples of their rent for accommodations.

The human brain has uncanny way of putting the same thing into separate mental buckets. Here’s a question: what’s the difference between the nightly rate you pay at a hotel and the nightly rate you pay for your apartment (i.e. your rent divided by 30 days)?

I’d argue that not only do they serve the same purpose, but they’re also redundant expenses (whereas food purchased in a foreign currency is a substitute for your grocery budget at home). Yet in practice, people are willing to pay 3-5x multiples for one, but not the other.
 

5. They tailor their trips around other people.

Traveling with friends sounds like a fun idea - in theory. But this assumes that you know your friends as well as you think you do. Jennie and I have been together for almost a decade, and we’re only just starting to get a handle on how the other is going to react under stressful conditions in a foreign country. In our case, we’re fortunate enough to have overlapping travel styles and interests. But if you like hostels and street food and your friend has a taste for boutique hotels and Michelin star restaurants, then brace yourself. And your wallet.
 


6 Way We’re Making Our RTW Travels More Affordable


A big part of this blog is about making conscious decisions to achieve the things that we want out of life - even if this means taking the slightly unconventional route and thinking differently.

Here are six ways that Jennie and I are making our RTW trip more affordable:
 

1. We’ve mapped out shoulder & off-seasons for every region in the world.

Instead of traveling when everyone else is traveling, we’ve given ourselves the flexibility to go where the herd is thinnest. The trick is to avoid peak season and map out the shoulder and off seasons for every region in the world.  

For example, here are just some of the places we’re thinking about visiting:

  • September/October in Eastern Europe

  • January/February in India

  • May/June in East Africa

  • November in Japan

  • Christmas in Vietnam

When we have a rough idea of where we’ll be throughout the year, it opens up our budget, allowing us to be more spontaneous (and carefree) with our daily decisions.
 

2. We’ve built up a reserve of airline points to avoid paying last minute prices.

The great thing about having a two year plan is that we’ve had a longer runway to visualize our end goal and work backwards. For example, Jennie and I like to travel slow, so we can work off the following assumptions:

  • We’ll be traveling to a new country every 3-4 weeks.

  • Over the course of a year, that’s 10-15 one-way flights

  • We can divide these flights up into three different categories:

    1. Transatlantic flights

    2. Flights between neighboring continents

    3. Short-haul flights within the same continent

For us, it was just a matter of figuring out, on average, how many points does each flight cost? We added them up, multiplied by two - and voila! - that’s the exact number of points we’ve saved up over the past two years.

If everything goes as planned (life never does), I don’t expect us to pay out-of-pocket for flights for the first 8-12 months of our RTW trip.
 

3. We’re canceling our lease and reducing our overhead to (near) zero.

Our rent and bills living in our Los Angeles studio adds up to about $1,600/month. With the RTW trip, that drops to $200 per month with our phone bill ($50/month) and global health insurance ($150/month). Every other expense is variable and completely within our control.  
 

4. We’re taking advantage of long term stays to lower our nightly rates.

In most places around the world, we shouldn’t have to pay more to live abroad than to stay at our $1,400/month Los Angeles studio.

To give you an example: in November 2018, Jennie and I are staying in a Kobe, Japan international sharehouse for $1,000 a month (around $33/night - and this includes utilities and wi-fi). We get a private furnished room, with bathroom facilities and a social area.And we actually get to live like locals for a month instead of having to move constantly from place to place.
 

5. We prefer traveling to friends instead of with friends.

Jennie and I have enough trouble agreeing on things between the two of us. As a compromise, we’ve had to divide up our travel days in half (Ivan days and Jennie days) so that we can take turns shutting the hell up and learning to take direction from the other. An additional person requires more compromise, and more compromise can get expensive fast. This is the main reason why we prefer traveling to where our friends already are, than to bring an extra set of preferences along.



June 2018 Money Diary: Removing Stress from Personal Finance

Jennie here.

Another month has come and gone. Let’s get right to it!

 
June 2018 Money Diary The Origami Life.png
 

The Origami Life Couple’s
Expenses in June 2018:


 

The Origami Life - June 2018 Expenses via Goodbudget

 
  1. Rent and Bills ($1,656.00)
    Per usual, our rent and bills account for about 50% of our total expenses. This will be the one of the last rent payments we make for the foreseeable future. In July, we’ve given notice to our landlord and our last day in Los Angeles will be July 31st. Then it’s three weeks in Albuquerque to spend time with my family before it’s off to the first stop on our RTW trip - Hawaii!
     
  2. Groceries ($192.00) and Eating Out & Entertainment ($312.00)
    This past month, we didn’t spend very much on groceries because we’ve been traveling quite a bit (to Albuquerque for Father’s Day, and to SF again). By the numbers, it looks like we got lazy, but what actually happened was that we shifted our spending a bit.
     

  3. Quarterly Charitable Donations ($250.00)
    We aim to donate at least 3% of our budget on a quarterly basis to causes we care about. This month, we’re giving to GiveDirectly again. Direct transfers are cool! Say yes to efficiency and choice, and say no to bureaucracy, friction and good intentions.
     

  4. Miscellaneous ($162.00) and Family ($161.00)
    June miscellaneous and family expenses came from two things: (1) visiting my family in New Mexico for Father’s Day weekend with many dinners, lunches, and some gifts and (2) morning coffee dates together.
     

  5. Business Expenses ($70.00)
    New category! In June, I went on a quick trip to San Francisco (fully comped by a third-party - will talk about this in a future post) and spent some coffee money on client meetings for our business.
     

  6. Life Happens ($44.00)
    We both got new glasses in June and had to put down some cash for our eye exam co-pay (hate the machine that blows air into your eyes). Also, Ivan got really depressed while I was away and gorged himself on a Fatburger turkey sandwich and a Maui Banana milkshake. Ivan’s note: the milkshake wasn’t good. Should’ve stuck with chocolate or vanilla.
     

  7. Travel ($23.00)
    Earlier this year, we were fortunate enough to score a Southwest Companion Pass through a California-exclusive offering. We’ve been traveling for the past six months on this Companion Pass - wherever Ivan goes, I go and all we have to do is pay and additional tax/fees. So in June we used some of our points to book a flight to New Mexico from California and only had to pay the tax ($23.00) on the Companion Pass flight.


Thoughts On Money in June 2018:

What Does Money Mean To Me?


 
abandoned-achievement-cement-880477 (1).jpg
 

If you had asked me the following question three or four years ago: what does money mean to you? I wouldn’t have known how to answer such a question.

Thinking back - money was a constant source of anxiety and stress for me.

I don’t think I really understood the true power of personal savings until the last two years. I mean, I grew up thinking I’d never have money - that I was defined and limited by my lower class upbringing. It’s been a long journey but somehow Ivan has helped me sort out my financial life and helped me think more step back and look more at “the big picture”.

For the last six months, Ivan and I have traveled every single month (both together and separately). We’ve used this as a sort of mini warm-up to our RTW trip. Four years ago, I would have never fathomed the idea that I’d feel so comfortable and unafraid.
 

How do I feel about money now?


Once my finances were finally “in order”, the biggest emotion I felt was: relief.

I don’t really stress about money anymore. Well, occasionally but that’s because Ivan likes to “freak out” from time to time, but it’s usually not a problem because we’ve built in buffers to our budget.

Once you take the first steps to managing your budget, those types of things are ingrained in you and are woven into your psyche. Your relationship to waste, money, and savings changes - for the better. It becomes a living and breathing idea in the back of your mind.

Ivan has been publishing our Back to Basics series recently, and we hope it will be helpful to the readers out there who are still figuring their personal finances out. I’ll be writing some of the future posts on negotiations and relationships (Ivan: I’m not qualified to talk about the latter).

Here are the “Back to Basics” posts we’ve published so far:

  1. Back to Basics: Understanding The Money Game

  2. Back to Basics: How to Think About Your Paycheck

  3. Back to Basics: Making A Budget

See you next week!



Back to Basics: Making a Budget
back to the basics (1).png

Ivan here.

In the previous post to this “Back to Basics” series, I talked about how millennials making $2,500 a month should allocate their paycheck.

To summarize, they should mentally divide their paycheck into three equal parts (~33% each):

  1. Rent and Bills Fund ($833)
  2. “Present Me” Fund ($833)
  3. “Future Me” Fund ($833)

Another way of thinking about this is:

  1. My overhead (i.e. fixed costs)
  2. My short term needs (i.e. money I need within 12-18 months)
  3. My long term wants (i.e. money I need beyond 18 months)

This is how things should look in the perfect world. Unfortunately, saying that the world is not perfect might be the understatement of the century. Most people aren’t even remotely rational or sane.

  Source: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/PSAVERT

Source: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/PSAVERT

In 2018, the U.S. personal savings rate is 2.8% - a historic low. This is partly a symptom of our two-tiered economy where the rewards disproportionately benefit the top 40%, while technology and trade outflows decimate the bottom 60%.

The other part is people feeling too pleased and comfortable with themselves.

It’s been almost a decade since the last recession. We are now in the longest bull market in post WW2 history, where the value of most assets have been rising (eg. stocks, real estate, bonds), while consumer prices have been falling (eg. Amazon, airline tickets). “Dumb money” has entered the market in droves, peaking in December 2017 when cryptocurrencies hit their record highs. “FAANG” stocks are now being priced for perfection. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

This is my opinion, but there’s no better or more urgent time to start thinking about making a budget than times like these. In a market economy, rewards often go to the few at the expense of the many, because the many are typically unwilling (or unable) to take short term pain for long term gain.

Or to quote Warren Buffett: “Be greedy when others are fearful and be fearful when others are greedy.”


Making A Budget: What is a Budget?


A budget is the marriage between our aspirations and reality. It’s also an expression of our priorities. People in project management probably know this diagram:

pick two - fast, good, or cheap. You can't have it all.

Since resources are limited: fast and cheap won’t be good, cheap and good won’t be fast, good and fast won’t be cheap.

The same concept applies to your budget and paycheck.

Out of your financial needs, you should prioritize two:

  1. Overhead (Rent & Bills)
  2. Short term needs (Present Self)
  3. Long term wants (Future Self).

With the average millennial’s $2,500 a month after-tax paycheck:

  • High overhead and short term needs means punting on your debt and retirement and letting interest accumulate into your midlife
  • High short term needs and long term wants means living in an undersized apartment in an undesirable neighborhood (or even city)
  • High overhead and long term wants means living on cheap groceries and never eating out, traveling or shopping.

Now pick one.


The Fairness Argument: Millennials, Baby Boomers and Their Finances


business-business-plan-close-up-908292 (1).jpg

Jennie and I have seen the panic in peoples’ eyes at the mere mention of a budget. The conversation usually starts off with a question:

How can you afford to quit your 9 to 5 and travel around the world for over a year?

Our answer: a combination of privilege and having a budget that prioritizes a few things for a long period of time. Specifically, we keep our overhead way below what most are comfortable with, so that we can save for our long term wants without sacrificing the small pleasures that keep us going day to day.

For example, before we “graduated” to our $1,395 a month studio apartment in West Los Angeles, Jennie spent years renting a closet-sized room on the outskirts of Boston for $450 a month, while Ivan paid $650 a month (Canadian dollars) for a basement unit on the outskirts of Toronto. We made these short-term sacrifices by choice.

At this point, we usually get one of two responses:

  1. Denial: “I could never do that. That’s just not who I am.”
  2. Blame: “You’re privileged and definitely not the norm. Our system is rigged to benefit the top 1%. The most important thing is to fix the system instead of putting unrealistic expectations on ourselves.”

Jennie and I have had variations of these conversations with fellow millennials over the past two years. We empathize with these feelings because they’re based on kernels of truth.

But there’s a difference between what feels popular, good or just (i.e. the right thing to say) with what’s rational and productive (i.e. changing with the facts).

Looking through the windshield, millennials have it tough. Looking at the rearview mirror, baby boomers have had it easy. But it’s also true that everything looks easy with hindsight. The road ahead always looks dark and uncertain- for every generation, in every time period.  

Expecting to achieve the same results as our parents by doing the exact same things they did defies basic laws of markets and evolution.


The Biggest Misconception about Making a Budget


The biggest misconception people have about budgeting is that having one means denying yourself everything.

This may be true for people making under $37,000 a year, which according to MIT’s living wage index, is the minimum salary a single adult needs to live in San Francisco, the most expensive city in the country.

But not all of us live in San Francisco. And if you’re above the $37,000 threshold, having a budget is not only a realistic option, but a necessary one.

To say that a budget means denying yourself everything, we first have to agree on what “everything” means. Does “everything” include vacations to foreign countries? Drinking and dining out a few times a week? High-end gym memberships and yoga classes? Personalized chauffeurs that drive us to and from bars (Lyft/Uber)? Does “everything” include a cleaning lady (this is real. we’ve seen this) that comes twice a week to tidy up our one bedroom apartment?

Where does “everything” begin and where does it end?

 
aspirations vs reality budget
 

And that’s what a budget is for: to draw a line between our aspirations and reality.

By and large, millennials want a luxurious life, for a less than luxurious price, before we can realistically afford it. Because “everything” was what we’d imagined we’d be getting when we became adults.  

Ironically, sacrificing short term gratification for long term goals through a budget, is the most “adult” thing I can think of.


3 Tradeoffs We Made With Our Budget


Let’s bring it back to our hypothetical millennial. $40,000 salary, $40,000 in student loans, $2,500 a month paycheck, divided into three funds in the “ideal world”:

  • Rent and Bills Fund ($833)
  • “Present Me” Fund ($833)
  • “Future Me” Fund ($833)

Here are three ways Jennie and I approached this problem in the real world:

1. Underspend on overhead: keep rent & bills to
less than 30% of our after tax paycheck.

This means at a $2,500 monthly paycheck, around $650 was allocated to rent and bills. And we’re not talking hypotheticals here:

  • In 2014, Jennie made $42,000 a year. As recently as 2014, Jennie’s salary was $42,000 in a high cost of living city (Boston). She paid $450 per month for rent & bills to stay in a closet-sized room in a house shared with two other roommates.
  • In 2012, I made $58,000 CAD. My starting salary in 2012 was $58,000 (CAD), paying $650 per month in rent on the outskirts of Toronto, while my peers rented one bedroom apartments in the downtown financial district. We were consultants, usually traveling four days a week, and were rarely home.

If we had had $40,000 in student loans, we would’ve paid it off aggressively within three years. Instead, the extra savings went directly into our fuck-off fund and retirement. No debt and a fuck off fund allowed us to swing for the fences in terms of raises and higher paying jobs. Higher earnings in turn, funded our fuck-off fund, retirement and other long term goals. A virtuous cycle begins and gains momentum (this happens much quicker than you think). Meanwhile, our overhead stayed fixed on one year leases.

2. Underspend on depreciating items in favor of value add experiences

Jennie gave away her car to family and started taking the bus. The total cost of all the furniture in our home is under $1,000. We don’t have the latest technology in our home or in our pocket. We make little to no new clothing purchases outside of travel gear, clothes which will eventually have to fit into 40L backpacks.

In return, we traveled across America by Amtrak rail, held our wedding in Taiwan, honeymooned in Okinawa, attended the jazz festival in New Orleans, made business contacts in San Francisco, camped in Death Valley and Joshua Tree, spent quality time with family and friends in Taipei, Albuquerque, Denver, Boston, and San Diego.

For us, the small adjustments meant bigger returns on experiences that we love so much.

3. Planning months (or years) ahead for large purchases
so we don’t have to deny ourselves small ones

Our dirty secret: we divide the cost of large purchases across multiple months to absorb the impact.

We never mentioned this explicitly in our money diary, but we bought a $1,000 camera last year in July 2017 to bring on our RTW trip. Using an accounting gimmick, I divided that expense into two $500 items, and logged them in our budget under “Education & Investments” in July 2017 and August 2017. This “smoothed” out our spending, but more importantly, we did it because Jennie and I had already planned out this purchase eight months in advance - so we “freed up” $500 in the budgets of July and August to absorb it.

In return for long term planning for large purchases, we never have to deny ourselves smaller ones. Whenever we have a craving: for tacos, chocolate, a fizzy drink, coffee, donuts, macarons, bubble tea, the occasional take-out etc, we never have to “check our budget” to see if we can afford it. Even if we go slightly over-budget in some months, who cares? Buy it, log it, and move on. Micromanaging small transactions wastes precious time and headspace - and it really isn’t our style.


Finding Your Budget Sweet Spot


dessert-donuts-doughnuts-273773 (1).jpg

There are many variations to a budget that can be tailored to the things and experiences that matter to you. Jennie and I aren’t saying that our way is the “right” way.

But the common thread of all budgets is that something's got to give. And if you sweat the big, uncomfortable things (you know, the material things we tie unnecessarily to our self esteem and identity), the small things take care of themselves. 

In our case, we said to ourselves:  "fuck paying overhead and let’s live for the now and for the future. If we have to live in squalid surroundings or tight studio apartments, then so be it. At least we'll have each other." 

That was more than we could’ve hoped for after six years of long distance.

After reading this, some might be disappointed that I haven’t provided any answers on “what to do.” Fortunately, that’s not the point of this series. Nobody can tell you what to do, or convince you to do something you’re not ready for. Money is less a math problem, but an emotional & psychological one.

The only thing we can control is an awareness and understanding of each trade-off we make. We need to construct a budget that takes into account those trade-offs: between overhead, our present self and our future self. Finally, we need to ask ourselves whether we can learn to live with the end result.

Because perfection is the enemy of the good.



May 2018 Money Diary: What Makes the Perfect City?

Ivan here.

The highlight of May was a four day trip Jennie and I took to New Orleans to attend the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It was on my bucket list of items to check off before we leave North America to work and travel around the world.

 
Money Diary May 2018.png
 

Total cost of the New Orleans trip was around $600, with the help of Southwest Airlines points (transferable 1:1 via Chase) plus the Southwest Companion Pass.

Screen Shot 2018-06-11 at 9.20.26 PM.png

Now, with money out of the way, let’s talk about something I care about...


The (Very Short) Lifespan of Music and Cities


Diamond or doorknob?
Sapphire or sawdust?
Champagne or just home brew?
Tell me, tell me, tell me, dreamface,
What am I to you?
— Duke Ellington, Tulip or Turnip

I’ve been a casual fan of jazz since high school. It’s one of the most liberating art forms to emerge from the U.S., with a focus on “dialogue” and “improvisation,” something that really resonated with me from a young age. Spontaneity has never been my strong suit. Generally, I have what most people would consider an uptight personality. Music and writing helps me experience and feel things I’d normally miss in the moment.

In recent decades, jazz has gone the way of classical music. It’s stuffier, more “high brow” now. Academics have gotten their hands on it, turning a working class art into a “discipline,” to be studied at arm’s length like a museum piece. When this happens, art loses its original vitality and connection to everyday life.  

I think this applies equally to capitalists and cities. There’s something about achieving a certain level of wealth and comfort that tends to narrow peoples’ imaginations. One of my biggest fears is to wake up one morning and settle into a conversation with Jennie over breakfast about the price of real estate.

Like music, I think every city has a limited lifespan. Like the perfect sushi, every piece of nigiri has its own time. Its moment in the sun. And it’s up to each of us to decide the kind of city we’re looking for - before it's too late. 


3 Things We Look For In a “Perfect” City


Downtown Los Angeles, California


There are three main things Jennie and I look for in a “perfect” city:
 

1. Cost: How much does it cost to live there?

Economics tells you a lot about cities. The average price of rent determines the type of neighbors you’ll have, the kind of retail/dining experiences available, and even the opinions people tend to hold. From our experience, Jennie and I are a lot more comfortable living in neighborhoods that are affordable to a wider range of people. This not only helps our wallet, but provides a form of stimulation that’s very hard to find in certain parts of New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles (where we live).

Affordable cities like New Orleans and Philadelphia have some of our favorite types of places. For example, at the Bacchanal Wine Bar in New Orleans, we were eating cheese and sipping red wine at a table with two certified hipsters, a middle-aged couple from Houston, and three local contractors/electricians who were originally from Guatemala and Honduras. By contrast, the only Hispanic people we meet in the tolerant, liberal oasis of West Los Angeles are construction workers, cleaning ladies, nannies, and gardeners. We have a huge fucking problem with this.
 

2. People: What is the general attitude toward life?

Are people ambitious or laidback?
Do they prioritize getting the most out of life today or working for a better tomorrow?
Is there room for different ideas and perspectives?

To what extent do people care about how they look versus who they are?
Do they communicate directly or indirectly?
Are they comfortable with dissent and conflict?
Are they individualists or collectivists? 

These are just some of the questions Jennie and I ask ourselves when we visit a new city. We tend to gravitate towards certain types of people. People who like to push the envelope and are unafraid to say what’s on their minds, even at the risk of being “wrong” or causing offense. These are usually the same people who tend to be less flaky and can be depended on to do what they say they’re gonna do. And while it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about large groups of people, we’ve traveled to enough places to notice certain patterns and differences - even between residents of neighboring cities.
 

3. Convenience: How easy is it to get around?

None of the first two points matter if the city is inaccessible.

  • Is it possible to get around by public transit in a reasonable amount of time?
  • Can people of similar interests come together in an area?
  • Are there social/invisible barriers that prevent people of different backgrounds from mingling?

OUr Verdict on Los Angeles


 Some beach in Los Angeles, California.

Some beach in Los Angeles, California.

Basically, the “perfect” city we’re describing here is the exact opposite of Los Angeles. 

LA is not very affordable, the average person here is too cool and trendy for us, and it’s certainly not convenient. Now, I’m sure there are some wonderful people living in this city who we’d get along with swimmingly. But if they’re from East LA and we’re from West LA, they may as well be from the surface of Mars.

If our trip to New Orleans this month (and every other trip we’ve made outside of California) has taught us anything, it’s the realization that Los Angeles is not our type of city.

Honestly, Jennie and I are surprised we took two whole years before coming to this conclusion. Of course, every place has its positives and negatives, and we’ve really tried to make the best of our time in this city. But when we actually sat down and weighed the city’s pluses and minuses, all the positives were much lower on our list of priorities.

We've learned that some things are just more important than 284 days of sunshine.



Back to Basics: How to Think About Your Paycheck

Ivan here.

I’m going to start this “Back to Basics” series by making a few assumptions about the paychecks of the average millennial. By definition, this won’t cover everyone’s situation. Some readers might be better off, others worse off.

Even so, I hope this three-part “paycheck” mini-series will still be useful as a framework for thinking about the money that hits your bank account every month.


‘How did you go bankrupt?’ Bill asked.
’Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually, then suddenly.’
— Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

3 Principles of Financial Literacy


If I could boil down financial literacy into three basic concepts they would be as follow:

  1. The number you see on your paycheck is not the number you can afford to spend.
  2. Debt is dangerous and should be avoided or paid off as soon as possible.
  3. Small, steady changes add up to life-changing progress over time.

That pretty much covers it. The rest are just details. Something you learn along the way through experience or a Google search. In personal finance, boring is good. Managing money should be like going to the gym or any other chore you can think of.

Get it done, get it over with, and get out.


Who is the average millennial struggling with money?


In this mini-series on the average millennial’s paycheck, I’ll be working from the following assumptions:

Who is the Average Millennial?

the average millennial debt savings
  • Age: 25-35
  • Pre-tax income: $40,000
  • After-tax income: $32,000 (California tax rates)
  • Debt: 1x salary, or $40,000 in student loans at a 4% interest rate
  • U.S. healthcare premiums: $2,000 a year
  • Monthly paycheck (after taxes and deductions): $2,500 per month

I chose the ages 25-35 because let’s be honest, most millennials are underemployed in their early twenties and barely have the time (or means) to think about personal finance. The average salary for millennials in the U.S. is actually around $35,500 a year, but I bumped this up to $40,000 when I remove the under 25 group. The paycheck figure doesn’t consider any other pre-tax deductions outside of healthcare - like a 401k match offered by an employer.

The goal of this mini-series to demonstrate, step by step, how a millennial with a debt balance equal to one times her current salary could get to a position where she has one times her future salary saved for retirement.


Millennials - How to Think About Your Paycheck (Part 1 of 3)


The best way to think about your paycheck is to break it down into three steps:

  1. Start with a blank slate: “In the perfect world, how much of X can I afford with my current paycheck?”

  2. Assess the reality: “In reality, where is my paycheck going?”

  3. Make a plan: “what changes should I prioritize and make first?”

In Part 1, I’ll cover the first step, and answer the following question:
 

“In the perfect world,
how much of X can I afford with my paycheck?”

 

The way Jennie and I think about this is simple.

The average millennial should take their $2,500 per month paycheck and divide it into three equal funds of $833:

  • $833 - a rent & bills fund,

  • $833 - a “present me” fund

  • $833 - a “future me” fund

account-achievement-bank-870902 (2) (1).jpg


1. Rent & Bills Fund ($833 per month)

This fund is for rent plus whatever bills you need to bring your place up to basic, livable standards. And by basic I mean: electricity, water, and gas. I’m not factoring in other modern essentials like internet, phone bill, or gym memberships. That comes later.

  • How much you spend on rent & bills is the biggest determining factor for how painful the next steps will be. The more you deviate from $833, the fewer options you leave yourself down the road. In some cases, it makes sense to pay a little more for rent as long as the savings in transportation cancels it out.
     
  • Now I know what some might be thinking: what if $833 doesn’t come close to the average price of a studio apartment in my city? The answer is simple, but unpleasant: if you can’t rent a studio apartment on a $833 budget, you can’t afford to live alone on your current paycheck. Consider getting roommates or renting a private room in a house.
     
  • It also isn’t a great idea to rent a place based on the prospect of a future raise. You never want to put yourself in a situation where you need something to happen in order to keep your head above water. Even if a raise is likely (or even imminent), pre-spending your future earnings eliminates any upside and flexibility it may have given you.

To summarize: in the perfect world, your rental situation should always stay a step behind the growth in your earnings.
 

2. “Present Me” Fund ($833 per month)

This fund is for your current self. For all the expenses you’re likely to incur within the next 12-18 months. Things you need to stay alive - while being reasonably happy and sane. This includes the essentials like internet, phone bill, transportation and groceries, and the discretionary like eating out, shopping or travel.

  • All essential expenses should be negotiated and paid for, as much possible, in bulk or upfront (i.e. stocking up on toiletries on sale, calling your mobile provider for special promotions, planning your grocery list in weeks)
     
  • All discretionary expenses should be ranked and prioritized in order of importance to you. If you have more than three things on your list, strike out the extra items because they’re not that important to you.  
     

3. “Future Me” Fund ($833 per month)

This fund is for your future self. For all the expenses you expect to incur in 2+ years. I’ve put some thought into the below rankings and concluded that, all else being equal, this was the most efficient way to handle the competing priorities of cash, debt repayment, and retirement:

  1. High interest loans: credit cards and other high interest debt always comes first.

  2. Emergency fund: at least 2-3 months of living expenses set aside in a high interest savings account. Assuming you’re allocating the full $833, this can be built up within 4-6 months.

  3. Student loan debt: I’ve written a post before on why you should prioritize paying off all your student loans before you even worry about retirement. Assuming your paycheck remains static, you can pay your student loan balance off in 4.5 years. If you build in a 5-7% raise each year, the payoff time is closer to 3 years.

  4. Retirement: Up to $5,500 annual contribution limit for a Roth or Traditional IRA

  5. Fuck off fund: at least 4-6 months of living expenses set aside. This is on top of your emergency fund, so another 4-6 months of savings should get you there.

  6. 1st savings priority (pick one: downpayment, education, wedding, travel etc)

  7. Retirement: Up to $18,000 annual contribution limit for your 401k

  8. 2nd savings priority (pick one: downpayment, education, wedding, travel etc)


...But Reality Gets In the Way

Unfortunately, life doesn’t happen on a spreadsheet. But what the above does show us is what a “stress-free” financial life would look like, and is a “rule of thumb” that Jennie and I actively follow when making our own financial decisions.

In part 2 of this series, I’ll talk about how to assess your current financial reality, to find a budget “sweet spot” that works for you.



Back to Basics: Understanding the Money Game

Introducing the

Back to Basics Money Series


 
When you go mountain climbing, the first thing you’re told is not to look at the peak. Keep your eyes on the ground as you climb. You just keep climbing patiently, one step at a time. If you keep looking at the top, you’ll get frustrated.
— Akira Kurosawa
 

Ivan here.

Jennie and I have been wanting to do a ‘back to basics’ money series for a while. The timing just never seemed right. When you’re knee-deep in the process of self-improvement (financial or otherwise), it’s hard to come away with any useful insights beyond a list of tips and tricks. I think more important than telling people “what to do,” showing them the “why” and the “how” is what really empowers them to look at their own situation in a different light.

When it comes to money, there are very few formulas or “recipes” to follow that work for everyone’s situation.  

Our only goal for this series is to encourage people to go out of the norm of what’s “expected” and start thinking for themselves.


How We Got Here:

More Money Means More Freedom


back to the basics.png

The reason Jennie and I are launching this series today is because two things have happened:

  1. Last month, Jennie and I met our $40,000 RTW trip savings goal after a two year process of budgeting and saving.

  2. In the second quarter of 2018, we met our freelance goal of making at least $2,500 per month in consistent, remote income.

What this means is that our $40,000 RTW travel fund turned out to be unnecessary. Our travel will likely be more than covered by our income on the road.

Like we’ve said before: it was never about the $40k, just as it was never about travel. It was about the process of learning how to keep our heads down and climb the mountain - one step at a time. It was about understanding what our priorities were and what we were willing to sacrifice.

Even if the $40,000 were to vanish tomorrow, the money habits Jennie and I have acquired are ones we’ll have for the rest of our lives. Something that no one can ever take away.

Because once you understand the game, you’ll never run out of moves to play.


Why Money is Like the Game Jumanji


Money is like the game Jumanji:

  1. It’s inescapable: no matter how long you try to put it off, the game will find you whether you want to play or not. In the meantime, the sense of dread and anxiety grows stronger with each passing day.

  2. It preys on our hopes and fears: Too much hope is greed. Too much fear is panic. As human beings, we all go through cycles of overconfidence and insecurity. Money is saved and spent, prices rise and fall, and the game serves as the barometer for both the social mood and human nature.

  3. Jungle rules apply: Capitalism, even in its most regulated form, is a system of opportunity and exploitation. In this ecosystem, you’re either the pursuing or the pursued, the hunter or the hunted. In an economic system predicated on “growth,” standing still is moving backwards.  

When faced with this game, all of us need to make a decision on whether we want to be proactive or reactive. And it’s not easy. Sometimes, it can feel like you’re being whipped about by forces beyond your control. You might even start to believe that there’s something inherently wrong with you. Being poor and living paycheck to paycheck is just who you are, and there’s nothing you can do to change it.

This feeling is only half true. We don’t often get to pick the hands we’re dealt. Some things happen to us that we just can’t change, and at some point, we’re all going to have to weather some turbulence. And yet, there are always things that you can control.

So you need to make the decision: do you want to be proactive or reactive with your life?

The process of remembering who you are, and what you want, and how you respond to the ups and downs of your life will, over the long run, make all the difference in the world.


/Ivan inhales, begins rant

Life: It’s Not a Race & Nobody Knows Anything


First of all, fuck this noise.

 
 

What irritates me about articles like this is that not only is it counterproductive, it was also conceived and published to deliberately provoke a response. Specifically, anxiety and controversy. Why should we give a fuck about what “should” happen by when?

If we want to play the “should” game, I can do it too. For example, I think print media companies “should” be profitable by 2018. But if I were a betting man, I’d take the under on the profitability of MarketWatch and the chances it survives the next decade.**

[** Author’s note: I don’t need to guess. According to public filings, Marketwatch’s parent company News Corp, reported a $1.1B loss last quarter. You want to know how to make this company bleed? Stop giving them engagement and clicks].

This segues into my pet topic, which I’ll break down into three statements:

  1. Nobody knows anything.

  2. Everyone is just making it up as they go along.

  3. Everything is negotiable with the right kind of leverage.

“Nobody knows anything” is always my going assumption until someone proves otherwise.

You’ll be shocked how true this is. Some people are just better at pretending than others. Some like to hide behind a veneer of credibility, authority or “success,” but the truth is, they’re often plagued by the same sort of doubts and insecurities as you. Because they’re human. And no human being is deserving of our blind worship. When you actually peer under the hood of how the world works, you’ll be amazed that anything gets done at all.

The more you come to understand this, the less time you’ll waste wondering what’s wrong with you.

/ends rant


Topics We’ll Cover

in this Back To Basics Money Series


Over the next few months before Jennie and I leave for our RTW trip in September, we’ll cover five broad categories in this “back to basics” money series, including but not limited to the example topics we’ve listed below. We’ll try to publish these in chronological order, from the beginning of the process to the end:

1. Fundamentals of Budgeting

  • Hitting the reset button on your finances (“where is all my money going?”)

  • Finding your budget sweet spot (“how much money do I need?”)

  • Handling the emotions of budgeting (“how do I avoid my spending impulses?”)

2. How to Spend Less:

  • How much (insert item) can I realistically afford?

  • How to simplify and plan for the long term?

  • How to factor in fun and luxury purchases?

3. How To Earn More

3. Money Talk & Relationships:

  • How to manage financial anxiety

  • Marriage and finances

  • How to talk to your family about money

4. Investing in Yourself (Retirement, Education etc):  

  • Investing 101: from account creation to long term indexing

Stay tuned! See you next week.



Origami Guides: A 3 Day New Orleans Itinerary (with Local Recommendations)

Jennie here.

In early May, Ivan and I spent a fantastic long weekend attending the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. In just a few short days of hanging out in The Big Easy, this city has catapulted onto our top 3 favorite cities in the U.S. - right after Boston and Philadelphia. The city’s slow pace, melting pot of culture, food, and history makes it the ideal hub for us. In another lifetime, I could definitely see us living here.

 Jazz Fest | NPS Photo | Bruce Barnes

Jazz Fest | NPS Photo | Bruce Barnes

During this trip, we made a point of pestering every local we met to give us their favorite places to eat, drink, and relax in New Orleans, and we followed their advice to compile this three day itinerary.

Basically, we’ve asked all the questions - so you won’t have to!


Who should use this itinerary?


Solo travelers/couples on a budget who prefer to stay off Bourbon Street in favor of more “off the beaten” path hangouts.


What are the best times to visit NOLA (New Orleans)?


Before June. Our rule of thumb: go before it gets too hot and humid to enjoy the sights. We went on the first weekend of May for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the weather was just right.

 Crawfish in New Orleans |  Source: Flicker

Crawfish in New Orleans | Source: Flicker

 Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

  • Crawfish boil fans: If you’re looking for a good crawfish boil, go before August; crawfish season is typically between early March through mid-June.

  • Mardi Gras or party junkies: If you want to party and join a few second lines, go during the Mardi Gras season. Be warned though - prices will double or triple for accommodations during this time period. A local Uber driver did mention that Mardi Gras lasts about a full month for locals with all the backyard barbeques and shindigs.


What is the best way to get around NOLA (New Orleans)?


Staying true to who we are - we usually go car-less in any city we visit.

 New Orleans Canal Street Streetcar

New Orleans Canal Street Streetcar

We recommend using NOLA’s public transit system. For $3.00, you can get a 24-hour pass to use NOLA’s public transit system, which includes 24 hour streetcars and extensive bus routes. Over three days, it’ll only cost you $9 a person.

We also found New Orleans to be relatively walkable in the main touristy areas (e.g. Frenchman Street, French Quarters, Magazine Street, etc). However, there are still some “shady” areas you’d want to avoid walking through after dark.

When in doubt, take a Lyft/Uber after sundown.


Where should I stay in NOLA?


I'm only going to recommend what I can stand by - unless you’re doing it “for the Gram/IG”, I don’t think you should pay for more than $70 a night for your stay in New Orleans. Think about it: how much time will you actually spend in your room?

For the budget conscious (up to $60 per night):

  1. Airbnb is a great option. We found a lot of Airbnb options under $60 a day. I would highly recommend staying in the Garden District along Magazine Street. It’s an emerging area with a growing arts scene, boutiques, and restaurants.

  2. Hostels. Our friend mentioned that NOLA has a pretty decent hostel scene compared to other Western metropolitan cities. You can check out The Broke Backpacker’s recommendations here that will suit your needs.


Thoughts On Bourbon Street


 New Orleans Bourbon Street in the French Quarters

New Orleans Bourbon Street in the French Quarters

We did the obligatory walk through Bourbon street one evening. Truth is, I could’ve lived without it. Despite its long history, you’ll quickly notice it’s just a copy-and-paste job of clubs and sleazy bars that are packed with out-of-towners.

Here’s our tip: You can do the obligatory 30 minute stroll through the main street and then walk over to Frenchmen Street where all the interesting jazz clubs, dive bars, street performances, poets for hire, and other shenanigans that are more worth your time.


New Orleans People and Southern Porch Culture


My favorite part of our entire trip was actually getting to meet New Orleanians and transplants. We found New Orleanians to be kind, warm, and unfazed by what others think of them. Our favorite type of people!

Columns_Hotel_Front_Porch_Flags.jpg

Oftentimes, you’ll see locals leisurely hanging out on their porches having a smoke or drinking a cold beer or sweet tea. And as we passed some of these beautifully crafted homes (especially in the Lower Garden District), locals would casually say, “Hi, how are you?” or “Where y’at?” (the correct response: “what it is”). Although it seems silly to read into this porch culture, I found myself longing for that sense of community and closeness that it represents.


What we wished we’d done differently before going to New Orleans...


I think my biggest regret was not learning more about New Orleans and its history before I visited. Although I recall some basics from my U.S. history classes, it’s one of those cities that continues to carry its traditions.

Here are a few resources I’d suggest before visiting New Orleans:

Book(s):

Radio / Podcasts:

Television:

  • HBO series Treme (pronounced: tre-MAY) from the series creator of The Wire (available for free on Amazon Prime Video)


How do I use this guide?


The map is divided into three color-coded areas:

  • Day 1 attractions are in Blue
  • Day 2 attractions are in Red
  • Day 3 attractions are in Yellow
  • The grey markers are for optional sites

For simplicity, we assume you followed our advice and are staying in the Garden District along Magazine Street. All currency listed in USD.


A 3 Day New Orleans Itinerary

(based entirely on local recommendations)

Day 1 (Blue): Arrival in New Orleans, Crawfish Boil, Gumbo, Boozy Bourbon Street, Jazz on Frenchmen Street, and Late Night Gene’s Po’Boys

 
 

Morning: 

  • Arrive at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
  • Take the short, six minute Uber ride ($5-6) to Harbor Seafood and Oyster Bar for boiled crawfish and raw oysters. We ordered fried alligator as an appetizer, and the boiled special: 3 lbs of boiled crawfish, ½ lb of boiled shrimp, 10 boiled potatoes and corn ($38). If possible, we recommend sitting at the bar to chat with the friendly bartender!

Afternoon

  • Uber to your Airbnb at the Garden District ($15-17). Drop off your things and head out on foot.
  • Follow Magazine Street towards the French Quarter, stop by French Truck Coffee ($5) for some cold brew.

  • Have dinner at Mother’s Restaurant ($20-30): Mother’s has a combination plate where you can try the gumbo, Jambalaya, and etouffee (our preference). Alternatively, there’s the always packed Cochon Butcher, a gourmet sandwich shop where you can get boudin (boo-dan).

Evening

  • Walk through and past Bourbon Street. Avoid the neon-colored daiquiris made with Everclear and the Hand Grenade cocktail - because you’re not 21 anymore and possess a fully developed brain.
  • Make your way to Frenchman Street. This is where all the great live music, jazz clubs, and dive bars are. In our case, we started at The Spotted Cat for live music, then a few dive bars later, ended up at the Hi Ho Lounge around one in the morning ($25-30).
  • Cap off the night by splitting a hot sausage po’boy at Gene’s Po’Boys ($15, open 24H). Every single local we talked to mentioned Gene’s as a great late night spot. Note: Gene's does take credit cards and make sure to ask for their homemade HOT SAUCE. A local highly recommended it to us.
  • Take the Uber home ($9-10).
     

Daily total (for two) in New Orleans:
$100-150 depending on how many drinks you order.
We stuck to one drink per establishment.

 

 

Day 2 (Red): Exploring New Orleans Cemeteries, Streetcars, Mufalettas, Beignets and Coffee at Cafe Du Monde, and Drinking Wine at Bacchanal with New Friends And Jazz

Morning

Afternoon

  • Take the streetcar to the French Quarter. Purchase a 1 Day transit pass (valid for 24H) from the street car driver ($3 per person).

  • Order HALF of a muffaletta sandwich from Central Grocery ($15). Trust me: half is all you need for two regular-sized people.

  • Take your sandwich to go and head over to Jackson Square for an impromptu picnic.

  • For dessert, there are two options for cafe au lait and beignets (pronounced: ben-YAYs): the famous Cafe du Monde or Cafe Beignet (multiple locations - we went to the one on Royal St). Which is better? We tried both and preferred Cafe Beignet ($10) because there were fewer tourists (i.e. quieter), no line for restrooms and the beignets were fluffier and fresh out of the fryer.

Evening

  • Take the streetcar to French Market Station.

  • Climb the stairs up the weird overpass, over a concrete wall, and down the stairs again to reach Crescent Park, a tranquil public space with views of the Mississippi River and the New Orleans skyline.

  • Continue walking north along the river until you reach the Bywater district - which reminded us of the New Orleans-equivalent of pre-gentrified Brooklyn.

  • Head over to our favorite spot in New Orleans: Bacchanal Fine Wine and Spirits ($40-50).
    How it works: you select and purchase a bottle of wine as you enter the store (with help from the friendly staff), grab a couple of empty glasses and head over to the back patio. Pull up some chairs and share a table with some strangers while listening to live music! There’s a good mix of locals and tourists who come here, and though it may seem daunting for introverts at first, stick with it! A few glasses of wine later, we promise you won’t regret it! Bacchanal also serves food and a fantastic meat and cheese plate you can order at the front. We recommend arriving early (5 PM) before the post-work rush.

Daily total (for two):
$90-120. Again, depends on how much wine you drink.
We ordered a bottle of Beaujolais ($28), shared a cheese and meat plate with some locals ($10-15), and tipped the musicians ($5).

 

 

Day 3 (Yellow): Willie Mae’s Fried Chicken, Walking Around City Park and Sculpture Gardens, More Gumbo, and Sno-balls for Dessert

Morning

  • Have a late breakfast at the famous Willie Mae’s Scotch House (closed Sundays, $25-30) for fried chicken. In our opinion, totally worth the hype. It is extremely important to get here as soon as it opens at 10AM to avoid standing in a long ass line.

  • Walk off the fried chicken by making your way through the Bayou St. John neighborhood to City Park.

Afternoon

Evening

  • Uber out to Pho Michael ($20-25) for a (relatively) light meal before your flight. New Orleans has a sizable Vietnamese population and the bun bo hue here was legit! Alternatively, people rave about the gumbo at Chef Ron’s Gumbo Shop, located right next to Sno-La Snowball Lounge, which sells sno-balls stuffed with a cheesecake filling (we’re skeptical about this combo). We were too stuffed to try it, but our Uber driver said she goes out of her way to eat there all the time.

  • Take the Uber to the airport ($15) and fly home 10 pounds heavier.

Daily total (for two): $90-120.
Uber rates vary depending on whether you’re traveling on a weekend or weekday.



April 2018 Money Diary: A Different Kind of Life

Ivan here.

Twenty two months ago, Jennie and I published our first money diary. Back then, we had some hopes and dreams about what our life and marriage could be, a few ambitious goals, plus zero dollars saved in our round the world travel fund.

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 11.06.45 AM.png

Since that publication:

  • Our cost of living has remained unchanged: We spent $2,787 in July 2016 versus $2,815 in the past month.  

  • Our average monthly spend has decreased: we averaged $3,140 per month in 2016 & 2017 versus $2,800 in 2018.

  • Our donations to charity have increased: From $0 in 2016 to $1,250 in 2018 (to date).

  • We’ve hit our $40,000 savings goal for our round the world trip:  $0 in 2016 to $40,286 in 2018.

 
April 2018 - The Origami Life Money Diaries
 

The shift from spending $3,000 a month to $2,800 isn’t about cutting costs or making ourselves miserable. We’ve actually learned to be more efficient with where we spend our dollars, by prioritizing our spending in areas that add value to our life. For example, over the past two years, we’ve significantly cut back on Eating Out and Miscellaneous spending, and moved those savings toward Travel and Charitable Donations.  

This goes back to how we value money: it’s not about what you spend, but how you get the maximum return for every dollar you do spend by:

  1. Eliminating waste and mindless spending habits

  2. Setting clear priorities on the things that matter to you

Having met our savings goals, Jennie and I now have some loose ends to tie up - but we’re on track to transition to the next chapter of our lives by September.


I told you what I was going to do.
— Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood

Travel On Your Terms versus On a Corporate Expense Account


A week after I returned to Los Angeles after two months in rural Taiwan, I tagged along with Jennie on a work trip to San Francisco. As one half of Origami Partners LLC, I had a few prospective clients up in the Bay Area, and wanted to take advantage of the free accommodations to set up some meetings downtown.

golden-gate-bridge-388917_1280 (1).jpg

Walking around San Francisco after two months of solitude in rural Taiwan was jarring to say the least.

I don’t have strong feelings about the Bay Area. From certain angles, I guess it’s a beautiful city. On the other hand, it’s also a microcosm for the massive income inequality and skyrocketing rents we see around the world.

San Francisco is by far the most expensive city in the United States. And it’s the kind of city that makes you pay for it in other ways besides money. Personally, I think New York City fits this description as well.

To explain what I mean, I want to share what it’s like to travel on a corporate expense account. The best way to begin is by comparing the cost of two very different lifestyles...


Comparing the Cost of One Month in Rural Taiwan vs.

One Week in San Francisco with an Expense Account


 

Cost of One Month in Rural Taiwan

(self funded)
Cost of One Week in San Francisco

(with expense account subsidy)
Roundtrip Train Tickets (from Taipei):
$50

Airbnb Rental:
$238

Electricity:
$15

Bicycle Rental:
$15

Food: $8 x 30 days:
$240

Total out-of-pocket spend:
$555
Flight/airline tickets to SFO (from LAX):
$205

Hotel (fully expensed):
$1,604

Uber Rides (partially expensed):
$259

Food (partially expensed):
$558

Total spend:
$2,626

Total out-of-pocket spend:
$780

Obviously, it shouldn’t be news to anyone that living in San Francisco is more expensive than living out in the Taiwanese countryside. But just how much more expensive, is something that we don’t always appreciate until we see the numbers:

It’s more expensive to live in SF rent free for one week, traveling on your employer’s dime, than it is to spend an entire month living in rural Taiwan.

This would be an okay tradeoff if traveling on an expense account was all it was cracked up to be.

But it isn’t. Maybe it feels amazing at first, but slowly, hedonic adaptation kicks in. Which is to say that when you start getting used to driving Ferraris, anything less than a Mercedes will make you feel like a peasant. And if someone gave you that Ferrari for free, it wouldn’t mean anything to you at all.

Traveling for free on someone else’s dime makes things less rewarding - not more.


My Takeaway from Two Different Ways of Life:

Life in the city versus life in the countryside


If we truly want to treat money as a “vote” for what people and society value, it’s hard not to look at that $2,626 number spent in just one week in SF and realize how absurd it is.

$2,626 says nothing about anyone. It’s just a number that gets moved around faster so people can drink slightly more expensive wine and eat at slightly more expensive restaurants. It could easily have been $5,000 or $10,000. It makes no difference because human beings were barely conscious in the decision making process at all.

$2,626 is just stimulation for the economy - so the poor can get by and the rich can get used to (and grow bored of) slightly better versions of what they already have. 

*

By writing this post, I’m not advocating that everyone retire to the countryside and start living off the land. I would be a completely useless farmer.

The larger point I'm making is that these are two lifestyles on opposite ends of a wide spectrum. And having experienced two starkly different realities back to back, I now have a better idea of which direction I’d like to move towards.

 

5 Reasons Why Our Marriage Works

Ivan here.

The title of this post is like hanging up a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier. It’s tempting fate, by inviting complacency, leading eventually to a divorce.

The fact is, no marriage is perfect and every relationship is a work-in-progress. Ours is no different. But having spent the past nine years together, and six of those years surviving a long distance relationship, we thought we would give our perspective on the reasons why we think our marriage works.

`

5 Reasons Why Our Marriage Works


beautiful-bridge-railing-cap-930676 (2).jpg

1. Having shared values is more important than having similar personalities or interests


A few mornings ago, Jennie and I noticed something about our interactions with the Cambodian husband and wife who run our favorite donut shop:

“Do you ever notice that they’re more relaxed and chatty around me than they are with you?” asked Jennie.
“Now that you mention it,” I said, taking a sip of coffee. “Yeah, that’s kind of upsetting. I come here more often than you too. Sometimes they see me twice a day.”

Life isn’t fair. We can’t all be short and peppy Asian girls, brimming with optimism and empathy. One of Jennie’s superpowers is that she can meet someone for the first time and make them comfortable enough to spill their deepest, darkest secrets - like they’ve known her their whole life. I’ve seen her do this many times. Frankly, it’s manipulative, but as a writer, I’m also jealous. I want to learn people’s secrets…

[Editor’s note: It’s not manipulative. It's called genuine interest and empathy.]

On the other hand, I’ve found that people are not as comfortable around me. I don’t give off many verbal or non-verbal cues of interest (even though I’m usually very engaged!). Sometimes, when I’m in a conversation, I have to remind myself to smile.

But despite our personality differences, Jennie and I operate on the exact same wavelength. This is because we have almost identical values. While we’ve definitely worked at this over the course of our 9 year relationship, the similarities were there from the beginning:

  • We both have problems with being told what to do.
  • We don’t like being tied down.
  • We like to challenge everything, and
  • We’re willing to do (just about) anything to get what we want.

You don’t need to have similar personalities or interests to make a relationship work. Those are just details. Having similar values means that we both want to move in the same direction.


2. Different backgrounds and perspectives can often be complementary


I have no idea what it’s like to grow up poor or to experience racism. But collectively, we do. Jennie has no idea what it’s like to live and work in a foreign country, or to plan your financial future out in decades. But collectively, we do. Whenever we have different opinions about a person we just met, I usually defer to her opinion. Whenever she’s trying to figure out the best way to communicate an idea, she usually defers to mine.

Having worked part-time service jobs since she was 14, I trust that Jennie has had more exposure to different types of people than I have, and understands what makes them tick better than I do. Having had a lot of time on my hands to sit around in air-conditioning (Taipei summers: would not recommend) and read and write all day, I know how to communicate an idea with clarity. It’s the only useful skill I possess.

We learn from each other, ask each other for advice, and openly disagree. Through this process, Jennie makes me a more well-rounded and empathetic human being, whereas I challenge her to think and act in a way that’s true to herself.

Because of these differences, we’re able to draw on a larger sample size of experience to make more informed decisions.


3. Being able to say anything to each other and trusting that it comes from a good place


We argue - a lot. Sometimes, a brainstorming session for our business or this blog feels like open-hand combat while scaling Mount Everest. We both have to bring the big guns and artillery to an argument, because otherwise, one person is going to roll over the other.

The motto for our relationship should be:

If you give me an inch, I’m going to try to take the entire mile.

Arguing a lot means we end up saying some unsavory and uncomfortable things to each other. Not going to lie - stubbornness ensues and feelings get hurt - but eventually, we come around to the idea that what the other person says (usually) comes from a good place.

It can be small things. I remember in the beginning of our relationship, Jennie had this habit where she’d agree with someone just to seem agreeable. It’s the sociable side of her that wants everyone to have a good time and feel comfortable. Usually, this is fine, but I draw the line when she starts agreeing with something she obviously doesn’t believe.

“ Is that what you actually think? Because I know you said the exact opposite to me. So either, a) you lied to me or b) you just agreed for the sake of being agreeable. I can’t trust you if it’s the former. The latter makes you look weak and spineless. Stop doing that. ”

Or how about this comment Jennie made before I headed off to Taiwan?

“ Recently, I’ve noticed that you’ve been taking your lack of productivity out on me. I didn’t do anything wrong. You’ve just been lazy and not producing like the professional you’re supposed to be. And I don’t appreciate being treated like this. ”

And those were the family-friendly versions of what we said. But at the end of the day, no matter what was said, we both realize that we’re on the same team. This means that we can be brutally honest with each other to make the team better.


4. We’re able to function together and independently


If there’s any upside to spending six years doing long distance, it’s that we were both forced to develop and grow separately. Both of us have 4-6 years of working experience under our belt in our areas of specialty. We had social lives apart from each other. We could get ourselves set up in most cities around the world with food, shelter, and a job.

We don’t have to be together - we chose to be together.  

I think psychologically, this is an important distinction. Because how else would I know Jennie isn’t just with me because I’m familiar or for lack of a better option? Or that she’s scared of what life might look like without something she’s “used to” or “depends on”? The idea of being someone’s convenient or default choice is upsetting.


5. We’re not influenced by people’s expectations of what a marriage is


The institution of marriage is not sacred to us. Had it not been for the fact that one of us needed to immigrate in order to live together, we probably wouldn’t have married so early in our twenties. I guess the best way to put it is:

We would’ve stay unmarried for as long as the tax advantages of marriage were less than the expense and hassle of holding a wedding.

Even after we married, we had no expectations of what married life “should be like.” What should the husband or man be responsible for in a marriage? The wife or woman?

Our approach was pretty simple: I’m me. You’re you. And we’re going to figure out exactly what kind of marriage we want that works for us, and we’re going to make conscious, rational decisions to build towards that.

Everything else is just noise.



5 Things We Do When We're Feeling Unmotivated

Ivan here.

Having spent all of my life in a big city, I never pictured myself moving to some remote village in the countryside to raise kids and grow a vegetable garden. In this fantasy, Jennie and I would adopt a pair of cats - one black and one white. We’d name the white one Tofu, and the black one Mu, the Chinese character for nothing, or nonexistence.

 
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 Mu, said the cat.

Mu, said the cat.

 

That way, when the white cat jumps on the black cat, they'd essentially be canceling each other out. A block of tofu plunging into the abyss.

This desire to “escape” pretty much sums up Jennie’s and my mood over the past few weeks, and is the reason why we haven’t published anything. Don’t get me wrong - we tried. We must’ve written 3,000-4,000 words between the two of us, each word as fucking meaningless as the next. Words tinged with cynicism and frustration with nameless “people” and you know, “society,” and claims about “the world” not backed by any sort of data. 

But I guess readers are looking for a more concrete explanation. I wish I could put my finger on one thing, but I think there are multiple factors at play.

In no particular order:

1. Immigration: Detainment and Bureaucracy

Following my detainment at the border, I scheduled an appointment at the LA immigration office to sort out my expired green card. This was when I learned that the "normal processing time" for new green cards had doubled to 24 months (from 12 months). This means Jennie and I are guaranteed to be interrupted on our RTW trip, and will be forced to fly back to the U.S. for (yet another) round of interviews.

2. Complacency: We Are Ready To Embark On Our Next Adventure...

We just hit our two year mark in Los Angeles. For readers that have been with us since our first post, 24 months is pretty much our limit for how long we like to stay in one place. These days, we’re restless, irritable, and frankly, a little too safe and comfortable.

3. "Meritocracy": BULLSHIT and EGO As A Substitute for the Work and Ability

You don’t need a Pulitzer Prize to know that the tech industry can be a pretty inhospitable place for women. Even so, we sorely underestimated how clique-ish and fucked up Silicon Valley could be.  To quote the iconic monologue from the movie Bladerunner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”


5 Things We Do When We’re Feeling Unmotivated


1. Step away and listen to music:

Music is a reminder that no matter where you are in the world and how you’re feeling about humanity at the moment, there are people who exist “out there” who have the ability to create beautiful things, and if you’re able to appreciate and be moved by that beauty, then maybe, just maybe, that ability to create something beautiful exists inside of you too.

Then, all of a sudden, you’re not just some mindless cog in the machine, slaving away at a 9 to 5 when you should be on your RTW trip already. You’re a human being who can still feel something that transcends your current surroundings. And this is a wonderful thing.
 

2. Break from your everyday routine:

After my appointment at the immigration office, where I learned that the normal processing time had doubled, and that some beaten-down public servant in Nebraska was still processing applications submitted under a different President, while the portrait of the sitting one leered at her from a gray and hopeless wall, I decided that instead of retreating back to my apartment and stewing over it, I needed a beer. Now.

That’s how I ended up eating mediocre Chinese food at Grand Central Market and knocking back watered down Budweisers at 11 in the morning. The Brazilian brewer who now owns this iconic American brand had cut so many corners that it was now impossible to get drunk off of this beverage. But it didn’t matter. I was drunk on rebellion.
 

3. Exercise (strenuously):

I haven’t done this yet, but I will have by the time this post is published. The best way to get rid of frustration and/or complacency is to find a track or open field somewhere, and just sprint until your lungs give out and your legs are so sore you just want to curl up into a fetal position on the field because you don’t have the energy to make your way home.

This is also a reminder that there are people out there who actually have to physically work for a living, and that whatever perceived injustices you think may have befallen you is not only insignificant, but borderline imaginary.
 

4. Let go of aNY expectations

One of the main things I learned after spending a month writing in the Taiwanese countryside is that it’s absolutely possible to work and produce without motivation. It’s actually one of the hallmarks of being a professional. First, you just have to let go of any hope or expectation that the work will be any good, or that you have any semblance of an image or reputation to protect, and the words will gush out of you like groundwater.

Just remember to filter out the raw sewage after it’s all said and done.  
 

5. Remind yourself that everything is temporary

Here are some photos I took from my antique iPhone 4 during my month-long stay in Chishang Township in Taitung county, a sparsely populated region on the southeastern seaboard of Taiwan.

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I plan on writing a detailed post on the things I did there (in Tatung), but I can say with certainty that I’ve never felt more creatively rejuvenated by an experience. So rejuvenated in fact, that I thought I could carry that feeling of lightness and productivity with me when I returned to Los Angeles.

But of course, the exact opposite happened: I completed my backlog of client work with excruciating difficulty, I missed two blog post deadlines, and wrote zero more words of fiction. The time I spent in rural Taiwan seemed like a whole lifetime ago. How could I ever have been so relaxed, productive and spontaneous? To use the military slang, Jennie and I now find ourselves firmly “in the shit.”

But then again, won’t this moment be temporary too? In the grand scheme of things, won’t this final stretch be something that quickly fades in memory?  If so, then what’s the use of complaining and acting as if things will never change?

It’s better to remind ourselves that all the good or bad things that have happened to us, as well everything that has yet to happen, is all temporary. The most important thing is to stay focused on our long term plans and goals and to navigate this rough patch with at least some semblance of patience and dignity.


All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
— Roy Batty, Bladerunner


“Where are you from?” Freedom and the Immigrant Experience
That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones.
— Raymond Carver

Ivan here.

I’m back in Los Angeles after spending the last few months in Taiwan.

On my way back to the States, I was detained in San Francisco for traveling on an expired green card. 

Let me explain.

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In 2015, I arrived in the U.S. on a spousal visa. I was issued a conditional green card, valid for two years, after which I had a 90 day window prior to expiration to "lift the conditions" on my card by submitting another application. Which I did, promptly, on the first day I was eligible. I knew just how slow and incompetent the U.S. immigration system could be, and I didn’t want to leave anything up to chance.

Unfortunately, my application happened to coincide with a certain election and mass confusion around a certain travel ban. So here I am, thirteen months later, and last I checked, the immigration office in Los Angeles hadn’t even gotten around to my case. They were still processing cases submitted in the panic of 2016.

Before I left for Taiwan a few months ago, I called the immigration office and asked for some advice. The lady at the call center told me I could get a passport stamp at the border that would allow me to travel on my green card for another year. This turned out to be the wrong information. I don’t know why she told me this, but I guess considering my previous experiences with immigration, I shouldn’t have been surprised. 

So that’s how I ended up being detained coming back into the country. I was ushered into a backroom and was questioned for 45 minutes while they verified my details.

The border patrol officer who interviewed me turned out to be a real grunt. This isn’t a comment on his appearance, but his general attitude and the way he treated people. He talked slowly, in that condescending tone some people like to use on minorities with foreign-sounding names. He used that tone long after it’d become clear that the people he was talking to (at) spoke perfect English. That’s the problem with grunts: working in grunt-like conditions tends to do a number on their personalities. Even after I’d been cleared by the system, I had to sit there and wait for him to send me off with a lecture - like I was his son.

If I could boil down his Catch-22 argument:

Just because you followed the rules, doesn’t give you the right to disobey the law.

“Didn’t you know that traveling on an expired green card was against the law? No, I don’t want to hear excuses. It’s the law. We wouldn’t be a country without laws. You should’ve stayed put (in LA). But you’re lucky, because I’m letting you off this time.”

He was letting me off.

I recount this story to explain something that an immigrant or minority understands intuitively upon setting foot in this country:

It’s possible to go through your entire life obeying all the rules, until that moment arrives when it doesn’t matter anymore.

My Seventeen Month Nightmare:

The Immigration Process That Almost Cost Me My Marriage


Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.”

I wish I were the type of person who could just let things go. I really do. My tendency to hold grudges is not an admirable or attractive quality. I often make it a point to remember when someone (deliberately) gets in my way. You know, for down the road. Because whether they know it or not, I'll owe them one.

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Anyway, this is a part of my personality I’m trying to fix.

What I’ve learned since arriving in North America is that I can’t let my guard down here. At least, not in the same way that I could in Taipei. America, to me, is just another opportunity, and I have to accept all the positives and negatives that come with it.

But it’s hard to forget what I had to pay for it. January 2014 to June 2015 - seventeen months trapped in immigration limbo. Seventeen months of my life. My time. Stuck between a job I hated in Canada and an immigration process with no end in sight. At one point, they lost our paperwork, but forgot to mention this little detail until we reached out to them nearly 14 months into the process.

For a non-trivial percentage of my life, America forced me to choose between my marriage and my mental health, and I resented having to make that choice. In my eyes, the system had held me hostage, then turned around and expected me to feel grateful for it. It damaged the relationship I had with Jennie to the point where it almost cost us our marriage.

At the same time, I recognize my privilege. I know there are people today who have it much worse. I think about the men, women and children still waiting in Syrian refugee camps and it makes me sick. Because I understand it’s not just about the deplorable conditions in which they live and the indifference or hostility that they’re met with. It’s the waiting that kills you. Waiting without limit or hope. It’s a fate that’s worse than death, because at least death has certainty. Death has an end date.

Waiting is what eats you up from the inside.  

*

When it was all over, Jennie met me at the arrivals terminal at Boston Logan Airport on June 1st, 2015. One of the first things she asked me was, “aren’t you happy that we’re finally together?

Happy. Happy? I didn’t say anything for a while because her question had pissed me off, and I knew an argument was brewing.

And argue we did, over and over again in the ensuing months, about the same issue. After all, didn’t we both have to wait for our lives to begin? Why was it that she could learn to let things go, while I had to make such a big deal out of it? Looking back, she was probably right. My wife is usually the more sensible one. Sure, things had been bad, but maybe I was being too dramatic. But I could only go by what I felt during those seventeen months, and that feeling, overwhelmingly, was anger.

“I love you,” I said at the arrivals terminal. “But I’m still trying to decide whether this ordeal has been worth it.”


Race and Freedom in America:

“The World is Going One Way, People Another”


Let me be brutally honest: whether or not America is made great again is of no consequence to me. Greatness, after all, is relative. America was “great” in the 1950s because most parts of the world were only a few years removed from being smoldering piles of rubble.

The world is different now. Better get used to it.

Of course, I’m rooting for this country. I’ve grown fond of the people I’ve met here. They have an optimism that I envy and they’re not handicapped by their failures. They have this idea that they can still make their own way in the world. These are ideas that I admire and still believe in.

But I’ve also seen their treatment of immigrants and minorities when the chips were down. What’s happening today with the Dreamers. Muslims. The Black American experience. I’ve walked through the Japanese internment camps at Manzanar. These are things that transcend both politics and administrations. And as bad as things are today, we’re currently nine years into an economic recovery. The U.S. unemployment rate is at 4%. 

I wonder who the scapegoats will be in the next recession?


My Definition Of Freedom Is Choice


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I’m not from here.

If America is one giant melting pot, I’ve got no desire or intention of melting into anything. I can only look at things as they are, unglazed by patriotism, tradition, or social mores. No subject or speech is taboo or sacred to me. These things are my business simply because I see them as my business. And if I’m interested, I’ll stay. If not, I’ll leave. But one thing’s for certain: from here on out, I’ll be coming and going as I please.

I refuse to be someone else's collateral damage. Why should we as minorities have to continually pay for other people’s ignorance or indifference? When do we get to pay them back? In that sense, I was American before ever setting foot in America. There will be no taxation without representation.

So give me liberty, or give me death.
 



March 2018 Money Diary: Job (In)security & Worst Case Scenarios

Jennie here.

And finally..Ivan is back from Taiwan after being away for two whole months.Trust me friends, I’m excited he’s back too. But before I get into the nitty gritty of everything that happened last month...I want to just pat myself on the back - it turns out when left to my own devices...

I saved a few hundred extra dollars without Ivan around. A “normal” month of spending (without Ivan) in April was pretty successful overall compared to our normal budget. I achieved this without being conservative or cautious with my spending. I just stuck to normal routines and was mindful about not going overboard when I wanted something.

Beyond normal savings - I experienced a more challenging issue this past month: potentially losing my job earlier than I’d anticipated. My mentor and direct boss was fired this past month in a power struggle, which means that Ivan and I may get to go on our RTW trip a couple months earlier than expected!

Nothing is certain yet - but I’m prepared for the worst. Ivan, however, was quick to remind me that this is no big deal.

[Editor’s Note: How am I wrong exactly? With only five months left before our planned departure and $1,800 away from our 40k goal, even if we lose we can’t lose. I mean, seriously. As Jay-Z would say: you gotta get that dirt off your shoulder.]


There Are Some Things You Can’t Control:

[No] Job Security At Tech Startups


Snapchat recently laid off 220 employees in February and March and it’s estimated to save them $34 million per year in salaries, taxes, and stock-based comp forfeitures.

Were these employees surprised? Or as insiders, did they see this coming from a mile away and prepared for the worst case scenario? Although I don’t work for Snapchat - I do work for a tech startup. And here’s what I’ve learned since the very beginning of my startup tenure:

Job security doesn’t exist in tech startups and getting laid off or fired can easily happen to you.

And here’s the truth about most startups - they often embrace the idea that they should hire fast and fire fast. Most executives and high level managers may not admit it but the truth is: they have never regretted firing anybody. In fact, there’s a higher chance that they’ve regretted not firing somebody quickly enough. Although this makes sense logically speaking - it’s an uncomfortable idea that individual contributors (like myself) have to quickly come to terms with.


There Are Some Things You Can Control:

You Can Learn to Live with Uncertainty


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In recent weeks, I’ve been experiencing something of an emotional and value crisis in my job because a re-org happened within my group. It’s prompted a lot of questions about whether or not I’ll have a job in a few months or what my self-worth is to an organization.

I recently heard something that a tech executive said:

“You’re not looking for stability, you’re looking for predictability.

Predictability is the degree to which a correct prediction or forecast of a system's state can be made either qualitatively or quantitatively.

Here’s the thing though, when you have external variables involved like self-motivated human beings, emotions, and office politics...can you really have true predictability?

Well, you probably can’t have full predictability but you can make foundational choices at the beginning. For us, we chose to save rigorously and assumed worse case scenarios.

What have I learned from my job instability?

  1. The bad news, I don’t know if I’ll have a job in a month or two. I mean, does it suck? Yes. Is it bad? It could be - I mean, who doesn’t like a steady paycheck? I’ve never been unemployed or laid off in the last six years of my professional career either. So, it’s uncomfortable.

  2. The good news: Ivan and I have already planned for the worst case scenario. Because Ivan and I have built up a foundation of exhaustive budgeting, we have a cushion (e.g. our Fuck Off Fund) that protects us in situations like this.

So, what’s next?

Stay the course and continue to do what we’ve been doing: grow our business, save every month. So long as we don’t deviate too far off our normal budget, then we’re okay. I thought that I would go into panic mode (e.g. extreme savings) because of this uncertainty but we’ve been fortunate enough that this issue feels like a drop in the ocean.


Charity Highlight Of The Quarter: No Lean Season


Like I mentioned, we’re staying the course. And at the end of every quarter, we donate $250 to a charity of our choice. This month, our donation dollars are going to a charity called No Lean Season. It’s a non-profit that offers no-interest loans to poor rural households in rural northen Bangladesh during the time of seasonal income and food insecurity ("lean season") between planting and the major rice harvest. Up until this quarter, we’ve primarily focused on donating to causes primarily focused on children in Sub-Saharan Africa. So, I wanted to make sure that we’re diversifying our donations to other regions and populations of need.

 

 

Have you ever prepared yourself for potentially getting let go or fired?

How was your March budget?

Did you have any major highlights or wins in March that you want to share?

 

 


Short Story Intermission: Four Seasons in America
 

Jennie here.

I couldn't make the posting deadline this Tuesday, so instead of a blog post, I'd like to share a short story Ivan wrote recently titled "Four Seasons in America."

Enjoy!


1. Early Spring


I walked by a homeless man on my way to the farmer’s market. As I approached his cardboard box along the wall, I’d been holding my wallet in my right hand and switched it to the left as I passed, the hand furthest away from him. I don’t know why I did that.

The homeless man asked me for some change. He’d written a sign on a piece of his cardboard box, which read like a haiku because there wasn’t enough cardboard for a sonnet.  

It read:

Homeless vet.
Any help appreciated.
God bless.

“Sorry I don’t have change,” I said, and flashed him a look.  

I’d been telling the truth - but he didn’t know that. After I’d walked about ten yards, he called out after me.

“Hey!” he shouted at my retreating back. When I stopped and turned around, he was taken aback and seemed to struggle to find something to say. Anything at all.

“I’m Asian too,” he said weakly.

I didn’t believe him. He was clearly a black man and looked nothing like me. The only thing he and I had in common was that we were both looking for something to say and ended up saying words that didn’t mean anything.

* * *

The only thing in my wallet that day, aside from my identity card and a $20 bill, was a Japanese 50 yen coin. The coin was silver with a hole in the center and was worth about fifty American cents on a good day for Japanese capitalism.  When you hold it up to the morning sky, light shines through it.

It was my lucky coin. The only thing in my life I could still see through.

Besides, I reasoned to myself, this coin wouldn’t have done the homeless man any good. It wasn’t as if he could waltz into JPMorgan Chase and ask for the latest exchange rate. No problem, sir. Right this way, sir. Why don’t we take care of that for you, sir.

To give a man a fifty cent piece he could never use was the same as kicking him in the nuts and telling him “you’re welcome.”

Anyway, it’s early and I’m off to the farmer’s market.


2. Midsummer


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“How much are these nectarines?” I asked.

“Depends,” said the blonde fruit lady. “How much you got?”

I opened my wallet and took a look inside. I counted one Andrew Jackson, who still looked ticked off at me for spending his fellow Americans.

“I’ve got twenty dollars,” I said.

“Well, what do you know,” the fruit lady said, her arms opened wide like Christ the Redeemer. “These nectarines are twenty dollars.”

“What a coincidence,” I said and wondered about the wheels of fate and twists of human fortune.

“Small world,” she nodded. “So, do we have a deal?”

“Let me think about it,” I said, backing away.

“Go ahead honey, but if I were you, I would take the deal,” she said. “What we have here is a classic case of a seller’s market: price collusion meets inelasticity of demand. The demand here being your midsummer’s thirst for my plump and juicy nectarines.”

“Maybe so,” I said. “But I’m gonna check anyway. Just in case there are holes to your fruit lady logic.”

“Suit yourself,” she replied. “It’s a free country.”

I marshaled my last Andrew Jackson and we galloped back into the heat in search of Indians.


3. Late Autumn


It was getting late and there were no Indians to be found. Andrew Jackson had probably slaughtered them all.

“Nice one Andrew,” I said. “Real nice.”

I wasn’t expecting a reply.

“Pssst!” came a voice to my right.

I turned and looked down an alleyway to see a petite, dark-haired Latino lady leaning up against the wall. In the shade, I couldn’t tell her age. She was wearing tortoise shell glasses and a burgundy turtleneck. There was a Virginia Slim between her thumb and forefinger. She brought it to her lips and smoked it sparingly, as if it were the last joint in Jamaica.

“What are you skulking around here for?” she asked bluntly.

“I’m looking for Indi - I mean - nectarines,” I said. “I’m looking for nectarines.”

“Nectarines,” she repeated to herself. “It’s not the season for those anymore. It’s squash and pumpkin season now. Do you like squash?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “What do I do with them?”

“A squash can provide everything you’ll ever need,” she says. “The Native Americans used to cultivate an ancient variety of squash up by the Great Lakes. Some could grow up to five feet long. You could stir fry the flesh and use the seeds to make an orange soup that tastes mild and sweet. You could plant the remaining seeds in the soil and you’ll never want for anything again. It’ll be squash morning, afternoon and night.”

Andrew Jackson and I exchanged glances. Indians.

“How much for a squash?” I asked.

“Seventeen dollars.”

“You’ve got a deal,” I said and we shook on it.

“Wait out here.”

She ducked into a side door down the alleyway and reappeared with a tan squash the exact size and shape of a newborn baby.

I said good riddance to Andrew Jackson and she handed me three George Washingtons and the baby-shaped squash. I had to carry it with both hands it was so heavy.

“You’re a proud father now,” she said. “How do you feel?”

“Happy,” I said. “and worried I might drop this thing.”

She gave me a pat on the back as I turned to leave, “you’ll get used it.”


4. Deep Winter


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On my way home, I passed by the same homeless man and his cardboard box. He was trying not to look at me. He must have felt bad about the Asian comment he’d made earlier. Must’ve thought he’d hurt my feelings.

“Hey,” I said, after carefully setting down the squash on the ground. “I have some change for you now.”

I produced the three George Washingtons scrunched up in my jeans pocket and handed it to him.

“This isn’t much, but it’s all I’ve got left. I won’t be needing it anymore. You can do whatever you like with it. This is America, after all.”

“God bless you,” he said. “And have a nice evening.”

“Don’t mention it,” I said. “And you as well.”

I picked up my squash and kept walking. I made it ten steps before I stopped and called back to him.

“Hey mister!”

“Yes, sir?”

“Did you ever find out who won that war?”

“War,” he frowned, thinking very hard. “Which war was that?”

“Never mind,” I said, shaking my head. “Happy holidays.”

* * *

The soup was delicious. Mild and sweet, just as the lady in the turtleneck had said.

My wife and I are in bed now, our bellies warm. All the lights are turned off and out the window, beyond the city lights, we could faintly make out the stars.

“Another year’s come and gone,” she sighed as we huddled close underneath the sheets. “Feels like it all went by in a second.”

“Let’s take the baby and go somewhere,” I said. “Somewhere fresh and unspoiled by old routines.”

“Let’s talk about this in the morning,” she replied. “When we’re wide awake in the morning.”

“Okay,” I said.

In the silence, we dreamed of a new life and new possibilities. Birds were chirping, plants were blossoming, and each morning, pixies would bring us daylight from a mountain spring.

But first, a deep sleep. Please wake us when the snow is melting.  



Origami Letters: Too Much Memory

Origami letters is a series we are experimenting with, where we share moments from our relationship through a selection of letters we’ve sent each other over our four year marriage (and nine year relationship).
These letters have been lightly edited for grammar and brevity. Pseudonyms are used to protect people’s privacy.

* * *


There, sir, stop. Let us not burden our remembrances with a heaviness that’s gone.
— Prospero, The Tempest

Jennie here. 

Below is an email I received from Ivan after our wedding reception in Taipei in 2016. His grandfather came to our wedding but seemed like a completely different person from the one I'd met a few years prior. I want to share with you what it was like meeting Ivan's grandfather for the first time.

In February 2012, I flew to Taipei for the first time to meet Ivan's family. And the way things worked out, I arrived in Taipei a full two days before Ivan. So, I met his parents for the first time by myself and it was very awkward. On the second day of my trip, his mom dropped me off at his [paternal] grandparents house to meet, hangout, and well - to babysit me in some sense while she went work.

Ivan's grandfather reminded me a lot of this man: Gunther Holtorf, a man that I read about several years ago. He was a former airline CEO who had driven more than 820,000 kilometers over two decades with his wife across the world.

Let me make this clear: at the time, I spoke NO Mandarin. But fortunately his grandparents spoke two languages: Mandarin and Japanese. In broken English, Mandarin, and primarily Japanese, his grandfather and I somehow managed to get along quite well.

Ivan's grandfather was a man who had lived in Taiwan under the Japanese rule, built and owned a successful business, was a Judo master, a poet, and a painter. Oh, and he loved to boast about his prized belongings (e.g. articles about him showing Judo exercises to the Taiwanese police, a Rolex he once bought on a six month trip across Europe with his wife, and poems and paintings he'd personally crafted); he shared all his adventurous stories and gloated about his successful grandchildren. He shared things with so much history and detail. You could tell how proud he was of his life's work.

Spontaneously, after drinking lots of tea and sharing countless stories with me, he asked me if I wanted to go for a ride on his scooter. Just imagine for a moment - I'm meeting a man in his 80's for the first time and he asks me if I wanted to take a ride up to the mountains on a dinky scooter. I said yes, of course but his grandmother was pretty hesitant about letting me go. So, he drove me up to the mountains and I felt like I nearly died on several zigzagged turns. He winded through the uneven mountain road as if he were in his early 20's. And I remember that half way through the scenic ride - we both needed to go to the bathroom, awkwardly told each other in broken Mandarin and Japanese, and proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes frantically driving around the mountain pass to find a goddamn washroom. 

His grandfather was truly a larger than life character.


November 5, 2016
Subject: Too Much memory
To: Jennie
From: Ivan


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Dear Jennie,

For weeks I've thought about what I should say about my grandfather. With the end probably closer than I'd like to admit, it might be helpful to put my thoughts and feelings down in writing, so that I can come to some sort of understanding about the whole thing before it happens.

My grandfather has the early onset of Alzheimer's. Not sure how you would define 'early.' How does the brain choose which things to forget? When he was at our wedding ceremony and reception in October, he still remembered my name and who I was. I'm grateful for this, though the significance of the events were lost on him. I watched him eat the food that was placed in front of him. Dutifully, like a child.

With my grandfather, I think about what it means to have lived. In eighty five years of his life, he's raised four children, who in turn provided him with nine grandchildren. He's been rich and poor, had his triumphs and defeats, and has travelled and cultivated his internal and external worlds. He's had a taste of fame, of competition, of loss and deceit. He's bought Rolexes on a whim and travelled across Europe by train. He's held his own calligraphy and art exhibits, taught judo, and coached sumo wrestlers. He's taken to the open road by motorbike, hunted wild boar with packs of hunting dogs. He's had periods of violence and tranquility.

It's hard not to ascribe heroic qualities to his life - and these are only the stories that I know. Growing up, I probably thought he was invincible. I think what hurts most is not his impending death (which happens to everyone), but the manner in which he's fading away. Now I understand why the ancient Greeks wanted to die on the battlefield. In a way, I had secretly wished that for him: that he would get his due, that his end would measure up to everything he had been in life.  

I'm glad he won't remember the end - even if it hurts those he's leaving behind.

Neither my dad or I are anything like my grandfather. At least, not in any way that matters. Our lives just don't have that grand sweeping narrative running through it. And that's okay. Before he lost his ability to paint and write, I asked him for a Chinese couplet that's now hanging above my desk:

 
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Translated, it reads: Find meaning in simplicity. Travel further in silence.

More than anything, my grandfather taught me that it was okay to be myself completely.


Love,
Ivan


Origami Letters: The sounds of the night: tick, tick, tock.

Origami letters is a series Ivan and I are experimenting with, where we share moments from our relationship through a selection of letters we’ve sent each other over our four year marriage (and nine year relationship).
These letters have been lightly edited for grammar and brevity. Pseudonyms are used to protect people’s privacy.

* * *


Time is the longest distance between two places.
— Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

 
 

Jennie here. 

Ivan has been away for close to two months now and I've been spending a lot of time with my family. I've been back in my hometown of Albuquerque for almost three weeks. And it's been both good and bad. I've had a lot of personal issues to work through with my family members and it isn't always easy. When I'm at home, I also see how far I've come and how far I still need to go as an individual

A few weeks ago, I was awake in my childhood home and it felt very foreign to me. It's hard to pinpoint until you actually leave and come back home but, it's funny how easy it is to pick up exactly where you left things...

I wrote down some thoughts and shared it with Ivan during one of my first few nights at home. 


February 27, 2018
Subject: The sounds of the night: tick, tick, tock.
To: Ivan
From: Jennie


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Dear Ivan, 
There's a grandfather clock that we inherited after both of my grandparents passed away. At the top of each hour, there are several soft full chime sounds, immediately followed by a long hour strike.
Tick, tock, tick, tock, go-ong. 
These sounds used to overwhelm me because they were difficult to ignore and sometimes, I'd lay in bed wondering where my life went wrong; feeling the heavy weight of my world.
My childhood home has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining area, and two living spaces. Despite how much space we have, I can hear every conversation, movement, whisper, and continuous ticking from the clock. Nothing felt private in this house.
Anytime of the day, I could hear the criticisms about myself or about my family members. We gave each other a ton of "opinions" that felt...deprecating and eventually became self-deprecating.
In my teens, I heard a lot of this:
Why don't you have better grades?
Why can't you be more like so-and-so?
What you're doing just isn't good enough. 
You're fat. You should go on a diet. 
You have to go to a good school and get good grades. 
And in my early to mid-20s, I heard a lot of this:
What school do you go to? What are you studying?
Are you dating? You need to look prettier if you want someone to date you. 
You need to look a certain way. 
Why don't you go and be a pharmacist/doctor/etc? 
And in my late 20s, I'm hearing a ton of this:
When are you going to get married? Everyone should get married.
When will you have kids? You should have kids.
Why don't you buy a home for your family? You need a home.
Why aren't you more religious? You need to go to church.
There was a whole lot of what-you're-doing-isn't-good-enough-isms. And although I have worked through them, it was really hard to have real self-confidence when I was living at home. It constantly felt like I was being criticized because I didn't have self-confidence. I was led to believe that I wasn't good enough. 
And I only realized on the last couple of years that it just didn't bother me anymore because I simply stopped caring about what other people said or asked of me. 
And what's more, I started thinking about what I was doing well at in life:
  1. studied abroad in Japan
  2. met a partner that I trust and love
  3. no college debt
  4. well-paying job
  5. moving to a different city
  6. being thoughtful about how I can save or spend my money
  7. looking at what's next in my life for me, not for my family or anyone else's expectations
The moment that I started living for myself and listening to myself, I finally felt free. 
* * *
Anyway, I wanted to share my thoughts. As I was listening to your story about how your mom has been "suffocating" you by trying to jump onto your trip. And on my end, it didn't seem so bad but I could understand how it could be enraging in the moment. I hope you're feeling a bit better. 
Alternatively, I would also urge you to remember that your mom is going through a pretty big transition herself. 
Her entire life value has been the following: 
  • teaching kids
  • raising her own kids
  • being a good wife. 
If you think about it, she has none of those things right now. How can you decouple your self-worth from something so fundamentally part of your life for the past 15-20 years? I had a tough time doing that at a job that I've only been at two years. I can't imagine what that must be like for her.
Also, I had the strangest interaction with my sister. She had just washed her face and I jokingly commented, "Whoa, what happened to your eyebrows? Why are they so light?" I couldn't remember what her real face / eyebrows looked like behind all that makeup.
I didn't realize how insensitive it may have sounded either. And apparently, my one comment was enough to send her into an emotional rollercoaster. She started crying and saying that I was a "bitch" for "criticizing her" and telling her that she was "ugly" (which, for the record - I did no such thing). She bawled her eyes out and kicked me out of her room and now I'm on the couch.
It seemed foreign to me at first but then I realized that her self-confidence was low; as much as she pretends to be "together" she doesn't have confidence and that's in part because of all the years that she's spent around my parents. Unfortunately, even if I tell her now that it only matters what she thinks and life is not about what other people want or think of you...she wouldn't understand. She needs to be in the right place and state of mind to realize and accept that she should just not give a fuck about what people think.
But, I suppose not everyone can do that either. 
 
Love you,
lao po (wife in Chinese)


February 2018 Money Diary: Travel Excursions and Investments In Relationships
 
 

Jennie here again!

I can’t believe how quickly February has come and gone. Ivan is still away in Taiwan and currently progressing on his first fictional novel! Now let’s get to it...

 
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This is the breakdown of our income, spending, RTW savings, and general monthly savings.

  • Income: $8,034

  • Spending: $2,895

  • Round the world trip savings: $36,258 (out of $40,000 goal)

  • Savings: $5,139 in monthly savings

 

Highlights From My February 2018 Money Diary…

Without Ivan By My Side :(


 A short trip to San Francisco...

A short trip to San Francisco...

  1. Ivan has been away for more than a month and I noticed how much less I consume without him around. SO, theoretically, without Ivan I should be able to save quite a bit of cash, right?! Wrong. Ha. I actually did pretty well for the first half of February because it turns out I don’t need to eat as much when Ivan is around. My grocery spending was only $144 over three weeks in February. I realized that it was a waste for me to cook food for one so I re-allocated most of my budget towards eating out and entertainment.
     
  2. Air travel was our most expensive expenditure (after rent/bills) at ~16% of our overall spending. This month, we had a ton of travel planned and spent $453 on flights alone. The following is the breakdown of our air travel in February:

    1. My flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco: $45

    2. My flight from San Francisco to New Mexico: $6 (Fortunately, we used our Southwest airline points to cover the costs of this flight.)

    3. Ivan’s flight from LA to Taiwan: $402 (This is round trip! SO cheap)
       

  3. I still managed to overspend this month because I traveled to San Francisco. I probably spent more than $200 in San Francisco over the course of one week. Fortunately, I got to stay at a friend’s house for free so I spent $0 on housing. However, the bulk of my available budget was spent on traveling around San Francisco and networking with new contacts and potential clients at coffee shops. More on this later in my upcoming mini-travel post to San Francisco.
     

  4. I ended up overspending because I paid ~$80 for my dad’s birthday dinner. This is something that I don’t feel bad about. I went home to visit family and it coincided with my dad’s birthday. I paid ~$80 for the entire family meal for a six people. After being in Los Angeles and San Francisco...I could only think: OMG, this meal was SO affordable. We ate at my dad’s favorite Chinese seafood restaurant (even though it recently changed ownership). We ordered fried flounder, spicy eggplant, salt and pepper shrimp, and a whole roasted duck. Nom. Great food for six people in New Mexico.
     

  5. Life happens so I spent $75 on a deep cleaning at the dentist this past month. Fortunately, my vision and dental insurance is covered my current company but I still had to pay a $75 deductible during my first visit to the dentist this year.


Thoughts On February 2018 Spending: What Life Is Like Without My Partner


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Life without Ivan has felt pretty lackluster but it really pushed me to think more consciously about the things I want to achieve and still need to work on. Here are a few budget-related thoughts from this past month without Ivan:

  • Time alone is so good for the soul and for the wallet. As much as I miss Ivan, I’ve found that time apart from him has shown me HOW much money we spend as a couple. Ivan has a runner’s appetite so my grocery budget decreases by more than 50% when he’s gone. If this were a normal month at home, I would have ended up saving a significant amount.
     
  • Eating alone in public seems sad at first but it’s actually refreshing. There was a pretty sad moment one weekend where I ended up walking to our nearby Mitsuwa. I didn’t feel like cooking so I went to the food court, ordered my usual $7 “Katsu-jyu” box, and ate as I watched the Olympic curling event. At first I felt lonely but then I realized that it was kind of liberating - in a way, I was taking myself out on a date and it felt empowering. My high from my “self-date” continued as I bought some steak for myself to cook later that evening. And let me tell you, I forgot how much I love beef. I no longer eat beef because Ivan doesn’t eat it - but that’s a story for another time.
     
  • Investments in meeting new and old friends and contacts is worth every penny. I spent the majority of February attending a couple parties, going on hikes, and meeting a ton of people for coffee. I did these things to get myself out of my comfort zone. I probably spent around $150 just on new social interactions and I think it was worth every penny. I believe that so long as I’m genuinely open to meeting others and listening to them - that I will learn something new. I heard truly vulnerable and honest things from a lot of people and I realized that’s emotional-labor that is worth the investment of my time and money.

Anyway, happy savings in March! And I can’t wait to share with you a “normal” month of spending (without Ivan) in April.

  • How was your February?
  • Did you have any major highlights or wins in February that you want to share?