How Social Media has Changed the Way We Feel (and what to do about it)

I can remember it clear as day. It was around the Spring of 2014. I was teaching in a high school when they suddenly started appearing…everywhere. Instagram and Twitter handles began popping up in the most annoying places (most annoyingly on desks and my class set of whiteboards). Within weeks, students were writing their handles everywhere for all to see. Of course the most popular students’ accounts began blowing up and the main topic of conversation (not math, to my demise) was “How many followers do you have?”

When Change Happens Quickly

Whenever change happens quickly, there are a number of consequences of that change that we cannot (and sometimes do not want to) see. When I reflect upon the massive change that social media has brought into our culture, I think one of the main consequences none of us saw was how it would affect our mental health.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and spout off any statistics, but it has been my experience that since the rise of social media, mental health has been a growing concern for young people (particularly adolescents). I’m not making a scientific case (yes, I know, the nerds will get angry), but it seems that social media has made us slightly more unhappy.

And I have a hypothesis for why…

You (and I) Probably are the 99%

You see, social media gives us eyes into the lives of others. Of course we follow our friends and maybe our Aunt, but the majority of people we follow and look forward to posts from are the 1%. Likely less. Something more along the lines of the 0.001%.

I’m no hater. Success should be celebrated. And any adult knows that any self-made successful person has paid a price to get there. But many young people don’t know that.

Imagine you are 13 (scary right?!?!) and all day you are surrounded by images of people, some who are your age, who by all accounts look like they are living extravagant lives. And of course, all of these glossy celebrities always have a success line a-la-Tony-Robbins about why their life is so glamorous (“Just work hard and be positive. Oh yeah, and buy my stuff!”). What are you going to think about yourself? Your prospects? Your ability to achieve a lifestyle even a fraction of what theirs is?

Adults can see that not only are the lifestyles of the rich and famous unsustainable for everyone to have, but we also see that all of their posts are a clever montage of only the best, most fabulous moments of their life. No celebrities post photos of themselves tripping up the stairs or spilling coffee on themselves on the regular, but we know these are the experiences that make up everyones extravagantly normal lives.

As adults we need to remind children (and ourselves) of what is truly important in life. Young people today are at risk for being swept away by materialism and hedonism (perhaps no more than any other generation). We need to temper these images of excess with a reinforcement of what really makes us happy, and encourage goals that are not only achievable, but healthy and attainable for all people (or at the very least all people in the Western world). In my assessment these goals would be financial independence, positive relationships, good health, and passionate work.

Don’t Forget the Fyre Festival

My wife and I have been glued to the television screen watching the Fyre Festival documentaries. I think this is the perfect example of how social media can damage our ability to stay connected with reality. Thousands of experience-hungry young people see their favorite celebrities and models posting about an amazing experience that turned out to be the exact opposite. In the process not only was a lot of money lost, but a lot of lives were irreparably damaged because a few people got carried away in the glitz and glam (and didn’t have a good accountant?).

It also teaches us another lesson. Glitz and glam are fine. I like to partake in luxury experiences from time to time myself so I am not one to judge. But…most of what makes those experiences awesome are things that we can have without paying thousands of dollars to go to Pablo Escobar’s island to do (good food, good people, music, entertainment, etc.).

In my estimation there is a serious case of cultural lag with regard to social media. I would not be surprised to see (in the near future) a good deal of legislation surrounding social media and its use. But, while we are still in the days of the “wild wild west” of social media, stay aware of how this cultural phenomena can seep deeper and deeper into our lives. Until next time…

How Normal People Can Save 50% or More of their Income

So before we even get started, let’s discuss why we would want to save that much money anyway. Blogs like Mr. Money Mustache have popularized the idea of FIRE or financial independence through early retirement.

I love reading articles on that site and the like. As a relatively new FIRE devotee (about a year), I quickly learned that saving 50% of your income is not only possible, but easy. My wife and I were able (over the course of a year) to save about 55% of our income, boosting our savings and investments significantly.

Applying a little bit of the Pareto Principle (80/20 Principle) we can assume that some lifestyle changes and budgeting principles will create more of an impact than others. In my experience, the three most important factors have been: 1) choosing a home that is affordable, 2) choosing a car that is affordable, and 3) planning (specifically meals and trips) in advance.

I specifically wrote this article with normal people in mind. People who are not necessarily high income earners, but those who work and have a reasonable amount of discipline. I found that the median household income in America is about $60,000. So any theoretical calculations will be using this figure. Please adjust to meet your income. Now…let’s get into it…

Choose an Affordable Home

A good rule of thumb is to choose a home that is 2 to 2.5 times your income. So for our imaginary household, that would be a $120,000 to $150,000 home. Translated into rent, you would be looking for a place for about $1,200 a month. My wife and I (we are both public school teachers) live in an expensive metropolitan area, and we have a dual income. Strangely enough, our humble abode comes in at 2.28 times our yearly income.

Now for the why. Simple. Your house is the BIGGEST financial purchase you are likely to ever make. Think about that…chances are this is the most expensive thing you will ever buy. Sobering thought.

When you choose to buy a home well within your means, you can free up large amounts of money. Be realistic. If a neighborhood has good schools and is safe, how much more would you really enjoy living somewhere else that much more? Don’t become “house-poor”.

Choose an Affordable Car

I proudly purchased my first car for $8,000 CASH in 2011. To date (2019) it is still running strong and I have reason to believe it will last me at least another 3 years and likely more.

Recently I was getting routine maintenance done on my car and I saw a sign that said “Your car is the second most expensive item you are likely to purchase, make sure to take care of it”. To be honest, I was shocked when I read that. I mean…I know it’s true, but I just never let that reality sink in.

Here is the deal with cars. If it is reliable, runs well, is clean, and meets your transportation needs, any car more expensive is just a flex. Think about what you get from a nicer car. Probably just a few compliments and a much bigger car note. No one really cares what you drive, and if they do, they probably aren’t financially independent. Now, to be clear, flexing is cool. Just be acutely aware that it is just a flex and can cost you a lot both in the short and long run. Flex carefully.

Plan your Meals and Trips

Before I considered the idea of FIRE, I didn’t pay too much attention to my purchases. I knew we had enough money to cover our major expenses, so I just had fun eating out and buying little gadgets at my leisure.

It wasn’t until I started looking closer that I realized that these seemingly small luxuries were costing us several hundred dollars a month.

Once we realized this, we began planning our meals for the week. We found that when we did this, we could keep our grocery prices reasonably low and still enjoy the occasional fancy dinner with no financial strain and still hit our savings goals. You see, it is one thing to decide Friday night that you are going to go to an expensive restaurant and it is a whole other thing to plan it on Sunday and think all week about spending $100 that you could be saving. We still enjoy the nice dinners and frequent vacations, but we are much more money conscious in the process.  

We also give ourselves an allowance. $150 to buy whatever we want that month. I have gone a number of months spending only a fraction or none of my allowance. It seems that frugality is a muscle after all.

In closing, these are the strategies that helped our family go from saving ~20% of our income to over 50%. Please feel free to use them and let me know if they worked for you too! Until next time…

Witch Hunts (and why they happen…)

The Era of the “Witch Hunt”

Perhaps to call it an “era” is an overstatement, because this is something we humans have been doing a long time. The idea of a witch hunt seems to have drawn a lot of attention lately because of Donald Trump. Whenever asked to confront a poor decision, provide an explanation of his actions, or admit guilt, he immediately frames the request as a witch hunt (whether overtly or covertly). I would argue that Donald Trump is not totally wrong.

This article isn’t about whether or not Donald Trump is a good person. This article is about why him framing any investigation to him as a witch hunt is a palatable idea for many people. Of course, those who detest him will proclaim that it’s all a front to change the subject (and it might be..), but others see this as a very real phenomena. They see it as the grasping of those who have been defeated. And I would argue that they are right

The Modern Witch Hunt

I would like to make the case that a witch hunt is the result our inability to fully cope with reality.

Let’s take a little trip back in time to the presidency of Barack Obama. For those who saw him as a beacon of light and hope, those eight years were full of smiles and positive growth. But the other half of the story is the story of sore losers.

Let us not forget that while some of America was rejoicing, other parts of America were in mourning. They lost. Bad. Their beliefs and ideas were hit very hard. The world began changing in all the ways they didn’t want it to. For goodness sake, he invited RAPPERS to the White House. He allowed “gay” people to get married. Preposterous!

So how did they react? Witch hunts.

Even with Obama’s eerily squeaky clean record, they found places to strike, “He is a socialist”, “He wasn’t born in America”, “He is a Muslim”. A picture of social panic was painted. Not because any of those things were true, but because the losers didn’t want to accept their fate.

Why Donald Trump is kinda Right

Fast forward to late 2016. The tables have suddenly turned. Those in mourning now rejoice, and those who were rejoicing now mourn. Then things get interesting, there is evidence to show all kinds of corruption in the new administration. And Donald Trump (quite cleverly) frames all of it as a witch hunt.

It sounds like such a good excuse to his supporters. Why? Because they did the same thing when they lost. To reiterate, this is not about Donald Trump. It is about what we do when we “lose”. Perhaps Donald Trump innately understands that if he can frame his opponents as sore losers, he can gain a base of sympathy.

Why Witch Hunts Happen

As I stated earlier, witch hunts happen because we are unable to fully cope with our reality. In our resistance of what is, we need to create an enemy (whether it be a person, philosophy, political party, etc.).

What this does is it partially resolves our conflict. If everything is bad because of something outside of us, it relieves us of some personal responsibility. Now, we can blame everything on the “big bad wolf” instead of 1) accepting our fate, 2) doing something to change it, or 3) finding a better situation.

As I said earlier, this article isn’t about Donald Trump. It is about how alike we are when we lose, and hopefully providing a new vision for coping with the inevitable reality that we will sometimes “lose”. Until next time…

Assertiveness vs. Agressiveness (and why the difference is huge)

So many people in our society are becoming polarized. They either become the classic “nice” person, or they become uncouth and difficult. Very few people find the balance between going after what they want and being respectful to people in the process.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being “nice”. I suppose by nice I really mean being polite and cordial. Every person deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Being nice goes too far when we allow our fear of disapproval to stand in the way of us pursuing what we want.

Imagine you are at a restaurant and your waiter brings out your food and it’s cold. Many “nice” people might let it go or sheepishly ask if they can have their food reheated. Aggressive people on the other hand will become immediately become offended and address the waiter harshly.

At the root of becoming assertive is realizing that we must advocate for our wants and needs, and we must make them known in a respectful way. If we believe ourselves to be fair and reasonable, other people should be more than willing to meet us half way (and if they don’t, we respond maturely). Going back to the waiter example, an assertive person would politely tell the waiter that the food is cold and they wish for it to be reheated. We don’t speak harshly to them, but we also don’t accept mistreatment.

The lie that many of us are being told is that if we are nice we will get what we want. That is partially true. People and circumstance are much friendlier to you if you have a positive attitude, but we must take it upon ourselves to be our own advocates. “The squeaky wheel gets the oil”.

Assertiveness is soft power. Aggressiveness is hard power. When you are assertive, people will learn to respect you, and more often than not they will like you more. When you are aggressive, people will fear you, but they will not respect you. Assertiveness demands that you have some level of control over your emotions to address people respectfully even in the midst of conflict. There is nothing admirable about someone who loses their temper and uses their verbal, or even worse, physical, power to impose their will.

The next time you face a conflict situation, think about whether you are responding with aggression or with assertion. Until next time…