Don’t Let Monkey Brain Do Your Christmas Shopping for You!

Christmas is the season when you buy this year’s gifts with next year’s money.
–Unknown

When I got married, my Christmas shopping got exponentially more complicated. I was used to buying a few presents for my parents and grandparents and calling it a day.

Marriage added a new layer of intricacy. My wife’s parents were divorced and remarried, so there were now in-laws, step-in-laws, new friends, godchildren, and what appeared to be, to me, random people. Maybe I’d met them at the wedding? I wasn’t sure.

What I did know is that Christmas shopping had become a frenzy of shopping, wrapping, and mailing.

OK. I didn’t wrap. My wrapping skills are such that any present I purchase and subsequently wrap makes the present look like it has mange. My wife does the wrapping, thank goodness.

We didn’t even have kids, for crying out loud. I could only imagine how nuts it would have been if kids were in the picture.

For a couple of years, I sat mute on the subject of Christmas shopping. I didn’t want to upset marital harmony or risk ticking off the people we’d only seen a couple of times in our lives yet felt compelled to exchange annual gifts with.

Finally, though, I piped up. As my wife was making her annual list of gift recipients, I started questioning beneficiaries of our generosity.

“Why are we getting Bob and Sue [NOT THEIR REAL NAMES…Bob and Sue, we love you!] a Christmas gift? I’m not sure I could pick them out of a perp lineup.”

“Because they got us a gift last year, and if they send us a gift, I’ll feel bad if we didn’t get them a gift in return.”

And in that one sentence, Dear Reader, we see three reasons why Christmas shopping can snowball out of control.

What Happens When Monkey Brain Goes Christmas Shopping

Inside of all of us, we have a constant battle between two brains. One part of our brain is called the prefrontal cortex. It’s the part of the brain that you normally associate with thinking. It’s refined, elegant, and advanced. When it’s large enough, it makes you The World’s Most Interesting Man (or Woman). The prefrontal cortex separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We have one. They don’t. We win the food chain wars because we’re able to plan for the future.

If the prefrontal cortex were completely dominant inside our heads, the world would be great. We’d have no debt. We’d plan for retirement. We’d never stray from our diets. All would be good.

Except, there’s another part of our brain that vies for attention. It’s called the limbic system. It’s the part of the brain that we share with other animals, like our simian counterparts, monkeys.

That’s why I call it Monkey Brain. Monkey Brain is focused on the here and now. He wants pleasure, and he wants it immediately. His currency is man caves and Jimmy Choo shoes. If you’ve ever said that calories on vacation don’t count, then you’ve fallen victim to one of Monkey Brain’s plots.

Monkey Brain LOVES Christmas!

He loves Christmas because he gets presents. Not only does he get presents, but he gets go to SHOPPING!

If you’ve seen The Christmas Story, then you remember the scene where Ralphie and his friends are pressing their noses up against the shop window of Bigbee’s, looking at all of the toys and the Red Ryder BB gun.

That’s Monkey Brain at Christmas. There’s a world of stuff for him to buy and you’re opening up the wallet for him.

Let’s look at why your limbic system derails you so much during Christmas.

Reciprocity

Reciprocity is the desire to do unto others as they have done unto you. In Christmas terms, it’s “get a gift, give a gift.” As Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (#aff) explains, whoever gives first has first mover advantage in a relationship. In other words, if someone gives you a gift, then you feel indebted to that person, like you owe them a solid. What do you do to repay? You give them a gift back.

Of course, Monkey Brain doesn’t like owning favors to anyone. He’s rather keep a stack of favors owed, like The Godfather, which he can call on at most inconvenient times. So, in order for him to curry those favors, he gives gifts first. Thus grows the Christmas list.

Keeping up with the Joneses

Out in the animal kingdom, Monkey Brain shows that he’s a better mate/pack leader/fashion model by puffing himself up, screeching louder than anyone else, and trying to appear bigger and badder than any other monkey so that he gets all of the women.

We have an equivalent set of posturing.

We want people to think that we’re well off, successful, handsome, and doing better than our neighbors. In our own, quiet little unstated competition with the rest of the world, we want to show that we can afford to get others nice gifts for Christmas and that it won’t put a dent in our wallets. Instead of reining in our spending, we buy beyond our means and hope that we can pay it off by the time next Christmas comes around. After all, if our friends can afford to buy us nice things, then we should be able to afford to buy them nice things, right?

No.

Yet, who wants to be the one to admit that the Christmas shopping and buying has gotten out of hand, to be the first one to say “I don’t make enough money to be able to afford this madness?”

That’s not an easy admission to make.

Monkey Brain would rather keep playing the Christmas one-upmanship game than to admit that he can’t afford something. So, we keep participating in the cycle.

Ego depletion

Every morning that you wake up, you have a certain number of times that you can say “no” to something before you give in and say yes to something that you don’t want. As Charles Duhigg explains in the book The Power of Habit (#aff), it’s why we have a morning routine of getting up, scratching ourselves, brushing our teeth, showering, and the like. We don’t want to waste precious mental resources making decisions about meaningless activities.

OK. Showering isn’t meaningless. I know my friends and family appreciate it when I shower.

Each time you have to make a decision and say no to a temptation, you reduce your ability to say no the next time. This is known as ego depletion, and it’s ego depletion that, in hindsight, causes you to wonder to yourself “now, just why did I buy that [shirt/game/Ferrari], when I know I don’t need one?!?”

When you’re shopping for Christmas presents, you’ve probably heard this little whisper:

MONKEY BRAIN: “ONE FOR MOM. ONE FOR ME. ONE FOR DAD. ONE FOR ME. ONE FOR HONEY. TWO FOR ME.”

In 2012, 71.5% of Millenials who participated in Black Friday shopping bought something for themselves. With all of the sales and great buying opportunities, who could resist, right?

With all of these tools Monkey Brain has in his arsenal to make sure that you go crazy during the Christmas season, it’s no wonder that 45% of people who made a Christmas budget exceeded it. Only part of you wants to not go crazy during Christmas. The rest of you is howling in his cage throwing bananas every time you walk away from something BECAUSE ZOMG IT’S ON SALE!!!!

How in the world do we tame down the craziness that can be Christmas shopping and the hamstringing it can put on our financial lives?

How to Stuff Monkey Brain in a Sleigh

Sure, sure, I could tell you to get on a budget for Christmas, but what good is a budget if you’re going to be like half of the people who make a Christmas budget and blow right throw it as if you’d never made one?

Remember, personal finance is about behavior. Sure, math is required, but the math doesn’t matter if you never do anything with that math.

Be brave and start the conversation

It’s tough to be the one to admit that spending is out of control. Ask any politician. But, you’re not the only one amongst your friends and family who is thinking it. Everyone is. Do you really enjoy trying to figure out just the perfect, useful gift for that distant cousin who already has it all and who is going to get you a Sham-Wow for Christmas? Probably not. It’s an inefficient use of money; if we just eliminated the exchange of useless gifts, we could pay off the entire amount of student loan debt in the United States.

But, someone has to do it, or the cycle will continue.

Be proactive, particularly BEFORE Black Friday and Cyber Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday/Friday/Saturday/Sunday starts. Call those people who were on the list last year. E-mail them. It doesn’t matter. But, start the conversation.

“Bob and Sue – you know that we treasure your friendship, but we wanted to get ahead of the train this year for Christmas. We think that there are better ways to express our care and love for you than exchanging Christmas presents, and we hope that you will join us. This year, instead of doing Christmas presents, we’d love to [have you over for dinner/go play Putt-Putt/go for a hike/count mullets at the mall]. What do you think?”

That’s what we did, and we were pleasantly surprised at the number of people who responded back (nearly all of them) positively and expressed relief and gratitude that someone was stopping the madness.

Be that person.

Give time, not money

Money is not the only scarce resource we own. Time is also a scarce resource. Therefore, as Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (#aff) explains, when we give time, we feel like we have more time, and we feel richer. Furthermore, because we’re giving our time, we’re increasing our social bonds with the people to whom we give that time.

This means that if you intentionally give a present of time to someone, you’ll deepen your relationship with that person. This can be particularly meaningful for older recipients, as, in general, the older you get, the more aware of the fleeting nature of time you become.

Create memories, not closets full of unused regifting candidates.

For the people for whom you buy gifts, stick to small budgets

Remember, gifts are tokens of our appreciation and love. They are not actual appreciation and love. So, when you see that gift that you tell yourself is PERFECT for whomever, don’t use that as a justification to buy it if it’s out of your price range. Furthermore, the amount of money you spend on someone is not a measure of just how important you are to them or they are to you. The effort you put into a relationship the other 364 days out of the year measures meaning, not a present.

Therefore, try to buy small, fun, meaningful presents that are representative of the relationship, not representative of how fat your wallet is.

After all, the more you save now, the quicker you can get to retirement, and the more time you can spend with those people doing fun things!

How Should I Adjust My Financial Plan in a Biden Presidency?

Now that Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the 2020 Presidential election, you may be thinking about what changes you need to make in your financial plan to prepare for a Biden presidency.

Here’s what you need to do:

Not. A. Darn. Thing.

If you had a plan on Monday before the election, then your plan is still good and valid now that Biden has been declared the winner.

It’s that simple.

Keep to your existing plan.

Very little will actually change in the daily finances of the average U.S. citizen.

For everything else that may or may not change, your daily finances won’t.

Trying to read any other tea leaves is a fruitless exercise. Nobody knows what will happen, and your crystal ball isn’t better than anyone else’s.

So, keep to your plan, just like you always have.

An Anti-Masker’s Argument for Universal Masking During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Just because something doesn’t confirm your existing beliefs does not mean it’s a hoax.

–Stephanie Ruhle

This is an argument for enacting a strict mask compliance ordinance for the COVID truthers who believe this is all a hoax.

Let’s assume that masks are utterly ineffective and that COVID is just a hoax generated by some worldwide cabal that is determined to take your rights away.

Regardless of whether or not masks work and COVID is real, there are a lot of people who believe it is real.

About a month ago, 64% of Americans believed the CDC, who is stating that COVID-19 is a pandemic that we have to deal with.

This translates into low percentages of Americans who are willing to participate in activities that were designed to “open up the economy,” such as going to bars (27%), going to gyms (28%), going to movie theaters (27%), staying in a hotel (51%), and eating at a restaurant (54%).

We started opening the economy back up in late April. But, as any business can tell you, just because you open your doors doesn’t mean you’re getting customers. We can see what while OpenTable reservations went from a dead stop during the lockdown to some improvement, roughly 60% of the people who reserved last year are staying home.

Why is this?

It’s because people who believe that COVID is real generally don’t want to get exposed to it, regardless of whether or not governments have “opened up the economy.”

75% of Americans favor requiring masks in public.

It is unfathomable to believe that there exists a large number of people who do not believe in COVID but do believe in public mask mandates. That number is so small as to be effectively zero.

While there are probably some people who will stay home regardless of a strict mask mandate until there is a vaccine or a New Zealand-esque reduction in the number of cases, it is also reasonable to believe that the people who believe that COVID is real and have stayed at home do so because they do not feel safe, and will feel safer in an environment where EVERYONE is wearing masks.

As of a couple of weeks ago, 28 states, DC, and Puerto Rico had issued mask mandates.

Yet, you don’t see those results in the OpenTable data above.

Why?

As an example, Texas, the state in which I live, has a very lax mask mandate.

It has limited teeth.

The punishment for failure to not wearing a mask is a warning the first time and a $250 fine each time thereafter.

Over 80 counties won’t even enforce it.

Thus, I see people at the local Costco walking around the aisles with masks around their necks, apparently protecting their Adam’s apples from COVID, which gives me less confidence in being around them, because I do believe in COVID.

This is because the state still relies on businesses to enforce the mandate.

Compare to seat belt laws in Texas, which also carry a fine of $25 to $250 regardless of whether or not they are first time offenders

The difference is that, aside from knowing that seat belts save lives, even if I do not believe in the efficacy of seat belts, I do believe that if I drive by a police officer and I am not wearing a seat belt, I will receive a ticket.

If I do not believe in COVID and I refuse to wear a mask, I harbor no such concern of punishment. I may or may not be kicked out of a store once I get in, so I would wear my mask to get in, and then take it off, as many people do, because there is no concern of punishment.

Thus, in order to get true compliance, we either need a much better education campaign, which has not succeeded to date (see: condom compliance), or much stricter enforcement and punishment of failure to wear masks.

Yes, to the COVID truthers out there, this may be anathema, but, I argue, most of them want to return life to status quo ante with an open economy.

Until everyone else believes that they can safely go to businesses and not catch COVID, regardless of whether or not you, personally, believe that they will, businesses will teeter on the precipice of life and death.

So, there are two reasons for a person who believes COVID is a hoax to support a stringent mask mandate:

  1. If everyone else believes they are safe, they will come out and support businesses and truly open up the economy.
  2. If masks are effective against COVID, as the global cabal would have us believe, then, if there is global compliance, COVID should disappear over time, like it did in New Zealand.

That would get us back to the way life was before the global cabal created COVID to take your rights away if you believe COVID is a hoax.

By the way, if you believe that COVID is real, like I do, then you want the EXACT SAME outcome that the people who don’t believe COVID is real do – get life back to the way it was before COVID as quickly as possible.

It does appear that countries with high mask compliance then have successes at driving COVID down.

(source)

In Germany, you can see the correlation between mask adoption and the rapid decline of COVID cases.

(source)

And, look at the OpenTable reservation data for Germany, which I cited the source previously.

Mask wearing works. If you believe COVID is real, then you can see the results in the data. If you believe COVID is a hoax, then you can see how the global cabal has controlled the information flow such that, when people wear masks, the economy returns.

In either case, whether or not you believe that masks impede your freedom, the world has changed to the point that, in order to have a return to life before COVID, you’re going to need masks unless you are willing to wait for a vaccine.

If you’re looking for a mask that makes a statement, check out our online store.

Growing the Economy Will Not Solve Systemic Racism

We want to see a world where black lives matter in order for us to get to a world where all of our humanity is respected.
–Alicia Garza

On June 5, 2020, the jobs report came in better than expected. Unemployment was only 13.3%, compared to expectations of 20% unemployment. Accordingly, the S&P 500 went up 2.62%.

But black unemployment actually increased during the same time period.

All of this happened during a backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests across the country, and President Trump saying that the key to solving systemic racism is to have a strong economy.

Arguably, before the arrival of coronavirus on the world, the United States had a strong economy. The unemployment rate was at 3.5% in February, 2020. The S&P 500 hit 3,380.45 on February 20, 2020. Economically, the U.S. had it really good, though black unemployment was 6% compared to a 3% unemployment rate for whites.

So, why doesn’t a hopefully recovering economy help everyone across the board?

The answer is quite simple.

Most people do not get to the point where their saved assets earn more than their wages until later in life.

Yet, it’s capital itself, rather than wages, that is the generator of wealth. Either you inherit capital, you create capital, or you save from your wages to convert those wages into capital, and that capital is invested, hopefully intelligently, into something that grows over time.

But, to convert wages into capital, you have to have excess wages. Your wages have to be high enough to where you’re spending less than you make and you can save some of your wages.

And here is where we see the failure of the overly simplistic “make the economy great to eliminate racism” notion failing.

Median income – where 50% of a group makes more and 50% of a population makes less – is DRASTICALLY different between whites and blacks.

In 2018, median income for whites households was $70,642.

In 2018, median income for black households was $41,511.

Put another way, the median income of black households is 58.8% of the median income of white households.

While I’m sure the Bureau of Labor Statistics provides median spending somewhere on their website, it’s not easily accessible. So, I had to improvise.

Median household spending in 2014 was $36,800.

Median household income in the U.S. in 2014 was $53,657.

Median household income in the U.S. in 2018 was $63,179. That’s a 17.7% increase.

It’s reasonable to assume that household spending went up approximately the same, so that would make median household spending in 2018 roughly $43,331 (note: if someone has more accurate data, I’m happy to put it in here, but this is close enough to prove a point).

So, median household income for black households is less than median household spending. A 50th percentile black household can’t even afford the median lifestyle of a U.S. household.

Meanwhile, the median white household should have $27,311 in excess earnings to convert into investments and capital.

Let’s assume that inflation is 3%, so the amount contributed increases by inflation annually and the target – median household spending – also increases by 3%.

Let’s further assume that the investments earn an average of 9% (yeah, coronavirus, stocks go up and down, etc. I get it. This is a thought exercise).

How long will that household have to work until they have enough saved up to, using a 4% safe withdrawal rate, not have to work?

22 years. At that point, the median white household should have about $2.16 million saved up, which will generate $86,348.21.

For a median black household to save $27,311 per year, they would have to only spend $14,200.

To put that into context, the federal poverty level for a family of 2 in 2018 was $16,460.

A median black household would have to live a below the poverty line lifestyle to match the savings that a median white household gets by having median household spending.

The progenitor of the extreme retirement extreme lifestyle, Jacob Lund Fisker, claimed to have a radical extreme lifestyle and spent $7,000 per year. That was for a single person. Get married, and you’re at the amount that a median black household could spend in order to have enough saved up to match a median white household’s savings and to retire in 22 years to a median household’s lifestyle.

The middle of the road black household starts off way, way, way behind the middle of the road white household. Dirt road with potholes versus freshly paved four lane highway.

Thus, it is no wonder that for every 10 white households who have taxable investment accounts, only 6.1 black households do.

So, when the economy rises and the stock market rises, white households will benefit disproportionately to black households. It’s because the median black household can’t even afford to invest in the stock market, much less benefit from it.

I readily admit, I don’t know the answers. But I know what’s not the answer: assume that the economy will grow away disparities. It will only exacerbate them. If we can raise the other median incomes up, which is a whole set of reforms away, then we can truly level the playing field so that everyone gets equal economic opportunity. Perhaps then, the simple solution may be a lot closer to being the right one.

Until then, the numbers don’t justify this answer, and there have to be other ways to help address systemic racism.

Is Owning a Home a Necessary Part of a Retirement Plan?

Fort Worth, Texas based Certified Financial Planner Jason Hull of Hull Financial Planning firmly believes that owning a home is not a necessary part of a retirement plan.

A study by Walter D’Lima of Old Dominion University and Paul Schultz of Notre Dame showed that >real estate investors outperform general market indices, but only when they:

  • Live near the investment property
  • Buy without a mortgage
  • And have experience in real estate investing

Furthermore, those investors earn less when the live in the house.

Typically, the average person will buy a property with a mortgage and with no experience in investing in real estate. Additionally, emotions become completely entangled in trying to “invest” in the house that you own, and oftentimes, such emotions and behavioral biases, such as the endowment effect, are completely separated from what will generate money as an investment.

Moreover, further studies of residential real estate show that >almost all profits from residential real estate investment come from rental income rather than from price appreciation. Unless you’re planning on renting out rooms in your home sweet home, you’re not going to get rental income from the house that you live in.

In other words, based on historical evidence, you’re going to be at breakeven on your house if you buy it without a mortgage. Once you include a mortgage, even if you qualify for specific deductions above and beyond the standard deduction because of your mortgage – put another way, you’d have itemized deductions even if you rented, you’re probably going to have a negative inflation-adjusted return on the money that you will spend on a house.

Yes, you’re going to have to pay to live somewhere regardless. If you can buy a house with all cash, then you are probably as well off or slightly better off with a house than with rent, but if you’re going to have to rent, generally speaking you’ll be pretty close to financially equivalent. Real estate is local, so it does depend on where you live; the New York Times has a >decent rent versus buy calculator.

That said, renting also provides much more flexibility. Many gains in people’s incomes are based on their ability to move to where jobs are. Owning a home means that you do not have that flexibility, or, if you have to sell quickly, not only are you paying a Realtor’s 6% commission, but you’re probably going to have to drop the price enough to find a buyer who can close quickly. With renting, you can usually break the lease for 1 or 2 months’ worth of rent to move.

Mr. Hull and his wife retired early. He was 46 and she was 45 when they FIREd. They have lived in apartments for the past 7 years, and plan to do so for the foreseeable future.