My Cashless Month

Money on fire

Back in July, I read The End of Money, a book about phasing out physical currency in the developed world. The author gives numerous reasons that he believes it’s in everyone’s best interest to go ahead and shift to using cash as little as possible. As one who tries to implement truth and practicality whenever I encounter it, I was intrigued. For me, there could hardly be a larger shift in the handling of my day-to-day finances; I’ve been using a cash-based envelope system for my entire adult life. Could I make the jump to transacting and tracking all of my expenditures electronically? Would it be that much more convenient and helpful? I decided to try it for a couple of months.

Being somewhat tech-savvy, I first sought out the right tool for the job, ultimately landing on Mint.com due to its good reviews and easy-to-use mobile app. Within a few days, I had connected all of my accounts with their read-only system, even my HSA which I never check due to the credit union’s subpar online banking. I have to admit that it was quite nice to see a full financial picture in one place for the first time. Prior to integrating with Mint, I had to log into four or five different sites to check balances, and if I actually cared to sum any of the figures, that was up to me. With Mint’s mobile app, I could easily see daily fluctuations in retirement accounts (for better or worse), and their basic analytics even showed that my portfolio has drastically underperformed the major indexes this year, a fact that I would never spend the time to unearth myself. So far so good. This cashless thing may work out.

When it came time to port my budget over to Mint, however, is when I felt the first friction. Perhaps rightfully so, everything in Mint revolves around “the month.” Budgets are created for the upcoming month with expected income declared and expenses divvied into numerous categories. This may work fine for someone who gets paid bi-monthly, but I currently receive my paycheck every two weeks, meaning my income will seldom, if ever, fall at the beginning and end of the month. Because their system of tracking expenses focuses on staying “in the green,” I would start off in the red immediately. You don’t get paid until the 6th this month, but you spent $10 at Chipotle on the 2nd? You, sir, are in the red, regardless of the balance in your checking account. To say this is annoying is putting it lightly. Though it would be a foundational shift to their system, allowing users to set budgets for specified date ranges would make a world of difference. In my case, it would make the tool actually useful.

The other hurdle I encountered in using Mint was the delay in posting transactions. When spending cash, it is literally instant; you can see the bills dwindling in your wallet each time you visit the grocery store or a coffee shop. With today’s financial network (which stems from the 1970’s), it often takes three or four days for “credit” transactions to clear. This is a big problem for someone trying to make the most of their income. Unless one wants to keep a tally of expenses in his head (which defeats the purpose), there’s a tendency to be overly-cautious or overly-carless. Frankly, I took the latter approach. Once the mess of delayed transactions in Mint seemed too difficult to reconcile and untangle, I kept telling myself I would figure it out later. That time never came, and I still haven’t fully pored through bank statements to assess the damage done. Suffice it to say, I know that I overspent considerably on restaurants and other social fun.

A final consideration, one which Wolman mentioned in his book, is that spontaneous generosity is seldom possible. Were I to come across someone selling a street paper or in need of a couple dollars, I was effectively powerless to help. It became all too easy to give the calloused response, “I don’t have any cash. Sorry.” While I try to be judicious in giving money to strangers, I found my heart becoming hard due to not even having to wrestle with the thought. In a sense, carrying no cash distanced me even further from those in need, shutting down the conversation before it could even begin. “Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?” (James 2:15-16). Coupled with the reckless spending I fell into, I did not like who I was becoming. Swiping my card all over the place and budgeting via mobile app, I became too hip, self-indulged, and uncaring.

So where does this leave me? As of my last payday, I made the ritual trek to an ATM and withdrew the cash I would need for the next two weeks. Ultimately, my attempts to go cashless left me feeling out of control, both in the sense that it was too easy to spend carelessly, and in the sense that I invested much more time managing money day-to-day, my finances effectively controlling me. I have returned to my trusty Google Docs spreadsheet whereby I spend five minutes each payday allotting funds, withdraw the necessary cash, and have few worries as I open my wallet for the next couple of weeks. Simple? Sure. But it works, and ultimately, going cashless did not work for me.

Until financial systems are advanced enough to eliminate transactional lag, until there is a well-integrated budgeting tool which is flexible enough to fit any situation, and until those in desperate circumstances are able to deal in money electronically, I will likely be carrying cash. The truth is that I have always done a hybrid system, paying many bills online and being paid via direct deposit, and I imagine that most people do. At this stage in the game, it doesn’t make sense to be an extremist and eliminate cash, even if that’s where society ultimately ends up.

Thoughts on “The End of Money” by David Wolman

The End of Money by David Wolman

 

Given the first six years of my adult life, my relationship to cash and personal finance is somewhat interesting. Straight out of college, I got a job working on Dave Ramsey’s web team. For those unfamiliar, the radio host and author espouses a back-to-basics approach to finances. The cornerstones of his message are avoiding debt in all its forms, saving up for emergencies and large purchases, and utilizing cash for day-to-day expenses. As I favor myself a common-sense person, I’ve been using this system since I was twenty-two. In specific, I’ve used the “envelope system,” literally driving to an ATM each payday to withdraw the cash needed for food, entertainment, and other expenses for the next couple of weeks. I have to say, thus far it has worked great for me and kept me from a number of monetary pitfalls.

That said, I was intrigued when I first spotted The End of Money by David Wolman. I confess that as much as I love learning and being challenged, sometimes I do avoid a book if I think the author’s biases and intent seem too obvious. Why take the time if I already know what they’re going to say, right? Indeed I have my own biases against credit card companies, banks, and their influence on our culture. That said, I finally consumed this book in audio form on a recent road trip, and it has given me some things to think about.

Though the initial chapter meanders through more of a narrative style, explaining how the author came to be interested in the topic at hand (and possible ties between the Apocalypse and a cashless society), the pace soon picks up with a history of money tracing back to its earliest appearances in civilization. While interesting to a fact-collector such as myself, the truly compelling portions come thereafter. I will only hit the highlights and sections which I found of particular interest.

Wolman points out that the notion of cash is so ingrained in modern Western culture that we are often blind to its costs. It is always assumed to be the cheapest way to do business for both consumer and merchant, but this can be far from true. First, there are the vast sums of government money required to mint, distribute, and monitor currency. The exact figures escape me, but I believe them to be in the billions per year. (As a fiscal conservative, anything that can be done to shrink the federal budget is a plus in my book.) Then there is the infrastructure required to shuffle money around, from bank vaults to armored cars to guards who attend it each step of the way. Lastly, there is the real cost of time involved in transacting with cash; if time really is money, the labor involved in businesses making change and keeping denominations on-site is more than negligible. True there are card processing fees (usually three percent) for vendors to account for, but in many cases the costs of manpower are higher. Could the efficiencies of moving to more of a cashless society actually spur economic growth? I think there are too many variables to say, but it’s a thought worth entertaining.

Further, there is often a psychological comfort to having cash in hand, as if it is the safest form of money. True, having a tangible representation may be one step above digits stored on a remote server, but there is nothing intrinsically valuable about coins, and much less bills. The reality is that we already live in a cashless society, passing around tokens of little worth, and we have since leaving the gold standard. There is nothing but good faith backing the dollar sign, whether it is on a screen or a piece of paper. As one driven by logic, I admit that this fact is compelling given the potential efficiencies mentioned above. There is nothing inherently safer about hard currency, and in fact the risk of carrying it may be greater in some cases with regard to loss and personal safety.

The last section which I found compelling deals with the argument that cash is actually a system which keeps the poor impoverished. It took quite a bit of explaining, but in the end I can see where the author is coming from. To those of us in developed nations, swinging by the ATM is an inconvenience, but to those without access to transportation or infrastructure, dealing in cash bears a much higher cost. Wolman states that the average cost of a bank visit for a consumer is around one dollar, considering time, effort, and other factors. To one who earns only a few dollars a day, this is a true hardship. In economies where electronic money transfer has been put into the hands of many via cell phone banking, growth has always followed. Saving money electronically is easier than hoarding bills which are always at the risk of being stolen. People seem able to lift themselves out of poverty more easily when the efficiency of electronic payment enters the picture. From this perspective, there may even be a philanthropic element to phasing out cash.

All of these points have led me to try an experiment. For the next month, I am going to try dealing in cash as little as possible. For a technology professional like myself, this may seem a little late in coming, but my method has worked well to this point, so I saw no need to mess with it. Given new information, however, I’m willing to take a second look. (This in no way changes my decision to live below my means and avoid credit at all costs, however.) I will be utilizing Mint.com to budget, track, and categorize spending, with the end goal being that I stick to my budget as well as a cash-based system. Honestly, I’m skeptical after years of having the psychological advantage of seeing bills dwindle from envelopes as the month wore on, but should the experiment succeed, I see no reason to continue making trips to the ATM. I may even gain more insight by having financial information to dig into in digital form. Ultimately, however, I am a pragmatist, and I will stick with whatever works best, regardless of the insights provided by the book.

Overall, David Wolman delivers an interesting and thought-provoking read on the nature of cash and its role in our society. Though it is thick on history and may meander from the central topic at times, the information he presents is clear and generally without bias, even if his personal worldview does poke through in a few editorial remarks. I say it’s worth a read for anyone loosely interested in economics or cultural trends.

The End of Money is available via audio book from the Nashville Public Library and multiple formats on Amazon.com.

Start (and End) With Why In Dating

Question Mark and Exclamation Point

A few years ago, I was introduced to the concept of “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. The basic idea is to assess underlying motivations before beginning an endeavor. While its application is primarily focused in the business and marketing world, it is useful in most every sphere of life, particularly to a reflective creature like myself. What is my motivation for choosing one thing over another? Answering this question upfront can be a great filter to avoid heading down the wrong path entirely, even if the “what” (end goal) is worth pursuing.

As one still involved in the realm of dating, I’ve realized over time that the principle is particularly useful in that setting. Confusion abounds in my generation regarding the whole process. Friends and I have spent many a night discussing the opposite sex and whether there is a “right” way to approach the matter. I can’t help but think we would have avoided some of the perplexing scenarios if we had sincerely assessed our motivations beforehand.

It takes a brutal amount of self-honesty (a skill which I have yet to master), to start with why, but stop and ask yourself, “Why am I interested in this person?” On some level, it will be physical attraction, but is that the primary driver? Are looks dominant in the face of other factors that you know make a long-term relationship unlikely? Are you attracted to something in this person that is drastically different from yourself? Why? Are you just lonely and want someone? The answers to these questions can be hard to face, but if one is dissuaded from pursuing something unwise, the savings in time, effort, and trouble downstream are more than worth the discomfort.

Conversely, the “why” can be affirming, giving a green light to go for it. Maybe the attraction is based upon solid character qualities. Perhaps outer beauty is coupled with common interests and goals. Even an ambiguous answer need not be construed as negative so long as it’s honest. Sometimes someone really does just have a kind smile that makes you want to know them more. At least be aware if such a sentiment is your sole basis for acting. Then pursue dating if the “why” seems wise.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that not only starting, but also ending with why is helpful for everyone involved. Dating is a process of exploration and collecting information. Ultimately, this information is used to make a decision: do I continue seeing this person or not? Having been on both sides of that decision over the years, I have never experienced an instance where ambiguity was helpful. It may be my strong tendency toward thinking (as opposed to feeling), but I genuinely appreciate knowing why things didn’t work out. The older I get, the better I am able to accept such information without taking it personally. Though my track record hasn’t been perfect, I always try to extend the same courtesy to others if they care to hear it. (Some don’t.)

The answer for why one is choosing to break things off can be even more uncomfortable and revealing than the initial motivation. After all, this is a person you presumably had some interest in, so what changed? Does her personality clash with yours? Does he seem flighty and unsure what he wants in life? Have things with another love interest progressed? Do you not find her physically attractive after the initial thrill wore off? The answer could be that you honestly can’t point to a specific reason; you just feel it. At least own the fact that you are deciding based purely on emotion and nothing quantifiable. Then share that information with the person if they want to know.

Of course, nobody likes to tell someone what they don’t like about them, but there are polite ways to say just about anything. “I’m just not that attracted to you,” doesn’t mean “you’re not attractive.” It means that the speaker personally is not attracted, and a mature adult will receive the message as such. Be aware, however, that your reasoning may say far more about you than it does the other person. Are you really breaking things off because they double-dipped in the salsa at dinner that one time? Acknowledging harmful tendencies is a starting point for fixing them. I’ve found that this practice brings unparalleled self-discovery and closure, often making it easier for both to move on with as few hard feelings as possible, certainly compared to giving no explanation at all. It may not always be pleasant, but if we’re all adults, I think it’s the most respectful way we can treat one another.

Starting with why is a helpful filter to begin. Ending with why is the clearest and kindest way to conclude. Dating in today’s culture is difficult enough without the damage of thoughtless pursuits and loose ends. Still, if my generation will take the time to reflect on what is driving us to make the decisions we do, just maybe we will end up with more clarity in an arena that has become all too ambiguous.

2013 – The Year in Review

West Coast Trip 2013

As has become my tradition, it’s time to sit down and take an honest look at how the year turned out.  2013 started with a good bit of uncertainty and wavered numerous times before ending with roughly the same amount of uncertainty.  There were high points such as exciting travels, and low points such as necessarily ending longstanding chapters in my life.  Here’s a detailed rundown of what I did on this trip around the sun.

  • Visited Costa Rica for the first time in January with my parents to meet up with my sister’s family who was living in Honduras at the time.  It’s one of the more developed Central American countries.
  • Tried online dating.  (No shame.)  Actually, it can be quite fun at times.
  • Got hooked on my first TV show in a long time:  The Walking Dead.
  • Plugged in to a great community of guys, primarily through weekly trivia at a local pub.  Though we grew tired of that activity, many of the friendships remain.
  • Attempted training for a full marathon and failed.  But really what motivation could I have had except pride?
  • Took my third annual trip to Honduras in June to help distribute water filters to those in need.
  • Put an offer on a house.  Of course, it wasn’t accepted…
  • Took a trip to the West Coast in July!  I visited Seattle, Portland, Petaluma, Los Angeles, and San Diego, traveling primarily by train.  I’m so glad I finally got to see that part of the country, hang out with some friends, and make new ones along the way.
  • Crashed and burned at container gardening.  Again.
  • Began writing for Indie Vision Music in July.  It’s great to be able to contribute to a community that has meant a lot to me the past few years.
  • Forever relinquished hope on a long-running chapter of my life.
  • Connected with my house church community more than any other I’ve been a part of.  We began our second year together, even as new faces joined us.
  • Saw my first show (City and Colour) at The Ryman in September.
  • More dating…
  • Lived in the same place for more than a year!  (It’s the first time that has happened since college.)
  • Joe and I finally released Map and Compass, our second full-length Hilltops and Coffeeshops album.  It was quite therapeutic to have it done.
  • At the advice of a friend, I ditched my college hairstyle in November… and instantly looked fifteen years older.  As much as I’ve tried to cling to youth, it’s the one thing I hadn’t tried.
  • Read the following great books, among others:
    • The Ethics of Paul by Morton Scott Enslin
    • Church Zero by Peyton Jones
    • Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung
    • The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis
    • A large chunk of Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer
  • Discovered the following great albums, among others:
    • Rescue and Restore by August Burns Red
    • The Glory EP by Animal Giant
    • The Hurry and The Harm by City and Colour
    • Change Will Come by Least of These
    • Odd New Celebrity by Keep Quiet
    • World Without End by The Monarch

Overall, nothing fundamentally changed in my life, and it really hasn’t for about five years.  I’m not sure what it could look like even if it did.  As usual, I have some vague ideas about what I want to accomplish in the year to come, but nothing to which I have such commitment that I’m not open to new or better ideas should they arise.  I guess we’ll see what happens.  Happy New Year.  Christ makes all things new.

Why so quiet on the blog?

Map and Compass by Hilltops and Coffeeshops

I apologize for the virtual silence on the blog in recent months. The reason is that two major projects and social engagements have taken up the majority of my time.

The first is that Joe and I are finally finishing Map and Compass, and it will release on our Noisetrade November 5th.  Follow us on Facebook or Tumblr, or download some of our music on Noisetrade to be notified the moment it’s released. We’ll be so pleased to deliver the product of months of hard work, and even close a chapter in our lives in some way.

Secondly, I’m working on some major updates to Stoneoakbuilders.com, my brother-in-law’s site. I’m excited for how things are turning out, and before too long the site will be fully mobile-optimized.

So that’s why there haven’t been posts recently. Once those two things are out the door, expect more regular posting to resume.

Throwback Thursday – “Dawn Escapes” by Falling Up

Dawn Escapes by Falling Up

As the oppressive heat of summer in the South shows no signs of relenting, I long for crisp and cool autumn nights.  This album takes me back not only to that glorious season, but also to a year in my life which began a personal renaissance.

I guess I can start by saying that this album isn’t actually among my favorites.  I would probably only rank it three out of five stars.  But as with much music, it’s about the memories and feelings it evokes, not necessarily the material itself.  Dawn Escapes was originally released on October 25, 2005.  This landed it squarely in the fall of my sophomore year of college, one of the first times I felt free to explore and express myself.  For various reasons, my freshman year of college was somewhat of a throw-away year, particularly when it came to personal growth.  So, freshly returned from summer break and unencumbered by the anchors of the past, I dove headlong into college life that semester.

I remember driving over to Rocketown with some friends to see Falling Up perform some of the new material.  This was perhaps a couple of weeks before the record dropped.  Upon hearing the new songs, the ethereal tones and guitar parts didn’t surprise me, but what did catch me off guard was the amount of piano and keys that were featured.  While their debut offering had scant keyboards and programming, this release leaned on them heavily.  Front-man Jesse Ribordy even mentioned from stage that they had tried to make a more pop-accessible record, which was disappointing to me as a blooming emo-kid.  To this day I wonder if label pressure was the reason for the shift.  Still, I enjoyed the show and looked forward to the album, even pre-ordering it, if my memory serves me correctly.

Despite the changes from its predecessor, Dawn Escapes is by no means a bad album.  It contains all the core elements from Crashings, and there is nothing simplistic about the songs or composition.  Despite the electronic base, there is also a bit of edge; it’s a far cry from The Postal Service.  Ribordy’s clear voice delivers cryptic lyrics over distorted guitars, synthesizers, and crashing cymbals, as well as pianos and percussion loops.  Best of all, they didn’t include any rap vocal cameos this time around.  Despite their young age, I still believe that Falling Up was writing mature music compared to their peers, even if they did borrow some elements from well-known mainstream acts.

Uncharacteristically, I don’t have a connection with many of the words on this album.  Instead, it is the spacey atmosphere that takes me back to driving around Nashville with the windows down, cool and crisp air flooding into the car to match the ethereal sounds.  I savor the memories of that season, which was in many ways a time of rebirth and renewal for me.

You can find the electronic and keyboard-infused rock of Dawn Escapes on Spotify or Amazon.

Throwback Thursday – “()” by Sigur Ros

() by Sigur Ros

Sorry for the long delay between posts.  First I was off traveling for a couple of weeks, then getting back into the swing of things.  Finally, entries resume.

This week instead of reminiscing about summers past, I’m remembering an album that calls to mind freezing temperatures and short days.  It’s not that I’m ready for the dead of winter by any means, but a song from this album came up on shuffle for me recently, and I recalled that it was the album that first made me fall in love with epic, instrumental post-rock.

I’ve never talked to anyone who knows what the title of this album is.  Some pronounce () simpy as “Untitled.”  This makes it very hard to search for, but naming an album with empty parentheses is likely an artistic statement which Sigur Ros intended to make.  What that statement is, I’m not sure.  I do know that this is one of their darkest albums, sonically speaking.  Some have posited that it represents the emptiness felt by members of the band during that period of their lives, a hypothesis which I believe has merit.  All but a select few moments on the album are brooding, ethereal, and even ominous.

While the album was released in 2002, I first came across it as winter approached in late 2009.  Early nightfall was perfectly accompanied by the ambient, yet deeply emotional sounds of this album.  As with other seasons of my life, mistakes and relational situations weighed heavy on my heart.  The shortening days didn’t help my mood, but this album connected on a level deeper than words could describe.

As with most of Sigur Ros’s work, the vocals are not the feature.  Or they are, but no one can understand them.  In fact, on this album, they’re mostly indiscernible noise, but in a beautiful way.  Some have said that front-man Jonsi is singing in a made-up language.  While that may be, track after track, his haunting falsetto captures as much emotion as could be expected from words which can’t be understood.  In this regard, it’s odd that I love this album as much as I do.  Typically, lyrics are a huge part of what makes a song click for me.  In this case, the music is so good that it happens not to matter.  Discernible or not, the intent is clearly conveyed in the vocals.  Part of me wishes there were profound lines to accompany the instrumentation, but I realize that in this case, that isn’t necessary.

As is common in the genre, tracks routinely reach the ten-minute mark.  In fact, not a single song is under six minutes.  This is music that needs to be mulled and digested, not tossed on the radio for a quick hit and a few bucks.  Still, this particular album is dynamic enough that I wouldn’t consider it background music.  The final track (affectionately labeled as “Untitled 8″) builds from somber vocals punctuated with toms to a furious, aggressive finish, including the most powerful drumming of the album.  I remember lying on the floor at my duplex on Battery Lane, listening to the track through the 1970s stereo my dad gave me as the darkness outside quietly fell around the house.

The album would go on to typify that freezing and lonely winter with its somber and atmospheric sounds.  Today it reminds me of the power of music in and of itself, apart from lyrical content.

You can find the layered and emotional post-rock of () on Spotify and Amazon.