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Author: J.D. Roth

Are credit-card rewards worth it?

I’m writing this installment of Apex Money next to my poor, sad hound. Tally (our beagle mix) had some fatty lumps removed yesterday, and she’s on vet-ordered bed rest for the next two weeks. She hates it. She’s miserable. And as a result, I’m miserable too. I basically have to stick by her side to make sure she doesn’t do anything fun — like chase squirrels. Not sure how we’re going to police her for thirteen more days. Even one day of this is driving me nuts!

Okay, enough grousing. Let’s look at the stories I’ve collected for you today.

Expensive mistakes that beginner real-estate investors make. [Afford Anything] — “Imagine walking into a casino and putting $100,000 on red. That’s how some people view real estate investing – as pure luck…Successful real estate investing is about strategy, not gambling. By educating yourself and avoiding common pitfalls, you can weather almost any storm.”

Is maximizing credit-card rewards worth it? [Of Dollars and Data] — “Maximizing credit card rewards can be a worthwhile endeavor if you know what you are getting into. Unfortunately, if you do this wrong, you can end up hurting your credit score and going deep into debt. For this reason, I only recommend considering this strategy if you have meet the following criteria.”

Why are Americans spending so much? [Vox] — “The pandemic saw Americans’ average percentage of income saved increase to an all-time high of 32 percent in April 2020 after many households received stimulus checks. That has helped fuel spending, but unlike in other high-income countries where consumers have proved more thrifty, Americans are close to depleting those savings.”

Today, we’ll wrap up with a video that actually is about money for once. It’s an eight-minute Vox piece about inflation: Why can’t prices just stay the same?

Like most folks, I’m stunned by how high prices are nowadays. It’s crazy. Some folks argue that this is merely a result of supply and demand, but I have a different view. I think that COVID and its after effects (especially supply-chain issues) caused demand-based price increases, but once things eased (and supply/demand returned to normal) companies kept those price hikes instead of dropping them. I think this reality is reflected in the record profits that large corporations have been enjoying.

Anyhow, the high prices are frustrating. But I suspect they’re here to stay. I wish I were old enough to remember exactly what price increases were like during the inflationary period of the late 1970s, but I wasn’t even ten at the time. In my world, the only real effect was that comic book prices jumped from 25 cents to 50 cents in a short period of time.

Okay, that’s it for today. Have a great weekend, everyone!

p.s. Here’s a GQ article about my favorite film of 2023: Godzilla Minus One. The film just arrived on streaming services, and I’m doing my best to encourage everyone to see it. It’s truly terrific.

What choice do you have?

Today is Thursday, money monkeys, and this is Apex Money. Let’s look at the stories we’ve gathered for you today.

Going sessile. [Ribbonfarm] — “One of the biggest changes in my personality with middle age is that I no longer really enjoy travel beyond local weekend getaways. Almost no destination has a pain/novelty ratio that makes it worth it. On the one hand, I’ve traveled enough that few places hold the promise of real novelty and stimulation. On the other hand, even though travel has gotten way more convenient overall…my tolerance for discomfort has plummeted.” Hahahahaha. I hate to admit, but I can sort of relate.

What choice do you have? [Money with Katie] — “I sometimes find myself wanting to scream into the void: ‘More, more, more to what end?’ The logic feels circuitous; it must get bigger so people can get richer and buy more stuff, which is important because that makes it bigger, which makes people richer, so they can buy more stuff. The U.S. economy feels stuck in the same doom loop that many US households are stuck in: a chronic case of losing the plot.”

What’s really happening to grocery prices right now. [Vox] — “For the past few years, several food and grocery retailers have embraced higher prices even at the expense of falling sales numbers. But the rush to signal that they’re now lowering prices may be a sign that the balance is tipping as companies chase higher sales over higher prices.”

Here’s a three-minute video that’s jam-packed with info that can help you so that you don’t get screwed buying a used car.

And that’s all for today. See you all tomorrow!

Time and quality of life.

Welcome to Wednesday, my friends. J.D. here with another round of money stories. Let’s look at what I’ve gathered for you today.

Time and quality of life. [Meaningful Money] — “How much time do you have left with your parents? How much ability do they have to enjoy time with you? It goes the other way, too. How much time will your kids have with you while you are mentally and physically healthy? How much time do you have left with your dog (or cat, if you’re a cat person)? Thinking about your life this way gives you the opportunity to think about how you want to spend your time, energy, and money while you and your loved ones are healthy enough to experience life together.”

How to navigate uncertainty in retirement calculators. [Can I Retire Yet?] — “The first thing I tell every planning client before presenting results is one thing we can be certain about with our projections is that they are wrong. The plan will constantly evolve as new information is presented.”

Our final story has nothing to do with money. It’s about animals, and animals are better than money.

Do animals know they’re going to die? [The New York Times gift article] — “I was…full of rage. I wanted to burn down the universe. I either wanted Moby back, which I knew was impossible, or I wanted nothing — no dog ever again. Life seemed to be some kind of scam, a little shell game, in which every living thing carried the pain of its own loss. And I was determined to never fall for it again.”

Related to that last story (sort of), here’s a fun eleven-minute video from the Howtown channel on YouTube: How do we know dogs are colorblind?

As a fellow who is fascinated by animal cognition, I thought this video was great. It does more than talk about colorblindness; it explores how dogs’ senses might affect the way they process information — and the world around them.

Okay, enough for today. I’ll see you all tomorrow.

How much is a memory worth?

Hello, Apexians! J.D. here with another week of stories about money (and more).

Our first feature today might seem a little woo-woo but it’s not. It’s wu wei. (Haha. I crack myself up.) It’s a discussion of one core concept of Taoism and how it can help you to be more content with your life.

Effortless action. [Money and Meaning] — “The Taoists…believed that society was a corrupting force; that culture created ways that prevent us from acting naturally. In today’s world, achievement and consumption culture: no one would work this hard, and this anxiously, if culture didn’t tell us we had to do to be accepted. The Taoists say that it’s only by unlearning what toxic culture had taught us, can we find our relaxed, natural state of being.”

True story: I re-discovered Taoism about a year ago. It has changed my life. I call it “religion without religion”. Taoism — and wu wei — help me to not get so worked up about the world (or about my own petty problems).

Banks in disguise. [Net Interest] — “One of the best known non-bank banks is Starbucks – ‘a bank dressed up as a coffee shop’…Starbucks got into banking in 2008 when the man that developed its brand, Howard Schultz, returned for his second (of three) stints as CEO. The company had offered a gift card since 2001 but Schultz revitalized it, pairing it with a new loyalty program, Starbucks Rewards, which he launched in April 2008. By paying with a reloadable card, consumers could access perks such as free wifi and refillable coffee. In 2010, Schultz put the card on an app, expanding its reach.

How much is a memory worth? [Mike Troxell] — “Ironically, one piece of this equation of memories growing in value is because our ability to recall is quite poor. It’s related to the ‘good old days’ syndrome. We think it was better back then. We think the fish we caught was bigger than it was…As time goes on, we also tend to remember the positive things more and block out the negatives.”

Let’s wrap up the day with a video. Here’s the Answer in Progress channel on YouTube explaining why fancy candles cost so much.

That’s all I have for you today. Come back tomorrow for more!

The scammy underbelly of online self-publishing.

Hey, my friends, it’s Thursday. As always, I’ve gathered some cool money stories to share with you. Take a look.

The scammy underbelly of online self-publishing. [Vox] — “For the self-publishing grift, good reviews are crucial. The more five-star reviews a book has, the more likely Amazon’s algorithm is to push it toward readers. If you’re mostly publishing trash books, you’re not going to get tons of five-star reviews organically. Big Luca’s Facebook group gave grifters a place to offer to swap five-star reviews or sell five-star reviews.”

How to cancel your credit card without lowering your credit score. [Wallet Hacks] — “If you no longer need a credit card, your intuition would tell you to cancel it. Cut up the card and toss the pieces in the trash. But canceling a card can lower your credit score because of how the credit score calculation. If you no longer need a credit card, here’s how to safely deal with it without putting any pressure on your credit or credit score.” [My credit score is good (~825) and I have no complaints. But it would be outstanding if I hadn’t cancelled my credit cards when I was getting out of debt twenty years ago.]

Money pervades everything. [The Guardian] — “People with substantial debt are reportedly more likely to suffer from ulcers and migraines, and six times more likely to experience anxiety and depression. Clearly, an absence of money can have a serious impact on the quality of our relationships and our health. But Reynal sees money troubles among the wealthy, too.”

I recently spent a long weekend with friends. I brought my French press because I wanted to make my own coffee instead of sharing the communal coffee maker. Watching me brew one morning, my brother told me I was doing it wrong. When we got home, he sent me this video about how to brew coffee in a French press.

That’s like the most Portland video I have ever seen.

The hilarious thing (to me) is that I once lived half a block from the place this was filmed. This was my morning coffee shop. (It was also where I bought motorcycle gear once I bought a motorcycle. The place really is a very Portland hybrid of coffee shop and motorcycle store.)

Okay, that’s it for today. I’m actually in Portland this week for a conference (instead of home in Corvallis), so there’s a chance I’ll go swing by this place for a cuppa one morning. And I’ll be honest: There’s also a chance I’ll miss tomorrow’s post. We’ll see.

The edge of discipline.

Twenty-five years ago, I was deep in my cycling phase. I’d discovered the joys of biking two years earlier, and since then had been riding about 2000 miles per year.

When you ride that much, you learn that bikes break. Things go wrong. And while sure, it’s possible to take your bike into a shop every time something goes wrong, it’s much more practical (and rewarding) to learn to fix things yourself.

This year, for the first time in forever, Kim and I have pulled our bikes out to ride around town. They’re in bad shape. The me of 1999 would have relished in repairing the bikes himself. The J.D. of 2024 feels overwhelmed by the very thought, so yesterday we took them to a local Mom and Pop bike shop for maintenance.

This is all a long lead-in to our first story today. 😉

A love letter to bicycle maintenance and repair. [Tegowerk] — “I realize this may sound overblown, but the changes this hobby has wrought in me go beyond just teaching me a fun and useful skill. Learning to fix bicycles has changed my outlook on manual labor, on the nature of work, and ultimately on life itself.”

The edge of discipline. [Happily Disengaged] — “Discipline has been my super power in this financial independence period of my life. It’s what I used to cut down on spending and up my savings. It’s what I used to keep throwing money each week into two bear markets. And finally, it’s what I used to do four plus years alcohol free. Could it be my discipline is waning? What’s next? More spending? Less investing? Less hard work?”

The great flattening. [Stratchery] — “Change is guaranteed, but the type of change is not; never is that more true than today. See, friction makes everything harder, both the good we can do, but also the unimaginably terrible. In our zeal to reduce friction and our eagerness to celebrate the good, we ought not lose sight of the potential bad.” [I very much enjoyed this thoughtful piece.]

Let’s close today with an arbitrary non-financial video. It’s “Tank!”, the incredible theme song to Cowboy Bebop. No reason to share this other than it’s still awesome after all of these years.

“I think it’s time we blow this scene. Get everybody and their stuff together. Okay. Three, two, one…let’s jam!”

Doing nothing.

Today is Tuesday, money nerds, and I have more fun stuff for you.

A couple of days ago, I had an interesting conversation with a friend about learning to let go of things you can’t control. (The context was how everybody in the U.S. is uptight about everything nowadays.) So naturally I was drawn by the serendipity of finding our first article…

How to stop worrying about things you can’t control. [Country Living] — “Letting go of what you can’t control enables you to regulate your emotions, which is especially helpful if you struggle with feeling the need for control. Acknowledge that there are things beyond your control, such as other people’s actions, external circumstances, or global events. Accepting this reality is an important step in shifting your focus to what you can influence.”

Doing nothing (part one) and Doing nothing (part two) [Money and Meaning] — “We’re so very busy because we want to be wanted. We want to be important, like our heroes. But what if you, like the Dude, didn’t want to be important at all? How much would you work? How much would you spend?” [True story: A couple of years ago, I came to the realization that I don’t want to be important. I’ve spent the time since deliberately learning to “do nothing”.]

How to be enough. [Vox] — “We’ve collectively overcorrected when it comes to the impulse to self-correct. When there’s always a new ideal to strive toward, a new workout to try, a new home renovation project, a new way to hack bodily functions, it can be hard to feel adequate, sufficient, enough. Very real socioeconomic, racial, and health factors impact a person’s ability to feel fulfilled, too.”

I didn’t intend for today’s installment to have a theme, but it kind of does, doesn’t it? Well, today’s video extends that theme. It’s a 20-minute feature from Answer in Progress on YouTube, and it’s all about how to stop scrolling and how to start paying attention.

The video is kind of all over the place, but that’s part of what makes it interesting to me. I too have been trying to find ways to fix my attention span, and my own journey has been just as scattered. (True story: I have a new device arriving later today that’s an attempt to focus my attention. It’s an e-ink phone-like device that I’ll set up ONLY for reading, etc. We’ll see how it goes.)

The most common travel scams.

Hello, my friends, and welcome to another week of Apex Money. I’m J.D. Roth, and I’ll be your host for the next five days. I’ll share some recent favorite stories about money (and more).

Let’s dive in!

The most common travel scams in Europe (and how to avoid them). [The Points Guy] — “Travel is about creating memories, not regretting losses. This summer, arm yourself with knowledge and a healthy dose of skepticism. Whether it’s ignoring a too-good-to-be-true tour offer or sidestepping a street scam in Paris, your best defense is staying informed and attentive. Remember these tips, and you’ll enjoy a safer, more enjoyable European adventure.” [My cousin feel victim tot he Instanbul shoeshining scam. I’ve personally been targeted by the clipboard scam (in Venice, not Paris) and the flower scam.]

You can be “good” with money and still be miserable. [Money with Katie] — “If you, like me, find yourself flinching with every purchase or undermining your own joy in even the smallest of indulgences lest they shave $32 off your net worth, is your metaphoric ‘cheat meal’ really having the desired effect? Even if your results are rapid wealth accumulation, is relating to money in that way healthy? After all, you can have a really high net worth and a bad relationship with money at the same time.

WHat do we do with the stuff our kids don’t want? [Next Avenue] — “Not too long ago, heirs would fight over who gets Mom and Dad’s valuable collections — sterling silver flatware, Lladro figurines or Lenox china. We’re not talking about a couch or a crockpot, but carefully-curated, much-loved possessions that were once considered an emblem of success and gracious living. But now, these once-coveted objects can be seen as more burden than blessing. Their demise has been attributed to everything from changing tastes to smaller spaces.”

Today, we don’t have a bonus video; no, we have a bonus webpage instead. As a budding artist, I think this is hilarious: Famous paintings recreated using only emojis.

For instance, here’s Andrew Wyeth’s famous Christina’s World, both the original and the new emoji version.

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth   Christina's World in emojis

So hilarious. To me, anyhow.

“Why I make terrible decisions.”

Welcome to Friday, money nerds. I have one final batch of stories to share with you this week.

“Why I make terrible decisions.” [Killermartins via Internet Archive] — “I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be.”

Why couples are choosing cohabitation over marriage. [Vox] — “Whether people are skeptical of marriage, hold it in high regard, or plan to bypass it entirely, many of today’s couples see cohabitation as another milestone on the way to long-term partnership. Wanting to avoid the headache and expense of divorce, some pairs now consider living together as ‘marriage lite’ without any of the legal trappings.”

The riddle of ambition. [More to That] — “Ambition is a tricky thing because it’s both empowering and pointless. Empowering in the sense that it allows you to look for opportunities that actualize your potential, but pointless in the sense that it prevents you being okay with what is. Ambition helps set your future self up for a better life, but comes at the expense of enjoying that life today.”

Aging with others. [Humble Dollar] — “Will you be happy in a 55-plus community? That depends on the vision you have for retirement. These communities are a good choice if you’re focused on developing a vibrant social network and you can still live independently. But if caring for yourself is an issue and you don’t have family nearby to help out, a 55-plus community probably isn’t a good choice.”

And that’s all for this week. Jim will be back on Monday to share more great stories with you. I’ll see you in ten days. Stay well, my friends!

What makes housing so expensive?

Top o’ the mornin’ to ya, my friends. Welcome to another day of Apex Money. I’m J.D. Roth, and here are the stories I’ve collected for you today.

Masterpost: How to increase your income. [Bitches Get Riches] — “Today I want to round up our best and brightest advice not on reducing your spending or saving your money… but on how to increase your income. Get that bread. Make it rain. Get us the lettuce. Stack them stacks. Bring home the motherfucking bacon.”

What makes housing so expensive? [Construction Physics] — “Because of the enormous costs of housing, it’s worth understanding where, specifically, those costs come from, and what sort of interventions would be needed to reduce these costs. Discussions of housing policy often focus on issues of zoning, regulation, and other supply restrictions which manifest as increased land prices, but for most American housing, the largest cost comes from building the physical structure itself.”

Where you should put your money (and when). [Of Dollars and Data] — “One of the biggest problems people have when it comes to money is figuring out what to do with it and when. Should you save up an emergency fund or pay off your debt first? Should you max out your 401(k) or invest more into your taxable brokerage account? Is it better to pay off your home early or invest your excess savings in stocks? While there is no right answer to these questions, having a financial philosophy to rely upon when thinking about them is essential.”

If you’ve been paying attention, you probably know by now that my recent foray into the world art has led me to become obsessed by something strange: pigments. I’m fascinated by how pigments are created and used.

Later this summer, I’ll take a few art workshops on the Oregon Coast, including two that are specifically about pigments. The first teaches participants how to make their own watercolors from foraged minerals. The second involves foraging for materials (including pigments, I’m assuming) to make inks.

Anyhow, here’s a five-minute video from Tom Scott in which he explores The Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums. So fun (for me).

(At the four-minute mark, this video mentions YinMin Blue, the new blue pigment that was discovered just two miles from where I’m sitting at this very moment!)

I’m not kidding: One of my current financial weakspots is pigments. When I find a new one (to me), I usually buy it. WHY? I don’t know. I guess just because it’s fun.

Okay, that’s it for Thursday Come back tomorrow for more!