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Apex Money Posts

Restaurant service fees & surcharges

I’ve always found “service fees” at restaurants to be incredibly deceptive.

These are the fees they add on to the bill that are NOT a tip to the server. (mandatory tipping for large parties, that one I happily accept) Why not just increase the bill?

Our first article takes a look at that:

An Economic Perspective on Service Fees [Monday Morning Economist] – “Even though inflation has been steady over the past few months, it’s still higher than what we’re used to, and with minimum wage hikes spreading across the United States, restaurants have spent the past year looking for ways to stay profitable. One strategy they’ve adopted is adding service fees and surcharges when it comes time for customers to pay the tab.”

How to be enough [Vox] – “Our obsession with self-improvement is making us miserable.”

I think bridges are cool. I hope you do too!

See Every Kind of Bridge Explained in 15 Minutes [Practical Engineering].

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!

In Defense of Craft

Well well well, if it isn’t Friday!

Lifting weights is something I only discovered in college, forgot for a few years when I started working, and then picked back up again. Everyone should be doing resistance training, especially as you get older to combat loss of muscle mass and bone density, but the meditative aspects of it are important as well.

In Defense of Craft [The Growth Equation] – “Whether it’s stacking wood, lifting weights, running a mile, drawing a picture, recording a song, or writing an essay, I’ve come to believe strongly that there is something nourishing and gratifying about doing work where there is nothing and then there is something—and you are the only thing between the two.”

How Much is Enough of a Good Thing [The Financial Bodyguard] – “Most of us can think back to our childhoods and remember a time when we ate too much ice cream or sweets that turned the moment from feeling wonderful to feeling sick. In the investment world, the invention of the index fund (i.e. a fund that closely tracks a defined market index) was a moment when investors were handed a big bowl of index-flavoured ice cream. It is amusing to know that some in the US even declared index funds as ‘un-American’ as they were not trying to beat the market!”

Good conversations have lots of doorknobs [Experimental History] – “Givers think that conversations unfold as a series of invitations; takers think conversations unfold as a series of declarations. When giver meets giver or taker meets taker, all is well. When giver meets taker, however, giver gives, taker takes, and giver gets resentful (“Why won’t he ask me a single question?”) while taker has a lovely time (“She must really think I’m interesting!”) or gets annoyed (“My job is so boring, why does she keep asking me about it?”).”

Have a great weekend!

Everyone Into The Grinder

I really can’t argue with the merits of the first post.

If you are wealthy, you may not want to go into the grinder but you can’t argue against the fact that things would change (for the better) if everyone were forced into the same system.

Do we really need to take off our shoes and belt off just because we didn’t want to pay for TSA Precheck? Are those liquids and laptops that much more dangerous? That’s an easy example but what about lawyers? Do we deserve a lesser punishment because we can pay more for a better lawyer rather than use an overworked public defender?

Everyone Into The Grinder [How Things Work, by Hamilton Nolan] – “One of the most direct ways to improve a flawed system is simply to end the ability of rich and powerful people to exclude themselves from it. If, for example, you outlawed private schools, the public schools would get better. They would get better not because every child deserves to have a quality education, but rather because it would be the only for rich and powerful people to ensure that their children were going to good schools. The theory of “a rising tide lifts all boats” does not work when you allow the people with the most influence to buy their way out of the water. It would be nice if we fixed broken systems simply because they are broken. In practice, governments are generally happy to ignore broken things if they do not affect people with enough power to make the government listen. So the more people that we push into public systems, the better.”

Need to break up with a financial advisor? Here’s a script you can use (courtesy of Money With Katie):

How to Break Up With Your Financial Advisor [Stash Wealth]

I love Costco (we just went yesterday!) but it’s been ages since I got a hot dog there. It’s not that I dislike hot dogs but I’m a bit of a snob now. I need the bun to be toasted and for the hot dog to have a bit of char… but many you really can’t beat $1.50.

The Enduring Enigma of Costco’s $1.50 Hot Dog and Soda Combo [Mental Floss] – “Simple. When it comes to hot dogs, Costco doesn’t price according to what the market will bear. They price according to their own cost and according to the value the hot dogs can afford them.” (they sell 4 times more than all MLB stadiums combined)

Top 10 Reasons to Use a 529

With four kids, I love the 529 and so does The College Financial Lady!

Top 10 Reasons to Use a 529 [The College Financial Lady] – “529s are almost always the best way to save for college, yet only about 1/3 of families actually use them for college savings. In fact, a recent survey showed that only about half of American adults have heard of 529s. This is incredibly unfortunate because 529s are such a powerful tool in creating pathways to higher education. So in honor of 529 Day, here are my top 10 reasons you should open a 529 for your child’s education.”

How to Have a Great Vacation: What Science Tells Us [The Wall Street Journal] – “You would think that more of a fun experience is always better, but, the reality is that it often isn’t. Indeed, one of the primary reasons that vacations, or any enjoyable activities, fall flat is because of an inalienable truth about hedonic consumption: Enjoyment declines with time.”

Want the best sunscreens this summer? The FDA is blocking you. [MSNBC] – “Many U.S. sunscreens would fail European standards for UVA protection. Because European sunscreens can draw on more ingredients, they can protect better against skin cancer.” We really like a sunscreen we can only get in the UK and it’s actually a store brand (not something fancy), just because it has better ingredients (and doesn’t have an aerosol).

Synapse Failing Impacts a LOT of FinTechs

FinTech has had a huge surge in popularity the last few years as technology companies layer on top of traditional banking. They offer some great perks, like getting your paycheck two days faster, as well as higher interest rate on your savings.

One risk, and one that never really materialized in the 10+ years I’ve been following and using FinTechs, is with the technology. Many times, the app is just a layer on top of a traditional bank. Sometimes, it’s a layer on a layer.

Last month, one of those layers failed. It wasn’t a sudden and catastrophic failure like when the container ship Dali hit the Francis Scott Key Bridge earlier this year. The failure of Synapse Financial Technologies, which powers a lot of FinTechs like Yotta and Copper, may have occurred in May but the company declared bankruptcy a while back. But when a potential acquirer backed out, everything collapse.

If you’re curious what happened, The College Investor has a quick explainer:

FinTech Crisis Leaves Millions Of Americans Unable To Access Their Money [The College Investor] – “Synapse Financial Technologies was one of the largest providers of these “banking as a service” solutions, and it has found itself in bankruptcy and shutting down. For the banking services and partner banks, this has created a severe disruptions that has left potentially millions of Americans without access to their funds for nearly two weeks.” It’s been way more than two weeks now, sadly.

We Are All Surrounded by Immense Wealth [Raptitude] – “Wild animals all live in abject poverty, because they can’t invent any stuff to make it easier. Humans can improve their condition significantly by acquiring objects and knowledge. Anything useful we gain, on top of our basic no-stuff state, can be broadly called wealth. A bearskin is wealth. A sharp obsidian flake is wealth. A log placed across a stream is wealth. Knowing how to make twine is wealth.”

The Vine of Beauty: the Rothschild Family’s Wine Heritage [The Rake] = “The Rothschild family has achieved exalted status in winemaking over the past couple of centuries. Trying to decide on the No.1 vintage from their magnificent cellars may take a lot longer…” Not a wine guy but it’s fascinating to read about it.