Bens, Booze & Budgets: Part One

If I didn't get my drinking under control,

This is an ongoing series tackling my struggles with alcoholism, and how I strive to do better. We’ll be looking at the financial impact, my overall health, how it’ll affect my longevity, and my happiness along the way. It’s a serious issue, and I don’t intend to take it lightly. Reader discretion is advised.

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My vacations are rarely actual vacations. This time, it involved visiting event planners in Kamloops and Chase to promote my wedding photography. We had a blast, and on our way back, we stopped in to see “Ben and Barbara” for another hike. That’s when “Ben”, a 60-odd tenured academic, took me aside.

I forget the exact words, but his tone was serious. He was very concerned with my drinking. At this point, he’d seen me consume upwards of six beers in a casual night at home. He’d lost friends in their 40s to hard drinking, and he’d never even seen them drunk. I was, what, 29? If I didn’t get my drinking under control, I might only have 10-15 years left. Taken aback by his frankness, I stammered something noncommittal, and headed back to my car. Even now, I’m thinking about it. “You have to reach old age,” he said. Admittedly, I never imagined I wouldn’t.

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The Lancet is a medical journal with roots dating back to 1823. Starting as a simple pamphlet in the 19th century, it’s now an online powerhouse of medical studies covering countless aspects of human health. Mere weeks ago, they published a risk analysis on 599,912 drinkers and came to some conclusions, summarized here: Fortunately, they found that people who drink about 6.5 drinks a week or less are mostly okay. But those who drink 6.5 to 12.5 drinks a week have a six-month lower life expectancy at age 40, while those who have 12.5 to 22 drinks a week have one to two years lower life expectancy, and people who drink more than that have four to five years lower life expectancy.”

This was, obviously, not great news for someone who frequently writes about longevity.

I’d spent years trying to convince myself my drinking wasn’t a problem, but the other day, on my way to work, I needed to stop at a bottle depot. It was a sunny day, and I found parking right out front. This was super convenient, I thought to myself. I mean, I had numerous garbage bags full of beer cans. As I stood there organizing my past benders into sticky blue trays, “Ben” crept into my thoughts again. As each tray filled, I found I looked forward to my bottle return less. Each tray I filled looked like a few hours shaved off the end of my life. 10¢, 10¢, 10¢… 10 minutes, 10 minutes, 10 minutes…

$32.50 was the total return. Literally hundreds of beer cans. I realized then that I needed help.

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Here’s where the math comes in. Nothing motivates me more than raw data, so I drew a line in the sand. The article said, “those who have 12.5 to 22 drinks a week have one to two years lower life expectancy, and people who drink more than that have four to five years lower life expectancy.” Well, I knew I didn’t want to be in the latter category, so I set myself a ceiling of 22 drinks a week, or 3 drinks a day. This is still not in line with what constitutes “moderate drinking”, but I was just looking to game the data. For now, any drinking ceiling was better than none. I AM NOW COMMITTED TO NO MORE THAN 3 DRINKS A DAY. And somehow, knowing that was really goddamn liberating. I look in my fridge now, see 9 beers, and I know I have enough for 3+ days. Somehow, this constraint was weirdly welcome in my life. More savings, a longer lifespan, and easier estimation of how long my beer would last me? I think if I remember all the benefits, it’ll be far easier to not drink to excess!

But can I do it? I still don’t know. My optimism is tempered by having failed at things like this before. I suspect I’ll see an 80% success rate with a few “cheat days” along the way. Done well, this sudden new challenge might literally save my life. Done poorly, there might not be a logical reason I’m saving for the future.

As I write this, it’s been just under 24 hours since I finished my last beer. I bought a coffee, but I’m still tempted by the new rye IPA in my fridge. My wall clock is ticking, and the ticks sound louder than normal.

Holy shit, guys. This should not be this difficult.

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Stay tuned for Part Two.

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This is Trikey McTrikeface, or How Cycling Changed My Life

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I can’t ride a bike.

No, I’m serious. I really can’t ride a bike. I grew up in hilly New Westminster, BC with overprotective parents who used to drive me to school even though it was literally a block away. My repeated attempts to learn have failed. I don’t know if it’s a balance thing or a confidence thing, but if you put me on two wheels, I’ll go face first into a blackberry bush. It’s embarrassing, but I’ve made my peace with it.

That’s why, when I read this, it really bummed me out. I was missing out on so much. I was missing out on exercise, the money savings, the social aspect of riding with friends, and the thrill of the open road. I remember once, in Bruges, my girlfriend at the time wanted to bike around the city and I couldn’t go with her. It fucking sucked. I resolved to find a solution. After all, I live in Richmond, BC now – a city with no hills and quiet suburbs everywhere. That’s when I decided to man up and buy a trike. I knew I’d look like the village idiot, but it was hard to argue with the positives. Now, I ride all the time and I love it. I even crash into the occasional blackberry bush.

I found one for $280 on Craigslist, and it’s the Kent Alameda 26” Adult Trike. It’s got a huge basket in the back, and when I go cycling with friends, I usually bring four growlers of beer to make the ride more interesting. I ride it to our local brewery a lot, and it’s a 15-kilometre round trip. I save about $2 in gas each time. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s entirely feasible that I’d ride this trike 2,100 kilometres (15 KM x 140) in a year, meaning this trike WILL PAY FOR ITSELF in a year! I’m already driving less. When I get to know Richmond’s side streets, I’ll be making most of my in-city trips using this trike! It’ll be great!

For those of you who cycle, I know I don’t need to break down the benefits. I’m just glad I was finally able to join in. For those of you who don’t, here’s some quick math: In a 2012 Forbes article, they found the “average annual operating cost of a bicycle is $308, compared to $8,220 for the average car”, meaning a bike (or trike) could save you $7,912/year! Using the ol’ compound interest calculator, investing that over 10 years at 7% interest results in $116,967.84! Can you imagine if someone did this from the time they were 25-35? A $116,967.84 boost at 35 would be insane! Can my derpy little trike actually save me that much money? It can’t hurt to try! Cycling can also increase your life expectancy anywhere from six months to eight years. Given my old life expectancy and a little luck, that could put me up to 90!

Do you cycle? If not, why? I can’t even ride a bike, but I found a way to tap into the goldmine. What’s stopping YOU? Tell us on Facebook.

Fitness Ben vs. Fatness Ben, or How to Lose 10 Pounds in a Month

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It’s a sunny day in Steveston as I write this, home of Once Upon A Time and the Power Rangers, and I’m treating myself to a cold pint of rye porter. A month has passed since I wrote ‘Financial Planning for Your Life Expectancy’ and the week following that was kind of a scary one! I mean, I was staring my mortality in the face! All of a sudden, 77 seemed like too young to die. In that post, I knew I had my finances sorted, but what could I do to live an even longer life and actually get the chance to spend the money I’d been saving? I decided to double down on my health. Here’s how that went.

First, a story: I was kinda fat. Not like “my shorts could double as a parachute” fat, but fat enough. When my friends wanted to take me on a hike, I had to ask them how “bennable” it was. Would I have to scramble up a mountain? Was the trail longer than 5 kilometres? A lot of the time, I’d simply stay home. I was content in my shittiness. It wasn’t until the neon sign appeared in my mind, flashing “YOU WILL DIE AT 77”, that I knew I needed to get my shit together. A month later, I’m happy to announce I have my poop in a group. It all started with this article.

Losing 10 pounds in a month was my new challenge. Not just the weight loss, but also the healthy habits that come with maintaining a proper weight. While everyone else was watching the ball drop and smooching strangers, I was standing on my Fitbit Aria™ noting down my weight – 182.4 pounds. I knew what I needed to do. It was radical.

Beer intake got under control for the first time in my life. I knew every bottle I opened would set me back almost a day of weight loss progress. I started walking everywhere, sometimes reaching 30,000 steps a day. I loosely adopted Tim Ferriss’ slow-carb diet (SCD) and started cooking my own food aggressively. I started experimenting with intermittent fasting (IF), though I don’t recommend that for reasons like this. I read up on basal metabolic rates (BMR) and even went so far as to deliberately put myself in cold environments to increase calorie burn. On January 30, at 3:51 PM, I stood on my Aria, nervous because I only had one day left to meet my goal… I damn near cried. I’d done it. I was 169.6 pounds.

You can do it too.

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This should be obvious, but there’s a huge caveat as you read this: I AM NOT A FUCKING DOCTOR. This is only what worked for –ME– to lose 12.8 pounds in under a month. Be careful, and if you’re not feeling well, DON’T CONTINUE TAKING THIS ADVICE. You have been warned. I don’t want anyone in the hospital because of this. Sound good? Okay, let’s move on.

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HERE ARE SOME SOLID STEPS TO LOSE 10 POUNDS IN A MONTH:

* Cook your own food as often as you can, and treat bread, pasta, potatoes and rice as though they come with a warning.
* Greens and eggs are your friends. My typical breakfast is now a spinach omelette, but in case cholesterol is a concern, offset that with lentils for dinner. They seem to reduce LDL, or “bad cholesterol”. Here’s a great recipe I used. Here’s a more indulgent one.
* Walk 15,000-20,000 steps a day. It’ll burn roughly 3,500 calories after you factor in BMR, equal to roughly a pound of fat gone. Use a Fitbit to keep track if it helps motivate you.
* If you have unhealthy eating habits, DON’T actually use a full cheat day once a week. It’s one thing to allow yourself a little bit of fried chicken on a Saturday/Faturday. It’s entirely different to mainline Twinkies for 24 hours.
* Feel guilty when you’re sitting down. Unless it’s for work, you should be moving. Now that you know you can ALWAYS burn a calorie (like you can ALWAYS make a buck), turn your Netflix marathon into preparing for an actual marathon. You don’t need to actually run one; just get fit enough that it becomes a possibility someday!
* Get knowledgeable on fitness and food: I recommend “The 4-Hour Body” on audiobook as you walk, and “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” for a quick read. Both books offer contradicting advice. Find a balance that works best for you.

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A FEW WARNINGS AS YOU DO THIS:

* You’ll lose weight drastically when you start eating better, and it’ll shoot back up in 5-8 days when you get insanely thirsty. This is water weight. Don’t let it throw you off your goals.
* If you experiment with IF, which totally works but isn’t recommended, you –WILL– feel occasionally dizzy. Don’t drive while doing IF.
* The more accustomed you get to walking long distances, the more you’ll start to experience akathisia when you’re forced to sit still for too long. That’s normal. Try not to let it fuck with you too much.
* Have some goddamn fun as you do this! Seriously, drink the occasional beer. If you deny yourself the simple pleasures in life, you’ll inevitably backslide in huge ways. Don’t let your weight loss program get in the way of your happiness. This is important!

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My goal now is to simply maintain 170 pounds and a good baseline of physical activity. Remember the life expectancy calculator I used? Here’s what I get with my new stats: M, 28, 5’ 8”, 170 pounds, normal blood pressure, quit smoking, 3-5 drinks a day, active? 84 – A SEVEN-YEAR LIFE EXPECTANCY INCREASE! THAT’S EVEN ASSUMING I DRINK LIKE THIS FOREVER! You can make a change like this in a month too! If you could increase your life expectancy by SEVEN YEARS IN A MONTH, wouldn’t you do it?

Fatness Ben is dead. Fitness Ben beat the crap out of him because Fatness Ben was a wuss.

Ask me anything on Facebook.

Financial Planning for Your Life Expectancy

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77. I’m going to die when I’m 77.

I was playing around with this life expectancy calculator and dutifully filled in my personal info, dreading the results. Would I die like my dad did, from heart complications at 55? Or would I flip Death the middle finger like my grandfather who passed away at 84? It was hard to tell. On one hand, I was reasonably healthy for a 28-year-old. On the other, I was a regular drinker and wasn’t as active as I could be. I was fully expecting my number to be below 65, making all my retirement planning silly and useless, but what I got was 77. Respectable, I thought. Now that I knew, it was time to start planning for it.

Using this compound interest calculator, I punched in my current investments and contribution rate: $17,245 to start, $3,000 a year, 37 years to grow (until I’m 65), and 7% interest. The results were heartening. Even though it’s fuzzy math, it estimated $725,479 when I’m 65. Not a bad little number. I wasn’t exactly a millionaire, but I didn’t need to be. I just needed enough to carry me through to my life expectancy. Here’s what I found.

Accounting for inflation – I used 2% – I was able to adjust my $725,479 to what it’d be worth in 2053, when I’m 65. I was shocked at what inflation ate up. My spending power was only about $348,673 in today’s dollars. Since that’s the more relevant number at this point, I’m using that to calculate my retirement plan. I want to know my spending power, not some wildly-inflated, future number. You can calculate your current dollars for inflation here.

My “$348,673”, at 7% interest, gets me “$24,407” a year while it’s invested, or “$2,033” a month. That’s about in line with my current spending. I spend just over $2,000/month now. If I play my finances this way when I’m 65, I could live off my nest egg FOREVER. But let’s say for a second the financial climate of 2053 is a riskier one, and I no longer want my money invested in US equity. If I cashed out EVERYTHING – like an idiot, but I digress – I could pace my “$348,673” out to “$29,056” a year, or “$2,421” a month until an expected death at 77. I am, somehow, covered both ways! Well, that’s a relief. By sheer luck alone, I don’t have to make any alterations at all to my retirement plan! Yay!

You have the tools now in the links I’ve given you above. You NEED to run your numbers and make a retirement plan that works for you. Ignoring this post could be the difference between literal life and death. Being broke at 80 is a far different story than being broke at 25.

On a happier note, with my finances taken care of, I can now shift the focus towards health and living a longer life. Let’s look at the life expectancy calculator again. I filled it in as follows: M, 28, 5’ 8”, 180 pounds, high blood pressure, quit smoking, 3-5 drinks a day, somewhat active. My life expectancy: 77. The best way of increasing my life expectancy is to bring my exercise level from “somewhat active” to “several times per week”. New life expectancy: 81. I can go even further by bringing my alcohol consumption from “3-5 drinks per day” to “2 drinks or less per day”. My life expectancy then becomes 82. Uhh… FUCK THAT. I like my beer. One extra year is not a fair trade. More beer now.

This might be an extreme method of measuring personal finance, but it’s still a useful exercise. It took me 10 minutes to come up with the numbers you see above. If a 10-minute time investment helps you make better financial and health decisions FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, wouldn’t you take it? Tell us what you thought in the comments.

With that extra four years, maybe I’ll take up scuba diving…