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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Rich People Live Longer

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“The study divides Americans into five income groups and finds that each income group is healthier than the one below it and sicker than the one above it.” Full article here.

Well, no surprise there. I think it’s more correlation than causation, and this is likely to stir up a debate in the comments, but it’s not about the money. Rather, I’ve found the people who succeed financially tend to have healthier habits than people who make less. Tom Corley analyzed “Rich Habits and Poverty Habits” and it’s easy to see how wealthy habits are also healthy habits that lead to longevity. Take care of your money, and you’ll take care of yourself too! Don’t believe me? Read his article, and let’s go through the list. Buckle up.

#1 is “Live within your means.” I had trouble doing this, and many aspects of my life were suffering. I was drinking too much. I was eating so much, I was overweight. I spent heavily on sedentary entertainment. I put myself in debt, which added to my overall stress. “Live within your means” is such an obvious piece of advice, but what’s not obvious is how much damage you can do if you ignore it. I spent so much on gluttony and indulgence, my BF% was 28.6 at its highest. (The average for men is 18-24%, and I’m at 23.4% now.) Simply by overspending, I was overindulging. It was bad news. If I’d saved more wealth, I would’ve had better health. It doesn’t stop there.

#3 is “Read every day.” This alone is how I learned to accumulate wealth. If I’d never read “The 4-Hour Workweek”, Mr. Money Mustache, Marcus Arce’s “Half Retire”, or Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules”, I’d still be broke, unhealthy, and trapped in a 9-to-5. Constant education might actually be key to longevity. It keeps minds active — book lovers live longer, by the way — and it provides me with valuable information on how to live a better life through optimized personal finance, health, and happiness. If you’re reading this now, you’re on your way to a long and happy life. Read those books I linked to above, and you’ll be even wealthier and healthier. I promise.

#6 is “Network and volunteer regularly.” Here’s a TED talk linking social integration to longevity, but there are benefits from interacting with your community that can benefit you now and not just when you’re trying to eke past 100. Looking at my 10+ years of doing professional photography, my most profitable years were when I was volunteering on fashion creatives, meeting with colleagues for drinks, and handing business cards to anyone who made eye contact with me. The more of yourself you give, the more you tend to receive back. Having been reminded of this, I made a point of attending a networking event this week. My mental health and career outlook immediately improved, and a simple night of drinks might lead to a $3,000+ wedding booking. Hey, it’s happened before! Many times, in fact!

#7 is “Go above and beyond in work and business.” How this leads to longevity is slightly less direct. I posit that high achievers in the workplace are also serial optimizers who bring their skills home. They’re the same ones who know an exercise routine in the morning sets them up for productivity in the office. They’re the same ones who read to excel. They’re the same ones who eat homemade quinoa for lunch when Matt from accounting goes out for Burger King. Sorry, Matt, but I know who I’d bet on for longevity. Enjoy your extra pickles.

#11 is “Avoid toxic people.” Corley writes, “[Y]ou need to evaluate each of your relationships and determine if they are a Rich Relationship (with someone who can help you up) or a Poverty Relationship (with someone holding you back). Start spending more and more time on your Rich Relationships and less on your Poverty Relationships. Rich Relationships can help you find a better job, refer new business to you or open doors of opportunity.” I fully agree. My stress levels were lowest when I started spending less time with my naysaying family, and more time with disproportionately successful friends. The Other Ben has been a godsend to me. If it weren’t for him, I’d most likely have fallen into the same trap my mother fell into — believing low-end wage labour was the only method of wealth accumulation. That feeling of being stuck? No bueno for stress levels, and as we all know, stress kills.

#16 is my favourite: “Know your main purpose.” Here’s a talk about ikigai and the centenarians who believe in it. I reevaluated my purpose in life recently, and realized I just want to take care of my friends. Someone who doesn’t know their main purpose might just work themselves into the ground — literally, I might add; see: karōshi — or they might have a bunch of money and spend it in a way that doesn’t bring lasting contentedness. (The Ferrari-crashing, money-flashing fuerdai are just one example.) In my case, knowing my purpose allows me to say no to things that don’t serve my goals. I don’t need a big house, so I’m not working towards one. I don’t need fine wine every night, so I stopped buying them months ago. What I do want is better friendships, and the wealth and time to help cultivate them. I also want meaningful work, and I’ve found that in wedding photography and slinging beer. My goals, purpose, and steps to achieve them are all in alignment! Though I’m certainly not the highest earner in my circles, I feel like my healthy habits will lead me to wealth in the long run.

Finally, an obvious note: Having enough cash to take care of basic health is something everyone deserves. For many, it’s not as simple as changing a few habits. That’s why I urge you to be a “Rich Relationship” for somebody. I recently helped my roommate “D” land a dream job, and I’m equally happy to connect as many compatible working relationships as possible. If you’d like help with anything, ping us on Facebook.

Let’s all get rich together and live outrageously long lives to enjoy it.

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After writing this article, I consulted “A” for additional commentary. This was some of what she said.

“It’s a lot easier to avoid toxic people if you have money and are not reliant on said toxic people. People are more likely to value reading if they had parents that were educated and valued education & learning & reading. Poor people don’t necessarily have the time to volunteer, it’s hard to think about your purpose if you’re depressed and in survival mode, social exclusion can make networking hard, etc. So these habits you’re writing about are hard to start or maintain if you’re not already in a semi-well off position.”

She also noted, “By writing about this though, the implication of the article is that you think that wealth doesn’t have an important effect”.

Admittedly, there were points I’d failed to consider. I decided to preserve the original article anyway — it may prove valuable as I learn more about privilege and poverty — and I invite you to chat with me in the comments about it.

What do you think? Let’s dive in.

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.

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…