The “Util” and How It Can Help You Save

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As a personal finance blogger who’s never set foot in an economics classroom, I’m pretty oblivious when it comes to the more academic side of spending. All I see are the spending habits of people around me, ranging from the soon-to-be early retirees to the people who still love shiny stuff. One night, our new roommate “M” was telling me about a new car he intended to buy, and he dropped a term I’d never heard of before.

“I’d drive it lots and get lots of satisfaction out of it, so it’s totally worth it for the utils,” he said.

“The yoo-what?”

“The utils!”

Confused, I plunked myself down in front of Google, typing in “yutil” like an idiot.

“Uh, ‘util’. Like ‘utility’, dude.”

I figured it out eventually. After some struggling, it led me to this:

“The util has no concrete numerical value like an inch or a centimeter. Instead, it’s an arbitrary and subjective – yet convenient – way to assign value to consumer choices and to measure the consumer utility of one choice against another.”

Still confused, I read further.

“Here’s an example. Assume you to the supermarket with $100 to spend, along with a phantom 100 utils – representing 100% of the happiness you expect to garner from all the purchases you make. Two-thirds of your money is spent on necessities – bread, milk, produce and other food staples. Although 67% of the money budgeted for purchases is spent on necessities, the number of utils assigned to those purchases – arbitrarily and subjectively – may only be 40. The remaining 33% of your money is spent on chocolate, ice cream, frozen pizza, soda pop and other unnecessary items. But the utils assigned to these purchases total 60.”

I finally understood.

“Hunh, I should probably mention this on my blog,” I said.

“Do it.”

So here we are.

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I once tried to justify my PlayStation habit, and it went pretty terribly. At “$7.50/man-hour” for entertainment that included paying for my roommates’ playtime, it was the worst investment I’d ever made. It was bad enough I was investing in screen time; I was blowing thousands on something that didn’t add concrete value to my life. This was – and I realize this now – an awful investment to buy a shitty amount of utils. I know this because it wasn’t even making me particularly happy. I was paying for bragging rights.

Compare that to now. My main hobby now is cooking, and I’m getting quite good at it. For the price of one fancy restaurant entrée, I can whip up dinner for four, and learn cooking skills that will serve me for a lifetime. $30 spent at the grocery store results in a shitload of utils. It gives me pleasure and purpose, I get to entertain guests for a night, and I’m learning. But wait, here’s the real kicker…

Money invested is now my favourite source of utils.

Utils are about spending money to buy overall life satisfaction. Therefore, it’s worth thinking about every purchase in terms of how many utils it gives you. You buy a $20 sweater you know you’re gonna wear 100 times, and that’s 20¢ per wear. Pretty decent. You pay $200 for tickets to “The Book of Mormon” and you get two hours of entertainment that you can’t really access again. With my values, that’s a poor buy for utils. (It may be different for you if you love, lovelove musicals.) When I thought about this more, I realized “buying money” gave me more joy, security, freedom, peace of mind, value, and deep contentment than literally anything else. Pouring money into my TFSA every month is a delight. Investing it and watching it grow is far better. I used to buy video games to fill a virtual progress bar. Now, I choose better utils: I get them from money that will allow me to live the life I want, regardless of what happens in the future.

Investing money may not be your favourite source of utils though. All I ask is you think about the usage of the item you intend to buy. Will that impulse buy Pickle Rick hoodie be hilarious a year from now, or are you gonna wear it just 15 times? Is that beer you’re gonna chug in five minutes worth $9.26? How many utils is an iPhone compared to a flip phone? How many utils is junk food compared to a simple, well-balanced lunch? Will you use that meat smoker weekly, or will it live in your storage room? Will an $18,000 car really give you more utils than a $6,000 car?

We all measure satisfaction differently, but the efficiency with which we use things can be objective. For me, I “buy” money and investments I can use forever. Embrace the util, even if it is a nebulous concept. Anything that gets you thinking about how you spend is good.

Will you use your new purchase enough? Will it make you happier than the money itself? Does it retain value? All this brings us back to the util. It helps you make better choices.

What thing, in your life, gives you the most utils? Tell us in the comments, and share us on Facebook.

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Money and Convenience Are Basically The Same Thing

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Hot pot is glorious. Somewhere, deep in my childhood memories, I have vague recollections of bubbling broth, delicately rolled sheets of meat, odd dipping sauces, and questionable food safety, and it somehow became one of my favourite ways to enjoy a meal. Looking now to recreate it – which I did this past weekend with spectacular results – I’d found myself standing in the veggie aisle of an Asian supermarket. In small packages, there were cremini, enoki, shiitake, and white button mushrooms, but there was also a “hot pot mix”, cleverly portioned out to be exactly what I needed. In a moment of weakness, I ignored the $8.98 price tag and put them in my basket. Given a choice between “I could buy the individual packages and get more mushrooms for the same price” and being a bad chef, I became a bad chef. I chose convenience over money. After all, like everyone else, I may as well pay for convenience… right?

This got me thinking though. When you get right down to it, that’s all we ever pay for. You buy a car to avoid walking multiple kilometres to work every day. You buy a computer to avoid doing all your scheduling, task managing, and socializing via pen and paper. You buy meat so you don’t have to raise chickens or gut a deer. Perhaps, if all you want is to live a wealthier life, it may be as easy as letting in some inconvenience!

I know this is certainly true for me. I eat takeout and $8.98 mushrooms more than I care to admit, and I still haven’t ventured into brewing my own beer. We’ve also talked about not owning things if you can help it, but I still have so much crap, I have to give/throw stuff away regularly. Suddenly, I wanted to know what an inconvenient lifestyle looked like, based on my daily expenses.

Wake up.
Brew my own coffee.
Make myself a sandwich for work.
Bike to work.
Drink tap water.
Eat the sandwich on my break.
Bike home.
Make a quick dinner.
Drink a homebrew.
Read articles online.
Go to bed.

This is, of course, regular daily living for countless people and the joie de vivre of many a Mustachian. I decided to go ahead and define my barriers to success.

I would need to buy a coffeemaker.
I would need to make more time for grocery shopping.
I would need to buy another trike (because the last one was stolen).
I would need to purchase equipment for homebrewing, and I don’t have a passion for it.

That’s it! At this point, I found it genuinely weird I’d have to buy things to make my life more inconvenient on my terms, but as it’s such a simple fix, it may be worth investigating. The coffeemaker, for instance, could be a great investment. Coffee currently costs $0.55 at the local 7-Eleven, but coffee at home is more like $0.08. It seems pretty insignificant, but a year of coffee at home instead of 7-Eleven java saves me $171.55, enough for many coffeemakers! Now, I just wish I liked homebrewing…

The obvious takeaway is introducing inconvenience means more money in our pockets. Getting back on a trike would save me from $60 tanks every month for an extra $720/year. Add car maintenance – my last bill was $715 – then add the coffee, and I just pulled $1,500+ out of my ass by slightly inconveniencing myself!

Try doing a similar exercise to the one above, and ask yourself, “How inconvenient can I make my life?” It shouldn’t be too scary at all. Determine your barriers to success, and figure out how much money you’d save. I’m not telling you to dumpster dive or use toilet paper stolen from library bathrooms, but think about it this way: With virtually every consumable, you can either choose to walk away with Money or Convenience.

How rich do you want to be?

We Use 66% Less Electricity Than Our Neighbours

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Over the past few months, we’ve gotten pretty good about optimizing our finances, but our obsessively geeky need to optimize everything eventually led us to the website of BC Hydro. For those of you not in BC, BC Hydro is our main electricity distributor, serving about 1.8 million customers across the province. Since I moved into my place seven years ago, I’ve been paying bills from them every two months. They keep the lights on for us, but I never turn on too many. That’s why I suspect we’re one of the most energy-efficient households in our area. Pull up your own numbers and play along. It’s kinda fun being able to see your stats. Here’s ours.

BC Hydro has a thing they call Team Power Smart. You click a button and they start tracking your kWh usage for the next 365 days. Reduce your energy consumption by 10% from the previous year, and you get a $50 credit on your bill! Obviously, $50 is peanuts, but the seed had been planted. With raw data in front of me and graphs to show my progress, my goal now wasn’t just 10%. Now the question was, How low could I go? From November 2016 to November 2017, I somehow blew through 4,600+ kWh. To qualify for my credit, my goal from November 2017 to November 2018 is 4,191 kWh, but my stretch goal is actually 3,000 kWh. I crunched some numbers, and we seem to use 10.08 kWh per day on average, or 302.4 kWh per month. I briefly lamented not being on track for my stretch goal, but then I looked up average electricity usage in BC. “Households in BC Hydro’s service area average just over 900 kWh per month”! We’re literally 3x more efficient! This only strengthened my resolve. If BC Hydro was giving me $50, I might as well use it for good. Time for some online shopping.

A few nights ago, I came home to a package waiting for me: the Kill A Watt P4460 I’d been eyeing for months. The order total was $45.84, but I knew this’d save me more in the long run. With the ability to plug it into just about anything and immediately see a cost forecast by week, month, or year, it’s giving me the data I need to be smarter about energy consumption. I no longer use a PS4 as my main streaming device, and now use an Apple TV I got through a barter. According to this, a PS4 “consumes 89 watts per hour when streaming video”, “35 to 40 times more power consumption” than an Apple TV. Because I was an idiot just a few years ago, I once had five PlayStations all humming away in my living room. Now: one Apple TV. I haven’t noticed any decrease in life satisfaction. In fact, I think I’m happier.

Our light bulbs are almost all CFL now too. Technically, LEDs use less electricity, and buying them kinda makes sense, but not really. Computers also go to sleep more often, and I’m even reading about energy-efficient cooking (except that barely even matters).

Annnnnd… that’s kinda it. There’s pretty much nowhere else we can be more efficient. I limit screen time anyway, so instead of a 50” HDTV running all the time, I listen to audiobooks on my iPhone. (Current binge: “Happiness by Design” by Paul Dolan.) Also, I went back in my BC Hydro history, found the oldest bill I had, and I’m apparently paying 18% less per bill now. See why I’m a data geek? Saving hundreds now means thousands later. We’ll most likely revisit our energy consumption this November and see how we did on our challenge. In the meantime, I’ll try not to seem like such a weirdo typing on his keyboard in the dark.

If you’ve got weird energy-saving tips, let us know in the comments. How do you think we’re doing? Is 10 kWh/day a lot for three people? Let’s get competitive and save some money.

PS: We pay a base cost of $0.18990/day, and $0.08580/kWh. What’s your rate?

What Would You Do With A Million Dollars?

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It’s not about the money. It’s never been about the money. This is why.

If you’ve been with us since the beginning, you’ve already read 99 posts from us about frugality, optimizing our career lives, setting up side hustles, losing 10+ pounds effortlessly, house hacking, and how to set ourselves up for retirement. It’s been over two years, and I’d like to thank you all for accompanying me on this crazy ride towards being the healthiest and wealthiest humans we can possibly be. This post is our 100th post on Unconbentional, so for once, let’s dream a bit and remember why we’re doing what we’re doing. There’s a point to all of this, so stick around for some not-quite-obvious advice. If you want to live like a millionaire now, this is how.

We’ve all thought about it. With unlimited money, how would our lives be different? Almost a year ago, I challenged you to define your ideal day and — spoiler alert! — pursue exactly those goals and pastimes for the rest of your life. Some of us realized that happiness was within our grasp all along. Some of us realized we weren’t quite there yet, but that was okay too. What I discovered was I needed to set aside my “When I reach ________, then I’ll be able to ________!” mentality. Heck, I didn’t even wait until I had $500,000 in the bank to pull off a mini-retirement, and I learned a lot from it! I still have ambitious dreams though, and I’d like to share them with you now. Here’s a quick rundown of why I want to be a millionaire.

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My main hobby now is cooking. If I were a millionaire, I could cook every day for my friends. Heck, I might even pay someone to do my cleanup! (I wouldn’t though, because I know there’s value in doing what you hate.) Every night, I could roll out something ambitious and crazy like stuffed pig’s trotters or rigatoni con la pajata, and I could be creative and well-fed all the time, surrounded by friends at the dinner table. That’s Dream #1 and every day, I get closer. Sure, I might still be on French onion soup, but we all start somewhere.

Dream #2 is helping my friend “D” start a brewery. I’m more a drinker than a brewer, so I’d mostly look to finance it instead of actually working there. He’s been a loyal friend for over a decade, and if I were a millionaire, my dream would be to make his dream come true. For me, friends > money, every time.

Meanwhile, unrelated to food and drink, I’ve got a whole pack of friends who love cars, fixing them up, and drifting like maniacs. Basically, if a car’s going forwards or backwards, it’s boring. Driving sideways is their jam. (I think they’ve just seen too many Ken Block videos.) Dream #3 is going in with them to buy a cheap piece of land in the boonies, and owning just enough to put in a bit of dirt track. Those car nuts can go sideways forfuckingever. Again, happy friends make me happy.

The fourth and final dream is a pretty common one: World travel. I’d love to see Mexico, Spain, Argentina, and Australia. A loose goal I set myself is seeing 20 foreign countries by end-of-life. Dream #4 will be a lifelong pursuit, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

That’s why I want $1M.

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The money doesn’t actually matter though. It’s just a tool to buy the dreams you really want. $1M in the bank doesn’t do anything except generate some profit from investments. Done properly, you can Retire For Good this way, but if you’re a loyal Unconbentional reader, you might realize full-on retirement might not be the world’s greatest goal either. Instead, for once, I urge you not to think about your dollars too much.

Instead of using only money as a metric of success, I’ve started quantifying the completion progress on my dreams. Since I’m an efficiency kook, I started looking for ways to increase my progress with as little money as possible. I quickly realized “When I reach ________, then I’ll be able to ________!” was just an excuse to delay working on goals. Supremely motivated people like you or I know we can start whenever. Here are examples.

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Dream #1 (40%)I cook once a week already, and I’ve gone up to four large meals in a week before. That week almost became a problem! With both my roommates working all the time, they can’t commit to at-home dinners seven days a week anyway. The last beef bourguignon I made even led to some food waste because we ate through it slower than we thought we would. Can you imagine if I cooked every day? I think I just need more friends to feed!

Dream #2 (10%) — Not much I can do about this one yet. I need to take care of my own money before I drop tens of thousands on a brewery. However, “D” became the assistant brewer at a 2,500-square-foot brewery recently, so maybe I can just visit him and strut around pretending I own the place.

Dream #3 (0%) — I mean, I’m researching lots to buy, but this ain’t happening soon.

Dream #4 (50%) — With a little advance planning, I can almost always leave on a weeklong trip. With contacts in Mexico and Australia, my vacations there could be cheaper than I thought. I’ve also already visited 10 countries; France, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Greece, Denmark, UK, US, China, and Japan! Getting to 20 in this lifetime should be a cinch!

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I’m not saving to reach $1M. Not really. I’m actually saving to max out on my dreams. Here’s the thing: Without even spending all that much, you can work on your dreams every day. That’s what I want you to know. No more “when ________, then ________”! You’re not saving money; it’s more like dream fuel. The best part is real dreams are rarely tied to money. If your dream is to own a house someday, you might think you need $3M — (I live by Vancouver, okay?) — but with a little digging, you could also find a €19,000 property in Sicily! Money’s not the goal because your dreams are! Sometimes, a little bit of knowledge or even reading a blog post can fulfill an entire goal for you!

Gary Vaynerchuk once said, “People are chasing cash, not happiness. When you chase money, you’re going to lose. You’re just going to. Even if you get the money, you’re not going to be happy.”

This might be a personal finance blog, but it’s not about the cash. It never was. Find out why you do the grind. Work on your dreams now, every day. Look beyond the bank account, and remember why you want those numbers healthily high. Imagine what you’d do with a million dollars, and start doing that thing now.

It turns out I just want to cook for my friends. What dreams are you delaying for no reason?

Accept No Substitutes

Master your wants and you_ll be left with more of what you need.

“Oh, fuck. I really want octopus ceviche.”

Normally, I’d never crave restaurant food like this, but I didn’t have as much free time anymore. It was a rare “day off” from the day job, and dangerously, I was looking to treat myself. As an amateur foodie, this ticked all the boxes. It was a restaurant I’d never been to before, I’d probably learn what it took to make octopus ceviche at home, and it’d give me a break from my home office. Win-win, right? Heck, I might even be able to write a blog post there! I checked the price online. It was $10. Damn. (I’d recently adopted a rule that any purchase over $10 should be reexamined for alternatives.) The drink I was eyeing too — Boulevard’s “kentucky cold toddy” — would set me back another $7 plus tax and tip. Together, I was looking at blowing over $20 on a whim. That might have been fine for Old Ben, but not anymore. I decided to find a substitute.

Even though I was craving octopus ceviche hard, I knew the responsible thing to do was save money. Instead, I settled on a happy hour in the same neighbourhood where a beer was only $4.75. I’m drinking it now as I write this. Here’s the weird thing: My initial, super strong craving for octopus ceviche is now… gone? It’s almost as though any food or drink in front of me was enough. I didn’t need $20 in seafood and bougie cocktails; a $5 beer was extravagant enough.

You’ve probably seen that nutrition meme that says, “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not really hungry. You’re just bored.” I kinda believe that. I used to be terrible with splurging on food. If I wanted sushi, I’d just get it — no matter how much it was. Now, even though I still get those cravings, I’m far better at finding the affordable alternative. The $5 Subway 6” tuna was often just as satisfying as the $15 chirashi don! I challenge you to master your cravings. You’ll save money doing it, and reach a mystical level of financial zen. By becoming okay with getting not-exactly-what-you-want, you’ll be able to save for the big goals. Your cravings can basically always be satisfied with something that costs less!

Master your wants and you’ll be left with more of what you need. I know my $20 cravings can disappear with a $5 substitute. Do you?

You Work For Yourself, or How To Fire Your Boss

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Depending on who you talk to, I’m either a half-retired entrepreneur or a lowly wage slave. You can read about my five sources of income and decide for yourself. Whatever you think of me though — and whether or not you think of yourself as an entrepreneur — doesn’t matter today. All you need to know is, starting today, you work for YOU. You no longer answer to a boss or clients you don’t want to. You’re now in charge of everything. Your only goal now is building the career life you’ve always wanted. Here’s how.

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I get it: It’s easy to feel trapped by a job. Remember “K”? He’s now welding long hours with a nasty 1-hour commute every day. Even at one of my workplaces, management changes are happening, and it hasn’t exactly been sunshine and rainbows. I started looking at other opportunities for the both of us. In just minutes on Craigslist, I’d found backup options. I found “K” a welding opportunity in the same city, and it had the potential to reduce his commute time by 75%! I found a job almost identical to mine on the other side of town where there’s considerably less traffic, potentially saving me time and gas! In the end, we decided to stay at our current jobs, but feeling trapped was no longer an issue. We weren’t, and we came to realize we were never really trapped in the first place. There were always options, mere minutes away and at our fingertips. I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like I can “fire” any job I don’t like and “hire” any job I want. If that doesn’t sound freeing or realistic to you, here’s a practical way you can get closer to making this a reality.

Losing income between jobs is a real problem. This is why virtually every personal finance writer suggests creating an emergency fund. A simple three months of income stocked away is all you need to become a boss. It automatically increases your “hiring” and “firing” abilities, and gives you more time to find the work situation you really want. You’re no longer taking the first thing that comes along so you can put KD on the table. You have the freedom to flip through job descriptions — I think of them as résumés — and “hire” what’s right for you! Build an emergency fund that covers three months of income. If you feel like you can’t climb the job ladder, there’s your first rung.

Pull this off properly and your whole worldview might change. You might realize your “boss” isn’t really the boss of you at all. They’re just a coworker. The tasks in front of you aren’t mandatory. It’s a gig you’re doing, and you get to choose if it’s worth it. Feel stuck? You’re not. You have THE ENTIRE GODDAMN INTERNET to help you find a new job to hire. Don’t like your job? FIRE IT.

I’ve always told freelancers they should make every job decision based on passion, profit, and prestige. Whatever you’re doing, do it for at least two. Start thinking of yourself as a freelancer, and think of your bank account as your business. Job hopping is the new normal anyway, so in a way, we’re all freelancers.

The truth is you’ve been your own boss all along. Are you ready to work for yourself?

Losing Weight Is Saving Me Money

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A year ago, I went toe-to-toe with our artist friend “A” on food spending. I did not do well. Where I spent “$1,340.83 [in] November on comestibles – $902.33 on food, $438.50 on alcohol”, “A” spent “only $360/month”. I’m still not nearly as badass as her. I’m still not vegan, and I still spend most of my money on what I eat and drink. Here’s a quick breakdown of October 2017.

I ate out a stupid amount. After wrapping up my cooking-at-home experiment, I thought I should treat myself. Obviously, this was a bad move. I even paid for some friends’ meals, and ended up with a food total of $760.17. I was fucking stupid. It wasn’t even luxury food! I toned down on booze though — thanks to this, this, and this — and ended up with an alcohol total of only $311.90. (To see how far I’ve come, check out January 2016’s total of “$1,120.27”!) Total food and drink cost for October 2017? $1,072.07. This, I consider my most recent baseline. I was eating and drinking as much as I wanted, and no diet or even a modicum of restraint was applied here.

In November, I knew I wanted to make a change. I wanted to be the best 30-year-old I could be, and that meant getting down to 163 pounds. Intermittent fasting and other dietary measures made a reappearance, so my sushi lunches and Subway sandwiches got swapped out for frozen chicken, conveniently-packaged-yet-still-affordable spinach and kale, and boatloads of beans. Alcohol crept up (and so did the discovery of an amazingly expensive izakaya) but I managed to only blow $531.84 on food, or $17.73/day. Alcohol came in at $401.50, or $13.38/day. Total for both: $933.34.

These numbers weren’t the extreme improvement I was expecting, but saving $138.73/month with better health is still a victory! I successfully hit my weight goal, and virtually every meal I eat now involves half a plate of greens. Also, we’re currently 11 days into December, and I’m watching my food expenses like a hawk. Though I expect our Christmas dinner to break the bank, I’m only at $85.78, or $7.79/day for food. That’s the way it should be. Only improvements from here on out!

As a final note, I realized beef was killing my budget. A particularly ambitious brisket set me back $50.06 at one point, and though it was good for multiple meals, it’s hard to justify when 3kg of frozen chicken also good for multiple meals was only $10. Also weird: I don’t miss beef! Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but a steak hasn’t wowed me in years. Smoked beef ribs will always hold a special place in my heart, but I don’t intend to buy a $3,999 smoker ever. It’s also worth noting “beef requires 28 times more land, six times more fertilizer and 11 times more water” than pork, chicken, dairy or eggs, and that drain on resources is reflected in the price. Even if environmental reasons don’t convince you, the price should. 1kg of prime rib is $30.66. 1kg of chicken is $7.41.

In short, being mindful about what I eat actually saves me money! My health, the environment, and my wallet all benefit. At this point, it’s only logical to eat less, eat more greens, eat less beef, and bank the savings. My $138.73/month in savings is $1,664.76/year. If I keep this up until I’m 65, that’s almost $60,000! An extra sixty-grand to live longer and make the world a better place? That’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

Got beef? Let’s take it to Facebook.