Cargo Cult Adulting

August 14th, 2018 by Potato

In case you’re not familiar with the commencement speech/excerpt from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Richard Feynman describes South Sea Cargo Cults following WWII: “During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.” So it has the superficial form, but of course the form is not what’s important, and without the core functions, it doesn’t work.

A recent post on doing laundry got me thinking about cargo cult adulting.

After I graduated and got a real job, my dad bought me a bunch of nice grown-up work shirts. They’re the kind of thing you have to take to the dry cleaners, or be very fiddly with about washing at home. And of course, they had to be ironed.

So, there I am*, sleep-deprived and busy as hell, watching my baby girl play in the playpen while I futz about with this scorching-hot hunk of metal. And she starts to fuss and wants out to crawl around on the floor and play with her daddy and eat all the dirt, but it’s not safe. This unstable burn hazard and relic of Victorian values is not even really safe for me to be handling in my current state. And even then, I ended up missing part of my shirt, going into work with a wrinkly arm the next day**.

I did not enjoy ironing. I had better things to do with my time, but what could I do, it was part of being grown-up and having stable employment. Then the epiphany: screw that noise. Ironing shirts didn’t make me an adult, being a good dad to my kid was my biggest ticket to adulthood, and she didn’t want me to be ironing my shirts. Wearing shirts that needed ironing (and actually ironing them) was just a symptom of someone else’s adulthood. Besides, it was 2012 (or 2013) and wrinkle-free fabrics existed in the world. Once Wayfare bought me a few wrinkle-free shirts, that was it for ironing.

Now I have a very simple laundry procedure: everything goes in together in one bunch.

Still from Dr. Horrible -- all the laundry dumped in in one bunch.

If it can’t handle cold/normal followed by tumble dry low, I don’t want it. There’s no room for primadonna fabrics in my world, so if someone gives me a gift of clothes and it can’t deal with how I manage laundry, it just goes in the donate pile. I’ve ruined a few pairs of really superficially nice wool pants, and I have zero regrets. It wasn’t meant to be, anyway***. For the ones with sufficient warning labels (or only slightly scarred by my treatment), maybe Diabetes Canada can find someone who has that kind of time.

Of course there’s an even bigger source of cargo-cult adulting: buying real estate. Just today Rob Carrick has an anecdote in the Globe of one young adult living at home, hoping to save enough to buy a house at the expense of renting, being independent, and “[getting] on with the next phase of [her] life.”

And this isn’t some article assignment he had to go terribly far to find: it’s a story I’ve heard dozens of times in recent years. Real estate’s too expensive and out of reach, but people can’t [won’t] move out/have kids/really become adults without a house they can mortgage.

Now there’s a bit of a political brou-ha-ha in Ontario over the sex ed curriculum. Apparently we’re still using the 1998 one. Well, I graduated in 1998, so I don’t know what exactly is in that iteration — I was subjected to the one even older than that — but from listening to some millennials whine about how they have to buy before they can have kids, but the market’s too expensive to buy, so therefore they can’t have kids… well, I can only conclude that there’s something deeply misleading about how you use property deeds in there. As someone who has taken a university-level biology class and is a father, let me reassure you that there’s eggs and sperm and sleep deprivation and inordinate amounts of patience, but at no point does the legal ownership of land or structures factor into reproduction.

Anyway, there will be lots of adjustments from previous generations. Maybe you won’t have a single job that you use interchangeably with the word career — the gig economy is a monster and it’s coming for us all. Maybe you won’t own the roof over you head, or a car. Maybe you will have more monthly bills as Netflix and cell phones weren’t a thing for your parents. Maybe you won’t spend half your weekend on lawncare (or maybe you’ll spend more as you turn your little patch of dirt into an apocalypse-ready source of calories and essential fatty acids).

Comic from XKCD: an apartment filled with playpen balls. Why? Because we're grown-ups now, and it's our turn to decide what that means.

You are**** an adult and you get to decide what that means. You don’t necessarily need the same trappings and signifiers of adulthood that your parents had. And they won’t make you an adult any more than coconut headphones could call down a C-47. Don’t make yourself feel like you’ve put your life on hold for something that doesn’t even matter in the end.

In conclusion, screw ironing. Long live the wrinkle-free workshirt!

* – This is like 6 years ago, so it is safe to assume that this anecdote has been heavily embellished by time if not my story-telling.

** – This because wrinkles are beneath my notice, so of course I actually* wore it instead of just re-ironing it.

*** – This is a great part to put in a gif of Dr. Horrible looking in the washing machine and saying “I don’t love these!” but I can’t find one pre-made and I don’t want to invest that kind of time. Just imagine that I did. Also, it helps to play “A man’s gotta do” while reading this post. Actually, if it’s not too late, just skip reading the rest of this post and go re-watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

**** – Unless you’re not. It’s the internet, after all.

You Don’t Have to Have an Opinion

August 12th, 2018 by Potato

There are a lot of things in the world to potentially research. Even just restricting the conversation to investing, there are a lot of potential avenues to put your money to work. However, you don’t have to have an opinion on everything.

I was on Tom’s podcast recently, and he threw me some questions on bitcoin and peer-to-peer lending. Things like this pop up from time to time, and I usually do have something to say. But just because I have an opinion and want to talk about it doesn’t mean it’s a strong opinion, or that you should go off and waste some time doing a bunch of research.

There’s a difference between having an opinion for the purposes of a discussion or entertainment, and an opinion for guiding your investment decisions. I’m not trying to talk you out of ranting about bitcoin or whatever individual stock is in the news or whatever you like to talk about at parties. But just because some new option is there doesn’t mean you have to give it full due diligence and a careful pro/con decision process to determine if it belongs in your portfolio.

Sure, bitcoin went up however many gagillion percent through to the end of 2017, but it just as easily could have gone another way — that doesn’t mean you have to start researching bitcoin or every potential growth story in the future now. If you missed out on the crypto craze, you’re probably still doing just fine on your trajectory to retirement (and if you jumped in late last year you probably regret it at this point).

And almost all the stuff on TV and in the paper on investing, all the different styles and strategies and specific companies — most of that is just discussion and entertainment. It’s very hard not to talk about something when someone else wants to talk about it. That goes double when there’s a camera on you. Engaging in a discussion on some potential investment is not a pointer that you should be researching this stuff or taking the opinion seriously. Often guests on BNN have opinions on stocks they do not own, to reinforce that point.

Buffett had this concept of the “too hard pile” — he didn’t have to come to a buy or sell decision on every stock, if it turned out it was too complex or outside his circle of competence he could just shelve it and move on to the next opportunity. Sometimes in a conversation someone may give you a forced choice “which one would you pick? OK, but if you could only take one with you when you’re stranded on a desert island…” but real life rarely does in the same way. And it’s ok to say that you don’t know and don’t care to waste the time trying to decide.

Focusing on the essential building blocks — your savings rate, fees, risk tolerance — is what will help you meet your goals. Debating the blockchain flowchart can make for good conversation, learning about new things can be fun, but that doesn’t mean you have to seriously consider how much of your portfolio to put in whatever the obsession of the week is.

Tater’s Takes: The Flu, Back Pain

March 13th, 2018 by Potato

The flu swept through town here (word from the school is that Toronto Public Health confirmed it was a flu outbreak that hit Blueberry’s class) and I had a rough week there — high fever, chills, aches, as well as a bit of a cough. Though it wasn’t a bad cough in the sense of coughing non-stop, I did get hit hard by the coughs when they came, and now a week and a half later I still can’t talk right and can barely move, because I seem to have thrown my back out and damaged my vocal cords coughing. My back was just starting to seem a bit better today (I could bend over and reach all the way to my knees! I could sit in a chair and type!) when I did something that seemed totally innocuous but put it out again today.

So that sucks. Also makes me feel really old to be shuffling around the house, doing awkward things with my knees and hips to try to reach things without actually flexing my back.

Yesterday was my first day back at work, and it was hard, especially the part where I couldn’t take a nap partway through the day. The flu’s a hell of a virus.

Behind the scenes, the blog is still very quiet. I do have thoughts on the new Vanguard all-in-one funds, and they are positive ones. I’ve also been trying to do a little video to accompany the guide to Canadian taxes for freelancers, but can’t really record anything other than a throat cancer awareness ad at the moment. I figure it could wait until April, however, I’ve seen a fair number of people inpatient for various tax slips so they could go ahead and file, and I’m like man, it’s still early March. I know as someone with a non-registered account I can’t file until April because of T3’s, but even then, don’t most people wait until close to the deadline anyway? Isn’t that what deadlines are for?

One good thing about getting really sick is just shedding the pounds — though I suspect I’ll gain much of that back before the next official weigh-in (and by definition, that’s not healthy weight loss).

Since I’ve got nothing else for you to read, why not check out Sandi’s reads, or Dan’s take on the new one-fund solution. I noticed a lot of people talking about burnout — here’s one from Des at Half-Banked as an example — around the turn of the new year. Definitely been feeling a touch crispy round the edges here, but don’t have articulate thoughts yet on the topic — though many of you have likely noticed the lack of posting frequency, or the number of emails and side projects that get a “that’s nifty, but let’s just park that for a few months until I can properly think about it or really anything.”

I had a few people ask me about dollar-cost averaging late last year, and was going to bring the threads together into a post, but then Dan hit all the points in this post and podcast.

Speaking of podcasts, there are just a whole bunch of episodes of Because Money out now in case you somehow feel the need to make up for the lack of activity on the blog.

Short Updates: Renting in Toronto, Because Money, Course

September 22nd, 2016 by Potato

I’m heading into the busiest three weeks of the year for me. Caffeine levels are at max, and I’ll be trying to survive the stress and sleep deprivation until this project is done, so don’t expect a long post in the next while. Here are a few short updates though.

Renting in Toronto: I’m scoping out rental houses in Toronto to get a feel for where current rents are. For several years market rents have been quite stable and it’s been easy to conclude that the absurd price:rent ratios were not going to be fixed by rents increasing. Every now and then a rental would come out way above market, where clearly a landlord was trying to actually cover their costs on a recent purchase price instead of collecting market rates and hoping for appreciation. However, this fall I’m seeing that rents are actually up, with a huge spread in prices (and price:rent). For houses that would be ~$1.3M in a particular neighbourhood, I’m seeing rental rates from $2600 (about where prices from last year would be with inflation) through to $3600. And it’s not just “that one crazy listing” (though one listing did sit for over a month at that top end and is now down — not sure if it found a tenant or just got pulled), there are places at each point in the spectrum, which makes for price-to-rent ratios of anywhere from 460X to 375X — a pretty big spread.

Even at the high-end of that range, renting is still the better deal (because prices to buy are crazy), but it’s surprising to see nearly a thousand dollars a month in possible rent inflation in just a year’s time. Moreover, I’ve commented before that one of the nice aspects of renting over buying is that you get a lot more for your housing dollar — we could never afford to live here if we had to buy. Well, if rent rates are increasing that much, we might not be able to afford to live here even as renters. On the one hand that’s a scary thought, on the other, I don’t really think Toronto’s priced dual-professional families out of even the burbs forever. I’ll have to keep a closer eye on the market to see if it’s just an anomaly of a few crazy people putting their listings up at once without knowing the market rent, or if it’s truly gotten that much more expensive.

In discussions with a reader on the rent-vs-buy choice (which I’ll turn into a post later), I had to bring up the point that buying is in many ways easier (distinct from better) when you’re looking for a detached house. While there are detached houses available, and while it’s the better move financially to rent, there are 20 or 30 for sale listings for every house for rent. It can take months of looking to find one that ticks all the boxes for you, and part of what makes that a challenge is that as a renter you’re almost exclusively looking for as-is properties (or close enough to as-is — it’s possible to put some work in to a place to make it your own space with a long lease or even to negotiate repairs and upgrades with a landlord, but you’re not going to do anything major), whereas when buying you always have the option of getting any old place and gutting it.

I also volunteered to re-write the rent-vs-buy calculator page as part of the Reddit /r/PersonalFinanceCanada wiki effort. I’ve written so much over the years on real estate and the rent-vs-buy choice and the math involved, but I really don’t have a good “start here” resource, and the last time I tried to write one it got way too long and ranty (and when I tried to make a “start here, how-to” page for investing, it turned into a book). Again, busy now, but look forward to something like that later in the fall — and if there’s already a good guide that would serve the average Redditor off the street, let us know and you’ll save me the trouble.

Because Money: I’ve been a guest several times on the Because Money internet show (in fact, the guest with the most appearances on the show). This year I’ll be joining the team as a producer — basically clicking on things while the hosts and guests chat, and every now and then throwing graphs up on the screen because I’m a nerd. We’ll also have MYD doing the hard work of off-line producing, which will make Because Money a downloadable audio podcast and not just a YouTube sensation. For season 3 Chris Enns will fill the seat of Ensign Redshirt/Male co-host #3, and we were really clear in our enunciation of the words of warding to try to ensure that the same curse does not befall him.

Course: This busy period was not unexpected, and that’s why there was nothing in the release schedule for the course in September. However, things started getting busy earlier in August than I had expected (plus I actually took an actual vacation instead of using that time off work to work on the course), so most of the modules I had promised for August are not up yet. Sorry about that, I’ll try to get them all done in the October update (none of the August videos are shot, but most of the articles are at least partway finished).

Questrade: They can’t leave well enough alone over there, and have tweaked their UI again. It’s a fairly minor change so I’m not going to rush to update the errata for the book.

July Course Update

August 1st, 2016 by Potato

July has just ended and the Practical Index Investing for Canadians course is progressing well. Roughly 70% of the content is done and online, everything that had been projected for June and July, with a few bonus items as well (though two of the videos are still rendering here, they have been shot and will be up soon). I’ve updated the syllabus here.

The towel-day pre-order price is on its way out. You have until Friday to get the course at the incredible rate of $49 (no coupon code needed — that’s the price that’s set on the course platform site). After that it will go up to the next pre-order level before release, and to the final price in the fall.

The updates will be coming slower now, though. You’ll notice in the syllabus that though most of the course is there, there are only a few things scheduled to be completed in August, and nothing for September. That’s because I know I’ll be too busy at the day job to get any material up through then, so it won’t be until October that the final bits of the course are up and done.

If you have any suggestions (or prefer that I prioritize one section for August) send me an email and let me know!


First time hearing about this? The Practical Index Investing for Canadians course is an online course to help you learn how to become a do-it-yourself investor. It builds on the material in the Value of Simple as well as the Money 201 and other lectures I’ve done since to help you get started as DIY investor.