3 Lessons From A Pair of Leaky Goggles

So last week, I decided to go swimming after like a 5-year hiatus. Yeah, I blame my ever-increasing waistline.

I’m the kind of guy who needs to wear goggles – I don’t get how people can open their eyes underwater and not get blinded by all the crap that’s in there. Anyways, I couldn’t find my old pair of goggles, so I decided to pick up a pair from this ratty little store (which was inexplicably blasting Flo-Rida songs at 10 in the morning) before driving to the pool.

The goggles were cheap, somewhere to the tune of 2 bucks. I drove away from the store feeling like I got a helluva bargain.

The first thing I noticed was that the straps were ridiculously hard to adjust. Describing them as “tight” was an understatement – it would’ve taken a brain surgeon with tweezers and a microscope to undo them. Also, they were really low-quality. I would have been able to make a better goggle strap with a pair of rubber bands.

I decided to just screw it and force them onto my head, making my skull feel like it was slowly being crushed by a boa constrictor. Also, the goggles were leakier than the Titanic. By the time I’d done half a lap, there was a complete ecosystem of coral life in front of my eyes. On the bright side, I was learning how to open my eyes in water.

After about 2 laps of swimming with a constricted head and water-filled eyes, I felt dizzy so I stopped and pulled the goggles off. And then one side of the goggles just COMPLETELY FELL OFF. I couldn’t believe it – my goggles were disintegrating before my very eyes.

I had enough. I got out of the pool, threw my goggles in the bin, and went home in disgust. I’d done a grand total of 2 laps.

Three lessons I’ve learnt from this episode:

  1. Never trust any store that plays Flo-Rida songs at 10 in the morning.
  2. Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean good. Always do your research before you buy, and opt for long-lasting and high-quality even if it costs a little more. (However, some people may misread this and automatically assume that “expensive = good”. This isn’t necessarily true either especially when it comes to unit trusts, mutual funds, financial advisers and ETFs).

But really, the most important lesson would be:

3. Always strive for high-quality.

It’s often tempting for me to rush through a to-do list by doing the bare minimum for each task. But I’ve always found that it’s usually a bad idea – the work gets compromised, my boss tells me to do it again, and it becomes the equivalent of a pair of crappy rubber-band-boa-constrictor-leaky goggles.

Instead, I’ve come to approach work in a totally different manner these days by just focusing on just three important tasks a day: two tasks in the morning, a slot to answer emails after lunch, and then one last task till the end of the day.

That really helps me to zero in my focus on what’s truly important, allowing me to really kick ass to produce the highest quality work I can offer. I do this even if it takes a little longer to accomplish ’em. The downside is that I don’t get to complete a lot of my other, less important, tasks, but I’ve found that they usually take care of themselves after awhile 😉

It doesn’t just apply to work – I’m trying to approach the blog and the book in the same way too. That’s why I take a whole week to write a blog post. That’s why I’m spending hours and hours researching on nuances just to write one paragraph in the book. That’s why I have hour-long conversations with friends to test ideas out. My goal is to make it so absolutely freakin’ awesome that it would easily trump the pants off any other personal finance book out there.

So I encourage you to do the same. If you’re going to do something – a report for your boss, a product for your customers, or a gift for a friend, make it high-quality. Don’t worry if it takes a little longer – that extra hour you take to craft it will be totally worth it. Start forming the habit to NEVER settle for mediocrity.

As Faith Jegede proclaims in this awesome TED talk, “The pursuit of normality is the ultimate sacrifice of potential. The chance for greatness, for progress, and for change, dies the moment we try to be like someone else.”

Never settle for “normal”. Get out there, and create something amazing.

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How to Automate Your Finances

I don’t know about you, but I hate dealing with the stupid administrative things in life. You know what I’m talking about: Like topping up your EZ-Link card (for non-Singaporeans – it’s this card Singaporeans use to ride the subway / bus), paying off your bills, insurance premiums, etc etc etc. Seriously, nobody gets up in the morning and goes “Oh yay! I’m totally gonna pay my phone bill today! Woot woot!”

Why personal administration sucks ass

Each individual task doesn’t really take up that much time and effort, but add them together and it’s a helluva pain in the ass. Think about it – say you receive your credit card bill on Monday, and you want to pay it off at the AXS kiosk on Tuesday, but the line is way too long so you put it off till Wednesday, and then you realize that you have to top up your EZ-Link card, which you do, making you late for work anyway. And on Wednesday night you receive your phone bill, so now you have to remember to pay that off, but after paying off your credit card bill you get really busy so you forget about the phone bill, so the phone company sends you a reminder letter to pay last month’s bill…

Add insurance premiums, magazine subscriptions, gym memberships, charity donations, investment contributions, savings contributions…. and you get a freakin’ pain in the ass. What’s even worse – forgetting to pay off last month’s balance on your credit card will cause your credit card company to charge you interest. They could also lower your credit score and either make it harder for you to get a loan or increase the interest on your mortgage, potentially costing you thousands of dollars over your lifetime. Not fun.

Relying on “willpower” to remember to do all these annoying administrative tasks just doesn’t work. Your life is only going to get busier. Besides, having all these items on your to-do list just breaks your flow – you may be working on an important career-changing presentation, or starting up a side business, or raising a family – you don’t wanna have to deal with crap that just distracts you from the really important things in life.

Automating your admin

The key to this is to create a system – a system that automatically takes care of actually doing all this stuff for you, yet allows for you to go in and check that you aren’t making any regular contributions to the Nigerian royal family. And you can set it up in a couple of hours. If you’re Singaporean, here’s how to automate your:

Bills: Set up a GIRO arrangement for your credit card and phone bills. Once it’s set up, the system goes into your bank account once a month and then pays off your bills in full, which means that you never have to worry about late payments. All you have to do is make sure that you’ve got enough money in your bank account (I personally keep about a month’s salary in my account, which provides enough buffer for any potentially huge credit card bills).

Now, I don’t know why, but people get really nervous whenever I recommend setting up GIRO for their accounts. They’re incredibly frightened that some random dude is going to clone your credit card and charge like $5000 bucks on hookers or something.  Let me assure you: this will not happen to you if you check yo’ statement every month! Honestly, it’s not as hard as it sounds. Every month, I get a paper statement about 2 weeks before my bill is due (If you prefer, you can also arrange for an SMS/email notification from most companies, which will also link you to your online statement). I’ll glance through the statement and make sure there’s no entry with the word “HOOKERS” and a charge for $5,000 on it. If everything’s fine, I don’t have to do anything further, and my system automatically pays off my bill for me.

If there is a weird expense that you didn’t incur, then you have 2 weeks to report it to your credit card/phone company. Well-known secret: your credit card company is even more nervous than you are when it comes to these potentially fraudulent charges. Once you call them up and notify them, they’ll reimburse you and launch a full-ass investigation, just to get their money back. There are some credit card companies that are so nervous, that even if you use the credit card overseas, they’ll jump in and cancel the card right away unless you notify them beforehand that you’re going to be using your card abroad. So I’m pretty sure that even if some scammer did try to buy drugs with a clone of my card, it’ll be taken care of as long as I check my monthly statement. Besides, how often has that happened to you anyway?

This system works the same way for any other recurring expenses you might have: insurance premiums, magazine subscriptions, gym memberships, etc. In fact, most companies would LOVE to offer you the option of automatic payments, because that means that they never have to chase you for payments. And while you should review this list regularly to make sure that you’re not paying for things that you don’t need, this system automatically takes care of all the admin for any necessary expenses.

EZ-Link cards: Set up automatic top-ups with EZ-Reload every time your card value goes below zero. This can be done through GIRO or through your credit card, and EZ-Link charges like $0.25 for each top-up. My card gets automatically topped up twice a month, incurring me a grand total of $0.50 for the convenience. And believe me, $0.50 a month is a freakin’ negligible amount to pay for never having to glance at your balance, never having to line up at those infernal top-up machines, and automatically tracking your transport expenses through your credit card bill.

Savings and Investment: I’ve blogged at length about how you can set up automatic savings to both your guilt-free spending account (for holidays, weddings, etc) and your long-term savings account. But you can also automate your investments: First, decide how much of your salary you would like to invest. Next, arrange to automatically transfer that amount to your investment account every month. This can be set up through internet banking within a couple of minutes.

Your investment account works in 2 ways: it can either invest directly in unit trusts (mutual funds if you’re American) or index funds, or it can accumulate a certain amount before you go in a couple of times a year to invest the funds in various ETFs (more details on that in another post!) Either way, the result is clear: you will be regularly investing a portion of your salary, without fail, with no effort on your part whatsoever.

Putting it all together

All this can be a little overwhelming, so I’ll give an example from how I automate my own finances. I get paid on the 21st of every month, when my salary gets credited into my POSB current account. On the 22nd, my system goes in and deposits a portion of my salary into my long-term savings account, another portion into my investment account, and a third portion into my guilt-free spending account (this is one example of the “Pay Yourself First” principle). A week later, my credit card and phone statement arrives and I check it to make sure there are no fraudulent charges. If everything’s fine, my bills get automatically paid off around the 10th of the following month. All this while, I’ll be enjoying Singapore’s mega awesome public transportation system, with my system watching my EZ-Link balance for me and taking care of the top-ups whenever they are needed.

Notice that everything here is beautifully automatic. My involvement is limited to simply checking my statements to make sure nothing’s amiss, which literally takes up 5 minutes a month – probably faster than how long it takes for most people to pay their bills at the good ol’ AXS machine. With all the annoying administrative crap out of the way, you can actually focus on the good and important things in life – like being awesome.

Credit: I got this idea from Ramit Sethi, the author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Check out his post for a great overview and more details on automating your finances.