Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Investments for 2011

Watching the videos on YouTube, I see economists and financial experts of every stripe recommending the best places for investments. Even the people I actually pay attention to, like Peter Schiff and Gerald Celente, have their own recommendations. However, these recommendations are generally for people who have large amounts of cash to move around and invest in whatever market they choose. For most of us, our biggest investments are probably our 401K.

Because of this, I wanted to make my own investment list for the next year, which is focused on the things that can make your life better or a little easier if things start to get a little rocky in the months to come. Most people think of the dollars we earn as real wealth, but those dollars are simply a tool of exchange for the goods and services we need. If you think of the dollar in this way, it's easy to see how some of the items on this list really are good investments for the common man.

7. Tools and Supplies

You would be surprised at how many people don't keep a basic set of tools in there home for everyday problems like loose screws, loose nails or squeaky hinges. You don't have to be a handy man to make use of a screw driver or a hammer when things start falling apart. This also includes things like duct tape, electrical tape, small nails and screws, and WD-40. This can also include different types of power tools but only if you plan to make regular use of them. Having a cordless electrical drill can make life more convenient but don't go out buying a table saw (I'm looking at you, men.)

6. Clothes

Neither should you use this one as an excuse to expand your wardrobe (I'm looking at you, women). Socks, underwear, shoes and things that everyone needs and that will eventually get worn out and need replacing. This can be problematic for small children who change size quickly but for teens and adults buying some extras of these shouldn't be a problem. If your work requires certain types of clothes (steel toed boots, polo shirts of a certain color, etc.) buying some now can save you money and hassle later if they need to be replaced at the last minute. Don't go overboard with this one, though, since most of our clothes are fairly durable and will last for some time even with wear and tear.

5. Firearms and Ammunition

People may think it falls in the realm of craziness and paranoia to be buying guns and ammo as an investment, but anyone who hunts on a regular basis can tell you why this is a good idea. When President Obama was running for office in 2008, everyone was concerned about his stance on gun control and with good reason. Obama had openly stated how opposed he was to guns on many occasions. When he was elected in November, every 2nd amendment loving American in the country went out in droves to buy up every gun and bullet they could find. And this was before he was even officially the president!

For months after, ammunition was scarce and the price of firearms and ammo went through the roof. In the end, Obama didn't have the support to impose his vision of gun control on the country and he certainly doesn't have it now with Republicans coming back into power. However, the effect he had on the price of weapons and ammo could easily be repeated if the economy begins to take a slide. If you're a hunter or someone who enjoys shooting, this is definitely a good investment for the near future.

4. Medical Supplies

You'd be surprised how quickly you can burn through medical supplies with even a minor injury. Short of a paper cut or a skinned knee, cuts and scrapes can require a lot of bandage replacement over the time it takes for them to heal. Fighting infection presents the same problem and a need for alcohol. Over the counter medications tend to have a good shelf life but be careful of prescription medications that don't last as long. Medical costs are expected to continue rising so stock what you can, but don't let good medicine (and money!) go to waste on items you won't be able to use before they expire.

I also have to advise against buying things that you don't know how to use. In the most extreme end of this, some people will try to get prescriptions for antibiotics for the purpose of storing them or IV bags in case of a serious medical emergency. Antibiotics are not a universal cure and require knowing exactly what kind of infection you're dealing with in order to administer the right medication. IV bags don't have long shelf lives and unless you've been trained on how to administer an IV, you could end up doing more harm than good.

3. Toiletries

Anyone who has ever had to do without for an extended period of time will tell you that it's the simple things that can make a horrible situation bearable. Toilet paper, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, deodorant, feminine hygiene products. These are all items we tend to take for granted until we don't need them. This list also extends to things like toothbrushes, hair brushes and nail clippers. These things can wear out over time or simply get lost and broken. Best to keep some extras on hand.

2. Energy and Fuel

This is another board topic and can cover everything from gasoline to batteries. With gas prices rising, I wouldn't say it's crazy to buy fuel now and keep a few cans stored in your garage. Yes, gas and diesel aren't stable and will breakdown in time but there are two solutions for this. One is a chemical called Stabil, which is mostly used for recreation boats that will sit on a dock for months without being used. The other is to use the fuel you buy when you need it and then refilling the gas can after. This way, you'll be using gas tomorrow while having paid for it today.

There are a lot of ways to try and save money on energy in the home. The best (and most expensive) is solar power, which is not an option for a lot of people. Instead, try purchasing light bulbs that are more energy efficient. Do the same with appliances but only if you actually need to replace a broken fridge or washer/dryer. If you use a lot of batteries, investing in a battery charger that can charge all batter types and a set of rechargeable batteries would be money well spent. You can also check here for a few more ideas on saving money on energy. 

1. Food and Water

If anyone tells you that the idea of storing food is dumb and paranoid, tell them to try living without it for a week. This is something that we all have to have in order to survive and history has shown us time and again how people will kill in order to get it. If you have some of your own tucked away, then you won't have to fight the crowds at the grocery store or deal with inflated food prices. The same goes for water. Storing a lot of bottled water can be cumbersome but having a water filter of some sort is also a good idea.

Don't sell yourself short on the food investment, either. Consider investing in a system to store food, like canning or dehydration. Think about what kinds of food will last the longest and which will spoil quickly if the power goes out. Salt, pepper and other things we add to our food tend to be taken for granted but higher food prices will affect them too.

The most important thing to remember when it comes to investing your money and buying the things you need is to take into consideration what works for you. Make sure you plan your purchases ahead of time and don't buy things that you aren't certain you're going to use later on. Spending money on things you'll end up throwing away is just as bad as wasting your money on the things you don't need.

News For the Week -12/27 to 12/31

What a long, strange trip it's been.

Since I started blogging last month, I've been in a really reflective mood as to the state of our country and the world in general. I feel like, despite all of the upheaval over the last ten years, this year may be the most important. At first I thought that maybe I was looking to inwardly, as on a personal level I consider this year to be one of the most important of my life. This is due to the fact that I've begun to take a new direction in the way I live and how I view the world, breaking the old models and ideas that I grew up with and learned throughout high school and college. I've probably learned more this year than all the years I spent in school and the work force combined.

What have I learned? For one, I learned that sheeple will always be sheeple and nothing I do will change that. Just because one person gains a better understand of the real world doesn't mean that everyone will. The unfortunate truth is that, despite the rough few years we've had, people will always be willing to go back to the way thins were rather than change their lifestyles. I remember the '90s, the age which really shaped me as a young man, as this golden age when America was awesome and nothing could go wrong. At the time I was too young and brainwashed to understand that the foundations of our country weren't nearly as strong as all of us were led to believe, and even if you had told me otherwise I would have told you that you were crazy.

Knowing what I know now, I would never want to go back to that way of life. A lot of other people would, though, especially the clowns on Wall Street who are looking for any sign that the economy is beginning to stabilize. The funny thing is that the may not be wrong when they say 2011 will be a good year. Things are starting to pick up. We can expect to see all those boosted sales and jobs numbers go down next month after the Christmas spending dies down and temporary retail workers are laid off. However, because so many companies have been tightening their belts the last few years and doing everything possible to cut costs, they're going to be able to do a little more now that things are looking up.

But like I said, people will always want to go back to the good old days rather than keep that belt tightened. A lot of people will try to quit smoking but will slip back into the habit. A fat guy might lose twenty pounds but then let his diet slip and before he knows it, the weight is back on. So it should come as no surprise that people will start using their credit cards and taking out loans again once they realize that "everything is going to be just fine." We saw this reality a few years ago when the gas prices were beginning to soar. As people cut back on buying gas and even began to purchase more fuel efficient cards, truck and SUVs suffered for it. However, when the gas prices began to drop in response to this lack of demand, people started buying the big vehicles again. We'll see the same thing happen next year. As a wise woman once said, some people have to learn a hard lesson and some people are the hard lesson.

Fortunately, not everyone is returning to sheeple mode, as some have realized that the excessive spending as a way of life isn't sustainable. A lot of people have been paying off their debts and will continue to do so for several years. I'm among this number as well and after next year there will be no more debts for me. If you have debt, get rid of it as soon as possible and if you're lucky enough to not have debt then it's high time you start saving your money.

I realize that, when I started this blog, it was supposed to be speaking more about freedom in general but that lately I've been talking a lot about economics. However, you should have no illusions that our economic security is absolutely tied in with our freedom. If you think I'm wrong, then so is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. If that isn't enough, then maybe we should hear what Glenn Beck has to say about it. I'm not someone who listens to Beck exclusively or even on a regular basis, but he isn't wrong about this matter because he isn't the only one who's become concerned about it.

 For 2011, if you feel the need to spend cash, buy the things you need with it. I'll say this again and again until people get tired of hearing it but it's true. Better to spend that $200 on fixing your car then spend it buying a new TV. Better to buy a month's worth of food then a new iPhone. My big money purchase for next year? Toilet paper. Because when the shit hits the fan, you'll need something to clean it up with.

If you don't believe in something, you'll fall for anything.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

News For the Week

So I haven't written anything in awhile mainly due to work and the holidays. I've also been considering how I want to continue to operate this blog and what direction I want to take it. So right now I'm going to try to update three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Let's start out with what the latest news is. We see a lot of things on TV and in the headlines but we've got to always remember to read between the lines.

News reports continue to come in, looking for any sign that the economy is on the rise. Our consumer driven economy is looking a little better things to the numbers coming in from the excess of Christmas, both in terms of money spent buying Christmas presents and money spent hiring people to work the retail jobs. However, expect those numbers to drop next month after many of those workers are laid off because they were temporary. Also expect consumer spending to be reigned in due to people trying to save money after the Christmas rush and having to pay off the credit charges for all those gifts.

Gas prices are rising, hitting an average of $3 a gallon for the first time during the Christmas season. While there is a lot of speculation as to why the price has risen during the winter, a time in which we've normally seen prices fall, the best idea is the loss of buying power in the dollar. This affects the oil prices because they're measured in dollars. We've been seeing this same affect in the markets for silver and gold. As of this writing, silver sits at $29 an ounce, and gold is at 1$1380 an ounce. Recently the prices for those metals hit $30 and $1400 respectively. Those prices are projected to go even higher next year.

Jack Spirko has posted up an article about some of the problems that are economy is facing and how it will affect us in the coming year. There's a podcast to go with it, both of which are worth looking at. Peter Schiff has posted up his latest video blog on YouTube, discussing some ideas on taxes, the economy and a perceived gold bubble. Finally, we have Ron Paul's weekly straight talk and gives an excellent lesson on the ideas of tax and tax policy, revolving around the recent passing of the tax bill. I offer these up to you because it's always important to get your news and information from more than one source.

While I like to discuss a lot of things here that deal with our freedoms, the biggest issues at the moment and ones that I think will continue to develop in the future will be centered on economics. Some of the things I've given you here will show that the next year may start to look like things are improving. But the underlying foundation of our economy hasn't changed and there is a very real risk of a second collapse, which would be worst than the first one.

This isn't an easy thing for some people to hear. We all want things to go back to normal, when we didn't have to worry about keeping our jobs or having our taxes going up or even if we would be able to afford the food that's on the shelves at the store. However, burying our heads in the sand and remaining ignorant of the dangers that may come will only make us more vulnerable and less prepared for cope with the problems we face. Ignoring the storm until it's right on top of you can get you killed.

As always, it's the things we do as individuals that will get us through the tough times no matter what is thrown at is. Enjoy your Christmas with friends and family, savor the holidays but be ready to tighten the belts when the party is over. All hope is not lost and those of us who are willing to save money and take steps to buy the things we need rather than the junk that we don't will have less to worry about if the economy takes a bad turn and we start losing jobs and see prices on basic items start to rise. We hope for the best but plan for the worst.

And always remember that if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Modern Survivalism: The New American Revolution

Modern Survivalism

Nearly a year ago I become interested in the survivalist movement. I really knew nothing about it until I picked up a book called Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life by Neil Strauss. I had read one of his other books and liked his style, so when I saw this and read that it was his story about how he became a survivalist, I was interested. After I finished it, I became even more interested.

I started reading more and more about survivalism and learning that there was actually a much larger community of people out there who were interested in this topic. However, many of them were extreme, seeing the world as on the verge of the apocalypse, and telling you that you had to have items A,B,C,D,Q,FF, and Beta right now or you’ll die. Then I came across the Survival Podcast and thank God for that.

The Survival Podcast is a show that is run by Jack Spirko and that comes out five days a week, covering all sorts of topics dealing with survivalism and preparedness. The thing that has set Jack apart from so many other people in this community is that he promotes the idea of Modern Survivalism. The motto of Jack’s show is “Helping you live a better life, if times get tough or even if they don’t.”

I remember hearing stories during the Y2K scare about guys buying land in the middle of nowhere, building underground bunkers, storing stockpiles of MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat), and generally preparing for civilization to collapse. In a lot of ways, that kind of thinking hasn’t changed in the survivalism community. People still plan for the end of the world. Jack, however, offered a different view: plan for the everyday disasters that happen to all of us at one time or another.

Jack talks about things like the impact of losing your job, getting sick and being out of work for a few weeks, having your car break down and requiring expensive repairs. These are things that have all happened to us at one point in our lives and it generally creates a lot of chaos for us on a personal level. For us, some of these things can feel like the end of the world.

Thanks to Jack, I learned to look at survivalism as something more than being afraid of what was going to happen. He gave me a chance to take control of my life, to do things that mattered to me and that would give me the security I needed to not worry what would happen if I suffered some tragedy. And by preparing for anything that could happen to me on a personal level, I’m more prepared to deal with problems that occur in my community, like natural disasters, civil unrest, or rising prices in food and gas.

More than that, Jack has made me a passionate advocate for a nation that doesn’t rely on credit and debt for us to enjoy our lives. While some people have called me crazy and told me I’m wrong for not giving a damn about my credit score and wanting to close out all my credit lines, I’ve been paying off my debts for more than five years now. This last November I paid off my car and only the credit card is left. I have Jack to think for that. Whenever there was a doubt in my mind, all I had to do was listen to him call bullshit on the lie that “We live in a consumer driven economy and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Bullshit, indeed.

Jack has also introduced me to a number of amazing people including Ron Paul, Dave Ramsey, Peter Schiff, and Gerald Celente. He’s helped open my mind to ideas and concepts that I would have never thought to be a part of the survivalist and preparedness movement. He makes me question everything that people say, including himself, because simply accepting someone’s words as truth is what has led us to the poor state of our country today.

More than anything, though, Jack has taught me that I don’t have to be a victim of circumstance and fate. There are things I can do to take control of my life so and establish a new kind of freedom that isn’t new at all; it’s just something we’ve forgotten. The ideas of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, of being able to take care of ourselves in hard times and prospering in good times, are at the heard of modern survivalism.

In the last year that I’ve been listening to TSP, the tone of Jack’s message has changed. Originally it was facing tough times and doing what we could to make things better for ourselves. Weathering the storm and reaping the benefits of our work when the weather cleared. However, he soon came to speak about how what we did as preppers wasn’t simply learning to look after ourselves but to free ourselves of a system of government that worked to constantly keep us dependent on it. While the motto of TSP didn’t change, it took on another motto as well: “The Revolution is you.

In 1776, Thomas Pain wrote “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was from “The Crisis”, a series of articles that he wrote during the Revolutionary War. He also wrote this: “We did not make a proper use of last winter, neither could we, while we were in a dependent state. However, the fault, if it were one, was all of our own; we have none to blame but ourselves. But no great deal is lost yet.”

I’m not saying these things to promote The Survival Podcast but to spread the ideas of Modern Survivalism. Thomas Paine said that it wasn’t too late for the American Revolution and I say that even now, it isn’t too late for the New American Revolution. People will always argue about which political party or which politician will do what’s best for them. End the end, though, we can only do what’s best for ourselves and only by realizing that he have to take responsibility for our lives and our futures can we begin to that.

I’m proud to call myself a modern survivalist. It has made my life richer and more enjoyable in ways I would not have thought possible. And I believe that everyone else in this country, and even in the rest of the world, can do the same if they’re willing to look to themselves for ways they can be more independent and not wait for someone else to give them a helping hand.

Peace be with you.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Crazy News For a Crazy World

I meant to do a post last night but an extreme level of exhaustion prevented me from finishing it. So I scraped it and decided that since I haven't posted in a few days I would make two posts, one dealing with news and issues and one dispensing most awesome wisdom.

News first, which as always is mostly bad. The government's monthly job report came out today and told us two things: 1) 39,000 new jobs were created in November, which fell short of the predicted 170,000 and 2) that short fall has pushed the unemployment rate up to 9.8 percent. Now I bring this up because it's mostly a joke. Many people have estimated that the jobless rate is somewhere in the mid to high teens and that this number hovering at 9 percent is manipulated because the government only counts unemployed people who are still looking for jobs. Those who have stopped looking because they've given up hope aren't entered into the equation.

The President's deficit commission failed to reach an agreement on their proposed spending cuts and tax increases. They voted 11-7 in favor of a variety of measures. Now the thing to understand is that this commission wasn't making any official policy, they weren't writing any laws and no matter what they said people would still have the option of ignoring them. And they still couldn't come to an agreement on how to reduce the deficit. Par for the course in Washington.

Of course these are the same people who have failed to realize that it is actually impossible to pay off our national debt because of how high it is. The fact that they were trying is commendable but the fact that they couldn't get their shit together and come up with a recommendation shows that the road to Hell really is paved with good intentions. But I'm not going to rag on the commission too much, since they were already taking heat from the Democrats and the Republicans when they read some of the ideas they came up with, so it isn't like anyone would have agreed with them anyway.

Meanwhile, the main story on Capitol Hill is that the Republicans are refusing to work on any legislature during the lame duck session until the new fiscal budget has been sorted out and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts are addressed. Personally, I couldn't be happier about this, because it means it will take them longer before they fuck something up and the always fuck something up when they're making "progress". Of course the fear is that, since the fiscal budget was supposed to have been passed in early November, the government might shut down.

To me, that would be like Christmas coming early. After all, even if the federal government grinds to a halt, state, county and city governments won't because they have their own budgets (with budget problems) that they work with. So it's not like the cops, firemen and paramedics won't show up if you call 911. The courts won't close up their doors if you have business there. Life will go on, except for the feds. Personally I would love to see the TSA shuttered for awhile.

It's a nice dream.

Parents! Hope you like not having bake sales for your kids' schools! Thanks to the efforts of the First Lady, who decided to make childhood obesity her crusade of choice, a bill is going to her husband's desk that will limit bake sales. This actually pisses me off, because it's another example of how the Federal government is trying to reach it's hand into every aspect of American life. Of course, short of eliminating every fast food place in the country and banning the sale of anything that comes in a box and can be cooked in a microwave, fighting the "bad" foods that are murdering our children is almost impossible. However, since the cafeteria at school is a government entity, they can still reach out there.

I hope that this won't stop communities from holding bake sales and other events to raise money by selling food. The law seems to limit these sales on school property, so it would be excellent if they found ways around it by holding bake sales for school events somewhere else. I imagine some local churches or community centers would be willing to donate some space for an afternoon for this purpose. When I was a senior in high school, we bought big boxes of candy bars, M&Ms and skittles and sold them for a dollar each to anyone willing to buy (students included) to raise money for our prom tickets. Ah well, the times they are a changin'. Speaking of which...

Did you hear about the Fed?

If you haven't watched this video, watch it. If you have watched it, watch it again. In fact, if you haven't watched it, stop reading right now and watch it so you'll understand what comes next. In an interview on 60 Minutes, Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve stated that he is not ruling out buying more bonds, after the Fed already bought 600 billion dollars worth of bonds. Dark times ahead for everyone as it is, even worse if they buy more bonds.

In the book "7 Habits of Highly Effective People", there is a section that talks about your circle of influence and your circle of concern. Your circle of influence is all of the things in your life that you have direct control over, while your circle of concern is the things that you worry about. The idea is that you need to eliminate things in your circle of concern that are outside of your circle of influence.

Be aware of what's going on in the world. Fretting over what the Fed will do or what Congress will do isn't something you can influence. However, when you're informed about what problems may be coming over the horizon, you can take stock of your personal situation and decide what aspects of your life that you hold direct influence over can be changed to minimize the damage from the problems that are coming.

To put it another way, if you know a hurricane is coming ahead of time, you can leave before it hits you. But if you never watch the weather channel, never open the newspaper and never venture out to see what everyone else is doing or why they're all suddenly leaving, you'll get slammed by the storm and swept away.

Peace be with you.

Monday, November 29, 2010

If You Use a Credit Card, You Are Someone's Bitch

People who know me know that in the last year I've become opposed to the use of credit cards. Almost violently opposed. Generally when I discuss the idea of using a credit card and having to pay debt, I throw around terms like cancer, slavery, utter stupidity and setting people's faces on fire. This is because I've spent years in debt, I am currently still in debt and it's been a struggle to get it paid off. In the next year, I hope to be completely debt free and I will spend the rest of my life making every effort to never have to borrow money from a bank or creditor ever again.

While I tout the evils of the banks and the credit companies for their schemes and the methods they use to lure people in, I have accepted responsibility for my problems and know that, ultimately the fault is my own. I took the credit cards, I used them and paid the minimum balances while continually buying stuff. And when the banks extended my credit lines because I was using my card to pay for college, I saw it as a blessing. I saw it as a status symbol. Look how big my credit line is! I'm such a responsible, modern American adult.

Then, one day, I realized that the way I was living was completely unsustainable. I was nearly ten thousand dollars in debt and I was looking at spending years trying to pay my debts off. Welcome to the American dream.

I started writing this blog because of a story about how people were getting trampled at a Target in Buffalo, New York on Black Friday. I've seen this happen almost every year but this year it really hit a nerve. I had thought that, with everything going on, with people losing jobs and people having to take pay cuts and things just getting more expensive in general that people would have gotten a little smarter about how they spend their money. Call me a naive optimist and you wouldn't be wrong.

I write here because 1) I need a place to get things off my chest and Facebook and Twitter just don't cut it and 2) I'm trying to make people understand that the way we've been living for the last ten, twenty, thirty years is no longer sustainable. I was born in 1981, so I suppose being born at the beginning of that decade it's fitting that I became a perfect example of consumer culture. I thought I knew how to be responsible with money. I thought I was doing what every American was supposed to do. Honestly, I don't no how I managed to realize that I was in a trap before it was too late. There are a lot of people out there who have anywhere from five to ten times as much debt as I had when I came to understand that my spending ways couldn't go on. People have even taken their on lives over the size of their debt, the shame they feel in being unable to meet their obligations, and the burden that they've brought on their families.

Then I see this shit and I just lose my fucking mind. I think about the tragedies that debt has caused in people's lives and yet there are always more people willing to throw themselves into that whole for the scared "stuff" that can only be found on the altar of consumerism.

By the way, this rant today is brought to you by none other than American Express, supports of local business. I had never heard of Small Business Saturday, which took place after Black Friday, until I read this article. The reason why is because it's a made up day by AMEX in which they encourage you to buy from local shops and help keep money in your community by signing up for a God damned credit card that can double as a boat anchor and drag you down into an ocean of debt.

I was absolutely fucking disgusted to see this and I blew the bullshit whistle real quick. What a fucking joke. A credit card company trying to help strengthen the local economies by encouraging you to take on debt. When I commented on the story I pointed out that this is like an old cartoon where the idiotic villain sets a trap that the hero can see is obviously a God damned trap.

Unfortunately we live in a world where people don't recognize the trap when they see it. They see the offers that credit card companies hand out to them and think "I'm getting a great deal!" No, you're not. In the end, the credit card companies are raking you over the coals.

Jack Spirko, who is a man I admire and who's advice I listen to on a regular basis, describes debt in two ways: as slavery and as cancer.

To shorten his metaphor, debt is slavery because if you're in debt and stuck in a job that you hate, you can't quit because you have to pay your debts off and taking another job might not pay you enough or you may not find another job at all.

Debt is cancer because you spend your credit buying nice things, the nice house, the nice car, the new clothes, the new toys (for kids and adults). On the outside, your friends and family think everything is great. But on the inside you're rotting away because what they don't see is the struggle you deal with every day when the bills come due and you're giving half your paycheck to other people because you have too much debt.

Long ago, people who couldn't pay their debts were sent to prison. These days we don't need debt prisons because we create our own prisons simply by putting ourselves into debt. And while the creditors and the bank will continue to do everything they can to convince us to get into debt (how many times do you hear a credit card offer at the cash register in the stores?), we have to accept responsibility for our own actions and stay the hell away from credit cards. It's only one of many things that we can all do to make this country better for everyone.

Peace be with you.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Semper Fi and Why I Don't Break the Speed Limit

My best friend is a marine in the reserves and left today to return to his units hometown. After that he'll be heading out to Camp Lejeune for another month or two before he ships out with his fellow marines to Afghanistan and I won't get to see him again for a long time. I want to wish him and his men the best of luck and I hope for them all to come home safe.

Back on the home front, though, we all face problems that, while not as terrible as being away from your family for Christmas (military families excluded, of course) they can still cause us no end of pain. One I want to discuss right now are traffic tickets.

Last year I ended up racking up around five hundred dollars in various speeding tickets. I dealt with them as necessary but afterwards decided that I wasn't going to speed anymore. Not only would more tickets be bad for my insurance and my driving record, but the cost of the tickets alone was insane. So keeping to that vow, I have always made sure to stay just under or at the speed limit since then.

I know a lot of people might be laughing at me for this, but for me five hundred dollars is a lot of money. If I had that extra money in my bank account right now, I would be quite happy. Certainly I would be happy to spend it on something besides a speeding ticket. That's why I bring this up, because the last thing anyone needs is a surprise expense from having to pay a few hundred dollars for speeding. Not only that, but as the economy gets worse, you're going to see more cops out with radar guns.

Harris County, TX is currently in the middle of a budget freeze. That means no new hiring, no raises. I have no doubt that the budgets for the various departments under the county's control have been slashed and may be slashed even more. So where do they get extra money? Traffic citations. Now the official documentation will tell you that the money collected from traffic citations goes towards educational programs to prevent accidents. That's all well and good, but I've been a treasurer and I know the basics of how budgets work.

Like a balloon, a budget can be squeezed at one end to make another part bigger but you're always going to have the same amount of air in the balloon. The remedy for this is to blow the balloon up bigger and for this argument, the money collected from traffic citations will make this possible. Even if the money actually does go into a fund for traffic safety and education, that's still money the county doesn't have to spend from their main budget. So if nothing else, the citations will help them save money. This is true of any city or country around the country and I doubt highly that Harris County is the only place that is having budget freezes.

Since I made my vow of no speeding, I've also made sure to pay close attention to the road as I'm driving since I know cops are sneaky and like to had with their speeding guns. Let me tell you, I've been driving the same route to work for about four years now and I've seen more and more cops appearing in places I've never seen them before. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why, especially since the last election day the people of Houston voted to have the red light cameras shut down. That's more revenue for the city lost and they intend to make that up any way they can.

I took defensive driving for one of the tickets I got last year (still had to pay almost as much for the class that I would have paid for the ticket, hence the total was still around five hundred dollars). During the course, which I took online, one of the frequent arguments that was brought up in the lecture was that cops should be chasing after real criminals and not bothering me because I'm trying to get to work on time. The instructor pointed out that real criminals get fined large amounts but rarely have the money to pay those fines. So chasing real criminals costs the departments more money, while enforcing traffic laws generates money. After all, if I'm going to jail for five, ten or twenty years, why the hell would I worry about a ten thousand dollar fine? On the other hand, if I'm a law abiding citizen who was going over the speed limit, I've got a lot more to lose if I refuse to pay the two hundred dollar fine and end up going to jail over it.

So if nothing else, in the interest of keeping your money out of the governments hands and in your pocket, watch your speed on the roads. If you take some time and open your eyes, you realize that they're showing up more and more frequently everywhere, trying to make up for the budget deficits that they have. Because unlike the federal government, states, counties and cities can't print up new money when they run out.

Peace be with you.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Dum spiro, spero

While I breathe, I hope.

I think these days a lot of people are finding it harder to hope for a better future. Between the economic problems we all face in one way or another and the fact that our government is rife with corruption and refuses to listen to the will of the people, it's easy to just give up and see the entire situation as hopeless. But I feel like the more we learn about the problems in the world the more able we are to face them. Rather than see each terrible story on the news as another thing to weigh you down at the end of the day, you should look at it as being informed of a potential threat to your own happiness and well being and that now, because you are informed, you can take steps to work against it.

A study released back in September found that the average person becomes free of the daily stress of life when they make about $75,000 a year. According to the study, this was because that much money easily allows a person to cover all the basics of life (food, bills, car costs, etc.) without having to worry about living week to week or even month to month. Now I would love to make that much money and I know you would too. But unless I run drugs, guns or illegally pirated software, that kind of salary isn't going to happen anytime soon.

However, I think that the study has a point in that financial peace of mind is important to a person's quality of life. When we don't have to worry about being able to make the bills, when we don't have to worry about being able to put food on the table or make sure we can get to and from where we need to be, our lives become better simply by not having to worry. Unfortunately, we're in the tough times and money doesn't grow on trees (unless you're the Federal Reserve, then it grows on anything you damn well please, but I digress.)

So what can we do when everything seems hopeless? A lot more than you might think. Individually there are a lot of things that we can do to secure our own freedom and our futures. I think the first and most important one is to change the way we handle our money.

When I think back to the nineties, a time when I was in middle and high school, it was a golden era. Of course, most people didn't realize that in another decade it would all come crashing down around us and that was the problem. It was an age of free spending and free credit. Technology was advancing at staggering speeds and there was always something new and awesome for us to spend money on. Not to mention that this was the time when the idea of purchasing a house as an investment rather than as a place to live started to become popular.

This is the time that really shaped who I would become and that was a very bad thing. Raised in ignorance with no real idea of what the value of a dollar meant or how much a trap credit really is, I made a lot of mistakes that I've since paid for and continue to pay for. But I've learned a lot of good lessons, especially over the last year and I think that there are still a lot of people from that time, in that generation, who aren't learning those same lessons even as things have gotten harder for them.

So here are a few tips that I've gathered over the last year that have helped me better manage my own finances and made it possible for me to pay off my debts and still keep enough money that I don't have to live paycheck to paycheck.

1. Keep track of your spending

Make a list of what you spend money on for one month. It doesn't have to be a fancy spreadsheet, just a pad and a pen will do. Then write down what you buy no matter how big or small. Buying a car? Write it down. Buying a candy bar? Write it down. All your expenses need to be recorded. Then at the end of the month, look at what you've been spending money on and you'll probably find you waste more money then you realize.

2. Save money

This can be a really hard one for a lot of people but it's important that you put aside something. Even if it's only five dollars a week, ten dollars a month or just the change in your pocket. You need to build a savings. Most people think that their savings are for retirement but more important is saving for an emergency fund. This is the recommendation of Dave Ramsey, author of the fantastic book Total Money Makeover. He advises saving a thousand dollars as quickly as possible and then not touching it unless you have a real emergency. Having this kind of cushion, even if you can't get to a thousand dollars just yet, will relieve you from stress you didn't even know you had.

3. Cut costs

We all know the stereotype of poor, single people and moms who work on a budget clipping coupons, searching endlessly for deals and doing whatever they have to in order to stretch a dollar. This shouldn't be a stereotype, it should be a way of life for everyone. That list you made to determine what you spend money on can really help with this, because if you keep buying the same things over and over each month then you should consider finding a way to find them at a cheaper price. Quality is worth paying for but considering that most of the shit in our stores these days is made in Asia, you aren't exactly going to get top quality. And shopping cheap doesn't always mean you're getting second rate goods either. I could write an entire post on ways to cut costs, and I'll probably do so in the future, but for now use your own imagination and don't be afraid to do a little research.

People need to stop watching the news and feeling that there's nothing they can do about their situation. In these times, which people call "tough times", I like to remember the words of the great Malcolm Reynolds.

"We have done the impossible and that makes us mighty."

Time for us to be might again. Peace be with you.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Eventually you have to stand up and be counted

I've never been much for keeping any kind of journal, try as a might. I always let them fall by the wayside because I often feel I don't have anything interesting to say. Over the last year, however, I've started looking at things in the world a lot differently. Up until now I've kept my frustrations and opinions to myself because I didn't feel they really contributed anything to the argument. But I can't stay quiet anymore. Maybe I'll just end up being another asshole with a blog who rants about the things that bother him, but I feel as if we're at a tipping point in this country and that if people don't wake up to the problems we face and work together to take action against them, then we're going to get the shaft.

Specifically, I'm referring to this story here about Black Friday:

We've seen this story in one form or another almost every year. And if it isn't people getting trampled on the way in it's people literally coming to blows over toys for their kids or things for themselves. But I think this year it's bothered me more than ever. In addition to that story and others like it that I haven't found yet, there were stores that were opening during Thanksgiving Day in order to bring in those holiday sales. But rather than see it as an opportunity to get good deals, I saw it as an act of desperation.

We live in a consumer driven economy. That means that the majority of our economic growth is dependent on people buying stuff. Whether it's groceries, electronics, clothes, tools, cars or anything else, shopping is our main means of keeping the businesses running and this is a serious problem. We have high unemployment, everyone is worried about losing their jobs, prices for food and gas are crawling ever higher and yet the TV keeps telling us to go and buy more crap. This is madness!

It makes me sick to watch a video like this not just because it's the epitome of greed and barbarism but because it shows me that so many people in this country actually think that things are going to be alright. They think it's fine for them to charge all of their holiday shopping onto their credit cards and not have to worry about making those payments until next year. Of course the main problem with the economic crisis that we're facing is DEBT itself! Debt on the part of the government, the banks AND the consumers.

I don't know if it's because people can't stand the idea of not being able to buy the things they want or don't need. I don't know if it's because people can't stand the idea that things might actually be bad and may be getting worse. Maybe they're scared and don't want to face reality. But the simple fact is that the mounting problems brought on by our behavior and the behavior of our government are not going to go away and no amount of legislation or economic chicanery is going to take care of it for us.

If you're buying gifts this holiday season, then I ask that you be reasonable in what you get. Don't feel like you have to go on a massive spending spree if you know that it's going to cause you pain at the end of the month. If you feel like you won't be able to buy gifts for co-workers or friends because it's going to cost money, explain this to them. If they get mad because you're "not in the spirit of the season" or some other such bullshit, then ask them if they're going to pay the light bill for you at the end of the month or if they'll help put food on your table. Most importantly, get out of debt and start saving your money, not just for your retirement but for the very near future. And for fucks sake, STAY AWAY FROM CREDIT CARDS.

There are a lot of other things I want to talk about. I feel like it's time for people to start taking this country back and in spite of how hard things are becoming, there are things you can do to protect yourself and even prosper if you're willing to acknowledge that tough times are coming. I'll be posting more videos, more rants and more ideas about how you can protect yourself from the rough waters we're heading into.

Peace be with you.