May 19th 2014

The cab driver that could have been a millionaire

My girlfriend taught me to talk to my cab drivers. She would tell me stories about her taxi chats, always asking the same questions, “where did you grow up?” and “what are your favorite places eat?”

This morning, I returned to the city after celebrating my (future) sister in law’s med school graduation in Dallas and hopped a cab back to Sunset Park. There were delays on the BQE so my driver and I had plenty of time to get into it.

Meet my new friend.

We’ve known eachother for 39 minutes. He’s an Indian ex-investment banker currently residing in Forest Hills, Queens. He’s lived in New York for over twenty years, and recently ate at my new favorite Dim Sum restaurant, East Harbor Seafood Palace, with his Chinese girlfriend who was actually the old roommate of his ex-girlfriend (drama.)

As traffic eased up, we whizzed by the newly finished Brooklyn Bridge Park and chatted about how quickly BK neighborhoods were changing. In 1995 he had the opportunity to buy a Williamsburg Warehouse on Bedford Ave. and North 5th for $60,000. The owner was itching the get rid of the property, only interested in cutting his responsibilities and moving back to Puerto Rico. He was so bent on getting out of New York, that the offer was $60k “or whatever you have and you can pay me back monthly.”

But despite having all the money needed, my new friend just couldn’t pull the trigger on the dilapidated warehouse (with its numerous rat tenants.) It just didn’t compute. Instead, he would save up until 2007 and go in on a $800,000 Forest Hills home. The housing market would crash the next year and fast forward to today: the warehouse, now in the heart of hippest of the hip, has since been leveled and replaced with a shiny building listed at $10.6 Million.

With a heavy sigh he said, “That day, I think God tried to send me an angel.”


March 15th 2014

The Poetic Wax of Weightlifting

As far as I can remember, my first “gym” experience was early high school when P.E. class featured a weight training unit. Hence, one fateful day my 130lb sophomore frame reluctantly strolled into the school’s weight room for the first time.

Gym anxiety was at an all time high, as I think is for anyone (especially a hormonal teenage boy) making a maiden voyage into the weight room. There was just that pressure–mostly self inflicted–to know what you’re doing, understand standard workout etiquette, and lift a respectable amount (whatever that means).

I plopped down on a flat bench, preparing to put up the first bench press reps of my life. Nervous, I tried to copy my classmates while around me football players racked monstrous weights like pros, further fueling my nerves. Somehow, 45 minutes passed and my scrawny gym partner Allen and I had successfully executed our first lifts. We didn’t pound protein shakes at the time because we didn’t know that’s what we were supposed to do. Yet, our body building days had begun.

Not really. Today, about a decade later, I do possess a gym membership. It costs $69 a month and affords me access to a wonderful Brooklyn neighborhood fitness establishment, which I stop into 2-3 times a week. It’s no Equinox or 24 Hour Fitness Derek Jeter. There isn’t a fancy sauna, and the clientele is a huge range of…normal people. On top of that, my gym is housed in a converted, old bank building. Think Average Joes not Globo-gym.

Sure, my gym has its quirks. There’s the 1991 NYC Marathon posters that adorn most walls and the massive heater that points directly at the incline bench which makes for an uncomfortably warm pectoral workout. I also can’t forget to mention the rock band that rehearses in the bank’s basement vault on Wednesday nights (just before closing). All that said, I genuinely like my gym. It’s no frills and the people are kind. The big guys give you fist bumps, there’s a full spectrum of fitness levels, and anyone will agree (with a smile) to help you out with a spot on your last set.

Two events last weekend capped off a great gym day. 1) a personal record with 5 reps at 165lb on the incline bench (commence judging) and 2) a pleasant conversation about squats with new gym friend, Aton.

To me, lifting weights represents simplicity. It doesn’t get much less complicated than setting your mind to pick up a heavy object and then put it down. And some would say the squat is where it starts. You put a heavily weighted bar across your back, drop down and explode back up. It’s a full body, foundational, compound exercise.

Aton and I bantered about how squatting your “max” weight depends so much on where your head is at. It’s a mental game. Doubt yourself, and you’ll get stuck at the bottom of your lift with a hunk of steel on top of you. You’ll either have to dive forward face to the floor or crawl out from underneath. That’s failing in it’s simplest form and it messes with your head. It makes you shy away from the lift. Excuses creep in and like any other failure, you’re tempted to give up. Fear wins and you stop trying altogether.

Aton, in his ultimate gym wisdom, tightened his weight belt and lamented, “You need to fail though. It’s good for you. You have to know what it feels like.”

That original gym anxiety from over a decade ago has faded and my evenings at the gym are filled with much more calm and routine, with a healthy dose of challenge. There’s something poetic about knowing the hardest task I’ll attempt to perform–amidst work, meetings, calls, the relative weight of a day’s decision making–still the hardest thing I’ll do during a day in the life is attempt to put 200lb on my back and try to stand up straight. Simple.


January 15th 2014

Automating Your Finances

At work, I’ve always loved thinking through processes. There’s just something about identifying the most efficient way for inputs to lead to outputs, and I should have figured that I could apply the same rigor to my personal finances.

In “I Will Teach You To Be Rich“, Ramit discusses automating your finances. Your paycheck lands in your lap at the start of the month and just imagine all of your prescribed percentages being carved out and allocated to the desired accounts, bills, and budgets.

Here’s a sample of what Ramit recommends...

On the 2nd of the month:
Part of your salary goes into your 401k
The rest of your salary is direct deposited into your checking account

On the 5th of the month:
Automatic transfer from checkings to savings accounts
Automatic transfer from checkings account to Roth IRA

On the 7th of the month:
Automatic payment of bills from checking account and credit card
Automatic transfer from checking account to pay off credit card bill

It’ll take a week or two to setup all of these recurring transactions with your banks, funds, bills etc. but it’s well worth it.

To manage this process, some online banks like Alloy or Capital One 360 (previously ING Direct) offer neat systems for managing multiple savings accounts so you can break your savings up into meaningful buckets (e.g., Emergency Fund, future laptop purchase, vacation money). Once you get into the groove, Mint.com is similarly super helpful for tracking your transactions + monthly budgets (bonus: their iPad app is pretty impressive.)

I’m also a big fan of Chase’s system for sending checks automatically on a regular schedule (never worry about remembering your rent check!) as well as repeating Chase Quickpay payments (for the other certified adults sending money to parents for that Verizon family plan).

There you have it. Money comes in and it’s like the neat little robots chop everything up and distribute the wealth accordingly. It keeps the monthly process consistent and care-free.

If you’re all set, treat yourself to a self high five, kick back, and enjoy the J-pop stylings of Utada Hikaru and their 1998 hit “Automatic.”


December 30th 2013

I’m Learning About Money

Mo' Money

Personal finance is one of those topics that’s easily overwhelming. Last year, I caught myself repeating the same worries.

“Stocks, bonds, 401ks, IRAs? There’s just too much to comprehend.”
“I have no idea what all of those experts are talking about. How could I possibly understand all of this stuff?”
“Am I making enough money for it even to matter?”
“I’ll just keep putting a bit into my savings account each month.”
“I know finances are important, but I’ll tackle it when I have more time…”

The unknown can be paralyzing, and the worst part is that inaction snowballs into guilt.

“I know I should be doing something, but where the hell do I start?”

At the opportune moment, a friend of mine turned me on to Ramit Sethi’s book “I Will Teach You To Be Rich” which is a nice intro to personal finance for the overwhelmed twenty-something. The book touches on debt, credit cards, budgets, saving, investments and more in a snarky I-get-where-you’re-coming-from-bro tone.

IWTYTBR really is more of a primer. Like anything, you need to absorb and evaluate the advice but Ramit’s book provides a great jumping off point for many money-related topics. One of my biggest takeaways was Ramit’s 80% approach. You don’t need to become an expert. You don’t need to understand everything. Many times, getting 80% of the way there is enough. An 80% solution can be more than adequate.

Inaction is in fact the worst option of all. We know money doesn’t buy happiness, but it’s core to how we navigate our daily lives. You can’t escape it. If you don’t invest a bit of time to understand the fundamentals, you’ll pay dearly for it later.

Finance books

A few days ago, I polished off Larry Swedroe’s “The Only Guide To A Winning Investment Strategy You’ll Ever Need.” I have to say, I genuinely enjoy the topic. Maybe it’s the numbers and logic, or maybe it’s just the idea of being rich (which I hear is among the top 10 things Asian guys in their twenties love).

Whatever the case, the process of defining finance terms I’ve long avoided and getting a grasp on how money today affects money down the road has been a liberating experience. I understand how much I spend and what I spend on. Knowing the numbers is a hell of a lot better than guestimating whether or not I can afford a special purchase or that summer trip.

If you were in the same financially-confused boat, I encourage you to just pick up a book and dive in. My plan is to continue learning and sharing my finance findings as a way to help personally synthesize. Any tips or coffee chats along the way are more than welcome.

As I look towards 2014, there are plenty more guilt-inducing-“I’m overwhelmed by what I don’t understand” topics to tackle. Here’s to the new year!