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Casual Kitchen

Cook More. Think More. Spend Less.

Updated: 2018-03-20T08:51:10.894-07:00


Don’t Want It! [Also... On the Value of Re-Reading Useful Books]


Readers, I'm re-reading Jacob Lund Fisker's paradigm-shifting book Early Retirement Extreme, and I re-stumbled onto a quote worth sharing. Giving up wants can be as tough or easy as going on a diet, giving up smoking, or changing other habits dependent on strength of character. However, doing without is often thought of as a sacrifice, especially when strongly attached to material comforts. It's quickly realized (after about a month) that happiness does not stem from being surrounded by possessions, but that being surrounded by them is the result of an addictive habit. Thus, it can be tremendously liberating not to "need" something to be happy. Since humans need very little, eliminating various wants can go far in terms of solving problems. Can't afford it? Don't want it! Too complicated? Don't want it! Reduce and simplify. Reduce and simplify! An entire aesthetic can and has been formed around this principle, and so the pleasure from following this path can be as strong as the (previous) pleasure of accumulation. However, as there's a point of diminishing returns to the pleasure of accumulation, there's also a point of diminishing returns to the pleasure of giving things up. The optimal point is somewhere in the middle. It should therefore be kept in mind that while eliminating problems can be a very good tool, some will be very tempted to make it their only tool, in which case it becomes a hammer for which the whole world becomes a nail.--Jacob Lund Fisker, Early Retirement ExtremeWhat I love about this quote is how it synthesizes and combines ideas from minimalism, frugality, consumerism and consumer empowerment, all of which are frequent discussion topics here at Casual Kitchen.Also, it brings to mind other worthwhile books I've discussed here at CK, like Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and her equally useful follow-up book Spark Joy. Marie Kondo's central idea is to keep only the possessions that truly spark joy in you, with a secondary theme that you can--and probably should--eliminate nearly everything else in your life that doesn't spark joy. An interesting conclusion that we can draw out from these complementary books and the philosophies behind them is the striking idea that you actually "don't want!" a surprisingly large percentage of your stuff. Maybe you once might have thought you wanted it... but you were wrong. We're often wrong about our wants and needs.If you can acknowledge this, if you can accept it, not only will you have less stuff (probably a lot less stuff), but you'll also have far more happiness. And more money! Think about it: a meaningful percentage of the things you will buy in the future will be things you ultimately "don't want!" Avoid buying them. It's a great feeling to get rid of stuff, but it's better (not to mention more enriching) to not accumulate stuff at all. Marie Kondo and Jacob Lund Fisker ought to get together for a beer one of these days: their ideas are surprisingly in sync.And the savings aren't limited just to money. Think of all the time you'll save if you don't have to shop for things you "don't want!", if you don't have to take them home, if you don't have to figure out a place to store them, don't have to dust them, organize them, maintain them, pay for extra square footage in your home to make room for them, and so on. And, obviously, you won't have to agonize over whether or not to discard something you never even bought. The "don't want!" heuristic enables you to avoid the entire exercise. Every time-consuming part of it.So, lately, I've started using this way of thinking whenever I consider an item or a service that I might need or want: How can I "don't want!" this? How can I avoid acquiring an item, avoid spending money and time, and yet still solve this particular problem I'd like to solve? *****************Finally, a closing thought on re-reading books. Only a small fraction of books merit reading once--and a vanishingly small fraction of books merit reading more than once. I'm getting enormous value on my second reading of Jacob's book. It'[...]

Money Sundays: The Efficient Markets Hypothesis Explained in Simple Terms


Readers: I wrote this post years ago for a long-defunct website. I thought I’d republish it here at Casual Kitchen for those readers interested in investing and personal finance. Feel free to skip it! ******************************What are efficient markets?Perhaps you've heard the joke about the economist walking down the street with one of his students. The student sees a $20 bill lying on the sidewalk. As he bends down to pick it up, he hears his professor laugh mockingly at him and saying, "If that were REALLY a twenty dollar bill, somebody would have picked it up already!"The intellectually intimidated student stops himself mid-bend, laughs timidly, and leaves the $20 lying right there, stealing longing glances at it as they pass it by.Well, saying markets are perfectly efficient is just like being that condescending economics professor. He just left a perfectly good $20 bill untouched on the ground, AND he convinced his student to leave it there too. All because he believed it couldn't actually be there.The whole notion of efficient markets has become so contentiously debated that three separate forms of the theory have evolved:1) Strong Form Efficient Markets HypothesisBasically, this version of the theory says that stock prices reflect all information and there's no way you can possibly "beat the market" (or as the academics would phrase it: earn excess returns).This version of the theory is easy to understand, elegant.. and it's pretty much been proven false by the collective weight of the evidence. But it's a good starting point to help illustrate the other versions of the theory.2) Semi Strong Form Efficient Markets HypothesisThis version of the theory says that stock prices react so quickly to new information (say, if a company gets a buyout offer, or if a company prints terrible quarterly results), that there's no way you can make money by trading on that information once it's out. Obviously "insiders" know about such information in advance (and are prohibited from trading on that knowledge by SEC rules), but normal investors like us who see the good or bad news will not be able to buy or sell the stock before the price adjusts.There are problems with this version of the theory too, namely that stocks tend to overreact to news in the short term and under-react to news in the long term. Thus you can often make money by playing the other side of the trade: for example, by selling a stock after it spikes on a great quarter print, or buying a stock after it falls due to a disappointing news event.3) Weak Form Efficient Markets HypothesisThis version of the theory argues that you can't make money with any strategies using historical share prices or other financial information. This says basically that technical investing (using charts to make stock market buy and sell decisions), will never make you money. Furthermore, using historical financials will likewise not be useful, because that information will have already been baked into the current stock price. The theory still allows for investors to do what's called "fundamental analysis" to identify stocks that are undervalued and overvalued.This is probably the most palatable version of the theory to most EMH adherents. Even so, there are instances where it falls on its face too. For example there are instances in recent history where company financials contained serious red flags that were notable and visible to anybody who could read financial statements. Enron comes to mind as one of the most prominent examples, as the company consistently and inexplicably ran years of negative cash flows despite showing years of accounting profits. This is one of the oldest red flags in the book.I'll leave you with a few final thoughts, one from me and two from a couple of investors that are a bit more well-known and well-regarded.First, it's always a bit disconcerting when a theory of markets experiences a schism--a three-way schism no less! It makes you wonder whether it, or any of the offshoots, can really stand on their own.Second, Warren Buf[...]

Rousseau On Luxury: 10 Thoughts


"For luxury either comes of riches or makes them necessary; it corrupts at once rich and poor, the rich by possession and the poor by covetousness; it sells the country to softness and vanity, and takes away from the State all its citizens, to make them slaves one to another, and one and all to public opinion."
--Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from The Social Contract

If I had to distill some useful rules and courses of action from this famous quote from Rousseau, here’s what I’d come up with:

1) If you have money, do not flaunt it. Ever.

2) Do not status compete. You only make life that much harder for everyone else.

3) We live in a world of constructed preferences and Diderot Effects, which means having more money often makes you need still more money.

4) Luxury products also typically oblige you to learn copious amounts of phony, ersatz knowledge, wasting your time and cognitive bandwidth.

5) Thus if you don't have money now, but one day would actually like to have some, avoid luxury and all the costs that go with it.

6) To avoid "softness and vanity" don't spend money as a default solution to solve problems. Instead, learn how to solve the problem without spending money or buying a product.

7) Friends who care or make note of what you drive, how you live or "who" you wear are not your friends. We all know this intellectually, but...

8) Ignore the rich. And aggressively ignore "the rich" as an entity presented to us by BS vendors in the media.

9) Instead, learn how they got rich in order to learn possible courses of action that you might pursue to improve your family's financial situation.

10) Note also: "the rich" presented to us in the entertainment media are usually hilariously far from rich.

BONUS) Teach people to save and to invest. Do not encourage them to spend or signal.

Readers, what thoughts would you add here?

You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

How Cut Through The Bullsh*t


It's interesting (uh, well, to me at least) how writing a post on one topic often inspires a tangential post, then another tangential post, and then another... until you're totally orthogonal to the original topic. Two weeks ago I wrote a post on how we fool ourselves by reading and talking about things, then last week I pursued a tangent on how cooking is a beautifully action-based, low-BS domain. Today is the orthogonal essay: it's a humble (and probably incompetent) effort on my part to structure my thoughts on BS in general, and how to cut through it. It's a bit of a mindwank, it has nothing to do with cooking, and worst of all it's probably too long. Feel free to skip it. With that friendly warning out of the way, let's get into the BS. Defining BSFirst, let me spend a minute defining what BS is, at least by my thinking. It's when someone starts giving opinions that are:1) Frequently without any serious knowledge of the subject, and 2) Typically unaccompanied by any concrete action, planning or goals. Essentially, BS is talk ("tawk") with neither follow-through nor competence. One other fascinating characteristic of BS: a person BS-ing never thinks he's BS-ing. That's how it works. If you realized you were outside your circle of competence and had no idea what you were talking about, you wouldn't offer an opinion! Or at the least you'd severely qualify that opinion beforehand.Finally, the worst characteristic of BS: we all do it and we all like to think we don't.Some examples of BS might be: * I can't believe how greedy Big Food is. They make all these delicious, high fat foods just to make us all fat. * Our government was so stupid to bail out the banks back in 2009. * This summer Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are finally going to split up. I can feel it coming. * The rich really ought to pay more in taxes. * The stock market is overvalued and about to crash. Two quick caveats: First, I'm not saying that these statements are true or false. I could have easily offered contra-statements to each of the above examples and they'd still be BS. Second, there is nothing necessarily wrong with making statements like these. At least from time to time. But there is, however, something very wrong if this describes the vast majority of the statements someone makes. Why? Because they are all passive (even effete) statements, unaccompanied by personal action, personal growth, or personal accountability. The single worst source of BSOf course, the worst source of BS is media-packaged news, and TV news is the worst of the worst. A vast portion of the punditry opining on television, in editorials and in print and online media are spreading BS too, and this gets us into an important (and toxic) aspect of BS: typically, media pundits make highly confident statements with no accountability whatsoever if it turns out that they're wrong. This lack of accountability is important: it's why Nicholas Taleb angrily uses the phrase "BS vendors" to describe most punditry. It's deeply unfair and unethical if you attempt to persuade people around you to hold an opinion, but you yourself have no downside exposure if that opinion is wrong. Worse still, the media (and its confidently-stated opinions) tends to be the source of most of the topics we talk about. Let's face it, most people need to be given things to think. Sadly, salient, attention-garnering topics like like crime, violence, inflation, unemployment, inequality, obesity, the latest in studies show science, politics, etc., is what the media gives us to think about. And talk about. This is true only to the extent we consume media and news of course.A simple solution to BSNow, let's move on to solutions. Let's say someone around you starts regurgitating opinions on some topic du jour. And you, well, you don't enjoy BS-ing. You don't enjoy trading effete opinions about the world or getting into debates over things that are entirely outside your circle of control. You're much more interested in learning something[...]

There’s No BS in Cooking


A few follow-up thoughts on last week's post on the difference between doing things and talking about doing things.Cooking gives us a striking illustration of this difference. You can talk about cooking, you can read about it, you can watch shows about it. But it's painfully obvious to everyone that none of these things is cooking. You can't demonstrate you "know" cooking without actually performing the action of cooking. Better still, in cooking there is a far lower risk of fooling ourselves with a "psychological sense of completion" compared to other domains. And it's interesting to think about why: it boils down to ego injury. If we make a practice of ingredient bragging, or worse, blather in conversation about advanced cooking techniques yet we can't actually cook, it would be a tremendous ego injury if we get found out. It would be transparently pathetic. Therefore, because the risk of embarrassment is too great, our egos don't (and won't) risk pretending to have expertise we don't have.All of this makes cooking a wonderfully BS-free domain.In stark contrast, other fields are buried in BS. Have you ever heard an out-of-shape person talking pseudo-knowledgeably about fitness regimens or diets? Another example: in my former professional field of investing, it's hilariously common to hear people blather on about the stock market or the economy with zero knowledge whatsoever behind their talk. (We're clearly in a stock market bubble right now, and I'm deeply concerned about hyperinflation and ultra-high interest rates once the Treasury stops QE.)Of course the worst of all examples is the domain of politics. We're all experts here. We all feel justified in having strongly held political opinions, even though 99.9% of us have never held any actual political responsibility and half of the electorate doesn't even vote. Cooking is refreshingly different, and I wonder if one of the reasons I like it so much as a subject (and why I find so many metaphors and so much to talk about in it) is because it's an action-based, non-bullshit domain. If you can cook something you can cook it. You don't talk to demonstrate your competence in cooking, you don't regurgitate factoids and jargon in conversation to demonstrate your competence in cooking, you cook to demonstrate your competence in cooking. There's no way to hide behind "tawk" like there is in all these other domains. Have you ever heard anyone sling cooking jargon without knowing anything in the same way people constantly sling investing (or economic, or political) jargon without knowing anything? (Yesterday I was chiffonading some local organic collard greens, and I thought, gosh, if I brunoise-diced them instead, they would go great in a sugo that I could simmer in my Chinese ding.) That is a sentence I'm fairly confident I will never hear spoken. And certainly not by someone who has no idea how to cook. Sure, okay, there's ingredient bragging and virtue-signaling in cooking. Nothing's ever perfect. And yes, sure, people do watch cooking shows and don't actually cook. But nobody's ego confuses this with actual cooking. You show you can cook by cooking, by preparing food and serving it to friends and family and having them enjoy it. It's refreshing. READ NEXT: You May Now Ignore All Scientific Studies***********************Readers! You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support![...]

Fooling Ourselves With Tips and Listicles


A list of tips on "how to do X" is a standard modern mass media staple. If one of these articles happens to come to you (usually via social media), it will likely have three predictable characteristics: it was SEO-optimized, it's a listicle-style article with a clickbait-y title, and it should take roughly three to four minutes to read. It might even contain useful advice. People process articles like these in cognitively intriguing ways. For example, one can read a list of 12 Obscenely Easy Tips to Save Money! with a skim-til-offended mindset. And as soon as you stumble onto a tip that strikes you as dumb (cut my own hair? ZOMG only a total loser would do that), you can mentally dismiss the article. Even the entire domain. What's happening here, cognitively speaking, is the reader reacted by doubling down on her existing belief set. She was waiting, just waiting, for any tip that seemed even the slightest bit stupid. And since some money-saving tips actually are dumb, it should be unsurprising that she found one. The exercise of reading the article--with her specific mindset--reinforces all her worst suspicions about frugality. What's also astounding is how this reader can actually say she read something "from the other side" and yet, somehow, she still finds evidence confirming her existing beliefs! (See how dumb frugality tips are? Sheesh.) This reader achieved a rare cognitive twofer: she both increased her epistemic arrogance and got slightly dumber at the same time. [Note: this never happens with politics.]Now, let's consider another example. What if you like frugality (or whatever subject the listicle of "X Easy Tips" happens to cover) and you actually want to put the ideas to work?Believe it or not, for you, there's an even more dangerous way to read articles like this, especially if it also involves talking about the topic with peers or friends. As much as we wish it weren't true, our brains confuse reading and talking about a domain with practicing that domain. This deeply unfortunate phenomenon happens in all areas of personal development: losing weight, fitness, cooking at home, writing a novel, decluttering, investing, starting a business, the list goes on. We finish the article--"6 Staggering Advantages of ETFs" let's say--and then we demonstrate our rapidly growing knowledge by regurgitating it in a conversation with a friend. (I've been reading up a lot lately on investing, I'm really leaning towards ETFs rather than index funds. What about you?)What happens next is fascinating. Our brains get a quick mini-squirt of dopamine and we achieve what psychologists call "a sense of completion." Which means we vaguely feel like we've done something to change our life situation even though we've actually done nothing and taken no action whatsoever.Pretty soon we'll forget all about the whole thing, and we'll move on to some other listicle-friendly domain. ("8 Awesome Ways to Lose Weight That Big Food Doesn't Want You To Know About!")It all makes me wonder sometimes whether there's an entirely inverse relationship between how much people read and talk about doing things and to what extent they actually do them. READ NEXT: Tips Vs. StrategiesAnd: Epistemic Arrogance***********************Readers! You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support![...]

Four Reasons the Retail Apocalypse Hurts Frugal Consumers


In our last post we talked about how the decline of physical retailing is great for the environment. That was the good news. But there's bad news too, unfortunately: The retail apocalypse is not great for consumers. Not at all.And for frugal, bargain-hunting consumers, it's going to be really not great. As the retail environment evolves, we're going to get less and less value for the money we spend. Here's why:1) Retail will become more oligopoly-like and less competitive. If you've read Casual Kitchen's recent posts on inflation and how to beat it, this will be obvious to you, but I'll say it anyway: as more and more physical retailers close down stores and exit the marketplace, the players that remain simply do not have to compete as hard to earn your purchasing dollars. This means higher prices, fewer alternatives, and less value for consumers.2) Amazon is the mother of all "meet or beat" pricing players. As we know, meet or beat pricing results in higher prices for consumers, not lower prices. When a store claims it will beat any competitor's price, it just gives the other stores in a market an excuse to raise prices. Since consumers shopping in say, Best Buy, can quickly check their phones to compare prices, Amazon has zero incentive to cut prices--after all, they are the benchmark everyone will compare to. Worse, Best Buy has zero incentive to offer any price significantly lower than Amazon either! Neither retailer wants to start a race to the bottom that no one--except consumers--can win. 3) Fewer truly attractive sales. A less competitive retail environment will drive second-order effects: there will be far fewer retailers offering truly attractive sales and doorbuster-type opportunities. Doorbuster pricing and inventory liquidation sales can offer extraordinary value to disciplined and patient consumers--admittedly at the expense of a physical retailer that planned poorly for customer demand. In the increasingly virtual world of retailing, it's much easier to manage inventory, distribution is less complicated, and companies know a lot more about you and what you want (more on this in a moment). Truly glorious sales--the kind that result when a retailer badly misjudges demand and later needs to liquidate unwanted inventory--will be far less common in the new retailing environment.4) Worse informational asymmetry. Amazon and all the various online information gatherers know a lot more about us than we know about them. As their share of retailing grows, the informational advantage they have over us grows too. We will know less and less about what happens behind the scenes. Worse, we can't see--and most of us are hardly even aware of--all the informational trails we leave online. Online retailers gather this information relentlessly, and use it to their advantage.Final thoughtsThere will be other pros and cons to the new retail beyond the negative impact on consumers. For one thing, there will be lots and lots of job losses. But don't forget: at one time the USA's labor force was 95+% agricultural (it's less than 1% now), and buggy whip manufacturing, whale oil refining and 35mm photography all used to be gigantic industries. Our economy has handled bigger and far more wracking transformations--we'll muddle through this one as well. It's probably too early to really forecast the cultural impact here, although I can speculate that the Amazoning of retail will further worsen the atomization of our society. I'm sure there will be other cultural impacts that we haven't even thought about. Finally, remember that one of my central goals here at Casual Kitchen is to help consumers become better informed and more empowered. And there's a laughably easy solution for the coming consumer-unfriendly retail environment--and it's a solution anyone can adopt: just buy less freaking stuff. We have an absurdly consumerist culture here in the USA. Would it be so bad to ton[...]

What Could POSSIBLY Be Good About the Retail Apocalypse? Just This One Thing...


By now the phrase "retail apocalypse" has entered everyday parlance and everyone knows what it means: Amazon will destroy everything, leaving smoking holes wherever there used to be perfectly nice and harmless retailers. It'll be just like what Walmart did twenty years ago, except Amazon will do it faster, meaner, and with more clinical detachment. And when it's all said and done, there'll be a few Chipotles and mani-pedi shops left over--you know: service businesses Amazon hasn't yet learned how to replicate. There will be no other retail survivors. This unmitigated disaster is the consensus scenario on what Amazon is about to do to the retailing industry. Cheery, huh?Then again, to borrow a phrase from my old investing career: the consensus is often wrong but never in doubt. And it's generally a terrible idea to allow consensus thinkers to do all our thinking for us. So, could there be another, non-consensus perspective on the secular growth of Amazon and online retailing? Here's one: it's an unmitigated blessing for the environment. The six bullet points below explain. 1) Stores can revert back to green space and habitat. Most stores simply don't have to be there anymore. Retail space could return to open space, and all those hideous-looking big-box stores, shopping malls and strip malls could go back to being trees, grass and the natural habitat they used to be. Or, perhaps even better, these built-over spaces could be reused for low-cost housing, public parks and playgrounds. Any of these uses would be far more societally beneficial than feeding consumerism. 2) Think about all the pavement. For every 1,000 square feet of retail space, there's another 1,200 additional square feet of paved-over parking space. This is pavement sufficient to park 3-4 cars, roughly. [1] This doesn't even count additional paved-over ground for road access, for truck loading/unloading, for firelane space, for space between parking lanes, etc. Every square foot of decommissioned retail space counts well more than double--possibly more than triple--once you consider accompanying paved areas. 3) Pavement and parking lots are disastrous for the environment. Pavement disrupts the soil's natural role in cleansing, draining and filtering our water. Parking lots and road surfaces also generate pollutant-heavy storm sewer runoff that typically goes directly into local rivers and lakes. Remember decades ago when we used to pollute our environment with industrial waste? Now we do it with pavement runoff. [2]4) Redundant warehousing and distribution infrastructure eliminated. For every retail store you see, there's a largely invisible network of warehousing and distribution supporting it behind the scenes. This represents still more environmentally disruptive buildings, infrastructure and pavement, most of which are unnecessary. As a recent example of what I mean, consider the failed and now-liquidated retailer Sports Authority. It competed with Dick's Sporting Goods, often placing its stores in the very same malls and neighborhoods. Sports Authority had its own warehouses, storage, distribution hubs, trucks, inventory and systems--an unprofitable, unnecessary and entirely redundant national retailing infrastructure exactly copied by a nearly identical retailer. All totally unnecessary. Imagine all the other carbon-copy retailers in the innumerable subsectors of retail, and then imagine all the additional infrastructure behind the scenes that simply doesn't need to be there. 5) Redundant shipping/trucking/fossil fuel use eliminated. Merchandise doesn't magically travel to store shelves and display cases by itself. It needs to be trucked there. Worse, physical retailers also have to guess what you're going to buy, and in what unit volumes, and then ship it from the docks to warehouses and distribution nodes, and then to the stores themselves. All this inventory (a[...]

Ingredient Bragging


A long-time CK reader, Stuart at Addicted to Canning, ran a post recently about recipes with pretentious, impossible to find, or inappropriately up-market ingredients.For example, let's say you offer your readers a recipe that includes potatoes. But instead of just writing "potatoes" in your list of ingredients, you (unnecessarily) write "organic, local potatoes."Here are some other examples: * Instead of writing "milk" as a recipe ingredient, write "raw milk"* Instead of "chocolate" (say for my Mole recipe) write "fair trade, organic chocolate"* Instead of "carrots" write "local, organic Purple Dragon carrots"* Instead of "pork shoulder" write "pork shoulder from traditional hog breeds finished on acorns"I bet you think I'm joking about that last one. Sadly, I'm not.This is a surprisingly common phenomenon in food blogging, and we need a new phrase for it. So allow me to coin one: ingredient bragging.When offering a recipe to strangers over the internet, self-aware food bloggers know full well that they can simply write ingredients as is. If a recipe requires carrots, the word "carrots" suffices. If an individual reader wishes to use organic carrots, local carrots, carrots from their backyard garden, cruelty-free Purple Dragon carrots from their local hipster farm market--or, uh, just carrots--they can. Now, I fear that any food blogger who actually needs to be told this is already beyond help, but... if you actually write local, organic Purple Dragon carrots as a recipe ingredient, you impose an obligation on your readers: an obligation to restrain themselves from throwing their laptops across the room. You've pretentiously given your readers a non-obtainable, expensive and frou-frou ingredient, and then forced them to ask various near-existential questions:Does this recipe really require Purple Dragon carrots? What the heck IS a Purple Dragon carrot, and where could I possibly buy one? Can I substitute just... carrots? Am I a bad person if they're not organic?How much longer is this urge to throw my laptop across the room going to last?Your readers only just read your recipe, and already you've condescendingly given them all kinds of extra mental work. But there's more to ingredient bragging than just pretension. And annoying your readers. And doubling their time spent shopping. And quadrupling their grocery bills. And replacing their laptops. There's more going on here. If we really want people to cook at home--for health reasons, for economic reasons, for personal development reasons, for whatever reason--we want to make cooking accessible. Ingredient bragging does not make cooking accessible. On the contrary, it makes cooking seem far more difficult and far more expensive than it really is. It actually encourages people not to cook! This was Stuart's point in his post, and it's a good one. But worst of all--worst, worst, worst of all--is the bald-faced status signalling. If you have the temerity to engage in ingredient bragging you are openly, transparently and unnecessarily signalling your status. You are overtly advertising that you are the type of person who of course always buys these high end ingredients. You are elevated and refined, and you want to make sure everybody knows it. In fact, it's so important that your high status be known that you will remorselessly make your readers' lives more expensive and more difficult in order to signal so. Ingredient bragging: Just don't do it.Readers, what are your thoughts?PS: Every new annoying trend ought to have its own neologism. When I touched on this topic before here at CK, I called it organic-dropping, an admittedly stone-handed portmanteau of organic and name-dropping. Readers, I hope you like ingredient bragging better.***********************Readers! You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon[...]

Is “Meet Or Beat” Pricing Anti-Consumer?


The four biggest British supermarket chains all offer some form of price-match guarantee, promising that their customers could not save any money by shopping elsewhere.
--from The Economist

Any savvy, empowered consumer will have a predictable response to claims like "You won't save money by shopping elsewhere." We laugh inwardly and disbelieve. Claims like this work out great for the claimer only if no one actually tests it.

So when a claim like this is made by four separate grocery store chains in the same region at the same time, it's a "what you talkin' bout Willis" moment. [1] A real credulity-stretcher.

Obviously, and by definition, not every store can be the cheapest. But every store benefits by fooling their customers into not checking!

Which takes us to the counterintuitive economics of "meet or beat" pricing.

When a store in your community adopts meet or beat pricing, it sounds at first like a great idea. Theoretically, you always know that you'll get the best price by going there. So, you can just go there.

Wrong! What real-world examples teach us is that meet or beat pricing is inflationary--it actually makes prices go up. In order to see why, though, you have to ask the second order question: And then what?

This is exactly what all the other competing stores in town are asking themselves: How can I compete when I know this meet or beat store will always match or beat my price?

It then becomes game theory situation. The other stores can try and cut prices, but they'll only hurt themselves. Worse, typically, the store adopting meet or beat pricing is usually that market's low-cost provider anyway.

You don't compete on price unless you can compete on price. So, the other stores must compete some other way. Thus the correct game theory response--if you're not the store with the lowest cost structure--is to raise prices. It sounds counterintuitive, but this is actually what happens in any market where one player embraces a meet or beat strategy.

In this case, the market creates its own pricing umbrella, and all the retailers win. At your expense. Your prices go up, even as you think you're getting the best deal in town.


A 30 Day Experiment with Mini Habits


Today's post returns to the elegant ideas of Stephen Guise, author of Mini Habits and How to Be an Imperfectionist. I wanted to share with readers the results of a month-long experiment I ran to test out the usefulness of mini habits, a cornerstone of Guise's unusually creative approach to personal development. A quick word on what mini habits actually are--and the best way to describe them is by explaining what they're not. They are not aggressive resolutions like "READ 200 PAGES EVERY DAY!" or "RUN 10 MILES EVERY DAY!!!" or whatever. Those are exactly the kinds of unsustainable goals that don't become habits. They're too hard. They drain your willpower. And you'll resist them and eventually quit on them. A mini habit operates under completely different incentives. The idea is to make the habit so small, so easy, that you have no resistance whatsoever to doing it. Guise gives his own amusing example of building a surprisingly robust workout habit based on the mini habit of doing one pushup a day. If he does his one pushup, he "worked out." You might snicker at this at first, but once you think through the psychology of it, you'll realize the sheer elegance and intuitiveness of such a laughably easy goal.First, put yourself in the place of someone who never was able to make fitness a regular habit, as Stephen Guise was for many years. A "one pushup" mini habit was a device that got him to start doing something. What typically stops us from doing things (and produces procrastination as well as frustration with ourselves) is our resistance to getting started.This is particularly true if the goal has some enormity to it, like READ 200 PAGES TODAY! Unfortunately, the subtext to a goal like this is: AND IF YOU READ ONLY 199 PAGES YOU ARE A COMPLETE LOSER!In stark contrast, the mini-goal mechanism lowers the entry fee. The goal is something easy--hilariously easy--to do. And because it gets you started, you sidestep procrastination and inner resistance. And, all along you have the option to continue or to quit. You can do your one pushup and stop. Or you can do a few more, if you want. Or a lot more. It doesn't matter! You've met your goal already so it's all gravy. It takes away all the pressure. This totally altered Guise's mental construct of what "working out" meant, and it changed his image of what it meant to build an exercise habit. Moreover, setting the bar so low annihilated his exercise perfectionism which had been a substantial obstacle between him and fitness. Contrast this with a person who does 80 pushups but feels like a failure because he "failed" in his goal of doing 100. As somebody who tried (a few times) to follow the 100 pushups workout (and for whatever reason I never was able to get much above 70 pushups in a row), this resonates with me. I would do 74 pushups yet feel like a putz because I couldn't do more. Sad! It just goes to show how rubber our yardsticks can be when we measure ourselves. Note also: It shouldn't be a surprise that under this kind of self-imposed negative reinforcement, I kind of... slipped out of the habit of doing pushups. Which takes us to the key psychological takeaway here: it's impossible to build a healthy and sustainable habit out of something that's a source of failure and frustration.Okay. Clearly, there are many reasons why the mini habit concept makes intuitive sense. But I still wanted to test it for myself. And what I didn't know was there was yet another gigantic advantage to this seemingly innocuous mental hack. I'll get to it in just a minute. So, I picked two imperfectionist-friendly mini habits and trialed them both for 30 days, just to see what would happen. My mini habits were: 1) Write for 20 minutes2) Read 25 pages of any bookThe thing is, lately, I haven't been reading as much nor writing as [...]

Nobody Wants to Find the Errors


I wanted to share one more thought about the various crises in "studies show" science.

We're finding a lot of errors in a lot of past studies, and--hopefully--we're fixing them. Or at the least we've been given the opportunity to change our beliefs when it turns out they were based on erroneous or unreplicable studies. This is good. And it's a halfway decent attempt at actually using the scientific method.

But think about this: Imagine you're a "studies show" scientist, and consider the various pressures out there arrayed against you if take it upon yourself to uncover these types of errors. It takes precious time away from your own research. You look vaguely like a jerk for criticizing your peers. You get stonewalled when you ask to see peoples' data. And the research world is small: nobody wants to find errors in the work of someone you might work with (or worse, work for) in the future.

Worst of all by far: you don't get paid for it.

There is absolutely no incentive structure out there for finding study errors. In fact there are enormous incentives not to find them.

So it makes you even more cynical about "studies show" science: if they're finding as many errors as they are--despite all the pressures and reasons not to find them--how many more errors must there be?

READ NEXT: Rebellion Practice

You May Now Ignore All Scientific Studies


Readers, I've developed a cognitive rule of thumb for "scientific studies" that I now use whenever I hear or read about any study. Here it is:Heuristic: Any study you see, ever, anywhere, that happens to reach you through the media is wrong in some fundamentally significant way. You may safely ignore it. My first halting step toward this admittedly cynical mental rule came a long time ago: when "scientists" decided--and later undecided--that margarine was better for you than butter. I took another halting step toward this cynical rule when the "don't eat too many eggs" study came out, a study that blissfully ignored the fact that dietary cholesterol is not blood serum cholesterol. My steps became a lot less halting thereafter, as I thought through what "scientists" used to think was true. Things like:* "Healthy whole grains." * An entirely upside down food pyramid. * Recommendations for statin meds because of a "studies show" link to cardiovascular health that turned out to be wholly imaginary. * The fact that the medical profession doesn't seem to know what normal blood pressure is. * That toast causes cancer. There are many, many more examples, of course, some amusing, some not funny at all, some actually life-or-death. And all wrong. And if you have even a cursory understanding of decline effects[1] and the great crisis of reproducibility,[2] you will lose any remaining faith in "studies show" science.Still more severe examples include South Korea's misguided war on thyroid cancer[3], or the highly counterintuitive discoveries that annual mammography screenings have zero effect on life expectancy and that, shockingly, prostate cancer screenings negatively affect life quality and life expectancy.[4]And when it seems "studies show" science couldn't be any more wronger, it gets worse: We've discovered that even some of the most important and foundational studies in twentieth century psychology cannot be reproduced.[5] We're seeing major, domain-shattering acts of sheer data fabrication--see vaccines[6] and social psychology[7] for two object examples. Even in the food industry, one of America's best known dietary scientists, Cornell University's Brian Wansink, just got caught torturing his data to find links that don't really exist.[8]And this is to say nothing of the various types of errors that inevitably show up in the study industry, as well as the rampant errors common to media coverage trumpeting study findings. These include errors like baseline risk error (an increase in a risk that's too small to matter is still too small to matter), p-hacking (mining data for statistical anomalies first, then forming a post hoc hypothesis on something that is almost assuredly spurious), and many others, some of which we've already discussed elsewhere at Casual Kitchen. And don't forget the well-known pressure to "publish or perish" in academia, which is most likely the prime driver of many of the industry's data fabrication and data-torturing scandals.Last but certainly not least, there's the structural fact that the media--and it does not matter which media--inevitably oversimplifies or exaggerates all study claims to the point of making them into anti-information. And I have yet to read an article in my life saying "XYZ perfectly normal everyday activity shows no link to cancer." It's always the opposite. You can safely ignore it all. Finally, for any readers who consider this article to be somehow anti-science, keep in mind: "studies show" science is not science. It never was. Footnotes/Resources:[1] A readable article on the "Decline Effect," a genre of the problem of reproducibility.[2] More good articles on the reproducibility crisis here and here.[3] Korea and its misguided search for thyroid cance[...]

The Very Best of Casual Kitchen 2017


With 2017 almost in the bag, here's my annual retrospective of Casual Kitchen's best posts of the year.

Once again, I want to thank you, readers, for your time, your attention, and your support. I'm deeply grateful. See you all in January!

Top Posts of 2017

8) How To Beat Inflation

7) Why Bad Blogs Get More Readers

6) When Food Advocates Tell You What To Serve Your Customers

5) If I Can't Give Advice (!) How Do I Evangelize Frugality and Anticonsumerism?

4) Nine Terrible Ways to Make Choices (That You Probably Didn't Know You Were Using)

3) Using Your Sophistication and Great Taste Against You

2) Running Towards Humps

1) Checkers... and Chess

Note for new readers: If you're new here and you'd like to look over Casual Kitchen's best work over the years, a great place to start is the "Best Of" posts from each year:

Best of Casual Kitchen 2016

Best of Casual Kitchen 2015

Best of Casual Kitchen 2014

Best of Casual Kitchen 2013

Best of Casual Kitchen 2012

Best of Casual Kitchen 2011

Finally, let me thank all readers, new and old, for generously supporting my work with your kind purchases at Amazon via the links at this site!

When Restaurants Stop Being Worth It


There is an existential crisis in the restaurant industry. Right now.Forget about Chili's re-re-vamping their menu to try to win back alienated customers. The restaurant industry is now getting squeezed from multiple directions: rising minimum wages, rising rents, rising legal and regulatory costs, and of course rising food costs too.What's new this time around is the industry finds itself absolutely unable to pass these costs through to consumers in the form of higher prices. The latest and most shocking admission of this was from the restaurant chain Red Robin [ticker symbol RRGB]. Red Robin's management said this in their most recent quarterly conference call: "A top area of focus for us has been managing labor costs. The minimum wage and general regulatory environment is growing at an unprecedented rate, especially on the West Coast, where we have our strongest and largest footprint. Hourly wages are up again this year in the mid-single digits, and we know there's no appetite by today's consumer to spend more to cover this. Absorbing these increases with higher pricing is not an alternative for us."There it is, straight out of the bird's, I mean CEO's, mouth: Not only are food and regulatory costs rising and minimum wage is increasing "at an unprecedented rate," but worst of all, they can't hike prices any more to compensate. I'll share yet another an example from a local Irish pub we sometimes go to here in suburban New Jersey. This place is a basic, no frills, casual restaurant, a good place, and it now charges $11 for a burger. And an extra buck fifty for a piece of bacon and cheese. So, imagine the management of this restaurant as they experience the same inevitable cost squeeze that Red Robin and others face. At first, they'll do what they've always done: they respond to their higher costs by passing them along to us. Just hike that burger's price by yet another buck.That worked in the past, as the consumer didn't mind (or even notice) a burger increasing from $6 to $7 or $7 to $8. But at some point the consumer notices. And minds. At some point, that burger just stops being worth it. Where that point is, it's hard to know. It depends. But when a basic burger starts to get up into the double digits, at $11-ish, $12-ish, can you hike prices another buck? And, then, a year from now another buck? Before you know it, a modest dinner of, say, two burgers and two beers, maybe a side order, add in taxes and tip... suddenly, you're looking at a sixty or seventy dollar tab. For burgers and beers. It ain't worth it. So people stop going out to eat. This is exactly what intelligent consumers do in the face of inflation. Heck, I can easily feed the two of us for two weeks on $70. Even Jim Cramer, stock market spaz for the masses, is onto this. Partly it's because he actually owns a restaurant, a Mexican place in Brooklyn. Regarding these trends, he wrote recently: "It's a nightmare for any restaurateur. And it's just beginning."A final note, regarding yet more synergies of being an investor and a (frugal) consumer. You'd have seen this theme coming, likely as much as a few years ago, if you were paying attention to the rising cost--and increasingly questionable value--of dining out versus cooking at home. Resources: Red Robin's Third Quarter 2017 conference call transcriptFinally a quick housekeeping note: Next week I'll run Casual Kitchen's top posts of 2017. Stay tuned!!Read Next: How to Become a Sophisticated Investor: Six Steps[...]

Never Try to Change Someone’s Opinion


This astonishingly direct quote caught my eye recently, from the blunt yet always thought-provoking Wall Street Playboys blog:

"Changing an Opinion: No point here. Unless someone is completely new to a topic there is no point in changing their opinion. It won't happen and if you're right they will simply dislike you because their ego took a hit (you were right and they were wrong). This is not a good way to win at life. Instead of trying to change opinions make a decision on if the person has already made a strong opinion. This is the real trick. If someone is 100% new to a topic then feel free to provide an opinion. If they already have an opinion, just agree with it and take their side of the argument. Besides. In order to have your own strong opinion you should be able to argue the other side with ease… This will save you a large amount of time and we can't over state that enough: 1) figure out if they have a strong opinion – takes a few minutes, 2) then decide to either agree *or* give an actual opinion (if they have an opinion just agree). 

In addition, if you read this paragraph and disagree, we think you have a good point and things aren't black and white so there are definitely grey areas (see if you catch the joke)."

One of the reasons I wanted to write a post about this quote was to remind myself to not be like either person in situations like this. Don't be the guy trying to change somebody else's strongly-held opinion... but also, don't be the other guy, the one who's rigidly ego-attached to his own strongly-held opinion such that he dislikes somebody for the horrible crime of having a differing view.

So, here's my four bullet point checklist for any situation where people ask for (or offer!) opinions:

1) When someone asks your opinion, ask back: "What do you think?" or "What's your view?"

2) If the person does not have an already formed opinion, you may consider the idea of sharing your opinion. Maybe.

3) If the person does have an already-formed opinion, smile, nod and agree. Save time and energy!

And, last:
4) Don't have ego attachments to the rightness or wrongness of your opinions. Much of what we think we know is wrong anyway, we just haven't found it out yet.

Readers, what do you think?

READ NEXT: What Underwear Teaches You About Saving Time AND Money

Rebellion Practice


"I just demonstrated to myself and the world around me that I'm not controlled by it."--Stephen Guise, from How to Be an Imperfectionist********************************I just finished a striking little book: How to Be an Imperfectionist by Stephen Guise. First of all, let me recommend it--highly--to Casual Kitchen readers. Today I'd like to share just one of the many, many good ideas in it: The idea of practicing "rebellion." First, a little background. Guise's book is for people who struggle with perfectionism, and one of the central themes of his book is to stop letting your perfectly reasonable desire to do things "well" freeze you from doing things at all. That our desire to "do things well" could actually subvert us might be a counterintuitive idea for some readers. But think about it: if you can't do something well, it's, well, kind of embarrassing. Our egos hate the idea that other people will see us suck--perhaps suck badly--at something. As a result, our egos will generally try to protect us from embarrassment by giving us rationalizations for not trying in the first place. And of course these rationalizations always seem like real reasons in the moment. No one who rationalizes realizes it--that's how rationalizing works. In fact if you look at this through the lens of evolutionary psychology, this ego activity could even be seen as a survival mechanism. However, if you think about what the source of that embarrassment is, it's our internal assumptions about other peoples' expectations. So, the idea of "practicing rebellion" gets at rejecting or even defying those expectations. As well as our own. Thus practicing rebellion means seeking out rejection, discomfort and even embarrassment. It means, as I once phrased it here in another post, "running towards humps." And it means not being a good little boy (or girl), obediently doing all the things we're told to do by our egos, by our peer group, by our modern consumer-driven society, and so on. Rebel. It's up to you to choose what your rebellion might be, and you can feel free to start small. In his book, Stephen Guise shares some modest examples of his own, such as lying down in public places, singing out loud in public, or talking to strangers. I'll confess, neatniks like me can't lie down in public places, and I definitely don't want to subject the world to my singing. As far as talking to strangers, that's such a perfectly normal behavior for me that I'd have to rebel the other way and not talk to strangers. The point, of course, is to each his own. You have to pick the type of rebellion that suits you. Here's a list of possible ways you might practice rebellion, some cribbed directly from Guise's book, others I brainstormed on my own. Feel free to add your own ideas!Rebelling against a typical way of livingRebelling against any standard or expectationRebelling against "play-it-safe" livingRebelling against the urge to seek acceptance or approval from others. Rebelling against expected comportment in a given situationRebelling against consumerism, against solving problems by making a purchaseRebelling against talking about politics or the media's latest outrage du jourRebelling against standard relationship types (not marrying, etc.) Rebelling against the dietary conventions of those around youRebelling against fashion or clothing conventions (have an unusual hairstyle or clothing)Rebelling against gadget trendsRebelling against Facebook or other false/artificial ways to be "connected" Rebelling against concern over mistakesTake a sabbatical in the middle of a successful careerDrive a crappy car, even if you can afford a nice oneHav[...]

What Barefoot Running Taught Us About Expensive Sneakers (And What Nike and Others Really Don’t Want You To Know)


"You're definitely gonna want to pay a lot of money for good quality sneakers. I mean, seriously, if you go running in those $29.99 loser no-name running shoes, you'll hurt your knees! Or your iliotibial band. Or something. You'll definitely hurt something. Forget those cheap shoes. These $175 running shoes are far better. Mass produced, yet designed to fit your feet. And they're built for comfort, with extra padding to absorb all those shocks to your body."Readers, this is the basic marketing message behind high-end sneaker brands. For many, it's highly persuasive. After all, how dumb would it be to take a chance on some no-name pair of sneakers... and maybe hurt yourself. Right?But then, something odd happened.Some ten or so years ago, "barefoot running" became all the rage. And it raised questions the sneaker industry didn't want you asking. For example, a thoughtful if sarcastic sneaker buyer might ask, "Now hold on a minute: First I had to buy overpriced cushiony sneakers to protect myself from injury. And now you're telling me I don't even need shoes?" But it gets worse: it turns out that many if not most running injuries result from protecting ourselves too much. All that padding in all those ultra-expensive shoes actually prevents our body from feeling, sensing and properly responding to the various healthy stresses of running. Or, as researchers at the University of Oregon found, "the greater the cushioning in the shoe, the greater the impact shock on the leg."Ironically, this highly counterintuitive discovery was made in Eugene, Oregon--barely a hundred or so miles from Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton. Huh. Somehow, our consumer civilization transformed running--a quintessentially basic human act--into an expensive pastime, with luxury-branded shoes, unpronounceable injuries... and $300+ marathon entry fees.It's also instructive to observe the shoe industry's response. After all, no one makes money not selling shoes, so Nike and other high end sneaker brands had to at least try to figure out a way to "brand" the barefoot running experience too.And so, for only about a hundred bucks or so, we can buy a pair of Nike "Barefoot-Like" sneakers. They're for sale on Nike's website, right next to all those expensive heavily-padded shoes we were supposed to buy before. Readers, tell me, how are expensive branded sneakers any different from any other zombie-based advertising/consumption cycle? And if it bugs you to pay 30% more for, say, a name-brand can of tuna when it furtively emerges out of the same third-party factory as lower-priced unbranded tuna, shouldn't it bug you enormously to pay 700% more for sneakers? Especially when all those sneaker features they use to justify their high price at best make no difference, and at worst might actually hurt us?A final note: Speaking as a three-time marathoner and multi-time half-marathoner who's logged thousand and thousands of running miles, most running injuries are form- or technique-based. This goes double for casual runners. In other words, fix your running form, improve your technique, and you'll run injury-free in whatever pair of reasonably priced sneakers you're happy with. For readers interested in an excellent resource on how to improve running technique, I strongly recommend Danny Dreyer's book Chi Running. Resources:1) A short video of a fateful day when the NY Times did a piece on barefoot running. Hipsters raged, then bravely began the search for the next new thing. Note also the mention of the University of Oregon's biomechanical research study at 2:21 in the video.2) More on how to run barefoo[...]

Carrot and Tarragon Soup (Yet Another "Laughably Cheap" Recipe!)


You could easily pay $9.00 for an appetizer-size serving of this delicious soup in some trendy Manhattan restaurant. It would probably arrive in one of those annoying one-inch deep bowls.But we're going to make this soup at home, serve it in a normal bowl, and we're going to do it for around three bucks for the entire pot. Which means this soup runs about 45-50c a serving, making it a front-runner for one of our most laughably cheap recipes here at Casual Kitchen. People who say healthy food has to cost a lot simply have no clue. I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as we did!******************************Carrot and Tarragon SoupHeavily adapted and simplified from Laurel's KitchenIngredients:6-7 carrots, peeled, cut into large 2-3” chunks2-3 potatoes, peeled, cut into large 2-3” chunksWater to cover2-3 Tablespoons butter (or olive oil or canola oil)2 onions, coarsely chopped1 generous teaspoon dried tarragon2 cups milk2-3 cups water1/2 cup white table wine1/4 teaspoon black pepper and optional salt to tasteDirections:1) Peel carrots and potatoes, chop into 2-3” chunks, and cover with water in a 4 quart pot. Bring to a boil and simmer until carrots are tender/al dente, about 20 minutes.2) While carrots and potatoes are simmering, chop onions and add to a large soup pot with butter and dried tarragon. Saute onions for 10 minutes or so on medium heat until soft. Let stand. 3) When carrots and potatoes are cooked, drain and transfer to a food processor or blender in (roughly) three batches. With each batch, add about a third of both the 2-3 cups each of the milk and water. Puree until smooth, then transfer puree to soup pot and combine with the onions/tarragon. Add any of the remaining water and milk to the soup pot, bring to a boil, and simmer for 5-7 minutes or so. Add black pepper and optional salt if desired. Serves 6-7 as a main dish.Two recipe notes: 1) Let's itemize the cost of this laughably cheap recipe:Butter/oil 15cOnions 40cCarrots 60cPotatoes 40cMilk 65cCheap box white wine 75cSpices 10cTotal Cost: about $3.05 or about 45-50c per serving2) Second, thinking about a snotty Manhattan restaurant serving $9 soups in one-inch deep bowls reminds me of Aesop's fable of the fox and the stork.3) Finally, a few related links for new readers: a) The 25 Best Laughably Cheap Recipes at Casual Kitchenb) MORE! Top 25 Laughably Cheap Recipes at Casual Kitchenc) Ten Healthy Recipes for Under $1 a Servingd) Glossary of Casual Kitchen Memes[...]

How You Can Beat Inflation, Part 2


...continued from last week:In our last post we talked about expanding how we think about competition and substitution in order to defeat inflation and shift the balance of power back into consumers' hands. Let's pivot now from the spending side of the ledger over to the savings and income side of the ledger, and try to think creatively about attacking inflation on a second front. Labor markets: tighteningOne of the fortunate aspects of inflation is it tends to coincide with lower unemployment rates and an improving economy. Remember last post when we talked about making companies compete to sell to us? Well, labor market conditions are tightening, which means, finally, employers are beginning to compete for workers. This means a couple of things. For one, enterprising workers who are valued by their employers and willing to ask for what they want can potentially get more money for the jobs they already have. Second, other opportunities are likely be opening up for you, right now, for a superior work situation. Start looking. Both employment and wage increases tend to lag a recovery, which means now is the time to start taking advantage of the most direct way to beat inflation: get more money.Side hustles/additional income sourcesLast week we talked about monopolies in the consumer marketplace. Here's another way to think about a monopoly: if you have one job, your employer is a monopoly provider of your income. Your employer has maximum power over you, and it can "substitute" you right out of a job under the flimsiest of pretexts, whenever it wants! To borrow a phrase from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's must-read book Antifragile, this makes you fragile to the loss of all of your income. Not good. You cannot consider yourself to be truly robust financially if a) you have a monopoly income provider and b) your monopoly income provider can, by terminating your job, spontaneously shut off all of your income. This is why all households ought to be thinking, Wall Street Playboys-like, about what kind of side hustles they can run to supplement income from their primary job. My domain of expertise is stock market investing, thus that's where I try to drive incremental income for my household. But there is no shortage of ways to earn extra money on the side, and plenty of resources that cover this topic better than I could. Once again, remember our primary heuristic: the more broadly we think about competition and substitution (and monopoly providers of things like our income!), the more we can eliminate various fragilities in our financial lives. Turning an expense into an income sourceOne major insight from Jacob Lund Fisker's book Early Retirement Extreme is to look for ways to "monetize" your hobbies: Fisker loved bicycles, taught himself how to fix them, and gradually fell into a modest income source repairing them. Recently, I taught myself how to string tennis racquets. Now, not only have I dramatically reduced one of my largest tennis-related expenses, I'm now in a position to string other peoples' racquets for additional income! In both these cases we've taken an inflation-prone expense and not only neutralized it, but turned it into a source of funds. I'll leave it to you to figure out where in your life you can apply this important insight. Low overhead, low fixed costsThe late publisher Felix Dennis, in his useful book How to Get Rich, used to say "overhead walks on two legs." I gotta be honest: that phrase makes absolutely no sense. But, well, he's from England. What he's getting at, however, is this: never, ever[...]

How To Beat Inflation


How do you deal with inflation and price increases? I've noticed quite a few price hikes over the past several months across the consumer marketplace: in the grocery store, on the menus at local restaurants, in the costs of various services... the list goes on. Some examples from our household: * Our cable company hiked our internet bill 9%. * Many product categories in our primary local grocery store have seen price hikes: a few that come to mind: store brand peanuts $2.49 to $2.99 (20%) and then to $3.29 (32% cumulatively), soy milk: 33% ($1.50 to $1.99). pineapples 20% ($2.50 to $2.99).* Our automobile insurance bill went up a surprise 10% in the last billing cycle.* Our townhouse community fees increased about 5% last year. * And our property taxes jumped 8% two years ago as our town put through new assessments. Of course, let's not forget one of the worst examples of inflation today: increases in health insurance policy premiums, which seem to inflate at a shocking rate each year. All of this made me want to attempt to collect and organize my thoughts for readers on how best to deal with inflation and price increases. Unfortunately, I can't solve the inflation problem directly, that's the job of all those stone-handed economic geniuses at the Federal Reserve. But I what I can do is share some heuristics and general principles to help us blunt inflation's impact on our household budgets. Let's start by stealing a quote and a conceptual framework on inflation from economist John Kenneth Galbraith, from his book The Affluent Society:"Those individuals and groups will suffer most which have the least control over their prices or wages and hence the least capacity to protect themselves by increasing their own returns." Galbraith ain't the greatest writer in the world, but what he's trying to say here is you want to increase your flexibility on both sides of the ledger--with both income and expenses. Those households without much room between income and expenses, those carrying high fixed costs, those that can't (or won't) save aggressively, and those unable to control their incomes at least to some extent--it's those households inflation hurts the worst.Don't be that kind of household. To ensure your family isn't like the "at-risk" example Galbraith describes, you'll want to add to your income, cut expenses, and beat price hikes where you can. All three--at the same time. Okay. Let's move from the theoretical and get into some practical ideas. The ability to say noThe things we buy in life can be broken down into two categories: things we need and things we don't. Many posts here at Casual Kitchen address how easy it is to confuse needs with wants, and inflation in the price of a given product or service gives us a way to clarify the confusion. The more you can consider something as a want rather than a need, and the more you can simply say "no" to that product or service, the more power you have over the entity selling to you. Some of our peers tell us they could never part with television. Now, I never judge peoples' horrible media consumption habits, but if that's your position, guess what? To the extent you believe TV is a "need" you lose all your leverage. You lose the ability to use true brinkmanship with the supplier. Yes, you can use all the Ramit cost-savings scripts you like. But if you won't cancel service when it really gets down to it, the company holds all the cards, not you. Eventually, you're going to eat a price hike.In contrast, imagine a household that places cable [...]

Ten Book Recommendations (Actually, Eleven)


Readers, I thought I'd share a list of the best books I've read so far this year. And also, I have a favor to ask: What have you been reading lately that you'd recommend? Please share in the comments--I'm always looking for new reading material.A quick housekeeping note: if you'd like to support Casual Kitchen, one of the best ways to do so is to visit Amazon using any link here at this site. I then get paid a modest commission, at no incremental cost to you, on anything you buy on that visit. As always, I'm grateful for my reader's support!Now, on to the books:Spent -- Geoffrey MillerThis book looks at consumer behavior through the lens of evolutionary psychology, and it helps explain much of the conspicuous trait-signalling and virtue-signalling we see all around us. This book was at times funny and at other times tone-deaf, but it gives readers--particularly frugal, Casual Kitchen-type readers--a helpful set of tools for understanding modern consumerism.The Hidden Life of Trees -- Peter WohllebenAn unusual, even kooky book, but absolutely hypnotic. You might think you already appreciate trees… read this book and you'll appreciate them far more. Never Split the Difference -- Chris VossAn excellent book on negotiating. Readable, insightful, and often counterintuitive.The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up -- Marie KondoA book that really changed the way I think, and one that has forever changed how I think about my stuff. If you could only pick one book from this list, make it this one. Spark Joy -- Marie KondoThis is a companion guide to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Where "Tidying Up" had a lot of philosophy and theory, Spark Joy gets into the pragmatics and practical applications of how to execute the specific steps of tidying. Use both. Happier -- Tal Ben-ShaharUseful. Offers readers helpful techniques and mini-habits to spur self-awareness and gratitude in your daily life. (Note: this author is an intellectual disciple of Martin Seligman, whose book Learned Optimism was also a subject for an unusual post here at Casual Kitchen)Hannibal -- Harold LambNo, not Hannibal Lecter. I'm talking about the Hannibal, the general from the lost city of Carthage. This is a short, well-written biography, telling the nearly unbelievable story of how Hannibal attacked Rome after moving his entire army (including, incredibly, his elephants) across the Alps. Excellent. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid -- Douglas HofstadterI strongly recommend this book for geeks, and strongly do not recommend it for normal people. But if you're a geek and you take pride in being so, you'll never forget the experience of reading this foundational book, which has helped shape the past few decades' discussions on consciousness, software programming, recursion, and artificial intelligence. The Education of a Value Investor -- Guy SpierBest investment book I've read this year by far. Excellent advice on how to control your intellectual and emotional inputs, useful thinking on what kinds of media you should (or shouldn't) consume, and helpful insights about what kinds of people you should surround yourself with (consensus thinkers or rigorous non-consensus thinkers), and even thoughts on how often you should check stock prices (in my case, less often--probably a lot less often). This is a very honest book that looks at the "water" we're in, and how to to improve the intellectual environment driving our investing decisions. Capital -- Karl MarxNo one actually reads Capital,[...]

Second Class Needs


Keynes observed that the needs of human beings "fall into two classes--those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be, and those which are relative only in that their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows." --John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent SocietyReaders of Casual Kitchen already know all about status competition and costly trait signaling. Longer term readers will also recall the concept of desire triggering: by buying something, you can even extinguish a desire you never even knew you had until some company gave you that desire to quench in the first place. There's an obvious insight that follows: If you want to avoid getting rudely separated from your money, simply avoid all purchases in this genre of "needs" Keynes discusses above. They aren't needs at all, they just feeeeeeeeeel like needs. Which takes us to Galbraith and Keynes once again: Keynes noted that needs of "the second class," i.e., those needs that are the result of efforts to keep abreast or ahead of one's fellow being, "may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, the higher still are they.” Empowered consumers must know to separate needs of this "second class" from true needs. Further, they must also know the game: that these "needs" exist at every socioeconomic level--and no matter what your level of wealth, your attempts to satisfy them will take all the money you have, and then more.Understanding this dynamic is a gigantic step towards playing the money game on the easy setting, and an even bigger step towards living a much more fulfilling life. Not to mention a far less expensive one. READ NEXT: Epistemic ArroganceAnd: Epistemic Humility frameborder="0" marginheight="0" marginwidth="0" scrolling="no" src="//®ion=US&placement=0395925002&asins=0395925002&linkId=431ae3b8ec43b9cf4aae6a65440d6ca3&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true&price_color=333333&title_color=0066c0&bg_color=ffffff" style="height: 240px; width: 120px;">[...]

Costly Signalling


I just finished an intriguing book called Spent by Geoffrey Miller. I recommend it. In some ways the book is all over the place, covering more topics that it probably should, but to a patient and accommodating reader it offers plenty of useful insights.One of the central themes of Spent is the idea of observing consumer behavior through the lens of evolutionary psychology. We all know that consumers buy things to "signal" desirable qualities and traits. This in itself is not a new idea--after all, Thorstein Veblen covered it in sarcastic detail in The Theory of the Leisure Class back in 1899. Heck, for that matter, Diogenes saw it back in 400 BC. We signal to the people around us that we are "fit" in the evolutionary sense: fit to be friends or peers, fit to be colleagues, fit to be a member of whatever tribe we're in, fit to be a mate, and so on.The consumer marketplace gives us all kinds of methods to engage in signalling. We can signal wealth by buying expensive cars, clothes and houses. We can signal intelligence by buying shelfloads of books, or by name-dropping the Ivy League university where we got our MBA. We can signal environmental conscientiousness by waxing rhapsodic about the organic, fair trade bulgur we bought at that family-owned health food store in town. Unfortunately, it can get awfully expensive to do all this signalling. What if, instead, we were to look at signalling activity from the perspective of consumer empowerment? One thing to consider: If you think about it, all signals given via purchases made in the consumer marketplace are essentially... facades. Returning to our luxury car example, let's say you buy an expensive car to signal economic fitness, and by doing so you successfully attract many mating partners and friends. Here's one problem that comes to mind right away: you will have attracted the kind of people who judge you by the car you drive. That's bad enough... but there's an even bigger problem. Your actual economic fitness will become quickly obvious to all of those mating partners and friends once they actually get to know you. The whole point of attracting friends and mates is for them to know the real you, right? So when they find out (and they will find out) that you can barely swing your monthly lease payment, and that your "wealth signal" was totally phony, your facade instantly crumbles away, and these alleged friends and mates (who you attracted under essentially false pretenses) will neither care about your nor the luxuriousness of your car. All facades crumble. Better to have built true financial fitness instead--by not buying that car in the first place. In fact, taking this one step further, you could argue that a sophisticated observer of consumer behavior could judge an expensive car as a signal of anti-fitness. The signal of always driving late-model luxury automobiles, viewed across a person's entire lifetime, might represent not wealth, but the waste of hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal financial capital! This is a second-order insight you might distill from, say, books like The Millionaire Next Door or Your Money Or Your Life. Now, in the archives of Casual Kitchen, we've written about the idea of driving old cars as an act of mini-rebellion against consumerism, against financial waste, and against the idea of raising the bar of status competition for the people around us. But as much as we anticonsumerists like to think we're above[...]

"Women's Vitamins"


Readers, see the following embarrassingly amateurish photo, and tell me: what do you think might be the difference between these two types of vitamins?Well, one is branded--by Bayer, one of the most trusted brands in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry. The other isn't.One is a "women's formula" and offers consumers "bone and breast health support." The other, with its more modest and plausible claims of being "gluten free" and offering "daily well being," doesn't make me laugh quite as hysterically.Granted, the branded vitamin contains calcium and a few bonus obscure minerals, all of which you already get in sufficient amounts from a normal diet:BrandedUnbrandedLet's face it: these two bottles of vitamin tablets are virtually identical. And given recent research on vitamins, neither will likely make any difference to your health.The only distinction: one costs about three times as much per tablet.Now, you might rationalize this price differential by arguing that the "untrustworthy" generic vitamin was probably manufactured in some horrible Chinese sweatshop by exploited, underpaid workers who secretly added extra lead and mercury to each pill. And of course the "trustworthy" brand was surely manufactured by people who care, who really care about you, and would never outsource manufacturing to anybody.Feel free to think this if it makes you feel better. But the rest of the readers here at Casual Kitchen know that a brand signifies nothing about who makes, packages, or formulates the product inside. Nothing.The only difference is the cost premium of the branded product, paid by you and received by them in the form of excess profit. And... the pill's bigger.READ NEXT: How to Own the Consumer Products Industry--And I Mean Literally Own ItAnd: Consumer Empowerment: How To Self-Fund Your Consumer Products Purchases[...]