Sunday, May 11, 2008


Weight loss seems complicated. There are a ton of different suggestions. Do you eat meat or not eat meat? Are carbs good or are carbs bad? Is fat good or is fat bad? It seems like everybody says something different.

It all can be really complicated.

But the fact is, at its core, weight loss is simple. It's calories in VS calories out.

If you can burn more calories than you take in, you'll start losing weight.

It gets complicated from there, though. For example, if it was really that simple, then all we would have to do is fill up on water every day and not eat anything and we could lose all the weight we wanted. It doesn't work like that, though--starvation diets actually burn up your muscle instead of your fat, and cause hard rebounds.

Let that be good news! It's okay to eat! It's important to eat! In fact, it's vital to eat!

Isn't that great news? You don't have to run a fifty mile marathon this weekend. You don't have to walk around hungry all the time.

Extremes are bad. Moderate changes are good.

The message for this email is this:

You don't have to make huge changes to lose weight. You just have to start making changes.

Simple, right? You don't have to do crazy, insane things to get on the right track.

You just have to start doing something.

Tiny little changes will make a bigger difference in your life than talking big ever will. You can read and talk and study and wish and hope all you want, but if you're still doing the same things, you'll get the same results.

It's that moment you decide to make a change and do something different that you find power. The world changes because of action, not intention.

If an airplane leaves an airport a few tiny degrees off course, it can put it hundreds of miles away from where it would have been by the time it gets to its destination. In the same way, little changes you make add up over time and put you in a very, very different place than you'd have been if you'd kept on the course you were going.

It's not just true in weight loss, but in every aspect of your life:

You don't have to make huge changes to start seeing different results. You just have to be willing to make changes.

Friday, April 11, 2008

How A Beginner Can Learn About The Stock Market

Okay, as of right now, you know next to nothing about the stock market. Zip. Zilch. Nada. You don't know Warren Buffett from the Home Town Buffet.

But you're interested. You'd like to know.

Well, here's my simple, six step plan to go from knowing nothing about stocks to knowing enough to feel comfortable buying a couple.

Notice I didn't say how a beginner can make HUGE money off the stock market or BECOME A MILLIONAIRE off the stock market. The stock market is not so simple that all those late night infomercial programs can make you a bazillionaire. If it was, day trading wouldn't be so hard.

It's just about how to get from where you're at now to where you can buy a couple of stocks and feel confident that you're not throwing your money away. Think of it as a way to do a home study course in the stock market and only having to buy books.

So alright--here we go.

Step 1: Register with an Online Stock Exchange game.

Yes, right now. Before you know anything. Go sign up for an online stock exchange game, set up a "Portfolio" (that's just a collection of the stocks you're going to buy) and buy a couple hundred shares of your favorite companies.

Whatever you like, you can probably buy it. Whether you like coffee and muffins (Starbucks goes by SBUX and Sarah Lee goes by SLE), fancy cars, (Mercedes Benz trades under Daimler AG, as DAI) or comic books and wrestling (Marvel Comics is MVL and World Wrestling Entertainment is, believe it or not, WWE), you can probably buy a bunch of pretend shares of it, or whatever company owns it.

I suggest the Virtual Stock Exchange. It lets you start with $100,000 in play money, and then see what the money does over time. It even lets you do stuff like buy to cover and sell short, which you don't understand now, but you'll want to be able to play around with in the virtual world before you do it for real.

But don't worry about any of that. Just set up an account, and buy, say, 250 shares of 3-5 things that are interesting to you.

See how easy that was? In truth, buying stock is just that easy. Even if you were really buying stock, it would basically be just like whatever you did. You register with somebody, you tell them how many shares to buy, and then you buy them. Like ordering off Amazon.

The hard part is making money at it. So in the next step, you're going to see how you did.

Step 2: Add your online stock game to your homepage tabs.

This is so you can look at it every day. If you started out with $100,000, like on the virtual stock exchange, watch as your money goes up and down. You're going to see that some stocks make you money, and some stocks lose you money.

By just watching some stocks for a couple of days, you'll probably see some of them go up and make you money, and some of them go down and lose you money. That's all you're trying to do at this point, is see how stock prices work.

One of my brothers made this comparison: The price of stocks are kind of like the price of gas. They can go up or down on any given day. By looking at some stocks for a while, you'll start to get an idea of what's a good price and what's a bad price. You know how you can tell when you see a really good price for gas, and you stop right then and grab it? Same thing.

Of course, after you've done this for a while, you'll start to wonder about what all the other numbers and terms and things mean. Or, you'll see one stock doing really, really well and wonder if you should buy it for real. That's when you'll want to go on to . . .

Step 3: Start Reading About Stocks

Yup. Can't get out of reading. But you're reading around on different blogs on the internet, right, so you can't be one of those anti-reading folks.

Of course, reading blogs is different than reading books. Books are often written by stuffed shirts who want to sound smart, not people who want to make stuff easy to understand. So finding the right books can be hard.

Here are some I reccommend:

These are all geared at people who are new to investing, but you should probably start with one of the Motley Fool books if you're feeling ready to dive in or the book "For Dummies" if you're feeling like a dummy. The Peter Lynch books are more about how to pick stocks, while the others have the basics of what they are and what all the numbers mean.

They're all well written books. All of them are written with regular people in mind.

Of course, while you're reading, you'll also want to . . .

Step 4: Try out what you're reading.

When you come across a suggestion or information, you can try it on your online stock games with your play money. When Peter Lynch says go to the mall and see which stores are crowded, you can really go to the mall, really see which stores are crowded, and then come home and buy stocks on your online game, safe in the knowledge that it's all just pretend.

Trust me, it'll be fun.

Step 5: Do this for a while.

One of the things you're going to find out as you start reading your books is that day trading is insane. If you think you can make big money on the stock market by guessing what stock is going to go up a bunch by Teusday (or, even worse, by two o'clock today), then turn those late night infomercials back on and have a good time. The rest of us have jobs during the day and we can't sit around sweating about whether we're going to miss the chance to hit that mark we were going for when it hits for 15 minutes in the afternoon.

Instead, where you're going to make your money is by buying companies that are doing well, and then keeping hold of them while they're doing well. This means you might not know for a while whether the strategies are paying off.

Now seriously, you don't want to play this game for 10 years just to see if your long-term strategies are paying off--those are 10 years your real money could have been making more real money in the market. So how long is good?

The answer depends on you. I'd suggest no less than three months and no more than a year. Three months represents a full quarter of a fiscal year, and you should have a chance to see a bunch of things happen to your stocks, including the effects of your company's quarterly reports. But of course, that depends on how confident you're feeling with where you're at--basically, repeat this until you have a couple of stocks you feel ready to go in on for real.

But don't wait too long--the stocks that you've decided are good probably aren't going to get that much cheaper if you wait.

ShareBuilder - Welcome page Step 6: Buy some stocks.

Yeah, I know. You don't feel completely ready. Well, go ahead and dive in. Find a good online discount broker and make your first purchases.

I suggest you go with ShareBuilder. Not only do they offer cheap trades, but also offer something similar to "Drip." What this means is you don't have to have the full price of a stock in order to buy a share.

Most brokers simply sell you a number of shares. If a stock is selling for $360 a share, to buy a share you'd have to have $360. To buy, you'd have to buy in multiples of $360.

What Sharebuilder lets you do is buy shares based on the dollar amount, rather than on the number of shares.

Let's say stock X is trading for $40. If I had $100 to invest, most brokers would say, "I can get you two shares," and give you $20 change. With Sharebuilder, I can say, "Buy $100 of Stock X," and they'll just give me credit for 2.5 shares.

If I tell them to take $100 a month to buy stock X, I can also take advantage of Dollar Cost Averaging as my $100 goes in each month. (What's that? Nope, I'm not going to help you on that one. You got to read the books.)

There you have it!

Six steps to go from greenie to novice.

You don't have to follow these steps, of course. You could just go straight to sharebuilder and start buying up the companies you dig, literally going from average joe to stock market mogul in an afternoon.

But I think you'll find that with a little preparation, you can not only walk through those big golden doors of stock ownership feeling confident, but like the twin bouncers of Bull and Bear aren't going to kick you out on your kiester.

Follow these steps, and a few months from now, when your friends are complaining about their holiday credit card bills, you can ask them to fill out those checks carefully, because just a bit of it goes to you (Visa trades simply as V).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Why Fund Your 401k - Especially If Your Employer Matches

(Note: The following is an email I sent out at work to encourage employees to start funding their 401k. I thought you all might fight it either motivational or informative.

I still feel that if you have a choice between a 401k and a Roth IRA, pick the IRA. The only exception is if your employer matches your contribution, and then you should fund it up to the max your employer matches before you start funding your IRA. My employer does match some, so here's what I said.)

In April, they will be having 401k open enrollment. The email with the details will be going out on April 1st.

This a great opportunity to invest all or part of your salary increase in a 401k.

Also, for every dollar you contribute to your 401k, the company will match 50 cents, up to the first 6% of your salary. If you contributed a full 6%, this would be like getting a 3% raise.

I believe anyone who started working before January 1st will be eligible.

For those of you who don't know, I'd like to explain a little about how a 401k works. If you're familiar with a 401k, and know how great they are, feel free to skip the rest of this Email. But if you don't know what they are or believe they're that good, read on . . .

Saving for the Future

The secret to building wealth is simple: Spend a little less than you earn.

In his book The Richest Man in Babylon, George S. Clason explains it something like this:

If every day, you put 10 eggs in a basket and every day, you only take out nine eggs, what will happen after a year?

Your eggs probably wouldn't fit, no matter how big your basket was.

The same principle is true for money. If, for every dollar you make, you spend 11, you will dig into debt. If, for every dollar you make you spend 9, you will pile up money for the future.

The Power of Interest

If you saved 10% of your income for 10 years, how much would you have at the end of 10 years?

You probably said 1 year's salary. 10 years at 10% equals 100 percent of your salary.

But that's forgetting something important--your money can also work for you.

Think of every dollar you make as a seed. If you plant it in the right place, it will grow, and bloom other dollars. Your money can actually work for you, making you more money, instead of you working for it.

For example, when we plant $255 with one of our good customers, it comes back to us as $300 two weeks later. The same can be true of your money. If you plant it in the right place, it will grow.

Then, if you plant those new dollars, too, then all of that money starts working together to make you even more money.

So after 10 years, you'd have one year's salary, plus all the interest you earned.

How much is that?

Well, at 10% interest per year, you'd actually have a bit more than a year and a half's worth of salary. Pretty good, eh?

Well that's not the coolest part. Think about this: If you had a year and a half's worth of salary paying 10% interest, at that point, the savings would be making more in interest than you'd be paying each year. If you were putting in 1,000 dollars a year, the interest would be more than $1,500. The money in your 401k would now be working for you, growing itself more than you're growing it with your monthly payments.

In fact, in just a couple more years, you'd be earning twice in interest what you were paying in cash. And a couple years after that, triple in interest what you were paying in cash.

By the 20th year, you'd be making half your salary just in interest.

And then, if you're smart you're thinking this:

How much would it take be earning my full salary in interest? If I was making as much off interest as I get paid, I could retire and just live off the interest!

And the answer is, just five more years. By the end of the twenty-fifth year, you could live just off the interest, free and clear. You could quit your job and go to work where ever you wanted, because it wouldn't matter how much you got paid.

(In fact, if you were really smart, and only had a fifteen year mortgage on your home, now you would be receiving your full income, and have no house payment, all without working!)

Sound like it's a long way off? Maybe you're thinking "Erik, in 25 years, I'm going to be 55! That's too long!"

To which I answer: How old are you going to be in 25 years if you don't save your money?

Real Wealth

Now all that talks about is how to retire. What if you want to have real money?

The answer to that is: The longer the money is in the account, the more it grows.

Guess how much it would cost a 15 year old to retire a millionaire? To have $1,000,000 at age 62, how much would a 15 year old have put away?

Really. Guess. If he was to make a deposit on his 16th and 17th birthdays, and never put in another dime, how much would those deposits have to be for him to retire a millionaire?

The answer? $4,000.

If he put in $2,000 on his 16th birthday and $2,000 on his 17th birthday, the kid could retire a millionaire at 12% interest.

He doesn't have much money. What he has a lot of is time.

I said that at 10% savings at 10% interest, it will take you 25 years to save 10 times your salary so you can live the same as you live now. After that, though, it will only take another seven years to double that and have 20 times your income. Then, you can live off twice as much as you're making right now. During those seven years, you would only earn your salary seven times at your job. But would it would mean another 10 times your salary in the bank.

To make another 10 times your salary? Only another 4 years. Another 10? Only 3 years.

So working another 14 years meant the difference between living your same lifestyle and living off four times your income, and having 40 times your yearly income in the bank.

Two more years, and you'd have 50 times your income. That means that someone making a mere $20,000 a year could retire a millionaire if they put away 10% of their income for 42 years (From 20 to 62), even if they never got a single raise.

In fact, if you've got fifty years to save, you could save a mere $1,000 a year (that's less than $100 a month) and end the fifty years with $1,000,000.

Now I know, I know. You're saying, "Erik, I don't have 50 years!"

And you're right. But the moral of the story is, interest means that the longer the time you have, the less you have to save to reach your goals. How much is it costing you to wait to start?

The 401k

In order to encourage people to save their money so they can take care of themselves in retirement, the government wrote a plan to make it easier to save money. It's called the 401k, after the section of the code that made it into law.

A 401k works like this: The government agrees that if you put your money into a special account, you don't have pay taxes on it until you take it out.

That means that all the money you put into your account comes out of your check before you pay taxes. That means that all of that wonderful interest that you earn in that account is all tax free. It is free to grow without Uncle Sam taking any.

You only have to pay taxes on what you take out. That means that 25 years from now, when you retire and take out one year's salary to live off of, you'll just pay one year's worth of taxes, the same way you did before. Even though you have a ton of money in the account, all you pay taxes on is the part you take out to live on.

There only catch is this: You're not allowed to touch the money until you're 59 and a half.

If you take out money before you're 59 and a half, you have to pay a tax penalty. You can borrow against it, as long as you pay yourself back (so you don't have to borrow money from credit unions and banks any more for certain amounts), but to start fully accessing it with only regular taxes, you can't start until you're 59 and a half.

This is because the government knows how tempted we'll be, when we start seeing those dollars pile up in there, to take it out and spend it. But that would be like a farmer burning up all his seeds. To save us from ourselves, and make sure we have as much as possible when we retire, the government makes us leave it in there where it can grow.

Something To Pass On

No matter how much you pay into social security, when you and your spouse die, that's gone. If you work real hard all your life and die the day before you become eligible for social security, the government just keeps the money you would have been paid.

A 401k isn't like that. All the money in the 401k is yours. If you die, you get to decide who gets it--whether it's your kids or your church or your favorite charity. All that money is real, and it's a legacy you can leave behind.

You can even make stipulations about it in your will, like it has to be used for college or something else you determine.

But it gives you the chance to leave your kids something more than funeral expenses.

Not Just More Money In The Future, But More Money Now

The other benefit is that many companies (ours included) will match a percentage of whatever you put in. In our case, the company will match 50 cents for every dollar we put in, up to the first 6% of your salary. If you make $20,000 a year, and contribute 6% to your 401k ($1,200), the company will put an extra $600 in to match it. $600 that you wouldn't get if you weren't putting money in your 401k.

$600 that can start earning you interest and working for you.

Plus, you're paying less taxes, because you're not paying taxes on the money that goes to the 401k. So even though your check is smaller, part of that would have been going to taxes anyway! Why not let it go to yourself instead?

Plus, if you got a raise, if you only put in the amount the raise was for, then the amount of your check won't really go down much at all.

Take Advantage!

When you watch TV, all of the commercials are for things that are going to cost you money. Even the commercials that pretend to be about how to make money, are really just ways for their authors to make money.

Nobody's going to teach you about what will make you money. Those are things you have to start learning for yourself. A 401k is a good start along that road. With a good 401k program in place, you will have the peace of mind of knowing that your future is secure. It takes away a lot of worry and stress about the future. It can be very hard to tighten the budget to afford to put the money in, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing you're taking care of yourself is worth it.

I hope many of you take advantage when the email comes out next week.

You'll thank yourself later.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Back To School

Sometime back in 1993, I remember waiting in a huge line in an old building to wait until someone could type my application information into a computer so I could start junior college.

Last Friday, I was back at the exact same college doing the exact same thing.

It wasn't the same building. The old administration building had been torn down. The building I was standing in had been a parking lot when I was there last.

There wasn't a line to stand in. I took a number and waited for it to come up on a digital display. (My number was 84. When I took it, the numbers were just turning back over to 01.)

But it still felt, in some ways, like a huge step backwards. Like a 15 year step backwards.

It's not, of course. It's the step forwards that I haven't taken since I stopped going to school after my wife became pregnant with our first child.

So it's the step I haven't made for six years.

And it's what's got to be done.

There's a great old quote that I always think about whenever I'm tempted to put this off any longer.

This guy is complaining about why he can't go back to school. "I can't do it! It would take me at least five years to finish, since I'm working full time. In five years, I'll be forty!"

The other guy nods. "How old will you be in five years if you don't go back to school?"

Whatever the elephant is you gotta eat, that's what you got to think about. If it's going to take a year, or two years, or ten years, don't you still want to get there?

Chances are you've got about 70 or so trips around the sun before you check out. Don't you want to spend a few of those where the goal you have is done?

That's what I've told myself. So that's why I'm on it.

It's already been three years since I started this blog and started telling the world I was going to do something about the elephants I gotta eat. It's about time I hunkered down with the fork and knife.

I still plan to blog, but haven't quite figured out how to incorporate it into the schedule. But blogging keeps me honest, so I got to keep coming back.

Anyways, best of luck with your elephants and wish me luck with mine.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Short Term Effects Of Eating On Weight

Okay, if you saw the Biggest Loser last night, you may have noticed the way Jillian and Bob were going on about the contestants who gave in to the temptation the night before the weigh in.

Especially regarding the man from the Yellow team, who had enough calories left for the day that he didn't go over.

What was the big deal about it being the night before the weigh in? Wouldn't it have gained the same amount of weight no matter which day they did it?

And didn't the man from the yellow team stay under his calories for the day? Why the freak out?

I'm sure Jillian explained this, but the producers didn't show it because they wanted to have more time to show phone calls home.

But here's the deal:

What you eat affects your short-term weight fluctuation.

Here's an example:

Did you ever see that episode of Pee-Wee's Playhouse where the little bully puppet jumped up and down on Pee-Wee's hand, and made him put too much chocolate syrup into the Ice Cream soup? And Pee-Wee thought it was a crisis, until he realized he could just add more ice cream?

It's the same way with your blood.

If you eat too much sodium, that all goes into your blood stream. If your body just left it that way, it would make your blood too high in sodium. Even dangerously high in sodium.

But your body wouldn't allow that. It wants the blood to always have about the same degree of selinity. So it dilutes the blood, with water.

So the more sodium you eat, the more water your body retains. The more water your body retains, the more you weigh.

Same thing with carbs. Excessive carbohydrate intake causes the body to retain extra water to process the carbs. The cheesecake, the M & M's, the peanut butter cups--the contestant's bodies all had to retain extra water to process the simple carbs in the sugar in those foods than it would have if the contestants had eaten their normal meals, more balanced between complex carbs and protein.

This is part of why people lose so much the first week on the show. They're not losing all those pounds of fat. They're losing the fluids the body maintains in order to deal with their unhealthy lifestyles.

Keep this in mind if you're doing any kind of weight loss contest for work or something--as it starts getting close to the final weigh-in, stay away from simple carbs and cut back on the sodium.

Please, please, please, don't abandon the carbs altogether or starve yourself--that stuff is bad for you, and just makes long-term weight loss harder.

But know that the eating decisions you make today can affect your weight in more ways than just the fat it might put on you.

Monday, January 07, 2008

No Good News, And Some Thoughts On That

If I haven't been blogging a lot here, well, it's because things haven't gone well.

I've never really shaken the infamous New Year's Cold, and I've had a hard time putting myself in the right mindset to do this.

It's an interesting position to be in. I think I blogged before about the whole mind-over-matter thing.

It's a lie, of course. Mind-over-matter is really just you-against-yourself. Or in this case, me against myself. There's no mystical "matter" out there that my inner self is struggling to overcome. It's all just me. The part of me that wants to do something, the part of me that wants something else, the part of me that's afraid of something, the part of me that doesn't want to give something up.

I used to write fiction. Can you imagine a fictional character who circles problems as much as we do in real life? Nobody would respect him. A fictional story about a guy who starts out with goals like the ones I outline in this blog and, years later, is even heavier than he was when he started?

Not exactly Jack Bauer.

I love the jokes about the hyper-competent Jack Bauer. Here's one of my favorites:

Somebody once tried to tell Jack Bauer a knock-knock joke. Jack found out who was there, who he was working for, and where the bomb was.

We laugh, because on some level we understand that even though Jack's competence makes us love him, it also makes him a wee bit unbelievable. None of us are that are that capable. All of us screw up, second guess ourselves, second guess each other, and often spend way more time justifying why whatever we have decided to do is okay than we do trying to convince ourselves to do what would be great.

And it's crazy. The principles for happiness are simple. Eat fewer calories than you burn. Spend fewer dollars than you make. Do more for others than you ask them to do for you.

And even though we all know that, intellectually, there's still this part of us on some level that fights that, that doesn't really believe it, or that, if it believes it, believes that it will take long enough to manifest itself in reality that it wants to get in a few last kicks for before settling in for that long draught that will come before the harvest.

Farmers call this "Eating the seed corn."

And I've been doing it, on and off, for years.

I mean, if we want to extend the metaphor, there are times where I'm digging the seed corn up out of the dirt, just to get another handful.

But I think the "No Good News," in the title may be a little misleading.

Because today I did sit down with a counselor at a college and start going over the plans to get me finished with my degree.

This is not an easy thing for me to do.

I remember college. I remember working two jobs, one in the middle of the night, while I had classes at all hours of the day, including morning and evening classes, as well as volunteer hours at the campus TV station. I remember sleeping in snatched moments here and there, always having to set my alarm for a different time before I'd go to sleep.

The prospect of going back to school as a man in his 30s with a full time job and a family is downright terrifying to me.

But I'm going for it. Because ultimately, I can't just sit here, planting and digging up, planting and digging up, planting and digging up.

It's time to leave some stuff in the ground for a while.

Friends With Goals

Her Frogginess, who often graces this blog with her wisdom in the comments section, has started a year-long turnaround blog of her own.

And vlog.

There is also, to quote her categories, "Jibber-Jabber."

And all kinds of other cool stuff, because she's just cool.

Check out The Year Of The Frog.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

How Was Your New Year?

Well, I didn't intend to wait until the new year to start exercising and eating right. I really, really intended to start it all those weeks ago when I started blogging on here again.

But you know how the holidays go.

And then, I did intend to start back up again, both on the fitness as well as the debt, on the first of the year.

And then I got sick.

On December 31st, I started coming down with something. And by the time the New Year was rolling in, even though I had covers over me and the heater on, I still was shivering like Sam McGee. I just couldn't keep warm. Or sleep.

But I still did it! I got up (around one in the afternoon) and popped in one of the two new Biggest Loser DVDs. And guess what?

They're hard.

Especially when you're sick.

Good Times EntertainmentSo it came back out. And I ended up doing a workout that owed a bit more to Leslie Sansone than it did to Jillian Michaels.

But I'm still on track! And not only that, but I went ahead and did what has worked for me the last couple of times I've tried it--I made it a competition.

I went to the person I knew who, quite frankly, is the stupidest person I know to get into a weight loss contest with. My brother who used to work at Vitamin World and who has a workout bench and recumbent bike in his garage.

What am I, nuts?

Maybe. But it will work. You'll see.

Now excuse me. I need to go find a blanket.