The Value of Having a Certified Financial Planner (CFP)

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Today, I wanted to pose the question, “Is having a CFP right for you?” When I first graduated from dental school, I was absolutely lost. Along with the feelings of excitement and pride with my recent accomplishments came a subtle (but over-powering) dread, and a very heavy, invisible weight. I knew I needed guidance, but did not know who to reach out to. I did not exactly have adults in my life who could act as good financial role models (my long historical relationship with money detailed here), and there are very few people I know (outside of my fellow graduates) who really had the problem of paying down half a million dollars in student debt at 26 years old. So I reached out to Andrew Davis, the CFP behind SeamlessFP, who happened to be the husband of a dental classmate, and whose work focused on guiding newly-graduated dental students, specifically. I think it was the best decision we ever made.

On the flip side, there are people who would argue that CFPs are a waste of money, and that money could be used elsewhere. Which is a fair argument. I myself am a big fan of avoiding outsourcing tasks as much as possible. It will take a bit of work, but handling your own finances is totally a doable thing! However, it requires time, which I have value over money. Delving into research isn’t such a scary thought for me, but spending all my free time learning the nuances of taxes, S corporations, estate planning, investments, and more is NOT an enticing thought. So what I want to discuss today is the value of having a CFP to us, and then I leave the decisions to you.

The value of having a CFP

The list of pros for having a CFP versus not having one is quite long, which is a good thing!

  • Pro: Outsource financial planning to free up time, in order to pursue interests, hobbies, work, etc.

As mentioned before, outsourcing financial planning frees up a lot of our time. Time is a resource scarcer than money in the modern world. People seem to always be running out of it, but are still quick to occupy it with tasks, necessary or otherwise. When you think about how much your time is worth, in dollars, can you really put a price to it? Time is the one thing you are constantly running out of, and will never be able to replenish, making it an extremely valuable resource. Being intentional with the tasks I choose to occupy my time is very important to me. Spiritual uplifting, emotional replenishing, mental healing, these are the things that matter and make it a life worth living. NOT constantly worrying, thinking, and dealing with money.

  • Pro: Peace of mind that we are hitting our financial goals in a very step-by-step (and legal) manner.

This is for the DIYers out there. I am a lover of DIY projects and take pride in my ability to be self-sufficient. However, no matter how much of my free time I put into studying the nuances of finances, I cannot possibly keep up to date with the ever-changing rules and regulations. Mike used to do his own taxes with TurboTax and that worked sufficiently well, but once we got married, added in an S-Corporation with its own separate payrolls, well things got too complicated. We started asking ourselves, “How do we know we are following all the rules? How do we know about the fine-print clauses that benefit us? Who will be flagging our attention with every change?” A financial planner gives us peace of mind, knowing that we are on track to hit our goals in a efficient (and legal) manner. There are many minute details that one could miss, but it makes us feel better knowing that we have someone else helping us with that.

  • Pro: Keep up to date with new changes.

The new Tax Bill that passed last year is a great example of this. Even now, nothing is quite set in stone as to how these changes will apply to us. By having a financial planner, we were alerted to the possible beneficial change for S Corporations in the upcoming year, something we would never have known, but definitely can impact our financial plan.

  • Pro: A resource for learning more.

This, by far, is the most beneficial to me. Andrew has been instrumental in educating us about our finances and different paths we can take to achieve financial freedom. He has recommended books, blogs, podcasts, and other resources. He was actually the one who introduced us to the FI community: a community dedicated to reaching financial independence by using life optimization “hacks”. We would not have gone so far on our financial road to freedom without life hacks such as co-housing, travel hacking, YNAB, and more!

Financial planning VS Investment Planning – What’s the difference?

It is important to differentiate between financial planning and investment planning. We do financial planning, which requires a long-term life plan, created by the marriage between our financial past and our dream futures. Our first meeting with Andrew was not something we expected to have. It began with a meeting dedicated wholly to gaining a deep understanding of our personalities, goals, and dreams. It almost felt like a therapy session, with questions such as, “If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you spend your time doing today?” Don’t let that deter you. I think that first meeting was essential to setting the foundation on which we created our entire plan. The process continues to be a constant reassessment of life. Initially, we listed our priorities as traveling, buying a house, yoga subscriptions, guitar lessons, sticking with loan repayment program, and working until we were 65 years old. Now our life still includes travel, but our goals have shifted to standard repayment, renting for the next few years, working less hours, being a blogger, opening a coffee shop, and early retirement from our lines of work, which would possibly lead us to newer lines of work. In this respect, Andrew acts as more than just a financial planner. He is a psychologist, therapist, educator, mediator between spouses, confidant, & friend. This is NOT to be confused with investment planning, where someone advises you where to invest your money. That is included with financial planning, but not the other way around.

The importance of being a fiduciary

A fiduciary requires that someone acts in the best interests of a client. It is important that your CFP is a fiduciary in all aspects. Conflicts arise when CFPs have affiliations with third parties that may sway their advice towards promoting something that benefits them. For example, a person can receive a profit for selling an affiliate insurance. The insurance may be great, however, that person has a motivating factor that would make him want to promote that particular insurance. Even though it can be beneficial for you to sign up with that insurance company, the decision was not completely unbiased. We did not even realize the importance of being a fiduciary until we learned the concept from Andrew himself. 

If you are not sure whether your CFP is a fiduciary, ask! Try to find a fiduciary in all aspects. You want to ensure that you are being treated fairly at all times. Do not be afraid to ask how they get compensated, so that you can truly see where they are getting their money. It may seem awkward to inquire about it, but it is your finances on the line.

What a CFP has done for us, so far

  • Budgeting Help: Our CFP introduced us to budgeting, setting up our YNAB budgeting tool, and helped us develop good budgeting habits. 
  • Analysis between two potential jobs: When Mike was considering making the move from one company to another, we needed help analyzing whether it was a reasonable financial move. It was not simply a comparison between the two different income, but also required factoring in 401k investment matching, health benefit options, life insurances, difference in commute, and level of interest in the line of work.
  • Investment Planning: He has given us advice on how to manage our 401k portfolios as well as given us other investment tips when we reach out for help. We retain full autonomy as to where we want to invest and how much, but having a third person to go over the pros and cons at each step has been helpful. 
  • Health Benefits: We needed help deciding on a health plan, and have chosen one that works well for us thanks to Andrew’s help. After an analysis of our options, an HSA option was also open to us, and we decided to take advantage of that privilege.
  • Renter’s Insurance: Prior to our new place, we did not have renter’s insurance. After seeing the benefits of having that extra coverage at a small monthly cost, we decided to sign up for one right away!
  • Connection to a CPA: Taxes for SCorps can be a bit tricky. A CPA is advised so as not to miss a thing. Initially, I was going to go with the same person my parents have used for years. But after an hour-long interview with him, it became clear to me that he did not know much about taxes as they applied to dentists specifically. He did not even know about the different student loan forgiveness programs, or how an SCorp can be used for tax deductions. It was useful to be referred to a CPA who frequently does taxes for dentists specifically.
  • Set up my SCORP: This was so beneficial to me! It is possible to create a corporation easily online, however, he walked me through the pros and cons of having an SCORP so that I could make an informed decision as to whether this is something I wanted to do. The application for the SCORP was easy but we did meet some humps along the way that he quickly helped me to resolve. 
  • Setting up Gusto and ways to automate my SCORP: Once the SCORP was set up, our CFP took care of creating an automated payroll for me. We use Gusto to manage my payroll, and once it was set up, he easily walked me through the different ways that we can keep track of the payroll via my SCORP. All I have to do is wait for my payments, the system takes care of the rest!
  • Introduction to financial life hacks: I learned tricks such as travel hacking from Andrew and it was he who introduced us to the FIRE and FI communities.
  • Analysis of student loan repayment options: This is the part about our finances that has most affected our lifestyle. He walked us through the different student loan forgiveness programs that we qualified for. After a thorough explanation of each, he created an extrapolation of our financial futures under each repayment option. By using physical numbers, we were able to predict the lifestyle changes associated with each student loan option. Once we had our budgeting in order, he brought to our attention that we were able to pay down student loans without the forgiveness program, thus saving us more than $100,000 in the long run, as well as buying our freedom 15 years earlier than planned. That decision itself was so life-altering for the better, and we would have never gotten to that point on our own. 

We personally benefit from SeamlessFP

Andrew Davis is the CFP behind SeamlessFP. He focuses on helping newly graduated dentists create a financial plan. He does work with non-dentists occasionally, or dentists who have been practicing for a long time. I only know this because we have referred people in those categories who now are working with him too.

There are multiple options one can choose when working with SeamlessFP. A person can do a one-time consultation in order to gain help on a particular goal or project, or they can choose the full life-planning package. We chose to do the latter option. I did not want help with simply setting up an SCORP. I wanted a more thorough analysis of all of our financial details. I was determined to tackle as many aspects as possible to optimize our financial situation. After every meeting, he will upload a list of tasks via an online portal to be completed. This is helpful for people who need someone to hold them accountable to ensure that they continue moving forward with their financial path. Together, we re-analyze continually to see what we can change to optimize even further. A yearly re-cap meeting is held as well, where we go over our dreams and goals for the future (5, 10, 25 years out) so that we aren’t dully following a pre-set path. Besides, a lot changes in a year!

What I like most is that he is eager to help clients learn more about their financial options and situations. It is clear that having his clients make their own decisions (given the facts) is important to him. I can ask him one question, and we will go over the entire topic in detail, prior to him answering my question just so that I know the reasoning behind his answer. It’s scarce to find that these days, and I wholly appreciate it.He may give suggestions but he really makes sure you know that ultimately, the choices are still completely yours to make. It’s easy to see that his goal is to help his clients find the happiness they seek, by eliminating financial stress from the equation. It also helps that he is very accessible via email or text. Typically, responses occur within one day. Additionally, if you choose the latter option, there is unlimited access. Anyone who knows me will easily tell you that I am the type to ask multiple questions, always in search of a deeper understanding of all things. So a CFP who embraces that is gold. Off course, you want to make sure that the CFP you choose is right for you, if it’s right at all. If you have any interest in learning more about our friend Andrew, you can easily set up a one-hour phone call to speak with him and see what services he can offer you and which package is best for what you are trying to achieve.

Overall, I just wanted to shed light on how a CFP has changed our life in this blog post. As always, you do you.

 

Hashtag JOMO: Joy of Missing Out

I was sitting at work one day when a co-worker was walking me through why he throws social gatherings. I had just finished explaining to him that I find him a bit extroverted and he said he definitely is not. So I had challenged him by asking why he throws so many get-togethers if he was, indeed, introverted. In an effort to explain himself, he opened up about some deep, inner wrangling that I think consumes a majority of younger people today, and so I thought I’d share.

“I have a checklist of things I want to do in order to be the type of person I think I should be. Sometimes, when I feel like I’ve been too busy being alone, I think to myself, Ok, I should try to be more social now. So I like to throw get-togethers to check off that box on my checklist. I feel like I have to be social to be a well-rounded person.” 

Whenever I hear millennials verbally rationalize whether or not they should do something or attend an event, I usually hear something similar to what my co-worker expressed. It’s the fear of not being able to check off all the boxes, as if not being able to do everything, achieve everything, excel in everything, socialize all the time, attend every event, and take on every adventure somehow makes you less of a “successful” person. In hashtag terms, it’s the FOMO on life. As if missing out on these opportunities indicates a life less lived. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love opportunities. I love to recognize them and to grasp them, to tackle them head-on. But I think we’ve lost sight of our choices and our lives are being heavily dictated by a four-letter hashtag.

I can relate to my co-worker’s sentiment. Raised to believe that tucking as many achievements under my belt, while knowing as many people as possible, made me a “success”, I was the ultimate “YES”-girl in my late teens and early twenties. I said “Yes” to everything! I don’t even think my brain had time to process what was being asked of me before the positive response flew out of my mouth. It was as if I was a robot programmed for this one particular life mission. Other robots got to shoot stuff or clean houses, and I’m over here spewing “yeses” from my antennae. Sure, it got a lot of people to like me (because I was “Oh so accommodating!”), and yes, I did create a sense of recognition (because “How can one human balance so many achievements at once?”), but honestly, I doubt I did anything much for ME during those early years. Despite all the accolades, saying yes to everything did not actually bring me more joy.

So when did #FOMO start to take root in my generation’s short lives? I think we have social media to thank for the birth of FOMO (literally), however, I believe that “FOMO” was already being instilled in us even before Instagram and Facebook started to compare us against each other. In case you didn’t know, FOMO is an acronym for the term “Fear of Missing Out”. Underlying this fear is the need to be a part of whatever it is that society thinks we should be a part of, which has been shaping us since, well, birth. The biggest factor causing this fear is really our comparison with others, fueled by social media (thanks again!). We can ask, “Missing out on what, exactly?” And the answer is, “Missing out on whatever everyone else has.” We worry that by failing to say yes to everything, we will fall behind our peers, who are in essence, advertised as saying yes to everything. The early bird gets the worm.

What I hate most about this is the falseness of the premise, which is that there is a shortage of opportunities available to us. The reality is, there are way more opportunities available today (too many, at times) than there were a decade ago. By trying to convince us that there is scarcity in the world, we wire ourselves with the need to grab everything we can. It’s a very negative image to paint, dark in color, sour in mood. Instead of seeing someone doing something great on social media and saying, “Wow, that’s so fantastic of you!”, it creates this response of like, “OMG, FOMO”, in a real-life, acronym-only-conversation kind of way.  It’s a concept that sets the groundwork for making people feel as if they are on the outside looking in on the things they AREN’T doing, when in reality, the things they ARE doing may be different, but equally fantastic, too! It creates the need to continually add to one’s life, as if it wasn’t already enough. As if we aren’t enough.

Slowly, societal expectations are limiting our choices. We are brainwashed to think that we cannot create our own definition of success. It’s a pre-determined box that we all have to fit in in order to be considered worthy. And like my co-worker pointed out, there are a lot of boxes to check off. So the fear of missing out (on being “successful”) fuels our need to say “Yes” to as many things as we can, without allowing us to realize that by saying “yes” to one thing, you are essentially saying “no” to other things. We are only one person and it would be impossible to say yes to everything, because the possibilities are infinite. We are given the illusion that we are saying “yes” to everything when in reality, we are saying “yes” to everything society expects us to say yes to. In that sense, we’ve lost our freedom to make a choice, because we are saying no to the things that society has decided has no value.

JOMO is the antithesis of FOMO. It is the JOY of missing out. It’s a concept based around the positivity of abundance, rather than the negativitiy of scarcity. Honestly, we need to take ownership of our lives, and have the power to choose what we do with it. The first step in doing that is to abandon the fear. Who wants to make their life decisions based on fear? What kind of life does that give you? Rather than constantly comparing yourself to the Joneses and living in a state of fear, embrace a heightened state of confidence, of self-belief, of self-freaking-worth. When young people are asked what they want in life, many of them don’t know. They will tell you the standard answers, such as a job, a house, a car, money, a family, but when you dig deeper, they don’t actually know. Was it them that initially wanted this, or did someone convince them that this is what they want? In being shaped at an early age to want certain things and to need to keep up with everyone else, we’ve lost that ability to say, “Hold up. Actually, you know what, that’s not what I want.” Stop the hamster wheel, hop off, and live a human life.

When I attend a party, I am choosing to attend a party, joyously, fully, whole-heartedly, and committedly. Gone are the days when I would be getting ready for a social gathering and dreading it because I did not actually want to go. But I hear this voiced dread ALL THE TIME from people I know. If you don’t want to go, don’t go. There are invitations and events that Mike and I purposefully decline, either because it does not line up with our lifestyle or our values, or what have you. If we determine that we need a weekend to unwind and relax, we aren’t going to try to squeeze in one thing to appease our great aunt, much to a great aunt’s dismay.

The funny thing is that, at times, yes I can be indecisive. But I am the type of person where, when I know, I just know. Once I’ve chosen in a very mindful way, the alternatives kind of disappear. I let them go, wholly and completely, and move on with my life. There should not be any regrets if you really, truly, joyfully choose one thing over another. There’s no looking back and wondering the whole night how the party you declined is faring, who is talking to who, etc. There is no (and there shouldn’t be) any concern for things that do not add value to your life. If you are left wondering about who went where and what so and so did, you have not completely freed yourself from those comparisons. In fact, I would like to point out that you may be obsessed by other people’s lives, at the expense of living your own.

JOMO can only be achieved once you switch your perspective to one of gratitude. It’s seeing that what you have is worth something. You don’t have to keep chasing the grass that may or may not be greener on the other side. Really ask yourself “Why?” Why are you making the choices you are making? If you are here, but you want to be over there, then go over there! But for God’s sake, don’t look back and think, “Ugh, I should have stayed over there.” Understand that you cannot have everything, but you can choose the things that you actually want. It’s the intentionality of it all that attracts me. The ability to choose. The FREEDOM. It’s so empowering. I hesitate to even embrace JOMO – because of the term “missing out” within it. You AREN’T missing out. You simply chose something else. And who’s to say THEY aren’t missing out on what YOU have? Po-tay-toe, Po-tah-toe. 

In 2017, YES-girl realized she had a superpower, and that was the power to say “No”. I was slowly breaking free from my robotic charm. My hardware must’ve gone a bit haywire because I started to say no to more and more things, events, statuses, and even relationships. In doing so, I became more in control of my own life. I was freer, lighter, happier, and ultimately, I learned more about who I was and who I wanted to be.

I had an old friend once comment that “I had reached an unreasonable state of happiness.” It’s not as if I’ve discovered this happiness like some fountain of youth or other mystical thing, and that it was unfathomable, as if it could not really, truly be achieved. I was pretty proud of that statement, false as it may be. I think anyone can reach this happy stage. They just have to stop being tied down by the fear of not being everyone else.

Choose JOMO.

But seriously, I’m not using that as a hashtag.

Cultivating Happiness by Going Back to the Breath.

When I first stepped into a yoga studio, I was not in search of an awakening of sorts. I was twenty and I had not started the search for my life’s purpose or meaning. I wasn’t even aware that I had yet to find my true self. In a way, Yoga was the one who found me, and has been creeping into life’s little crevices ever since, teaching me that only one thing keeps us fully alive, that which is our life source: the breath.

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I attended my first yoga class to support a best friend from high school , J. Lowe,  (pictured above and throughout this post) who just discovered yoga and was teaching her first class. A third bestie completed our trio and we brought along Mike and a roommate of his. I saw the class solely as an exercise routine. Although we were being reminded throughout class to return to our breath, I was too busy concentrating on the sweat dripping down from my forehead to my toes, causing me to slip and slide from my mat like a waterslide laid out amidst summer grass. My mind, a restless wanderer, was constantly wondering whether anyone was looking at me and what they thought of my stance. I was shy of my newbie skill set and the inability to hold postures as gracefully as some of the other swans in the room. I was exhausted ten minutes in, and realized that I didn’t have a single thread of muscle in my puny body. I kept wondering when the hour would be up, looking forward to eating something soon, despite the late hour. I thought that this would be way easier, if only I didn’t have bangs. I was looking around to see what posture to hold, what everyone was wearing, how my friends were faring.

At that point in my life, I had what they call a monkey mind. All these thoughts that had nothing to do with the yoga itself kept barging in and disrupting me and my process. Accompanied with these thoughts were a collection of emotions. Shyness, frustration, insecurity, loneliness, tiredness, empathy, embarrassment, anger, happiness, restlessness, hunger, to name a few and not necessarily in that order. It was an accurate representation of what my life was, a mirrored reflection of a million particles squeezed into a tiny space and creating tumultuous friction as they collided and fought for my attention.

A chase is a word I so lovingly use to describe my past lifestyle. Fast forward a few years later, where I started to do a bit of soul searching to answer one main question. How can I find happiness? I started with the question, “What will make me happy?” and I didn’t stop asking follow up questions. Even now, I still haven’t stopped.

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If you ask somebody what will make them happy, they may say, money will make me happy. Okay why money? Because I will have the ability to pay for food on the table. Okay why food? Because I want to go through every day knowing that I won’t go hungry. Okay why don’t you want to go hungry? Because I don’t want to suffer or feel pain. What will make you feel pain? Being constricted. What else will make you feel constricted? A work schedule, a timeline, expectations… and so on and so forth. And when you strip it down to the barest ingredient, what I found in all my answers was that external forces, things you cannot control, those are what causes a majority of our negative emotions. These external causes of unhappiness include material goods, status, pressures, expectations, and so on. Internal forces, those that we can control because they are inside of us, are the weapons with which we can yield and carve and create our own happiness. They say that happiness comes from within, and I wholly believe in that. I write all the time about how all these things we try to purchase and achieve and accomplish, maybe they will bring us happiness, momentarily, but that happiness will fade. And like some addicting drug, you will then need more to trigger that happiness again, and then even more. The chase will have you wasting your life away trying to find a happiness that is temporary, when you can slow life down and find happiness that is constant.

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As with the yoga example, the external forces are what create a majority of our discomfort on and off the mat. When I was first learning the poses, I would remember being uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of having pain, in some of the more advanced body configurations. What was even worse, was the narrative that quickly followed that pain. My monkey mind would ask me questions like, “What am I doing here?”, “There’s no way you can make it until the end of the class”, “Everybody is watching you fail”, “You’ll never get to be as good as them”, etc. And with that story comes the emotions listed above. As those emotions got triggered, the physical pain would actually feel worse, solely because it is perceived as larger than what it truly is, after being brought to the forefront of the mind. Much of the suffering comes from the emotions we tie to the actions, rather than the action itself. It’s the story that kills us. Slowly, over time, I developed a way to let these thoughts go, which then allowed me to control the amount of suffering there was. Once I let the narrative float by, like clouds, or the thoughts run through, like water, I became more able to sit in those positions with a feeling of groundedness, or contentment. There is a sense of peace that comes with letting things go and returning to the breath, focusing on the one thing that really matters in our life. I learned so much from this lesson than any other lesson about what it really means to be a human being.

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“There are inevitably going to be these pains that arise, whether they are physical, emotional, loss of a loved one, things not going exactly as you want them to go. But the story that we layer on top of that… that actually creates a more intense layer of suffering that can impede this deeper layer of happiness that we are often looking for.”                                                                                            -Corey Muscara

Do you ever notice how a lot of tension in our lives come from the resistance towards things that are happening to us? Instead of pushing back, trying to reshape what happens, forcing control over situations, try to just let it happen. Once I got into that space, I started to really feel free. It was not that everything became one hundred percent perfect, la-dee-da in my life. There were still days when I felt tired, when Mike and I had different viewpoints, when money seemed to control everything, when I had an explosion of emotions, and when my thoughts continued to be all over the place, but my relationship towards everything has shifted to a place of disconnect from these external factors, and somehow, I ended up more grounded. Imagine being tied down to all of these things when the hypothetical tornado hits. These things will just fly up in the air, and you along with it. But to be fully free from it means that you will find an easier time planting your feet solidly on the ground. The ability to watch a whirlwind of life’s surprises pass you by without being swayed is a superpower that we have, but we fail to cultivate. I have found only one way of strengthening that power, and that is to return to the breath.

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To try, at home.

Try to sit cross-legged in a room for even five minutes and focus on your breath. If this is the first time you are trying this, it will be very difficult. Your mind will wander through a rabbit hole, and may possibly never come back. But try to allow these thoughts to simply pass. Practice letting it go and coming back to the breath every time.

Do this at least once a day when your space and mind is clear. I do this while going through a flow in my living room in the early mornings, as the sun peaks through our glass door. Usually, it’s after my roommate and Mike have left, so that the space is quiet and still. Typically, I prefer to do this prior to work, just to clear my head and reap all the benefits. Sometimes, it’s good to come back to in the evenings before bed, just to let everything go. Whatever works for your schedule will be fine.

It has taken me years to get to the point I am at now, but it is still nowhere close to the point I want to be. I have an outlandish dream of being ordained as a monk at some point in my life, and while that seems too crazy to come to fruition, I try in my everyday life to at least be a bit better at letting go. While I am not writing this as a way to get all hippie on you, I am hoping that sharing this experience will (even minutely) increase happiness in the world.

For flows from my friend J. Lowe, check out her YouTube channel or subscribe to her newsletters.

Thoughts on: Why perspective matters.

I took an unpremeditated photo of my husband today as we were sitting over a cup (or three … each… ) of coffee. Waving my camera around and snapping random moments in our lives is a commonplace occurrence, to the annoyance of my husband. Unfortunately for him, it yields an extremely high number of candid shots (of only him), all of which I find attractive, some of which he does not. Either way, I was photographing our usual coffee scene (from above, as all Instragrammers do), when I noticed his flippant hair. Tousled and forgotten momentarily as he was scrolling through his phone for the next song on our queue, I decided to photograph its wild and crazy nature. The original photo looked like this:

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Half an hour later, my husband went downstairs to wash his car and I pulled out my cell phone and flipped through some of my most recent shots on my Sony Alpha 6300. I landed on the above photo and decided to post it on Instagram, with the caption “Wild thing” in mind. Then I went to crop. Accidentally cropping off too much from the bottom, I landed on this:

MIKE FLOATING HEAD

Immediately, my perspective changed. By cropping out the shoulders, the image looked like a floating head. Initially, I was slightly shocked, then excited. Suddenly, a whimsical and fairly meaningless photo became a work of art. If one stares long enough, the floating head is all they see. And without any context as to the original photo, I could see this one being featured in some gallery, with viewers ONLY seeing the floating head. Which then inspired this blog post, about the importance of perspective.

A change in perspective can turn your worldview upside down.

MIKE FLOATING HEAD upside down

I like to think of one’s perspective as a lens. We have our own realities, which are created by our individual perspectives. A person can see the world through a different lens from your own. Is that not true? Having the ability to see the world from a different perspective, ie: someone else’s, is a super power that can not only increase one’s empathy, but can also increase one’s happiness. The world can use more of both.

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Usually, when we are frustrated by someone else’s actions, it is because their actions do not mirror our own values. Our frustration, and anger, comes from our inability to understand why they would do such a thing or act in a certain way. A person who grew up in a well-off community may have difficulty understanding what a teenager is doing by roaming the streets as part of a gang at the age of fifteen. The first may see the latter as a rebellious vagabond who threw his life away. But perhaps seeing that this teenager comes from an abusive family may help one to realize that he isn’t rebellious, but rather, is lost, and finds the meaning of family in the only group that supports him and protects him.

Whenever you feel like criticizing any one…just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.     –Scott Fitzgerald

 

As always, I can relate this easily with dentistry. A patient can walk in and refuse to take their mandatory radiographs every 18 months. They read from the internet that radiation can cause cancer, and they want to limit the amount of radiation they receive. A dentist can argue that the amount of radiation received from a set of radiographs equals the amount of radiation we receive from sitting in front of a television for ONE day. The radiation is only received once over the span of 18 months, while the average American sits in front of the television screen for more hours than that over the same time span. A dentist can also argue that the pros of taking radiographs (through early detection of tooth decay) can overcome the cons of the comparatively minor amount of radiation received. Without understanding the source of the patient’s aversion towards radiographs, a dentist can easily (and wrongly) assume that the patient is being non-compliant for the sake of being difficult. Not understanding the dentist’s interest of early prevention of caries formation, a patient can just as quickly assume that the dentist is only trying to make additional money by ordering the radiographs. Without seeing the other’s perspective, one can see how the patient can get offended that the dentist “doesn’t care for his well-being” and how the dentist can arrive at the conclusion that “I must dismiss this patient”. All of this leads to frustration, anger, and mistrust. Both the patient and the dentist may feel equally disrespected. By changing your perspective and understanding that the “non-compliance” stems from something else, something deeper, some different reality, you can bridge the gap between the two different schools of thought by simply asking, “Why?” By trying to understand another person’s perspective, we can begin to increase our empathy towards others. I like to think that people are not being difficult, for the sake of being difficult (also read as: for the sake of pissing you off). People are difficult to understand because YOU are lacking some missing piece that will relate you to them. This is how I like to practice dentistry, and how I try to treat people in general.

You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.  -John Steinbeck

 

From here you can see that changing perspective can increase one’s happiness. At the very least, it decreases the frustration, anger, confusion, disconnect, mistrust, bitterness, etc. that one feels when they refuse to look through a wider (or different) lens.

The Dalai Lama expresses in The Book of Joy that perspective is a pillar of happiness. It was actually listed as the first of the 8 pillars. The Dalai Lama was exiled from his home country, yet reacted not with anger, but with the realization of the opportunity to meet extraordinary people. Likewise, by realizing that someone is suffering, we are able to recognize a part of ourselves within their suffering.

Empathy is the lovefire of sweet remembrance and shared understanding.     -John Eaton

 

I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve been there before. I’ve felt lonely, misunderstood, neglected, and judged. You too, I presume. And from that suffering, we can experience happiness. We are more grateful when we are not in the same position that the other is in, because we remember how it felt to once be in their shoes. How many times have we said, “Thank goodness that didn’t happen to me!”? Usually, it’s because we recognize how it felt when it did happen to us in the past, and thus, we can extrapolate or conclude what it must feel like for the other person in the present. But we must go one step further, past the selfish happiness. Realizing that we have experienced suffering before, just as they do now, we can connect with others, and thus transcend pre-conceived differences, that are actually not differences at all. After breaking down those barriers that once separated us, we can help each other in our suffering. The social value which that brings is the one immeasurable thing that can increase our own happiness. And this is why perspective matters.

 

Empathy is the only human superpower – it can shrink distance, cut through social and power hierarchies, transcend differences, and provoke political and social change.     -Elizabeth Thomas

 

So next time you feel frustrated because of something happening in your life, try to change your perspective, become more empathetic, and experience more happiness, with the realization that we are a reflection of one another, in some way.

All of this, because I took a candid photo.

Shout out to my husband, who is always there to take photos of. Without which, this blog post would not have been inspired, and consequently, would not have ever been written. Sorry about posting your head shot a zillion times (not sorry). 

Zero Waste: Consumable Christmas Gifts

Nothing makes me more happy than receiving a thoughtful gift that procured zero waste in the process of its making and of its giving. Recently, I have preferred consumable gifts over material gifts. This could be something as literal as food or drink, and as metaphoric as a e-book or experience. The idea is that the gift can be enjoyed by the receiver, but does not linger after the enjoyment has concluded. It doesn’t require additional storage, and does not call for de-cluttering at the end of the experience.

If you are interested in such a gift idea, may I recommend homemade Christmas treats? My best friend from high school and her family make homemade treats every year, namely chocolate covered toffee, peanut brittle, and candied almonds. When I asked her what started this tradition, she says that every year, her family makes peanut brittle to ship to her grandpa in Pennsylvania. She just started to make more treats in additionto ship to their friends and family as a Christmas present. The positive outcomes are two-fold. First, it requires a bit of spending time together (gasp!) and gathering as a family to create something for other people. In the spirit of giving, it gives the gift of time, hard work, and personal touch. Second, it creates what I would consider a zero waste present, that is enjoyed and then, well, digested. It may be argued that she does use a shipping box and paper to package the thing and ship to the home, an easily skipped process if one would like to deliver in person. But personally, I love opening my mail box and finding the surprise every year. If you can stomach the small price to pay in order to surprise someone, then wonderful! If not, wrap furoshiki style and deliver at the next gathering, which I hope are many during this time of year. In either case, here’s a little how-to, for some last-minute gift wrangling, minus the excessive spending.

Candied Almonds

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Ingredients:

  • 12cup water
  • 12cups sugar
  • 1teaspoon cinnamon (or more to taste)
  • 1lb almonds, with skins

Directions:

  1. Bring water, sugar and cinnamon to a boil;stirring constantly.
  2. Add almonds and toss to coat.
  3. Remove almonds with slotted spoon.
  4. Arrange on greased baking pan.
  5. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes, basting twice with reserved syrup.
  6. Cool.
  7. Store airtight.

Peanut Brittle

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Ingredients:

Directions:

  1. Grease a large cookie sheet. Set aside.
  2. In a heavy 2 quart saucepan, over medium heat, bring to a boil sugar, corn syrup, salt, and water. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Stir in peanuts. Set candy thermometer in place, and continue cooking. Stir frequently until temperature reaches 300 degrees F (150 degrees C), or until a small amount of mixture dropped into very cold water separates into hard and brittle threads.
  3. Remove from heat; immediately stir in butter and baking soda; pour at once onto cookie sheet. With 2 forks, lift and pull peanut mixture into rectangle about 14×12 inches; cool. Snap candy into pieces.

Chocolate Covered Chewy Caramel Candy

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Ingredients:

  • 1 pound milk chocolate
  • Your favorite chewy caramel candy

Directions:

  1. Melt milk chocolate in a saucepan
  2. Cover caramel candy and place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper.
  3. Place tray in the fridge to cool.

New Norms: Saying No to Secret Santa

As we continue with the holiday season (Christmas is less than two weeks away!), I continue reassessing the traditions that come with it. I find myself participating in festivities for the sake of tradition, which is never a good reason to participate in the first place. Tradition keeps people repeating the same thing over and over again, is based mostly on emotions associated with the past, and usually involve rigid practices. There is no room for creativity with tradition, no room for forward thinking. Awareness sheds light on the fact that it isn’t really I who wants to partake in the yule tide carols, just like I realized long ago that it wasn’t really my choice to go to church. But every Sunday I woke up and went to church and sang in the choir for 12 years. I attended every single Easter Vigil Mass, Palm Sunday Mass, and Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, until there came I point where I felt it strongly in my heart that it was not my own decision and to continue doing so would be fraudulent. I still live a selectively Roman Catholic lifestyle in terms of ethics, but without the absolution and the rituals. I took some of the lessons with me, but got rid of those that did not serve me. Likewise, I carried that mindfulness over to the holiday season. Picking and choosing which parts of the holiday I still want to keep for myself is difficult to do without feeling like much of a Grinch, if it weren’t for the core group of like-minded people I’ve surrounded myself with to support me.

I vividly remember going out to lunch with a high school best friend the week before Thanksgiving. Prior to high school, I moved 10 times in my life, so the high school friends that I kept in touch with over the years are technically my longest friends. Everyone else before high school, I have lost touch with, mostly because I was young, and partially because pen pals stopped being “a thing” in early 2000s. There are only a few high school friends that I still talk to today, and they are the people who have the same views on life as I do. Those who I grew apart from I don’t have contact much with, because like tradition, keeping in touch with someone for old time’s sake is, to me, a waste of time.

But I digress. My high school friend and I met up for our occasional lunch dates on a day that I had off. Typical of our usual dates, I would drive to her work place and she would take her lunch break after I have arrived, so that we could go and grab something to eat. We were sitting outside in sunny California weather, when she brought up the topic of Secret Santa at the workplace.

“I hate Secret Santa,” she said to me. She explained that every year, her workplace does Secret Santa with a minimum spending limit of $25. However, people at work don’t really know each other on a personal level. So every year the presents are the same, generic presents, usually alcohol-related or Starbucks gift cards, or if you’re unlucky, an item that you don’t even want. My friend doesn’t drink alcohol, like myself, so I can see why the alcohol bit is a turn off in the first place. Plus, she said something that made an imprint in my memory. “If I want Starbucks, I can buy myself Starbucks. I don’t need someone to be required to buy me my own coffee.” She was so frustrated with the whole thing and with an exasperated sigh, she told me, “So this year, I told them I wasn’t going to do it.” I kind of just looked at her, until something in my brain clicked. You can say no. I think I had that OMG-AHA! moment, and she laughs lightly and says, “So far, I’m the only one who said no. Let’s see what happens.” She shrugged and I laughed with her and told her that she was a genius.

The funny thing is, as early as October, I sent my extended family on both sides quite a long email about how I do not want presents for the holidays this year because I was trying to be more mindful. Every year, I get about 20 presents from my extended family, mostly stuff I do not want or need, and within the first few months, I have to find a way to de-clutter it all. So I wrote to them explaining that there is no need for presents and if they wish to gift, to consider maybe donating to charity. So the concept of opting out isn’t new, but for some reason, I never thought to extend that to other groups of people, with other traditions.

So off course, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, someone came around my work handing out little pieces of paper for our Secret Santa. They asked me to list three things on it, and to return it to them at the end of the day. I grudgingly took the piece of paper, and remember thinking about it, folding it up, and tucking it in my lab coat, as if in slow motion. During downtime throughout the day, I kept thinking, what do I want? I even took out a little black notebook from my purse and a pen to jot down ideas. I came up blank. I couldn’t really think of what to ask for, because the few things I wanted, I had already asked my parents and brother and sister to get for me. And then I thought of it. What I want is to not participate this year. If I had to rack my brain to come up with even ONE thing to ask for, I do not actually WANT that one thing. I only want it because I was told that I need to want something.

I texted Mike right away and told him that I was asked to do Secret Santa but that I don’t feel like doing it. That same day, Mike had been debating about going to a work lunch outing. One of his managers was leaving, and the team was going to go out to celebrate, at lunch, AND after work at Happy Hour. Mike didn’t want to celebrate twice, spend twice as much money, and twice as much time. He had been talking to me about this the last few days, and I told him, well, you could skip the lunch? I could tell that he felt the pressure to join the entire team to take their manager out to lunch, but that he really did not want to go out twice. So when I texted him about my Secret Santa dilemma, he texted back and said, “Okay, don’t do it. I told them no to the lunch thing. You can do it too.” And just like that, I texted Mike a quick “Thanks!” and texted my high school friend saying, “Guess what! I’m saying no to Secret Santa too, just like you! I don’t want to spend $50 to buy someone a present when I can’t even think of a single thing I want someone to buy for me.” To which she said, “$50?!?! People ARE insane.”

I did not mention the Secret Santa to my coworkers for the rest of the day. Towards the end of the day the office manager asked for my slip of paper. I looked at him and simply told him, “I’m sorry. But I cannot think of one single thing I want to ask for. I don’t want to participate in the Secret Santa.” Surprisingly enough, he just smiled and said, “Okay!”

And the snowball kept on rolling. Here are other things we’ve done to change up so called traditions.

  • Me, Mike, and the sister in law trying to convince Mike’s mom’s side to drop Secret Santa. When we got a lot of push back, convincing them to decrease spending from $50 to $25.
  • Texting the girlfriends and asking not to exchange gifts this year.
  • Cutting our spending on our family members’ gifts by half. Asking family members if we can split their gifts with other family members.
  • Switching up which extended family gets Christmas Day.
  • Not agreeing to attend my family’s yearly Las Vegas trip.
  • Backing out of some family Secret Santa’s, AFTER the names have been drawn. Telling them to re-draw names, because we no longer want to participate in gift exchanges for parties we aren’t even able to attend.
  • No longer continuing the tradition of buying Christmas decoration during Christmas time. Exception: The Christmas tree. Still debating if it was a worthy purchase, but enjoying its scent and bareness. Likely to be a continued tradition.

Here are traditions we still kept:

  • Gift exchange with immediate family members and one secret santa exchange with our core group of ten friends
  • The aforementioned Christmas tree
  • Occasional Christmas music

Decisions still to be made:

  • Will I attend the holiday party this year? I am absolutely dreading it. I was talking to Mike last night about how much I did not want to go. I work at two different offices, owned by the same guy, but with two completely different Christmas parties. One is more reserved and polite, and the other is just straight up rowdy. This year, I am working with the latter on the day of the party, which means that is the party I am invited to. Every year, they go out to a restaurant or bar as a group, and there’s lots of tequila shots being passed around. Stories of people getting hammered and blacking out continue on to the following Christmas. Stories of continuing the party afterwards at some club. I would rather go home and read. I’m leaning towards skipping out on those “festivities”, though I’ve already had multiple people questioning me whether I can make it. It’d be nice not to.

Grateful for my high school friend, Mike, and the sister in law for being of the same mind. Grateful for our families who have been very open and accepting of our new no gifts rule. Grateful for change, and the ability to think for myself. Grateful for old traditions, but even more so, newer traditions.

How is your Christmas changing?

Frugal Challenge: Co-housing

There seems to be this taboo in the United States about having roommates after you are married. The general concensus is that once you are married, you two should symbolize your ability to provide for yourselves by living in your own home. When you continue to live with your parents or family, people almost look down on you and judge you, saying things like, “They aren’t capable of living on their own. Why did they get married then?” Couples who live with family members or friends are almost embarrassed to reveal this to others. People who are serious about each other or who are married feel this pressure to hunker down and find their own home. An even greater pressure exists for people to BUY their own home right after they get married, because that’s the next thing to do before having kids, right?

This is not common in other parts of the world. Couples live with families to create communities that act as support for their growing families. Some would argue that most families do this out of need, maybe in third world countries, because they do not have the resources to care for themselves. But this isn’t true. In Denmark, which is known as the happiest country on Earth, there are co-housing communities where there are 20 or so homes in the same area for non-related families. These housing communities were featured on the documentary “Happy”. They work together to cook, and clean, and care for the children. Each family member has a day of the month where they have to cook for everyone, say 40 people in the case of the documentary below. Even though it takes 3-4 hours to cook that one day, the rest of the month, they don’t have to worry about coming home to cook. We deal with stresses all the time about buying groceries, figuring out what to make, cooking every day, doing the dishes every day, etc. Imagine doing that only once a month, and then the rest of the month, you come home, shower, and you have 3-4 hours to relax and be with your kids. There is also a sense of community and support that your family receives. The kids have friends at home that they can grow with, and they have plenty of adults who they know will care for them. This is one of the things that sets Denmark apart, but it is being embraced more and more by other countries such as Canada. What people have started to realize is that the community is really enriching and plays a huge role in one’s happiness. Compare that to the United States, where most families with young children experience a lot of stress and feelings of isolation, countries with communal living tend to report higher satisfaction with life among their citizens.

 

Mike has spent his whole life with roommates, and for the most part, so have I. Rather than “live together” the way most couples do, we spent my last two years of dental school “living together” in a house with 2 of his college friends, and we both had separate rooms. We enjoyed this version of communal living. Each of the four roommates had their own bedroom and we came out and hung out with each other in the common living areas. I lived at home throughout my whole undergrad and I was used to always having people over, eating dinner together as a group, and sharing chores. When I started dental school, I lived by myself for the first year, but I was honestly hardly ever home. Talk about your biggest financial mistake. My second year I lived with one roommate and I realized that I thoroughly enjoyed living with other people. When I lived with Mike and the boys, I realized even more that there was a lot of value with communal living. Whenever I was stressed, there was always some way to relieve it, whether it be hanging out with our friends or talking with them and asking them for advice.

When we decided to get married, we did what any other couple would do, which was find our dream home and move into it, just he and I. We’ve loved every minute of it, but there is just too much space for the two of us. There has been a lot of talk about potentially moving the last few weeks. We have been considering downsizing, looking for smaller apartments to rent in order to save money but also simply for the sake of downsizing. And then I did what I usually do and started re-assessing.

Two of our closest friends just got married last month to each other. They have been renting a house with a third roommate for the past year or so. When asked if they were going to move into their own space, my friend said, “Why would I do that?! My dream is to buy a house and have all my friends live in it in the separate rooms and help me with the mortgage.” Absolute genius, I tell you. They liked living with their friend, and it was a smart financial move to keep living with each other. The three of them wouldn’t have to hassle with finding a new place and physically moving all of their stuff. Nothing changed after they got married, and why did people make it feel like it had to? And just like that the stars aligned.

The day after Mike and I decided not to commit to a potential rental and to continue living at our loft, we learned that my brother’s recently graduated girlfriend found a job in Irvine and is looking for studios in Fullerton or Orange. She was looking at rentals at the price of $1300. We offered her the entire first floor of our three story loft, with her own bedroom and full bathroom for half the price. We are very excited to say that we now have a new roommate joining us around me and Mike’s one year anniversary. We cannot be more excited to welcome someone else into our home! Frankly, I’ve been missing my roommates dearly. I’ve spent hours and hours trying to find a cheaper rental without sacrificing the coolness of our space. And I highly enjoy spending time with our new found roommate. This couldn’t have been a better opportunity. She will have a significantly decreased rent, without the need to buy the usual household items new-grads have to buy when they start living on their own. Mike and I save on rent and can put the extra money towards my student loans. And we will all have additional company and people to hang out with and help around the house. Rather than moving to a new place, we took a step back and moved towards the right direction.

Yet another way we are challenging social norms with the intent of getting closer to living the life that’s right for us. And hey, who knows! Maybe over time, the United States could start to embrace the co-housing community concept too.

This post is dedicated to our friend Chad, who made us see an alternative to the housing strategy. Thank you.