How do people do it?

Sunset on the balcony

It’s not hard to look around and be amazed.

You hear about your co-worker’s most recent trip to Hawaii. Your friends post on Instagram a gorgeous sunset taken from the middle of the South Pacific. And then you move on over to Facebook and read about your friend from high school who just bought this amazing home on a hillside in California.

And then you look around at your tiny, cramped place. Your thoughts might turn to your student loans, or your meager budget that your salary allows. You haven’t been anywhere that cool in a long time.

You may ask yourself: how do these people do it? What do they have that I don’t? Did they have rich parents that gave them a leg up? Did they leverage their privilege? Were they just lucky?

Or am I just unlucky?

While it is true that there is some element of luck and privilege, when it comes to seeing other people’s charmed lives, there is one important lesson that you might be forgetting.

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How to pay for non-emergencies

Bucket being filled

We know what an emergency is. It’s an incident that is both unexpected, urgent, and unavoidable (and unfortunate).

When you have an emergency, you use money from your emergency fund. (And if you have debt, here’s how you can still have an emergency fund.)

When you have situation that’s not an emergency, you don’t touch that emergency fund.

But you still need to pay for it.

But how? Here’s a guide.

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How to know when something is really an emergency

U Boat

I’ve talked a lot about emergencies, those unfortunate aspects of life that you have to deal with sometimes, ones that often require a monetary outlay (dipping into your emergency fund, if you have one).

I’ve made comments as to things that can feel like emergencies that actually aren’t. The example I often use is that of car repairs. Is a car repair an emergency? Well, it depends, of course, but take the specific example of that perennial annoyance, new brakes. Can it really be said that you didn’t know you were going need new brakes at some point?

(For the record, this website states that brake pads need to be replaced after about 50,000 miles on average, but some “need to be replaced after 25,000, while others can last for 70,000 miles”.)

But if you crash your car into a pole, certainly that is an emergency, isn’t it?

Or maybe not?

(For the record, this website says that the average driver will incur a collision approximately once every 18 years. And since this statistic was inferred by a trade association that analyzes insurance data, I’d tend to believe it.)

So how do you figure out what’s an emergency (and thus worthy of dipping into your emergency fund), and what is not?

Here are some metrics that you can use.

Or rather, here are some U’s you can use.

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What to do when you have an emergency


Emergencies happen. We can minimize our exposure to incidents as best we can, but there are some things that we can’t control. That’s why they’re emergencies.

We can debate what counts as an emergency. For example, I don’t believe wear-and-tear car repairs are an emergency, because if you own a car, you know that you’re going to need to repair it. You don’t know when, of course, but you know that you will. If something isn’t unexpected, is it an emergency?

But let’s say that, for whatever situation you’re in, you’re in an emergency. It’s going to cost money, and you need to pay for something unexpected.

What do you do?

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The debt blunderbuss, or can you have an emergency fund and still pay off debt?


There is a financial cage match article that I can’t write: debt vs. the emergency fund.

It’s not hard to see why there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to question of what comes first before the other. How much debt you have and how long it will take you to pay it off matters. If it will take you five years to pay off your debt, do you want to go that long without having a full-funded emergency fund? On the other hand, if you have as much debt as you do an emergency fund, doesn’t that make little sense?

It’s that last point that’s worth talking about today, as a way to manage the conflict between the short term feeling of security and the need to get your financial life in order.

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I don’t understand European bathrooms

Flooded street

Having just come back from two weeks in Europe (as part of my one new country per year challenge) I had a myriad of different experiences. Most of them were positive, though a few were unfortunate and of my own making.

But after having stayed in a handful of hotels and hostels, one question keeps coming to mind: who designs bathrooms in Europe, and why do they do it that way?

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Does your bank know you’re traveling?

Approved/denied stamps

If you’ve got international travels planned, I bet you’re excited for them. You might want to throw all of your stuff in your bag and just get to the airport as quickly as possible.

I know the feeling. I just got back from an international trip (where I succeeded in visiting a new country this year) and in the days running up to it, I was extraordinarily busy, as well as quite excited.

But there are many preparations that one must not forget about before one travels abroad. And in my capacity to figure out all lessons the hard way, here is an example of one such important task.

It starts in Bruges:

Yes, that Bruges.

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The pleasures and sorrows of ordering a special meal in flight

Plate with fork

I’ve talked about how anyone can order a special meal on a flight if it’s one of the rare ones that still serve meals.

It just so happens that I had such a flight recently, flying British Airways from Seattle (SEA) all the way over to Heathrow (LHR).

And I got to experience the highs and the lows of the special meal.

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Why not order a special meal on your flight?

Lunch pail

Long gone are the days where one got served meals on flights by default. These days, you may get served a meal if you’re flying domestic first class, but aside from that, you really only get something approximating a meal when flying international or other long-distance flights.

And personally, I don’t even know for how long this setup will last.

If you are fortunate enough to get one of these flights which offer you a meal, you may not know that you can in fact order a “special” meal in some cases. I do this all the time, in fact. And you can too.

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If you feel like you have too much debt to ever save for retirement

Seed sprouting

I believe retirement is possible for us. But at the same time, I’m on record saying that student loans (and other debt) need to be paid off before starting to invest for retirement.

What gives, Mike? I have so much debt that I’ll never get it paid off, so I’ll never have any money for retirement! Thanks for ruining my day by reminding me of all this.

I understand that sense of despondency all too well. I spent many years believing that I’ll never get anywhere, that I’d always be poor, that I’d never get any traction. But a few years later, I paid off all my student loans, saved up an emergency fund, started investing for retirement, and bought a home. It wasn’t quick, but things changed for me over time.

So before we all give up, I invite you to re-frame the situation. Because as I’ve learned, just re-framing your situation can be the difference between a feeling of success and that of failure.

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