Why It Took Two Years To Leave My Job (And How To Do It Sooner)

I was afraid. It was fear, plain and simple. I couldn’t pinpoint it at the time, but the fear was like a chameleon. It took on a different appearance in order to fly under the radar and stay unconfronted, unchallenged and therefore, unchanged.

I think it wise to not shy away, but instead start my explanation by wrestling the very real, but often disguised concept of fear. Addressing this first is the only way I’ve found to gaining forward momentum.

Fear stops you in your tracks and makes you hesitate. It prevents you from taking any action. Fear hides itself. It pretends to be a lack of confidence. It masks itself as inability. It gets mistaken for rationality and eventually it imbeds itself in a decision that appears to be the only logical option available.

Fear is not always bad, however. In evolutionary terms, fear helps man avoid disaster. But this innate, split-second fear of dangerous situations (that brown bear clawing your face off) is a different brand of fear than what I’m going after.

The fear I’m interested in prevents you from taking any sort of risk that might involve an unknown outcome or result in failure. It’s more of a modern-day fear. It’s the type of fear that occurs after your physiological needs have been met and you have the luxury of contemplating your future.

It’s this fear that kept me from pursuing opportunities that I should’ve pursued.

In my case it was a typical office setting that was masking my fears and keeping me comfortable. It was cozy and it was safe. It was something to hold on to because letting go would mean risking a little bit of myself and becoming uncomfortable.

This feeling multiplied because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I certainly knew what I didn’t want to do—work in a confined space for nine hours a day, doing work I was growing less interested in by the day. But I hadn’t pinned down the ideal job, interest or cause that I wanted to pursue.

That’s a tricky thing to come to terms with. You desperately want to get out of your current situation, but haven’t an idea of what it is you’d like to replace it with. How will you spend your time? What if the new venture doesn’t pan out and you’re even less excited about it? This would be even worse because now you’re out of a job and in an even less than ideal situation than before.

However, this idea of guessing where you will end up, what you will do and the outcome it will have before even stepping up the the plate is step number one for inaction. It’s a snowball from hell (if there is such a thing) and it builds and collects future-failure and builds and increases fear until it’s so damn big that you’re overwhelmed and put the idea of a change completely out of mind.

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That snowball was the root of my problems. I’d build up a huge list of reasons why it wouldn’t work out and how silly I’d feel after wasting my time. It never occurred to me that this rationalization of why I shouldn’t or couldn’t make a change might not be so rational after all.

What I mean to say is I was mostly thinking of the negative aspects of a change, without giving much credit to the possibility of growth, learning, personal development and maybe even success. It was a pros and cons list that was missing the pros.

I began to confront this irrational way of considering my options. I started to make an argument against negative outcomes that could occur and took a balanced viewpoint on my ideas. It felt strange to play devil’s advocate in this way.

This process might seem obvious in hindsight. However, most people are risk averse. Faced with a decision between a guaranteed outcome of $50, or a coin flip with outcomes of $0 or $100, most people tend to choose the guaranteed $50, despite both scenarios having expected returns of $50. Some would be even willing to take less, let’s say a guarantee of $30, instead of the uncertain $1001.

We have a tendency to view any new challenge as a chance for failure and don’t give success a chance. We shoot down the idea of making a change because we would rather hold on to what it is we have now, instead of taking a risk and considering how we’d pull ourselves back up from defeat.

We seek to maintain an equilibrium.

A new responsibility or commitment in the form of a job change (or loss) throws us off our game and we do whatever it takes to counter this and find that balance again. The loss of a loved one or a break-in during the night takes us on an emotional ride and we are trying once more to get back on level ground.

A lot of these outcomes, however, we don’t have much control over.

Unless you’re the CEO or another top executive, your company going bankrupt and thus putting you out of work has little to do with the choices you made. Losing a loved one is difficult, but it’s part a certain fact of life and (usually) can’t be prevented. Someone breaking into your house, robbing you and scaring the bajeezus out of you is likely not your fault, but shakes you up nonetheless and makes you paranoid about it happening again.

Your balance is thrown off after experiences like these.

You file for unemployment and straighten up your resume. You mourn death and evaluate your own life. You triple check the locks and leave on every light each night.

But the beauty of our nature is that we eventually correct course and improve our resiliency along the way. We didn’t ask for these things to happen. They just did. And then we found a way to manage. We likely came out stronger than before.

These events are important to consider. Knowing that they’re out of your control allows you a certain freedom to go about your life without constantly worrying about every terrible situation you could face. Possibly more important to consider, however, is that you’re likely doing everything within your power to avoid obstacles and uncertain situations that you can control.

This is what makes change so difficult. There’s a real threat to ourselves when we set out to “self-inflict” a type of change. Ending a long relationship is a choice made more difficult because the world doesn’t do it for you. You have to take that risk. You’re leaving something you’ve come to know very well and become comfortable with. You feel an uncertainty that you’re making the right choice and that you won’t find anyone else. That’s why breakups are difficult. You want to avoid the emotion and the heartache of moving on and facing uncertainty once again.

Therefore, the most important thing I began considering was the growth potential that any new challenge would present. I began to look at my past challenges, both with successful and unsuccessful outcomes. But, I started to focus less on the outcome and more on the experience and learnings along the way.

This was more than a subtle change. It required practice to override my instinct to focus on the outcome. Instead I looked to direct my attention to the process which would produce the outcome.

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It’s overwhelming to solely look at steps A to Z and ignore the stages in between. That’s why training for a marathon seems daunting. You can run a mile, sure. But how about 26? No one goes from one to 26 overnight. There’s mileage along the way that often gets forgotten when you focus only on the seemingly impossible end.

This change in thinking helped me stop that snowball from hell, the one that kept growing with negativity, self-doubt and failure. Fear was now a tool that I had which allowed me to initiate growth. It was an instrument I could use for self-development. And fear was also something I could point to and associate with my hesitation to leave. Fear became an almost tangible thing that could be confronted, challenged and eventually used to my advantage.

This post would be insincere and untruthful though if I only discussed the idea of fear as the source of my reservations to quit. Luckily the next part was super easy to identify and then quantify.

The logics is as follows: No job equals no money.

Nothing earth-shattering here. But from a practical standpoint, this was something entirely different than confronting fear and has its own implications. No landlord was going to let me live for free because I had confronted my fears and had decided to act. The grocery store didn’t care about this either. I couldn’t buy food with a realization and change of attitude.

One way to go was to make more money. I already had a full-time job. Taking on a small side business was an idea, but nothing of substance ever came from my tinkering.

The route I chose was saving. Not a novel concept by any stretch of the imagination, but it is something that a lot of people can’t, or don’t care to figure out. Indications of this are easily found in the U.S. consumer debt.

Collective American debt is currently at over $12 trillion, with over $1 trillion stemming from “revolving” credit card debt. We really do a good job of going above and beyond spending what we’re capable of affording. This problem is further reflected in amount of savings the average American has—the median savings of all working-age families in 2013 was only $5,000 ($60,000 for families with a savings account) 2,3.

An entire post could be spent on the frivolous things we buy, how the need-it-now culture is insane and how we are generally not saving enough for the future. But I’d rather save my time and later direct you to useful links already written on such issues.

It didn’t take me two years to calculate the finances. This I tackled early. I came up with a number that I was comfortable with. My comfort level was somewhere close to a year of living expenses. I figured that this amount of time would be sufficient to find something more interesting or go broke*. I looked at where I might be able to cut corners on spending without becoming obsessive. I started using spreadsheets to track expenses and better manage my money.

There was a caveat with this savings figure, however. It represented the cost of living in a medium-sized metro area in the United States. I had bound myself to my home boarders and hadn’t considered looking overseas for opportunity. The whole world was open and I was only playing in Uncle Sam’s sandbox.

I started researching the cost of living throughout other parts of the globe. If I stayed away from Western and Northern Europe, Australia, Japan, Canada and a few others, I could live comfortably for up to twice as long in other parts of the world.

And just like that my time horizon had expanded in terms of how long I could “survive” without proper work. It also served to scratch another itch I had—living in a foreign country and learning a new language.

It turned out that a combination of aggressive savings and good old-fashioned arbitrage was the ultimate hack to leaving my desk job and having more confidence in doing it.

I thought that my anxiety about leaving would somewhat subside after hitting a home-run with my arbitrage revelation. But instead it proved to increase this feeling.

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The fact that I could set sail and go almost anywhere in the world began to get to me. It was like being in the grocery store and walking down the cereal aisle. There’s 47 choices which only serves to leave you feeling overwhelmed and less satisfied when you eventually do make a choice. I was having buyer’s remorse, but with something a little more serious than cereal.

This specific dilemma was a bit irrational, though. With the proper savings, even so much as an entire country change wouldn’t set me back too far. Sure, it wasn’t as easy as finishing the Fruit Loops and then buying Cocoa Puffs the next time, but buying another plane (or bus) ticket and possibly leaving a prearranged apartment early could be managed without much trouble.

Since I had the time, I didn’t want there to be any flaws and tried to plan meticulously. I was wrapped up in planning the perfect escape. At the time, all the plans I was making seemed permanent. This obviously was not the reality. The only certainty to these plans was leaving my job. Any hiccups could be cured without much headache and might be considered only a small setback, if they even occurred at all.

If I stress one point in this post it is that most of the outcomes from decisions you make are not permanent (even that ugly tattoo on your arm). The best thing you can do is acknowledge and then ignore the what if’s. They will turn your brain against itself in a relentless game of ping-pong and drive you insane. With a bit of basic planning, you can set yourself up to have the ability to handle these unforeseen challenges.

Again, this ties back into the problem I was having before of focusing too much on the outcome. I was trying to predict the success or failure of myself in a new country. Would I do better in a small, beachside town, or a large, urban setting? The reality, however, is that whether good or bad, I had relatively little idea what would happen after the plane touched down.

The reason is straightforward. There are millions of decisions that would occur between my arrival and some distant outcome that I was trying to predict. The residence I chose. The people I associated with. The work or projects I took up. These all make up the process. But they are independent actions. No single decision was going to make or break the experience. The sooner I figured this out, the easier it was to regain my focus at work and begin to shed the anxiety of leaving.

Up to this point I had slowly started the process of identifying and dealing with my fear. The fear of the unknown. The fear of leaving my comfortable work arrangement. I also developed a plan to get my finances in check so that I could weather the unemployment storm I was about to face.

But apprehension was still kicking me around. It turns out that there was one last hurdle I needed to get over. This issue tends to surface more strongly in some than others. It’s the internal battle of facing your critics and finding a way to answer only to yourself and to no one else’s expectations of you.

I was still struggling with what others—family, peers, co-workers—would think. Some would assess my situation and tell me I was crazy or making a mistake. They didn’t understand the reason behind leaving something certain to pursue something unknown.

Some did understand my frustration with the typical work culture in the United States, but few were able to offer suggestions, short of finding a different job in the same type of environment.

I began second guessing my decisions. How could most of the people in my life be wrong? Was I right to ignore their warnings? I heard, “Oh you should stick with what you have because what if you can’t find another job?”. Or “That unemployment gap is going to look bad on your resume; what will you say to employers?”.

The problem with this line of thinking was that all their rationale was focused on what-if’s and unknown outcomes. They were only seeing what I was giving up by leaving. Nobody seemed to consider what I was giving up by staying in my current role and foregoing other opportunities.

What if I can’t find another job? Trying to predict the labor market in X years and guessing my ability to get another job seemed a bit outside of their capacity.

What would I say to employers? Any employer who is shortsighted enough to look at a gap and not consider what occurred during that gap is not someone I’d like to work for.

It would be completely different, however, if I was probed for an explanation and all I could muster was that I visited a few countries and tried loads of new food. As long as I was developing myself, learning a new set of skills and actually contributing to something I found meaningful, then I wouldn’t have a problem discussing that gap.

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What’s mores is that these questions assumed that I’d actually like another job with the same structure. It neglected the fact the self-employment was a possibility. To me these points seemed shortsighted and reflected only personal desires regarding employment.

Still, people’s opinions matter to us. We seek other’s approval and look for acceptance of our ideas from them. This is what made it so difficult. I was seeking advice from people who had never done what I was interested in doing. HINT: seek out others who are doing what you want to do. I think a lot of people questioned my decisions because they in fact couldn’t see themselves doing it.

This of course is only natural. You are the baseline for comparison to your peers. Any time someone proposes something you’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with, you imagine yourself in that situation and some of your insecurities and vulnerabilities begin to emerge.

It’s not to say that these people didn’t have good intentions. I don’t believe that anyone went out of their way to offer poor advice, or tried to persuade me to abandon my decision. Most were just uncertain of what to say, so they repeated what others in the past had said. They were repeating advice that seemed the most logical and available.

Discussing my plans seemed a bit dangerous now. The available information to most people was reflected in the average of their experiences. Anything outside this average or this norm proved difficult grounds on which to offer guidance or understanding.

So I stopped asking. I stopped discussing. I stopped caring what others would think. This proved to be another important habit I tried to develop and it helped me tremendously as my exit date approached. I ignored anyone who couldn’t get behind me. It took this sort of blind confidence to shake the final bit of anxiety I was having about leaving.

There isn’t a roadmap or a 10-step guide to leaving a job. It’s uncertain what will happen when you leave and what awaits you when you do.

I can only offer advice on what I did. How I acknowledged my fear of uncertainty and tried to combat it. How I began to focus less on the outcome and more on the process and development potential along the way. The safety net of sorts I set up to assure myself that I wouldn’t be on the streets in a month. And the tunnel vision that I adopted in order to avoid other’s insecurities and prevent them from manifesting inside myself.

My final advice would be to make a decision when you have a clear head—first thing when you wake up, perhaps. You don’t want to be persuaded by anything you’ve seen or heard that day. Just your own thoughts.

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Ask yourself what you really want. If it isn’t what you currently have, then make a plan to change. Set a date, first. Then shorten that date. Trust me. You don’t want to give yourself time to dwell on what-if’s. That time spent in “limbo” after making the decision and setting that date will weigh on you, so aim for as short of a window as possible.

Foot & toe-notes:

*I have to clarify my definition of broke in this context. Going broke refers to my bank account hitting zero. Broke does not account for any investments I have. If you’re both fortunate enough and wise enough to put money in the market, you’re likely smart enough to know that drawing on it is usually a bad idea and should be a last resort. Disclaimer: I am not your financial adviser, so be sure to do your research.

  1. Risk Aversion 1
    Risk Aversion 2
    Risk Aversion 3
  2. American Household Debt
    American Credit Card Debt

  3. American Savings

Additional reading:
Wise man explaining how to supercharge your savings: Mr. Money Mustache

 

 

 

Birds Schmirds, I’m Going Down South Without a Flock

Yesterday I arrived in Mexico City with no set return date. Well, according to my return ticket it was February fifth, but that has since been canceled and was more of a safeguard should American Airlines have asked questions. They did not ask questions.

This marks my first time south of the boarder. I have done quite a bit of research before deciding to come here and most of the research centers around the criteria I am looking for in a new place to live and explore.

The biggest box to check is the country had to speak Spanish. This is one of the most important goals for me right now and I’ve really had an itch to move somewhere and finally commit to learning.

The next box is the specific city within the country has to be considerably cheaper than where I was living (Columbus, Ohio). This is important as I am not currently earning any income but rather strictly living off a few years of savings.

Just after affordability, I want a fairly large city—something over two or three million would work. I’ve never lived in a city with over a million people and after recently visiting Berlin, I really like the energy of a city that is constantly “on”.

Mexico City has almost nine million people in the city and more than 20 million in the immediate urban area. I’ll probably grow tired of the noise and the crowded feeling, but until then I plan to enjoy the options that come with such a populous and vibrant city.

BONUS: An “afterthought” criteria was the weather. Over the years I’ve really enjoyed the middle months of Spring and the middle of Autumn in Ohio and Michigan. Usually that puts the temperature around a very comfortable 65 degrees for both times—ignoring the off days when it’s 25 degrees in April and 85 in October. Midwest madness I tell ya.

65 degrees is my sweet spot. It’s pretty close to my perfect temperature. 65 degrees means I can walk outside with a t-shirt or a jacket, shorts or long pants and be comfortable. It also means I’m not sweating on a sizzling Phoenix street or frozen with frostbite somewhere in Fairbanks. I’ll plan a long weekend if I want warmth at the beach or cold conditions for skiing in the mountains.

So how does Mexico City fair? It offers a pretty mild climate year-round. Averages in the hottest month of May are 64 degrees and 55 in the coldest month of December. Yeah, right in that sweet spot.

Other bonuses I’m looking forward to in Mexico City include…

The people! I’ve been here less than 24 hours, asked lots of questions, fumbled through semi-forgotten Spanish and haven’t encountered anyone unfriendly or unwilling to help.

The metro. It’s one of the cheapest in the world with a single fare costing just over USD $0.25. Yes, that’s twenty-five cents and it was recently raised to that level. Government subsidies help keep the cost low as millions of people rely on this service every day.

The biking ecosystem. The bikeshare here is the largest in North America. The official ECOBICI website statistics lists the number of bikes at 6,000 and the cumulative rides at over 45 million. Bike lanes abound and coverage is about 13 square miles which makes it a breeze to pick up or hop off. Perfect for short-time tourists and residents alike. I’m always an advocate of ditching a taxi or Uber in favor of something self-powered.

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Curious that this bike is 8294 when there’s only 6,000…

The seemingly infinite places to eat at a reasonable price (from a U.S. perspective). My first dive into the cuisine was three tacos; so original, I know. But, it came with ALL the garnishing, black beans and a Mexican Coke (they taste different) for around USD $4. This was in one of the most touristy areas too (La Condesa), so I expect other spots outside this neighborhood to be less expensive.

enhorabuena cafeFinally, the options for coffee. Cafes are abundant since Mexico is one of the largest coffee producers in the world. They rank number nine in terms of volume through 2016. This should somewhat helps to reduce the price and bring it in line with the large supply. My first cappuccino was just at USD $2. and it was also in the touristy neighborhood of Roma.

I plan on doing a more detailed look into the “bonus categories” in order to make a sort of quick guide for anyone staying in Mexico City for any length of time.

Keep Your Job but Let Me Quit Mine

One month ago I quit my job. I had been plotting an escape from the monotony that had silently crept into my life and overtaken what once felt more unsure but exciting, unknown yet rewarding. I wanted to get back to that feeling of not really knowing what the next day would bring. This was in stark contrast to what I was experiencing.

The work week always felt like a blur. Alarm goes off at 6:30, coffee, dress, leave. Clutch in, turn key, drive to work. Swipe badge, push open door, take the same three flights of stairs. Walk past the same conference rooms. Walk down the same hallway. Go to row 12. Proceed to the fourth cube. Open bag, get laptop, power on. Sit down and look at the clock. Only 9 hours until I can leave.

The level of monotony and routine increased by the week. I would make it through Monday. Pray that Wednesday came sooner. And by Friday I felt more like a machine, spitting out spreadsheets, completely unaware of life outside. A sense of freedom washed over me when I pushed open the doors and made my way out each Friday. It was almost like I had no idea I’d be coming back and doing the same thing all over again in less than 64 hours.

You know the feeling of driving home from a place you’re very familiar with and have driven more than 1,000 times? You get home and you have no idea how you made it back, what you saw or much of anything that happened along the way. I had that feeling most of those weeks. All those hours masked in a giant fog, slowly fading to the weekend, when you can finally wake up and set out to do the things that you find most important.

What is the point of doing all those things, day after day, if nothing is memorable? If the only reason you’re doing Monday through Friday is to make it to Saturday and Sunday, something is wrong.

It’s an unsettling feeling to start the week wishing the next five days would end as quickly as possible. I wrestled with this feeling after the novelty of my job wore off. About six months into the “real world” and I had no idea how I was supposed to do this for another 30+ years. After another six months of anxiety, confusion and general depression from sitting in a 4×4 space all day, staring at spreadsheets, I had enough.

It took me another TWO YEARS before I finally left (that’s a story in itself).

But let’s backup.

Before graduation, I did what most of my peers were doing—update the resume, apply for a respectable corporate job, do a few interviews and wham! Land a job. I did all that just like I was supposed to. The path is straightforward: you navigate the obstacle course from Kindergarten through 12, apply to the best school you can get into, get decent grades and then you get rewarded. Right? You start earning money to pay off whatever debt you got yourself into. Then the fun begins. You break zero. You get the first comma in your account. You buy new clothes to compliment the new job. You rent an apartment commensurate with your new salary. You buy a shiny new car like everyone expects. You make money to spend money so that you can make even more money to continue spending money. You deserve it. You earned it.

I adhered to that logic my entire life. I studied. Advanced. Applied. Was accepted. Now was the big payoff. Except something didn’t quite feel right about it. Sure, being able to afford new clothes, electronics and maybe even a car was fucking nice. And to continue to rationalize the new money in my account, I had to keep buying and keep acquiring. Why else was I working? But, every purchase seemed to provide a diminishing return and the luster wore off much quicker than expected.

There’s nothing wrong with striving to make money. That is, after all, how I can type on this laptop while sitting in an airport waiting for a huge car with wings to take me and 200 others across an entire ocean in less than eight hours.

So totally. I get it. Money = things and being able to do things and then all of that eventually = happiness. I’m not arguing that money can’t provide the means for happiness. And I’m certainly not naïve to the point of denying that money provides stability and enables you to eventually live a decent life once all your physiological needs are met. This is more directed at an attitude of complacency and the status quo. The acceptance of standards that society placed on me and you—those norms you follow, sometimes unknowingly, to meet the expectations that you’re supposed to live up to.

I admit that there’s innovation and great work being done by people where I was and in every other place where 9-5 is the standard method of operation. It’s impossible to make the world turn without them. But—and this is a big ‘ol stinky but—one size does not fit all. The path much of society agrees with and what most of the focus in a traditional school setting plans for may not work for you. But don’t expect anyone to tell you that.

High schools and universities don’t offer a course on, “Oh shit I’m three years deep in what is supposed to be my life and I’m unexcited, lack passion, mentally drained and want a change.” Of course they don’t teach that. Just like cursive writing, some people will never experience a time in their life when they actually need that information. Some will go about the time-honored route of school, higher education, career, retirement and death. Some continue without even questioning or giving real thought to where they are and what they’re doing. It’s a pretty good life, though. It’s usually the most secure. It tends to offer the greatest opportunity to blend in and fit within the box of everyone else’s expectations. You definitely won’t rock the boat by following these guidelines.

But I reached the point where I want to rock the boat. I want to upset the balance. I want to take more risk and make a mess. Most of all I want my own expectations to guide my decisions and choose for myself which way to go. I have no idea what to expect. No sense of the failure lurking around the corner. But the uncertainty has actually taken a weight off my mind and it’s crushed the resentment I had from sitting idle, day after day.

The Most Fun You Can Have for Fifty Cents

What can fifty cents buy in today’s world? It all depends on where you spend it. Luckily, paradise is real and it exists somewhere on the better side of half a dollar.

You’ve probably heard about backpackers trekking through the well-worn trail of Southeast Asia by this point. And if you’re unaware, there’s good reason to get the lowdown. So ditch your other destinations (at least temporarily) and head to this side of the world. Island hop the East Indies or travel the huge swaths of Indochina. You can’t go wrong.

There’s the natural beauty among the coral reefs of Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. Some species of animals and flora among these countries can’t be found anywhere else in the world.

There’s tantalizing food at every turn, including markets for sampling fruits I’m almost certain you’ve never seen or heard of. The coffee isn’t so bad ether…! Sumatra and Java come to mind. 

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Using sweetened condensed milk makes Vietnamese iced coffee so damn good
And because the region is made up of 12+ countries and is home to over half a billion people, there’s huge variety of ethnic groups, language and religion.

But, perhaps the most widely cited reason for the often cash-conscious traveler—cost. Compared to many other destinations in the world, SoutheastAsia is on saleand has been for quite some time. This isn’t a one-off, temporary Brexit sale, either. Rather, one reason this area of the world continues its domination atop would-be backpackers’ bucket lists is because prices have remained low (relative to other destinations) over an extended period.

I’m going to use Vietnam, specifically Saigon, as my point of reference because this where I spent the most time. Here you can:

  • Drink beers for under a dollar—the ever present green label Saigon Bia provides a temporary method to remedy the relentless heat and humidity of a tropical climate.
  • Eat overflowing meat-filled baguettes for $0.75—bánh mìs are ubiquitous, usually stuffed with pork belly, layered with pâté and then topped with veggies. They’re awesomely crunchy too, thanks to the French bread.
  • Slurp huge bowls of noodles for two dollars or less—a bowl of pho is great as is, but toss in some hot peppers and prepare to sweat.

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Some of the hottest peppers I’ve had
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First pho of the trip…look at that face!
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Fresh baguettes delivered by motorbike
The food in Vietnam is something to write home about. And the prices are (almost) as good. I knew this much going in. However, one aspect my friends and I overlooked was transportation. And could you blame us? Ordinarily this isn’t something to get psyched about. But in Vietnam, specifically Saigon, YOU SHOULD. Let me explain…

As you exit the airport and make your way into the city, the flurry of motorbikes creates a chaotic first experience. The traffic appears to overtake when possible but yield when necessary. You will see families of five riding together by motorbike. And you are almost guaranteed to spot multiple dogs huddled on a bike and balancing on all fours while their owners weave through other motorists.

This could be you (not the dog part)! But you can forget the typical taxi or bus. You’re going to be riding in style. And you’re going to be doing it every opportunity you get. The moment my friends and I discovered that Uberoffered motorbikes as a transport option, we were hooked.

Because Saigon is a city of shared motorbike rides, the option to shuttle people around via UberMOTO comes as second nature to the drivers. They’re experienced, so adjusting to your extra weight seems effortless. I even ended up taking a 20-minute ride to the airport with about 30 pounds of gear in my back—no problem. That four-mile commute only cost 26,000 VND, or a little over USD $1.10. Another 10+ rides around Saigon cost 10,000 Dong each (or about USD $0.50). Hands down–pun intended–this is absolutely the most fun you can have for $0.50.

Speaking of hands, it may be tempting to hold on to the back of the motorbike or the driver when riding. You’ll see some doing this, but for the vast majority, the rider simply places her hands in her lap or on her thighs and allows gravity do the rest. I was actually told a few times to saddle up a bit closer to my driver. So don’t be shy.

Due to the overcrowded streets and number of intersections, motorbikes rarely exceed 25 mph in short commute city driving. Also, the majority are greatly under-powered too, so there really isn’t an instance where I feared flying off the back when accelerating.

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His first ride of many
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$0.50 ride! (driver’s picture & name hidden)
Pro Tip: if you’re caught in the rain while riding, see if the driver is using a poncho and has an extra spot for you. I made the mistake of not sharing the rain jacket when offered and got a little wet…

SuperProTip: spend $10 and get unlimited data on a SIM card. It’s worth it to avoid being at the mercy of cafe or hotel WiFi and makes linking up with an Uber a non-issue.

Find a way to get to here, strap on a helmet, and take a tour of Saigon while zipping by motorbike. It will be an experience you won’t soon forget.


Footnotes

1. Cost comparisons are all relative. I am sure a portion of people native to Saigon and the greater part of Southeast Asia may not find the region quite so cheap. But, based on an index representing the world as a whole, SE Asia (except Singapore) remains one of the cheapest places to spend time.

2. I am not affiliated with Uber. The service was available, so I used it.

How I (Almost) Got Scammed in Bangkok

Google Bangkok and you will likely find touristy things to do, monuments to visit and most definitely Pad Thai recommendations. But, scratch the surface a little further and you may uncover a whole slew of scams that takes many tourists for a ride (literally)!

It’s my first day in Bangkok and I’m traveling with the usual suspects—three of my closest friends from college days. We’ve been around the block enough to know a con when we see one. At least, that’s what we thought. Maybe it was the heat frying our jet-lagged brains, or maybe it was a genuine interest in the well-spoken Thai man on the corner, adjacent to the Grand Palace.

We were ready to cross the street, which lead to the Grand Palace, as that was our first landmark we wanted to visit. A man approached us, told us he was a teacher and asked us where we were from, where we planned to go and how long we’d been here. That last part is usually a good indication that they want to get a feel for how fresh and naïve you are to the city and its tricks.

He informed us the Grand Palace was closed (this is a VERY prevalent scam in Bangkok) and told us we should visit a few other temples in its place. Red flag number one. He even conveniently had another map and was all too eager to share it with us. He marked a few spots, all of them legit monuments or temples. But he also made it a point of mentioning a promotion going on for suits at a specific tailor shop and for a limited time. Red flags number two, three and four.

At this point he flagged down a tuk-tuk (the little three-wheeled taxis that get you around the city) and told us not to pay more than 40 Baht a person for the whole day of rides. The drivers would take us to the sights, wait for us to finish, then shuttle us to the next ones.

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We agreed, mostly because 40*2 baht is only about USD $2.30 for a whole day of rides.  Seemed like a steal. The two drivers we had took the four of us to the first temple, which was a legit spot. We climbed up, explored a bit, took a few ultra-touristy photos, lit some incense for Buddha and made our way back down.

One of our drivers motioned for us to return so he could take us off to the next landmark. He said he needed to use the restroom so we waited by our rides. A man approached our spot and was about to get into his SUV, but it was blocked by our tuk-tuks. Red flag number five. He said he wasn’t in a rush and would wait. He engaged us further, once again in near perfect English, and enquired about our plans, much like the first person.

Apparently, he was visiting his Buddhist monk brother in the temple nearby and was actually from New York, where he was a lawyer. He mentioned that he went to Cornell and even dropped the name of his law firm in the conversation. Looking back, the name of the firm was actually a combination of a consulting company and a law firm—the sixth red flag.

We discuss our plans for the day as he looks over our map. He confirms we picked the best spots to visit and also backs up the teacher’s info on the tailor shop, evening telling us in great detail how we could get Armani suits for less than $400. He says, “They even take credit cards!” HAHA.

As our drivers return, we all looked at each other and discussed these wild “coincidences”, namely the closed temple, helpful teacher, limited time sale, blocked car and friendly lawyer. But seeing as though we already had a ride lined up, we jumped back in and agreed that when we arrived at the suit shop, we’d simply tell the driver we weren’t interested and ask him to take us to the next temple.

This didn’t go over particularly well. Upon arrival, we hopped out and told them we did not need suits. They seemed very put off by this and continued to insist we go in and have a look, even if we didn’t want to buy. At this point we saw they wouldn’t be taking us any further and decided to end our “tour” there. I can’t remember the exact number of Baht they demanded, but I ended up giving them 50 for myself and the friend riding in the tuk-tuk with me—about $1.50 total.

As we walked away and headed to the next temple by foot, we all began discussing what just transpired and debated the possibility of all five people we met being in cahoots just to sell us some suits.

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We were lucky in that we realized pretty early on what was taking place. But unlike us unfortunately, many people didn’t have a good laugh about their experience. Turns out 50 Baht was a great price to pay, as we began Googling and reading about people being taken for a ride to tailor shops or gem shops and spending hundreds of dollars.

These scams are pretty convincing to the unsuspecting. They have the first person pose as a teacher, probably to establish some trust. He mentions he doesn’t want any money from us, just to help. He offers up a bigger and “better” map of the sights—we even found out these maps are altered and don’t accurately reflect the distances between monuments. They then conveniently use our tuk-tuks to block in someone’s car. This someone is another well-spoken Thai man who poses as a knowledgeable lawyer, and furthers the credibility of the teacher’s choices of the sights, as well as the tailor shop.

I’m actually curious what would’ve happened if we had entered the tailor shop and not bought anything, came back out, and wished to go on to the next sight. Would the drivers even be waiting? Would they have another scam up their sleeves? The details and steps involved in planning these are actually quite impressive and almost make me regret not continuing to play along. Almost.

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Suffice to say, Google ‘Bangkok scams’ if you plan on going so you can be prepared for ALL the possibilities. Definitely don’t miss out on taking a tuk-tuk, as we found all of our other drivers to be friendly. Negotiate the fare before you take off and you won’t have an issue. Be sure to visit the Grand Palace, too! It’s definitely something you don’t want to miss, even if the teacher tells you it’s closed.

 

How I Financed My Ticket to Vietnam

The end of April will come to mark my third trans-Pacific trip for Asian exploration. Instead of discussing the destination of Vietnam as a collection of descriptions about the food, history, culture or even country itself (I’ll do this in May), I’d rather focus on the how. How I afforded Vietnam. It’s not a crazy scheme involving sneaky travel hacking or anything similar—though diligence is always a priority here. Rather, it’s based on perspective and trade-offs.

Someone told me I was cheap the other day. Although this really doesn’t bother me from an outsider’s perspective, it is somewhat disappointing that this person did not understand my motivation behind some of the decisions I’ve made in terms of personal finance. What she calls cheap, I call frugal and purposeful. Save dough in aspects which aren’t important to me, and spend gobs, like a rookie NFL youngster with a newly-signed, multi-million dollar contract, in other areas I do value. Yeah that doesn’t really have a ring to it…but the point is I put money into things which give me the most satisfaction and then prioritize accordingly.

New furniture? Meh. I’ll check Craigslist for a deal, or ask a family member or friend, as it is very likely something used and in decent shape can be had for at least a 75% discount off the original price. To me, it’s woefully unimportant if the items match or if they go with the décor (which I don’t really have), so long as they serve their functional purpose. I’m not inviting you over to impress you with my new leather sectional.

New car? Please. Drive that off the lot and WHAM, a few thousand bucks disappears into thin air. Go for a used, older model. Does it get from A to B reliably? Is it reasonably efficient? Done.

Forego clothes shopping every few weeks or even every month. Check your wardrobe. The typical American consumer has way too many clothes…some still with the tags from years ago. Younger me is definitely guilty of this, but I’m improving. Besides the recurring costs of always having more this and new those, the decision of what to wear ends up costing “mental money” in the form of time and decision anxiety. Decision anxiety is like never being satisfied with the cereal you chose from the staggering 167 available options on the shelf.

How about going out for lunch every day? Being a bad cook shouldn’t excuse your penchant for eating out a majority days of the week. Your wallet gets slim, but your waistline expands.

Eat lunch out every day: $50-60 (5 day workweek)
Bring your own nomz: $15-20 (5 day workweek)
Average difference: $150/month and approaching $2,000/year!

Do you have cable? Pshht. Better cut that Comcast umbilical cord stat! You don’t need it. Everything you want is online, or most can be accessed through a lower-priced alternative like Netflix or Amazon. If your cable bill is $100 bundled with internet, but could be $40 with just internet, that’s a savings of $720 per year or about $600 in savings if you can’t quite stop your addiction and substitute a $10/month Netflix subscription.

This $600 brings me to my plane ticket. Roundtrip from Chicago to Ho Chi Minh City I paid $564.66. This is the trade-off: cancel cable (and even substitute in Netflix) and I can afford another plane ticket this year..and an international one at that. This is what I’m talking about in terms of values. If I really valued TV, sure I could get the extra channels. But I don’t. I hold the value of travel, cultural experience and discovery much higher than I value the ability to flip on the TV and watch Seinfeld reruns for hours on end…and I LOVE Seinfeld.

So when my friend said I was cheap, I in turn could’ve responded that she too was cheap. She was cheaper with her money towards plane tickets than I was, but she was less cheap with regards to a more expensive car. We have different values, giving both of us an appearance of being cheaper in different areas.

A lot of people fail to understand this concept. When you accept one thing (expense) you trade off the ability to afford another expense. By choosing to say yes to a bigger apartment, you’re essentially saying no (or saying no more often) to going out to dinner with your friends. And if you’re not trading off, well you’re gonna have debt coming out your nose and then AMEX is going to take your firstborn daughter as collateral.

Your income and time are finite. Therefore, trade-offs are essential.

There’s actually a really great quote to express this idea more succinctly than I ever could and it’s from a real estate/personal finance blog called Afford Anything. As the blogger Paula Pant puts it, “You can afford anything, but not everything.” And I think this captures the idea pretty well.