Jan 24, 2020

How to reduce expenses through Home Budget Planning

As I mentioned in an earlier post, "Lifestyle" is a topic I wanted to write more about. The lifestyle we choose dictates multiple areas of our lives - our health, our food choices, clothing, weekend activities, our hobbies, where we live, where we work, how long we work, what BS are we ready to tolerate etc.  In the Tamil movie "Velaikkaaran" (Sivakarthikeyan one), there is an amazing scene where the hero would wonder how the expenses of his family have suddenly increased ever since his income increased. The following scenes where a salesman sells a stabilizer for an LED TV and how the hero thinks about past conversations about our mindsets are just brilliant. Here's that particular scene if you haven't watched it. What I'm trying to convey here is well narrated in this scene.

The rigor with which we focus on increasing our income is so high, but most of the middle and upper-middle-class families don't seem to have the same rigor when it comes to reducing expenses. I'm saying this, purely out of my observations. I'd be so glad if this wasn't the case.

Financial planners and personal finance-related thought leaders even go to the extent of saying "Stop thinking about expenses, think about investments". Choosing the right Investment portfolio is extremely important for securing our future, but at the same time, our future lifestyle depends on our present choices. I heard this quote many years back and has stuck with me - 
"Luxury once sampled becomes a necessity".

My point is that if we put some thought into what our current lifestyle is and how our expenses add up, we can plan out a strategy to cut down our expenses so that we can make better choices in terms of our job/career/life in general.

Do we really need Netflix?
Do we really need to take Uber/Ola every single day?
Do we really need to have that fancy meal costing Rs.2000 per person?
Do we really need expensive branded clothing to show who we are?

Only when we are aware of our monthly expenses, we can ask such questions and decide for ourselves. Given the numerous temptations, sales and discount offers running almost every week on every single e-commerce app, we can easily succumb to such deals on things we don't really need. And as our expenses keep rising, we try to increase our income, fight for that pay raise/promotion, accept all possible ridiculous work hours, take loads of stress etc.

Let's assume, you are convinced with my rationale so far and want to reduce your expenses. Here's a plan I suggest:

  1. Open a Google spreadsheet or excel. List down the broad categories of expenses. Add/update the categories listed below as per your family's requirements. Once you have listed them down, mark each of them under two categories - Fixed (F) and Variable (V)
    1. Annual
      1. Term Life Insurance Premium (F)
      2. Medical Insurance Premium (F)
      3. School Fees (F) 
      4. Car Insurance Premium (F)
      5. Locker Rent (F)
      6. Streaming services (Amazon Prime/Hotstar) (F)
    2. Monthly
      1. House rent (F)
      2. Maintenance (F)
      3. Electricity Bill (V)
      4. Water Bill (V)
      5. Househelp / Maid salary (F)
      6. Cook salary (F)
      7. Internet Bill (F)
      8. Mobile Bill (F)
      9. Landline Bill (F)
      10. DTH Connection (F)
      11. Streaming services (Netflix, Google music etc) (F)
      12. Milk (V)
      13. Newspaper (F)
      14. Groceries (V)
      15. Fruits & Vegetables (V)
      16. Eating Out (restaurants/order-ins) (V)
      17. Car cleaning service (F)
      18. Fuel charges (V)
      19. Commute expenses (Ola/Uber) (V)
      20. Gym membership / Yoga classes (F)
      21. Library subscription (F)
      22. Entertainment (movies, events) (V)
      23. Household item purchases (V)
      24. Personal care purchases (clothing, shoes, accessories) (V)
  2. Sit down with your spouse, look through past 6-month or 12-month credit card statements and other bills. Add approximate values for each month under the identified categories. Don't worry if you don't have the exact numbers. It is okay to start with some approximate figures for now.
  3. For those listed under the variable category, take an average of 6-month/12-month values. For eg, your monthly groceries average to around Rs.8000. Eating out expenses average to around Rs.5000 etc.

  4. Create another worksheet for Budget Planning - Variable Expenses.  Copy the expenses analysis sheet with ONLY the variable categories and the average values calculated. So now you have all the variable expense headers and the average values for the past 6/12 months.
  5. For the next month (say Feb 2020), think of a plan on which categories you can possibly reduce your expenses and how much you can reduce it. For eg, if your eating out expenses average is Rs.5000, see if you can bring it down to Rs.4000 in Feb 2020. Do this exercise for all variable categories and commit to a number before the beginning of the month. That's your Feb variable expenses budget.
  6. Collate all the daily cash expenses quickly in a notepad or an app. Once every week, sit down, look through your credit card transactions, cash expenses and update the expenses incurred under each category. For eg, the Budget for eating out expenses is set to Rs.4000. At the end of Week 1, you realize you have already spent Rs.2000. For the next 3 weeks, you would be more careful in not exceeding the remaining Rs.2000. 
  7. Do this work diligently every week. It doesn't take a lot of time if most of your transactions are via credit card. 
  8. At the end of the month, see if you have remained within the budget or exceeded the budget. If you have exceeded, identify the categories where you have exceeded the most. If required, adjust the budget to a reasonable limit for the subsequent month.
  9. Repeat steps 5 to 8 every month. Set a budget/spending limit for each variable category, track your expenses and analyze how the expenses fared at the end of the month.
  10. Regarding fixed expenses, for some categories, it is a binary decision. Should we need it or not? For eg, we decided to stop buying newspapers. So that category is no longer relevant to us. We take a monthly subscription for Netflix and renew it for a month once every 3 months. From my personal experience, it is easier to cut down variable expenses THAN fixed expenses.
Hope this approach is helpful to some of you. 

Many financial planners compute retirement corpus based on your current monthly expenses and then using inflation as a measure, they forecast a lumpsum amount needed by the time you turn 60. When I went to a personal finance workshop, the amount predicted by the instructors was a huge figure. They then go onto share about how much our income levels need to rise to save this amount. I felt quite perplexed at the end of the workshop. If our monthly expenditure is the key factor that determines this retirement corpus, why not simply reduce this value, keep our needs simple and not spend on extravagant/unnecessary stuff?

Jan 22, 2020

Triggers that push us towards junk food

The sequence of events from yesterday evening helped me understand the triggers that push me towards buying/eating junk foods. This is just a personal observation. Triggers might vary from one individual to another. So it makes sense to first observe our thoughts and emotions before we succumb to the temptations.

I had an early lunch yesterday and had a cup of tea around 3PM. I didn't eat any snack and took D to an activity class around 5PM. While waiting in the center, I was reading an informative book on my Kindle (a serious, non-fiction book on the jobs-to-be-done framework loaded with insights). I read for an hour and had made good progress with the book. My stomach started grumbling around 6PM. The class got over at 6:20PM and we headed to a nearby grocery store to pick up a few things. As usual, D wanted to buy her quota of ONE junk food per shopping trip. 

While she picked up a pack of cream biscuits, I was looking at a pack of tapioca finger chips and drooling over a pack of butter biscuits (that white colored small cookies we used to get in the bakery shops in the 90s). Off late, I've been feeling quite nostalgic and a strong yearning to get back the simpler times of childhood. These emotions were pushing me towards these packets. As I took a pack of the butter biscuits, I read the ingredients - wheat flour, sugar, shortening etc. Better sense prevailed and I kept it back but with a tinge of disappointment. I applied the same ONE JUNK FOOD rule and decided to buy the tapioca finger chips for myself. It's been a long time since I had it and used to be my favorite during college days. I came home and had dinner along with a serving of these chips. Here's what I learned from this experience:
  1. Never go hungry when you are stepping out for some errands. Carry a snack OR eat something at home. 
  2. Mentally stimulating work (reading/coding/writing etc) can increase our appetite levels. So plan accordingly and carry healthy snacks. I'm not sure whether our appetite levels change depending on whether we are reading a fiction book vis-a-vis a non-fiction book. Something to experiment on :-)
  3. Never step into a supermarket when you are hungry. The junk foods that you like will scream at you - "Pick me, pick me"
  4. Before you buy something, pause for a moment and ask yourself - "Why am I tempted by this? Is it ONLY because I'm hungry? Or is it something emotional that's pushing me?" More often than not, our emotional needs are what drives us most into using junk foods as comfort OR a way to avoid uncomfortable thoughts.
  5. Acknowledge the emotions for a second and then decide if you still want to buy the pack. Those few seconds of self-reflection might change your decision.
  6. Read the ingredients list. Our conscious mind and our intellect might bring us out of our temptations. I say "MIGHT" because the decision is dependent on how strong our emotional pull is.
  7. If nothing works, allow yourself to pick ONLY ONE JUNK and not more than that. Enjoy it without any guilt.

I firmly believe that self-reflection and self-awareness are powerful tools to observe our habits and our choices. It is even more important in today's time-starved world where we run on auto-pilot most of the time.

Jan 13, 2020

Intentions/Focus Areas for 2020

At the beginning of every year, I identify a few focus areas to work on and note them down. They are not really resolutions per se, but more to do with broad guidelines. This year, I wanted to try a new technique to align my focus areas around a verb. What's that ONE verb that I really want to focus on this year?

MINIMIZE - yes, that's my verb for 2020. This verb is applicable to different areas of my life, not just with respect to physical belongings.

I have been focusing on leading a minimalist lifestyle for the past 3 years. Though I don't buy a lot, I have been holding onto many things due to various reasons - sentimental value, future potential usage, loss aversion etc. This year, my plan is to consciously reduce, declutter and organize my home. I may refer to Marie Kondo's book but I don't plan to follow every step along the way.

So yes, MINIMIZE my belongings. That includes my books too.

As I'm writing this, the images from the Australian fires are heart-wrenching. The news that around 500 million animals are dead is just unbearable. Climate change is real and no one can deny this fact. 

Climate change is a global problem, that requires interventions by policymakers, corporate behemoths and regulators. 

As an individual, I will continue to reduce my carbon footprint as much as possible. I have been doing many of these but I'm going to be more conscious about them this year.

MINIMIZE the number of times I take Uber/Ola. Opt for BMTC bus when commuting inside the city.
MINIMIZE the dry waste items I dispose on a weekly basis. Opt for packaging-free shopping (groceries, fresh produce etc)
MINIMIZE the number of times I order take-outs/home deliveries.
MINIMIZE the number of times I order from e-commerce sites.
MINIMIZE my electricity bill and water consumption.

"Lifestyle" - this single term impacts many aspects of our well-being - our health, our relationships, our goals, our habits and also what we do to our planet. I have much to write about on this topic. Will do so in subsequent posts.

In relation to MINIMIZE, these are the areas I want to focus on:

MINIMIZE the number of clothes I buy this year. I reduced this quite a bit, but I still need to be more conscious.
MINIMIZE the groceries and vegetables I stock up. I do tend to go overboard sometimes.
MINIMIZE the number of restaurant visits. We have brought this down significantly but can still do better.
MINIMIZE my family's monthly expenses.
MINIMIZE the number of books I purchase. Opt for second-hand or Kindle versions. Re-read the good books that I have already read.
MINIMIZE the time I spend on social media and the Internet. Tough one but extremely important. 

So these are my intentions for 2020. I will be sharing how I'm progressing in my efforts through my blog and Instagram posts. 

Dec 28, 2019

2019 in review

Another year coming to an end and this time, it is also the end of a decade. 2010s will be very special to me - I became a mom, identified my passion and learned more about myself. If 2000s was the decade I ran the rat race and followed the crowd, 2010s was the decade when I slowed down and focused on my priorities. My previous annual reviews are a reflection of that shift. 2019 is no different.

Self-reflection is a powerful tool and in the current age of distractions, we hardly invest any time in just being with our thoughts. On one cool January evening, I made this list of topics I wanted to learn more about. As I look back, consciously or unconsciously, most of the books I had picked up this year are inspired by this list.

Here's the list of books I completed in 2019 and quite a few (not listed) are in progress. Though I had set a goal to finish 40 books, I'm glad I was able to at least cross the 50% mark.
  1. Notes for Healthy Kids by Rujuta Diwekar
  2. Heartfulness way by Kamlesh Patel
  3. Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
  4. The Wellness Sense by Om Swami
  5. The last gambit by Om Swami
  6. The third curve by Mansoor Khan
  7. The one-straw revolution by Masanobu Fukouka
  8. Until the clouds roll by by Ruskin Bond
  9. The magic weight loss pill by Luke Coutinho
  10. Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
  11. Rusty and the magic mountain by Ruskin Bond
  12. Atomic Habits by James Clear
  13. Indistractable by Nir Eyal
  14. Naan Nammazhvar pesugiren by Nammazhvar
  15. Feel the fear and do it anyway by Susan Jeffers
  16. Gut by Guilia Enders
  17. The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton
  18. Designing Destiny by Kamlesh Patel
  19. Satvic Food book by Subah Jain
  20. Reversing Diabetes in 21 days by Nandita Shah
On the learning front, I also participated in a couple of workshops.
  1. Jago investor workshop on retirement planning and financial health. 
  2. Rails workshop organized by Railsgirls. I couldn't follow through on this, as other priorities took over. But I know I can get started on Rails development when I put my mind to it.
Writing/Blogging continued steadily this year as well - 68 posts in total. Out of these, my personal favorites are these:

Review of packaged foods continued in 2019 but not at the same rigor as in the previous two years. I guess I have covered most of the popular packaged foods on my Master List. This is one area I have sort of deprioritized for 2020.

Apart from reading and writing, the other activity that I thoroughly enjoy is Public Speaking. The talk I gave at PayPal on packaged foods was a memorable one. Bhoomi College invited me again this year to give a talk on packaged foods as part of the food module in Sustainability and Holistic Education courses. It is always a pleasure to meet like-minded people at Bhoomi. 

Fear of failure/ridicule is something I seem to be not getting affected much off late. This has made me more open to try new experiments and experiences.

I tried something totally out of my comfort zone during the open mic event at my apartment - a 5 min standup comedy act focusing on packaged foods. The fact that there is humor/sarcasm in me came to light this year 🙂 On one bored summer morning in May, I thought I would try my hands at creating memes with the focus being food. I downloaded a meme creator app based on Tamil movies, created a few and uploaded them on Instagram. I thought people would dismiss them as mokkai (useless) but many wrote to me saying that they enjoyed my memes. Since then, I've been creating memes whenever inspiration strikes and I'm enjoying this process. I have created close to 100 memes this year and it's been such a fun experience.

As an experiment, I launched a 1-month program titled "Dejunk your diet" to help people eliminate packaged/junk foods from their diet using habits and behavioral changes. 6 people enrolled with me this year and I hope the program helped them to become aware of their eating habits and triggers. Due to logistic reasons and coordination efforts, I decided not to continue this program further.

I tried organizing a workshop in my apartment on the topic "How to read nutrition labels" targeted at children. Only one parent enrolled his daughter. It was such a disappointment and I remember calling my Insta friend one evening and polambifying (rambling) "What am I doing with my life" type questions. If you are reading this, thanks for listening, V!

Along the same lines, I organized a meetup in Chennai to discuss about the ingredients in packaged foods. 80 people voted on Instagram that they are interested but ONLY one person showed up. I'm thankful to her to have come all the way to meet me. Else, it would have been such a bummer.

A friend and I had also planned a workshop in Chennai, which we had to cancel due to few registrations. 

These experiences made me think a lot about my purpose and in the end, I arrived at the same conclusion that Gita taught us - "kadamayai sei, palanai edhir paarkaathey" (Do your duty, don't think about the results). 

On the professional work front, I did a small consulting project for a friend early this year. Around May/June, I decided to reapply for software projects and tried quite a bit looking through job opportunities. Most of them that came my way are full time, regular job openings. I was quite clear in my mind on the kind of opportunities that I want, based on my schedule. I almost decided that such flexible opportunities are no longer available. Call it serendipity - early this month, I found an interesting opportunity with a startup in a growing space that fits my requirements. I'm excited to learn more about the applications of Data Science and Machine Learning and this is going to be one of my core focus areas in 2020. That moment when I can use thalaivar's famous dialogue - "thirumba vandhuttennu sollu" ;-)

On self-improvement, I incorporated quite a few positive habits this year. 
I started doing weekly meal planning on a regular basis.
I started maintaining a habit tracker to track my daily habits.
After reading Digital Minimalism, I tried reducing my phone usage and set a specific time slot for using Instagram (the only social media where I tend to spend a lot of time)
I started maintaining a happiness journal to record moments of happiness in my daily life.

Though I followed through these habits for many weeks, I seemed to derail the moment my routine changes. I plan to be consistent with these habits in 2019.

On health and fitness, regular home-cooked food and Yoga practice continued this year as well. I cooked many new dishes though I didn't really keep track of them.

On the family front, we celebrated most of the festivals in traditional way. I want my daughter D to be aware of the traditions behind these festivals and it is my responsibility to ensure she has exposure to all of them. I enjoyed making various festival sweets and savories. This year, I conquered my fear of string consistency 😉 Gained good practice in making mysorepak and pori urundai.

Compared to 2018, we did travel quite a bit in 2019. We visited Chikmagalur, Vaikom (Kerala) and Yercaud. We did many one-day drives to places nearby Bangalore - Lepakshi, Antaragange, Nandi hills, Antaragange, Savandurga and Manchinabele dam. We also visited this place Indian Musical Experience in JP Nagar, which D loved it. For me, the most memorable one was the weekend trip to Gumalapura farm, organized by Bhoomi. And how can I miss the item that got checked off my bucket list - attending ARR's concert for the first time?

Overall, a memorable, balanced year for me. If I had to sum up in one line, "mysorepak podavum kathuppom, machine learning algorithms-um kathuppom".

Wish you all a very happy, healthy and bright New Year 2020!! May all your dreams and wishes come true!

Will do a separate post on my intentions and focus areas for 2020. Do take some time in the next few days to reflect back on the year gone by and plans for 2020. Having been doing this annual review exercise for years now, I can vouch for the positive effects it brings in.

Dec 25, 2019

Leading a disciplined life in 2020

Before I proceed further, let me state upfront that I'm quite far away from calling my life a disciplined one. But discipline is something that I constantly strive towards. This word "discipline" came into my life many years ago and I remember that evening sometime in Nov 1991. I was in 6th grade and I returned home with the progress report card of my second midterm exams. I had secured 2nd rank in class and my mom was furious. I was a 1st rank holder during the first midterm and Quarterly exams. I slipped to 2nd rank. In hindsight, this might all sound ridiculous, funny, does-it-even-matter etc. But let me tell you what my mom told me that day - "Discipline ee illa ippo ellaam. romba neram velayadikkittu irukke nee" (No discipline at all, playing a lot these days). My mom inculcated the competitive nature in me and her insistence towards 1st rank helped me in many ways during my childhood days. There are pros and cons to this parenting approach and I'm not going to discuss them here. 

She then motivated me to prepare a timetable for myself and allocate time for play, study, TV etc. For most of my school and college life, I continued this habit of maintaining a schedule. Though Dil Chahta Hai is one of my favorite movies, I don't like the scene where Sameer makes fun of Subodh (Pooja's boyfriend) for his rigid adherence to schedules. No, time tables are NOT boring.

Let's come back to the topic - Self Discipline. 
The dictionary definition states that Self Discipline is the ability to make yourself do things you know you should do even when you do not want to.

Warren Buffet says, "We don't have to be smarter than the rest. We have to be more disciplined than the rest."

I came across this beautiful proverb in Tamil -  Manidhanai maattri amaikkum vidhi avanadhu ozhukkame (The rule that propels man towards change is his discipline). 

Luke Coutinho emphasizes discipline and consistency as two important criteria for good health and well-being.

There is a strong correlation between self-discipline and success in all aspect of our lives - be it our career, health, relationships and our personal growth.

As we are ready to step into a new decade, I wanted to highlight a few new trends introduced in the 2010s that are coming in the way of leading a disciplined life.
  1. Proliferation of Smartphones - We are glued to our smartphones, right from the time we wake up till the time we hit the bed. Studies show that an average person accesses his smartphone 110 times a day. Any fleeting moment of boredom, we quickly reach for the comfort of our smartphones. There's hardly a minute of do-nothing in our lives. How did this habit got so ingrained in ourselves in just a matter of a few years? Let's look back at our lives at the dawn of this decade. For instance, in 2010, I had long commute times to work and I used to take BMTC/Volvo buses (shift 3-4 buses to travel one way) every single day. I used to either read a book, listen to music on my iPod or just look outside the window and be with my own thoughts.  Fast forward to 2019 - A few days back, I was on a BMTC Volvo bus and all I could see was everyone glued to their smartphones, engrossed in some form of visual stimulation.
  2. Digital streaming platforms (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar) - Given the low data costs, we now have access to so many movies and web series at the touch of a button. Terms like "binge-watching" and "binge-racing" have become common parlance. Gone are the days when we would patiently wait for the weekly episode of our favorite serial. These new streaming platforms provide such instant gratification and push us towards watching the subsequent episodes in a matter of 3-4 seconds. We might have started with an episode for 20 minutes and the next thing we know, we are seated on our comfy couch for 2 hours and have watched 6 episodes. How do we ensure we don't succumb to these addictive behaviors? The need for self-discipline and setting rules for ourselves is the only way to gain control of our lives.
  3. Availability of more processed foods - Although processed foods had started pervading our lives from the 1990s, they made inroads into common man's hands in the 2000s and 2010s. Most of these processed foods are designed to be addictive. Until and unless we set some ground rules for ourselves, we can easily get into the rabbit hole of getting addicted to packaged foods for the sake of convenience, taste and herd behavior. The fast-food chains have setup shop in every nook and corner of all cities and even Tier-II towns across the country. It has become so much easier to get a pizza than get a plate of paniyarams.
  4. Food delivery services - In the 2000s and early 2010s, pizza delivery was the ONLY kind of food delivery service that was available. Thanks to smartphone penetration, numerous food delivery services are accessible at the touch of an icon, well supported by the ample funding by VCs. The way we think of food is changing in many ways. We order food, just because we are bored. We order desserts at random times, just because we crave something sweet or because we are upset. The fact that these food items come in cheap plastic containers doesn't seem to be bothering most of us. Convenience seems to be the top priority for every single decision, especially those that are related to food.
  5. Shopping apps - The introduction of EMI and cash-on-delivery options on e-commerce websites, not to forget the SALE (with discounts galore) running throughout the year, we are constantly being tempted by offers and deals. We end up buying stuff that we don't actually need. Fast fashion with trends changing every 3-4 months and sale promotions emphasizing "refresh your wardrobe" / "update your wardrobe" ensure that our wardrobes are cluttered with clothes that we haven't worn more than 3-4 times. Clutter comes in the way of leading a disciplined life, causing stress and affecting our mental peace.

One might argue about the benefits these trends have brought in, but my main issue with these trends is how they can quickly derail our efforts into leading a disciplined life. I'm not blaming these technologies but it is our responsibility to be aware of our cognitive biases and behaviors.

If you believe in setting goals for the New Year, I would highly urge you to think about goals that can help you inculcate discipline, amidst all these distraction-causing trends.

A few ideas to get you started:
  1. I'd watch ONLY 1 episode per day of this series I'm watching
  2. I'd stop using all gadgets post 9PM
  3. I'd start using my smartphone ONLY after an hour of waking up
  4. I'd incorporate do-nothing minutes in my day
  5. I'd just stay in the moment and pass my waiting time (in a queue for eg) instead of mindless scrolling through my social media feed
  6. I'd schedule fixed time for social media and stick to it
  7. I'd place a max of 2 orders per month from food delivery services
  8. I'd pick up ONLY 1 pack of processed food during my weekly shopping
  9. I'd buy clothes ONLY once a year during Diwali/Christmas
Do feel free to customize these triggers according to your needs and context. A disciplined life helps us in many ways:
  1. Helps us to simplify our days
  2. Helps us to differentiate between our needs and wants
  3. Empowers us to focus on the essentials
  4. Supports us in reaching our goals
  5. Drives us towards mindfulness and being aware of ourselves
Do share your thoughts on how you are leading a disciplined life amidst these distractions.

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