Review of A 5-Year-Old Book


No, that's just a 5-year-old. And we'll give him a C+. Adequate.

No, that’s just a 5-year-old. And we’ll give him a C+. Adequate.

We recently discovered the works of behavioral economist Dan Ariely. (Thank you, Amazon recommendations! And thank you for carrying our book, now in its umpteenth printing.) When we discovered that Jason of Hull Financial Planning is also a fan of Professor Ariely’s, we knew we were in the right place. You need to read Jason’s archives, in addition to Professor Ariely’s books. His 2008 big seller, Predictably Irrational, is an extremely readable compendium of experiments that show what odd things can happen to the supply and demand curves when they approach zero.

For instance, it’s an article of faith that money is a motivator, right? It seems so obvious that it’s hard to cite just one example, but you’re going to take the $85,000 job offer over the $80,000 one, ceteris paribus. Even anticipating the potential of getting more money is better than the alternative. A golf caddy is going to pay more attention to the oil tycoon who tosses out $100 bills than to the guy with the 2nd-hand TaylorMade Burner clubs who’s only playing today because he had a Groupon.

So how do you explain the following scenario:

Your car battery died. Fortunately, you keep jumper cables for just such an emergency. You flag down another driver. Which approach do you think will give better results?

  1. “Excuse me, Ma’am. Will you give me a boost?”
  2. “Excuse me, Ma’am. Here’s $3. Will you give me a boost?” 

Why is she less inclined to help you if you offer her money? Obviously, because she thinks you’re cheap; and that were she to accept your offer, she’d be cheap. If she doesn’t think you’re cheap, then she at least thinks you’re amazingly uncultured and/or new to this society. Being part of such a demeaning exchange isn’t worth the $3 to most people.

However, the satisfaction of selflessly helping a stranded driver is worth more than $3. Go figure.

The book is full of interesting examples like that, assuming you found that one interesting. In another one, Ariely offers test subjects their choice of two chocolates: 1¢ Hershey’s kisses or 15¢ Lindt truffles, one per person. The truffles outsold the Hershey’s kisses almost 3 to 1. (We should mention that the professor was selling the truffles at a loss, half of what he paid for them.)

He then reduced the price of each chocolate by 1¢, which classical economics tells us shouldn’t make a difference to the relative amounts of each sold. Classical economics was dead wrong: a 14¢ truffle is no match for a 0¢ kiss, the latter “selling” almost twice as many units as the former. People may think they know a bargain – a fancy Swiss confection sold at 15 or 16¢ below cost – but they’d rather chase the psychological high of something for nothing.

But something “for nothing” is relative, and it’s easy to dismiss one’s time as “nothing” when in point of fact it’s plenty. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a corner of the Internet devoted to spending pennies (and hours) making one’s own household cleaning products instead of spending dollars (and minutes) buying them at a store.

Some of the other observations Ariely made, applicable to your own financial life:

  • Throw a random number in front of people’s faces ($29.95) and you’ve anchored them. They’ll make their next financial decisions with that number drilled into their subconscious minds. By the way, you can buy our book for just $7, and the physical edition isn’t much more.
  • Paying an employee a salary, rather than a wage, makes that employee feel like part of the family. The biweekly check is a comforting reminder that the employer cares about you, as contrasted with a hard calculation of one’s hours worked multiplied by a constant. As a result, the employer can thus “ask” the employee to “help out a little” after hours or on weekends – after all, that’s what family members do for each other, while mercenaries are interested only in getting paid. The obscured truth here is that from an employer’s perspective, nothing in the world is better than receiving free labor. (Therefore, from an employee’s perspective…)
  • And gifts are stupid.

In short, if you know that people are going to make irrational decisions under certain circumstances, that’s an opportunity waiting to be exploited. Your fellow man is susceptible to anchoring, even arbitrary anchoring, as inane as that might sound. Getting paid by the hour marks your relationship with the person paying you as a fiscal one and nothing more. When offered a vacation to the Bahamas or the cash equivalent, take the cash.

The book also contains some disturbing passages about Ariely’s recuperation from a gruesome military training accident he suffered as a teenager. If you can make it through the part where he describes nurses washing his ¾-scabbed-over body, and having to choose between slowly and methodically removing his bandages every night or doing it quickly and with great shock, the rest of the book is more than worth your time.

BOOK REVIEW: One Year Lived

ONE YEAR LIVED press release

He ate termites. Voluntarily. And digitally penetrated a calf. Also voluntarily.

We try not to review books on this site, because most of the requests we get are from authors who range from the awful to the stupendously so. Then Adam Shepard asked us to review his new release,One Year Lived, which comes out Monday. He’s the guy who wrote 2007’s Scratch Beginnings, in which he left home with $25 and gave himself a year to go from homeless to productive member of society without using his contacts nor his education. He succeeded, refuting the argument that the American version of poverty is inescapable. The premise of his new book is similarly stirring:

It is the narrative of my one year trip around the world. I mustered cattle. I volunteered with children. I went scuba diving. I grew a mullet. I fought bulls. I made love on a beach. Etcetera.
More interesting than the fact that this was the most amazing year of my life, though, is that I spent less on my year abroad than I would have spent if I stayed home.

Boldface ours, and if that didn’t get our attention, nothing would. Shepard dropped $19,420.68 for a year’s worth of actual living. He continues:

[I]n a world that wants to take your money from you, it is essential that people are smart; that they make educated decisions about how to spend their money; and that they still manage to enjoy their lives in the process.

In other words, stop justifying your decision to live timidly. So yeah, Adam’s a fellow traveler. It’s not only a big and fascinating world, but one that’s more accessible than ever. Your grandparents might have been able to visit New Zealand once in a lifetime, if that, let alone pair it with a trip to Guatemala.

Shepard had a bucket list as lots of people do, the difference being that his existed not only in theory. 142 items, for which he gave himself a conservative 2 years to save for and 1 year to execute. (Spoiler: He didn’t need the 2 years.)  He shows how a simple semantic change can make a colossal difference.

Ask someone to define “bucket list” and they’ll say something like “An organized set of accomplishments, experiences, etc. to perform before you die.” Shepard argues that the last 3 words are not only superfluous, but limiting. They give you an excuse to postpone for decades. Why not just do the stuff instead of framing it in terms of your mortality? Even the modifier “bucket” implies that you shouldn’t even focus on it until the Grim Reaper is driving around your block, asking if you’d like to come outside and toss the Frisbee around for a few minutes.

One Year Lived is primarily about going after what you want, and secondarily about ignoring societal limitations, but its financial lessons are unmistakable and easy to apply to your own life. For starters,

the only difficult part about taking a trip like this is gathering the moxie to declare to yourself that you’re actually going to do it

Once he decided and executed, the experiences flowed freely. Shepard learned Spanish, played soccer with little kids, climbed a Guatemalan volcano, and did various other exotic activities worth reading about. Shepard is a talented and capable if unnecessarily profane writer, his description of a sunrise atop said Guatemalan volcano so vivid that it almost sounds worth the protection money and death threats it takes to get there. He’s funny, too:

[The] Antigua Avocados [Ed. Note: a soccer team], who, along with the Canberra Big Cat Tomatoes of Australia and the Blooming Prairie High School Onions of Minnesota, make a pretty formidable guacamole

The book is mostly travelogue, of course, with confessional thrown in at selected points. Shepard laments inadvertently screwing over a couple of generous acquaintances, and admits that even a full-ride college basketball player (Division II, but still) can have insufficient game with women.

So why would a Control Your Cash reader care about this? Shepard uses his resourcefulness, pointing out that everything in Latin America is for sale, or at least for rent. He’s relentlessly positive, never complaining, looking for possibility rather than the absence of such. He didn’t stay in 4-star hotels, not that such things exist in rural Honduras anyway. He volunteered with a children’s charity instead.

[I wanted] to tell a boy or girl, or two or three, that there was more out there than selling chocolate-covered bananas and working fish stalls in the market. That there was opportunity waiting for them, that they’d better get their s**t together if they ever want to taste the life that lay on the other side of the fence. That if they stayed in school, studied a little extra, developed an entrepreneurial mind, and maybe learned English, they had a shot.

Which is funny, because the financial decisions Shepard admits to making in college were terrible. They included repeated trips to an ATM at a casino in upstate New York to feed a blackjack addiction, and “a five-figure cash advance on seven credit cards to buy a sure-thing penny stock that went under eight months after I bought it[.]” That attitude pervaded well after college, too. After Shepard’s 1st book came out, he flew to Trump Plaza to double $10,000 and did. A few weeks later he returned and didn’t.

In one short weekend, I lost two years’ worth of savings, and a year’s worth of opportunities to see the world. But instead of shriveling up, instead of giving up, I got back to work. I started saving. I never sat down at a table game again, and thanks to a teary-eyed promise to my father, I never will.

Shepard admits to having little enthusiasm for collaboration, seeing right through the transparent pabulum that human resources managers deal in and reasoning that motivational exercises in the modern workplace don’t do a bit of good. He mentions a volunteer organization, Cross-Cultural Solutions (Solutions!), that denies his offer to spend a couple of weeks digging a ditch in Nicaragua because he refuses to pay them $3000 for the privilege. Volunteering is one thing, but it’s something quite different to be antipaid. Free and helpful labor offered by Shepard, and thwarted by that unstoppable force, bureaucracy. Yet in one Central American nation after another, potable water remains as much of a luxury as Bang & Olufsen car speakers are in the United States.

After striking out 22 times with top-heavy charities, Shepard finally makes contact with an American expat/missionary who works independently. No waiver to sign, no handbook to read, no orientation session to sleep through. Together, they perform small and meaningful work instead of the bombastic and intangible non-governmental organizational kind.

Upon noticing that Nicaraguan manual laborers make about 7% of American minimum wage, purchasing power parity notwithstanding, Shepard remarks on how narcotraficantes will launder money via “legitimate” businesses – hotels and restaurants – operating at cost and running their mamá-y-papá competitors out of business. Think about that next time you buy your weekly toot.

We learn that human striving to better oneself is universal. In the United States, for the most part, it’s easy to comprehend the idea of deferred enjoyment. In Nicaragua?

[T]here is very little personal initiative. Nicaraguans aren’t lazy or indolent, necessarily, but children learn not to dream for the future, that it’s better to merely scratch along day-by-day. This culture lives very much for this moment right now, with little regard for how an investment of time or saved money can improve one’s lifestyle in the longer term. And forget change. “Weed Eaters could revolutionize this place,” one American guy offered as an idea for replacing those haggard young men bent over whacking machetes at the ground, but reality opposed him—there was no one around to service these machines. “Surely,” he reasoned, confused, “one person in this town of fifty thousand could learn. Hell, they keep these retired American school buses running for so many years passed their expiration. Why not a Weed Eater?”

Shepard has perspective. Like the drunks when they pray, he changes what he can and knows the difference. A less practical volunteer in a Third World country would lament the injustice of the drug trade, organize marches and maybe even come up with a clever if pointless chant or two. Shepard knows he can do something about bad water, but his hands are tied regarding geopolitics. So he focuses on the former.

One Year Lived isn’t exclusively about squalor. Having minimized his expenses in Central America, he convinces the book’s Slovak love interest, who moves in and out of the story, to fly to New Zealand with him and spend a few weeks living as travelers rather than tourists. From there they go to remotest Western Australia, and get in the way of the real stockmen while attempting to help on a cattle station.

After a brief sojourn to the Philippines, highlighted by sitting in a crowded theater watching American boxer Timothy Bradley’s controversial snapping of national hero Manny Pacquiao’s 7-year undefeated streak, Shepard offers the reader a primer in how to travel the world without bankrupting oneself:

If you wonder whether an odyssey like mine is financially realistic for you, I answer with a resounding yes.

…[I]t surprised me to learn how far an American dollar will go

The trick is to figure out which countries fit your travel budget. A hamburger in Copenhagen costs four times as much as in Prague[.]

For the average price of renting a one-bedroom apartment for one month in Raleigh, North Carolina, I could rent my own private room on Ometepe Island overlooking Lake Nicaragua or a full two-bedroom apartment on Útila Island (in the Caribbean) for two months. I could do even better on a white-sanded beach in Thailand. I saved money in inexpensive countries (Honduras), and let my bank account loose in more expensive ones (New Zealand).

That last sentence seems to contradict common sense, but who are we to argue? Shepard has been there and not gotten the t-shirt. He made it a rule to eschew souvenirs, which seems obvious. They have zero utility, and they cut into your precious baggage space.

[I]f I take all my expenses—flights, ground transportation, food, drink, lodging, entertainment, language classes in Guatemala, and hydrogen peroxide to cleanse my bovine-probe finger—and line them up against what I would have spent at home on my car, gas, insurance, apartment, food, entertainment, and two weeks of vacation. I hopped through seventeen countries on four continents for less money than it would have cost me to commute, vacation, play, eat, board, and buy a few cool new technological gadgets back in the States.

He also restricted himself to “moderate” spending on alcohol, which we’d offer a response to but every time we do people think we’re being sanctimonious prigs.  Just an observation – it’s odd how C2H6O is every bit as indispensable to most people as H2O is. Shepard laments paying $16 for a cocktail in a nondescript New Zealand bar. Let’s not forget that alcohol impairs judgment, and can lead to tragedy: he recounts the three people he knows who crashed their cars in single-vehicle accidents, all of which involved alcohol. 33% of the drivers died, and another 33% are paralyzed. As Homer Simpson said, “I like those odds.”

So many people I met—too many people—were passing on fun side excursions because they were “watching their money” while buying drinks by the armful. Alcohol never got in the way of me doing what I wanted to do. I kept my intake manageable and mostly bought bottles from the store rather than in rounds at the bar[.]

Kind of like buying one’s cigarettes at the Indian tribal store, but we digress.

/gets down from soapbox
/without tripping and falling, because sober

A lot of the rest of his advice is practical: buy a Kindle instead of lugging books around, use instead of getting stuck with nowhere cheap to sleep, etc. And use your head. A flight from San Jose, Costa Rica to Auckland is expensive. Adding a few legs and incorporating a hub on your itinerary can save hundreds of dollars.

The verdict? One Year Lived is inspirational and well worth your time. But if you’re the kind of person who loves nothing more than waking up at the same hour every morning, putting on your standard Western business attire, getting into your Dodge Stratus and sitting at your cubicle for 8 hours (10 if they need you to work late, Champ), One Year Lived isn’t the book for you. Nor is Control Your Cash the site for you, for that matter.

Instead, take a bite. Shepard is generously offering his ebook to anyone who wants to read his unadulterated prose before the official book launch. Just visit this page at, enter email address slimshep12 @ and password 123456, and start reading.