Saturday, May 11, 2019

Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles: A Comparison (Monday Musings 80)

I've decided to write as many posts as possible, and titling it Monday Musings from now on, to insure that I don't "fall behind" lol.

As another hobby to consider (to give your eyes much needed rest from all the blue light of video games) is jigsaw puzzles. I got into puzzles once again as my friend introduced me to the Wentworth wooden puzzles. I was so impressed with these puzzles because of the quality and the satisfying tactile feel when you put the pieces together, that I wanted to order some myself.

Upon visiting Wentworth's online site, my heart sank as the puzzles were rather pricey, though at $50 for a 250-piece puzzle, the cost/time is actually reasonable, as long as you do the puzzle a couple of times. Since I'm very slow, it takes about 2 hours, so if you do the puzzle 2 or 3 times, it's cheaper than going to the movies. So I thought of getting one, but then the shipping charges were astronomical, since it's shipping from the UK. However, I found out later that Wentworth often has free shipping to US! But not realizing that at the time, I decided to see if there are US manufacturers which will have lower shipping costs.

Therefore, I did more research and stumbled upon the ridiculous Stave puzzles (Barbara Bush-endorsed) at average price of $1000 (perhaps even $2000 as some are $15K), so this brand will not be reviewed. I then fell upon the much more affordable and reasonable Architect and Liberty puzzles.

I find that they are all equal to each other, so the puzzle manufacturer that is best for you is based really on your preferences and what you're looking for. I'll outline the differences between the three, in alphabetical order.

Artifact puzzles is the most creative of not just the pictures offered, but the many interesting puzzle shapes. I don't find the tired, drab images of known paintings, and boring, uninspired nature scenes, as compelling as the fantastical pictures including monsters, cartoon characters, and so forth that Artifact offers.

Although Artifact pieces are the most loose fitting of the three, the irregularly irregular pieces are significantly more bizarre and odd than the other brands, and therefore quite compelling. It's interesting to see how these weird pieces fit together, often leading to a lot of "Ah ha" moments. They're coming out with the new Ecru line which offers tighter fitting pieces with no glare design, but it's more costly of course. Further, the designs aren't as whimsical or fantastic as their regular line, so I have a feeling that I'd prefer the regular over the upcoming Ecru. Picture for me tends to be most important.

Artifact's Mechanical Griffin
Artifact tends to have the most whimsy pieces out of the three, meaning pieces that are shaped thematically. So a cat puzzle will have cat-shaped pieces.

The image quality on Artifact and Wentworth is better than Liberty in the sense that the images seem like it's actually painted on the wooden pieces. One of the Liberty puzzle pieces had a small peel, that can be glued, so I don't find this a deal breaker.

If interested in Artifact, I would recommend the Griffin that comes with a clever surprise (spoilers avoided here). 

All the Artifact puzzles I own are so completely different from each other (I have 4!). Other customers also noticed that any time you get a puzzle from Artifact, it's a whole new experience.

As for the Liberty Puzzle, it has the same thickness as Artifact (6.35 mm), but the fit of the pieces are much tighter, so in that sense the pieces are better quality than Artifact's regular line, only marred by the fact that a piece may (or may not) have some peeling (it seems like this would be a rare occurrence), unlike Artifact and Wentworth. 

Liberty does have a lot of whimsy pieces, not as much as the Artifact, but more so than the
Liberty's and Wentworth's An Exuberant Success
Wentworth. The pieces are more redundant than Artifact, tending to be more regularly irregular, rather than the irregularly irregular shapes of Artifact.

The Wentworth is made of considerably thinner wood than Artifact and Liberty, less than half the thickness (3 mm versus 6.35 mm). The thicker wood feels more luxurious, but because the Wentworth pieces are thinner, it's the best fitting of the three. The sensation of putting the pieces together in a satisfying click, so it  has the most pleasant sensory experience out of all three. There are whimsy pieces, but nowhere near as much as Artifact and Liberty, and more regular-shaped pieces than even the Liberty.

Wentworth includes a rather lovely felt bag to hold the pieces within its sturdy box. Sadly, Artifact and Liberty don't.

If you prefer unique pictures, and thicker, peculiar, odd and whimsical pieces, I'd recommend Artifact. If you prefer an equally thick cut with better fit, and you don't mind more regularly irregular shaped pieces, than I'd chose the Liberty. Finally, if you want that tactile, satisfying click feel with nice bag, and don't mind less creative shapes, then Wentworth is the puzzle for you. With these criteria in mind, Artifact is my favorite of the three due to the creativity aspects.

If none of these issues matter to you, I'd recommend ordering the designs that you find the most pleasing, because you can't go wrong with any of these puzzle manufacturers. They all cost around the same price, and Wentworth frequently has sales where shipping is free to the US.

For all three manufacturers, prices are cheaper ordering online at their websites:

Artifact Puzzles
Liberty Puzzles
Wentworth Puzzles

The How of Happiness Review

Sunday, May 5, 2019

How to Beat the Backloggery Boss! (Monday Musings 79)

The Backloggery is an amazing site where you can add your entire game collection, and see which games you've beaten, and which needs completion. It's frustrating to see so many games not yet beaten, and this site gives you incentives to slay the Backloggery Boss. Indeed, it's a breath of fresh air when you see your backlog numbers reducing, and you also obtain achievement badges, which is a very nice touch!

They also have features that shows you trends of your backlog against games completed. Upon using these cheese strats, my unbeaten games percentages plummeted! I can't find a link on the site where it lists all of your badges in one place, so I'll make that suggestion!

If you find it very useful, make sure you chose a name that you really want, since you can't change your username as of this writing.
TheBackloggery Trends Chart

Here's my Backloggery link.

I love the site because it's so easy to add, edit and view games, so impressed that I donated to the site awhile back. You can easily add games under a Collection Series, which streamlines, so you can view games even more conveniently.

Given that I have a large backlog (when I started, it was over 100 games), and I felt overwhelmed, but digging into my usual ways of finding cheese methods to beat a boss, I found ways you can cheese and defeat the Backloggery Boss!

I would sell, give away and/or donate all physical copies of games that you never played and really feel that you'll never play again. Don't be upset about giving up these games, for you can borrow those games back from library, or rent from GameFly (my review link) which thus far I had a surprisingly positive experience.

By donating and giving my games away, my backlog was heavily reduced by at least 50%, and I got a nice tax deduction! This is a win-win - you no longer have the guilt of an unplayed game, and by selling or donating, you get money back, and someone out there is enjoying your game so it doesn't go to waste. Through donation and giving away strat, that takes out 50% off Backloggery's health.

I wouldn't include any free games you've gotten through your Playstation or XBox subscription, since there's no "guilt" if you never play those games ever again, since they're free anyways. I also wouldn't include games that you received free in a bundled console package, because often you buy these bundled packages because they're actually cheaper than the console by itself.

Therefore, delete those free games, unless you want to include them as a reminder that this is a game you want to play down the road. On the other hand, if you need a reminder that you own a game, you most likely aren't interested in playing the game in the first place!

Next, I was very upset since I purchased a lot of digital copies of games and DLCs which comprised a substantial portion of my backlog. Upon reviewing The Backloggery FAQ section, it was noted how ownership is unclear, especially since a lot of games are purchased digitally. I was then excited, after reviewing legal rules into digital ownership, that we do not technically own these games at all!

Therefore, I deleted all the digital games I purchased that I don't intend to ever play again! Digital copies also include any DLCs you purchased as well! Often, when I buy DLCs, I already finished the game, and would start on the next, never going back to playing said DLC. Therefore, you can also delete those if you know for sure that you'll never go back to those neglected digital games and DLCs. 

I can't tell you how refreshing that is, since quite a few digital games I purchased tend to be classic platform games, which I tend not to enjoy as much as RPGs, as well as iOS games that may not work on the next iPhone iteration (further, I refuse to buy any more Apple products due to atrocious customer service x 2), and hence will never play those.

Thankfully, Fortnite's Save the World was digital, so I can delete that game. Further, is this a finished game in the first place? I don't think Epic games ever completed it, instead focusing on Battle Royale, so there's no cheating here.

Make sure you label games that don't have an ending (such as Karaoke and Dance games), by labeling them as "Null", which will show up on your games collection list, but not counted toward your backlog. 

By removing the vast amount of digital games and DLCs, that left my Backloggery boss near death at 4.9% health. The remaining 6 games are physical copies that I can easily donate. I'm so tempted to give away or donate Witcher 3 as I don't foresee myself playing the game, given that it's been years since I was thinking of buying it, and then once it was on a huge discount, I purchased it, and yet only played at most 30 minutes! 

The remaining physical games I have are definitely games I will play which include only five, all on PS4: Final Fantasy X/X-2 Remake, Gravity Rush Remastered, Kingdom Hearts 3, Nier: Automata, and Nights of Azure 2.

With my strat of using GameFly, I will be renting games, and only buying a game that I want to play more in depth such as Sekiro. This will prevent the Backloggery Boss from resuscitating.

Clearly these strats are very cheese (which is how I tend to play games), but it works and isn't technically cheating!

Do you find these strats helpful or too cheese, and do you find it refreshing when you reduce your backlog?

The How of Happiness Review

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Sekiro: Initial Impressions (Monday Musings 78)

Thanks to GameFly free month trial, I was able to try out Sekiro for free. I'm using the service
Sekiro hero, Wolf
to sample games that I want to buy down the road. Games that may take me months to finish such as the typically long JRPGs, thus I only played Sekiro for about 20 hours or so, then mailed it, in exchange for the next game.

A major first tip that I'd recommend is to change the controls for the D-pad up = switch between your prosthetic tools, and Y/Triangle button = use items. It's a bit clunky to press D-pad up when you want to heal as opposed to a face button.

Spoilers Ahead!

I don't think I'd be so enamoured of Sekiro if it didn't have the incredible melee combat mechanics. It's very addictive to deflect (parry) which breaks the enemy's posture, and once posture bar is completely filled (i.e. you broke enemy posture), then deathblow. Another major way to kill off enemies (if you refuse to deflect), is to deplete health bar through R1/RB attack, and when it goes to zero, you press RB/R1 for death blow. Stealth is another way.

But often, it's much faster to use the deflect mechanic, which breaks posture, and once posture is broken, you instantly kill the enemy with R1/RB attack. And, the developer, From Software insist that you use deflect.

Because of this insistence, or rather fetish, I wonder if I would get tired of deflecting, and then bored of the game eventually. On the other hand, 20 hours of practice is not enough time to be able to consistently deflect, so I'm hoping that even a hundred hours later, you still need to hone your deflect skills, so that combat doesn't get stale.

It's upsetting that you are forced to play the way From Software wants you to play, as opposed to fighting the enemies the way you want to. I thought From's other game Bloodborne was very limiting, as you have to defeat enemies mainly through melee, but at least there were variety of weapons with different feels, and the weapon transform is a neat trick. Sekiro is even more limited than that. From my understanding, Sekiro's main character Wolf only has that short Katana, so your strikes will always feel the same.

Like Bloodborne, you really can't make a pure ranged build in Sekiro, and in fact, the only ranged option I noticed so far is the Shuriken prosthetic tool, of which you can only use a dozen times (though you can buy skills to increase the usage). The mantra (pun intended due to the Buddhist themes of this game) we will be repeating is deflect, deflect, deflect, but using the same boring looking weapon.

However, I was very stubborn and as a middle finger to From, I played the game the way I want to play. So, for the first few mini-bosses and the two main bosses (Lady Butterfly and the rather awful General on Horse boss), I got away with running away from them when they attack. After attack, I run back towards the enemy, whacking them once or twice. One particular whirling move (which appears to be resistant to deflect or special deflect skill called Mikiri) of Lady Butterfly, I found I couldn't run away, because I often get clipped, but found you can jump safely away from that attack.

For Lady Butterfly's phase 2, I used the prosthetic wooden axe, with the additional prosthetic combo skill that I grinded for, to stun-lock her to death, in a surprisingly easy cheese method.

As for trash mobs, I run away from enemies (Wolf has unlimited stamina), picking up items and stumbling upon the next shrine (save point). But since you can easily be swarmed by trash mob, it's best to take them out via stealth. If you whiff on stealth, because quite often, when you successfully sneak up on the enemy and press L1/LB for the backstab, that attack doesn't register, and then you alarm all of his buddies.

Inconsistently, other times, the backstab reflects (even without that red icon that means death blow). The inconsistency of stealth is a bit of a let-down, especially as stealth kills are a good way to thin out the ranks.

Once stealth whiffs, however, you're sort of forced into using the deflect method because there are so many enemies that you have to take them out very fast, and the fastest way is through the deflect/counter-attack method that Sekiro fetishizes.

I'm absolutely certain that down the road, you really have to master deflect (as well as the other special deflect skill that you can grind for, Mikiri, that breaks posture even more), so I hope the game doesn't get stale the further you progress.

Again, I don't think the game would be as stale if only Wolf can use other weapons that may have slower but stronger attacks and the like!  Of course From software can continue the deflect mechanic all they want, but at least give us variety in weapons. In fact, I got excited when you can buy a hint from an NPC for a short sword (of course my heart sank, since you want a longer ranged sword), but at least it's not that same Katana. Come to find out, this sword was a prosthetic tool to my chagrin.

I wonder if the stellar combat mechanics can override all the issues I have of the game? However, before I go into the rather problematic flaws of the game, I must say that out of all the From software games post-Demon's Souls, Sekiro has the most satisfying melee combat.

The first grating issue I have is that the un-inspired looking hero Wolf has just as much personality as a blank-slate character, so it didn't make sense to not have the hero customizable.  Also I wished you can change outfits, as it got tiring, even after just 20 hours, of seeing the same bland costume. Perhaps Activision may roll out costumes as micro-transactions.

At any rate, if you're going to have a character that's not customizable, please make him or her distinct such as Nathan Drake of Uncharted or Joel and Ellie of The Last of UsAs From software appears to be allergic to good writing, and committed to no personality playable characters, their heroes should be customizable. If you want the character to talk, just hire male and female voice actors.

Again, it's not as if Japan has lack of brilliant writers, so why can't From software hire a good writer? There are so many starving writers in the world who would jump at the chance to make 200K for a game script.

I harp on this issue because indeed, the story and the other NPCs you meet are equally as bland to the point where I didn't feel anything when I found out that the castle was burned down in one of Wolf's memories. In fact, I was actually annoyed that I couldn't go through the fire to the next destination as a faster way of getting to the boss, very clearly not caring about the castle's destruction, but more concerned about traversal. Adding to my annoyance is that you had to go around to the right of your mentor, even though he said to go to his left.

So, we're stuck with the same dull looking character throughout the game, same damn armor and weapon, and at least in the beginning part of the game, we have uninteresting NPCs and un-inspired story. Fine, but the combat and traversal are amazing, and the graphics lovely with almost no aliasing, so I pushed through. 

The world is gorgeous, and I find the level design rather good! After using stealth and learning how to deflect better, I was able to clear out some areas to explore. There were some spots that I missed because of the verticality of the game - the traversal is wonderful as you can use grappling hook to move seamlessly through the world - as there's an item that's often hidden just below, or above you.

There are also the typical From software doors that don't open on the accessible side, or needing key, and there were two doors that I couldn't find my way to the other side! Although I wanted to play the first part of the game blind, I just had to find out how to open these doors, so I Youtube'd it. These hidden doors showcase the great level design of the game, as one door (after the Ogre mini-boss), you have to go past that area, go through a cave, climb multiple ledges, and you still can miss an upper ledge that you can grapple hook your way up, and open this door.

Even so, the issue with having a great level design, but only useless consumable items to pick up (you can easily buy or grind for them), you're not inspired to really get to know the map and the world of the game. The only items that are useful (at least in the beginning part of the game) are the prosthetic tools - and they're very easily found because they tend to be before or after the shrine save points - or you can buy them. So that doesn't compel you to explore the world for them.

The other item that is a must is the gourd seed - analogous to the estus flask - that heals you. The more seeds you collect, the more heals you can use, and they replenish every time you rest at the shrines. But these seeds are also easily seen either before or after the shrine save points, again making exploration unnecessary.

Another one is the prayer bead which you get when you defeat mini-boss and I think main boss. You need 4 to make a prayer bracelet that increases vitality. I didn't realize that you can find a prayer bead in tucked off location, but even so, there are so many mini-bosses, that I didn't find it necessary to scour the world to find 1 or 2 prayer beads, unless for trophy.

This is in contrast with Souls games, where you want to explore every part of the world because you may find cool weapons and armor that are in hidden locations, but this is not quite the case with Sekiro. But at least Sekiro seems to have complex level design and fun traversal, though you may not have as much fun exploring after getting the five trillionth ash.

At least for the first part of the game, the music was really bad. The trash mob background music was so off-putting that I turned music off. This was a shock to me as all the Souls game had incredible music. I didn't listen to the boss music of Lady Butterfly or the General on the Horse boss because I forgot to turn the music back on.

The first boss I encountered was Lady Butterfly in the Memories, and I failed horribly against her, so I decided to continue the main campaign, getting more skills, prayer beads, and Gourd seeds. But if I hadn't encountered Lady Butterfly, I would be so disappointed because the first proper boss of the game was quite bad - I feel that the General on the Horse is probably my least favorite boss in all of From's software games I played.

However, Lady Butterfly was a fantastic boss, and was very happy to cheese her in her second phase, and fighting her the way I wanted to fight her. I'm predicting that future bosses are going to be wonderful, as is the From Software trademark.

I didn't mind the lack of variety of enemies, since again, the combat is so amazing. Further, the various human enemies all have distinct attack patterns, which is a big strength of this game, so you have to be able to know when to deflect or Mikiri for a particular human.

It appears that Sekiro is not intended to be the typical JRPG that we've seen in Souls series, but more along the lines of an action-adventure game, since it greatly scales down the usual stats of Vitality, Stamina, Dexterity, Strength and so forth, but rather you level up via Prayer Beads (as mentioned above, 4 of them grant you 1 extra vitality) and upon killing bosses, I believe my attack power increased by 1. Even so, you do buy skills, and prosthetic tools also can be leveled up.

Although I love the min/max and distributing points as in the traditional JRPG, as opposed to skill trees, I completely understand why a lot of people prefer pure combat and not having to worry about leveling up. In that sense, Sekiro's combat is spectacular, and gameplay is where the game truly shines, as it makes you perfect your timing and skills, so satisfying to break posture upon deflect/counter-attack.

Conclusion: Despite all my complaints, my initial impression is that I like Sekiro because of the thrill of combat, which is breathtaking at times. I also appreciate the level design (albeit wasted due to uninspired items you find), the traversal, and stealth mechanics (although often dodgy). 

I'll have to play the entire game to see if I truly love the game, to see if combat can push Sekiro past all the issues I have. It's a game that I may not want to buy at full price, but certainly when it comes out with the bundled DLC edition, at cheaper price. If you played Sekiro, what are your thoughts of the game?

The How of Happiness Review

Sunday, April 28, 2019

GameFly Experience (Monday Musings 77)

I returned Sekiro and by the next day, GameFly already shipped out a new game! I'm very happy thus far with my GameFly experience.

I decided to take advantage of GameFly's free month trial, and place Sekiro at the top of the list. Given that Sekiro was recently released, and GameFly noting that there's "low availability", I was surprised to see the game shipped out the day after I signed up for the trial! I signed up Monday, shipped Tuesday, and received Friday.

Given the popularity of Sekiro, I thought I had to wait a couple of weeks, at least, to receive the game, so I was pleasantly surprised to see "shipped" when I checked the status the next day. However, I'm not sure how quickly you can receive a game that has just been released that day. Would I have received Sekiro four days after its release date?

Looking through the list of GameFly games, I was impressed that they not only have the triple A titles, but also some niche ones including the Atelier series, that appear to come out yearly. I enjoyed Atelier Sophie, but not to the point where I want to buy future Atelier series at the $60 price point. 

You can keep the game for as long as you want, and once you finish the game, upon receipt, they mail you the next game.

Games in my queue are newly released Days Gone, Dragon Quest XI (as I was considering buying the game), soon to be released A Plague Tale: Innocence, and Red Dead Redemption 2. I'm curious to see for myself if I'd enjoy RDR2, and GameFly gives me the opportunity to do so free, as opposed to having buy the game and not enjoying it. 

As difficult as Sekiro is, even if it takes me 2 months to complete, the rental is nevertheless cheaper than buying the game full price. However, it does appear to be a game I'd like to buy on sale, once the Bundled edition comes out (From software always releases DLCs), so I can return Sekiro and hopefully get Days Gone (also "low availability").

Indeed, a strat that you can use, is to write down a list of all the game titles you're considering purchasing, sample these games, spending a few hours to see if this game is up your alley, and then return quickly to receive the next game. If a game appears to be a must own, then you can buy it without buyer's remorse. 

If you're a slow gamer like me and you like to take months on a game, then GameFly may not be a good option, since it costs $15.95/month for one game out at a time, or $22.95/month for two games out at a time.

So far, I've had positive experience with GameFly, albeit it's only been 1 week's experience. If you have a GameFly membership, please feel free to describe your experiences with them.

The How Of Happiness Review

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Financial Problems Solved in All Your Worth (Monday Musings 75)

I've read a lot of personal finance books over the years, and Warren and Tiyagi's All Your Worth is undoubtedly the best one. Warren and Tiyagi's (W&T) book was written for the average American who lives paycheck to paycheck. When our car breaks, or any unforeseen emergency such as hospital bills occur, we're thrown in for a loop, and then barely struggling to pay crushing high interest credit card debts as a result.

Indeed, other personal finance books I've read are for those who are already doing well and they suggest how to increase your retirement funds. Or even worse, books that report you can do extremely well if you rely on royalties instead of salaries. I'm sorry, but how many of us can be a Stephen King or a member of the Beatles? Other books would discuss coupon clipping (who has the time?) and laud people who cook their eggs while their dishwasher is running, to save on electricity.

All Your Worth discusses the above issues, and W&T are not exaggerating at all about the other finance books, since I've read them myself as noted above. The other encouraging thing about their book is that they're very empathetic as to why you're struggling financially.

They explain that Americans today are struggling paycheck to paycheck in depth, as opposed to in the past. Back then, credit cards aren't handed out like candy, so you can't overspend, and you can only rely on cash. If there's no cash in your wallet, you can't buy.

Further, back in the day, you can't overspend on auto loans and mortgages if you don't have enough income and cash down. Banks wouldn't allow you to buy too much house or car, unlike today. So Americans today can easily overextend themselves by buying too much and living beyond their means, inadvertently.

After empathizing and acknowledging why Americans are struggling today, they then go into the basic tenants of why their plan works, using the analogy of having a balanced diet.

You don't want to be so strict with your diet (i.e the penny pinching route) because you may binge on doughnuts due to deprivation, or if you have very strong-will, you don't want to be miserable for the rest of your life. Nor should you expect to lose weight or be healthy if you eat whatever you want, calories and poor nutrition be damned (i.e. spending all your money on wants, and neglecting crucial bills and savings).

Therefore, W&T's balanced formula is simple:
  1. 50% of your after tax salary should go to must-haves (mortage, rent, utilities, food), things that you will continue to pay for even if you lose your job.
  2. 20% goes to savings (that includes money paying off credit card bills, retirement, emergency fund).
  3. A whopping 30% goes to whatever you want, whether it's something lofty like giving to charities, or superficial such as cat figurines.
They explain why this formula works, because if you're laid-off, you're entitled to unemployment income which is 50% of your paycheck, though I believe the US government is trying to get rid of this "entitlement" (this should be a basic right especially as you paid into unemployment benefits, per the mission of the US's "pursuit of happiness"). Because your basic necessities are 50%, your unemployment can cover until you find work.

W&T recommend that you pay for things that you want in cash because of the physical reminder (it's amazing how much you can rack up using credit cards). Therefore, if you find you can spend $100/week on whatever you want, you will bring the $100 with you.

The cash only plan worked when I used the book about 5 years ago. I recall wanting a Godiva chocolate shake but since it was at the end of the week, I only had $3 left in wallet, so I had to wait until next week to get the shake. When next week arrived, I no longer had this craving, and spent the money on something else that I wanted.

By carrying cash in that way, it prevents you from going over your budget, making sure that your must-haves and savings are intact. Because you're sticking to the formula as described, you will never have to worry about money again! Of course, financial situation changes, and W&T cover emergency scenarios in their book.

However, most Americans won't have financial emergencies on a weekly basis (i.e. that's why we have the cliche of the daily grind where nothing ever changes), so most of the time, you'll find financial peace following this balanced formula. Further, in the savings portion of the book, you will put aside for emergencies to mitigate any issues that may arise.

W&T include worksheets where you plug in the formula and see how close you are to a balanced budget. If you're not within the 50% of must-haves, they troubleshoot in the book, which goes beyond the scope of this review. If you fall outside the 50%, the book can help you be in balance.

Does this plan work though? For the average Millenial income of 24K (after tax total is around 21K), it seems to only work if you live with your parents and pay minimal or better yet, no rent. Perhaps paying rent by doing all the chores in the house. I included $300/month for college loans, which is the average Millenial debt. Please see the Millenial worksheet here for details

However, if you make the average American salary of the alleged 50K (after tax is around 31K per tax calculator), this book works, as long as you don't buy too much house or car.  You have enough savings, and your wants are $37/week, though it's not a balanced formula. The average 1 BR apartment nationwide is $1000/month. Please see the Avg US Salary worksheet here for details.

On the average American salary, if you live on your own, you can spend $37/week on whatever you want, as opposed to around $126 if you're a Millenial living with your parents (pay no or minimal rent). Even with the average American salary, you will NOT be in a balanced formula range, unless you live with parents.

In other words, I was 100% right that even on average American salary, you should NOT be ashamed about living with your parents as discussed here (pats myself on back). Even though I conflated Millenial income as the average American income, you'll still struggle living on your own on the average 50K gross tax income because of the imbalance skewing towards the majority of your income going to must-haves.

Therefore, I'm very worried for the vast Americans who are living on minimal wage. I can't think of any places where rent is zero, correct me if I'm wrong. The only answer is to live with family, a loved one and leverage at least a two person salary.

In fact, the last resort scenario, W&T recommended having a trusted person move in with you so you can share the costs of rent/mortgage!

As for food, since a lot of the food we buy are convenient (and hence more costly) and we sometimes splurge on junk food, W&T recommend that you put aside cash for food, so you can see how much you should spend, along with your fun money.

W&T do take into our fears of what if we run out of money at the end of the week, and there's no food for the next day or so until the next week cycle. They recommend that you sock away (pun intended) $50 in your sock drawer to be used in those situations, and to replace that $50 as soon as you can. If you notice that you're running out on food, you will soon make sure that you don't spend that food money on fun.

Because you're limited to a set amount for your wants, W&T go into the psychology of money, and making you think exactly what you want to buy with this limited amount, so that you can make a purchase that has meaning to you and provide maximum joy, as opposed to emotional spending. These include buying things to "impress others" that usually doesn't make you particularly happy, buying other people's love, paying the entire restaurant bill to look generous, spending to feel better because you're depressed, and so forth. They have a self-test that you can take to determine if you're an emotional spender on p. 125. 
I find these self-tests extremely helpful as it helps you to hone in where your vulnerabilities are in specific, concrete ways.

An extreme case I can think of is you buy a Rolex watch as that "is" impressive", come to find out you have contact dermatitis and exacerbates your carpal tunnel, so it goes into sock drawer. But you could've spent that money on something you truly enjoy such as (for us gamers at least) a highly anticipated game title. In other words, spend the money on something that you truly want, not out of emotional spending.

After doing the worksheets, and you find that you're within range, W&T then go into what to spend on your savings for the future. If you're in the balance, you have 20% to spend on savings. The first step is to save up $1000 for emergencies.

The next step is to pay off your debts as they sap your potential cash flow for the future. Imagine being debt-free, this is a future of freedom! 

W&T suggest that you look into how you got into debt in the first place, so in the future, you won't get stuck back in crippling debt. They include a self-test to see where your debt comes from on pp.139 to 140. Once you hone in on where you collected debt, you know what not to do the next time around.

Next is to write down a list of all your debts. If you have credit card debt of average 18%, it makes sense to drain your savings and liquidate your accounts except your retirement accounts due to tax penalties. The rationale is that your money in savings is only accruing 1% or less so by putting it towards credit card, you're in effect making 17% (credit card rate - interest you would've made in savings account).

In terms of debt, the first priority is to spend it on any back-payments on rent or mortgage (you need a roof over your head), car (you don't want your car repossessed) and child support (you don't want to end up in court). Once you clear that out, they recommend paying off the debt that bothers you the most.

For me, although it makes more sense to pay off the larger debt with higher interest rate than paying off the smaller debt with lower interest rate, paying off the smaller debt is psychologically freeing. You cross that debt off your list and you have a sense of relief since you're no longer beholden to that company.

Let's say that the small debt costs $20/month. Once you pay off that small debt, I then take that $20 that I otherwise would spend on that debt to the new debt that I want to tackle.  If this new debt costs $100/month and I complete that out, I now have $120/month free to put it toward the next debt. You can see how this snow-balls and you eventually pay off all your debts. 

After paying off all your debts, the next step is to create a security fund which is equal to your must-have expenses x 6 months in case you lose your job.

Now that you have a solid savings, you want to create a retirement fund and/or set aside savings for home, college for the kids, and so forth.

Sign up for a retirement plan at work; I tend to like the Retirement Funds because it does the diversification for you automatically. Barring that, you can set up your own IRA (Individual Retirement Account). I like the Vanguard Retirement Fund 2035 (or whatever year you're going to retire) as it balances your portfolio to stocks (more aggressive) to bonds (more conservative) as you get older. This is actually automated, so the expense ratio (how much they take out) is a mere 0.14% fee. It costs $3000 to set one up.

I was pleasantly surprised because during my residency and fellowship, I had 10% of my paycheck taken out toward the Vanguard Retirement Fund 2035, so I didn't miss this money, and yet I ended up with a small nest egg due to profits (i.e. well below a million that would be considered a nest egg, but a handsome amount).

The last chapters of this book cover issues that occur when you're in a relationship and how to deal with conflicts. The next chapter is how to go about the right way to buy a home. And the last chapter is about bankruptcy and getting back on your feet. In other words, the book is very comprehensive and indeed gives you a solid lifetime money plan.

I would borrow this book from the library, do the worksheets and take notes on the troubleshooting parts of the chapter. It helps to use an Excel-like spreadsheet as it can quickly recalculate the numbers for you - the example worksheet links that I included above, can be a basic template for you to follow.

Conclusion: If you make 31K after tax income or less, it's highly advised that you live with someone whom you can trust to leverage a two-person salary to live comfortably, as per All Your Worth.

Once you notice that you CAN live within these book's guidelines (i.e. you no longer have to worry about basic necessities or having financial stress, and you live in a safe environment), you can then move to working on Happiness as described in The How of Happiness!

Monday, April 22, 2019

Planet Fitness - Perfect Gym? (Monday Musings 76)

If I ever do become a Twitch Partner (the likelihood is 0%) and you're more able to get
sponsorships, I would chose Planet Fitness as my first sponsor, given that my stream channel is focused on gaming, but also health issues. We streamers and gamers are notoriously known for poor self-care, so I'd love to promote Planet Fitness.

But is Planet Fitness the gym for you? The first thing to look for in a gym is proximity. If there's another fitness center that's within one mile of your work/home, and the Planet Fitness is further away, the better option is the closer one, in terms of achieving compliance.

I used to go to another gym that was 5 miles away, and I barely went, but my local Planet Fitness is less than 1 mile away, and I've been consistent in attending.

If you have young children, Planet Fitness does not offer babysitting so unless you're able to have someone to attend your children, Planet Fitness won't be a good option. I would chose a gym that has babysitting.

If you're a hardcore body builder and are entering competitions, Planet Fitness is not a good gym for you. I believe the dumb bells go up to 60 pounds, and there are no barbell and squat racks, only the dreadful Smith machines. However, if you're the average person, not aiming to be in competitions, Planet Fitness has more than adequate equipment. I like how they have the Step Mill, which is rotating staircases.

If Planet Fitness is close to you, you do not need babysitting for your children, and you're not looking to achieve a competitive ready physique, Planet Fitness is the perfect gym.

For one, it's open 24/7, meaning that there's no excuse to not go to the gym, improving compliance. I believe that's Planet Fitness's biggest selling point. Planet Fitness is a very clean and organized facility, and I found the staff and fellow members to be polite, courteous and friendly.

Planet Fitness is affordable, and during the summer, there's an offer where initiation fee was either waived, or $10 (I don't recall which). Monthly membership is $10 for basic which gives you access to all equipment, including the many classes. $20 is the Black Rewards membership which gives you access to all Planet Fitness locations, guest pass for one (unlimited), and the awesome bed and chair water massage.

Even though I don't travel a lot, or have a consistent friend to go with me to the gym, I nevertheless splurged on the $20 membership because of the massage!

I appreciate the amenities, including built in lockers, so no more fumbling around for your lock, which I hate! If you forget the combination that you inputted, staff will open the locker.

In terms of equipment, I only ever use the Step Mill, but they have plenty of machines and exercise circuits for weight lifting. I use Your Body is Your Barbell system instead, as I'm looking to improve functional strength rather than aesthetics.

The other nice feature of Planet Fitness is that in your account, it lists upcoming classes (some you can sign up for in advance electronically), and also which days you attended the gym so you can see your consistency and/or insurance purposes.

Lastly, Planet Fitness has that much touted 1st Monday Pizza and 2nd Tuesday Morning Bagel, but I never went to one, so I can't comment on the pizza or bagel, but it's a nice touch.

All in all, Planet Fitness is affordable, convenient and accessible, improving exercise compliance. I find it's a perfect gym for most people's needs, and certainly for me!

The How of Happiness Review

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Happy to Say I'm Completely Wrong About Sekiro! (Monday Musings 74)

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Masterpiece?
I am so happy to say that I'm 100% wrong about Sekiro. I watched my streamer friends and the gameplay looks incredible. It has the same meticulous combat as the prior Souls games, and perhaps melee mechanics as complex as Nioh. At that time, I found Nioh actually having better combat mechanics than Souls series, but suffering from graphics causing migraine, lack of level design, limited variety of enemies, and being unbalanced at the last area as described here.

Perhaps the saltiness in my assessment is not only stemming from Activision, the review embargo not lifting until the day prior to release (so if the reviews are negative, pre-orders can't be readily canceled), but I feel my bitterness is mostly rooted in not being able to afford Sekiro at this stage, after doing taxes with my accountant.

What I'm planning to do is to take charge of my finances with All Your Worth by Elizabeth Warren. I recall when I followed her program faithfully, I was able to max out my IRA contributions, having emergency savings, and having fun money to spend on whatever I want!

I will hopefully post a synopsis of what I consider the best personal finance book I've read (and I've read numerous titles), including sample worksheets that the average American will have, such as internet, utilities and food, to see if this book is doable for the average American income at 24K (perhaps 20K after taxes). 

Since I won't be playing Sekiro until much later, given my continued addiction to Assassin's Creed Odyssey, as well as working on my backlog of 100 games, I'm going to wait until the complete bundled edition comes out at reduced price. The benefits of waiting later is further described here.

I'm hoping to finish this All Your Worth post for the next Monday Musings, but for now, I'd like to conclude that Sekiro is exactly the game that I would love and find a masterpiece. 

The How of Happiness Review

Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles: A Comparison (Monday Musings 80)

I've decided to write as many posts as possible, and titling it Monday Musings from now on, to insure that I don't "fall behin...