ASK: Ethical Investing


Every time I get a letter from a reader it adds one month to my blogging life.  Your letters literally save my (blogging) life.

My most recent letter was on the question of ethical investing.  I love ethical questions, and have always dreamed of being an advice columnist, so here goes my one and possibly only chance at it!

Dear Julie,

Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma about which companies you’re investing in when you’re purchasing stocks? This may sound silly and obvious – as in, “well, if you don’t agree with their philosophy, don’t buy it!” but I am also pragmatic enough to realize that some of these giant, headline-making companies have the ability to help me achieve my retirement goals (I’m looking at you, Google and Amazon).

Is choosing to personally benefit from something I fundamentally disagree with such a bad thing?

Signed, Kate

Dear Kate,

First, thank you for making my advice-columnist dreams come true for a day.

Second, I am an opportunistic idealist, if that’s a thing.  So I think we should invest smartly and ethically.  Sacrificing ethics for profits isn’t worth it.  But in this case, it’s also not possible.  When you are choosing individual stocks to invest in, no matter how headline-grabbing the company, you are taking a gamble.  Since it’s a gamble anyway, you might as well gamble on the good guys!  The majority of your investments, of course, should be in index funds, not inherently risky individual stocks.  I wrote more about this here and not to toot my own horn, but it is probably the most (only?) important post on this blog.  When you invest in index funds you can choose categories to invest in, and thereby align your investment with your interests, at least.  But in general you are investing in a cross-section of businesses, and you can’t vet each one against your ethical priorities.

Any investing in individual stocks, however, I see as a personal vote of confidence and support.  I only buy stock in companies that I think will succeed and that I want to succeed.  This is your chance to get skin in the game, and it should be personal.  And fun – it’s the business version of fantasy football (actually I have no idea what fantasy football is but I think you guess winning players and then get excited when they play well?  Kind of similar to guessing winning businesses?)

If you aren’t into Amazon (and you are in good company, see Paul Krugman’s scathing op-ed) definitely do not invest in their stock.  Choose companies you endorse, whose success you will enjoy tracking and rooting for.  I think the connections we make with people as well as companies shape our community.  Connect with good ones!


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Do Cords Make You Curse? :: A Giveaway!!

blue-lounge-giveawayI like to run my mouth about minimalism, but I live with five ardently messy maximalists.

You know how at the love lab when they want to record couples fighting they just say: fight about your thing?  Every couple (of a certain tenure) has a few things they can fight about on command.  For us, it’s investing in Detroit (I’m for, he’s against) and cord clutter (I’m against, he’s for).  My husband carries on his person every day, I kid you not: two pagers (two!), a phone, an ipad, a laptop, and an itouch.  And when he gets home, he has the (reasonable?  unreasonable?) desire to spread all of these electronics onto the counter and plug them in.

Sometimes money can fix your problems, and if cords piss you off, you can buy tools that will fix the cords.

Happily, Blue Lounge sent us a whole mess of sleek cord taming gear for us to use, and kindly sent a duplicate set for a giveaway!

To enter the giveaway to win the entire suite of Blue Lounge for Target’s products, ($170 value) just sign up for our email list at the top of this website.  If you are already subscribed to the newsletter, you are already entered to win!  Shipping within the US only.  I will select a winner using a random number generator on this Friday, 10/24, and contact the winner via email.

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Money and Weddings

weddingThis just might be a case of anecdote passing as science, or correlation passing as causation.  But here is a recent study on how the expenditures of a wedding (the ring, the head count, the total bill, the honeymoon, etc) correlate with divorce rates. The study said that you should date for at least three years before you marry, then spend less than 2k on an engagement ring.  Now have a big but inexpensive wedding, then go on a honeymoon.  Also, if you’re a woman don’t prioritize wealth, and if you’re a man don’t prioritize attractiveness. That about sums it up;)  Mazel Tov.

Also, it reminds me of a funny quote from Rabbi Blake in the HBO documentary 112 weddings… “The wedding is day one, and it’s the easiest day to make happy.  You’ve just thrown a ton of money at it, and liquor.  A marriage is hard to make happy because when you throw a ton of money and liquor at it, it often makes things worse.”


Another case of who the hell knows, but it is interesting to think about how money impacts marriage.  I think the most relevant advice seems like if you’re a woman don’t prioritize wealth, and if you’re a man don’t prioritize beauty.  If you’re gorgeous – great!  If you’re rich – great!  If that’s the glue for your marriage, though, not great.

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10 Money Questions With: Michelle Vaught

michelle-vaught-1Michelle hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail last year…

On the trail, people make friends quickly.  Plus locals and day hikers leave “trail magic” for the thru-hikers: coolers of beer, cash, fresh baked cookies.  Some even show up to cook a fresh meal for the hikers.  It’s sounds like a little stretch of utopia.

Michelle’s tumbler from the trip has more pictures and stories.

Here are Michelle’s answers to my money questions for her:

1) What was it like to sell your stuff and take to the trail?

MV: Selling a huge chunk of my stuff in order to simplify and raise money for the trail was fantastic. It definitely helped in the sort term because we were able to leave less stuff in a friend’s basement while we were gone and now trying to live a simpler life, I am glad I don’t have all of that stuff that for whatever reason I had previously. 

2) Is there anything that you regret getting rid of?

MV: You know, for the majority of that stuff that I got rid of I have no regrets. I don’t even remember what the bulk of it was. I will say though that I wish I would have given my sister my sleeping bag and my rain jacket. I sold those in order to be able to afford a better and lighter sleeping bag and rain jacket, but a year later when my sister is in the market for those things I wish I had them for her.

michelle-vaught-23) Has your approach to buying things or your attitude towards ‘things’ in general shifted since that experience of getting rid of most of your stuff?

MV: Absolutely. I’ve always tended to spend money on experiences rather than possessions. But with traveling, especially overseas, I had a habit of buying a lot of souvenirs and I have a knack for accumulating stuff from thrift stores and used bookstores. But now, after spending four months of literally having carried everything I needed to survive outdoors over 2,500 miles across three states, I find myself feeling really overwhelmed by the stuff I have in my apartment.  Most of it is just kitchen stuff, books and clothes but it feels stifling. I really don’t buy anything other than food and I save my money up for trips- whether they be weekend trips, week long trips, or overseas trips. And of course there is the occasional gear purchase but honestly I take a good hard look at anything that I might buy and generally the thought doesn’t even cross my mind.

4) Fill in the blank:  If I was rich I would ___________

MV: …live in a sweet van, travel the world and eventually open a bed and breakfast focusing on community, organic gardening and cultural exchange

5) What are you saving for?

MV: Short term: an upcoming trip to Nepal.  Long term: enough money to hike the Continental Divide Trail and then travel to Central and South America for hopefully a year or more.

michelle-vaught-56) What is something that you consider a staple but others might consider a luxury?

MV:  My Achilles heel is definitely food and I spend a lot of money on organic food which really adds up.  I buy pasture raised eggs, goat yogurt and other items which can be definitely considered luxury items but I tend to justify these purchases with sayings like, “it’s better to pay the grocer than the doctor.”

7) Do you have any budget or saving tricks?

MV: Having clear goals and keeping in mind my personal values helps me to stay in line with what I actually want out of my money… for the most part. It was pretty easy to save money and simplify when I decided that I was going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

michelle-vaught-38) What is the last thing you bought?

MV: Two quart mason jars for a class I took on fermenting vegetables.

9)  Fill in the blank: I _____ my money

MV: need to keep a better eye on  my money  in order achieve my financial goals and travel dreams .

michelle-vaught-410) How do you balance travel with things like paying down debt or saving?

MV: Spending money on experiences is way more important to me than anything else… even paying down debt. I will never regret for a single second that I got rid of most my possessions, got rid of my job, and hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. I want to live life to the fullest and feel deeply about my days and I don’t want to wait until I retire to do the things I dream about doing. I am lucky because I have a lot of freedom and being part of the generation of millennials who gradated from college in a bad job market, I don’t have a lot of things tying me down. Paying down my debt is very important to me but I don’t want to put my life on hold in order to do that sooner rather than later.  I want to take the middle path of being financial responsible and truly living my life now and indulging in my wanderlust.


Thank you so much, Michelle.  This is giving me a little wanderlust, too.

If you want to be interviewed here send me an email – it’s fun!

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Money: There’s More Where That Came From

spend-out-1We spend an awful lot of energy worrying about how to get and then to keep our money.  Here’s a different perspective to add to the pot:  Spend out.  Trust in abundance.  Don’t save your good ideas, don’t hoard your resources, don’t worry about not having enough.

The more you give away, the more you share, the more you trust in abundance… the more you will have.  There’s always enough food, and love, and money (when it matters) to go around.  Cut the flowers and bring them in.   When you do – only when you do – more will grow.  You’ll see it when you believe it.


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Raising Rich Kids

rich-kids-1My 4 year old boy Jules is intent that when he grows up I will help him build a helipad on his roof (I love that he can imagine a future with his own helipad, but he can’t imagine a future where his mom is not personally responsible for everything that happens).  He is also sure I will live next door to him so that he and I can continue to cook dinner together every night.  I mean, a mom and her four-year-old can dream, right?  But I also have girls in grade school.  Getting grades.  And so all this fanciful dreaming is starting to seem a little more real.  How do we get from here to the helipad?

I want my kids to have everything that they want in this world.  I know that’s not my responsibility, exactly, but I want to send them off well-positioned at least.  To be people who know things, have confidence, can add, shake hands, and don’t screw up their grammar.

All of which is making me wonder: what’s my responsibility in all of this?  Do I raise the successful kids, or do they just happen?  Do I need to help with homework, or put the pressure on, or build up their confidence, or set a high uncompromising bar, or just let them do their thing and cast a sideways glance when it’s called for?

What comes most naturally to me is a “hoe your own row” approach; kind of a you-do-first-grade-and-all-accompanying-tasks-and-I-will-do-my-life-and-all-accompanying-tasks attitude.  Unfortunately, even as a pie-baking stay-at-home-mom this approach feels negligent in the context of my community.  I love having kids in grade school, but I don’t want to DO grade school.  I don’t want to spend my mornings volunteering in the classroom, my afternoons shuttling to activities, and my nights making festive allergy-free treats for the non-denominational holiday parties.  Is that going to doom my kids?

rich-kids-2Well, the ever-controversial Tiger Mom and Harvard Professor Amy Chua published a book that studied why certain cultural groups are succeeding in America, and the arc of that success over generations.  The book is The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.

According to Chua, the traits in a group that promotes success for it’s children are: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control. Basically, according to Chua’s research, the groups that are very successful are saying to their kids: you belong to a special group that is better than everyone else, but you individually need to prove yourself, and you have to exercise self-control to do so.  Let’s just say that’s not the predominate message being doled out to kids around here.  Here it’s more like “nobody is better than anybody else, you are already a brilliant success just for existing, and here have a cookie before dinner”

Of course, who really knows the answer?  Probably if you’re a happy and loving parent and you get your kids to bed on time with a full belly they’ll have a fair shot at being as successful as they want to be.  And you should be a good example; you know – hoe your own row.

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