May 13

Wisdom of Epicurus

The word “Epicurean” today is used to describe someone who values comfort, luxury, good food and the finer things in life. Since the word is derived from the name of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, it seems to follow logically that this conception of epicurean living would be an offshoot of his overall philosophy. However, this could not be further from the truth. The reason for such a widespread misconception about Epicureanism (the doctrine of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus), is because of its link to Hedonism.

Hedonism, which is a philosophical doctrine or school of thought from ancient Greece, argues that happiness is nothing more than the accumulation of pleasure and the reduction of pain. In other words, pleasure is intrinsically good, and pain an intrinsically bad. As such, pleasure should be sought out and pain avoided and the more pleasure you have the least pain, the happier you will be. The goal of hedonism is therefore to maximize net pleasure (minus pain). Epicurus was in fact a Hedonist, which is why he is so often associated with today’s notion of an Epicurean, as someone who values and seeks out sensual pleasures.

The reality is, Epicurus defended a position that widely differs from this oversimplified version of his philosophy. It is true that we must seek pleasure and avoid pain, according to Epicurus. However, not all pleasures are created equal. Some experiences, which may seem pleasurable on the surface, are actually more likely to lead to suffering and great dissatisfaction. In order to know which experiences we should seek out, Epicurus separated human desires into three distinct categories: 1) Natural and Necessary desires, 2) Natural and Unnecessary desires, and finally, 3) Unnatural and Unnecessary desires.

According to Epicurean philosophy, natural and necessary desires include such things as the desire to eat, drink, have sex, sleep, avoid pain, etc. These are, generally speaking, easy to satisfy. If we are hungry, we eat. If we are cold, we put on warmer clothing. As a rule, Epicurus believe that no harm can come out of satisfying these most basic desires. The second category of desires, natural and unnecessary desires, are for the most part natural desires found in the first category, but satisfying these basic natural desires can take different forms, it is possible to transform our basic desires into unnecessary desires. For example, if we are hungry, we desire to eat, but any nourishing food will do. Desiring food, is not the same as desiring lavish feasts, or even particular tastes, such as sweetness, or saltiness. The same can be said with respect to clothing. We need it to be warm in colder climates, or to protect us from the sun, but this has nothing to do with following the latest fashions. Many desires of these kinds are still natural, but they are not necessary and Epicurus believed we should only satisfy such desires in moderation. On the whole, we should content ourselves with very little and only permit ourselves occasional excesses. In other words, our daily life should be characterized by simple meals, with an occasional splurge for such things as alcohol, or desert or other such treats. In limiting ourselves in this way, we are able to more fully appreciate our occasional treats, whereas if lavish meals become a daily occurrence, we begin to take it for granted and no longer appreciate it as much. The same logic applies to many aspects of our lives. It is natural to seek shelter and to have a bed in which to sleep. It does not follow from this that we need a large house filled with all sorts of things that we seldom use. Epicurus realized that to fully appreciate the finer things in life, we must not abuse of them. We must satisfy our natural unnecessary desires in moderation.  We should get used to having a simple diet made up of nutritious foods, sufficient to sustain our energy levels throughout the day, and only occasionally splurge on something fancier. If we need a mode of transportation to get to work, we should see it for what it is: a means to an end. An older reliable car should be chosen over a brand new luxury model. Better yet, avoid the car entirely,  and get a bicycle instead. This will allow us to keep our bodies fit while performing the same function as a car.

The final category of desires, unnatural and unnecessary desires are describes by Epicurus, as the desire for money, power, celebrity. Such desires are best avoided entirely. This is because such desires, unlike our natural desires, have no natural limit. Thus, they will never satisfy us. When I am hungry and I eat, I cease to be hungry. I am satisfied. When it comes to such things as money, power and celebrity, the desire can never be satisfied because I can always desire to be richer, more powerful or more famous. It is, therefore, impossible to get enough. As such, attempting to satisfy such desires will lead to suffering and dissatisfaction. This phenomenon is present in our society. If you ask people how much money they need to be happy, most people will tell you they need a little bit more then whatever it is that they make. This is true no matter how much a person makes.

Epicurus lived a simple life. He had a simple diet, and a simple home. He appreciated the simple things of life, such as taking long walks in nature, discussing philosophy with his pupils, and when he was old and his body was seek he took pleasure in reminiscing about many of the happier moments of his life. By all accounts Epicurus died a happy man.

What can we learn from the philosophy of Epicurus? We can learn that happiness has little to do with how much we have, and a lot to do with appreciating the simple things in life that make us happy, whether it’s spending time in nature, with friends, playing an instrument, or a sport. What we must realize is that it is important to enjoy these activities for their own sake and not do it to be rich or famous. Living a simple life, with peace in your heart, will make you far happier than all the riches of this world. Appreciate what you have, be content with little, and help others do the same.



Feb 07

How to Get a Debt-free University Education

A University education can be a very expensive endeavor. The growing debt levels of recent graduates attest to this fact. According to a recent study, two-thirds of 2011 grads have student loans to repay, averaging $26,600. That’s a pretty staggering amount, especially when you consider prospective job opportunities available to them when they graduate.

Just because a university education is expensive doesn’t mean you have to accumulate a mountain of debt.

I did 4 years of undergrad, took a year off to teach ESL in South Korea, then did a 1 year master’s. Not only did I not borrow a dime, but I was at least $30,000 richer by the time I graduated with a B.A and an M.A in philosophy than when I started out ($20,000 of which was from teaching ESL – which is something I recommend for anyone who doesn’t know what to do with their degree and likes to travel).

Here are some tricks and tips to avoid the education debt-trap:

1)      Only attend university after carefully considering other options. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from attending university who has the drive and the passion to pursuit a particular subject area, but too many students are going to university with no idea why or with no clue what they will do once they get their degree. I was one of them, and I am one of the fortunate ones who ended up with a secure job that pays reasonably well. I know many others who were not so lucky and are still trying to ‘make it’ in a job market that is over saturated with recent graduates with arts and social science degrees and little practical experience doing anything. Many high school guidance counselors trumpet the virtues of a university education and encourage students to apply, because it will improve their likelihood of employment and give them a higher income. Fact is, it is quite possible to make more money learning a trade (plumbing, electrical, carpentry, etc.) or another practical skill that doesn’t require a university education. While a university education does tend to offer a higher lifelong earning potential, what is often ignored in the equation is the four years in school where earnings are essentially zero (or worse negative), and the debt that students then struggle with upon graduation.

2)      Save up before you go. I recommend having at least a year’s worth of tuition and living expenses saved up before going off to university. The exact amount you should have depends upon how much tuition and expected living costs will be. I had about $10,000, half of which went to tuition and book. If you don’t have any savings after high school, work for a year. There is no reason to rush to go off to university right away, especially at the cost of your future financial well-being. One less year of accumulating date can make a huge difference.

3)      Work, work, work. University is a fun time, what with the drinking, and meeting lost of new people, and parties, and studying, and drinking…It can be a tad overwhelming, but make time to work. Even 15-20 hours a week during the school year makes a big difference, and then there are summers to save up the big bucks. You should be able to make at least $12,000/year even as a student. If you attend a university with reasonable tuition fees, it can be enough to live off of.

4)      Live with your parents. This isn’t possible for everyone, but if you can, do it! This can be a major money-saver. I was fortunate enough to live at home for the first 2 years of my undergraduate degree before moving out and living with roommates and it helped me out enormously.

5)      If you can’t live with your parents, live with roommates. Sharing accommodations can generally save you a few hundred bucks a month. Totally worth it, not to mention that you learn important life skills by living with others, such as compromise and patience. My experiences living with roommates were generally very positive and I estimate that I saved at least $7200 over 3 years by living with roommates rather than getting my own place.

6)      Scholarships. These usually require good grades, but look for them and see what you can get. My wife avoided taking on loads of debt by have a renewable scholarship that essentially paid her tuition. It helps s a lot.

7)      Don’t be a spendthrift. You can’t afford it. I know, you want to go out with your friends, buy booze, and whatever else teenagers buy these days. University is not a time for spending oodles of cash. It’s a time for roughing it a little. It’s actually a great time to learn about frugality and living on less. Learn to cook dried beans, veg. and rice dishes and take your leftovers to school. Eat tuna sandwiches. Go to house parties instead of the bar. Spend less!

8)      Only attend the most expensive universities if it greatly increases the likelihood of getting a superior job upon graduation. Here in Canada, this isn’t as much of a problem as in the US, since the vast majority of universities charge tuition that is less than $6000/year for domestic students. There are exceptions to be sure, disciplines such as Law, Medicine, or MBA are typically more expensive, but so are the salaries of typical jobs of recent graduates in those disciplines. I’m not saying higher than average tuition costs are never justified, but you should proceed with caution whenever forking over any of your hard-earned dough, and make sure you get adequate value in return. This is especially true in the US; because of there is often a massive difference in tuition costs between many state colleges and the higher-end, more prestigious universities.

Feb 05

Debt: When Does it Make Sense?

As a rule, debt should be avoided like the plague. Putting something on credit essentially means you will end getting the same thing for more money. The only advantage being that you get it sooner. Patience is a virtue, and in this case it allows you to save money, because you don’t end up paying interest for something that you could save up for and buy outright. However, there are times when taking on debt can make sense.

In essence, taking on debt makes sense for three categories of purchases: 1) purchases that will provide you with an ability to earn more in the future, such as education or training, 2) purchases of assets that appreciate in value, such as real estate, 3) purchases of assets that will (or are likely to) generate a return on investment that is higher than interest owed, such as starting a business (also real estate, if you buy with the purpose of renting out your property).

Education and training:

Education can be an expensive endeavor and the decision to further your education shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially if it means taking on debt. Debt should be avoided whenever possible, so if it’s possible to receive the same education without taking on massive amounts of debt, that’s obviously better (see how to get a debt-free education), but there may be instances where debt can’t be altogether avoided in order to further your education.

Although education can be a worthwhile investment, it is important to carefully consider the likelihood of potential return vs. the upfront costs. Therefore, it is important to consider what sort of salary increase you are likely to get as a result of you schooling. Go in with realistic expectation. Starting salaries for many jobs right out of university don’t pay nearly as well as most people think (read: if you get a degree in the arts or social sciences, don’t expect to make more than $30,000/year right out of university. You might make more than that, but don’t count on it). Not only that, but it can often take a bit of time for recent graduates to find employment, so factor in at least a 6 month window to find employment in your field (you should work wherever you can in the mean time). If you find a job in your field right away, great, start paying off your debt right away!

Next, calculate how much debt you are likely accumulate over the course or your studies, as well as how high the interest payments will be once you are done.

Finally, calculate how long it will take to pay off your debt. Again, be realistic. Of course, this will be a projection, but that’s why it’s important to be realistic in your expected salary and to build in that 6 month window. As a general rule, I wouldn’t advise taking on debt of this kind, unless you can reasonably expect to pay it off within 2 years of graduation. If you think it will take you longer than that, delay going to school so you can save up more money.

If you do decide to go through with it, make a repayment plan before you even take on the debt. By doing this, you are more likely to stick to your debt repayment plan and get rid of your debt in a timely fashion.

One final tip: any extra money you make in this time should be set aside for debt repayment, so that you can get rid of it as quickly as possible.

Real estate:

Buying a house is often seen as an investment. There is a sense in which it is, but in general, this is the wrong way to conceive of your primary residence (an investment property is another story). Your primary residence is a place to live, not an investment, unless you’re at all moments ready and willing to sell.

Buying has certain advantages over renting (see my post on the advantages of buying vs. renting for more details). The main advantage of buying is that it can sometimes save you money.

How can buying save you money? Simple, if the total yearly costs of running your home (mortgage payments + property taxes + repairs and maintenance) are less than the cost of renting, then it’s definitely win to buy, because you are living for less, and a portion of your mortgage payment is building up equity in your home. Home equity may not have immediate cash value, if you’re unwilling to sell, but it’s still an asset that can be sold if the need ever arises. Not only that, but eventually the mortgage will be paid off thus greatly reducing living costs compared to renting anything equivalent.

Unfortunately, the cost of buying is rarely so overwhelmingly superior to renting. In many cities, the cost of buying vs. renting is pretty similar with only minor advantages to buying in many instances.

Real estate, unlike automobiles, tends to appreciate in value. Thus, taking on debt in the form of a mortgage in order to buy a house and/property can make sense (emphasis on the can). It’s important not to overestimate real estate appreciation. As a rule, the cost of housing tends to track inflation. When real estate growth outpaces inflation for an extended period of time, properties become overvalued which creates a real estate bubble. While a real estate bubble may last for a certain amount of time, it eventually pops and prices adjust.

The sub-prime mortgage crisis that rocked the United States is a perfect example of a real estate bubble bursting. 2008 is often identified as the year the bubble burst. While it is true that 2008 was the year the decline was most acute, the problem started much earlier than that. Real estate prices had been on the decline since 2006, after decades of almost uninterrupted and completely unsustainable growth. If I were a betting man, I would bet on a price readjustment (if not necessarily a complete meltdown) in certain Canadian cities, in particular Vancouver in Toronto, where prices are overinflated.

Starting a business:

Much like purchasing education or real estate, it is best to avoid debt whenever possible, and minimize debt when avoiding it is impossible. That being said, it can make sense to take on small amounts of debt to start a business, but only in cases where your expected return on investment and the probability of that return is equal or greater than what can be achieved through traditional investment vehicles (stocks, bonds, etc.). Starting a business always involves risk, but risk increases exponentially when your business is reliant upon taking on debt. By minimized or avoiding debt altogether when starting your business you also minimize risk.


Consumer debt should always be avoided. Even 0% financing with no payment for 1 year or other such offers should generally be avoided, unless you have the discipline to put aside the money and pay it off in full before any interest accrues.  If you have consumer debt, pay it off as quickly as possible and never let it happen again.

Jan 17

Mission Statement

This is a blog about life. Not any particular life. Pretty much just life in general, and what it’s all about and how to make the most of it. It’s a broad topic, I know, but I didn’t want to feel constrained to only talk about a particular part of life. Plus, this way, no one will be able to accuse me of getting off topic!

In all seriousness, the goal of this blog is ask questions about life, and how to make the best of it. Broadly speaking, it’s a blog about practical philosophy, setting goals, rethinking societal values and thinking critically about the world. In practical terms, that means it will cover a wide array of topics, such as: health, fitness, personal finance, investing, and the pursuit of happiness.

I am by no means an expert in any of these field, but I do think I may have some practical wisdom to impart. I studied philosophy at university, but I see this pursuit as something of a life long quest and not something to be achieved per se. The word “philosophy” itself is derived from the Ancient Greek terms: “philos” which means love (although more akin to friendship) and “sophia” which means wisdom. Therefore a philosopher is someone who loves wisdom and therefore seeks it out. The very term seems to imply a process rather than and absolute achievement, and while I do consider myself competent in the field, I would not call myself an expert.

As for health, fitness, personal finance, investing and other topics covered in this blog, they are interests of mine rather than areas of expertise. However, the best way to learn about something is to be interested in it and to enjoy doing it. I have read extensively about these subjects and have learned a great deal. That being said, I have no illusions, there is a lot for me still to learn. My goal here, is simply to impart some of what I have learned from others as well as my own ideas on these subjects (my own ideas were of course also shaped by external influences…but I digress). My hope is that readers can find something of value in these ideas, which for the most part are far from original. I have learned a fair bit reading other blogs, and I feel that I also have something to offer the world.

Some articles will be critical of society, others will be optimistic. Others will be like a Chuck Norris kick to the face, because sometimes that’s just what you need to get your shit together and live life to the fullest!

Click on any of the topics below for a list of all the articles on that topic:

  • Experiments in living
  • Fitness and exercise
  • Frugality and escaping consumerism
  • Health and nutrition
  • Investing
  • Money and personal finance
  • Politics
  • Philosophy


Jan 17

Experiments in Living

I believe human beings are habitual creatures and that a large part of individual well-being and happiness is determined by the habits we develop (see post on habitual creatures). Good habits are those that generally promote one’s welfare and happiness and bad habits are those that hinder such ends. The purpose of this section of the blog is to explore and ultimately determine which habits are susceptible to improve my life in some way and are worth keeping and/or developing further on that basis. In order for me to achieve this, I will perform a variety of activities everyday for a month and evaluate their impact on my life (are they good habits? Bad? Worth keeping? Etc.).

Every month I will pick 2 or 3 activities that I will perform everyday. I will post end of month reviews, with my recommendation to others as well as a decision to continue or not with the activities in question. Of course, just because a habit I develop improves my life in some way does not mean it will equally impact yours. Nonetheless, I’m sure there will be something of interest for almost anyone, since the activities I have in mind range from flossing everyday to changing dietary habits to giving up television. I encourage readers to submit suggestions of activities to perform (suggestion box), since I do have a somewhat limited imagination when it comes to such things I also encourage comments on my posts.