Easy Ways to Cut Down on Gym Costs

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Starting a workout routine can be one of the best gifts we give ourselves. It improves our physical health and mental wellbeing. However, if you’re looking to join a gym or even take a few classes, you may be surprised at the cost. Between equipment, race bibs, subscriptions, drop-in fees, and memberships, being physical comes at a price. Fortunately, there are ways you can cut down on gym prices without missing a workout.

5 Ways to Cut Down on Gym Prices

Class-Hop

For those living in cities or larger towns, you are likely aware of social deals such as Groupon and LivingSocial, which offer discounts on activities and local goods. One of the most popular deals are for gyms and classes – especially when you buy in bulk.

While most of these only last a month, you can become a “class-hopper,” going where the deals take you. Each month, purchase another bulk deal on a gym membership or drop-in card as a new client. You’ll save 30-40% or more – a huge savings when you consider that gym and class memberships often cost $80 or more per month!

Save at Home

Gyms aren’t the only way to stay fit. If you don’t live near a workout facility or can’t get away, try internet workouts! YouTube, SparkPeople, and MyFitnessPal are all free sites that provide users with short workout videos or even home exercise lists that anyone can do without gym equipment.

That being said, you must be careful when trusting a YouTube or other popular video instructor. They may not be as qualified as you think. For peace of mind, consider investing in online programs that guarantee high-quality instructors that have been vetted. I personally love my monthly membership to an online yoga studio where I can learn from various teachers. Prices range from $15-25/month with unlimited sessions, which is significantly less than even one yoga class a week at my favorite studio!

Let Tech Take Over

Sometimes, the best workouts are the simplest ones. Staying active throughout the day can make a huge difference to your health and even assist you in losing weight. That is why one of the most popular fitness tech items out there is the FitBit. In the past, you would need to purchase a heart rate monitor, pedometer, food tracker, and more to make up what this one nifty device does. Even the older versions such as the Flex work great and are steals compared to the latest version!

But I really love the FitBit because it shows just how much I can do at home. It gives me encouragement to get up and move, and I never feel pressured to go to the gym to meet my goals. The option to workout and even compete against friends breaks me of the social need to attend a class.

Experiment With New Fads

From circus pilates to dodge ball leagues, fun new classes are popping up at gyms all over North America. The best part about them (besides being a ton of fun) is that they’re inexpensive! That is because, unlike Zumba or Barre, these classes are relatively untested or beloved. Teachers often put up trial classes to see what the interest level is before offering it to a wider audience. Take advantage of these testers to see if you like it enough to pay the full price and to get in a unique workout without the boutique prices you’d pay down the line.

Train With a Student

Personal training is a great investment on long term health, but training fees can be outrageous, especially if you want to work out with someone licensed or with great credentials. But all of those super star trainers and athletes had to start somewhere!

Many colleges and universities that offer degrees in athletic training, physical therapy, or exercise science need their students to have hands on learning experiences with their own students. Signing up to be a guinea pig doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck with a newbie as more than likely, you’ll get the help of not only the knowledgeable student, but also the professor with years of experience.

Your health doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. Instead of cutting down on your workouts, look for creative ways to get your sweat on without opening your wallet.

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Posted on January 12, 2016.

Fitness: The Best Investment You Can Make in the New Year

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Between the unprecedented discounts on gym memberships and resolutions for self-improvement, there are plenty of reasons to make fitness a priority in the New Year.

But one you may not have thought of is the impact that exercise can have on your career.

New studies suggest that exercise can affect the way your brain functions. Aerobic exercise in particular — even walking or jogging — can improve your ability to perform tasks specific to the workplace

Here are three ways that making fitness a priority can boost your efficiency and your long-term earning potential.

1. You’ll be more on top of your game

When we exercise, new brain cells are born in the hippocampus, the part of your brain where new memories are formed.

According to Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, when you work out, your brain releases a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which rewires memory circuits.

BDNF causes your brain cells to bind to one another, and the synapses — or connections between cells — become denser.

The result: our capacity to make connections literally improves.

We think better, are better apt at problem solving, and no matter what last-minute requests and changes come up, we are on top of it.

2. You’ll have more energy and stay focused for longer

Neuropsychologist Dr. Karen Postal notes that exercise directly stimulates the dorsolateral prefrontal cortices — the brain regions that are responsible for focus, concentration, organization, and planning.

After just a half hour of strenuous exercise — that means getting your heart rate to the aerobic zone — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex works harder to resist distractions. This results in better performance and greater ability to maintain focus.

And the results are immediate.

An hour of vigorous exercise in the morning before work will help you while on the job. If you’re nervous about giving a big presentation or you have a busy day of back-to-back meetings, hit the gym first — you’ll stay calm, maintain a positive outlook, and execute your responsibilities with ease.

3. You’ll stay sharper as you age and be able to learn new skills later in life

A new study suggests that moderate levels of exercise may increase the brain’s flexibility and improve your ability to learn in old age.

Brain plasticity — the capability of the brain to change in response to experience — is fundamental for adaptability, learning, memory, development, and neural repair. Plasticity is maximal in early development, but its levels decline in adulthood.

As we approach middle age, the visual cortex — the part of the brain used to measure plasticity — loses the ability to “rewire” itself. This makes it more difficult to transition between mental tasks and to process new information with the same poise as we did in our 20s.

Brain scans show that when we are young, mental tasks like problem solving, decision-making, and other types of high-level thinking engage the visual cortex. By the time we enter middle age, we start having to call in reinforcements from other parts of the brain — using more energy and resources to complete the same tasks.

In a study that measured plasticity in response to exercising on a stationary bike, higher aerobic fitness correlated with improved cognitive function. In other words, the brains of older people who were aerobically fit required fewer resources to complete tasks than the brains of older people who are out of shape.

With the ability to work more efficiently and to pick up new skills later in life, you’ll be able to work better for longer — meaning, more money in the long term.

The cost of that gym membership doesn’t seem too bad now, does it?

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Posted on January 6, 2016.

Let’s Dish on Health Care

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I've been meaning to write an article on health care for a few months. I have parts of it outlined and an idea of what I want to say. I kept pushing it off, because I thought, "Hey this is a money blog... people don't want to read about health care." While there's certainly is a great connection between the two, I didn't want to focus on the money in the article I had planned

I had an experience last Monday that changed my opinion of writing about health care. It is a stretch to connect it with money, but I was urged by a close friend to write about it anyway. Also, since few people read the week between Christmas and New Years, why not go a little off-script?

As I approach the big 4-0, I've got a few minor, minor health issues. I got an occasional pain in one of my knees after long drives. I thought it might be an ACL or MCL, but it is fine as long as I have good movement with it.

More recently the skin on my fingers has started to peel. I think it is nothing more than the weather, but it's a concern to my pharmacist wife. She's rarely concerned about such things, so her concern has become mine. Update: On a tip from my uncle (and 800+ awesome reviews), I picked up Gold Bond Ultimate Healing Skin Therapy Lotion, which has been a miracle-worker on my hands.

In any case, it's time for me to talk to a doctor. Like the vast majority of Americans, I see my doctor like I see my mechanic... when there's a problem. I haven't had any problems for a couple of years, so my primary care physician (PCP) was out of date. I picked her before my last move a couple of years ago. It's time to get a new one.

Fortunately, as part of my wife's job, she knows how this process works. I figured I'd call the health plan and have them assign me a doctor. There are times when I'd be picky, but in this case I simply want first available. My wife told me that's not how getting a PCP works. I needed to call a doctors office and make an appointment.

That seemed easy enough, especially because my health plan provided me with a search of doctors in my area. Unfortunately, that was the end of a productive Monday. Five hours later, I still didn't have a single doctor who was willing to be my PCP.

The search allowed you to enter a location and gave nearest results, "as the crow flies", not based on driving distance. That works fine as long as there isn't a major city across a bay... technically very close, but oh so far away. My three year old knows that that people are not crows and people drive cars. To tell him otherwise would get a response of, "That's silly!"

Fair enough, I'd had to scroll though 10-12 pages to eliminate the places far from me. Once I realized that I needed to do this it was no big deal. It just wasn't obvious at first and I had thought I'd gone through the close doctors in the first two pages.

The search didn't have a checkbox for those "accepting new patients", so I had to dig through looking for that line on each doctor. This was the most minor of annoyances, like looking for a city that was actually drivable. However, about 90% of the time "accepting new patients" was a boldface lie once I called the doctor. So 85% of the doctors are eliminated by not labeling themselves as accepting new patients and another 85% appear to be mislabeled.

About 15% of the doctor's offices that I called last week had people answer the phone. The other 85% went to phone trees. The phone trees were mostly set up for existing patients. It makes sense that they'd be prioritized, but why not throw a bone to a person who is trying to give you business? This is the exact opposite of the telecom industry that ignores existing customers and focuses on only getting new customers. Typically I'd applaud going in the opposite direction of the telecom industry, but there has to be a middle ground where you service the existing customers while attracting new customers.

If I navigated the phone tree well, I was rewarded with a recording to leave a message of all sorts of information. I don't mind leaving my name and number, but asking for my date of birth was very odd. The recordings also asked for my old PCP, which was not information that I had handy. Plus, let's get to that after we actually talk in person, so I can at least ask why it's relevant. I'm imagining that some doctors don't want take patients who have seen other doctors... like I'm somehow a tainted human being because I had Dr. Blackburn as a previous PCP.

I did the best I could to comply with message. Since they asked for 10 pieces of information to leave after the beep, I'm sure I missed a few of them.

In any case, ZERO doctor's offices called me back that day. I could see if I was calling at 3PM and they were close to closing, but I was calling at 11AM. One of them was the same medical group as my sons' pediatrician, which has me concerned about choosing them.

Finally, at 4PM I found one independent doctor who had someone answer the phone. After 3 minutes and about 7 questions (such as name, address, etc.), I not only had a PCP, but an appointment for this week. The receptionist even apologized for the lengthy question process! It was the exact opposite experience of what I went through all day.

Yes, this rant was partially about getting it off my chest. More importantly though, I wanted to point out supremely flawed and inefficient the system is. The day before I made the calls, I said to my wife, "It's Sunday, why can't I just log into my health plan's account, do a search, pick a new PCP, and click submit?"

I can have about a million products shipped to my door in two days... for free (thanks Amazon Prime). I have access to trillions of pieces of information, sorted brilliantly to serve me in 3 seconds (thanks Google). I can talk directly to celebrities and get a response in under a second... even if they don't want to talk me (thanks Twitter). In 30 seconds, I can buy a limited edition Crayola Christmas ornament from 1984 to replace the one my dog ate. I can text an emoji and have a pizza delivered to my house in minutes (thanks Domino's).

But health care can't figure out a way to use the internet to not only save me some time, but dozens of doctor's offices. I had to disrupt multiple receptionists of offices that weren't accepting new patients. Theoretically, a dozen offices listened to a very long message from me about my request to become a patient. (Theoretically, because none of them called me back, so I have no way of knowing.) My health care company should easily be able to pass information like date of birth and previous PCP to the new PCP I choose. They wouldn't have to worry about spelling errors of that previous PCP's name in translating from my phone message, because they'd be reading it right on their computer screen.

None of this is new or revolutionary. It was commonplace a decade ago.

Maybe I'm stuck with a health plan whose technology is in the dark ages, but that would be even more telling how bad the system is. If every health plan is reinventing the wheel in creating it's own technology infrastructure for communicating with doctors' offices, we have a terrible, inefficient mess.

It may sound like this is a little tiny thing, but multiply it out to hundreds of million of people across the United States and it is huge.

Once again, I wasn't going to write about this, but when I told a friend about it, she urged me to. She said, "People should read how messed up health care is." I responded, "Aren't I just telling them what they already know? This isn't exactly 'breaking news'." In the end, I think I went with her advice if for nothing else other than to write about it and get it out of my system.

The only thing that made me more frustrated with the experience was when I realized that I was a (relatively) healthy person who had the guidance of my wife who tangentially does stuff like this for a living. I can't begin to imagine the frustration level of anyone who is sick or doesn't have the guidance.

P.S.

Some might ask why I don't go to an urgent care clinic for these minor issues. My health plan doesn't cover them... only the much more expensive emergency room and doctor's visits. I don't know why this is, but that's their decision. My goal in getting a PCP was to avoid spending a whole day in the emergency room. If I only knew, I would spend the day on the phone anyway, I could have done both.

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Posted on December 29, 2015.

Let’s Talk About GMOs

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For whatever reason this seems to be the day of "doing things I really don't want to do." It's not 10AM yet, so things can only get better. Today, I'm taking a detour and writing about something different than money.

More than three years ago, I wrote an article about Youngevity, a company that sells outrageously priced vitamins through MLM that appears to be similar to The $100 Pen Pyramid Scheme.

I've learned that logic is not the strong suit of the people who have been scammed by such schemes. For some reason, they ignore the extensive scientific proof that vitamins are a waste of money for most people. That's enough of a debate on it's own which is why I wrote: Should You Be Buying Supplements?.

However, what really is nonsensical is that the discussion has turned to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). I think these people realize they are fighting a losing battle and are attempting to pick a new one. I try to explain that it doesn't help them defend Youngevity, but it's tossing pearls before swine.

In any case, I'd like to have somewhere to direct these knuckleheads. I don't mind discussing GMOs, but I don't want it to come at the expense of discussing pyramid schemes... and explaining why vitamins won't cure cancer. In the immortal words of Captain Malcolm Reynolds, this is my port of harbor (when it comes to GMOs).

I'm not going to defend GMOs as if they are 100% guaranteed to be fine. I'm simply going to present the evidence that I consider significant.

First there is this from Pew Research. Specifically it seems that 57% of US adults consider GMOs to be unsafe and 37% consider them to be safe. However, if you consult scientists (the people who are most qualified to opine), the same research says that 88% consider them safe and 11% consider them unsafe.

In short the qualified/smart people overwhelmingly believe that GMOs are safe... but the public (perhaps uninformed) seem to disagree. There's more detail on that here

Some might ask how that happens. It seems that there's an easy explanation: "The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud."

The stakes are high: As Newsweek writes, Scientists Could Save the World From Hunger, If We Let Them. Imagine solving world hunger. What a huge accomplishment it would be!

These articles that I cite are long and exhaustive in their research.

What if "fearmongering, errors, and fraud" prevents scientists from achieving such a noble goal of ending world hunger? I think you'd have be ten thousand percent sure that GMOs are greatly harmful and be able to quantify that harm before the bad outweighs the good.

Thoughts?

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Posted on October 8, 2015.

I Love Pharma Bro?

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By now you've probably read about the pharmaceutical company CEO that raised the price of a sixty year-old drug from $18 to $750. I have to admit that I was a little late in hearing about Martin "Pharma Bro" Shkreli's move with Daraprim. The drug is critical for extremely few patients and there isn't a substitute (from what I understand).

The reaction was pretty obvious, people were outraged. Shkreli can buy a few more Ferrari's and the sick either pile up tons of debt or suffer the consequences. Insurance may cover some of the cost, but that's going to push up premiums for many other people.

I'm with the people here. Outraged!

However, sometimes I like to take a step back and think about the view from the other side. America is a land of capitalism. We always here how everything is a matter of supply and demand. Shkreli has something in demand and he has the only supply, so he can treat it like a Tickle Me Elmo on Christmas Eve (if it was 1996).

So on one level Shkreli is just being All-American, right?

I can buy that, except that it feels like a misuse of a monopoly. Shkreli has a monopoly in a treatment for this condition. Imagine if a company had a monopoly on oil or providers of internet access (hmmm...). There's a reason why your local gas station can't get away just jacking the prices up to $75 a gallon... even if you need it to get to work to earn an income.

In the healthcare industry, this kind of competition doesn't everywhere. Nothing gets more confusing than trying to figure out the prices of healthcare. I wrote about this when I became a father. I had to get a TDAP booster shot and a flu shot. The office visit, less than 15 minutes long, was billed to my insurance for $369. A quick internet search shows a flu shot is $30 at CVS. A TDAP should be about $31 at a doctor's office. My insurance decided to pay $196 of it, which the doctor's office took as payment in full.

So in short some $60 in services was grossly inflated to $369 and insurance ended up settling it for $196.

It feels like the numbers are just picked out of hat. And that's the point that this Washington Post article makes in a couple of key quotes from experts:

"I think it reflects a widespread appreciation that pricing for drugs is entirely irrational in this country and the pharmaceutical industry has total control over prices and there’s no rationality to the system... It’s such a perfect, crystalline example of everything that can be done, given the lack of rationality in the system, and the total bankruptcy of the justifications for high drug prices in the first place."

"The rest of the health-care system .?.?. no one is explaining the price. No one even knows what the price is. And no one knows what a fair price is... [Shkreli] was transparent — and the industry, the whole health-care industry, is not transparent. It’s not even close. It’s the most obtuse, dense, incomprehensible pricing structure ever created by humanity."

So on another level, one could look at Shkreli as shining a very bright spotlight on a very broken system.

I only wish I had any confidence it would help fix the system. I remember back in 2004, when the Yankees acquired Alex Rodriguez. They were already one of the best teams, with a seemingly unlimited payroll and they added one of the highest priced players in the game. They were the Shkreli of Major League Baseball. The system was broken and as a Red Sox fan, I hoped that it would shine a spotlight on the very broken system in Major League Baseball. (Of course the Red Sox actually enjoyed a substantial benefit by the broken system as they had an almost seemingly unlimited payroll themselves.)

In either case, it didn't seem fair that the Oakland A's would be forever doomed to giving up their stars. Kansas City was always at the bottom of the standings. Some of these smaller market franchises have found ways to compete, but you have to wonder what they could do if there was a salary cap.

I thought that Alex Rodriguez would be the straw that broke the camel's back and changed the game. It didn't happen. I won't make the same mistake in believing that Shkreli's pricing will change the health care game.

I imagine that people will talk about it for a couple of weeks... and there will be no changes.

Maybe that's the real broken system.

P.S. Sorry to end this article on a negative tone, especially on a Monday. On the bright side, there's a lot of room for things to get better right? And of course it is a good thing that such treatments exist to have these discussions in the first place.

P.P.S. I can't decide if this article was a Devil's Advocate post or not. If Shkreli's actions somehow produce real change in the health care system then no. Otherwise, yes.

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Posted on September 28, 2015.

NordicTrack Treadmill Desk Review

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Way back in March, I wrote a very long post about a recent treadmill desk purchase. It was a long article, because the research was quite involved and I put a lot of time into trying to get it as cheap as possible. In some ways, I was trying to be extremely frugal to see how it fits. Well, "extremely frugal" is probably a bad phrase when you spend are spending $1300.

I settled on the NordicTrack Treadmill Desk model #24951. I'm just a sucker for any product with "#24951" in the name. Seriously though, I cared about three things when it came to a treadmill desk and this model fit them all:

  1. It was a treadmill desk - You can hundreds of treadmills and thousands of desks. There's probably only a dozen combinations of the two.
  2. It folds up - We don't have a McMansion, so we can't dedicate a room to treadmill. Folding up to save floor space was very important to us.
  3. It was a full-speed treadmill - Every other treadmill desk I looked at topped at fast speed. Buying another treadmill for running defeats the purpose of saving space and money.

I'm going to make this review short. There are videos online that can give you more information. However, for the most part, it has delivered on its promise. It nailed the three things I've been looking for, so I'm a happy customer. A review that's all sunshine and rainbows is no fun, and if I can supply a little constructive criticism that makes the never better, why not?

So here's what I didn't like:

  • Set-up - It was beyond aggravating to put together. Even today, I feel like just got lucky with some of the steps. It wasn't particularly easy to understand, but that was a small part of the problem. It was physically lining things up just right. You need two people because it is heavy, but also so you can get different views at the same time as things line-up.
  • The Noise - I should have expected that having a big motor would be loud. It can be hard to hear videos on laptops and tablets with small speakers. It's nothing that a pair of headphones can't fix.
  • The Height - Many people have complained that it raise up high enough. I think it could be a bit higher, but I also feel like this complaint is overblown.
  • Me - I have to point the figure back at myself. I don't use it as much as I thought I might. We've had good weather and taking a break while walking the dog seems to be a better fit. We both work at home (he's very secretive about his dog business), so it is good for us to get outside and enjoy some vitamin D. I think the real test will be winter. If we even have a fraction of the snow that we had this past winter, I should be able to give it more use.

Since the desk was something that both me and my wife thought we'd use, I just got her opinion. She was of the same mind, she doesn't use as much as she thought she would. She's more into running and it is hard to work and "run" at the same time. Instead, we'll watch some Netflix on it. However, between the two kids and working, that opportunity probably doesn't present itself much.

Overall, it's a good product and my biggest complaint would be the set-up my own routine.

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Posted on July 20, 2015.

Healthcare (Sigh…)

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Short of clearly negative terms such as homelessness and domestic violence, I can't think of a more depressing topic than healthcare. The topic is so immense that I'm not even going to attempt to cover it in any kind of detail. I'm only going to address healthcare billing.

You'd think billing for something would be easy. We've been billing for things for hundreds of years without issue. It can't be difficult, right?

Let me tell you how I spent Tuesday morning this week.

In March, the wife and I went on a vacation in Silicon Valley to visit with some old friends. As luck would have it, I got pink eye. I'm going to blame the Extended Stay America in San Mateo, which was one of the worst motels/hotels I've ever been at... and I like Motel 6.

What idiot gets pink eye when they are away from their kids for a few days? This idiot, I guess.

My wife, being a pharmacist, knew that we just needed a cheap, generic antibiotic. However, to get that antibiotic, you need prescription. That's when everything went to hell in a hand basket.

My understanding is that some 99.9999% of the insured US population can go to some kind of non-urgent clinic for something simple like this and have it covered. I even hear that it is relatively quick. Our military insurance is great, but the compromise is that you have to go through emergency rooms for something that should be quick. It means that I often wait six hours for a visit that can be as quick as 5 minutes. (I think emergency room triages could learn from grocery store check-out lines of 12 items or less. Oops, broke my promise to stick to billing.)

In any case, such visits are always covered 100% from by my understanding. This is the way the health care plan wants it to work.

Since we lived in the area for years, we knew just the hospital to go to. It was the one my first son was born at a few years back. As far as vacation illnesses go, this is going to be easy, right?

The visit itself was uneventful. I didn't even have to wait the usual 6 hours. In fact, I was almost unhappy to have to leave the waiting room that had a new episode of Undateable on.

A couple of months later, the bill came in the mail. We owed $400. Hmm, that doesn't seem right. I gave them my insurance card. Turns out they ignored what I gave them and used what they had in their computer system. That was no longer an active insurance due to our move. So it churned out a bill of $400 to be sent to my house.

Fortunately my wife works in this area every day and as the sponsor of the plan called up to fix things. I'm never sure who you are supposed to call in this scenario, the hospital or your insurance. In any case, she got the problem solved...

... until Monday when I get a new bill from the hospital for $330, the balance of the portion that my insurance didn't cover.

This is called "balance billing" and in some states and for some forms of health insurance (such as Medicare) it is illegal.

I had never heard of balance billing before. In my quick research it seems very controversial. For example, I think my bill would have been a lot cheaper if I hadn't gone to the emergency room. It can't be $400 for 5 minutes of someone to look at my eye and tell me what I already know, right? However, my insurance requires that I go to the emergency room. On the other hand, is it fair to the emergency room to take only $60 for what they deem is a $400 service? In this case, I think $12 a minute is still very good money, but I bet there are other cases where the insurance doesn't cover the hospital's expenses well.

If you really want to have your mind blown, you should read this Forbes article on balance billing. The patient planned a $2000 procedure with an out of network provider which is listed as being covered 50% by her insurance. She saved up $1000 for the procedure. However, she got a bill for $1600.

What happened?

The insurance decided that the procedure should only cost $800 (their negotiated in-network rate) and decided to reimburse her 50% of that (or $400). That left a balance of more than $1600. It's a double whammy as she was penalized with a higher rate for going out of network and also only reimbursed 50%.

The Forbes article cites research that says only 16% of people were able to accurately estimate their bill in one study.

I can't imagine that anywhere else in life. The closest I can think of is my mechanic, but even then I get a fairly estimate before work is done. I can understand not having billing details when you are bleeding from multiple knife wounds (or some other urgent situation). However, that wasn't my case with pink eye and certainly not the case with the person in the Forbes article that saved up for her procedure.

Getting back to my case... I was in California and the Forbes article specifically points out that emergency rooms there can't balance bill. So I'm not sure how their computers even allows for the scenario. As an extra layer or protection, my insurance seems to say that I can't be balance billed. So it seems that the hospital is break the state laws and their agreement to take my insurance.

How can we fix this

From a technology standpoint, it should have taken all of 15 seconds for me to swipe my insurance card and have their computers tell me what it is going to cost for a pink eye emergency room visit. Maybe it's 30 seconds. I'm even happy to run it myself during the hours that I'm usually waiting in the emergency room. The could even take this to the next level and make a mobile application where it saves my insurance in the app. Then I'd only need to enter my condition and GPS could tell me nearest providers and final costs (with my insurance) in the area.

This technology is thousands of times easier than programming to Siri to understand what I'm saying and respond relevantly back to it.

Is this anything new?

Not for me. Twice before, I've gotten in conversations that went back-and-forth between the two a few dozen times over a span of several months.

One was for an ambulance ride when I almost died choking on pizza crust. The ambulance company couldn't figure out how to take my insurance. They couldn't work it out with my insurance company who had conversations with them. While they went back and forth to resolve the technical issue, my bill went into collections where it started to damage my credit. I was financially held hostage by two organizations who weren't even disagreeing with each other.

Another time, there was a disagreement between the hospital and the insurance for how the procedure should be coded. Under one coding it would be covered. Under another one it would not be. It was another case where it wasn't an urgent condition... yet they couldn't have told me beforehand whether my insurance would cover it.

So now, whenever I have something come up, it's a game of medical bill roulette. I've been fortunate enough to win the disagreements, but I think the process to resolve the financial aspect is far worse than the medical condition itself.

Healthcare... (sigh...)

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Posted on July 9, 2015.

More Money, More Life

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Some days I feel like I write too much about money. Then I read something in the news that makes me feel like I couldn't possibly write enough about money.

This article in Aeon magazine is a great example: Costly new longevity drugs could help the wealthy live 120 years or more – but will everyone else die young?

The article explains that there's a "longevity gap" between those with money and without money. For example, "College-educated white men can expect to live to age 80, while counterparts without a high-school diploma die by age 67."

The article digs into some of the reasons why those with less money are likely to die younger:

"Scraping to come up with routine living expenses – food, shelter, medical care, transportation – can cause chronic insomnia and anxiety, which boosts levels of cortisol, the stress hormone in the blood. This already makes the poor more vulnerable to a cascade of debilitating, life-threatening ills, from diabetes to high blood pressure and heart disease... People who are poor get sick more often. They live in higher-density households, and when one gets sick, everyone gets sick. And these disparities are going to expand.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who are more financially secure:

"[The benefits] range from simply growing up in less toxic environments with two financially stable parents to the ability to secure good jobs that provide decent salaries and adequate health insurance. They live in more prosperous communities with less crime and decent public schools, ample doctors and hospitals, better food and nutrition, and superior social services that cushion any fall.... [Gerontologist Caleb Finch says], 'They engage in health-promoting behaviours, they don’t smoke, and they’re more likely to have time to exercise.'"

It hardly seems like surprising news that having financial success would lead to living longer.

However, the magazine points out that the gap has widening. Not only that, but paints a picture of new medicines being able to the rich that could drastically widen the gap even more. I'm a skeptical of their examples, we've been hearing about scientists extending rats lives for years, but translating the research to humans is a whole other ball of wax. Still, I'll agree with the magazine's general premise even if I believe it is a little aggressive.

Do you think people might think about money differently if they knew that managing it wisely could lead towards living a lot longer? I like to think they would. Then again, people don't always make healthy choices when eating so I can't see them suddenly saving money as if their life depends on it... even if it does.

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Posted on July 7, 2014.

Should You Be Buying Supplements?

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Benjamin Franklin once said, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." This blog mostly covers the wealth, but that doesn't mean that I'm not interested in health (and wise). As you may have gathered from the title, this article will cover a little of all three.

Over a year ago, I wrote an article about the Youngevity Scam. Youngevity is a company that sells vitamins and supplements at prices that seem to be four times the industry average, with no additional proof of quality or effectiveness. One of the points that I made in the article is that current research is showing that vitamins and supplements may do more harm than good.

In fact, scientists believe antioxidants might make your cancer worse.

And if you don't believe those very good sources, this extremely-respected medical journal has processed numerous extremely large studies to conclude: "Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements."

There's more: Vitamins appear to be bad for your workout.

And if you are looking for some humor with your information, here's John Oliver's evisceration of Dr. Oz and the supplement industry.

Even with all those underlined, reputable sources, that statement drew an extremely strong reaction in the comments. The reaction has, in some ways, eclipsed the intended discussion of Youngevity itself. I recommended that people place that passion to work in addressing the publishers of those articles rather than me. I'm simply pointing out their research. I'm not sure that advice hit home with the commenters... perhaps because they lack the critical thinking skills to avoid such scams like Youngevity in the first place.

I have to admit that I was surprised by the strong reaction. Then I started to realize that people have individual problems with pharmaceutical companies. Some don't like the long list of possible side effects they are required to state in commercials. Some have experienced a bad reaction. Some have found that medicine hasn't fixed the intended problem. Some just hate the exorbitant prices. It's probably a combination of all the above.

Perhaps this USA Today article explains it best:

"Many consumers view alternative medicine industry as more altruistic and home-spun than Big Pharma. But in his book, Offit paints a picture of an aggressive, $34 billion a year industry whose key players are adept at using lawsuits, lobbyists and legislation to protect their market."

I wonder if people would feel the same if they new that? I can see the appeal of alternative medicine. The cost of vitamin C is minimal compared to many pharmaceuticals. The side effects seem to be limited. There are no patent wars over vitamin C. It can claim to be "all natural."

This is all great, but as Tim Minchin writes in one of my favorite 10 minute shorts, "By definition, alternative medicine has either not been proved to work or been proved not to work. Do you know what they call alternative medicine that has been proved to work? Medicine."

In my opinion, watching that video is probably the best investment of 10 minutes you'll make this week. If you are lucky enough to find such great information presented in entertainment way once a year, you've hit a home run. It really is that well-done.

As the USA Today article mentioned, people often pit supplements against pharmaceuticals like they are the Red Sox and Yankees. They like to point out that some pharmaceuticals were taken off the market because they harmed people and thus supplements are the answer. It isn't a fight between or the other. It isn't a zero sum game where if one loses the other wins. If the entire pharmaceutical industry was whisked off to Jupiter tomorrow, it wouldn't change the effectiveness, or ineffectiveness, of vitamin C. If the entire supplement industry was whisked off to Saturn it wouldn't change the effectiveness, or ineffectiveness of Viagra (which is very effective).

People in that Youngevity article have taken things to the extreme suggesting that there's a "sickness industry." The idea behind it is that doctors have collaborated to keep people sick so that they can get repeat business. This ridiculous notion seems to work on those who lack critical thinking skills. Those with critical thinking skills would realize that they couldn't keep such an elaborate plot secret in every country on Earth. Someone would leak it for the fame and fortune. Not only that, but these people would have to explain why these doctors would not choose to cure their own mothers and daughters. People are going to get sick no matter what we do, there's no need for doctors to intentionally try to keep people sick. They have more personal incentive to solve a sickness and become personally famous with movies and book deals on how he/she did it... not to mention money from the cure itself (Pfizer did quite well with Viagra).

Other people in the Youngevity article have pointed out that the pharmaceutical industry is undoubtedly corrupt and that I shouldn't defend them. I imagine there most certainly is corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. However, we must grant that there likely is the same corruption in the supplement industry. If we are going to be conspiracy theorists, we might as well be equal opportunity ones. I wonder if these conspiracy theorists are the same people who own mutual funds. I wonder if these people have mortgages. There is extensive evidence that there is corruption all over Wall Street and yet I don't know anyone with money who doesn't have money effected by it. The subprime lending and banking collapse in 2008 are just a couple of examples. If you bought into stocks at that time you would have probably come close to doubling your money. You may have used a bank's money to own their homes today.

The lesson here is that good results can come about despite "corruption." We'd love for every industry to be corruption-free. I can't think of any industry that is. I can't see how damning all industries because of some "corruption" is progress.

Many supplement supporters will point to their safety. I can't tell you how many comments I've gotten from people saying, "When was the last time someone died from supplements?" (I resist the urge to educate them about the role that Ephedra played in Baltimore Orioles' Steve Belcher's death.) However, there's a lot of research showing that supplements simply aren't as safe as we thought. There's a New York Times article that cites quite a few problems with supplements such as "20 percent contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury or arsenic", and people taking two products "developed hair loss, muscle cramps, diarrhea, joint pain, fatigue and blisters." The conclusion was simple: "For too long, too many people have believed that dietary supplements can only help and never hurt. Increasingly, it’s clear that this belief is a false one."

That article didn't address the damage done to the liver by supplements.

Then there are hidden dangers with supplements that few consider. This Wikipedia article on self-licensing shows that people use supplements as an excuse, like a counterbalance, to engage or continue dangerous habits such as smoking. However, without proof or significant evidence that supplements counter the dangerous habits, a person is left with worse health than before.

Even if we were to concede that supplements are generally safe (which would simply be wrong from the above information), we have to consider the case of ice cream. Ice cream is "safe" too, so why not advocate that as an alternative to medicine?

The answer is that safety doesn't mean anything without effectiveness. Each day millions and millions of people get in cars despite the fact that they aren't safe. Why? Because cars are effective transportation. A couch may be safer, but it is sucks when it comes to transporting people from point A to point B. People focused on safety without regard to effectiveness have got their priorities backwards.

Once I put all the conspiracy theories aside, I'm left one with one question, "Does it work?" If it doesn't work, then we might as well associate it with ice cream, at least that tastes better.

When it comes to pharmaceuticals, you know that they've been tested in multiple clinical trials to show that they are both safe and effective. Like any human endeavor, there are mistakes that happen, but these are the outlier cases. It isn't the norm, or there would be hundreds of million of people dropping dead from medicine each day. On the other hand, when it comes to supplements, there are typically no clinical trials showing that they are effective for anything... with these notable exceptions on the FDA's website. It's not like vitamins and supplements haven't been put to the test either. This article on The Atlantic does a great job of citing that in tests of hundreds of thousands of people vitamins and supplements haven't been effective. This article on The Slate comes to the same conclusion.

Finally, as the NY Times wrote in this article, Herbal Supplements Are Often Not What They Seem, "DNA tests show that many pills labeled as healing herbs are little more than powdered rice and weeds." The article shows that you might not be getting what you are buying with supplements, which is very different from most pharmaceuticals that are under strict regulations.

In short, there's significant proof that pharmaceuticals do work and significant proof that vitamins and supplements don't work. I'm with you in wishing the opposite were true, but that doesn't make it reality. Thus with the exception of vitamin D and calcium supplements for bone strength, folic acid for expecting mothers, and a few others, I conclude that it does not make sense to buy vitamins.

I leave you with some advice that I believe both camps can agree on. Eating right and exercising seems to be the time-tested formula for good health.

Update (1/2015): More research continues to show that antioxidants don't improve lifespan.

Update (7/2016): Consumer Reports has put together some information to help consumers with supplements. They mention that they created a dangerous weight-loss supplement simply to show how quick and easy it is for anyone to do the same. They also created a label to show how deceptive they can be.

They also reported that supplements can make you sick. With the help of a team of doctors, they created a list of 15 supplement ingredients to always avoid.

Not only that, but Consumer Reports (again with medical professionals) explain few people need supplements, but here are the one who do.

Consumer Reports also tells you what USP Verified and other supplement seals mean. The quick and dirty: No one approves the products are safe and effective like FDA approval, but at least the seals show that some of the product has been checked sometime to ensure that it contains what it says.

[I want to make it quite clear that I've received no compensation from anyone for this post. The supplement people are often quite quick to point out that Big Pharma is paying for articles like this in an attempt to discredit it. So know that I have no financial interest in this war of pharmaceuticals and supplements. I simply want to help educate people use critical thinking skills and not waste their money on marketing when the science shows they receive no benefit.]

The preceding was an updated article first published in August 2013.

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Last updated on August 6, 2016.

Buying a little SODA (The Stock)

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Over the last few months, I've hounded an investing friend of mine multiple times about where she's investing. We are typically like-minded and she often has ideas on things that I overlook. The only problem is that we're too like-minded and agree that the big stock market run-up has left us nervous about "buying high."

Plus, I'm a bargain-hunter when it comes to stocks. I enjoy buying a share of Facebook at $20... not so much at $57. That's not to say that Facebook can't go up to $80 or higher, but that I feel better getting (what I believe to be) a great company at a low price. The problem is that there aren't too many stocks on my watchlist trading at low prices nowadays.

Enter SodaStream (NASDAQ:SODA). Yes the same SodaStream that I called my product of the year 2010.

I firmly believe that everyone should have a SodaStream in their home... especially for people who don't want to drink soda. I know what you are thinking:

"Wait, what?!?! Lazy Man, that doesn't make any sense."

The SodaStream appliance simply carbonates water... nothing more. You can make carbonated water super cheaply. Add a very little bit of juice or True Orange and you've got yourself a beverage that's healthier than 99% of what's out there... tastes great too. You get to ensure that you have great quality water (just say away from RainSoft) and keep out artificial sweeteners.

In short, you can use it to make healthier decisions, while saving money. That's why I feel it should have a place in every home.

Don't take my word for it though, ABC had David Zinczenko (of Men's Health fame) covering the product yesterday:

So why invest in the company? Yesterday they announced they were going miss revenue and profit expectations by 1%. Instead of $567 million in revenue, they expect "only" $562 million in revenue. Wall Street responded with a sell off that brought the stock down 25%. I think that's a little like cutting off someone's arm because they have a paper cut... it just doesn't make any sense. Even with the small adjustment the company has grown revenues and profits significantly every year.

The result is a stock that still looks pretty strong, a company and a product I believe in, at a highly discounted price (a P/E of around 16.5). Sure the company could go down or even announce that things were worse than they anticipated, but at this point, the stock seems significantly cheap at around $38... especially when it has traded at over $70 twice over the last three years.

I'm not The Most Interesting Man in the World... I don't often invest in individual stocks, but when I do I invest in SodaStream.]

This post deals with: ... and focuses on:

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Last updated on November 26, 2014.

 
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