Would You Like $50 for Doing Almost Nothing?

$50 could buy you an unlimited shrimp dinner at Outback Steakhouse for a pair of gluttons like my friend and I if you time it right. Bonus points if your friend says everything in an awesomely obnoxious Australian accent the entire time!

My most faithful readers may have noticed that last week, I missed the Friday post in the Monday, Wednesday, Friday pattern I’ve been following for a while now. This was one of the results of a little adventure I had while on a trip to the oil country. I plan to write a post about that trip next week because I think there were some worthwhile things to mention about it. But for now, just know that I wound up spending an extra night in a hotel room there. For some reason, I decided to read through some emails and for a less mysterious reason, I decided to act on one of them.

Not too long ago, I wrote about my new SoFi checking account. I’m happy to report that it has been a great experience so far. I haven’t been charged any fees (not even for checks, which most banks do charge for now), the bill pay functionality has worked smoothly, transfers to other accounts have been likewise, and I’ve been paid 2.25% interest on the money I’ve run through the account. So I’m very happy. But like any company that truly finds a place in my heart, that wasn’t good enough for the people at SoFi. So they found a way to put a little more money in my pocket and emailed me their idea. And on a scorching evening in a west Texas hotel room, I read that email.

Simply put, SoFi will pay me $50 for everyone I refer to them who starts a checking account. But they didn’t just give me an incentive; they wanted to welcome new customers into the SoFi family in style. And they’re going to do that by depositing $50 into the new accounts of everyone I refer to SoFi who starts one. That’s right folks, everybody wins! And it gets better. Once you’ve gotten your free $50, you can turn around and make $50 more for everyone you sign up. This means that anyone with a spouse or significant other who also likes free money has just been handed $150…or more! You can multiply that $50 times as many friends as you have who are interested in having a free $50 of their own.

Up to this point, I have written this blog for zero compensation. No advertising, no referral links, nothing. Simply put, income is not my goal in doing this. That said, if you have enjoyed reading my blog to such an extent that you’d like to toss a little cash my way as a thank you, make a little for yourself in the process, and try out a checking account that comes recommended by someone who has had them at literally dozens of different banks, feel free to use this link – which will do all of those things. If not, I will probably still manage to survive and will definitely keep writing this blog as long as I continue to enjoy doing so. And either way, I wish you a wonderful Wednesday!

P.S. As an extra little bonus, if you click the link above, you will learn what the B in B. Money stands for.

What I Spend On Groceries and How I Do It

A recent meal of turkey lasagna, roasted squash, and green peas (I probably wound up having seconds on the lasagna)

Happy Monday, Everyone! Here is the latest post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, check it out here. I’ve been going into detail on one category each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $1700 per year on groceries and I believe I could spend a reasonable minimum of $1200 per year if I had to. This is one area that always blows me away when I read about what people typically spend on it. Supposedly the average is about $3000 per year, per person. Then again, the average American reportedly wastes about a pound of food per day, so that is part of the reason for such a high number. I do all I can to avoid EVER wasting food and probably throw away less than one item per month. But before I go any further, I do have to ‘fess up to one advantage. I eat three to five meals per week at restaurants in a typical week as part of my job, which saves me some food I would need to make at home. And actually, during 2017 I was traveling a lot more and probably ate twice that many meals. So admittedly, my spending would be higher if not for that. However, as a very physically active man, I also eat significantly more total calories than a typical person does and as a result, I believe things balance out to some degree.

As with most shopping, my grocery strategy begins at Costco. Yes, I am only a household of one. But there are still plenty of foods I am able to buy in bulk and consume quickly enough to avoid having them go bad. Some of the many items I can think of off the top of my head that I buy regularly include the mixed bags of organic spinach/kale/other stuff that tastes like grass clippings, tortillas, eggs, butter, cheese, coffee, olive oil, spices, boneless skinless chicken breasts, fish, and assorted frozen foods I can make once in a while when I’m feeling lazy. Absolutely every item I just listed is a great quality/price combination at Costco, with many of them being substantially cheaper than any competitor’s offerings. I don’t buy much produce at Costco, however. That doesn’t seem to be their strongest priced area.

If I don’t buy something at Costco, I go to HEB, a regional chain here in Texas that has solid selection and an “every day low pricing” model. When I lived in Wisconsin, there was a similarly excellent option called Woodman’s. Either way, I take the lazy approach of shopping at stores that offer the lowest prices most of the time rather than shopping at several different ones looking for sale prices that are occasionally a little bit lower. I know people who do things that way and there is certainly money to be saved, but I simply don’t have the time available to be able to execute that strategy.

At the grocery store, my focus is on buying mostly “raw materials,” which tend to be both the cheapest and the healthiest versions of foods. I buy the most in the produce section. Flexibility is key here. Everything has a peak season when it is plentiful and cheap and I plan my cooking around that to some extent. For example, when pineapples are less than $2, I buy them more often and sweeten up my green smoothies with them. And since lately avocados are about double what they are normally, I’ve been using them much less or skipping them altogether. After the produce section, I typically go to the meat section the next most, followed by the frozen section where I buy lots of frozen vegetables. These are a great value because they’re flash frozen almost immediately after being harvested, meaning they’re both fresh/nutritious and benefit from the economy of scale pricing that results from mass production. I do occasionally venture into the middle aisles, where the most processed food lives, but only for particular items when I need them, usually for a particular recipe.

In practice, this usually ends up being a couple trips to both Costco and HEB each week. If I’m just buying my regular stuff, I usually end up spending about $10-15 total on groceries each of these trips and $20-30 per week. Every now and again I stock up or buy special items for recipes and spend a little more. But I never feel like I have to deprive myself in any way to spend what I do on groceries. I guess the only caveat is that since I buy food mostly in raw, unprocessed form, I do spend a fair amount of time cooking. But since I enjoy doing that, and enjoy the results even more, I don’t really see that as a cost. That’s the advantage of learning to enjoy activities that happen to help you to live a better, healthier life and save money in the process.

Anyway, hopefully this gives someone an idea or two. Have a great Monday, Ya’ll!

Going Down Swinging…Maybe – A Quick Update on My Situation

Crash and burn…or soar above the clouds? Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

About two months ago, I mentioned that I’m in some career trouble. Simply put, the increasingly difficult economic conditions have put my employer in a precarious position and as a result, only the bona fide superstars are truly safe. And even they are only safe because they are marketable; no one who relies on my employer is because the company itself isn’t certain to survive. While I have been squarely in the rising star category for a while, I haven’t made the next leap yet and my status isn’t good enough in a situation like this. I could be let go any day and I don’t have a big enough name in my industry to ensure I’d be snapped up quickly if that came to pass. Since I found this out, I’ve addressed the situation with maximum effort in three different areas. While there hasn’t been an outright victorious moment yet, there are very encouraging signs in all three areas.

It seems only logical to hedge one’s bets in a situation like this and to that end, I’ve done what I can to find a new job. Unfortunately, I’ve found myself in a position that, while highly valued, is not terribly common. It is perfectly normal for someone in my position to cover a large territory – sometimes a whole state or even several. And there are only a handful of companies that do what my employer does – and some are only regional. So while I could try to get into something a little different, there are not many “smooth transition” options available. I’ve applied for two opportunities over the last two months. Of those, I quickly withdrew from one when I learned some disconcerting things about the company as I did my due diligence and narrowly missed getting an offer from the other (this was the major positive development I was hinting at for a while in some of my posts). I will continue to keep my eye on the market, but given the economic reality of this moment in time, very few people are leaving positions of this kind and very few employers are creating new ones.

My second area of effort is also obvious – I’m trying to put out the fire in my current house in case I can’t escape it. This has actually been enormously successful. The last two months have averaged out to be more than double any other two I’ve had with the company and have included a fair number of deals the company cares a lot about because they are crucial to the bottom line. If I can continue at this pace, there is almost no chance I will be fired. However, there is no guarantee that will happen. In fact, my recent success has been wildly improbable given market conditions. For months, almost all of my peers have been doing significantly worse than they typically do, just as I had been until I suddenly caught fire. And even if I can keep the magic going, there is still no guarantee the company will survive.

Enter my third area of effort: my side business. A deal just concluded very successfully, I see more opportunity, and I’m ready to push in more chips. I’ve pulled some money from other investments, which was easy to do given my views on where stocks are headed in the short to medium term, and I’m plowing it into the business. I’m not going all in, but I’m betting enough that the possibilities of enough income to cover all my annual expenses and significant pain are both on the table. This project has proven it CAN work. Whether it can be scaled up efficiently or not remains to be seen. But I’ve decided it’s time to have some balls and give it a shot.

There is one other thing I’m focused on: enjoying my life and not worrying too much. I’ve gone to great lengths to set up my finances to withstand even an economic catastrophe. And whatever happens, I’m still going to be the same person who accomplished all I have up to this point. I am confident that even in a worst case scenario, I would eventually find success again. Besides, it’s kind of invigorating to be taking big swings at things that are suddenly very important. Yes, there is a chance I’ll hit the canvas before this is over. But there is also a chance I will be more successful than ever before. Either way, I will almost definitely grow for having tried. And at the end of the day, I think that’s the most important thing.

What I Spend on Clothes and How I Do It

Here’s a fashion-y looking picture. – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Hola! This is the third post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, check it out here. I plan to go into detail on every category with a post on one each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $700 per year on clothes and I believe I could spend a reasonable minimum of $100 per year if I had to.

Clothing is in a seemingly unique position amongst expense categories. That’s because there is so much of it in the world that even very poor countries have all they need and then some. So theoretically, you could spend next to nothing in this category. That would probably involve shopping at places like Goodwill or the Salvation Army. You might not get exactly the style or fit you wanted, but it would be adequate to serve the purpose of covering the areas of your body our overly puritanical society deems necessary to cover as you went about your day to day activities. I’d estimate that would cost about $100 per year, per person. But for just a little bit more than that “bare bones” budget, you can have your cake and eat it too.

I only buy high quality clothes that are always in style but not necessarily “fashionable.” My closet contains mostly polo shirts (mostly Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein), long sleeved button shirts (both dress and casual), jeans, and khaki pants. I also have a handful of suits I almost never wear (if I did, I would probably go out and spend a grand or two on a couple of really nice ones to replace what I have and leave it at that) and five total pairs of shoes that give me every option I need. I also have some winter clothes in case I ever visit Wisconsin in the winter (that’s October through April, or sometimes May) again – which is very doubtful. I’m trying to be better about only buying clothes I love that fit exactly as I want them to and returning them if I decide I failed with a particular purchase.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve done more and more of my clothes shopping at Costco to the point where now it’s fairly rare for me to buy something anywhere else. I’ve mostly stopped buying Ralph Lauren stuff because I hate the “tennis tails” on their shirts, their quality control seems questionable (I have over a dozen of their shirts, all in the same size and in one of two styles, but they are a fairly wide range of lengths and fits), their stuff is overpriced unless bought at an extreme discount (which is, of course, the only way I ever bought it), and finally, I already have their polo shirts in almost every color I want and they last about a decade. These days most of my polo shirts come from Costco and are both high quality and cheap like almost everything else the store sells. That’s where I started buying the Calvin Klein ones for about $15-20 each. I also have some of the 32 Degree Cool brand which is great for southern weather, decent quality, and even cheaper. I buy all my socks, underwear, undershirts, etc there now. I even buy most of my shoes there – usually for $20-30 a pair. So far I have yet to be disappointed with any of this stuff.

I’ve just about finished my obligatory post divorce closet overhaul, which took about three years. So now I’m transitioning from that phase to a “one item in, one item out, upgrades only” phase I expect will last for the foreseeable future. As a result, my spending will likely decline to probably $2-300 a year or maybe even less. And again, these will be only high quality, great fitting purchases to replace either lower quality/worse fitting clothes or worn out ones.

I don’t really do anything revolutionary in this spending category but my spending is low and getting lower. I do acknowledge that things will almost certainly be more expensive for women. Not only are they judged more on their appearance than men are, but they have much more unique bodies, which makes getting clothes that fit well into a much more complicated process. Plus, their clothes are much less durable in most cases. But what can I say? If you want the fun of a sports car, you have to accept the realities of paying for premium gas, nearly constant repairs, high insurance premiums, etc, that all come with it. However, there are ways to moderate those costs and still have your fun – with both cars and women. The same general concept of buying more high quality, timeless styled clothes and less “fast fashion” or very outfit specific items would probably also help women. My ex-wife was pretty good at doing things that way and she certainly always kept herself looking good. And gentlemen, that is a very rare and valuable quality. Almost every woman I’ve dated since has spent much, much more to accomplish the same feat. But I feel like we’re blurring the lines between this topic and a totally different one. Anyway, have an awesome day, folks! Kick some ass out there!

Happy Friday!

Driving down a beach (South Padre Island in this case) definitely felt like a Friday thing, even though I did it on a Tuesday morning this past winter.

Happy Friday!

Another Friday is upon us! It’s been a long time since I’ve spent my weeks lusting for Friday and the weekend that follows it quite like this. That probably means something…

Duolingo

I don’t always just write about finance. I’m also big on self improvement. It seems like most of the world has already discovered this app but for anyone who hasn’t, I highly recommend that you check it out. Learning a language is a very rewarding way to spend a little time. In addition to the positive feelings that result from building a new skill or improving an existing one, language learning forces your brain to exert itself in ways that everyday life often doesn’t. Brain science is still so young but we already know that doing things just a little differently makes lasting changes that will benefit just about anyone in any stage of life.

Plus, Duolingo isn’t anything like your high school or college foreign language classes. Believe me, I despised those! I’m decidedly ungifted in this particular area for some reason. But this app actually makes it a reasonably enjoyable process and it teaches pretty effectively as well. I’ve been rapidly improving in both German and Spanish and it just doesn’t suck as much as I would have expected, for lack of a better way to describe it. I’ve only used the cell phone app version but I’m told it has a great web based one as well. I will also note that recently, a new feature appeared – the leaderboard. It has added a fun element by getting my competitive juices flowing. And judging by watching other people on the app, I’m not the only one who feels that way.

As always, I’m not getting anything from this. I haven’t even added a link. I just think this is an awesome app that can really enrich one’s life and I wanted to recommend it to anyone who hasn’t already given it a try.

Sleep Issues

I’ve been reading a book about sleep lately (review coming soon) and mostly it has solidified what I already knew; sleeping affects damn near everything about your body, mind, and life. It’s a little mind blowing how many of the issues I’ve struggled with could potentially be affected, if not completely caused, by this one problem. As a lifelong insomnia sufferer, this is both good news and bad news. The bad news, of course, is that I’ve probably done an incalculable amount of damage to myself by not getting this taken care of much sooner. But the good news is that everything I’ve accomplished in my life has been accomplished in a severely handicapped state; and now that I know this, I can remove the handicap and see what happens!

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been very focused on getting more sleep in general and I have definitely accomplished that. I’ve been averaging well over seven hours per night, as measured by a Fitbit, for most of that time. That’s around an hour more than I’ve ever averaged with the same Fitbit previously and probably even more of an increase over what I’ve done over most of my life. So that’s good and it has definitely been reflected in how I feel. But I’ve noticed that even post improvement, my deep sleep is consistently near the bottom of the range and my REM sleep never even touches the bottom of the range at all. So there is still something left to fix.

Based on my research, I’ve purchased a mouth guard on Amazon. Yes, one of the $30 ones the dentist I only went to one time assured me wouldn’t help me one bit as she attempted to sell me a $600 version of the same thing. But there were several reasons I didn’t go back to that dentist for a second appointment, the reviews on this mouth guard are excellent, and I have an easy way to measure my results against plenty of my past data. Worst case scenario, I’ve wasted $30. Best case scenario, I’ve moved closer to fixing a lifelong problem that has been much more serious than I wanted to believe all along. I’m always willing to try an experiment with that kind of risk/reward proposition. I’ll give ya’ll an update on how it works out in a couple of weeks or so.

Have a wonderful weekend!

A Walk in the Woods: A New Metaphor I Thought Up During a Difficult Evening

This particular “walk in the woods” was taken in the Sam Houston National Forest.

I’ve been pretty open about my struggles with depression in the past. Many people who deal with this very stubborn affliction know all too well how it can make even the best of times in life seem bleak. It can color current events darker than they actually are and it can barrage you with obsessive thoughts about the worst moments of your past. And it can even be life threatening if it gets you to the point of thinking the only way out of the fog might just be to stop being alive at all. But over the last several years of my life, I’ve been having more and more success fighting back against all of this.

Today, although things are mostly pretty good, I’m dealing with a somewhat difficult moment. My job is in jeopardy and even my employer may be. And while my finances will most likely withstand whatever comes, our current economic conditions and trajectory make this an unfortunate time to be in such a predicament. Additionally, I’ve been frustrated by my lack of progress in building up a social life here in my new home of Houston, Texas. I think a big part of the problem is the paradox of the big city – or at least this one. While there are tons of people around, most of them seem to be here for a very specific, career oriented purpose. The norm seems to be to come here for a new job or a promotion, hang around for a few years, and then leave for the next one. Of course there are people who stay long term too. But they tend to be family oriented, which means they have neither much spare time, nor much in common with me. That said, I’m making some progress on these problems.

On the career side, I’m working on finding a new job, even as more companies go into panic mode and hiring rapidly decelerates. I’m taking things day by day in my current job. I actually had a record month in May in spite of increasingly dismal economic conditions, so all is not lost just yet. And finally, I’m working on expanding my side business in the hopes of moving it closer and closer to capable of funding my living expenses by itself. The good news there is that the worse the economy gets, the more opportunities there are likely to be in the real estate market – even as rent is likely to keep going up.

On the social side, I’ve kept trying and have had some successes. I’ve met people through a local financial independence oriented group, even as I’ve grown increasingly frustrated that most of them have kids and are almost exclusively interested in activities oriented around them. I’ve met people playing sports like basketball and tennis and particularly with tennis, I appear to be gaining traction in terms of getting a regular group together. Finally, I’ve met people doing random activities. The reality is that I enjoy spending time with a fairly small percentage of people and as a result, meeting people has a very low success rate, meaning it’s the dreaded “numbers game.” But I’ve definitely made progress.

Overall, I’m in a solid mental place. Life is never going to be problem free so that is the wrong thing to hope for. Working towards being capable of handling as many problems as possible successfully is a much more viable goal. And I’m proud to say that for the most part, the problems I’ve described above are not threatening me. I believe they’re each putting an appropriate amount of stress on me to keep me actively working on solving them without being overwhelmed or obsessed.

So what is messing with me now? Somehow, my past has crept back in. 2016 and 2017 both held some pretty serious disappointments, particularly romantically. So that is always an easy place to find myself mentally mired, especially as I get tired in the evenings, since it is relatively fresh. And then, of course, there is my childhood. Historically, I’ve avoided thinking about it as much as possible. To this day, simply speaking to my mom or my sister can be enough to get me down because it reminds me of a time I so desperately want to forget. Freud may not be quite the widely revered figure he had been anymore, but he was definitely on to something with his focus on childhood.

Anyway, last night I had a bout with some of these past oriented negative thoughts. But thankfully, rather than the nightmare of insomnia, it was ended with a revelation I think could be really valuable. It’s a simple concept and it may seem silly, but within maybe ten minutes, it completely pulled me out of what could had been a spiral into a bad place I’ve visited way too many times and helped me relax and get to sleep. For anyone who doesn’t already know, good quality sleep is probably the ultimate weapon against depression and a host of other struggles, both mental and physical. I’ll be talking more about that in another post very soon.

But for today, what was this revelation? It was a metaphor. The world, both spatial and temporal, is a giant wooded area that I’ve been walking through with the resulting paths being my life so far, and my current location my life today. It’s true that some of the paths I’ve followed up to this point have led me through ugly terrain I would have preferred not to traverse. But I don’t have to go backwards and experience those things again. I can, but it is a wildly ineffective way to live. Instead, I should be using the lessons I’ve learned and my mental capabilities to plot a better course from here based on what I really want. So much of my pain has resulted from not having much of a plan at all. How can I complain about where I’ve wound up if I haven’t even had any particular destination?

I think this concept could have great potential in combating depression and even suicidal thoughts. Whenever I’ve thought about suicide, it has been for primarily two reasons. One, I have felt that the pain I was in would never subside and the only escape was death. Two, I have felt that I had screwed up my life so badly that there was no possibility of “coming back” and making it into something I wanted it to be.

Let’s go back to the woods. If you’re thinking about suicide, this is what I would say to you. You feel you’re in a bad place now, which is a result of the paths you’ve taken. But is there a place you would be happy to be in? If there isn’t, then chances are you need more help than this metaphor can provide and I suggest you get it. But if there is, think hard about that place. What does it look like? What about it makes you happy? And here is the most important question. Is there ANY way you can get there from where you are now? If there is, why kill yourself? You have just admitted that a path exists that will make you happy if you follow it. And sure, you may be facing long odds of success. But dying will reduce your odds to zero. Plus, if you try to follow this path to the place you believe would make you happy, it’s very likely that you will find some measure of happiness even if you don’t end up making it all the way there.

Maybe this concept will work for you and maybe it won’t. But I’m telling you, it worked for me last night. My favorite part about it is that it didn’t just turn me away from darkness. It turned me towards light. If you follow the thought process I just described, it should be much more difficult for you to think about negatives when you’re finished because you will have replaced them with positives. Instead of thinking about bad paths you’ve already walked down, you will be thinking about a place you actually want to be in and what it will take you to get there. And sure, Rome wasn’t built in a day. I get that. But if you map out this path to this particular place you want to be in, you will have a mission. And if you work on chipping away at that mission, you’re going to have less room in your head for thoughts that don’t relate to it. Maybe I’m way off base with this. But it helped me through a dark evening and I intend to revisit it as necessary in the hopes of repeating that success. If you’re struggling, maybe it’s worth a try for you, too.  

What I Spend on Cash Donations and How I Do It

A bridge I encountered walking on a trail a while back – I don’t remember where exactly

Happy Monday, Everyone! This is the second post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, check it out here. I plan to go into detail on every category with a post on one each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $2100 on cash donations. In most areas of my financial life, I feel pretty comfortable that I know what I’m doing. But since I have only been relatively wealthy for a few years now, this is one area where I’m just getting started and as a result, I’m still figuring things out. For that reason, any feedback or suggestions would be greatly appreciated – even more than usual. So far, the money I’ve spent in this category has mostly gone to either charitable organizations or personal causes people had. I’m no expert on this yet but I have figured out a couple of things.

One, lots of charitable organizations are questionable at best in terms of the way they’re run and the percentage of funds that are actually put towards their causes. I’m not opposed to reasonable costs that are necessary to run an organization, including paying what the market necessitates to employ highly talented people. However, it is pretty clear that some of these organizations are excessively lining the pockets of individuals in one way or another, which is disgusting given that the money is donated for charitable causes.

Two, once you donate to a charitable organization, it will pursue you relentlessly trying to get more out of you. While I lived in Wisconsin, I donated to a couple of very location specific organizations whose mailers have followed me through two different Texas addresses already. It is baffling to me that no one in these organizations has made the connection that I’ve obviously moved and haven’t sent a dime since. I also wonder what portion of the money I donated they are going to spend on sending mailer after mailer before they finally (hopefully) give up. Is it really possible that the entirety of my donations will eventually be spent that way?

While I’m no expert at charitable giving, I have developed a few guiding principles for myself. First, I believe in making sure you are able to donate before doing so. After all, if you’re living on the edge yourself and you donate money, that could be the difference between your being independent and you needing help yourself, which would likely cost society more than your donation helped in the first place. As such, my donations have gradually increased as my personal wealth has and will likely continue accordingly. Second, I believe in helping those who either try to help themselves or have been dealt such a terrible hand that it is almost impossible for them to. I believe there is a distinct limit to how much money can help anyone – the “teach a man to fish” concept. I believe the capability to earn money is much more valuable than the result itself. So I’d be much more inclined to give money to someone who is dealing with a misfortunate setback or set of circumstances and would otherwise be a productive person than to someone who has never made a serious effort to do anything productive. Not only do I want to do the greatest good for society, but for the individual. I believe there is a huge psychological benefit to being self sufficient.

I don’t have any particular target in this area in terms of the amount I spend as it is pretty new for me. I think it is crucially important that people with resources help the less fortunate and I am certainly in that category. But trying to do so in a way that is both effective and not frustrating has proven difficult. I’ve had some success volunteering in local organizations, getting to know how they operate, and then donating additional money once I’m comfortable doing so. But that doesn’t stop the endless hounding from following me to the ends of the earth. I’m nearing the point where I will only donate money if it can be anonymous. I don’t itemize deductions on my taxes yet, so that isn’t an issue and I don’t care whether people know what I donate or not so recognition isn’t either.

Here is a particularly egregious example in my opinion. My alma mater has been after me since the day I graduated and I’ve never even given it a dime. My reasoning there is pretty simple. Tuition was raised by the state allowable maximum every single year I attended. This happened to be in the early part of the Great Recession and in spite of this economic backdrop, perfectly good buildings were constantly being torn down so fancier ones could be built in their place. This struck me as being very out of touch with both the mission of the school (presumably to provide a high quality education to people from a wide variety of backgrounds – including those who, like me, grew up relatively poor) and the reality of the times. A couple years after I left, it was discovered that the school had been sitting on a slush fund in excess of $100 million. I believe the tuition increases immediately stopped to avoid making the PR disaster even worse. But at no point was there any mention of doing anything to make things right with the students who had unknowingly contributed so much to that slush fund. Many of my former classmates seem to have similar reservations since they went through the school during the same timeframe.

If I were going to send any money in this direction, it would be directly to a student or group of students from a financially disadvantaged background who had already continued to demonstrate a good work ethic and continued to do so. I think both elements would be important for me and I would need a way to ensure that both were present to feel good about what I was doing. Additionally, I don’t think I would want to have my scholarship, or whatever form it took, be school specific. But I haven’t started looking into how to do any of that yet. Maybe it will be my first substantial charitable endeavor. For now, I typically donate a hundred or two when I see something that moves me to do so. Like I said, this area is a work in progress.

Happy Friday!

I don’t know who thought of this or how, but he or she is a genius! The knife only starts the process. The real magic is done with a pint glass (not pictured).

We’ve just about made it through another week! Here are some random thoughts and ideas to celebrate.

Golf balls

Summer is finally upon us and for those in horrible climates, that means golf season (it actually seems to be a down time for golf here in Houston, probably because it is too hot for a lot of wusses fair weather only golfers)! If you’re anything like many of my customers and I, you don’t get as much time to play as you’d like. In my case, that means I’m inconsistent and launch golf balls into the woods, water hazards, and who knows where all else when I do get out. Spending $2, 3, 4, or even more per ball can easily double the cost of a round with so many of them destined for such a disappointing fate. But the world’s largest bookstore turned everything store has your back.

You can find used golf balls on Amazon for fifty cents a ball or even less. Many of them are sorted into specific brands and graded by condition. I picked up a giant bag of Titleist balls for less than forty cents each last year and guess what? They fly into the woods every bit as effectively as brand new balls. I believe these particular balls were graded B/C but to be honest, if it weren’t for many of them having companies’ promotional designs on them, most of them would pass for having been hit only a couple of times. The question becomes whether those first couple of times hitting each ball are worth 75% or more of the cost. For someone who only plays a handful of times a year, the answer is a resounding no. Definitely a winning find.

Kitchen tricks

One part of my cooking hobby I find surprisingly satisfying is buying different types of produce and figuring out how to use them in both new and existing recipes. And in order to do that, sometimes I need to start by figuring out how to separate said produce from its natural packaging in the best way possible. I’ve found some awesome tricks on Youtube – a great place to learn almost anything by watching (sometimes) experts demonstrate it. This week I learned how to efficiently cut an acorn squash and it actually worked very well on the first try. But easily my all time favorite discovered method has been the mango pint glass trick. Want to give it a try? Type “mango pint glass” into the search tab on Youtube and prepare to have your mind blown. The picture above is a recent example of how incredibly effective this method is; literally nothing but skin is left behind and it is so easy! If you’ve ever done this, you’re probably nodding knowingly right now. If you never have, you’re welcome!

Squash as a snack

Sticking with the same theme, I’ve been experimenting with making squash as a snack. It’s fairly easy, cheap, tasty, and much more nutritious than chips or anything made primarily of the precious sugar I recently decided to try going mostly without for a while. I’ve been using basic “roasted squash” recipes and using nothing beyond salt, pepper, and olive oil for seasoning. Some types of squash definitely work better than others but in general, there is a natural sweetness that is really brought out well by those simple additions. One thing I’ve discovered is that I like the squash slightly darkened/crispy, which usually means leaving it in the oven a little longer than the recipe says and then doing a little extra broiling at the end. But your results may vary. I’ve been making a panful over the weekends and then snacking on it throughout the week. So far, I’m very pleased!

That’s all from me this week. Have a great Friday and weekend and I’ll see you on Monday!

This Is What I Do When Conditions Change and I Start to (Gasp!) Lose Money

Can’t be getting paid subpar interest rates on savings if you want to visit the Texas themed lazy river cause there’s no way in hell admission is cheap! Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Recently I was taking my routine, virtual stroll through all of my financial accounts when I noticed something funny – and I most certainly don’t mean “ha ha funny”. My CIT savings account was only returning 2.4% APY. That’s odd, I thought. I’m almost sure that had been at 2.45. I did a little checking and sure enough, I was right. Now I don’t want to miscommunicate here; I understand why this happened and I don’t blame CIT Bank for it. Our long overdue recession has started and not only have rates stopped rising, but they’re actually already coming down slightly. Futures traders have even priced in one to two decreases by the FED by the end of the year. So I’m far from the only one making this call and it doesn’t surprise me in the least to see CIT Bank, a for profit business, doing what management feels needs to be done to protect the bottom line in changing conditions.

That said, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. When conditions change, I also re-evaluate what I’m doing to make sure it still makes sense. Here’s a recent example in case you think I’m making this up. So I spent a half hour or so on good ol’ Doctor of Credit doing a little research. It turns out that currently, the highest rate on online savings accounts that don’t require absurd shenanigans like 10+ debit card (yes, people apparently actually use the things; but they shouldn’t) transactions per month is currently 2.51%. However, interest rate isn’t the only consideration. Many bank accounts also pay bonuses up front, which can quickly shift the balance when we’re talking about such low numbers. After all, in the grand scheme of things, 2.51% is still an awful return on investment, even if I do feel that cash is king in current circumstances.

So ultimately, and somewhat coincidentally, I decided not to move my savings account money very far, at least from an alphabetical perspective. I’m moving it from CIT Bank to Citi Bank. Citi’s online savings account pays 2.36%, even less than the 2.4% that started this whole conundrum in the first place. However, by performing a little financial gymnastics, which basically just involves making sure I stay within the rules of the promotion, I can also get it to pay me a $400 bonus for keeping $15k in the account for sixty days – more than the CIT account would have paid on that amount in an entire year! And meanwhile, I’m collecting the 2.36%, virtually the same rate as CIT was paying, on top of it.

How does the math work out on this? With $15k in the CIT account, I would have made $364 in interest over twelve months. But with that same $15k in the Citi account, I will make $459…in two months! If left in the account for the same twelve months as the CIT Bank account for the purposes of making an apples to apples comparison, that figure becomes $758. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a win. The only downside here is that unlike credit card reward money, bank account bonuses are taxable income. But that’s more about credit card reward money being in an extremely privileged class of its own than it is about this being a bad deal; almost any income under the sun is taxable – even income that isn’t income at all in some cases (Ever hear of imputed interest? Look it up. It’s disgusting!).

The way I see it, there are two lessons here. One is that you should be regularly evaluating your available options, particularly when something changes with your current one. I preach that all day long. But the second lesson is one I need to be taking to heart myself going forward. Given our current economic circumstances, I’m not compromising on holding as much cash as possible until further notice. But with available interest rates on cash being as pathetic as they are, and with sign up bonuses being as large and plentiful, it could very well be worthwhile to move savings account money around two or three times a year. For example, if there were three options as good as the Citi bonus available (I don’t believe there are; but there are others that are close and again, conditions are always changing), I could make over $1500 in a year on $15k of cash – a damn good return considering it’s 100% risk free. Yes, it would be a little bit of work, but with emphasis on the “little” part. When all is said and done, I will have less than an hour into this little project. Would the extra $1200+ over and above what the CIT Bank account would have paid without any bonuses be worth three hours of my time? You bet your sweet ass it would! I do pretty well for myself (for now…) but I don’t make anywhere near $400 an hour…yet.

Good day to you all!

How Much I Spend On Auto Maintenance/Repairs and How I Do It

The elder statesmen of my former fleet of vehicles – the legendary Ford Ranger…before Ford stopped making the model for years and then brought it back as a slightly smaller F150

Happy Monday Everyone! This is the very first post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, check it out here. I plan to go into detail on every category with a post on one each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $1300 per year on auto maintenance and repairs and I believe I could spend a bare minimum of $500 per year if I had to. This, in particular, is an expense I am able to spend a lot less than I otherwise would on because I do as much of my own work as possible. I try to only do that in areas of life where it is worth my time and with most shops charging at least $70-80 an hour for labor alone, not including marking up parts, this is definitely one of those. Here come the details.

First off, that $1300 number would be significantly lower if I hadn’t done what I consider a minor overhaul on the truck I had until near the end of 2017. At a total cost of roughly $1500, I replaced all four sets of brakes (pads and rotors on the front and all drum components on the back), the two front wheel hub assemblies, and most of the steering and suspension parts. This would likely have cost at least two to three times that figure if I’d had a shop do the work. That said, there would have been some cost savings since there was a lot of overlap in the labor. That was why I did all that at one time; not everything needed to be done right away but it made sense to do it all as long as I was going to have everything apart. Whether you do your own work or pay someone else to do it, this is something I recommend you think about. It usually won’t make sense on a newer vehicle, but on an old dog like my truck, it certainly did since anything that wasn’t already bad was definitely likely to be before long.

I wasn’t able to do all of it myself, mind you. When doing steering and suspension work, an alignment is usually required when you’re finished and that requires expensive equipment and know how. But by doing most of the work myself, I got basically everything done that my high mileage truck would need to keep running reliably for at least a few more years, aside from basic maintenance. I’m not a mechanical genius by any stretch but with auto repair work, you can find instructional videos on just about any repair for your specific vehicle on youtube. If you are at least a little bit mechanically inclined, have a basic set of tools, and particularly if the repair is on the less complicated end, like brakes for example, I highly recommend this route to learn a new skill and save a ton of money.

What do I do in a normal year? I spend roughly $200 on oil changes with what I believe is the best oil money can buy (Amsoil), I clean and lubricate my performance/reusable K&N air filter and cabin air filter for free, I have the tires rotated every 5k miles or so (done for free at Discount Tire, the best tire store I’ve ever found), and that’s about it for routine stuff. I also spend money on other maintenance items like brakes, coolant, transmission fluid, etc, but none of that has to be done every year. I went into detail about those kinds of items here. I highly recommend you keep all the basic maintenance up to date on your vehicles. It will cost you some money and time on the front end but in the long run, it will save you tons of both. While your costs will vary based on which additional maintenance items need to be done in a given year, if you keep up with it, your average annual cost should be around $500. Note that this is for one regular vehicle. If you have a truck or SUV it will be more and if you have a giant diesel truck or you buy a vehicle that is known for mechanical issues (avoid that by checking out this post), it will be a lot more.

I do spend a little extra keeping my vehicles clean and waxed/polished because I can, because I like the look of a clean car, and because keeping the paint looking good will keep the resale value as high as possible. In my case, this costs me $20 per month on unlimited, high quality car washes, and maybe $5-10 per year on wax and polish. These aren’t things you would absolutely have to do for a car to operate properly, but if your car looks nice now, keeping it that way will most likely more than pay for itself when you end up selling it.

That’s about it. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or send me an email at admin@healthwealthpower.com. Next week, Monday, I’m going to be covering my Cash Donations category in this series of posts.