Answers to Some Common Questions About the Equifax Data Breach

The mischievous look in this guy’s eye makes me suspect he may be an identity thief. Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

You would have to be living under a rock to have completely missed the media frenzy over the recent Equifax settlement. It is still going strong, even though it is nothing but a basically meaningless parody of justice to show the rabble that “the bad guys are paying the consequences.” And as a result, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the situation and credit reports in general. Here are my answers to some of the more common ones.

How do I claim my $125?

Unless you signed up for credit monitoring services, nothing. Because that’s exactly what you’re eligible to get. If you did, you can claim your pittance here:

https://www.equifaxbreachsettlement.com/file-a-claim

What if I had my identity stolen?

If you had actual, quantifiable expenses resulting from it, you can theoretically recover up to $20k. You probably won’t get nearly that much, even if your expenses exceeded that amount. After all, there are hungry law firms at the front of the line, tons of people who will make claims, and a finite amount of money to cover it all. But again, if you want to make a claim, go to the link above. 

I never even gave Equifax permission to collect my data. How did they get it?

Yes, you did. Any time you signed up for a credit card, auto loan, mortgage, personal loan, or basically anything else that would show up on a credit report, you most certainly agreed to let all three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Transunion, and Experian) collect your data – and to allow many other things to happen as well. However, like any normal human being, you didn’t read it and like any human being who isn’t an attorney with an ass ton of time on your hands, you wouldn’t have understood most of the terms and conditions even if you had. Don’t like it? You can try “living off the grid.” As for me, I’ll keep my electricity, internet, car, home with an address that can have mail delivered to it, having living, breathing women willing to have sex with me (and that’s really the only reason for any of that other stuff to exist in the first place if you think about it), and so forth.

Should I sign up for credit monitoring?

Nope. Credit monitoring is just one more way the credit bureaus, including the one that potentially lost your data in this case, profit by selling the information you unwittingly gave them right back to you. It won’t give you an ounce of data you can’t get for free but you will pay for it anyway. Unless you’re determined to be part of the settlement. Then you can get the information that is already available to you for free…for free. Long story short, credit monitoring is bullshit.

Ok, then what SHOULD I be doing to stay on top of things?

1. The credit bureaus are each required to give you your credit report for free once a year. Go to www.annualcreditreport.com to get them. Get one every four months and keep track of which ones you’ve gotten and when. This way, you can space it out over the course of the year and be as on top of things as possible. They won’t have scores, but I have at least half a dozen credit cards that give various versions of my credit score for free and you probably have at least one. Besides, that isn’t the point. The point is to go through everything on the report and make sure it’s correct (or more likely, that the mistakes that are there aren’t materially adverse). Like any faithful churner, my credit reports have dozens and dozens of accounts, active, historical, etc. But even so, it takes me no more than ten or fifteen minutes to scan through them (again, this is three times a year) and make sure there are no issues. The point is, it’s not difficult, especially for someone with a more normal amount of financial activity.

2. Know what to do if identity theft happens. You should already be monitoring all your existing accounts weekly. So even if your finances are absurdly complex like mine, you will quickly realize if something happens that you were not a party to. Call your credit card company, bank, or whatever entity issued the financing ASAP and ask to speak to someone in the fraud department. It is a simple process from there. If you find an account you didn’t know about on your credit report, you have a bigger problem. But you just have to work through the process. First, make absolutely sure that you’ve really been a victim of identity theft and this isn’t just something you did when you were drunk and since forgot about or that is reporting differently than you would have expected it to. Then, call the police. Not 911 obviously. File a report with them. Go to www.identitytheft.gov and file a complaint with the FTC. Report the issue to the credit bureau in question. Freeze your credit with all three bureaus. This step will create additional hassles any time you want to do anything financial, but it is almost certainly necessary at this stage. You may even have to get an attorney involved. But if you pay attention, you will almost certainly learn something from the situation too. So at least it’s not a total loss.

I have the first form happen about once a year on average as I would imagine most people with a ridiculous number of credit cards do in an era where identity theft is so rampant that I once read that credit card skimmers with a thousand numbers on them were going for about thirty bucks on the black market. But thankfully, I have never dealt with the second. I’m sure I will eventually and when I do, I will attack the situation with great vengeance and furious anger (anyone else remember Pulp Fiction?) and maybe I will write a post about it and turn it into a net positive. But until then, I will just keep watching. And waiting. Keep that in mind, identity thieving assholes.     

How worried should I be?

Not. This shit happens almost every single day. There are twelve year old computer geniuses, in horrible countries where their gifts are being tragically wasted, coming up with new ways to hack into the most secure databases on the planet as we speak and many of them will succeed. It’s an inevitability. But luckily, you live in a country where the consumer is basically the only thing keeping our vastly overinflated economy afloat. No one, and that includes most politicians, has any interest in seeing what would happen if consumers lost that precious confidence that keeps them borrowing money to buy shit they don’t need to impress people they don’t like (I believe that one is a bastardized version of a George Carlin quote – that guy was a genius and he was right about 89% of the time, which is way more often than almost anyone, ever). The economy is basically the only thing keeping people just happy enough to prevent them from realizing (or caring) how corrupt those politician pieces of shit are and thus, consumer confidence is to be kept sky high. And it follows that the laws are extremely in favor of consumers when it comes to matters such as identity theft. Do your basic diligence and you will be fine.

Should I get identity theft insurance?

Probably not. Insurance is an industry run by a combination of typically beautiful crooks and people who are extremely good at math. It wouldn’t be so bad if insurance companies didn’t do all they could to screw the marks customers out of the money they should be entitled to at literally the only time they’re expected to do anything whatsoever in exchange for the money they collect year after year in the form of premiums that consistently go up for literally no fucking reason at all. But they do. Ever make a claim on your car insurance or homeowner’s insurance? Remember the experience? Now imagine trying to get those bastards to pay for something intangible. If I recall correctly from the last time someone tried to upsell me on my insurance (talk about barking up the wrong tree), it’s about a seven dollar a year premium addition and there’s probably an excellent reason for that. It’s bullshit and they will never pay you a dime, no matter what happens.

Why was this post so sarcastic and profane? My delicate sensibilities are offended.

I don’t care. This is my blog. Get out. And to answer your question, I’m not sure. I’m in a funny mood tonight. I hope I succeeded in providing some worthwhile information and entertaining at the same time. Maybe more people would read this blog if I could master that skill. I guess this post will serve as a test.

A Little Good News to Start the Week Off Right

Football season is fast approaching – more good news!

I decided to skip my latest Annual Expenses post for today and share a little excitement instead. I previously mentioned that my employer let a number of people go recently. That’s not the exciting part, of course. But I had the opportunity to recommend one of my former colleagues to a hiring manager and I was happy to do so. He is a great salesman and a great man as well. And over the weekend, I was thrilled to learn that he wound up taking that job!

It took him less than a month and given how specialized our field is, that’s not bad at all. And while his new opportunity is with a fairly unproven company from the standpoint of people who do what we do, I came away from my conversation with the hiring manager very impressed. The business model is fairly open ended compared to that of my employer and I believe it offers a ton of opportunity. I’m just so happy for my former coworker and his family! I think he is going to absolutely kill it out there. My employer didn’t have the right opportunity in his territory but I really don’t believe it was his fault. I know he worked his ass off nonstop and left no stone unturned. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes for him in the coming months.

This kind of stuff is what life is really all about in my opinion. I was actually feeling pretty down for most of the weekend. But that’s because I was focused on myself and my own problems. A little perspective goes a long way. In this case, I’m not unemployed with a family to support and am in very little danger of losing my job right now. In fact, I just closed a deal that more than doubled my previous best and I have exceeded my previous best quarter’s total in just July alone. Plus, my side business is doing better and better. But all those good things, and many more going on in my life still aren’t enough to keep my spirits up all the time. However, hearing awesome news from someone else is a game changer and in this case, it may have saved my weekend.

As an added bonus, I talked to another of my friends over the weekend and learned he made a big move with his business last week. I’m really proud of him for taking a shot at making a business out of doing something he is truly passionate about and I’m looking forward to hearing more about how that goes as well.

Here’s hoping we can all get some great news like this in the week ahead. Have a great Monday!

Happy Friday! Here’s Everything You Will Ever Need to Know About Cars.

An actual car I saw in the actual world. The jokes basically write themselves.

That’s right, folks. All in one hilarious, addictive, and even Houston based Youtube channel.

https://www.youtube.com/user/scottykilmer

I’ve been thinking about doing some car posts lately and I certainly will soon. But I’ve been watching Scotty’s videos for years and I promise you, the man is legit. In fact, he knows a hell of a lot more about cars than I do. And to top it all off, he is damn entertaining. So I figured the most effective post I could write is one that directs people to him. Check out his channel now and thank me later. That’s all for today. Have a wonderful weekend!

The Truth About All the Coffee Talk in the Personal Finance World

My simple, but wonderful at home coffee making setup – a burr grinder and a french press

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” – Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

Lately I’ve noticed a new trend in the media that I would like to address. In most areas of life, it is generally accepted that you have to walk before you can run. You don’t just walk into the gym one day, throw four plates on each side of the bar, and start deadlifting it repeatedly. You have to start with a much more manageable amount of weight and train your body to handle more and more through sustained effort over time. And 405 is more than many people will ever deadlift in their lives so there is the crucial element of being realistic as well.

But with personal finance, there seems to be a backlash against that concept. If anyone dares to repeat the totally valid, if tired, advice that people replace $5 coffee drinks with $.10 ones they can make at home and enjoy just as much, they’re met with ridicule or even the vicious personal attacks that have sadly become commonplace in a world where so many people seem to in an ongoing competition to be more outraged by seemingly innocuous things than anyone else. Chase Bank, a bank I have mixed feelings about at best, was crucified for posting simple, actionable advice of that sort – advice that could help a lot of struggling people. And its CEO, again, a man I have very mixed feelings about, has become a political punching bag for some people who appear to have made it to adulthood without learning basic economics at any point along the way.

The theme of these attacks seems to be that people in general don’t make enough money, so giving them any financial advice that doesn’t involve being paid more money (by someone else) is condescending and insulting. In other words, it’s all someone else’s fault. It’s time for a reality check. No one on this earth is entitled to anything. And no, this is not political. I have to say that because the word “entitled” has been infused with bullshit political implications to such an extent that its mere utterance has become almost a war cry. In most of the world, people live in a reality where if they themselves don’t make something happen, it won’t. The fact that we live in the relative comfort of an incredibly prosperous place where life is incredibly easy does not change this reality. We’re all adults here. The days of someone else being responsible for us should have ended long ago.

If you want something, you have to earn it. If you want someone to pay you a lot of money, you have to give them a reason to do so. This typically involves using the infrastructure and resources of their existing business to make them more money, some of which can subsequently be paid to you. And outside of some very lucky folks, no one is exempt from this. If the board of directors didn’t think Jamie Dimon was creating more value than what he is being paid, I can assure you they would not be paying it to him.

If you don’t accept that concept, it’s going to be very difficult for you to have a successful career. Even if you start your own business, which is very difficult to do without experience, capital, or both, I can’t see a path to prosperity for you if you don’t believe everything has to be earned. It is imperative that many of us stop blaming our problems on others and start taking an honest look in the mirror and changing the things that are holding us back. It’s the only way anything is going to improve.

To that end, no, if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you can’t afford a $5 cup of coffee. Even a few of those per week could cause you to pay a bill late and fall into a cycle of paying interest, late fees, etc, that could become very difficult to get out of. And it doesn’t stop with the paycheck to paycheck crowd. I very rarely buy a $5 cup of coffee. It is simply too easy to enjoy not just drinking great coffee, but making it, at home – and at quite literally 2% of the cost. This isn’t to say I never get coffee from a coffee shop, because I occasionally do. But usually I’m meeting with a customer, a friend, a date, etc, and the coffee itself isn’t the real reason I’m there. Buying the coffee is just an expense I have to incur in order to spend time in a particular place for a particular purpose. I’m already wealthier than most people and I’m only in my early thirties, but I didn’t get here by ignoring reality. In fact, I doubt almost anyone who is highly successful got there by enjoying luxuries before they could afford them. The only way to change reality is by first accepting it.

This is so much more than just coffee. No one is literally saying that cutting out a coffee shop habit is going to make you a millionaire. It is just an example of a very important concept that can be applied to many different areas. The same applies to a restaurant meal, which if made even a once a week routine, could easily turn into a $100 per month premium over equivalent food that could be made and eaten at home. I’ve seen people using Uber when they could drive to the same places and turning $10 worth of parking and gas into a $50 round trip in the process. Again, even at once a week, this costs over $100 a month over and above what it would cost to get the exact same thing done. It all adds up – and usually pretty quickly.

I think most of the outcry over this very valid and legitimate advice amounts to some bad actors trying to score points by telling people they don’t actually have to deal with reality. It’s easy to make people feel good telling them things like that. But it does them absolutely no favors. Some people see a $5 cup of coffee, a $15 restaurant bill, etc, and don’t realize what they represent. These are examples of doing things in wildly inefficient ways and especially when you’re first starting out, expenses like these can be the inches that make up the difference between winning and losing.

How important are the inches? Just look at the quote I opened the post with. If you spend less than you earn over a sustained period of time, even by just a little, you will build assets and life will get easier. If you spend more than you earn, you’re doing the exact opposite. The average person in this country has roughly $10k of credit card debt. Most of them didn’t rack that up overnight. It usually happens when someone is living at or close to the edge and gets hit with the inevitable unexpected expenses. If they can’t cover them with either excess income or savings, then the only option is to borrow. Too many people turn to credit cards, one of the worst forms of borrowing. It’s so easy. Almost anyone who can fog a mirror can get a credit card. And if you just pay a little bit each month towards the ever increasing balance, you can have pretty much whatever you want.

But there is always a cost. In this case, it is that as the interest grows, it becomes an expense of its own that does nothing for you and increases each month unless you pay down the principal. Instead of living on the edge, you’re now beyond it and gradually burying yourself deeper and deeper. It doesn’t seem like a big deal at first. But over time, the situation will not only get more and more difficult to dig out of; it will deprive you of opportunities you won’t even know you’re missing out on. Those opportunities come in many different forms, but the theme is the same. If you have money, you can use it to make more. The more you have, the easier life gets. That, in essence, is the American Dream – work, save, invest, prosper. What a tragedy that marketing departments, and another kind of enablers with political motivations, successfully turn so many people away from it before they even know what they’re passing on by taking the path of least resistance.

But those people don’t control you. Only one person on this earth does. You get to choose where you get your information, how you process it, and how to proceed from there. This is both a privilege and a responsibility, so take it seriously. The quality of your life depends on it. If anyone is trying to feed you sugar – something that tastes sweet in the short term but seems just a little too good to be true, ignore them. The sweetness is gone as soon as you swallow; but the fat ass you’ll develop over time is going to be with you much longer than that. Whether we’re talking about food or finance, you want to be taking advice from the same people: the ones who give you the tough love that doesn’t feel so good in the moment, but keeps you on the path of true progress. They’re usually the same people who are succeeding in their own lives – and these days, sometimes being demonized for that very success. They can help you get there as well. In fact, paying it forward is something many of them enjoy doing very much. But in order to benefit, you have to ignore the yes men (and women) who peddle easy answers that never deliver results. And then you have to listen to the proper advice and work your ass off carrying it out.

At the end of the day, it’s about who you want to be. Mr Micawber was a tragic character in David Copperfield. He realized his folly, but not until it was too late. Don’t let that happen to you. You can join the masses of lazy people telling lies, pointing fingers, and bitching because they haven’t been handed the results they want in life. Or, you can admit you don’t know what you don’t know (there is power in that, NOT shame), learn what it takes to actually succeed, and then get to work. The latter will get you results. The former will keep you from getting any further than you already have. Reject that. Learn, grow, and live a better life. It all starts with taking responsibility for yourself.

How Much I Spend on Gifts and How I Do It

A recent gift I bought myself to celebrate not having been fired – a giant chocolate Costco cake meant to feed about 27 people that mostly fed only one…

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, you can check it out here. I’ve been going into detail on one category each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $1200 on gifts. Of course, the bare minimum spending in this category would be nothing at all and a reasonable minimum would be maybe $200. But this is one of those areas that I’ve let get out of hand on purpose because I believe it gives me a very good happiness return on my dollar. Some of what I do in this area is pretty traditional and some of it is a little different.

I do give out birthday gifts to the people I’m close to. But those usually aren’t anything crazy – maybe $50 or so. And I’ve actually moved in the direction of taking people out to their favorite restaurants, activities, etc, more than giving out gifts for those occasions now. The other routine time I give out gifts is at Christmas – also pretty typical. But I’d say I spend no more than a total of $500 a year on those two types of gifts. And sure, every now and again I get invited to a wedding. My standard gift is $100 and while I do not bring dates to these things because it tends to give them the wrong idea about how seriously I’m taking things, if I did, my gift would be $200 instead. And if it were someone really close to me, it would be significantly more. But I don’t get invited to all that many weddings. And no, I’m not complaining about that.

Where do I spend the rest? Sometimes I like to surprise people with random things out of the blue. A girl I was dating for a while had a car with steel wheels and those horrible plastic hub caps and at some point, she lost one of them. So one day, I made a replacement appear. One of my favorite coworkers says a certain phrase in a hilarious way all the time so one day I bought her a coffee mug with that printed on it and had it sent to her. I find that these types of gifts, while not very expensive, tend to really brighten the recipient’s day. It’s nice to know someone was thinking of you even though it wasn’t a special occasion.

My favorite types of gifts to give out are also spontaneous, but often more expensive. Every now and again, something crappy happens to someone I care about. Maybe someone with a family to feed winds up in the hospital and I’m able to pay a few bills for him since he hasn’t been able to work and money will probably be tight for a while. Or maybe some asshole hits a friend’s parked car without doing the right thing, causing damage that falls right into that sweet spot the insurance industry has calculated so carefully – you know, expensive enough that a claim could be filed (likely resulting in a hefty premium increase), but barely above the deductible so that very little would actually be paid out. Most people are savvy enough to not make a claim in that situation by now, particularly with insurance premiums being as ridiculous as they are. But a lot of people also don’t have a grand or so laying around to replace a bumper, which means the damage goes unfixed. But I do. And if I can right that wrong for someone, it can go a long way to restoring a little faith in humanity – even if I have precious little of that myself.

The key with this kind of gift, however, is creativity. You see, I only do these kinds of things for people who would never let me if I asked. So often, this involves getting others close to these people involved. But if it’s possible to do these things totally anonymously, those are my favorite gift giving opportunities of all. Because the most important element of any gift isn’t being thanked for it; it’s making someone else’s life just a little bit better. And that tends to be infectious. And that’s why I don’t police this spending category too much.

Happy Friday – Don’t Forget to Savor Life!

The pit at The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas

Another week is almost behind us! Over the last few years, I’ve decided that one of the best ways to determine whether you’re living a life of significance is to pay attention to that. Do your days drag on in the seemingly endless pursuit of weekends that seem to melt through your fingers almost as soon as they arrive? Or do the weeks fly by to the point where you often forget what day it even is? Living in the latter category has been very satisfying for me while the former was often terrible.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about my will lately – or rather, my current lack of one. In addition to distributing my assets when I die, it will need to unwind my business activities in a way that is as minimally disruptive to my business partners as possible. I really need to get on this. But this same line of thinking also leads me somewhere else. Somewhere most finance blogs never quite seem to reach.

Saving and investing is all well and good, but what happens if I die before I’m ever able to enjoy the fruits of any of that? Other people have their own aspirations in life and while they may be happy to inherit my money, it’s also quite possible that it may be disruptive to them in the long run. After all, I firmly believe that struggle is what leads to personal growth of all kinds. Money typically reduces the degree of struggle in life and I would much rather help facilitate growth than stunt it. I have a lot of figuring out to do in this area. But it is far from a foregone conclusion that my money will do more good for people who didn’t earn it than it could for me while I’m alive.

The people in life matter to me more than anything. This is why I went to Austin this weekend to visit a friend who was there for a conference. We go back about a decade at this point and it’s always a thrill to see him. My career has taken me all over the United States since I met him, while his has taken him all over the world. It’s a wonderful thing to bring all of our experiences together against the backdrop of reminiscing about the past, and usually in some novel new place.

This time, we had just enough time to get to an old favorite –  The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas – to enjoy some of the best bbq on our planet along with the restaurant’s BYOB policy. If you’re ever in the Austin area, I highly recommend you pick up a six pack or three and give it a try. It’s a three to five hour undertaking once wait time is considered, but that’s why you need to do it with good friends. You drink in both the beer and some good company in their covered outside area while you wait for your buzzer to go off, then go inside to enjoy some incredible bbq when it does. It’s not a terribly cheap date, although the BYOB policy balances things out a little since alcohol is usually marked up quite high at restaurants.

Is it economical to drive 150+ one way miles to see a friend for an afternoon and then back in the same day? No, not particularly. But life is about so much more than being economical. I’ll remember this particular afternoon fondly for some time to come – maybe years. And that is worth so much more than the money it cost me. So why am I writing this post? I just want to remind the people like me, who may be a little too careful for their own good at times, that you can’t take it with you. Don’t forget to drink in the moments along the way. Most of the time, you can accomplish that without spending much money. But don’t pass up truly special opportunities just because you can’t.

Have a great weekend, ya’ll!

If You’re Feeling Humbled, You’re on a Positive Path

This picture humbles me in two ways; it reminds me of both my insignificance relative to the total universe and of my rudimentary photography skills – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

I’m pretty sick of the superhero trend in Hollywood. But over the last decade or so, one particular franchise was the exception to that. Ok, two if you count Deadpool; but I would argue that those movies offer much more than just another superhero series. Anyway, when I saw The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, I went in expecting a crescendo from a trilogy that had started off strong with Batman Begins, and then taken a giant leap forward from there with The Dark Knight. Sadly, I came away bitterly disappointed. However, while there is no denying that the movie was a step backwards from the Dark Knight, and possibly from Batman Begins as well, a subsequent viewing convinced me that my initial expectations for it had been unreasonable and left me feeling that it was a much worse movie than it actually was. Today I believe it was an overall solid movie with moderate plot problems that relied excessively on Michael Bay-esque large scale destruction in a flailing effort to emerge from the giant shadow its predecessor cast over it. And also, that it has more to say than I had given it credit for at first.

Early in the movie, as he squares off with Batman for the first time, Bane tells Batman that “Peace has cost you your strength; victory has defeated you.” He then proceeds to toy with his clearly overmatched opponent until he gets bored and finishes the fight, pounding Batman until his mask literally breaks and finally, lifting him over his head and cracking him over his knee. Unrealistic? Yes. Brutal, visceral entertainment that culminates with shuddering on the part of any audience member who has ever dealt with back pain? Also yes. But the red meat of the fight is in Bane’s quote. It would appear that life has been pretty comfortable for the caped crusader since the events of The Dark Knight. But that comfort costs him the ass kicking of a lifetime at the hands of Bane.

Fast forward to the near the end of the movie – before the plot REALLY falls apart – to Batman’s second fight with Bane. This time, the preparation has been anything but comfortable; in fact, it nearly broke him. But as a result, he has come back much stronger than he was at the beginning of the movie. Admittedly, he gets a little lucky in this fight when Bane’s mask, which appears to be necessary for him to breathe, breaks. One does wonder how that never happened in the first fight, given that Batman landed several uncontested punches to Bane’s face in that one as well. But Hollywood magic aside, Batman soundly defeats Bane in their rematch, if not quite as dramatically as Bane won the first fight. This is not an uncommon lesson in stories, but I chose this as an example because I love the way Bane articulated it.

Life has a way of putting us in uncomfortable situations. But with the proper mindset and work ethic, we can turn these difficult circumstances into gifts for our future selves. Growing up, I mostly lived with scarce resources. This discomfort led me to learn everything I could about money so I would never have to face those conditions again and today, it looks very unlikely that I ever will. Fast forward to my MMA training. Early on, I distinctly remember having my ass handed to me many times by smaller, physically weaker men who had gone through countless hours of hell learning their techniques. Going through that myself made me a much more capable fighter – both physically and mentally. Later in life, I lost my wife in an excruciating manner. I have heard plenty of people say that a divorce is significantly more difficult to get through than the death of a spouse and while I acknowledge I have only experienced the former, I would still tend to believe that is true. It was a severe, complicated form of pain and it went on for the better part of a year. But that terrible sequence of events motivated me to reevaluate everything about my life and change most of it, and I am now immeasurably better off for having gone through it.

But when life isn’t putting us on our asses, sometimes that can be more problematic. Just like Batman, if we aren’t challenged, we atrophy. Recently I was reminded of this when I began the process of learning to fly. I challenge myself as often as possible whether it be in the gym, in doing a very difficult job, in learning how to run my side business on the fly, in reading about new things daily, practicing Spanish and German, etc. But I have been working on most of those things for a long time now and while I’m certainly not an expert in any of them, I’m far from that day one ass kicking experience in all of them. I may be improving, but nothing is forcing me outside of my comfort zone. But being handed the controls to a small airplane fixed that. Within seconds, it became very obvious to me that I knew absolutely nothing in that context. It was a feeling I hadn’t experienced for a while.

Part of being older and wiser is being excited and thankful for that feeling and that is how I feel now. There is a profound happiness in admitting your beginner status because it means you’re in the best position to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Life puts us there fairly often, but I don’t think that’s quite enough. I believe we should continuously be actively looking for opportunities to be humbled. If something is too easy, then it simply isn’t enough of a challenge to facilitate the dramatic growth we should be seeking out each and every day. So today, I encourage each and every one of you to go find something that will knock you on your ass. Then, work at it. Stick with it and get better. I believe that is the best way to grow.

How Much I Spend on Gas and Some Ways to Spend Less

Even in the land of gas guzzling, we still have different degrees. Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

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, you can check it out here. I’ve been going into detail on one category each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $2800 on gas. This is largely because I drive a ton for work and for my other business activities. However, if I drove a typical number of miles in a year, I believe I could reasonably cut this expense down to about $1200. Are you spending more than that? Here are some ways you can improve the situation, form most effective to least.

1. Drive a fuel efficient vehicle.

Yes, this one is pretty obvious. But it’s the biggest reason most people overspend on gas. How many pickup truck owners do you know who do almost nothing but drive to work in them? How many SUV owners do you know who rarely have more than one or two passengers? These people are spending a fortune owning these vehicles – in many more ways than simply filling their gas tanks. I’ve been without my truck for almost two years now and guess what? I’ve managed to find ways to get by without it in most cases and when that hasn’t been possible, well, that’s why Uhaul and their ilk exist. Even some home improvement stores have trucks available to rent now. Renting a truck even ten times a year is much, much cheaper than owning one. So my advice is to think long and hard about why you’re driving what you are and whether you really need a vehicle that size. If you can’t get at least 30mpg on the highway and there isn’t a very good, consistent reason for it, you’re wasting a lot of money. In my case, I get roughly 30mpg on AVERAGE and drive a car with just shy of 300hp. Automotive technology has come a long way and compromise isn’t nearly as painful as it was years ago.

2. Keep your driving miles down.

There are lots of ways to do this. Carpool, combine multiple trips into single ones with multiple stops, skip going to things you didn’t really want to do anyway, etc.

3. Maintain your vehicle appropriately.

There is a good chance a poorly maintained vehicle will get correspondingly poor gas mileage. This is one way that a fair portion of your maintenance costs will literally pay for themselves. And that’s not to mention the money you’ll save in depreciation since a car that’s maintained ages more gracefully and is worth more money. Here is a post I wrote about basic vehicle maintenance.

4. Drive gently. If you’re adventurous, try some hypermiling techniques.

I’m not going to go into the extreme stuff here, although you should know there are people who can get literally double the EPA rating out of some cars. You can improve your gas mileage quite a bit just by accelerating gently, maintaining a good following distance, minimizing brake use (which is strongly related to following distance), etc. Driving your car like you’re on an imaginary race track isn’t going to save you much time anyway since you will still have to deal with the same (often horribly timed) stoplights and idiots going the speed limit in the left lane that everyone else does. And besides, any time saved will get eaten up pretty quickly when some revenue generator asshole traffic cop lights you up or you get into an accident. Driving aggressively really isn’t worth it and it has a devastating effect on your gas mileage.  

5. Buy the cheapest gas you can find.

I wrote a post with some more tips about this recently so check it out here if you missed it. Gas is the ultimate commodity item and yes, provided you’re doing an apples to apples comparison in terms of octane rating, it’s the same no matter what station you buy it from. I can’t believe how many people swear by the opposite. If you don’t believe me, drive by your local distribution center (likely in the middle of nowhere) and check out how many different logos are on the sides of the tankers – which are all lined up to be loaded with the EXACT SAME GAS.

6. Use credit card rewards to your advantage.

There are multiple credit cards that pay 3% on gas. Additionally, “category cards” like Chase Freedom occasionally pay 5%. This is free money, people. But if you don’t want it, no problem. That’s just more for me.

7. Go to your furthest away destination first.

While you’re planning your multiple errand trip after reading point number two above, consider this. Cars run most efficiently when they’re fully warmed up and this takes some time, depending on your climate. This is why if you live in a place with hellish winters, your winter gas mileage is substantially worse than in the summer time; it takes cars longer to warm up. Anyway, if you drive to your first destination a few miles away, then a few more miles, then a few more, etc, and turn your car off each time, it may never get fully warmed up and you may be losing tons of gas mileage. Contrast this with driving twenty miles to the furthest destination, completely warming up your engine in the process, then making your way back towards home. You want to be driving the highest possible percentage of your miles with your car running as efficiently as possible. Another way to plan out your trips is to avoid rush hour like the plague. Stop and go driving is bad for both your gas mileage and your car’s longevity. Few of us live in a perfect world, but most of us still have some options available that can make a big difference with things like this.

8. Regardless of climate, DO NOT leave your car “warming up” in your driveway.

I don’t know what they were doing thirty years ago because I’m not that damn old. But I do know that today’s cars are designed to run right away and also that idling is bad for them and should be kept to a minimum. I know it gets inhumanely cold in some places – for example, Wisconsin. But if you punish your car for that by leaving it sitting idling, you’re going to take a ton of life out of it in the long term and waste a ton of gas in the short.

Happy Friday! An Update on My Situation

A view from the cockpit of the venerable Cessna 172 – a plane countless pilots have gotten their start in

Happy Friday, folks! As most of you probably know, employers often do their firing on Fridays. Recently, mine followed that same philosophy, firing over twenty percent of our sales force and some office employees as well. We all knew it was coming; or at least we should have. There were ample signals from management in both words and actions. And even if there hadn’t been, it’s common knowledge that revenue in most of our industry collapsed late last year and has not improved ever since and our “numbers” have reflected that. Simply put, it wasn’t if, but when. But here comes the plot twist. In spite of almost certainly having been “on the list” at one time, yours truly not only survived, but wasn’t the slightest bit concerned about whether he would. There are two reasons for this.

First, since being personally warned that attrition was coming, I’ve been able to produce literally the best numbers of my young career in spite of the state of the market. I’ve gone from somewhere in the lower middle of our division to one of the company’s top performers in the entire world. How did I do it? Sure, I started pushing myself a little harder. But mostly, I kept doing exactly the same thing. I had always been working diligently to develop my new territory – even when the results weren’t reflecting it. It takes about two years to do that successfully and my employer is well aware of that. Had management pulled the plug early, they would have been making an extraordinarily expensive mistake. But economic stress often forces companies to make decisions from a very short term perspective. Luckily for all involved, my territory has absolutely exploded with production over the last couple of months to the point where the mere notion of me being fired would be absurd. At this point, it’s all I can do to keep up with the business I have. If the market recovers even a little bit, look out.

But there is another, more important reason for my lack of trepidation over my job – I don’t need it anymore. The minute my boss broke the news to me, the wheels in my head were already turning. He did me a solid by giving me a warning. But nonetheless, before the conversation was even over, I had mapped out my plan. A key part of it was to replace employment income altogether in my life. I have always harbored a healthy hatred of authority; and alliteration aside, I don’t take that word choice lightly. After spending my life watching reliance on employers result in devastating consequences for so many people and finally having it threaten me as well, it was time to act. My real estate business was only in its early stages at the time. But no matter. I decided it would be paying all of my expenses by the end of the year and began ramping it up aggressively. And today, it appears that goal is going to be accomplished ahead of schedule. Admittedly, the fact that I keep my expenses low means that wasn’t as high a bar to clear as it may sound like. But still, success is sweet.

Make no mistake, I still want my employment income. I want to see my real estate business cover the bills and then some for at least a year or two before I take the plunge. So the plan is to kick ass in both areas for the time being and see where it takes me. However, to commemorate the occasion, I must admit I’ve adopted a rather expensive new hobby – flying. This is the first thing in my life I can think of that I’ve done without any plan or goal in mind, but instead, simply because I enjoy it. I am taking lessons and hope to have my private pilot’s license by around the end of this year. From there, we’ll see what happens. As long as I’m enjoying myself, I’m happy. But if I can’t keep an awful lot of money flowing in, I won’t be able to afford to fly as much. So that should keep me hungry for a while.

The moral of the story? Believe in yourself. If someone doubts you, be thankful. It’s just more fuel for your fire. If you know you have a good hand and someone bets against you, be happy. The size of your payday just increased. And if times get tough in your life, get excited. This rough patch may be exactly what you needed to convince you to take things to the next level. Happy Friday, folks! Have a wonderful weekend!

Some Ways to Make Driving Great Again!

Between the low double digit gas mileage and the tight quarters inside, this Ferrari may not be the best choice for a road trip

My job involves a lot of driving. How much? Over the last three years of doing it, I’ve put on well over 100k miles. So I know a thing or two about this stuff. Today I’m going to throw out some random tips that I use to make life on the road a little safer, more efficient, and generally better.

Take care of your vehicle and it will take care of you.

This is an easy one. I’ve written about basic maintenance before. Whether you do it yourself or you have it done at a shop you trust, make sure it gets done.

Drive gently.

I’ve read about hypermiling techniques that allow people to get some pretty insane gas mileage. A lot of it isn’t necessarily practical for every day driving but the most important concept is; drive gently. Accelerate gradually, maintain plenty of following distance, and avoid abrupt braking. Not only will you save gas, your car will last longer and you will be much less likely to get into an accident. This can easily save you thousands of dollars over the life of a car.

Google Maps is pretty awesome!

I don’t even use the in car GPS systems anymore because Google Maps is way better. In addition to basic navigation, it allows you to search for gas stations and see many of their prices on the fly. It doesn’t have prices for every station, but it at least gives you a good idea of what area you’re likely to find the best prices in. And for anyone who doesn’t know, no matter where you buy your gas, it is exactly the same stuff. I talk to oil industry people all the time and that has been confirmed time and time again. So this is a commodity item and that means price wins.

But my favorite Google Maps feature is definitely the speed trap notifications. It isn’t a perfect system, but it is more effective than a traditional radar/laser detector in my opinion for two reasons. One, the range is much better. You can see speed traps miles away on the map. Two, there are far fewer false positives – a huge problem with even the best detectors. But the system is only as good as the data it has so please, let’s all be good citizens and put the word out whenever a revenue generation agent police officer is spotted trying to ruin someone’s day. Disclaimer: I support police most of the time and believe they provide a valuable service. But in this particular area, I believe Google is providing a much more valuable service than they are. To report a speed trap, click the little plus button on the right side of the screen in Google Maps. We need as many people doing this as possible!

I tried an app called Upside and well, not everything works out.

The app supposedly pays a rebate whenever you buy gas. But you have to take a picture of your receipt every time and that’s a pain – even if the pump isn’t out of receipt paper, which is often the case. And in my experience, after the teaser rate on the first fill up, it was almost always one cent per gallon. Also, usually only the more expensive gas stations in the area were available on the app. A one cent per gallon rebate isn’t worth much if you’re paying ten cents more per gallon to begin with. There was also a restaurant option available that paid much better, but the selection was atrocious. I did, however, use that to buy enough chicken sandwiches at Burger King, which are surprisingly decent now, to get over the $10 cash out threshold and make the whole thing at least pay off a little.  

As usual, Costco rocks.

If you can get your gas there, you will likely save at least ten cents a gallon versus the next cheapest station in the area.

Speaking of gas, if you’re getting less than 3% back on it, you’re leaving money on the table.

Both the Wells Fargo Propel credit card and the Bank of America Cash Rewards card offer 3% back in this category. Occasionally the quarterly 5% cards like Chase Freedom will pay out on gas. There are probably several other cards that do at least this well, too.

AAA is a pretty worthwhile service if you drive long distances often.

Peace of mind is worth a lot when you’re in a strange place. If something happens, it’s nice to know you’re a phone call away from getting help and that in many cases, you won’t even have to pay for it. In a lot of places, especially in the more rural areas, the tow truck business is quite a racket. With AAA, even if you do end up having to pay, you will at least be dealing with one of the more reputable options in the area (or at least one that likely doesn’t want to risk losing its AAA business by pissing off customers) without having to do the research on your own.

If Discount Tire is available where you live, you’d be a fool not to buy your tires from them. And yes, I know that my favorite store sells tires. Even Costco isn’t the best at absolutely everything.

These guys have the tire business down to a science. They have great selection, the best prices, and great service. They check/correct your pressure whenever you want and free rotation is included with your tires. But the best part is their warranty. 99% of the time I am not a warranty advocate. But Discount Tire is an exception. For about twenty bucks a tire, they will repair or replace any tire you have any issue with during the warranty period. This is all fresh in my mind because on a recent trip to the oil country, it was so hot that one of my tires exploded as I was driving. Thankfully, I wasn’t far from the nearest town when it happened. I did have to wait a day for the specific tire I had to get there (to be fair, they did have another option available, but I didn’t want mismatched tires so I opted to wait), but given how far out in the middle of nowhere oil country is, that was actually impressive in my opinion. And rather than having to pay $200+ for a replacement tire (high performance, 18 inch, low profile tires are expensive anywhere you go; Discount Tire’s price is still easily the best), I only had to pay the twenty bucks to renew the warranty on the tire that was being replaced for free. With tire prices being what they are these days, and with roads being as bad as they are in many places, this warranty is a no brainer and has already paid off more than double for me with about half the life of the three remaining tires left to go.

Have a great Wednesday, folks! And be safe out there!