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.

Happy Fantastic Friday (I Wanted to Up the Ante From Last Week)!

I was looking for a picture of destruction. I found this picture of hurricane damage. It will do. Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Holy cow are we in some suddenly dark days! I’m seeing some genuinely good people and businesses getting hurt and some being taken down altogether and it is all happening so quickly. And this, of course, only intensifies my problems. I’ve seen this recession coming on paper (or at least screens, the 2019 equivalent) for a couple of years now and while I may have made some early calls, I would much rather have been early than late. And more importantly, I believe we are now almost definitely in it. I see more real world signs of it every day and I hear similar reports from my contacts all over the country. If you haven’t started preparing yet, I strongly recommend doing so right now because you won’t get a better opportunity. Anyway, mercifully, another Friday is upon us and here are some random observations and anecdotes from the week.

Don’t Let Car Dealerships Take Advantage of You Because You’re Lazy

In spite of what I wrote above, I have been quietly watching the market for my next vehicle for a while. I’m not saying I will pull the trigger any time soon, but as I believe I’ve mentioned before, I typically watch the market for months before I so much as set foot on a dealer’s lot. I don’t just want to take the internet’s word for it; I want to know for a fact whether a price is good or not. Plus, I predict some amazing recession discounts on cars this time around. Plus, I enjoy the research. Yes, because I’m weird like that.

Anyway, I’ve noticed that these “no haggle” dealerships have gotten very popular. I’ve also noticed something else; their prices are absurdly high! I’m talking 10-15% higher than average in most cases! After doing a little googling and perusing some forum posts, I’ve confirmed that this is exactly what it appears to be – another example on the long and growing list of times American companies have had the balls to fairly openly exploit laziness for profit – and succeeded at it. Two quick notes on this.

One – and I know this doesn’t apply to all of them, but only some of the very most millennial-ly ones that may as well be throwing in a year’s supply of avocado toast with their overpriced cars – but any dealership that will not let you inspect a car in person first at a minimum, needs to be avoided at all costs. Cars, particularly used ones, are not commodity items. If you aren’t going to test drive one before you buy it, you deserve whatever you get. And if you’re not willing to spend a hundred bucks or so to have a qualified mechanic check a used car out, you’re taking an awfully huge risk. Sure, you may get lucky. But you could also wind up out thousands and thousands of dollars. And sure, some of these “dealerships” allow returns. But do you really want to stake that kind of money on these policies being honored? Better you than me if you do. But then, I’m just a car freak who has done extremely well with car purchases over the years. Not only have I had to do almost zero repairs beyond preventative maintenance, I have even pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of selling one car for a profit after driving it over a year and another for exactly what I paid after driving it for several months. But then, I don’t like to toot my own horn…

Two, these dealers literally believe they can overcharge people by thousands of dollars because the average person either doesn’t even have the courage to sit and talk to a salesman (or woman), or is too lazy to do so. Are you really willing to validate that theory for them? For the sake of all of us, I hope not. But based on the fact that some of these companies appear to be extraordinarily successful, it would appear the mob has already spoken. In any case, at the risk of sounding like your parents, do you want to get ripped off just because a million other people have been?

Aldi Now Accepts Credit Cards

This could be old news, I don’t know. I stopped going to these stores years ago because I didn’t like playing roulette with the possibility of getting stuck waiting in line for fifteen minutes because there was one employee in the entire store. Also because I don’t do business with anyone who doesn’t accept credit cards outside of incredibly rare, possibly life threatening circumstances. Anyway, I stopped in to an Aldi for the hell of it recently and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the company has joined the rest of the civilized world in accepting credit cards. Someone must have had a eureka moment and realized that not accepting by far the most popular payment method on earth to save a few nickels per order, which could easily be accounted for in the pricing of everything (again, like the rest of the civilized world does it), might not be quite the brilliant business tactic they had once thought it was. No, no sarcasm here at all. And by the way, speaking of spare change, I genuinely believe the quarter deposit thing they do with their carts is brilliant. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one freely roaming a parking lot en route to damaging someone’s several thousand dollar vehicle because someone else is a lazy, entitled asshole. My goodness, I’m in an interesting mood today. But I promise this is happy, if cynical. Remember, Friday.

Anyway, the line thing still happened. As it turned out, the only employee in the store was in the bathroom. There was a line about half the length of the building when he came out. I probably won’t repeat this experiment anytime soon. But if you’re looking for absolute bottom line grocery prices, this store may be worth a visit for you – especially now that you don’t lose out on 3% of the purchase price (it’s actually 5% until the end of June with Chase Freedom) because management doesn’t believe in pricing its products according to the costs of doing business with the vast majority of all possible customers. Seriously, charging credit card users extra is basically like installing pay toilets in the bathrooms since a few people may have a phobia of using public bathrooms or something. Or in the case of shady gas stations, who tend to discount their cash prices by several times anything approaching a possible credit card merchant rate, putting up a giant “IRS, please audit me!” sign outside one’s place of business. And not accepting them at all? Well, it’s their business, not mine. Yes, as old fashioned as I can be, I get incredibly irritated when people fail to adapt to the overwhelming convention of the times in this particular area. We are all hypocrites; the only difference is that some of us are at least willing to admit it. Anyway…

Time to Make a Dietary Change

Sugar is the devil. We all know it deep within our sad little souls and just in case we’re intentionally ignorant anyway, there are about forty million studies rightly screaming it. Recently, I finally accepted that I’m weaker than I need to be at standing up to its cocaine-esque charms. So I’m cutting it out. No, not all of it. We all have to find a balance that works for us in life. In this case, I need to be somewhere between excessive, gluttonous consumption at will, where I have been for much of my life, and eating only what I grow on my isolated, non GMO (if that is even possible given the selective breeding that has gone on with just about all crops for hundreds, if not thousands of years – but I digress), 100% organic farm in the middle of some God forsaken backwater town no one ever visited, let alone lived in, on purpose.

The logical choice seems simple. I’m not going to try to police every gram of sugar out of my life. Cutting out only the stuff that is primarily sugar (cookies, my beloved Nutella, my even more beloved Freddy’s chocolate custard concrete mixers with various mix ins, etc) will amount to a major improvement for me. I recall reading somewhere that habits take seven weeks to form so I’m going to do two months for good measure. I started on Tuesday so that means I’m going until July 28. I’m hoping that by then I won’t even want the stuff anymore. But we’ll see how it goes.

Happy Friday, Everyone! Have a wonderful weekend!

This Is How Much I Spend in a Year

My view of the famous Jerry Jones screen/dome from my trip to the 2017 Cotton Bowl, in which my Badgers narrowly defeated an over matched, but extremely motivated opponent with a bizarre team motto that was repeated almost nonstop by its fans – and yes, the expenses from this trip are included in the numbers below.

Words are all well and good. But without numbers, how much do they really mean? I’ve decided that in order to make this blog as valuable as possible for readers, I need to make it specific. As such, I’m going to give you a very intimate look at an important element of my personal finances. In particular, I’m going to show you what I spend on EVERYTHING. Obviously this is all specific to me, but to illustrate things more vividly, I’m going to go into detail on each of these “line items,” one post per week. Hopefully it will give some folks an idea or two on how to cut expenses without sacrificing anything that’s important to them.

Before I jump into the numbers, here is some basic information about me for context. I’m a male in my early thirties with no dependents (not even pets) and while I spend my share of time with certain young ladies, I live alone. The numbers below are average figures between what I spent in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, I lived in an upper middle class Milwaukee suburb with a relatively moderate cost of living. But for most of 2018, I lived in the Galleria area of Houston, which is pricier than almost anywhere in Wisconsin, but still very reasonable for a wealthy part of a major city.

I work as an outside sales rep in the commercial finance industry. That affects a couple of areas of my spending. First, since I expense around half a dozen restaurant meals most weeks, I don’t have much desire to eat at restaurants in my personal life and as a result, I spend almost nothing in that category. This also cuts down on my grocery spending somewhat, although I like to cook and spend fairly liberally on groceries for the meals I do buy. Second, in spite of my employer’s generous vacation policy, actually taking advantage of it would cost me much more in income than in any other way. Plus, I travel a lot for work, resulting in general travel fatigue, and I’m single. So this is just not an area I spend much in. However, I consider both restaurants and vacations luxury spending categories and thus, if one were trying to live as economically efficiently as possible, these numbers would still be very low.

As I said above, I’ll get more specific about what I do in each area in subsequent posts. But in general, my lifestyle (note, I said lifestyle, not spending; the difference between the two is the foundation of my financial success) is somewhere between middle class and upper middle class and I save over half my gross income. In other words, there is plenty of fat in my expenses since I pretty much do whatever makes me happy. No economic constraints limit my spending besides my desire to increase my net worth rapidly.

The first number in each category is what I actually spent; the second is about what I would spend if I needed to live as economically as reasonably possible. I will note that the most advantaged living situation is two productive people under one roof, assuming they can trust one another and are on the same page financially. When I lived with my ex-wife and we were working on paying off a mountain of student loans, we spent more than my bare bones total figure below but didn’t come anywhere close to doubling it (keep in mind the figure is for one person, not two). So it is definitely realistically achievable. If you are astute, you will notice that I’ve omitted one very large expense: taxes and fees. In the interest of keeping things at least somewhat private, I’ve decided to leave that exact figure out, at least for now. I’ll simply tell you it is less than the total of all my other expenses but not by much. Plus, there is only so much one can do to limit that number when the majority of your income is W2. I’ve been investing more of my time into improving that situation and if I find success, I may post about it at a later date. Anyway, here we go!

My Average Annual Expenses Between 2017 and 2018

  • Auto maintenance/repairs: 1300 (500)
  • Cash donations: 2100 (subjective)
  • Clothing: 700 (100)
  • Food – groceries: 1700 (1200)
  • Food – restaurants: 500 (0)
  • Fun: 2100 (300)
  • Gas: 2800 (1200)
  • Gifts: 1200 (200)
  • Household expenses: 700 (300)
  • Housing: 12,600 (6000-10,000)
  • Insurance: 3000 (2000)
  • Medical: 900 (0)
  • Memberships: 300 (300)
  • Other: 2400 (0)
  • Supplements: 100 (0)
  • Technology services: 500 (350)
  • Utilities: 1100 (600)
  • Vacation: 300 (0)
  • Vehicle depreciation: 2100 (500)

Total: 36,400 (13,550-17,550)

How did I arrive at these numbers? And why the range in the housing category for the minimalist budget? You’re just going to have to stay tuned to find out…

Why I’m Not Afraid of the Health Insurance Boogeyman

These probably won’t help…then again, you only live once! – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

I occasionally hang out with early retirement minded people. Some of them have already taken the plunge, some are thinking about it more and more as I am, and some are much earlier in their financial journeys but are intrigued by an alternative to the “work till you’re either dead or wish you were” program that has been the standard for far too long. Easily the most common question I hear being asked of the people who have already retired ten, twenty, or even thirty years before the traditional age, is “what about health insurance?”

And I admit that was one of my first questions as well. Most people I’ve met answer this question in one of a few disappointing ways. Some were able to negotiate some sort of arrangement with their final employers, some have a spouse that is still working, and many are structuring their incomes in such a way as to be eligible for subsidies on individual coverage under the Affordable Care Act. None of these is workable for me. My current employer will likely be neither willing, nor able, to make any deal with me, I don’t have a spouse who can keep working so I can “retire,” and I can’t stomach exploiting badly written legislation for personal gain – particularly not when I’m currently paying a substantial share of the associated bill.

After I recently learned of some significant challenges my current employer is facing, which threaten not just my job and those of many of my colleagues, but the company itself as a going concern, I’ve been thinking a lot about my options. I could find a similar job at another company. Since I started my latest job search, there have certainly been some encouraging signs that this will be a viable option – although nothing has come to fruition just yet. But aside from maintaining the status quo as an employee/entrepreneur hybrid, I’ve been looking at other, more adventurous options. One common thread among many of them would be stepping out from under the umbrella of having an employer at all. And this has brought the health insurance question back to the forefront.

But as I’ve begun to explore the issue, I’ve actually been very pleasantly surprised by what I’ve learned. It turns out individual health insurance is both fairly straightforward and less expensive than I had anticipated. I acknowledge that things would likely be different if I had dependents. But at roughly $15k per child, per year, for as long as one is willing to keep the financial umbilical cord intact, having children is one of the most expensive financial decisions a person can make. That is one of several reasons I’ve personally opted out.

Anyway, I searched around and Blue Cross Blue Shield appears to be king of individual health insurance in my neck of the woods. By simply entering my birth date, non-smoker status, and zip code, I was presented with a menu of options ranging from the most minimalist plan at roughly $320 per month to something approaching the top of the line plan I have now at nearly $700. I didn’t see an annual payment option but if one is offered with a decent discount, it would amount to an awesome churning opportunity. One nice thing that I believe came out of the ACA is that it appears all plans now cover the one annual preventative appointment we should all be going to. Of course, that is priced into the premiums. But I digress. Beyond that, as a relatively healthy young adult, I’m almost certain to spend somewhere in the $0-1500 range per year on health care expenses, meaning paying an extra $400 a month for a high end plan that would cover most of that doesn’t make sense. I will note that there are subsidies offered for people with surprisingly high income limits. Sadly, I’m in the group that pays handsomely for those subsidies to be offered, and don’t anticipate that changing, so I’m paying full freight for my own coverage no matter what. But your results may be different – particularly if you have kids. And as the birth rate continues to decline, it is very likely that we will all see the government using more mechanisms like this to force people like me to subsidize your procreation efforts. For what it’s worth, that will likely offset at least a portion of the additional costs you would face in areas like this.

Ultimately, my choice would be a plan that costs $332 per month because it is the cheapest HSA eligible option. With a deductible of $6k, an out of pocket limit of $6650, and no prescription coverage until the deductible is met, I would almost definitely be paying all of my costs beyond the annual preventative appointment. In most cases, I would probably not even use the insurance, instead opting to negotiate directly with doctors since my insurance would effectively cover nothing anyway. I’ve heard there is often significant room on the pricing if you aren’t forcing the provider to deal with an insurance company.

But this is where it becomes important to calculate things out for yourself. If you tend to spend a lot in health care costs, it may make sense for you to go with a plan with higher premiums but more coverage. One thing to consider is that it’s not necessarily the end of the world if a plan doesn’t offer prescription coverage (it can’t if it is HSA eligible). Thanks to a wonderful website called Good RX, anyone can pay much less than retail prices for prescriptions whether or not they have insurance. Don’t ask me what kind of sorcery makes it possible, but this can be an absolute godsend if you don’t have prescription coverage and yes, I did use it back when I worked for an employer that offered a very minimalist coverage option.

I’ve mentioned “HSA eligible” twice now. Why? HSA stands for health savings account and it’s a hidden financial gem. Unlike an FSA, which is garbage unless you have health care costs you can forecast very reliably, an HSA is a tax advantaged account that can be built into quite an asset. To put it simply, it is a miniature Roth IRA for health related expenses only. This year, an individual can contribute $3500 into one. The money can be invested in whatever you want, provided you’ve chosen a good provider, and as long as you don’t spend it, it will grow tax free just like a Roth IRA. It does ultimately have to be spent on health care expenses, but given the state of the industry, I don’t believe any of us will have too much trouble accomplishing that. In fact, remember that quarter million dollars the media is always screaming about you having to pay for your health care expenses during your traditional retirement years? Well, if you contribute the max to a Roth IRA for twenty or thirty years and don’t use any until you retire, that is more or less covered – without dipping into your other assets. As usual, a little knowledge can go a long way towards putting out the fires of mainstream ignorance. The important thing to keep in mind with HSAs is that only certain more minimalist health insurance plans are eligible for them. If you have a lot of health care expenses now, you may be better off with a “Cadillac” plan paired with an FSA. No one can tell you definitively without specific information; I recommend that you run your specific numbers yourself to figure it out.

But in my case, a disaster only health insurance plan and an HSA are a home run combination. The only problem is that pesky “Cadillac” plan I have now. But given that I’m kicking in well under $100 a month for it, and that’s tax deductible by the way, it’s obviously the best option available to me as long as I’m with my current employer. However, once that relationship runs its course, likely by the end of this year, it’s nice to know I will have some great options available to me and that they won’t be nearly the financial disaster the media would have folks believing they are.