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Homeownership, 3 years in

August 2, 2017

Financially, home ownership has been mostly a win for us.  Despite our relatively large mortgage payments (compared to lower cost areas), it really is affordable for us, and we are even able to throw relatively large prepayments at it.  We can’t pay our house off in ~5 years or anything aspirational like that- but we don’t have trouble paying for a place to live.  Comparing to renting, it seems to be working in our favor in this relatively short time horizon.  We sometimes daydream about a  life where we cash out move somewhere significantly cheaper.  We could buy a good house in many places in the country, especially if we use the market price (minus selling costs).  Even if we use our appraised price (which is the purchase price + inflation), we are coming out well.  The prepayments will continue until we decide we have other priorities for the money – but I’m already happy with the reduction in the balance and reduced interest costs.

Owning a home is more of a hassle than renting, and I really am not the type of person who gets a lot of joy in “customizing” my home. Still, we’ve slowly make progress on home improvement and furnishing.

Projects in the last year:

We did a variety of somewhat major maintenance projects and tasks in the first two years. This year, we didn’t do anything major.

  • DIY patio drainage fixing (still not done!).  Total cost < $1,000, mostly for fill rock, sand, and hauling away of bad clay dirt.
  • More curtains / blinds: blackout cheap pulldown blinds to augment the more sheer bedroom curtains on hot days, light filtering blinds on two small living room windows.  I don’t have the cost in front of me, but likely < $400 or something.
  • Modest DIY attempts to tame the landscaping. We could use professional help, but are doing what we can until we are ready for that. For example, we probably need to pull out some overgrown front hedges and start over. Yet, I’m not ready to invest the money to do that.  I’m also not ready to invest energy to decide what we want,  then find someone to do it for us.  The cost of this is just time.
  • Pest inspection (for termites). They are a big problem here and it is best to monitor every several years to prevent issues.  This was $300, with only very minor DIY remediation needed.

I learned that we should not overestimate our DIY capabilities. T is really handy, but also really busy.  Undertaking a moderately sized patio project was probably not a good use of our limited free time.  By the time we realized this, we had put in too much “sunk work” to give up.  Also, T wasn’t really a good project manager, and I didn’t want to take over the project management.  The manual labor part was executed relatively well (although it was grueling and time consuming), but anything that requires more logistics (tool rental, hauling in rocks) would go weeks with no progress.  We tend to spend more time on our front deck, so the not-so-temporary loss of use of the patio hasn’t concerned me.   I’m pretty chill about the progress here… but it does need to get done.

Upcoming projects and maintenance tasks:

  • Bathroom retiling,  planned for the next few months. The scope of the project is not yet defined.
  • Repaint the exterior.  I’m not sure when this will happen and how much it will cost, but I think within the year.

New furnishings / appliances:

We save money by ignoring consumerist pressure to have an impeccably decorated home! The need for good/professional interior design could come into play if we start to feel like our house doesn’t meet our needs in terms of size. For now, there is no need. We accumulate things very slowly, both because we are picky AND because we are lazy shoppers. This it keeps overall home furnishing spending down.

  • We purchased a large evaporative cooler fan.  It is fantastic on the hottest days of summer, but it is a beast.  I had never heard of such things in the midwest, but the climate/humidity levels here make them a low-energy alternative to air conditioning.
  • We never did find that perfect kitchen table, but we found a good-enough inexpensive table from IKEA.  I’m happy to not have a bar height table anymore.  Someday we can search for a forever-table,

Things that are on my wish list:

  • Curtains for the slider doors. We plan to just go the IKEA route here, but haven’t done it yet.
  • I am dying to purchase a Roomba, but afraid of being disappointed.
  • More/better rugs (same as last year, no progress).  The one in our living room is blah and we still need a hallway runner and a rug in the spare room.
  • Entryway project (same as last year).  It is usable, but lots of room for improvement
  • Shading for the deck (same as last year). Umbrella or other.
  • Some sort of built in cabinet IKEA hack for our wine fridge.  Our old wine fridge died and we got a new/used one on Craigslist that is slightly wider.  Now there is not a good place for it.  This is mostly a pipe dream, but in theory it could be done.

 

June Updates

July 5, 2017

Life:

June was crazy busy, mostly in a good way. Of the 22 work days in the month, I was on vacation for 7, traveling off-site for 7, and actually at my desk for 8.  T had some travel too, although one was just a day trip to southern California, and the other fell on a weekend. This is a bit more on-the-go than I like to be, even if most of it was good.

The work travel was especially  nice this month. I’ve been to Colorado lots of times, but this was the first time my schedule and the weather cooperated into a nice post-work hike.  I was stunned me with the beauty, and couldn’t get over the green, the mountains, and the sky.

IMG_4419We did a little bit of dog sitting, and also dropped our dog with his dog friends while we went on vacation. As great as our vacation was, I think he had an even better time than we did!  Since we were gone 10 days, his time was split between 2 owners, and they even graciously took care of the hand-off. I’m so so grateful to know he is in good hands, and I am excited to return the favor as often as possible.

Then there was vacation!  It was really fantastic, and different than any recent vacation we’ve taken.  It is possible I’ll post more on it later, but looking at past data, I also may never mention it again. Spoiler alert – we went over my initial budget projection. This was primarily because I didn’t focus on keeping food / entertainment expenses within my estimates, and things were more than I anticipated.  It wasn’t a large concern to spend a little more.

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I’m a bit concerned about our bathroom project that hasn’t started at all. I have no idea where we start! Do we go pick out the tiles and flooring ourselves, then hire a tiler to install, or do we need a general contractor to help with the whole thing, or what?  What is the most efficient way to do this?  It is a somewhat minor remodel, with the hard part being replacing the entire stall shower.  At any rate, we need to get the planning & quotes done before T gets really busy with his academic year.  The actual execution can happen whenever, but we need a plan.  T has a pretty busy summer too, with a big deadline in July and some travel gain in August… And we still have some landscaping to finish up… and my schedule is unlikely to calm down too much.  Is it just me, or is this adulting stuff kind of hard?

Money:

Everything is going according to plan on this front – there is nothing exciting happening here.  I have money set aside in our home maintenance / repair fund for the aforementioned bathroom project, and I also have been sitting on a big mortgage prepayment until we have a good understanding of the scope. It’s also summer salary season, which completely fills all of our savings accounts.

Still, there are a a few places we could cut waste from our current budget without too much struggle. Maybe I’ll revisit this in July and see if there are any “easy” places to hang onto a bit more wealth.

Our net worth ticked up by just over 1% this month, continuing a good overall trend for the year.  I’ve gotten so use to this crazy good stock market that it is going to hurt a bit when there is an inventible dip.

Work:

I am feeling a lot better about this than I was a month ago. There is still underlying uncertainty about the long term prospects of my job, but I’m trying embrace it (or ignore it) and focus on the tasks at hand. T and I had some discussions about options and plans, and while we aren’t changing anything, it still really made me feel better. We are consciously choosing, together, to accept the uncertainty and do everything we can to make it work out. And if it doesn’t, we can handle the worst financial case and we can also figure out then whether we would make any adjustments.

My small project has been interesting lately!  It is my first time managing a person that needs quite a bit of hands-on management and direction. Most often, I’ve worked with incredibly talented experts in their field, and the only way to “manage” them on a project is to give them autonomy to be geniuses, then provide the resources and focus/direction needed to accomplish the goals, and make all the pieces come together. With someone bright and motivated but inexperienced, I need a better approach. It’s tough, because he’s juggling several different responsibilities and the scope of my authority doesn’t extend to everything he’s doing. In any case, it has been fun to grow this skill, although I feel al little bad for him having to deal with my learning! (The more technical parts of the project have been fun too!)

My main project is in a stressful stage, both because of the underlying uncertainty I mentioned above, and because some parts of it that are out of my control are getting off track. It is still a fun and unique project… but we are well beyond ideas and analysis and into execution and results. It is only going to get harder from here, but we’re all up for the challenges.

 

 

 

Romantic Consumerism and Travel

June 3, 2017

In the personal finance world, it’s common to prioritize spending money on experiences, and travel tops the list of splurges for many. This is something many young people, myself included, place a high value on.  Even with a frugal travel style, traveling to far off destinations is usually a significant and unnecessary expense.

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I never questioned my desire to experience different cultures, to try new things, and to broaden my horizons. But, why do so many of us believe that is valuable? It feels like a deep personal preference or even some sort of truth of humanity, but when you compare this ideal to historical values, it is clear that it is part of modern romantic culture. I’m reading this book, and these paragraphs reminded me how much culture shapes our preferences, even when they feel very personal.

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The most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries. […] Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed […]

Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many di􀊃erent experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide Spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different 􀊃cuisines; we must learn to appreciate di􀊃erent styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life’. […]

The tourism industry does not sell 􀉻flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences. Paris is not a city, nor India a country – they are both experiences, the consumption of which is supposed to widen our horizons, full our human potential, and make us happier. […] The trip is not a reaction of some independent desire, but rather of an ardent belief in the myths of romantic consumerism.

The book goes on to state how odd this belief would seem to an ancient Egyptian, who used their wealth and power to build pyramids. They would find it very odd to travel to a far flung land to see the culture. The book also points out most humans still build temples with their power and money, but the size, shape, and form of them vary between places and times.

Do you value travel? If so, what are some of the reasons it is important to you? If not, why not?

Job Insecurity

May 26, 2017

I’m having  somewhat sudden anxiety about job security.

It isn’t totally unfounded, but there isn’t a reason for it to crop up right now, nor any real actions I should be taking in terms of contingency planning. The logical side of me thinks it is mostly unfounded, but the emotional side of me is sort of freaking out.

While I only spent a year in consulting, I’ve always worked on project-based jobs within organizations. My projects tend to be big  (100+ people) and long (2-5 years), and you can generally see the timeline clearly and plan accordingly.  Within a larger organization, there is more buffer there is within the organization when your specific project ends since there are generally more projects. I’m  currently at a small organization.  Things could change in 6 – 12 months, but there isn’t any buffer at my organization right now (it is the opposite).  My project and even my role has a good timeline, but the nature of my specific role is somewhat less stable and dependent on some things I can’t control.

The most important thing for me to do is continue to add value, do good work, and ensure people like working with me. I am refraining from seeking assurance from my boss right now, because part of my job is to make his job easier. We have a pretty good working relationship, but it is not his job to deal with my anxiety. I’m sure there is a mutually beneficial and professional way to discuss future plans, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

I can also do some minor contingency planning to help me feel a bit more secure. I skim local job openings and convince myself I could come up with a plan B job if needed. It would be inappropriate to apply for a new job, because there is essentially no job that I would trade my current one for – even with the instability considered – as long as my current job exists. I don’t really have a “next step” in my career that I’m gunning for. I look at our income/budget/spending and note that we can handle it.  We may start keeping a bit more liquidity/cash instead of mortgage pre-payments (beyond our yearly goal) or extra retirement savings – but even this is probably not needed. We have created our own safety net, and have an appropriate amount of cash to be covered in a variety of scenarios.

What do you do when you worry about your job? Or do you not worry until it is a real issue?

2017 Travel Budget

April 25, 2017

We finally settled on our vacation plans for the year!  I was debating between doing an international vacation this summer or a road trip north through Oregon / N. California national parks and such.  We decided to pull the trigger on the Germany/France trip this summer, and I am so excited!  I’m having lots of fun planning the logistics, and will share more after we return.

Germany / France – $2,300:  

We decided to pull the trigger on the Germany/France trip this summer, and I am so excited!

We’re leaving on a Sunday (for a Monday arrival) and returning the following Tuesday.  We’ll be renting a car for most of the trip, and heading to the Alsace region of France from Germany.  Out-of-pocket costs are expected to be $2,300, which includes a (hopefully overly) generous budget for daily food/misc. spending.

  • Total:  $2,300
  • Flights: $115 (fees associated with booking)
  • Train/Taxi/Etc.:  $186
  • Car Rental, Fuel, and Parking:  $456
  • Lodging: $344
  • Food/Entertainment/Misc.:  $1270

Flights – We are buying the tickets on airline miles for me, and a flight combined with a work trip for T.  We are using some banked hotel points for a subset of the lodging.  Other than that we are using a mix of AirBNB and hotels.com.

Lodging – I’ve used AirBNB many times, but have mixed feelings about it. As a consumer, it often fits my needs and provides a better value than the traditional mid-priced hotel I’d otherwise choose. However, I don’t like the light touch AirBNB takes on cracking down on illegal use of the site, and I worry about how it impacts major tourist cities.  To balance this, I chose rentals of private rooms rather than entire apartments for this trip. To me, it seems like a more appropriate use and also allows us to meet a local host – and we don’t plan to cook or spend lots of time at the lodging.  On the other hand, I enjoy the privacy of a hotel, so the AirBNB nights are limited. The hotels booked with points are in really nice hotels, which is a fun treat that I wouldn’t splurge on if I had to pay with cash money.

Ground Transit – This will be our first car rental abroad, but it will give  us a lot of freedom and flexibility.  Since we are spending most of our time outside of the major cities, relying on public transit would be a hassle.  We are still taking advantage of trains for parts of the trip.  T was (rightfully) uncomfortable arriving jet lagged and immediately hopping into a car in a large foreign city, so we’ll take the train to our first stop, sleep the night, spend part of the day there, then rent the car. This is less efficient and adds some expense and time – but it beats the alternative. We’ll drop the car at our last stop (where T will stay for work for several days longer than me), and separately take the train to the departure airport.  This budget also includes transit to/from the airport in the US, which can add up.

Midwest Trip – $150:  

T’s parents rented a cabin at a lake for a week. I’ll visit for a weekend, and T will stay for the week (mostly because we don’t want to plan \ another long duration dog care).  We still had a bunch of Southwest miles from our long-distance marriage days (how did we ever manage that?!), so flights were booked with those. We may need a car for the weekend, but this should be a pretty inexpensive trip.

Camping / Hiking – $200:

We have a 2 night stay at a dog-friendly drivable cabin booked for late summer.  There has been murmurs of backpacking trips, but I don’t realistically think we can fit it in this summer. At least, I’m not going to plan it! If someone else does, I will try to sneak it in.

Midwest for Christmas – ???:

We’ll book tickets for this pretty soon.  Paying with cash, these tickets run $600+ each, so I’m hoping to use miles for at least one of the tickets.  I will replenish my miles balance a bit on my upcoming international work trip, then we’ll make the call on the best way to book these.  As long as the mileage “cost” doesn’t go up, we will be able to cover both.

Negotiating the internet bill (every single year)

April 23, 2017

I hate cable internet companies.

I’m talking about one in particular, but all I’ve ever worked with seem about the same. Of all the things I hate, I hate most that they offer “affordable” prices for 1 year “promotions”, then the price increases.  I recently noted a jump in our internet price, and went through the yearly ritual of calling and negotiating a better rate.  I dislike making phone calls and I don’t really like negotiating either. After a few days of trying to get my husband (who has similar phone dislikes) to do it for us, I gave in and called our internet company.

First, they make it hard to find out the pricing for new customers.  You have to enter your address, and if they detect you have an account already, they demand you sign in (so they can show you upgraded packages and not “new customer” teaser prices).  New customers are offered 25 Mbps for $50/mo – or even better, 10 Mbps for $30/mo.  After asking if I wanted to pay more for some higher data rate (who needs more than 25 Mbps??), they finally offered me the $50/mo promotional price.  I accepted (although I was not happy with the price) – but then the representative said they needed me to wait on the line to get tech. support help to make this happen.  I was unhappy with the price and unimpressed with the fact that it would take time to implement, so I just hung up.

Next, I signed into my online to my account again. I eventually found a website loophole that seemed to allow me to order the $50/mo internet myself without calling anyone on the phone.  I got part-way through the order process, but then had to choose between a $60 appointment for someone to “install” my internet, or a $15 for a self-install kit to be mailed to me.  (The webpage also told me I needed a new modem. I don’t.)  A “live chat” box popped up, so I asked if I could by-pass this step since I already had this exact service and don’t need any new setup. They told me no, and that the $15 self-install kit included a code that could not be e-mailed or texted “for my own security.”  I said that was ridiculous and left the chat.

At this point, I had been rude to two employees and still hadn’t gotten a reasonable rate. I feel a little bad about being rude, because it isn’t their fault and they probably are paid poorly and it must be a miserable job.  But what does the company expect?

I tried calling one last time, but this time I was smarter and got myself routed to the customer retention department.  I complained about my bill, and the representative again offered me upgraded packages.  “I don’t want more services, I just want it to be less expensive.”  She asks how I felt about my previous rate, then reinstates the $40/mo rate I was paying –  for another 1 year “promotional rate.”

I sort of won, but also sort of lost.  I’m still paying more than I was as a new customer, and I still wasted at least 30 minutes of my life cutting $20/mo from my internet bill. It still feels expensive. It still is more Mbps than I need.  I’ll still have to do it all over again next year.

This anti-consumer behavior is disgusting and infuriating. Why isn’t there real competition? (Not to mention they can now also sell all of my data to advertisers.)

Do you have to go through this pricing shenanigans every year too? If not, what is your secret?!? How much do you pay for high speed internet? Does anyone have an internet company that they actually enjoy doing business with?

March Wrap-up

April 11, 2017

We are over a 1/3 through April, and I’m finally jotting down my March progress!

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Mortgage prepayment / check fraud:  We mailed a $10k check in for mortgage pre-payment, but it never arrived at the servicer.  We cautiously assumed lost in mail and put a stop payment on the check and monitored the account.  There was eventually a fraudulent $60 charge at a grocery store in a nearby not-so-nice town.  Everything was reported and refunded, the account was closed, and there was no lasting damage – just frustration and time.  This was partly our fault for using an unsecured mailbox for checks, and we won’t be doing that any more.  In related news, we bought a new mailbox…

I finally sent in the new check this week, so that should take effect soon!

House: If the growth in value of our house was converted to  yearly salary, our home has out-earned me since we moved in.  Insert your own caveats about home equity being inaccessible and on paper only, sellers commission, the money we put into it, potential for a crash, estimate coming from unreliable internet assesments, etc.  Caveats aside, that a is still a pretty mind boggling computation.

Per my insistence, we haven’t started the shower re-tile / bathroom remodel and are sharing the other shower without any issues. No new projects until we’ve finished the ongoing project!  We did get a bunch of drainage rock put in our patio (meaning we had the rock delivered and hauled it by bucket to the back).  There is still a lot of work to go to finish this off, but much of the heavy labor is done. Maybe I’m optimistic. We are the slowest DIYers ever. The bathroom will not be a DIY project, for that reason!

Taxes:  We still haven’t done our taxes completely.

I’m annoyed at TurboTax and other tax software giants for lobbying against a more sane approach to taxes.  We have to fill out Schedule C for a single reimbursement from a government review panel, which bumps us into “small business” category.  I’m not quite brave enough to do the free fillable forms, particularly because we procrastinated so long and don’t have much time. Next year, I vow to use a free alternative to stop supporting this industry.  These tax software companies have their place, but their place shouldn’t be serving people with relatively simple tax situations for >$100.  I’m also annoyed that there is a difference in product and significant price difference between downloaded and online.  Why? Anyway, we’ll get a slight net refund this year between federal and state.  I didn’t do a terrible estimating taxes this year!

Travel:  I didn’t travel for work at all in March. We had our first dog sitting experience for one of Ollie’s dog friends, and it went really well!  This is related to travel because we now have two families to trade dog-sitting responsibilities with, and both have high energy nutty dogs like we do.

We still haven’t decided if we’re doing a Germany / France trip, or if T will attend his conference alone.  Other proposed summer holidays include a backpacking trip, a trip to the Midwest to visit his family at a lake cabin, a trip to a fire lookout tower near Mt. Shasta, and my family is considering visiting us in California. None of this is planned yet, except the fire lookout.

May is looking to be busy for travel, but work travel should slow down after that.

Net Worth / Savings:  The markets continue to go up, and I’m trying to brace for an inevitable correction.  I haven’t really seen a big correction since I was pretty early in my savings trajectory.  My 401k will be fully funded with my June paycheck, then I’ll focus on cash and mortgage pre-payments again.