I already saved $2 today… have you?

Good morning!  I bring you this post from work.  (Shush, don’t tell anyone!  Actually I have half the day off due to our flex work schedule.  So I will start the clock in a few minutes.)

Yes, I already saved $2 today, and it wasn’t from skipping the fancy latte, because I already do that anyway.  (If you must know, I drank homemade iced espresso which I brewed last night.)  No, I saved $2 today by biking to work.

It is August once again, which seems to be the time of year when I am most juiced up about biking.  This year, however, I went ahead and bought myself a pretty snazzy bike.  And I love it.  I fly on it, and feel infallible.  It is worth all $470.  It is amazing how the right equipment will take you from struggling and trying to maintain interest in something to dominating and feeling kinda legit.

So far I have only taken my new ride, which I have named She-Ra, on leisure rides.  And while weekend fun is priceless, I thought She-Ra and I could go on some healthful, cost-saving adventures.

Some time ago (when gas prices were probably similar to now – I have not seen them budge significantly in ages) I estimated that my car costs $0.15/mile in gas.  My driving commute to work is 6.5 miles, so it costs me $1.95 per day to drive to work.  Bam!  $2 saved.  

What about wear and tear though?  I am glad you asked.  Because summertime seems to be when every possible road is under construction.  So the bumps, combined with extra road-rage-induced traffic, result in unacceptable wear and tear in my opinion.  There are two logical driving paths to work: a) the winding, quiet neighborhood streets and b) the more direct thoroughfare full of lights and cars.  By default I always choose A.  But summer road work led to cops directing you while you wait and watch caterpillars moving earth around.  That is a bit too much for me.  So around July I switched to route B, which as it turns out is being resurfaced.  Read: exposed manhole covers and other protrusions waiting for you to drop your car all over them.  No thank you.

By comparison, there are actually delightful biking routes that are neither available to nor practical for cars.  Today I rode 3.5 miles down the bike bath, then cut through the neighborhoods, and arrived at work after 8 miles and 40 minutes riding.  300 calories burned rather than $2 of gas.

So with respect to offsetting the cost of the bike, I guess I would need to commute to work 234 more times in order for She-Ra to completely earn her way.  But I think the benefits of joy, fitness, mental health, and giving Subie a rest make up the difference :)

Another good reason to swipe less

wpid-20140729_061949.jpg

My bank recently deactivated my debit card and issued a new one (including new 16-digit #) because I may have been involved in a questionable transaction.

I assume the bank means well. There would be no other reason to do something so disruptive.  It seems a little extreme though.  Or, to put it another way, it is a sad state of affairs in which there’s so much identity theft that we go cut up our cards even when there is a chance a theft happened – and despite how much there is, the bank does not seem to know if it has happened or not.  It’s a frightening world out there, or at the very least, a headache.

This reminds me of an old Seinfeld stand-up bit where he says the bank tried to talk him into some investment to make his money “work for you.”  And he goes “I think my money has worked enough already” and goes on about how the money made its way through the world to him, and shouldn’t have to have a job now.  Same way I am feeling about my debit card.  Every time I take it out of the wallet and send it out into the world, there is a real risk involved.  Maybe I should give my card more of a break.

If you wrote down all the times you make a credit card transaction in a week, taking into consideration the possibility of surveillance and fraud, it would be sobering.  I guess that is also why neither of my parents have ever been keen on using debit cards too much.  My dad operated entirely on cash withdrawn from the bank once in a while, and wrote checks for his bills.  And he was a corporate leader, well versed in modern technologies both industry and consumer.  He chose to conduct his finances offline, something worth considering.

I don’t mean to be all “money in a shoe box under the bed” but the many other results of debit card usage can be annoying when you get to thinking about them.  You are tracked by your purchases; your expenditures and location become data points that can be shared and bought.  And then you can be electronically robbed.  A gas station owner tried to rob me once via wrong amount of money charged to my debit card ($65.20 rather than $6.52).  I had to chase that down in an investigation with my bank.

So unfortunately, more swipes more problems.  This is just another thing I try to minimize in my minimalist lifestyle.  I have noticed that weekly grocery shopping over eating out daily, filling up the gas tank once from empty (rather than filling halfway and always looking for better rates), and staying out of the coffee shop altogether minimize debit transactions and opportunities for all these problems.  Do you make any effort to limit plastic transactions, or am I being paranoid?

Ms. Goodies Gets Schooled in Real Estate

For anyone interested in real estate investment income, my lessons learned should be of interest.  The price is right anyway!

I’ve been looking at multi-unit rental income properties with my real estate agent, who owns multiple properties herself and therefore seems very savvy.  She has given me the following tips, which help you narrow down from broad to specific.

  1. Buy in good school districts.  Yeah, you generally hear that.  But in buying big multi-unit places, you get tempted to look for the cheapest deal possible or in a town near you for convenience.  But these things really do not matter if they are not in a school district, because you will have a hard time finding reliable, long-term tenants (like education-minded parents) to keep your units rented.
  2. Buy 3-4 unit places rather than 2-units.  Five or more units is considered commercial real estate and has all different (and more restrictive and expensive) lending and insurance rules.  But in the up-to-4 unit world, you want to be at the upper end, even as a newbie.  Basic investment diversification: if you own a 2-unit place and one tenant bails, you’ll probably be dropping money just to make the bills.  With a 4-unit in that scenario, you will at least not be in the red probably.  “Enough units and low enough costs that you could keep one unit empty at all times” is the way my agent likes to put it.  And the thought of one always-available unit seems useful in other ways…
  3. Kids, kids, kids.  More emphasis on kids.  Which makes sense, because the root of all the advice is to try to rent to stable families.  Don’t buy units with just a stall shower (bad for babies).  Any place on a busy street or situated close to the street needs ample/boundaried backyard for a safe place for kids to play.  House can’t be in front of a gun dealer, no matter how low-profile.  You know the problems when you see them, and these are the ones we have seen so far.

So I keep these things in mind.  This weekend we went to see a property I was very excited about, which seemed to meet all these criteria.  A 4-unit place in a famous local school district; situated on an acre but right in the cute, historic center of town.  They are asking $360K, which seems reasonable compared to all the multi-units around.  And the house is in great shape and has long-term tenants in place.  But it kind of fell apart as we looked…

  1. There is just one heating system, and the owner pays heating.  The owner said they just charge the tenants $100/month more than they would otherwise, to offset.  But the oil heater also requires 2x/year maintenance, which sounds annoying and expensive.  The owner and my agent agreed that splitting out the heating with propane would cost about $25K.
  2. Sewerage betterment.  Apparently when old towns decide to improve the sewerage system, they charge each associated house proportionately.  And they charge multi-unit properties per unit.  So this house got hit with a $58K amortized bill, which still has about $30K debt.  This would be transferred to the new owner, so in effect these owners are asking $390K for this house rather than $360.
  3. The current owners are only making $150/month over the bills(!!!)  Much less than I would have guessed.  I have yet to look into the bills they are disclosing, and determine whether they tacked on any improvements onto their mortgage.  My agent did some quick math and determined that at the asking price price, with the current rent values and mortgage interest rates (but without sewer bill), I would make about $600/month over the bills.  But that is still not enough cushion in my opinion to cover inevitable maintenance costs for 4 units.

Before I heard about the $30K sewerage bill, I considered making an offer of $335K, citing that I would need to update and split out the heating.  But given the current owners’ margins, I have no appetite for inheriting the plumbing bill.  They would need to pay it off, which I doubt they would agree to.

Well, that’s a shame.  Back to the drawing board.

The Chiropractic Experiment

After a long time of pretty bare bones frugality, I am going to try to honestly document an experiment in what some might consider a highly extravagant luxury: comprehensive, ongoing chiropractic care.  At the same time, this will be a journey in discovering how my new Health Savings Account (HSA) “defined contribution” type insurance plan works.  I have not figured out yet whether the plan officially considers chiropractic care to be part of its covered preventative services.  So here we go.

Some background: I just feel lousy lately.  I have had a series of cumulative pains and troubles that have restricted and impaired my life lately.  First, starting a few months ago I started feeling all-over achy and weak when it would come time to go running; I would cut off jogs at 3 miles rather than hit 4 or 5 like I used to.  Then about a month ago, I started having pretty intense neck pain and stiffness, which has resulted in compromised driving posture and sub-par soccer performance.  More recently, I find I have no extra energy at the end of the work day and must immediately take a small catnap before doing anything else.  I don’t even make it out to run on most days.  Obviously this is getting worse and has to stop.

The other effect is that the chronic pain and fatigue have made me cranky at work and distracted with friends.  These are also deal-breaking behaviors.  I can’t afford to be cranky at work – being cheerful is one of my best workplace qualities, and a real differentiator at an engineering firm!

And I already tried to address my problems in simpler ways.  I offloaded some of my tasks at work to de-stress, got more sleep, drank more water, and even went for a back massage.  But none of this has helped.

So I had my first visit at a holistic health-type chiropractor today.  The consultation cost $45.  The doctor noted that health insurance companies do not usually cover the consultation.  So I guess $45 isn’t so bad for the full price of an up-front consult?

Apparently my back is in such poor shape that the doctor offered an adjustment today, in advance of reviewing my file with me (which happens at the 2nd visit and is usually the pre-cursor to chiropractic adjustment).  So I happily went for the adjustment, which cost $45 as well.  Huh?  That seemed a little extreme.  But the level of pain I feel in my body lately cannot be over-emphasized.  I was glad just for the opportunity.

So I dropped $90 today, and have not yet looked into whether my insurance covers this.  Since I have an HSA, it is basically some cash provided by my company along with some more cash I contributed, which can be accessed with an HSA credit card to pay medical bills.  I just used my personal debit card today. I am not sure this service is covered anyway, though in theory you should use the money in the account for services (whether covered or not) to help get you to the deductible amount.

Going forward, I am not sure how much these visits cost when covered by insurance – whether $45 is reduced to some other value.  But worst case scenario is that it costs the full $45 for every visit, and the doctor’s office suggests that I return once a week for the next few months.  That would come to $180/month.  It’s almost as much as I spend on food per month, but I suppose I would pay that for a few months in exchange for pain relief.

While this may be a “rip-off” I think results would be worth it.  What do you think?  What is the absence of pain worth?

Employer-sponsored health insurance: going the way of the perm?

 

Anybody spending any time getting upset about the implications of the Hobby Lobby ruling is getting it all wrong.  Employer-sponsored health insurance probably won’t be around much longer.

This isn’t even one of my zany theories.  I just started Googling “employer sponsored health insurance” to learn more about it, and many of the results for that benign search term were about how Obamacare spells the end of employer-sponsored health insurance.  The articles imply that crushing employer insurance was not one of the goals of the ACA, but the reality is that all the new rules place an untenable financial burden on employers.

It makes sense.  Employer-sponsored insurance was already kludgy as hell prior to the Hobby Lobby determination.  And the Hobby Lobby case just underscores how antiquated and ill-fitting this system is now.

Employer insurance started largely during WWII as a fringe benefit to counteract wage freezes, buoyed by a tax advantage for employers enacted around that time.  It peaked in the 60s and 70s, an expansionary time in US history for both socialized services and medical patronage.  A hundred years ago, people went several years without seeing a doctor; now health services and products are a large part of our lives.

The scale has tipped, and at this point insurance plans are expected to subsidize a slew of what might arguably be only somewhat medical items and services, such as face lifts, mood elevators, and Viagra.  Which I understand is expensive for the insurer (not to mention the insured).  I read in one of these articles that employer insurance coverage and participation both decreased through the ’90s and ’00s – marking the beginning of a period of natural contraction in this “semi-socialized” type of insurance.

So this is just my observation, but it seems like just prior to ACA, our relationship to health insurance was like that classic rock song “Stuck in the Middle with You” (or more specifically, the Hanes commercial with all the thongs on the laundry line set to this song).  A giant proverbial wedgie.  We all want health insurance, and everyone seems to know that private insurance is way too expensive.  So you need your job to provide cheap group insurance.  But as long as there is some coverage, it probably does not impact your decision on where to work.  And then inevitably you are dissatisfied with it.

At the same time, it sounds like employers have been coming to resent insurance for the non-value-added cost that it is.  They could never get rid of it altogether, but they could chip away at it and prospective employees wouldn’t know until it’s too late.  The insurance at one of my jobs did not even cover annual Well Woman exam.  What’s up with that?  But I continued to work there and just paid for these services.  Then at my current job the insurance seems a little too expensive.  But I just pay for it.  In neither of these cases was I going to leave my job over it.

So there has been a tension, at least in the plans I have seen.  Your company usually only offers 2-3 plans tops, so you really don’t have much of a choice. And your company had latitude to change up the whole insurance arrangement without any employee buy-in, as illustrated so brilliantly in the Dwight clip above.  The Office really nailed it on that one.

Enter ACA.  Obamacare was ostensibly supposed to make everything better and more comprehensive, but what it did is push a teetering system to the brink.  Employers did not like paying for the optional insurance plans before, and now they are legally required to provide bigger plans than they ever had.  I don’t think corporations will have much of a chance to engage in ethical medical conflicts.  The added costs of the ACA laws will compel employers to push the costs onto the employees through the back end, or consider taking the fee instead of continuing to cover employees.

I would be more worried about what happens next.  It would be nice to think that we might all enter the private market, and a competitive environment would develop in an attempt to earn all of our business.  But the insurance industry is far too regulated to welcome competitors and a free market.  And the same Federal Government that expanded its powers enough to enact a national health tax could also take over the administration of the system that redistributes the tax money.  Especially now that the group insurance environment is sufficiently distasteful that employers might voluntarily exit the market.

DC wants to help with your loans: What are you gonna do about it?

Last week was a big week for student loans, but I was too busy to hear much about it.  Barack Obama was doing something; Elizabeth Warren was doing something.  Being a Massachusetts resident, I am familiar with Elizabeth Warren’s student loan cause.  But I was surprised this topic came up twice.

Say what you will, I think this Wall Street Journal summary was amusing:

Student debt in the U.S. now tops $1.2 trillion, spread among 37 million borrowers, 5.4 million of whom have already defaulted. Washington took notice this week, rolling out the usual non-solutions: On Monday, President Obama expanded a federal program that allows students to repay debt based on what they earn, eventually forgiving the balance. Taxpayers pay the rest. On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s idea to tax millionaires to pay for broad student-loan refinancing stalled in the Senate.

Well here is my unsolicited opinion about those plans:

Pay As You Earn

This is the program that Obama is expanding to include older borrowers who took out loans prior to 2007, which he estimates to be about 5 million potential applicants.  Problem is that only 1.6 million are enrolled now, due to poor word of mouth and loan servicer resistance.  So 5 million more might be a little optimistic.

Here’s my more fundamental problem with this plan: you reduce your payments to 10% of your discretionary income (however they figure that out), and you go along like that for 20 years until your remaining balance is forgiven.  20 years.  Since interest is piling up on the back end, it would probably never make sense to try to pay off the debt even if you are older and earning more.  You’d just be paying off mountains of interest you allowed to accrue.  So this plan turns your schooling costs into an additional 10% income tax that follows you around for the better portion of your working years.  And as depressing as that sounds, the inevitable balance of interest that is due to the Federal Government becomes the tax payers’ problem.

So let’s see: the Federal Government provides the student loans with some sort of tax-related income, and came up with a plan to allow borrowers to not pay the full amount back.  The tax payers make up the difference – but wait, didn’t the original seed money come from the tax payers?  This doesn’t seem like a good investment…

Warren Plan: Take from the “rich” to give to the poor

I give Elizabeth Warren an A+ for compassion for students, but she has this bizarre fixation on punishing the rich.  For me it is just a turn-off.  Moreover: her oversimplified logic about wealth re-distribution begs for critique.  Of course, you could do many amazing humanitarian things with the Kardashians’ fortune.  But their fortune is not up to us, is it?  Nor should it be.  This is America, where our wealth is supposed to be protected… no matter how brazenly acquired or spent.

Her plan is to lower student loan interest rates with money she found from a handy loophole that she can close in the tax law for rich tax payers.  (In engineering, looking to other peoples’ areas for cost-cutting so that you can fund something of your own is called not cool.)  What I am saying is that she probably doesn’t have the cooperation of the tax law stakeholders.  And I find it hard to believe that her team contains genius loophole-discoverers having revelations heretofore unseen on Capitol Hill.  Even if they are, getting things done in the real world doesn’t usually involve charmless headlines about uncovering other people’s errors.

But here’s my real problem with this plan: even if peoples’ loan interest rates reduced, I do not honestly believe that most people would take the opportunity to pay down faster.  No matter what interest rate you are at, you almost always have the opportunity to pay down faster than the minimum.  But most people don’t take it.

And by the way, “millionaires” aren’t the Scrooge McDucks anymore.  That would be billionaires.  A million currently is considered a modest retirement egg for a 60 year old after 35 hard years of work.  Wait a minute, Elizabeth Warren wants to take money away from retired school teachers?!

So I had to chuckle at the WSJ’s characterization of these plans as “non-solutions” because I too am left with the question: what’re you gonna do about it?  The only real cure for loans (once you have them) is to buckle down and pay them off.  I am against digging into any class of tax payer more to “help” student loan borrowers.  College is a vacation; working life is hard, and should not be bitten any more.

Unmitigated junk.

For maybe the first time ever, last week I found myself on an airplane without any sort of reading material.  No book, no magazine.  I don’t own a tablet.  And my work computer certainly did not have anything good to read – anything saved to my local hard drive anyway.  Poor planning.

So after I was done sleeping with my mouth open in front of total strangers, I moved onto the airplane magazines.  The informational one had interesting articles about Minnesota… Then it was down to the smaller magazine selling crap.  It’s really crap!  A shawl you can wear around your torso to improve your posture.  A floating toy you can put in your pool to make it look like a guy is driving a gondola around in there.  A mesh platform with a shade cover for dogs to sit on outside.  How ridiculous!  You know that any dog lucky enough to get outdoors to a nice yard just wants to rub her neck in the nearest poop or plain old lay around in the full sun.  Not sit on the dog equivalent of a trampoline under an umbrella.  Dogs can get all their requisite kicks for free.

Even if you came to the conclusion that you have bad posture – which is not really a problem – you could solve this non-problem by thinking to yourself “I shall sit straighter from now on!”  And before you know it, either your non-problem is solved, or you feel like you solved it and are pretty pleased with yourself.  Which in reality is about the same outcome.

Same with the pool gondola guy.  I just don’t see how someone gets to the point of thinking “gee, my pool is so empty when I’m not in it splashing around and enjoying myself!”  Personally, I would like to look out the window and see a sparkling, crystal clear pool free of cartoonish interruptions.  But maybe this is a white-person-with-pool problem.  I wouldn’t understand.

The magazine went on for at least 50 pages with this nonsense.  It made me wonder what the implied characteristic of the total population of the flying public is.  That because we are sitting in Economy seats on a flight from Boston to Detroit, we have too much money to know what to do with?  Or has the stale, fart-laden air in planes been proven in studies to reduce cognitive abilities and decision-making faculties?  Your phone is in airplane mode on the plane anyway, so you can’t make any immediate poor decisions.

This was like a strange glimpse into another world for me.  I have always avoided push-marketing of unnecessary stuff.  I don’t watch QVC ever (don’t even have cable anymore), and don’t have catalogs of any kind of goods that come to my house.  I like to think that all my stuff is purposeful and essential.  So the overload of pointless junk was overwhelming.  Next time (and all following times) I will bring a book.

Secret financial lives Part I

Freud, in a relatively romantic mood, wrote about how a person cannot genuinely love many things or people.  It is too diluted and therefore false.  True love is whole.

Well I always interpreted his sentiment to mean love of vocation or hobbies, in addition to people.  As well, I studied Chinese philosophy which dictates that water is powerful because it always finds the cracks, and then expands in winter when everything is the most harsh and difficult.  And so I have developed a theory that you can tell what people really love vocationally, and who they want to be, by following the trail of blood and sweat.  Because the love of the soul is powerful like water, and will always seek the destination dictated by the soul, empowered by the mind and the muscles of the body.

Don’t you ever notice that people occasionally do crazy things?  And wonder what drives people to do what they do?

Showing up at work day to day, I observe people and have come to some conclusions.  The conclusions focus on the outliers; most people just show up at work and do their thing, and you can’t draw any conclusions about that without more information.

But some people exhibit outlying financial behavior that begs for a Freudian analysis.

There are people at my company who own decently pumping real estate businesses on the side.  You can tell because you can hear them on the phone.  I know three people like this, and wonder why they are still working at my company.  I assume they are setting up to retire early, otherwise why would anyone go to so much trouble handling a whole side business?  Carrying on that way forever would be a diluted investment of energy and therefore unsustainable according to my pal Freud.  These folks’ energy and longing is with retirement I think.

Then there are the ladder climbers.  They put a lot of energy (and money) into the day job.  Fancy clothes; expensive take-out lunch and dinner in anticipation of long work hours.  And they network.  After the extra-long day, they go to events they wouldn’t even go to otherwise, just to meet people they wouldn’t ordinarily hang out with, in the hopes that it will advance the career.  So I assume from all of this that these types of people feel great affection for “the career” and want to engage in a long-term relationship with it.  I think that is what Freud would say.  And it is fine to love having a career and to want to invest it in long-term and dwell in its protective routine forever.  I don’t share the sentiment, but am at least glad that I have characterized it to my satisfaction.

Sometimes you meet people who have exceptional hobbies which require ALL the energy and ALL the money.  Like traveling all over the world to participate in elite races and sporting events.  I am not sure how these people have the energy to do all that and hold down a job.  But I am pretty sure they find a way to work it out because the cost of the hobby will ensure that they will have to work forever.  I think Freud would say that elite athletes like this truly only love the sport, and the job is just a means to an end, to be minimized and stablized to equilibrium.  And the couple of people I know like this seem to engage in this work philosophy.

Then there are the blenders, who are harder to figure out.

Sometimes you meet people at work for whom no end is in sight.  They appear to be in their 50s; they dress plainly and bring their lunch.  And I wonder why these people are still working.  They seem to have simple lifestyles that would have allowed them to retire already.  But who knows?

And then there are people like that, but younger.  Living plainly, saving their money (or at least unwittingly letting it accumulate).  I wonder what’s going to come of these people – what they are going for.

Neither the young nor the old in this category seem to really love their jobs.  But they must love something, or at least love something more than the grind.  But you can never tell.

I think I blend in with the masses of people who just come in, kick tushie for the 9-hr work day, and then scramble home.  I’m not struttin’.  I’m not trying to make a name for myself, though I am flattered that people seem to appreciate my cursory tushie-kicking attempts.  I’m not quite as flashy as the side job people, so I hope it is not evident that my heart follows my future money rather than the seed money.

Coming up is a tale of another secret financial life…

When vacation is ok.

wpid-20140522_122125.jpg

Highland Light, Truro, MA

For those of us suffering from extreme frugality, it can be difficult to determine when and how to pull the trigger on anything whimsical.  You’ve streamlined everything in your daily life down to the nub; going off and spending money would destroy what you cultivated in your bank account.

So I have been working on a rubric for when vacation is ok.  Sometimes it’s good to be able to do a sanity check.  Do any of these guidelines seem too lenient?  I challenge you to convince me!

  1. When you are out of debt. I really cannot see going on any sort of pleasure-motivated holiday while in debt.  (In the past couple months my liquid net worth – not counting 401K etc. – shifted positive, so that if you added up my savings and small amount of remaining student loan debt, it would be green.  More on that soon.)
  2. To treat your family or do good in another way.  I just took my mom and sister for a weekend trip to Cape Cod, and heard about a friend who will be taking a trip to volunteer.  I know some people have hardcore frugality principles but these types of trips sound guilt-free to me on an ethical level.  If you have everything else in order and want to spend some money whimsically, I cannot think of a better way than this.
  3. If vacation takes up X% of your income and allows you to achieve your Y% savings goal.  If your honest saving goal is 50% of your income per year, and you are meeting that goal and have room in your remaining funds to spend 5% that would otherwise go back to savings, I think you could spend a small fraction like this (if it is acceptable to you) and not worry about it.  If your take-home pay is $3K/month or $36K/year, and you are able to save $18K reliably with another $1800 to spare, I would not sweat spending up to this much on vacation.  In this scenario you are already saving 50% of your income!  To me this is like a triathlete debating whether to go for the ice cream cone.  Granted, if your saving goal is like 85% of your take-home pay, then either you probably don’t get to go on vacation or you need to re-assess your goals.
  4. When your vacation plan is blissfully frugal.  I dream about bike-and-camp vacations, whose only cost is the airfare and potential bike rental.  A cheap vacation inherently meets #3, which makes it even more appealing.
  5. To advance an interest or hobby.  I admire people for whom a vacation is an extension of an existing interest.  (Bike vacations also fall under this category.)  Traveling to further your scuba or language skills, follow a favorite band, learn more about your lineage, etc., seem very cool and more significant than a trip for the hell of it.  When you are justifying spending money, that is.

When vacation isn’t so hot:

  1. When vacation will tempt you to make bad decisions.  The opposite of a breezy bike vacation, a vacation to, say, Las Vegas will likely result in poor choices.  “Luxury” destinations make you want to go big and avoid the fray, and that is just the beginning.  You will be compelled to buy tickets to shows you may not like, gamble your money away to a statistically dominant House, and do all this in silly clothes you impulse-bought to look more like a hooker.  I am not interested in Vegas vacas at all.
  2. When you are aiming for a short-term money goal.  Unlike #3 above, a short-term goal should take precedence or else it will never get done.  I think short-term is something you expect or need to accomplish within a year and is reasonably one-off in nature.  Saving for a new car, a certification for a 2nd job, or house down payment are all things that should not be hindered by frivolous spending.  Or they just won’t get done and undesirable results will follow!  Choice is up to you.

Maybe these are common sense.  But it is very hard to quantify and justify when it is time to spend purely on yourself if you like to save.  And even if you have decided on the amount and purpose, it is easy to second-guess based on the frivolity.  So I like to keep things measured and meaningful to ensure confidence in the plan.

Does it ever make sense to buy stones?

wpid-20140518_125024.jpg

Stones: the hallmark of the fancy backyard.

This tiny circle of stones is an experiment: I am obsessed with stones and think they are the key to ultimate backyard pimpage; Mr. Goodies thinks it is ridiculous to buy stones because you can just pick them out of the ground.  Buuuut we already picked all the readily available stones out of the ground to make vaguely Middle Earth-esque backyard fashions, such as in the garden here:

wpid-20140518_125035.jpg

The medieval stone look is fine, but I have my sights set on a fancy two-tiered garden wall system.  And that requires professional stones.  Take the lumpy soil erosion zone behind the retaining wall (currently lined with ground stones):

wpid-20140518_125135.jpg

Some day I wish to make this mop of weeds into a sweet tiered garden with an ivy backdrop.

I am convinced that stones have great ROI.  Any real money we put into this house needs to translate to added resale value.  And the sex appeal of the tiered garden cannot be denied.  How ace would it be to turn our dust bowl into something like this?

Let’s run some numbers then.  The tiny plum tree circle took 12 stones, so I would estimate that the wall would be at least 100 stones long.  At two levels of 3 rows, it would come to 600 stones.  The plum tree stones were $1.28 each, so the wall project would run us roughly $800.  Oy.  And you know I’m probably under-estimating.

The painful part is that it would be for a bunch of stones…

So what do you think… slum-dunk DIY idea?  Or wasteful pile of stones?

Image from http://www.idealhome.com