Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why am I not biking?

Because I'm a wussypants.

I don't have any good reasons why I'm commuting to work by car every day. My office is about 3 miles away, there are sidewalks and trails that traverse the entire distance, I don't live in the arctic, I own a functional bicycle, and my office even has showers. The case for biking should be open and shut. Right?

The truth is, I did start biking to work back in December. Let me tell you how it went, and what my plans are to get back into the habit.

First attempt

It all started, as most things do, with Mr. Money Mustache's post on getting rich with bikes, coincidentally his first post in the Get Rich With series. By nature I'm averse to physical exertion, so it speaks volumes that I dove into Mustachianism by starting to bike to work during the winter months.

I forget if I had a plan initially besides biking as many days as I could, probably with a day or two in between at first since I was (and am) out of shape. A group of coworkers are avid cyclists so they told me about how I should bundle up with gloves and head scarves, and use blinkies and headlights for night time; and they let me borrow theirs. All good advice! One of my coworkers, let's call him Dan, even biked with me my first day to show me the best route that he uses.

Everything was stacked in my favor — at first. As I recall, I biked in five or six times over a period of three or four weeks. It was always a little difficult to get out the door, but once I was on the road it was great. My morning routine was thrown off a bit because I would shower at work when biking, whereas normally I shower at home.

As I expected I was rather out of shape. The three-or-so miles took between 30 and 40 minutes, which includes traffic lights since the paths are along a main road; for a little context, the trip by car takes between 10 and 15 minutes depending on traffic. Throw in a shower and that's like 50 minutes — a pretty long commute in my book.

I didn't fully get used to all the equipment in my short stint biking. With the car I had to remember my keys and my wallet. The bike added gloves, hat, helmet, headlight, and backpack. Juggling those items, putting them on and taking them off in a certain order, was something I think will become much easier with practice. It was a mental load I didn't usually have to deal with while half asleep. Also I had to deal with another change of clothing, so that's one more thing.

The last pain point was the darkness. It gets dark early in the winter. Biking to work was nice because the sun is out in the morning. Biking from work was not so nice. I would be ready to leave for the day at 5pm, and by then the sun was down — that's where the blinky and headlights saved my life a few times.

None of the above "excuses" was insurmountable. Combined, they were enough resistance that I couldn't keep up the habit more than a few weeks. Actually my excuse to stop biking was because I flipped over my handle bars braking incorrectly. Pro-tip: when you've got momentum and need to stop, brace yourself while you're jamming your brakes. Otherwise you'll get thrown forward and onto the ground. Also, always wear gloves. They kept me from cutting up my hands something awful.

Second attempt

I wouldn't be a very good Mustachian if I let that keep me away for long. I recognize that it's a difficult process to train myself for new habits. With this in mind I have a plan of attack for rebooting my biking commute.

Two of the big pain points of my first attempt were 1) darkness and 2) coldness. Luckily the season after winter is spring, which should dispatch those issues quite nicely. I also find that I'm prone to waves of guilt — like, it's Monday already and I haven't biked yet, and even if I bike tomorrow that's only once this week and  OH GOD WHY AM I SUCH A BAD MUSTACHIAN. It's very demotivating.

So here's the plan. Starting March 11th, when Daylight Savings Time begins, I'm going to bike once a week.  It's a small enough commitment that I won't be able to weasel my way out of it, and I also won't let myself feel guilty for only biking once.

My ultimate goal is to commute by bike more often than not. But for the time being I'm out of shape and my number one goal is to build the biking habit. The rest can come later.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review: my Wahl clipper

Ahh, the Universal Men's Grooming Device. Here is an idea of which I was initially skeptical, but was eventually convinced by Mr. Money Mustache's prose to give it a whirl. This device is truly a bastion of utility and sheer awesomeness. I cannot recommend self-haircuts highly enough.

I bought the Wahl Chrome Pro 24-Piece Haircut Kit in mid-December, after I issued a call-to-arms to the Mustachian community. My previous trimmer, bought at Macy's for $25 maybe four years ago and of particularly poor quality, decided its terminals were too corroded to charge. That and my beard kept growing until I was beginning to look homeless.

Initially I was leaning toward an Oster (thanks to batscapades for the advice), but in the end I decided on the Wahl because of its Amazon reviews, the price, and the fact that it came with a bunch of different-sized guide combs so I wouldn't accidentally buy the wrong kind. I mentioned that after I bought it, I experienced a mixture of apprehension and buyer's remorse. I felt I wanted a really solid piece of equipment, something to last, and while paying only $25 is awesome, the prospect of accidentally purchasing a shoddy clipper was worrisome.

Luckily it's a very solid device. Though the clipper's case is plastic, the trimmer end is some hardcore awesome-looking type of metal, and the whole thing has this weightiness to it that I found reassuring. And even though the case seems a little cheap, I like that I can throw everything into it and tuck it under the sink when guests stay a night. It also has a brush to keep it clean, and oil to keep it maintained.

I trim my beard every week or so, and I've neatened up my hair twice since I bought the clipper; that means two trips to the barber saved, at $17 cash outlay per trip ($14 plus tip), not to mention time spent traveling, which means the Wahl has already paid for itself. I was apprehensive about cutting my own hair at first. I don't know why but I've always regarded it as something that should be left to the professionals. Perhaps it was that scene from Wayne's World with the suck cut that convinced me self-grooming should be mocked rather than respected.

"As you can see, it sucks as it cuts."
I took the plunge, and honestly, it was awesome. Cutting my own hair was as simple as putting on the longest guide comb (1"), trimming everything, replacing it with one smaller, and continuing the pattern until I was satisfied with the length. I did not know it was that easy. Also it didn't look completely terrible afterwards. Actually no one at work mentioned anything about me getting a hair cut: something I consider a Job Well Done.

Afterward I got this smug sense of self-satisfaction, like wow, I just performed a skill and a valuable service for myself, look how awesome I am. To all those economists who chant: "comparative advantage is king", I retort: "people's preferences are convex!". That is, a world where all I do 24/7 is pump out computer code so I can trade dollars to hair cutters and house cleaners and handymen is not a very fulfilling world to live in.

The only negative thing I can think to say is that, as a clipper, it does not provide a terribly close shave. I am considering getting a dedicated trimmer to neaten things up from time to time, though that is really more of a nice-to-have, and I will probably forego the purchase in the name of frugality.

In my humblest of opinions, virtually no man has a good excuse not to become his own barber.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Non-financial goals

Mustachianism isn't just about money. It's improving your entire life through Badassity. Money and related financial issues comprise large portions of all of our lives, but the goal isn't money. The goal is to have the most awesome life possible.

This is a blog mostly about personal finance, but I would be remiss — and not a very good Mustachian — if I didn't from time to time talk about how else I'm making my life better.

New Years was almost three months ago (yikes!), and like many Americans I set a few resolutions that I knew deep down I would forget all about in a month or two. I have a friend who is vehemently opposed to the institution of "New Years Resolutions", because each and every day is an opportunity suck a little less and be a little more awesome. While I agree with him in principle, personally I like the societally-enforced review that happens every new year.

Even though these are pretty late in coming, here are my (non-financial) goals for 2012:
  • (Be able to) do 40 consecutive push-ups
My first two goals are health related. There are two main reasons: first, I can tell I'm out of shape; and second, I have this deep-seated fear of dying of a heart attack when I'm 50. 
Last year I got one of those "do 100 push-ups" apps and stuck with it for a few weeks, long enough that I could do thirty-something consecutive push-ups. That was the most push-ups I was ever able to do, and even though I thought it was pretty cool I allowed myself to lapse. Yesterday I managed to do 20 without pushing too hard; I probably couldn't get past 25. So that's where I'm at. 
My plan for now is to do as many as I can every other day. It's early in the year and I can always switch to a more rigorous regimen during the summer. For now I'm keeping it simple.
  • Lose 10 pounds (be 158 lbs or less)
Back when I was in grad school, I walked to school most days, 2 miles each way. I was in okay shape and I didn't weigh too much. But grad school was terrible, and after I retired to the 'burbs and settled down with a nice job I hit almost 180 lbs. I'm shorter than average for a dude at 5'9", and I feel like realistically I have no business weighing more than 160. 
At my level of fitness and activity this should be as easy as portion control and semi-regular cardiovascular exercise. I'm planning on biking to work consistently come spring time, though a good question is "why are you not already biking to work consistently?". Alas that is a story for another day.
  • Learn to cook 5 staple meals, that my girlfriend will enjoy
I will eat mostly anything that's food. My girlfriend is only slightly more picky. For example, she prefers her food quite hot, whereas I regularly eat out of the refrigerator. Because of that, and because I'm not a very good cook — my idea of cooking is throwing foodstuffs together in a pot and heating it until I'm convinced it won't give me salmonella — she does the lion's share of the cooking. 
It doesn't have to be this way. I'd like to take some of the pressure off her and share the cooking duties more evenly. So far I'm narrowing in on an acceptable crock pot chili recipe, as well as fine-tuning an Asian stir-fry recipe.

I'm folding the above goals under the umbrella of my Mustachian journey. Mr. Money Mustache regularly extols physical fitness and cooking abilities, and striving to be a little more awesome every day just reeks of Badassity.

I even threw together a Goals page up at the top to keep track of my progress. Check it out.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Passive Mustachianism: Don't renew your magazine subscriptions

I got an easy win in the mail today. It seems my Scientific American subscription is up.

Urgent! Give us more of your money!
I used to really enjoy reading SciAm. Actually I still enjoy reading SciAm, but I hardly ever do anymore. After a few months of my subscription I found that I didn't make as much time for reading, yet issues kept coming month after month.

My subscription has been on autopilot for a while. Get a magazine in the mail, look it over, think "oh that seems cool", put it in a pile with the other issues I haven't read yet. Come to think of it, "autopilot" describes many areas of my life, areas I haven't shone the cold light of Mustachianism yet. Usually it takes time and effort to start a new good habit or break an old bad one.

Deciding not to renew my magazine subscription was super easy. Luckily — or did luck have anything to do with it? — I didn't set up an autorenew feature. There was no having to go to a website, reset my password, log in, unsubscribe. It's rare to get a win this easily. Any time I feel like I miss the subscription, or I think "Maybe I should sign up for SciAm again", I'll remember how big that pile of magazines was, or better yet, how big a pile of books I have checked out from the library.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Frugality exercise post mortem

This post is a little late in coming. Before the new year I set a goal to spend money on as few days as possible during the month of January. I'd like to give a wrap-up for how I did and then give an overview of lessons learned.

Last time I updated was mid-January, after I returned from my cruise vacation. I can happily say that all but one of my spending days from the 19th thru the month's end involved a trip to the grocery store. I'm counting that as a victory because I need to eat and grocery trips are the cheapest way of making that happen. But seriously, 1/20 was a single trip to Costco, 1/24 was a Harris Teeter run, and 1/27 included a trip to Trader Joe's. Into January's final weekend I also batched a trip to the mall and a visit to a local Mexican restaurant. $5 top-shelf margaritas are one of life's simple pleasures.

I did an okay job combining trips, though I could have done even better. Realistically I could have combined the grocery run with the Costco trip, or all the driving around onto one weekend day, or both. I blame it on imperfect foresight and that sometimes (okay, most of the time) it is a pain to spend large chunks of the day running errands. I'm getting ahead of myself, though, and that leads me to...

Overview and lessons learned
Here is a take-away from this frugality exercise routine: it is a pain to spend large chunks of the day running errands. This is as it should be! Errands should not be easy nor should they be fun, but only if you are lame like me and your primary mode of transportation is a gasoline-consuming carbon-spewing automobile.

You are more efficient when you batch up your errands. You reduce your trip distance, you save transit time. It does mean that you devote a large chunk of time to going out and staying out, and that is a legitimate pain point. You can reduce it in one of a few ways. Either you go the lame route, spread the pain around, and run one or two errands a day throughout the week until you're done; or you man up, devise an efficient plan of attack, and dispatch those errands in the minimum amount of time in one fell swoop; or, best yet, you find a way to forego the errands all together.

This is the main reason I love Amazon Prime. I've saved probably dozens of trips to the store last year with my Prime subscription. Okay, full disclosure, I also probably bought a few things I wouldn't have, had I not been a Prime subscriber. I've since seen the error of my ways and now I use my powers for noble purposes — which is to say I don't use it much at all anymore.

Anyway. When I set this goal to exercise my frugality muscle, I didn't set a target for my number of spending days. The real reason is that I had no idea how often I usually spent money, in an aggregate statistics sense. That was part of my problem. The biggest benefit I got from trying to limiting my spending was a cognizance of when I was actually spending. And that is the benefit of tracking how often you spend, and not just how much.

That's not to say it isn't dangerous spending $200 in one go. My January 20th trip to Costco felt like a punch in the stomach, and that final amount was after splitting the total evenly with my girlfriend. Fortunes can be spent quickly. They can also, however, deplete slowly over time.

You should take note of the fact that I did not purchase lunch at work a single day this month. That's no accident. A part of me was scared straight after I looked at my November 2011 credit card statement to find triple-digit spending on eating out during lunch. The other part of me has been held in line by an understanding of how seemingly small amounts of spending can add up over time.

Almost every day a group of coworkers go out to purchase lunch, and almost every day I'm asked if I want to join them. I'm running out of new and novel ways to say "no thanks". In isolation, a single purchase of between $5 and $9 is not anything to be worried about. But I eat lunch every day. What if my willpower breaks down and I eat out once a month, at a recurring cost of $6? That expense is equivalent to a 'stash of around $2400. Yeah, it takes me like two months to reduce my student loans by that amount. No thanks.

Eating out for lunch is just an example. I feel good about my frugality muscle exercise routine — the first of many, I hope — because of the way it's changed my relationship with spending. All this without explicit goals, just observing and recording what I was already doing, and taking an extra moment to consider how each purchase fit into my plans.

Cognizance is so important for Mustachianism.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Book review: Pay it down!

Tomorrow I have to return a slew of library books, so I wanted to write up a quick review of one in particular. This book I picked up randomly because it looked interesting and also it doesn't cost money to borrow things from the library.

Jean Chatzky's Pay It Down: From Debt To Wealth On $10 A Day is a good, albeit soft, introduction to Mustachian principles for those starting out in debt. It's an easy read and it's relatively short, and from a purely aesthetic point of view I really like the book's compactness — it reads like a get-out-of-debt handbook.

There is good advice throughout, including for people who aren't drowning in debt (says the guy who is merely wading through it). I particularly found the chapter titled "Know and Manage Your Credit Score" interesting. She laid out basically a dummy's guide to credit scores, including the different components that affect your score, and how to improve each component. While the senior Mustachian would scoff at making a serious effort to improve one's credit score (not least of all because the senior Mustachian likely has a very good credit score to begin with), for people with a significant amount of credit card debt, a better credit score can translate into many saved interest dollars.

The chapter titles do a good job of summarizing the book. For those of you familiar with the teachings of MMM, many of these will look familiar: "Assess the Problem", "Break Your Challenge into Manageable Steps", "Know and Manage Your Credit Score", "Track Your Spending", "Find the Money", "Consolidating Your Debts", "Spending Less", "Making Hard Choices, Selling Assets, Earning More", "Pay It Down — Intelligently", "How to Deal When Things Go Wrong", and "Staying Ahead of the Game". If these seem obvious then Pay It Down! is probably the wrong book for you, but I did find it a reassuring and confidence-boosting read.

I do think "kinder, gentler MMM" is a good characterization of the author. If I had to predict the chapter titles of a future book by Mr. Money Mustache, they would include "IT'S AN EMERGENCY!", "7 Habits to Punch in the Face", and "Hedonic Adaptation is for Sukkas".

By promulgating the "fix your debt problems with only $10 per day" approach Chatzky lays out a formula that should be acceptable to most docile, sedentary Americans. A large benefit is a checklist for "found money", different pieces of a budget that one can trim, and examples of how to trim it. For example, "Cable: Low priority. If you can do without it and still get basic TV, cancel. If not, go to basic." The point is to be palatable to common folk, don't do anything too crazy, that you don't need to be one of those gosh darn frugality freaks to get back on track.

But speaking from experience, I've found that the more drastic changes you can make to your lifestyle, not only will you get to financial independence more quickly (duh), but also you wind up happier faster. It's amazing in retrospect how many of the things I considered comforts were actually shackles. Though now that I'm trying to think of an example, all I can come up with is buying books on Amazon versus borrowing from the library. It takes some getting used to but afterwards you'll most likely feel like you're better off than you were in the first place.

Go read Mr. Money Mustache for some better examples.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

January 2012 post mortem

Another month is behind us. That means, for those of us following the path of Mr. Money Mustache, we're one month closer to financial independence. I feel like I'm still on track. Let's look at some numbers.

January 2012 spending

  • Total - $5894
  • Student loans (prepayments) - $1100
  • Total w/o student loan prepayment - $4794
  • Student loans (required payments) - $263
  • Car insurance (6mo) - $506
  • Mortgage - $2805
  • Verizon - $25
  • Gas bill - $98
  • Electric bill - $94
  • Gasoline - $167
  • Groceries - $209
  • Restaurants - $288
  • Costco trip - $207
  • Cruise spending - $247
  • Amazon prime - $79
  • Yankee Candle - $83

I think this month went really well. That $4794 number is still higher than I'd like, but there are a number of annual and semi-annual charges which skew the total upward. I bought very few things this month and I think it shows on my balance sheet. We still spent quite a bit on some luxuries, like eating out and a trip to the candle shop, but this month it was in the context of a principled approach toward spending. While I surely have room to improve, January's numbers show much improvement already.

My student loan prepayment of $1100 was a little less than the average monthly amount to vanquish all my student loan debt by December 31, 2013. The current total balance on my loans is $28,674.88, down from $29,790.23 a month ago. That feels pretty good.

Last month we paid car insurance of $506 on our two cars, which means we're paid for the next six months. Going forward we're switching to a monthly payment schedule just to keep things more even. If you average it out, that would put our monthly non-student-loan-prepayment spending at around $4400 a month, which is pretty good for us. (Of course, that would also raise our spending over the next five months by around $90/month.)

Verizon was much lower this month because of a credit from last month's bill. Mid-way through December we cut our services after the bill was issued, so the difference was applied to this month's bill. Next month will be higher — I'm expecting it to be $75 with taxes.

The gas and electric bills were about average, I guess. I really can't tell what average is for them, though. I feel like I can do better with efficiency around the house. I'm not planning on focusing on that until I rein in some other spending, per the Theory of Constraints.

Groceries were below average ($209 compared to about $300), and restaurant spending was above average ($288 compared to $200). Together they averaged out at just under $500, which is my monthly target. My girlfriend and I went with our friends to this fancy six-course wine pairing that was positively delectable. That was most of our restaurant budget. Truth be told, I was anxious beforehand about spending so much money on a dinner, but it was really awesome and totally worth it. That said, we both understand that we can't afford such extravagance very often, at least not until we're financially independent.

The last items are straightforward. This month we made a trip to Costco where we stocked up on basically everything. That $207 is half of what we spent, split between me and my girlfriend. Then there was our cruise spending, our yearly Amazon Prime subscription at about $79 (totally worth it by the way, I can elaborate if necessary), and a minor splurge purchase at Yankee Candle. I used a bunch of coupons and stocked up on candles that will probably last all year.

January was a good month. After December, it's good to see that I'm moving in the right direction. My frugality exercise really had a positive impact on my spending. If I can keep posting numbers like this, I'll be on track to meet my student loan payoff goal.