Sunday, August 26, 2012

Non-financial goals review

I can't believe how late in the year it's gotten. I've been thinking about my New Year's Resolution goals I set all the way back in January. Unlike most people who abandon their resolutions in the February/March timeframe, I tend to put them out of my mind until the subconscious nagging becomes too much and I decide to face them head-on.

Sometimes I'll fall into the trap of writing only (or mostly) about financial matters. Let me reiterate that Mustachianism is only ostensibly about money and personal finance. It's much more about continual self-improvement: increasing one's badassity. That's where these non-financial goals come into play.

I have my goals listed for all to see on the "Goals" page up there on the navigation bar. To recap, by Jan 1, 2013 I want to: be able to do 40 consecutive push-ups, lose 10 pounds (be 158lb or less), and learn to cook five meals my girlfriend will enjoy.

To date I've made the most progress on my cooking goal. I think I've got three or four recipes that I've prepared that my girlfriend has found edible. For those just tuning in now, while I wouldn't necessarily describe my girlfriend as a picky eater, she's significantly pickier than I am. I'm the kind of guy who has lived off of Ramen noodles (occasionally with an egg or some frozen veggies added) and frozen microwave burritos (with melted pre-sliced processed cheese on top when I was feeling fancy) — and I loved every minute of it. To my girlfriend, things like food temperature and consistency play a large role. Learning to sense properties of food I never previously considered has been a challenge, but I'm making progress. I'll detail the meals that fulfill this goal once I sit down and put a list together.

I've made the least progress on my weight-loss goal. I weigh between 168lb and 172lb, depending on what time of day I weigh myself. That's about where I was when I started the year, or even a pound or two worse. Biking has basically been a wash as for how it affects my weight: I think I've lost some fat and gained an equal amount of muscle. The other side of the equation is consumption: in the past week or two I've started cooking beans and rice and lentils to bring to work for lunch. My hope is that these less calorically-dense foods will get me on the right track, and be an ally in my personal war against snacking. My company is nice enough to stock a snack cabinet full of all the high-carb high-sugar processed snacks that Costco sees fit to provide. It's all too easy for me to consume a few hundred extra calories than I was expecting in a day, and to reach my goal I'll have to run a deficit of the same amount for the rest of the year. Here's hoping vigilance and a new lunchtime diet pays off.

As for my push-up goal, I've flirted with tackling it from time to time. Every now and again when I'm bored I'll do a set of 20 or 25, which is just enough that it starts to burn. I'm guessing that with two weeks or so of concerted effort, I could hit the 40-consecutive mark.

This brings me to an idea I had: how about a month-long push-up challenge? I want to structure it as "do X push-ups in a month". That way I can make measurable progress toward my goal every day, and still take a day off now and again. I realized from playing World of Warcraft that I enjoy having long-running goals that I can spend short chunks of time making meaningful progress on. A push-up challenge gives me one such long-term goal in the fitness area of my life.

I think I can do 1000 push-ups in a month. It's awesome because it's a big round number and it seems like a ton, but it should still be do-able. 1000 push-ups in a month is a little more than 33 per day. Alternately it's two sets of 20 per day, with every sixth day as a rest day. That doesn't seem so bad! Then again my body might start breaking down around the third week, though that could be as much a feature as it is a bug. I think I want to go for it.

So, what do you guys think about my push-up challenge? Is this something I should look to tackle come September?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Eating right, exercise, and some other things

My last post was Sunday, but my second-to-last post was four weeks ago today. I want to explore the reason I dropped off the face of the earth, and then move into some idle musings.

The post was about killing my 401k loan. (It's dead now, by the way.) I did some pondering afterward and decided that the Toward Mustachianism pendulum had swung too far toward talking about money and debt, and not enough about frugality and spending. I made up my mind to go through all my spending since around May and do some analysis, maybe some descriptive statistics about spending per month across a few categories. I haven't been trusting Mint much for veracity — it feels like there are instances where Mint is mis-categorizing purchases, which may throw off my findings.

I went to the source of all my spending data: my credit card statements. Two cards (for my personal spending only, not counting joint expenses), and about six statements. I copied the tables into Excel and started doing some formatting. And after about 20 minutes I hit a mental block.

I kept those Excel documents open on my computer for weeks but I kept avoiding them. Something about the task was unappealing, I guess. And in avoiding the task of analyzing my spending, so too I avoided the task of writing consistently.

I don't like it when I'm not writing consistently. My goal going forward is to write at least something each week, even if I've got a mental block on the thing I ought to be writing about. And even if it's not perfectly on-topic.

Which brings me to my next point: I've started cooking lentils again. Meals over the past month have been characterized by a noticeable lack of planning. The monthly grocery spending numbers are still in the $200-$300 ball park, though I know we could be doing better if only we tried. Last week I started trying again.

I've made two batches of red lentils, 2 cups dry each time. The first time they were a bit mushy (which they say is common with red lentils). Here's the solution I found: 1.5c water per 1c lentils, season the water and bring to a boil (but don't add salt yet!), add lentils and bring to a boil again, but immediately turn the heat as low as possible after it boils again. And leave the cover on for the simmering. And keep your eye on them so they don't over-cook. Add salt at the end if you're into that sort of thing — I'm not sure what about the salt makes lentils mushy when cooking, but it does. That recipe is simple enough that I don't need to write it down to remember it, and that's the way I like recipes.

Those two batches of lentils made 6 lunches, if I recall; three included rice, from a 25lb bag from Costco. We've had the red lentils for months: a 5lb bag couldn't have cost more than $7 at our local international market. Including seasonings, each lunch couldn't have cost more than $0.50, though I'm totally guessing in case you can't tell. If I recall, the per-meal cost target is $1, so I've got a good safety margin for lunches at least.

I missed eating lentils. They're delicious, and the protein and fiber combination keeps me full longer than I'm used to. That cuts down on snacking on high-carb junk.

And I've gotten back into the swing of biking. I'm biking to work 2-3 times a week and I'm loving it. The weather has been even more beautiful, and avoiding the commute by car is becoming a bigger and bigger benefit in my mind. And I can't help but think of how much better I'm being to my heart by getting some moderate exercise a few times a week.

My company was awesome enough to host a CPR refresher course, which I took, and which got me thinking about cardiovascular health. Heart disease runs in my family and I think there's a reasonable chance I'll have a heart attack before I'm 60. Anything I can do to give me better odds is something I should be working on wholeheartedly, pun intended.

Just another bullet point to add to the "Reasons You Should Be Biking" column.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Blast from the past with EE-series government savings bonds

Hi again, and apologies for the unplanned hiatus. Rest assured I've been making steady progress on my financial goals even if I've not been reporting back.

I came into some money since my last post. My mom handed over a stack of savings bonds, 40 in total, that she'd been holding for me almost since I was born.

Series EE bonds are pretty cool — or, they were pretty cool. The idea is that you buy them for half of their face value, and over some set period of years they'll double in value. Actually, now that I'm looking into this, that's the way it used to be. Here is the TreasuryDirect website for series EE bonds. The government isn't selling paper bonds as of January 1, 2012, and you buy electronic EE bonds for their face value. I feel like that takes some of the fun out of it. Oh well.

I spent about an hour inputting the information (issue date, face value, etc.) on my bonds into TreasuryDirect's bond calculator. That gave me a spreadsheet with a whole bunch of information, like the issue price, the accrued interest, the final maturity, and the interest rate. From that I learned something interesting: before May 1995, the interest rate for EE bonds was 4% going back to March 1987 (the earliest-issued bond I have). Starting in May 1995, interest rates are much lower, from 0.76% to 1.19% up through my latest bond, issued in January 2002.

The total value of my bonds as of July 2012 was $5,110.49. Of that, $1,264.85 was earning a low interest rate, and the remaining $3,845.64 is earning 4%. I say "was earning" because I cashed all my low interest bonds. I've got 6% student loan debt to pay down, after all. I should mention here how easy it was to cash my bonds at my local bank. After signing the back of each, the teller handled the deposit for me, and the cash was in my account right away, available for withdrawal on the next business day. I thought I'd have to wait for something to clear. That was a pleasant surprise.

I figure I should talk about why I haven't cashed my remaining bonds (and why I plan on holding them to maturity). One consideration is that cashing bonds triggers a tax event. Interest income on federal savings bonds is taxed as regular income. If I cashed out all my bonds and paid down my debt, I wouldn't be reducing my debt by the sum total of my bonds' value: whatever tax refund I'd get (if any) would be reduced by some amount. (Since there's no way I'll be debt-free before tax day I plan on using my entire refund on debt paydown.) I'm not sure if it's irrational but that course of action seemed bad to me.

Here's the big reason I want to hold my 4% bonds for as long as possible: I consider it insanely awesome that the government has to pay me 4% interest. Interest rates have been low for over a decade, and for basically my entire adult life. Here I have these relics of a bygone financial era paying me a risk-free 4%. At the time of this writing my ING savings account rate is 0.8%. I would feel absolutely awful giving up a risk-free 4% return, even if it means eliminating debt at 6%. I might be able to justify this based on the difference in maturities for my student loans and the bonds — maybe not, I haven't thought about it too hard. I do know that if today a magical elf offered me an unlimited number of government-backed 30-year-maturity bonds at 4%, I would use all my available cash buying them.

So where does that put me? I've got the $1200 from my bonds, $1k in my checking from the last time I got paid, and another $1200 repaid from when I lent it on a short-term basis to a family member in need. Combine that cash with this week's impending pay day and an outstanding balance of a little over $16,600, and I'm planning on entering September with just over $12k in student loans.