Tag Archive the great courses

By the numbers: First quarter 2020

Carole Baskin killed her husband!

Why, hello.

After nearly three weeks of hiatus, it’s time to get things back to normal around this joint! Has anything happened while I was away?

Despite the ongoing coronavirus crisis, I’m ready to resume writing about personal finance. I’ve (nearly) completed my “intro to FIRE” project for Audible and The Great Courses — we’re now in the editing stage — Kim and I (and our beasts) are healthy, and I have plenty to say about money.

Let’s do this thing!

A Little Housekeeping

To start, let me say that I’m aware some folks have experienced trouble actually seeing new articles here at Get Rich Slowly. I’ve received several reports that things have “stuck” on the cybersecurity basics article from mid February. Some people cannot see new articles or comments.

Obviously, people with this problem aren’t going to see this post, so I can’t ask them to drop me a line. But if you were experiencing this issue and know anything that might help us resolve it, please let me know. Tom and I are baffled by the situation.

We did change hosting companies around the time the trouble began. We switched servers, and that seems to have created some sort of caching issue. Maybe? Like I say, we’re not sure.

While I’ve been hard at work on my Audible course, my business partner Tom has been messing with things behind the scenes here at GRS. At long last, we think we’re close to launching our redesign, which has been in the works since I repurchased this site 2-1/2 years ago. If everything goes well — and it is, so far — the new design should go live by the site’s 14th anniversary next Wednesday.

Here’s a preview of the new log and the new home page:

Site redesign

It’s possible (likely, even) that we’ll have some bugs when we launch the redesign. I’m counting on all of you to help us find them and squash them!

With that housekeeping out of the way, let’s talk about how the first quarter of 2020 went for my finances. Short answer: Aside from the stock market (which I cannot control), things were pretty darn good!

First Quarter Finances

Here’s a look at some of my spending numbers from the past three months and the first quarter of each of the past four years. Please note that this isn’t all of my spending. It’s just spending on select categories. Also, this is my spending and doesn’t include Kim’s purchases. Tracking numbers (whether for fitness or finance) drives her nuts so she doesn’t do it. That means there’s no way to know for sure how much we spend on things as a family.

First quarter numbers

January and February had relatively similar spending. Why was March so high? For three reasons.

  • The $450 annual fee for my Chase Sapphire Reserve card came due.
  • We bought a new mattress for $2450.10. (More about this soon, I hope. It was a process!)
  • We renewed our tickets to Broadway in Portland for next season. That cost $1473.50.

Without these three expenses, my spending for March was only $2433.44. That’s great! Too bad I can’t just ignore major purchases like mattresses and theater tickets haha.

When taken as a whole, my first quarter spending was down 21.4% from the same period last year. It was down nearly $6000 (31.1%) from first quarter spending in 2017! That’s some fine progress.

Here are some thoughts on individual categories:

  • I am very very happy with my decline in spending on alcohol. As you can see (if you look at the “sin” category), I drank nothing in January. And most of that $233.92 in February went to the pot tincture I take most nights before bed. I bought two bottles of it. (Pot is legal in Oregon.) In fact, it’s only since the coronavirus quarantine that my alcohol consumption has increased. Even so, I’m not drinking nearly as much as I have in previous years.
  • My big goal for this year is to reduce my food spending. The pandemic is helping with that. You can’t go out to eat if all of the restaurants are shut down! Still, I find it curious that I spent roughly the same on food in March as in previous months despite only going out to eat twice. There’s no doubt we’ve been buying more groceries. My food spending for the quarter was half what it was in 2017. Nice.
  • Last year, I made a focused effort to reduce my iTunes spending. That’s clearly reflected in the spreadsheet. I’m definitely spending more on iTunes in 2020 than I did in 2019, but it’s less than in previous years. One change I’ve made is to rent more movies. What’s the point of buying Frozen II if it’s unlikely I’ll ever watch it again?
  • Lastly, I find the utilities trend interesting. You see, in 2017, we still lived in the condo. Some of our utilities were covered by our outrageous HOA fees. In 2018, we were in this new house but had not yet installed the hot tub. For the past two years, the utility fees include heating the spa. It looks like (during the winter) we’re paying an extra $150 per quarter or about $50 per month to keep our water warm.

The big news, of course, has been the flash crash of the stock market. The S&P 500 lost one-third of its value in a month — and has since bounced back 20%. (Which means it’s still down 20% from its peak. Funny how math works.)

I’ve seen far far too many posts in Facebook groups about people wondering when they should sell. This makes me tense. If you’re a long-term investor, you shouldn’t sell during a downturn! This is the opposite of what you should do. If your wealth snowball is meant to be used twenty years from now — or even ten years — what do you care that the market is down right now?

Anyhow, the market drop has certainly melted some of my personal wealth snowball. At the end of 2019, my net worth totalled $1,437,543. At the end of March, it was $1,234,053, a decline of $203,490 (-14.2%).

Actually, I AM going to recover from this

The End of the World

So, the first quarter went well for me financially despite the stock market drop. I’m pleased with my current level of spending all the way around. I’ve been so deeply focused on my work on the Audible course that I really haven’t done anything else. Seriously. I’ve blocked out the world for the past three weeks.

In the evening, I’ve been indulging myself by reading and watching post-apocalypse fiction. It’s one of my favorite genres. And our current situation makes this material feel more relevant than ever.

One of my favorite books, for instance, is the 1949 novel Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, which takes a realistic look at the aftermath of a global pandemic that wipes out nearly all of humanity. It sounds dreary, but the book is actually hopeful, optimistic. Hardly anyone knows Earth Abides, and it’s a shame. It’s great.

I’ve also been watching movies about the end of the world, including The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), which I’d never heard of before. It’s fascinating.

After a radiation catastrophe destroys most life on Earth, one man finds himself alone in New York City. Eventually, he meets a woman. Adam and Eve, right? The trouble is he’s black and she’s white. They’re in love but cannot consumate their relationship because of the race issue — despite the fact that nobody else is left. When a third survivor appears — a white man — things get complicated quickly.

Judged by today’s standards, this film is pretty tame. But in 1959, it must have been bold stuff. Personally, I think it’s a pretty powerful indictment of the racist standards of the time. (And it takes a few stabs at sexism, too.)

Oh, and like everybody else, Kim and I watched the awe-inspiring train wreck that is Tiger King. Holy cats!

Okay, that’s enough for now. I need to begin editing the lessons for my Audible course. After that, I’ll go help Kim tackle the yard. There’s tons to do! But over the next few days, we’ll resume a more normal publication schedule around here. And, as I said, look for the launch of the GRS redesign in about a week. Take care!

A short list of useful coronavirus resources

Believe it or not, the current coronavirus crisis is affecting Get Rich Slowly too. Things are slow around here. Traffic is down. Revenue is down. Production is down. Plus, I have a big deadline at the end of the month. My project for Audible and The Great Courses is due on March 31st.

So, just like the rest of the world, we’re going to press “pause” for a couple of weeks. I will return next Wednesday with my annual birthday article, but you’ll have to scroll down to see it. I’m going to pin this post to the top of the front page.

The break will allow me to focus my full attention on the FIRE course. Meanwhile, my partner Tom can work on behind-the-scenes stuff (including the nearly-completed site redesign!) without worrying that I’ll mess things up haha. And, best of all, maybe we can get ahead on our publication schedule for once. We have two new staff writers. I have some articles planned. Tom has some articles planned. It would be great to resume in a couple of weeks with a backlog of material!

Note: During this break, I’ll continue updating the “spare change” links on the front page and Jim and I will continue publishing Apex Money every weekday.

While we’re on hiatus, I’ll use this post to collect useful coronavirus resources. Some of this will be general info, but I’ll also bookmark stuff related to personal finance and the economy.

I’m going to be very selective about what I list here. I’m only going to share the best of what I find. If you know of a resource that should be included, please share it in the comments.

General Coronavirus Information

First up, here’s some of the best general coronavirus info I’ve found.

Our World in Data has an amazing page with coronavirus statistics and research. This is the best comprehensive resource I’ve found for coronavirus facts and figures. It features up-to-date info on growth and spread, plus other essential info. Here’s a sample chart from the site.

You can find reliable info regarding the health aspects of COVID-19 at the World Health Organization coronavirus hub. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have a useful COVID-19 info center.

The FluTrackers forum is collating coronavirus news from around the world, including news from each U.S. state. I’ve been using this coronavirus live dashboard for a week now, although I cannot vouch for the veracity of its data.

The Emory University school of medicine has created a quick and dirty coronavirus checker. (I’ve been feeling blah lately, but it’s almost surely just my annual tree allergies. This checker gave me this result: “It is unlikely you have coronavirus.”) And, if you’d like to play with possible scenarios, this epidemic calculator uses a classical infectious disease model to project disease spread based on variables that you can tweak.

Epidemic calculator

Here are a few other articles and resources that you might find informative:

To fight misinformation about the current situation, check sketchy claims at Snopes (here are the Snopes search results for ‘coronavirus’) or the World Health Organization coronavirus mythbusters page.

Coronavirus Financial Information

As I’ve written recently, this situation is going to wreak havoc on many families. The financial outfall of COVID-19 is likely to be severe. Here are some of the best resources I’ve found for tackling the money side of this situation.

Lastly, here’s a podcast episode in which Brandon, the Mad Fientist, interviews J.L. Collins about the coronavirus stock market crash (and what to do about it).

Okay, that’s it for now.

Although I know folks who have indeed contracted COVID-19, Kim and I (and our families) are currently healthy. I hope that you and your family are doing well too. See you on the other side.

Keeping up appearances

Spring has sprung here in Portland, and that means yard work. I’ll spend most of March completing my project for Audible and The Great Courses — which means things around here may be slow for a few weeks — but when I’m done hacking in the word mines each day, there’s plenty of mowing and pruning and digging and weeding and planting to do at home.

“I’ll be glad when everything looks pretty back here,” Kim said last Saturday. We were lounging at the bottom of the yard, soaking up sun and sipping beer. We’d spent the afternoon trimming blackberry vines and moving yard debris. Now, our three cats and one dog were with us, enjoying Family Time.

“Me too,” I said. “This back yard is a jungle. It was a mess when we moved in, and it’s only gotten worse in the past three years. My goal for 2020 is to clean it up completely, to create a space where it’s fun to hang out with our friends.”

One small corner of our yard

Kim nodded. “I’ve been almost embarrassed to have people over because the yard is such a mess,” she said. “I was proud to have people over to the condo. It was beautiful. It was a place where I wanted to host parties. Here? I don’t know. I love this house, and you know it, but I’m not proud of it. In fact, sometimes I’m ashamed of it with all of the mice and bugs and weeds.”

It’s true. Our neighborhood is infested with rodents. It’s not just our house; it’s every house on the ridge. (It’s more obvious at our house because our cats frequently bring us presents.) And we do have large populations of mosquitoes and box-elder bugs. Our home is tidy but it’s surrounded by chaos.

Plus, the condo had 1547 square feet of space, about half of which was devoted to entertainment areas. It was a fourth-floor corner suite with beautiful views of the Willamette River and downtown Portland. The place was luxurious. It was light and airy. We felt rich living there.

Our country cottage has 1235 square feet of space, none of which is laid out efficiently. The house isn’t designed for entertaining. It’s designed for living. The place is dark and cramped, almost like a hobbit hole. Nothing about it feel luxurious — but it feels like home.

“Do you want to move?” I asked.

“No,” Kim said. “Not at all. I just wish we had a home I was proud to show to people.”

Keeping Up Appearances

I’ve been thinking about this conversation for a week now.

A key part of the FI/RE movement — the financial independence and early retirement movement — is carefully considering societal values, then (possibly) choosing to do things differently if that will lead to better results. (By “better results”, I mean an increased saving rate or quicker retirement date.)

FI folks think outside the box. They make choices that go against the mainstream. We’re more concerned with results than with appearances.

  • We drive older vehicles for a longer period of time, for instance. Or we commute by bike or public transportation. We don’t view cars as status symbols.
  • We choose cheaper places to live. We recognize that housing is the single largest expense for most families, so we choose less-expensive houses and we prefer smaller homes.
  • We save 30% or 50% or 70% of our incomes instead of the standard 8%. We sacrifice present comfort for future security.
  • We spend to support our personal goals. We don’t spend to keep up with the Joneses. We’re not interested in what other people buy and do.

And yet…

We are human beings. We’re social animals. We live in a society. Conformity is hard-wired into our brains. It’s biological. We want to fit in with our neighbors, so it can be deeply uncomfortable when it’s clear that we don’t fit in. We want to appear “normal” so that others will accept us.

This need to “keep up appearances” can be almost pathological in some people. I have friends (and I’m sure you do too) for whom appearance is much more important than reality. They have a driving need for others to view them and their families as happy and successful. Things may be chaotic behind the scenes, but they project an aura of orderliness. How things seem is more important than how things are for these folks.

So, at one extreme you have the Hyacinth Buckets of the world.

But is it possible to swing too far in the other direction? Is it possible to not care enough about appearances? Is there a certain minimum level of polish that one ought to maintain as part of society?

What Do You Care What Other People Think?

Fifteen months ago, I paid $1900 to purchase a 1993 Toyota pickup. I love the truck — and it runs great! — but I’ll admit that it looks like a piece of junk. The paint is peeling. There’s moss growing out of the grilles. The upholstery is stained and worn. The seatbelts are frayed. The dashboard is gouged. (It’s even been patched with duct tape in one spot!)

My 1993 Toyota Pickup

I’m not embarrassed by this truck, but others are embarrassed for me.

Kim doesn’t like having it in the driveway. My cousin Duane thinks I’m crazy for not cleaning up the moss and washing the truck. My brother thinks I need to remove the canopy. (“That’s an old-man canopy,” he told me.) As I drive around town, I’m acutely aware that my pickup looks out of place next to the Tesla Model 3s and Porsche Cayennes so popular in our neighborhood. (I would not be surprised to discover that our town was the Porsche Cayenne capital of the world!)

Mostly, I don’t care what other people think. My lifestyle works for me. My choices are aligned with my values, and they’ve helped me (and continue to help me) achieve financial independence. If I were to buy a $69,000 SUV instead of a $1900 pickup, I might look wealthier from the outside, but I wouldn’t be wealthier. I’d be poorer.

So, mostly I don’t care what other people think. But a part of me does. I can’t help it. Like I say, this stuff is burned onto our brains. We want to fit in.

And, like Kim, I haven’t felt comfortable having people over for the past three years. I’m not proud of our home right now. It’s not a place I want to show off. Instead of inviting friends over to sit in the hot tub, Kim and I always suggest we meet elsewhere. As much as I want to believe appearances don’t matter to me, they do. Yes, how things are matters more, but apparently how things seem is still something I consider.

Final Thoughts

Build Your Own MiniAfter years of talking about it, Kim finally bought a new car last month. Her 1997 Honda Accord is gone, replaced by a 2016 Toyota RAV4. The Honda, like my truck, looked like a piece of junk. The paint was peeling and things were falling apart inside the cabin. Kim’s RAV4, on the other hand, is an options-laden thing of beauty.

“Driving the RAV4 makes me feel special,” Kim told me on Monday night. “It’s so fancy. It’s so far ahead of my Honda, it’s ridiculous. It’s like the future. It makes me feel rich!” As you can imagine, this only made me more eager to buy a new car of my own! I I want to feel special. I want to feel rich.

It doesn’t help that the car-buying issue of Consumer Reports came on Tuesday. I’ve spent far too much time in the past week building my own car on various manufacturer websites. Wouldn’t I feel better driving a new car with new features? (Answer: Probably not, but a piece of me believes so.)

Fortunately, it’s not often that I get wrapped up in appearances. When I find myself worried what other people think, I:

  • Remind myself of my personal mission statement. Is a new car aligned with my values? Is a fancy house? Is a successful image? Are there other things that are more important?
  • Connect with like-minded folks. When I don’t spend enough time with my FIRE friends, I begin to feel pressure to conform to societal norms. But when I’m able to attend events like the Financial Freedom Summit or the chautauqua in Ecuador, I realize that I may be a weirdo, but I’m not the only weirdo.
  • Give myself permission to buy what I want. If my spending choices are deliberate, fine. It’s not wrong to buy a new car — and I suspect I’ll do so soon. That might be five weeks from now, or it might be five years. When I do make the purchase, I won’t feel guilty. I can afford it. But I don’t want to succumb to the new-car itch simply for the sake of appearances.

Some people appear rich but have nothing. Some people are rich but appear to have nothing. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. Do appearances matter? I don’t know. My inclination is to say, “No, not at all.” But I feel like the real answer is, “Yes, appearances matter — but just a little.”

What do you think? How important are appearances? How do you balance the way things are and the way things appear? Do you care at all how other people perceive you and your family? Would you drive a 27-year-old pickup? Would give up a fancy condo for a country cottage? As you pursue your financial goals, where do you find the courage to be different?