Keeping Up with the Florida Joneses

South Florida is a great place to live, but there are two things here that most other places don’t have that take some adjustment: an extremely long, hot summer and a wealth of wealthy people. It’s sometimes difficult to stick to a minimal lifestyle and, at the same time, be surrounded by people who don’t just keep up with the Joneses, but have blown them out of the water in every way possible.

For example, a few of the historic neighborhoods around where I live have “home tours” every year, where a handful of homeowners open their homes up and invite the rest of the neighbors to come through and see how they’ve improved their old homes and tended their (often expansive) gardens. I go to these so I can meet the neighbors, get style ideas for my own house, enjoy some frosty beverages in the block party-like atmosphere, and genenerally make myself feel completely inadequate as a homeowner.

I don’t necessarily feel like this is a bad thing, however, as long as I remind myself that most of these people are either much more well-off than I am or are swimming in debt. Since I don’t want to go into debt just to have a nice back yard, and I don’t try to spend money to keep up the appearance of a wealthy lifestyle (have you seen my car?) when I could instead use that money to retire early, the opulence rolls off of me like rain on a freshly-waxed car.

It would be nice to have a perfectly manacured back yard with palm trees providing shade everywhere, but not at the expense of everything else. After all, I can appreciate the engineering and style that’s in a $100k Mercedes while, at the same time, not have any desire to get rid of my old beater car. It suits me, but there are some times that I have to focus more on my long-term goals than short-term pleasantries.

There Is No Free Lunch

I recently started doing one of the most basic things anyone can do to cut expenses: bringing my lunch to the office. It seems really simple, but for some reason I resisted this for a long time before finally realizing the impact that eating out every day was having on my financial health.

My first “real” job was as an engineering intern. Most of the engineers in the office would go out every day for lunch as a way to escape the office, and I started developing this sentiment about lunch as well. Most of us didn’t become engineers so we could sit in cubicles all day, so when 11:30 rolled around, it was time to hit the road and unwind a little. And spend money on food. It wasn’t exactly “the dream” but it was at least a little escape.

I didn’t think much of the money issue at the time, either. It was nice to be able to afford food that wasn’t in a can, as I was getting paid pretty well (for a college student). And I didn’t like being in the office any more than any of the other engineers so I didn’t have a second thought about it.

My first job out of college was in the middle of nowhere, and I brought my lunch to the office because there was literally nowhere else to eat. The nearest restaurant was a Taco Bell 20 minutes away, and my lunch was only 30 minutes long so this wasn’t exactly feasible from a math perspective. Unfortunately, I didn’t put together how much money I was saving by bringing my lunch to work every day.

Fast forward to now: I work in a more developed area, and it’s possible for me to eat out for lunch every day. And for a few years, I did. Let’s crunch some numbers:

$10/day for four years adds up to around $8,000. I’ve been spending about $8/week in lunch since I decided to bring it in to the office instead, which should save me around $7,000 over the same time frame.

I think another reason it’s so tempting to spend money every day on lunch is that it’s not a lot of money all at once. If it were, I would have thought twice about my habit a little earlier. Luckily I’m still in my 20s, with some time left to make up for past mistakes.

Even so, I still treat lunch as a “sacred” time where work doesn’t get done (or even get talked about, for the most part). But I realize now that I don’t have to spend money in order to take a break from the hustle and bustle of office life.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons 

It’s Saturday, October 31!

Spooky! I’ll be dressed as Waldo tonight. Last year I counted 13 Waldos at the Halloween shindig I went to, so it ironically won’t be that easy to spot me.

The awesomeness of not being important by Steve, This is a great, if under-appreciated, goal to achieve in one’s career.

Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal has a long, complicated history by Megan Geuss, This has been a really interesting story to follow, both from an engineering point-of-view and a business point-of-view. This story goes into depth over the history of why (probably) Volkswagen did what it did.

Financial Independence: How Long Will It Take? An interesting look at how tweaking some numbers can make early retirement much more feasible, or at least move that retirement date a little closer. Always run the numbers!

The IRS Tax Code Makes No Sense – What You Should Know About IRA Tax Deduction Phase Outs, The tax code is complicated. It’s especially interesting how marriage isn’t the financial benefit it once was, too.

BONUS: What I’m listening to this week:

Photo: I’m in this picture somewhere. Can you find me? 

401k: Not Just A Bunch of Numbers and a Letter Anymore

I’m one of the lucky ones whose employer makes matching contributions to a 401k. For that reason alone, I contributed enough money to get that company match when I hired on, but only just enough to get that match. Free money, right?

In the past few years I’ve been promoted and have gotten a few modest (cost-of-living) raises as well, but I’ve never increased my 401k contribution. I had a “set it and forget it” mindset, though, and it never occurred to me to contribute more to it even though I make a little more money now. If I wasn’t getting more company match, then anything that I added above that was money that would go into nothingness, and that I wouldn’t ever get to enjoy it.

I was falling prey to a common fallacy with retirement and financial independence: it’s so far away I’ll never get there.

Recently, though, with my adventure into a simpler way of living I’ve realized that minimalism is a route to financial independence. For me, retirement isn’t 62 or 65, it’s more in the 42 to 45 range. That’s only about 15 years away! I can easily remember what I was doing 15 years ago: I was about to start high school. Really puts this time frame into perspective! At least, I don’t feel like high school was that long ago…

Anyway, this made me realize one thing, in bold neon letters: I need to step up my saving game!

Of course, I was doing this somewhat indirectly. I don’t buy stuff just for stuff’s sake anymore. I sold a ton of my junk and I don’t order non-consumable things on Amazon with reckless abandon like I once did. However, this is all after-tax saving, and the more I looked into it the more I realized there was more I could be doing for myself.

So I increased my 401k contribution a few percentage points. Even though my company won’t match my contributions above the amount I was already making, the tax shelter that the 401k provides is kind of like getting free money anyway. Even though I’ll have to pay taxes when I make withdrawals (one day!), my tax-free earnings can grow unfettered until then.

I started off with a 2% increase above what I was already contributing. This amounts to well under $100 for me per paycheck which won’t hurt me at all, and will account for well over $1000 per year at my current pay rate. I’ll look to increase this even more in the near future in order to increase my savings percentage and progress with my goal of becoming financially independent. Right now my savings rate is about 20% but with some more lifestyle changes hopefully I will be able to increase this even further.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It’s Saturday, October 24th!

Spend $25,000 to Save $9,000? by J. MONEY, I don’t make quite enough money to have these problems just yet, but it’s interesting to see how the tax code works sometimes, and how the government kind of wants you to save for retirement.

A 23-year-old Google employee lives in a truck by Kathleen Elkins, I would definitely do this if my company served breakfast, lunch, and dinner for free. And if they made me work 100% of my waking hours. Relevant Dilbert.

How much is your job really costing you? by Steve, Unless you live in a truck, probably a lot more than you think. And if you live in a truck because you work 16-hour days, it’s probably costing you more than money, too.

My Three Favorite Really Stupid Reasons Not To Save For Retirement, I’ve fallen guilty to every single one of these. No more! On a related note, I just upped my 401k contribution, so that’s cool.

BONUS: What I’m listening to this week!

Good Charlotte is in my fall music playlist, and since I’m currently in Oklahoma City and it feels more like fall here than it does in Florida, I pulled out some music that I used to listen to in middle school for all the nostalgia.

Photo: This is why I’m in Oklahoma. My first time climbing a wind turbine, and what a view!

Is a Classic Car Cheaper than a New Car?

I’m a big proponent of buying an antique car if you need a vehicle get around. As long as you take your time and pick a model that’s known for reliability (hint: no K cars!), and look at a lot of cars to make sure you don’t get a junker, you can get a great deal. Of course, you’d probably like for someone who is advocating something as unusual as this to put their money where their mouth is, and that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve bought a classic Mercedes to use as my daily driver.

Until recently, I was driving my motorcycle every day, and it was great! Motorcycles are a great combination of exciting and cheap. And, in certain situations, the risks can be mitigated well enough to enjoy the 50+ mpg that most motorcycles will give. I recently took a new job in an overdeveloped and poorly-planned section of suburban sprawl in South Florida, however, and while it’s much closer to work I felt that the risks of driving a motorcycle every day were unmanageable in that environment.

On the plus side, though, my commute is about 20 miles per day closer to my home. The math tells me that I can drive a car that gets around 30 mpg in order to spend about the same amount of fuel as I was spending on my motorcycle.

I also wanted something that’s decently safe. My old Beetle is fun and cool, but there’s little more than sheet metal protecting me from any impacts. At least on the motorcycle I’m wearing a helmet. Anyway, I remember one of my friends in high school had a diesel Mercedes from the 80s and T-boned an SUV with it. The SUV (which a lot of people would presume would be safer) had a higher center of mass and rolled over, while my friend walked away without a scratch. I know this is anecdotal evidence, but those old Mercedes really are built like tanks.

I’ve had my eye on a Mercedes station wagon for a while. It’d be much easier to transport surfboards and building materials in a wagon than in a sedan, but that wasn’t really in the cards for me. The wagons of that era are about three times as expensive now, and pretty rare to boot (British pun intended). Since I needed a car pretty urgently to get me off of my motorcycle, I settled on the sedan. A 84′ 300D turbo diesel, to be specific.

These cars are notorious for going hundreds of thousands of miles without needing major engine work. Diesel engines are built much more robustly than gasoline engines are. They have even been known to go a million miles, in which case Mercedes has been known to buy the car back and put it in a museum, or at least give the owner a cool badge to put on the grill. They’re over-engineered in pretty much every area which gives the driver the illusion of driving around in a bank vault, and so far this has been my experience.

I looked at a few before picking one up, and none of them were perfect. But it’s unreasonable to expect to buy a 30-year-old car and have it be flawless, unless you’re buying it for tens of thousands of dollars out of someone’s showroom. This Mercedes cost me just north of $2k, which is what I would have put down on a new car. But it did need a little bit of work.

The obvious things were the tires and the battery, so I estimated about $500 right there. It had been sitting for a while, so I knew it would need all of its fluids changed sooner rather than later. The most pressing of these is the engine oil, which is especially important in high-mileage engines in general and diesels most of all. So I took care of those things, and then a couple other things popped up.

The car snapped one of its alternator belts when the alternator bearings seized. The cab filled with smoke from the broken belt rubbing against the other belts, but really this was no big deal: I just changed the alternator and the belts. Then the glow plug relay stopped working, which meant that the car was likely to kill the battery trying to start (it’s a quirk of diesel engines, since they don’t have spark plugs). The car also needs new fuel filters. But after all of that cleared up I seem to have a pretty good vehicle on my hands. It doesn’t burn engine oil, there’s no coolant in the oil or vice-versa, and it gets 31 mpg which means I could go about 600 miles on a tank of gas.

The car’s still not perfect, but for just north of $3k I have a very capable tool to get to work. That’s only slightly more than a down payment on a new car! Not to mention that it’s a stellar ride that turns heads. But there are a few more quirks that may or may not get fixed. Neither the odometer nor the fuel gage work, so it’s difficult to tell how much fuel is left in the tank (not to mention calculate my mileage). The air conditioning doesn’t work, but I don’t need air conditioning to get around; it’s just a luxury to me. It also has some rust on the body. If you get an older car, it’ll have a few quirks like this that you should be prepared to either live with or pay to fix. I have a tendency to go with the former option.

Mechanic work aside, I created a spreadsheet that will document all of my expenses with this car. Hopefully it’ll end up being cheaper than a new car, but right now that’s not QUITE the case.

Purchase 9/19/2015  $2,300.00 total
Registration/sales tax 9/21/2015  $   199.35  $3,875.75
oil/filter 9/21/2015  $     51.91 per-month cost
insurance 9/21/2015  $   285.00  $1,937.88
voltage regulator 9/22/2015  $     51.93 hypothetical monthly payments
glow plug relay 9/27/2015  $   116.59  $1,391.40  per mo
fuel filters 10/2/2015  $     52.50
tires 10/3/2015  $   411.20
alternator 10/5/2015  $   144.68
battery 10/9/2015  $   154.84
belts 10/9/2015  $     43.75
diesel purge + fuel cap 10/12/2015  $     64.00

I’m counting everything I spend money on except for fuel. So far it’s just parts because I do most of my own work. This is a key to owning a classic: if you’re not willing to get your hands dirty it’ll be orders of magnitude more expensive to take it into a shop every time something goes wrong. Especially if it’s something small like a belt or an alternator.

The “hypothetical payments” cell is what I’m keeping track of. I want to see how the costs of a classic car would compare to a repayment schedule on a loan for a new car. First, I deducted $2,000 from the total (to account for a hypothetical down payment on a car) and I deducted the cost of insurance and registration (because I’d have to pay those on a new car anyway). Then I divided that number by the number of months I’ve owned the car. This gives me a per-month cost that approximates what “payments” I would have had to make on a new car to equal the amount of money I’ve spent on this old one. Right now, if I can go just four months without anything major happening, I’ll have broken even with “hypothetical payments” around $280. It might take a little bit longer to “break even” in this fashion because I think I’ll have to replace the brakes pretty soon. But even assuming I spend $1,000 on the brakes, it’ll only take me about four more months to pay that cost back down.

After one month I have a “monthly payment” amount of $1,400, which is the same monthly payment I could have had on a 2016 Mercedes S-550. After two months, though, I’d be down to driving a 2015 Mercedes E250 for about $650/month. (How does anyone afford a car like this in real life? It’s crazy!) Hopefully after a few more months I’ll be hypothetically driving around in a Honda Fit, and then every month after that is a month that I paid less for my cool, old Benz than I would have paid for that Honda.

I hope that this car will save me some money in other ways too. For example, it’s crazy slow. I would estimate the 0-60 time to be anywhere from 30 seconds to a week and a half. (There’s some work that I need to do on the fuel delivery system, which might improve its pickup a little bit. It’s criminally slow now though.) I’m counting its snail pace as a feature, however, considering how much trouble my 300ZX and my Miatas got me into. Tickets (and crashes) cost money too! It does cruise really nicely on the highway, though, although I haven’t figured out how to turn the cruise control on yet.

I also haven’t figured out how to lock the doors, but my solution to this is to make sure the cab is empty and all my valuables are in the trunk. The trunk locks independently from the rest of the car, so I think this is a cheap and effective solution. Oh, and one of the windows is stuck and won’t really roll down, but it’s one of the back ones so who cares?

Part of the fun of a classic car is getting in and having it start up. It really makes me appreciate having a car that works! It’s too easy to take a newer car for granted. But (mostly through paranoia) I’ve mistaken a number of things for sounds that my car was making since a greater possibility exists for it to break down from time to time. These include, but are not limited to: a squeaky minivan passing me, someone else’s stereo, a jackhammer at a construction site, a nail gun being used in a house in my neighborhood, a train on the tracks beside me, and an ice cream truck.

I have the motorcycle if it needs something done to it that takes longer than an afternoon, and I wouldn’t recommend a classic car as a daily driver unless you have some sort of safety net like this. You could even use public transportation in a pinch (maybe). But if you have the right mindset and a set of wrenches, a classic car can be a cheaper, cooler, and more unique alternative than sitting in a boring new car.

The Other OTHER Use For a Bedroom

I live in a two-bedroom house. This is pretty much the smallest house that’s readily available, but I always considered the second bedroom a kind of burden to a single (as in number) person. I only NEED one bedroom, because I only need one bed. Why the extra room? What is one person supposed to do with it? And, is it really as big of a deal as I am making it out to be?

The pragmatic reason here is that most people who buy homes have or are planning to have a family, or at the very least would like to have an office or guest room. I don’t have (or plan to have) children, and the minimalist in me would be happy with a couch that doubles as a hide-a-bed to use when guests come over. I don’t entertain that often, and when I do it usually involves friends from college who would be happy sleeping on a couch anyway.

Single-bedroom houses don’t seem to be very common in the US (if anywhere). I guess the solution most people come up with is to buy a condo, but that’s out-of-the-question for me because I’m not living somewhere where I’m beholden to an HOA. Been there, done that. I also like having a garage for my projects, and, from my time living in a high-rise, I don’t like taking an elevator anytime I want to go outside.

All of that aside, though, I tend to regard the bedroom as a colossal waste in ANY modern living space. For a room that is only used for sleeping (well, maybe not JUST for sleeping), having an entire room devoted to something that you do in about 60 cubic feet of space seems needless. This is compounded by the fact that the master bedroom in a typical house is often one of the largest rooms there is. I’m not sure how this practice came about or why we continue to devote so much space to literally nothing.

But I’m always on the lookout for a solution to problems (largely imagined, I suppose), and since I don’t currently have the means of building a half-bedroom one-bathroom house, I think I stumbled upon a way to use my house that gets me the maximum amount of use out of the space.

First of all, my bedroom is in the smaller room. Like I said before, it’s crazy that the bedroom is expected to be the largest room in the house while getting (possibly) the least amount of use ( again, I’m considering sleeping ONLY…).

This works out in my house particularly well because the room in which my bed resides is in the back corner of the house, away from the road noise (and, to some extent, the noise from the international airport that’s just to the south of me).

Secondly, I keep nothing in this room besides the furniture. This includes clothes! That way, if anyone in the bed wakes up and wants to get dressed, use a computer, start soldering some wires, turn the lights on, get a towel to take a shower, etc, they can do so without waking any other sleeping person(s) in the bed with undue noise, light, or solder fumes.

Everything that would be in a bedroom closet is in the closet in the other “bedroom”. I’ve outfitted this room with a desk and futon (so it could potentially double as a true “spare” bedroom if needed; I’m not a savage or anything). This way it’s possible for me to work in the extra room while guests sleep comfortably in the actual bedroom.

As a bonus, the desk is situatied in front of the window so anyone sitting down to, say, write this blog post, has a beautiful view of the beautiful Florida cityscape in which I live.

So, if you too struggle with waking up your significant other, or your guests, or just want a good way to utelize that second bedroom, maybe consider something along these lines. I don’t know if you’ll realize the same results that I have, but it might be worth a shot!

Photo: My actual bedroom. Does it look like it belongs in Florida? 

It’s Saturday, October 17th!

…and I’m back from a brief internet hiatus. But lots of other things have happened in the past month that are worth looking into:

This is What a Real Bomb Looks Like by Adam Fabio, Definitely not anything to do with minimalism or financial independence, but in the wake of the “bomb” incident in Texas, some perspective is in order.

Why Your $80,000 Car Doesn’t Impress Me Any Longer by Steve, I work for a Fortune-500 company, and these cars are everywhere. But I also see people who have no other purpose in life except for their job, so I guess it kind of fits in certain situations. Not for me though!

From zero to $15,000 in dividend income in 8 years, I’ve become a big fan of this blog because it gets into the specifics of (at least one way of) how to become financially independent. I’m in this guy’s shoes circa 2007, but dividend investing is looking more and more appealing to me as I research it.

BONUS! What I’m listening to this week.

Any guesses why? Hint: it’s in the first verse!

Photo: Another hint. 

So, A Lot Has Happened Recently

Yep. I know it’s cliché for a blogger to say “sorry for not posting so much!” but really… it’s been hectic lately. Let’s run down the list!

First, I got a new job. Same company but a different location, new boss, mo’ money, etc. It’s much more interesting than what I was previously doing, and it came with some other perks as well. I’ve been spending a lot of time transitioning to my new office and my new role. I also work longer hours but it’s offset with “flex time” so I’m pretty happy there too.

The only downside is that since the new job is in the city, I wasn’t too comfortable riding my motorcycle to work every day. When I commuted 50 miles a day into desolate, swampy south-central Florida it wasn’t a big deal because there wasn’t ever any traffic and about 95% of the drive was on divided highways. The new job is a much shorter commute but it’s stop-and-go traffic through some congested roads. That’s not good for motorcycle safety. So I bought a car.

And, since I’ve mentioned it before, I didn’t get a new car. Although I did think about it! I was in the Honda dealership about to buy a Fit when a particular manufacturing detail caught my eye and caused me to abandon my pursuits. Let’s just say that I’m worried that Honda is going to have the same problems that Volkswagen has in North America, but that’s a topic for another post. Hint: it has nothing to do with diesel.

So I bought a Mercedes. And not just any Mercedes: A 31-year-old turbo diesel. I picked it up for about what my down payment would have been on the Honda, but it did take me about three weeks’ worth of work to get it running again. It had been sitting unloved for about four years, so almost every day when I came home from work I’d open the hood and twist bolts until the sun set. I’ll be writing a little bit more about this soon, since I’m a big proponent of buying antique cars as a way to save money.

And yes, I do have my Volkswagen still, but it seems to have decided that now would be a really good time to blow out its rear main seal. I’ll have to drop the engine to fix that but sometimes old cars take some coaxing to get back on the road. I’m not particularly upset about it because I know it comes with the territory of owning an older car. Plus, I don’t consider the Beetle reliable transportation; it’s a fun project that keeps my engineering brain sharp that I could sell at any time for essentially the amount of money I have in it. It’s win-win for me!

Oh, and I did sell my Yamaha motorcycle, so that went to offset the cost of the Mercedes a little bit. I got it essentially for free when I bought my house, so I’m chalking that up as a win too.

Speaking of the house, though, I started doing some repairs to my detached garage… which quickly turned in to more work than I was expecting. So that’s been going on too.


This was what was holding up my roof. Sort of. You come across things like this when your house was built in the 40s and you live in a really wet area with lots of termites.

Let’s sum up. New job, still writing for a few blogs on the side, mowing a few lawns in the neighborhood on the other side, new old car that needed fixing to I could get to work without fearing for my life, old old car needing major repairs, garage in shambles. Oh yeah: my first priority regardless of all of my projects is generally to get to the beach and surf if the waves are up. And the past three weeks we got epic surf from Hurricane Joaquin. And I do not use the word epic lightly.

It was like this for three weeks. That’s unheard of for South Florida, especially since we’re still in the rainy season. And my bike got stolen too. Aww! So there’s been a lot on my plate, but I’m back now!

Photo: Not your grandmother’s car, but close. 

Saturday Links! September 5, 2015

Welcome to the next great month! It might be fall for you, but it is still very hot here in South Florida. It’s great how technology can span the distances so well, and allow me to provide you with this great reading material.

Your job vs. your work: Retirement police, listen up! by Steve, A great piece about why people want to retire early, and it often involves much less golfing than you would imagine. If it were me, my hobby-turned-profession would be working on classic cars, or writing, or surfing, or any number of other cubicle-less activities.

5 Ways to Make Minimalism Work for Your Budget by Sam Lustgarten, A gentle reminder that minimalism and living inexpensively don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. You can let anything get out of control. Be aware of everything you do, even if you’re doing less of it.

Shadow Work and the Rise of Middle-Class Serfdom by Brett and Kate McKay, I’ve certainly noticed this in my daily life, I just never realized there was a name for it. One thing I have noticed, however, is that when conveniences are added to our lives, we rarely use them as opportunities to slow down. Rather, we use them as opportunities to cram more into our lives.

BONUS! What I’m listening to this week:

The latest from my favorite West Palm Beach band, Raggy Monster.

Photo: Spring 2010, surfing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I took a week long surf trip on the road with my truck and one of my friends from high school, covering every surf break from Virginia Beach to Jacksonville.