Runaway Anniversary Gifts

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day about what gift she was getting for her husband for their upcoming wedding anniversary. I knew there was some traditional guideline about what the gift had to be made out of based on the year, but being an unmarried guy (and an engineer to boot) and therefore generally uninterested in this sort of thing, I didn’t know what they actually were. I knew the first one was “paper” and one of the later ones was “diamond” but beyond that I was clueless. So I looked it up and found this:

Anniversary Gifts by Year – Hallmark

I was even more curious now. What did “modern” mean? I wasn’t sure. Although I was definitely sure I shouldn’t be buying my hypothetical wife any appliances. At least I was pretty sure that this was a faux pas (probably basing my knowledge on a movie or sitcom that I might have seen in the past). I did notice (if the “modern” system of gifts is something that’s actually widely practiced) that the gifts are different. They’re more expensive, yes, but they also miss out on what I thought was the general idea behind this tradition: to give gifts, with a theme, that come from the heart.

The traditional list is open to interpretation, and it seems like this is the whole point. Two of my friends just got married; they met a few years ago at a baseball game. For their first anniversary, I wouldn’t expect either one of them to hand the other a ream of paper. Baseball tickets are made out of paper though!

This sort of thoughtfulness just isn’t possible with the new, “updated” list. The first year is “clocks”! How are you supposed to give a gift from the heart when you have to buy a clock? There’s no room for interpretation, nothing comes from the heart. It’s just another piece of consumerism that we’re now being exposed to. The new norm.

Some of them are a little less obtuse, such as “wood” for the sixth year anniversary. But this seems to be pretty rare on the updated list. More typical now is “silverware”, “desk sets”, or “diamond jewelry”. What is a desk set, anyway?

But remember, this list does come from Hallmark, a business that (like all business) only want to make money. So remember that, and remember that our relationships aren’t defined by stuff, gifts, or money.

Photo borrowed from the hallmark.com page linked above. 

Saturday Links!

Permission to Let Go by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, theminimalists.com. These guys are pioneers in the minimalism movement, and they always find a nuanced way to tell you that it’s ok to let your stuff go, to live intentionally and simply, and to make room for what matters in your life.

The Great Mortgage Payoff  by marciab, Proceed Until Apprehended. I’m in the beginning stages of my own mortgage and I’ve been throwing a lot of extra cash at the principal. I’ve never really bought into the idea of “good debt” and it’s great to see other people who have kept going with the goal of being debt-free, even if it’s with something “good” like a house.

Is It Better to Rent or Buy? Mortage-vs-Renting calculator at the New York Times. I’ve written about my own house and a little about how I calculated whether to rent or own, and it’s good to see that this calculator also says that I should definitely have bought a place.

BONUS: I’ve been going a little old school this week.

Photo: It’s rainy season in West Palm Beach. We have two seasons here, “rainy” from June to October, and “dry” from November to May. Also sometimes referred to as “really hot” and “not quite as hot”. During the rainy season, you can expect storms like this every day in the afternoon for at least an hour. 

Saying Goodbye to a Burden

I did it! I sold my truck. It was somewhat of a bittersweet moment; as it drove off I was reminded of all the great times I had hauling my windsurfing rig to the lake in college or taking it off road in the mountains of Tennessee. I didn’t shed a tear though because in the end, it’s just a thing, and (probably more importantly) my pockets were now stuffed with cash.

I didn’t know if I’d actually be able to sell it. The paint was falling off (I put bumper stickers all over it to mitigate this disaster) and it had 211,000 miles on it, and my asking price was pretty high. I would have taken much less than that if someone had tried to negotiate with me, and what ended up happening was a much better offer than I had hoped to get for it.

In the end, I spent about $12,000 on the truck including buying it, maintenance, and upgrading some things. I owned it for six years, and to make the math easier we’ll say I sold it for $3,000. This is $9,000 net cost, or $1,500 per year, or $125 per month.

However, that doesn’t count insurance and registration. Let’s assume I spent about $1000/year in insurance and $150/year in registration. That adds about $95/month which brings the net cost of the truck to $2,650 per year or $220/month.

BUT! That doesn’t count the fact that this truck NEVER got above 17 miles per gallon in fuel economy. This is where the numbers really get gnarly. I put almost 100,000 miles on it in six years and at these dismal rates, assuming $3/gallon, I spent $17,700 in fuel. Almost eighteen thousand dollars. If I had bought a vehicle that got 35 mpg back in 2009 instead of buying the truck, I would only have spent $8,600. That’s a savings of $9,100 dollars that I could have used to pay down a student loan (or put towards a vehicle back in 2009 that didn’t have paint falling off of it).

After accounting for fuel, at $1516 extra per year or $126 extra per month (using the fuel savings as the cost here, since presumably I would have done that driving anyway) brings the Grand Net Total to $28,000. That’s $4,700 per year or $400 per month, which brings me to a life lesson:

OWNING VEHICLES IS EXPENSIVE. 

Try and find the cheapest, most efficient ones you can. I would like to point out that this could be a lot worse if I had chosen to buy a new vehicle and make payments on it. My personal view, which seems to hold up, is that buying used and paying more for maintenance is cheaper than buying new and hoping you won’t have to, so I did save some there. But still…

I also know that maybe I shouldn’t count the registration cost in the grand total since I would have had to pay similar registration costs on an efficient car too, but if you’ve read my previous posts you know that I almost never owned this truck as my only vehicle. I was paying registration costs for other vehicles at the same time, sometimes as many as three at once (although that was in Tennessee and it only cost me $20 per year per vehicle so that’s not so bad, but it doesn’t help prove my point). I still have three other vehicles sitting in my garage (new motorcycle for commuting, my old motorcycle because it was free, and my Beetle). So, I think this cost should be included.

And I did get a lot of utility out of this truck. I used it move all of my other stuff via trailer at least 5 times (normally from a respected trailer rental place but once I borrowed a friend’s horse trailer to move my furniture, not recommended although it was cheaper), and one of those times was from Nashville to West Palm Beach, so it’s not an insignificant savings.

And… I had a lot of great times in the truck. I was sad to see it go but, like I’ve said before, it’s just a thing. Things don’t define us, they help us. They’re tools that improve our lives. Don’t get caught up wasting money on something just because you’ve previously wasted money on something.

Anyway! Let’s not get all misty-eyed over a vehicle. I had somewhere in the neighborhood of $3k burning a hole in my pocket, and wouldn’t you know it? That’s exactly the minimum amount needed to buy an index fund from Vanguard. So that’s exactly what I did. (More on that later!) And I paid off some extra principal on my house. And I took a cute girl out to lunch (and dinner). Because in the end, every guy imagines his truck taking the two of them out to a really nice place, and that’s exactly what mine ended up doing.

Photo: Off road with the truck in the Appalachian Mountains in South Carolina. It was fun to take it out on the trails in the mountains but Florida is pretty much just swamp which is not as exciting. Better surf though!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Above: An undisclosed beach somewhere on the east coast where you can still drive on the sand. Air down the tires and make sure to hose it off when you get home. 


Last picture: Back at Lake Jocassee again, during a big drought in 2011 which lowered the lake about 40 feet. 

Saturday Links!

Living a more minimalist lifestyle is all about cutting out everything that’s holding you back so you can live the life you want to live. Everyone is different! Hopefully some of the interesting things I’ve read recently will inspire you as well.

Minimalism And The Pursuit of Happiness by a guest author at Becoming Minimalist. The goal of a minimalist lifestyle isn’t getting rid of stuff for the sake of getting rid of stuff. It’s about cultivating a life that doesn’t chain you to posessions, and making time for the things that really matter. Sometimes it helps to be reminded of this idea.

Check out this awesome living space. Have you ever seen something simpler? It even makes its own energy and recovers rainwater. Makes me want to sell everything I own and drive around the country with this little capsule.

How the Sunk Cost Fallacy Makes You Act Stupid by Michael Davidson, lifehack.org. Remember this the next time you think something like “But I’ve spent so much time/money on this, I have to keep it longer to get my money’s worth!”

6 Things Mark Cuban Says You Should Do With Your Money in 2015 by Stefanie O’Connell, gobankingrates.com. Mark Cuban is sometimes a controversial figure, but his advice on personal finance is spot-on. He worked his way into his billions, and his work ethic and attitude towards money is largely the reason.

Bonus! What I’m listening to today:

Photo: Downtown Miami from a few weeks ago when I drove across a bridge to Key Biscayne. 

The Most Minimalist Car?

Not that it’s a competition, but…

I spent last week writing about how much money I’ve lost over the years by buying vehicles I don’t need. (I still haven’t sold my truck yet!) So over the past year and a half I’ve been really looking into what we really need in our vehicles. At a bare minimum: Four wheels, a steering wheel, brakes, an engine big enough to move the car at a reasonable speed, no unnecessary seats or cargo space… and that’s pretty much it.

It’s hard to get that in any new-ish car. Most cars come standard with power windows, air conditioning, a stereo, and a bunch of other features that are secondary to getting you where you need to go. These types of cars are great; don’t get me wrong. But can we do a little better? Can we get a little more minimal?

To me, all of these little features are things that will eventually break and are hard to work on yourself. I like working on cars, so if I’m given the option I’ll drive a car without air conditioning versus paying hundreds of dollars later on to fix something that doesn’t directly contribute to me getting to my destination and that, in some cases, is impossible for me to fix myself.

My solution to this problem hasn’t been to get a new car, or a slightly used car, but a VERY used car. Old enough to not have air conditioning, power steering, or even fuel injectors. It gets about 30 mpg which is reasonable, and it’s very easy to work on. It’s an old Volkswagen Beetle.

I know, I know, this approach probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Not everyone wants to cover themselves in grease every weekend with the almost constant tinkering a classic car requires. But bear with me for a minute! Buying a classic car financially makes at least some sense. In most states, registration is a fraction of what a regular car costs. Classic car insurance (in some situations) is less as well. Depreciation on your asset has already happened, so you can generally sell a classic car for at least how much you paid for it, regardless of how long you own it. And “classic” generally only means “old”, so a 80s Toyota is just as much of a classic, legally, as a 69 Camaro. If you only need it to get around town and aren’t taking crazy long road trips, it might be viable!

For me, at least, I’ve found the Beetle to be a great vehicle. It’s easy to work on, it doesn’t have power steering or power windows or locks or air conditioning. It doesn’t have any luxury or frills of any sort. I’ve found that these are all things that can break, and the fewer options a car has, the less likely it’ll be in the shop. The car doesn’t have fuel injection either (it’s easier to work on carburetors) and therefore doesn’t need an ECU (computers are found in 100% of modern cars in the US, and are prone to failure… something that is not user serviceable). This car doesn’t even have a radiator! It’s so simple!

Also, the Beetle turns heads. It’s great fun to drive.

My classic Beetle aside, researching modern “minimalist” cars was actually pretty difficult. There was this great take on how to make your current car minimalist, but in general it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of clamoring for small, simple, and cheap cars. I’d probably point my finger at our consumer culture which demands more features, more buttons, and more space… all at the expense of mileage. An article at autoblog.com had this great quote in it:

 “People say, ‘I only want basic transportation, I want the price to be low, and I want good gas mileage.'” said Brunner, who did market research for the smart car, “But then you ask them what they are going to buy, and it’s not that kind of car.”

Our culture proves my point. Sit in a 90s Honda Civic and you’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder with your passenger. Sit in a brand new Civic and 90s you will think you’re in a Cadillac. Sit in a brand new Cadillac and… well, you get my point.

While the autoblog.com article mentions the Volkswagen as a minimilist vehicle, and another great article called The 10 Greatest Minimalist Cars of All Time features the Volkswagen Thing (mechanically identical to the Beetle) as one of the best, what we truly need now is a return to this style of car. Four wheels, brakes, and a steering wheel. Although today’s emissions and safety probably won’t allow for something quite as spartan as an old Beetle, it’d be great to use it as inspiration.

Photo: One of the 60s ads for the Volkswagen Beetle. Along with the famous “lemon” ad, these changed the automotive and advertising landscape for quite some time. 

New Free Time

An inevitable, but sometimes saddening, fact of life is that any time we free up a resource in our lives, we often fill that void with something else. If we save some cash, we start looking for ways to spend that cash. If we free up some time, we start looking for something else to do.

Would it be so bad if we saved our newfound money and time? If we saved that dollar for a house or for retirement? If we saved that hour to bike to the beach or lay in a hammock?

We don’t have to stress ourselves about always being busy, or always spending money. We can choose to relax and de-stress, rather than fret over what should be considered newfound freedom.

Remember to take time for yourself. More isn’t necessarily better.

Photo: Lake Jocassee in South Carolina. One of my favorite places in the world to go for a breath of fresh air. 

Saturday Links!

Things I’ve read over the past week that I’ve found that are above and beyond the usual Internet. Enjoy!

Getting Rich: from Zero to Hero in One Blog Post by Mr. Money Mustache. I just stubled across this blog recently, and find the author to be a great person to financially look up to. Already retired, making his money work for him, and generally enjoying life. Everything I want for my own life!

What Does Your Work Truck Say About You? by Mr. Money Mustache. One of my favorites on his blog so far, it inspired me to finally cut the chains tying me to my own truck. My truck isn’t as bad as some of the ones he writes about, but it’s not ideal by any stretch of the imagination.

A Life Worth Waking Up For by Joshua Becker, Becoming Minimalist. Productive people always make time to exercise, because your body is the tool that allows you to do everything else. If it’s not your priority, everything else will suffer as a result. This blog post heavily references another article.

How A Year Of Extreme Frugality Changed Us by Mrs. Frugalwoods, frugalwoods.com. One of my favorite blogs out there, the Frugalwoods continuously break the mold of today’s spend-spend-spend culture. Case-in-point: they assume that any expenditure will make them poorer, and work from that starting point. Certainly not typical!

Bonus: What I’m listening to today!

Photo: A picture from my recent trip to California, a beach where a bunch of seals were hanging out. If you look closely you can see them!

My Most Expensive Weakness

I have a problem. I’ve spent way too much money on cars. When I first started my adventure into living a more minimalist lifestyle I knew this would probably be a big hurdle for me. I’m an engineer, and I like getting my hands dirty working on cars on the side. I don’t want to give this up entirely, but I’ve taken some steps to make sure that I’m living the most efficient, simplest life I can without completely eliminating my cathartic hobby.

First, some background:

My first car was perfect. It was old when I got it, no AC, no power anything, a very basic car. Then I decided I’d buy a motorcycle. I had always wanted one, and I was 21 at the time, so I bought a 250cc sport bike that was cheap for a motorcycle. I crashed it (through no fault of my own) and used the insurance money to pay off some of my student loans (great idea!) and to buy myself a bright red sports car (horrible idea!). I was a college student with two cars. And a speeding ticket. How did this make any sense?

I crashed the sports car. That one WAS my fault. I was out about $2000 from that, and ended up getting a truck. Still had that old car, though, but I towed it to my first real job in Tennessee with the new (well, new to me) truck. My commute in Tennessee was 45 minutes, one way. Mistake. Then I decided I’d buy another sports car, and also keep both my truck and my old car. I got bored of the sports car and sold it, at a loss of about $2500. Later on I found a motorcycle on craigslist for $700 that I thought would be a fun project, but right after I bought it I moved to Florida and sold it and about broke even.

When I got to Florida I sold my old car for $500 to a mechanic. I was sad to see it go but I was realizing that it was time to let it go gracefully. The mechanic took great care of it and I like to imagine it’s still on the road. But then I got dumber and decided to buy ANOTHER sports car. I got bored of that one and sold it for a loss of about $3000. By that time I just had my truck, which after spending a bunch of money on upgrades over the years was boasting a respectable 16 mpg.

At about this time I started thinking about what the perfect vehicle would be. I used to work on old Volkswagens with some of my friends, and they are truly great cars (more later). So I found a ’72 Beetle on craigslist for pretty cheap and bought it, and it’s probably the best car I’ve ever owned.

But the Beetle isn’t the greatest daily driver for me (I drive about 50 miles a day to get to my office which is in the middle of nowhere), so I bought a motorcycle. This is also a great vehicle, it gets about 50 mpg and I got it used at a great price. If I can take care of some of the underlying issues with the Beetle (water leaks, etc) then it might be a pretty respectable daily driver, and I could sell my motorcycle.

But I still have that truck. It just doesn’t fit my life anymore. Not to mention the fact that when I bought my house, it came with an antique motorcycle, and now I have four vehicles. None of us is perfect, but this is clearly not minimalist!

I was justifying keeping the truck because of all the home repairs I had been doing lately, but justifications only last for so long before you realize that you’re just fooling yourself. My truck is now up on craigslist, and I plan on using the money I get from it to buy an index fund (more on that later). I’ve probably spent $12,000 on the truck, including oil changes and repairs (and adding a huge steel bumper and winch which I’ve never really used), and in the end I’ll probably only get about $3,000 for it. It used to be fun to take offroading in the mountains in South Carolina and Tennessee, but there aren’t mountainous trails like that around here in South Florida.

I’ve owned it for six years though, and $1500/year isn’t too bad for all the adventure I’ve had in it… until you consider that I’ve put about 100,000 miles on a vehicle that only gets 16 mpg. Then if you count the ~$8k I lost on other cars, I’d love to have all of that money back, but it’s sunk now. We can only move forward, so selling it is the right decision, even if I’m a little late to the game.

I’m trying to balance the enjoyment I get from working on cars and motorcycles with my minimalist lifestyle. I’m going to keep the Beetle; it’s quite possibly the most perfect car ever made. It’s a very simple car, and I was also inspired by another blog post about turning a small car into a big one, so I’m going to make it work for me.

I’m going to keep the motorcycle too, unless my job moves to a closer location. I’d like to live closer to work, but it’s physically impossible to live any closer than about 20 miles from this office. Since I drive about 250 miles a week, it makes sense to have a simple vehicle for commuiting that gets 50+ mpg. (Filling up costs me about $7. It’s awesome!)

And, about the antique motorcycle: It came with the house, so I didn’t spend any money on it. It has a surfboard rack, so I can get to the beach (which has notoriously difficult parking for cars) and park in subtle places very easily. In Florida, you don’t necessisarily have to have insurance on motorcycles, so the motorcycle is free for me to operate (except about $15/year for classic motorcycle registration). I’m guessing it gets a respectable 30 mpg too, but I can’t tell right now because the speedometer (and trip counter) don’t work. I can sell it for probably $1500, so why not? I like working on motorcycles too!

So that’s my plan. Selling the truck will save me over $1000 a year, and that’s money I can put into my house or to paying down my student loan. I have two other simple vehicles that I have fun working on, that work for the lifestyle I have, and that are crazy cheap to own and operate. I think I’m doing better! And I also have to remind myself not to fall for the sunk cost fallacy, and also that it’s not too late to stop wasting money on vehicles. I just hope no potential buyers are reading this blog.

Photo: My 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle, using the surf rack to carry a ladder. My truck had been in the shop for four months, and this was taken during that time.