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, thinksaveretire.com. 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, nosidebar.com. 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, artofmanliness.com. 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. 

My Other Minimal Vehicle

A while ago I extolled the virtues of driving a classic car instead of a newer one. Fewer features means fewer things to break, not to mention that classic car registration and insurance are often much cheaper than those of a more modern car. However, if tinkering in the garage every weekend maintaining your 25+ year old vehicle isn’t up your alley, there’s another option that I think is often overlooked: motorcycles.

Motorcycles cover all the bases that I look for in transportation. It just has to get me where I’m going at a minimum of cost. There are some tradeoffs that I’ll get to in a minute, but in general a motorcycle is a great way to do this. They’re orders of magnitude cheaper than a car. Additionally, and like a classic car, motorcycle registration and insurance is often much cheaper than a modern car. They’re also (generally) simpler vehicles to maintain, and are much more user-serviceable than a comparably aged car.

My daily driver is a small-ish but comfortable cruiser, and I’ve been driving it to work and back for about a year and a half now. You can pick one up for much cheaper than any comparable used car. My motorcycle is great on long trips, great at carrying a passenger, and has been extremely reliable for me. I’ve put quite a few miles on it and have only had to change the oil, air filter, and tires. And there’s two fewer of those than on any car, too.

Motorcycles also get amazing mileage. My first motorcycle, a Kawasaki Ninja 250R, got over 70 mpg. My first employer let me ride it for business and reimbursed at $0.59/mile, which works out to over $30/gallon that I was getting in mileage. It’s great! Even my current heavier cruiser-style motorcycle gets 50 mpg which is amazing because my commute is over 50 miles per day. When compared against my truck, this is a yearly savings of around $1,500 in fuel alone.

Let’s get to the elephant in the room, though. I know motorcycles are dangerous. I was in a pretty bad accident on my first motorcycle when an SUV pulled out in front of me and I collided with a 4000 pound hunk of metal at about 40 mph. I woke up in the hospital a few hours later with no memory of the entire day, and various slings and tubes attached to my body. However, I believe the risk can be mitigated in some circumstances. I can’t recommend riding a motorcycle as a daily driver in a climate where it rains a lot. I also wouldn’t recommend it if you’d be driving a lot at night, or if you live and commute in a crowded city. Or if you live in a college down that is dominated by drivers with little driving experience. My commute, though, is 25 miles into deserted university-free swampland in central Florida on a divided highway, so except for the occasional afternoon shower I believe my risk is pretty well mitigated. If I took another job that wasn’t in the middle of nowhere, I’d probably get a little car to commute for safety reasons.

Additionally, most motorcycle accidents happen because a rider has overestimated their abilities. Ever see a sport bike rocket in between traffic on the interstate, and the rider is only wearing a t-shirt and shorts? Statistically, those people skew the statistics. And a large percentage of motorcycle accidents happen to riders who have been riding less than six months. I always recommend new riders get a 250cc motorcycle as their first bike because they are much more forgiving, and we all make mistakes. But in general: stay within your limits, ride safely, always wear your helmet (and jacket, boots, gloves, and pants), and don’t go out unless it’s a beautiful day.

Safety, economics, and practicality aside, though, motorcycles are fun. Almost everyone asked me how I could get back on one after my wreck, and this simple answer is the best one I have. The first time I rode one over 10 mph I thought I was flying. It feels kind of like a bicycle, but there’s no way it should be going that fast! It’s crazy! And that feeling hasn’t gone away for me, either. I always get a thrill out of riding one, even if it’s just to the store for a loaf of bread. If I didn’t need my Shadow for my commute, I’d consider selling it but I’d keep my old Yamaha just so I can scratch that itch every now and then. If I sell them both, I know I’ll end up with another one in the future anyway because I’ll miss the excitement too much. Life is too short to sit around eating ramen and driving a 10-year-old beater car, and motorcycles are cheap enough that they’re a much more enjoyable alternative for some minimalist lifestyles.

But, since we recently had a bit of a storm scare in South Florida, I’m obligated to remind you that neither a motorcycle nor a classic Volkswagen is particularly suited to any hurricane weather or post-hurricane disaster relief. Or evacuation. So you should probably take my recommendation with a grain of salt!

Ride safe, my friends!

Photo: My daily driver, an ’06 Honda Shadow. A great bike for making it look like you ride a Harley, except this one is reliable. If you want to see my unreliable vintage bike head over here and scroll down. 

Hurricane Erika – Update

After maybe briefly making hurricane status (and causing a lot of panic in Florida) Hurricane Erika disappeared after tracking a little too far west and hitting mountains in Hispaniola and Cuba. We did get a bunch of rain and wind (and I got to surf on my new Meyerhoffer board!) but luckily I didn’t have to test out my new storm shutters on my old house.

I did get a chance to participate in the hurricane panic, though. I went to the grocery store to get 10 gallon jugs of water about six days before the projected landfall. (Recommendations say each person needs about 1-2 gallons of water a day. Don’t forget you have to flush the toilet too!) The grocery store was cleaned out, as everyone stocked up on bread and milk. It reminded me a little bit of growing up in the Carolinas when a snow storm was forecasted. We’d maybe get an inch of snow and everyone would panic and storm the grocery store (pun intended). The hurricane threat in Florida is a little more real than the snow threat in the Carolinas, though.

I also went to Home Depot to help a friend of mine buy plywood about four days before the projected landfall. He’s been renovating a house from scratch, and getting hurricane shutters (justifiably) wasn’t on the top of his to-do list until recently. I think we bought 22 sheets of plywood, but we had to wait in line to get them.

Probably the worst thing that happened to me this weekend was sitting on the side of the road for 45 minutes because my surfing friend locked his key in the car after we got out of the ocean. Oh well! At least we only live a mile or so from the beach. No harm done!

Hurricane season isn’t quite over yet, thought, so we’re not quite out of the woods for the year. Due to the El Nino we’re having, however, we’re not forecast to get very many storms this year. Good for my house, bad for my surfing! But each time we get a scare, it’s a good reminder that we could lose anything at any time. Even if we’re not in Florida during hurricane season.

Photo: Tropical Storm Erika’s actual track, showing a path over some substantial mountains, then turning into a tropical depression, then a tropical wave, then a brief rainstorm. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday Links! August 29, 2015

As Tropical Storm Erika lazily approaches my house, I have cleverly used the “publish later” feature of WordPress to bring you these interesting tidbits on-schedule even if my power goes out this weekend. Isn’t technology great?!

What Kurt Cobain Teaches Us about Freethinking and Minimalism by Brian Gardner, nosidebar.com. Minimalism through the eyes of the legendary frontman of Nirvana. From his music to his lifestyle, the advantages of living a simple life made Cobain the force he was.

Where the US Gets its Oil From by Randy Olson, randalolson.com. A huge symbol of our overconsuming lifestyles (at least in the United States) is our dependence on fossil fuels. But really, this is just an interesting graph that shows the difference between what people think they know and what is actually true.

How Much Is Your Time Worth by Stefanie, thebrokeandbeautifullife.com. Your free time isn’t necessarily worth the same amount, all the time. (I might argue that it’s definitionally “free”.) But it depends on context, and your opportunity cost. A very interesting read and a unique take on what you could bill your “free” time out for.

BONUS: What I’m listening to this week:

Honest, chill music. I might categorize it as shoegaze, but I’m no expert. Just a fan.

Photo: I helped my friends work on this old buggy a while back. Hard to believe, but it’s based on an old Volkswagen Bus. Volkswagens are very versatile and very minimal vehicles!

Hurricane Erika

Earlier today, Hurricane Erika (now downgraded to a tropical storm) was forecast to make landfall within about 40 miles of where I live. Since my house is about a mile from the coastline, any hurricane approaching Florida’s Atlantic coast is generally a concern for me. (Although some that make landfall on the Gulf coast can impact the entire peninsula quite substantially.) My house was built in 1949 and doesn’t quite comply with the latest wind loading portions of the building codes, so things could get dicey.

Anyway, Erika is now supposed to head north of me (hopefully driving a little surf my way) but this could easily change. It also drives home a point-of-view I’ve had about living minimally, possibly a view I wouldn’t have without living in a place like South Florida: It’s a lot easier to pack up and get out-of-town if you don’t have much to take with you.

This particular storm is probably only going to make landfall as a category 1 storm, which means evacuation won’t be necessary. But we could easily have a more severe storm later in the season that would require evacuation. I can easily say I don’t have much I’d take with me. Probably this laptop, a few books to read, maybe I could take a surfboard with me. I’d also grab my safe which just has a copy of my mortgage and a hard drive with backups of all of my files. (It’s only safe from fire and water, and only for maybe an hour.) But that’s about it. Minimalism has allowed me to live a life without a huge amount of valuables, which is a very convenient way to live in a disaster-prone area like Florida. I won’t be worried about all of my “stuff” while I’m heading out of harm’s way, and I have insurance on the house so I don’t really need to worry about that either.

I haven’t been through a hurricane before, since I’ve only lived here on the coast for about four years. It’s been a pretty mild few years as far as hurricanes go, too. My first summer we had two misses that just dumped a ton of rain here: Hurricane Isaac and Hurricane Sandy. Despite doing considerable damage up north, Sandy didn’t do much here besides cause epic surf. I also lived through Tropical Storm Barry when I was living in Charleston, which as far as I know only overturned a john boat in the harbor. Hopefully Erika won’t do much more than give me a small taste of what a real hurricane is like, and a new appreciation of my lifestyle. And maybe toss up some waves, too!

I’ll keep everyone updated if I can; if there’s damage anywhere in Florida my day job requires me to go out and fix it. I could be gone for a while depending on the situation, but if the predictions come true the damage probably won’t be very severe.

Photo: Current track of Erika, forecast to make landfall pretty close to where I live. “05L 2015 5day” by National Hurricane Center – http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/refresh/graphics_at5+shtml/024057.shtml?5day#contents. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:05L_2015_5day.gif#/media/File:05L_2015_5day.gif

Also, for your viewing pleasure:

Saturday Links! August 22, 2015

The Routine is the Enemy Of Time, retire29.com. An interesting view on living life, and a way of life that asks us to pay attention to each moment before they all disappear.

Three Months of Early Retirement, livingafi.com. Early retirement has been a dream of mine for a long time, and it’s good to read about someone who’s just taken the leap. There’s hope out there!

What We Won’t Miss About Working, ournextlife.com. Speaking of which…

BONUS! What I’m listening to this week:

Just a good, honest jam.

Photo: Got a great deal on this surfboard, a Meyerhoffer XYZ, which arrived in the mail this week. Unfortunately there probably won’t be surf good enough to ride this board for another month or so. To maintain my minimalist cred, I’m selling a 7’2″ board that’s been sitting in my garage for a while. If you’re also interested in surfing, this is the deal about the funny shape:

Best of Craigslist

One of the best tools of most minimalists is craigslist, a free online classifieds page where you can sell anything. Quite literally, anything. I’ve used it to sell countless things in order to declutter my life, and it continues to be a powerful tool for me personally. I occasionally even buy things from it! But usually it’s just surfboards, and only when I find a really great deal.

But to some people, craigslist can be daunting. It’s all up to the two parties to agree on a price and a meeting location, and sometimes it can get… weird. But I’m here to alleviate some of that anxiety by sharing my best (and worst) craigslist stories! I firmly believe that most people are pretty normal, and the odds of you entering into a dangerous situation via craigslist are less likely than meeting some crazy on the street.

First, let me quantify “anything”. You can put anything up for sale on craigslist. Provided the price is right, it’s almost guaranteed to sell. For example, when I bought my first house there was some leftover junk that the previous owners left behind. Namely some cheap plastic planters on the front porch and a bunch of cheap wire shelving in the garage. But rather than cart it to the curb, I listed both things on craigslist. The shelving sold for $10 and the pots sold for another $10, and I didn’t even have to take the time and energy to carry this junk to the curb. I also sold a bird bath from the front yard, which I promised the previous owner that I’d keep. However, bird baths are little more than mosquito breeding grounds here in South Florida, so I sold it for $15 to some middle-aged folks who were looking for an Easter present for their grandparents, rather than keep it and shell out money for bug spray.

Not everything is as simple as selling junk from your house, though. When I started my senior year of college I didn’t have a bed (long story) but 6’3″ me decided on a whim to see if there was a such thing as an “extra long” mattress. Turns out, there is! I was in a little bit of a time crunch, but the seller of this “extra long” full-sized mattress agreed to meet me that night… at 10:30. In Easley, South Carolina. (If you’re not familiar with that area then I would describe it as a place where Southern stereotypes are born.) Anyway, a buddy of mine and I piled into his truck and headed out, only to pick up this mattress and box spring out of some farmer’s shed in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. But it didn’t have bedbugs (luckily) or smell weird or have any weird stains, and I used it incident-free (sort of, but that’s not related to craigslist) until I sold it four years later for exactly the same price I bought it for. All made possible by craigslist!

I’ve bought two motorcycles, a truck, and my classic Volkswagen Beetle on craigslist too, so it’s not limited to used junk or low-priced items either. I’ve sold just as many vehicles on the site as well. But I recently had a small debacle over a very nice American Fender guitar, which was resolved once I realized the guy was just jerking me around. Just remember: the ball is in your court if you’re buying or selling. You are under no obligations, and you can back out anytime if you feel that something’s amiss.

And sadly, the one downside of craigslist is that most people tend to be flaky. I’m helping a buddy sell an old Kia right now, and maybe one out of ten people who ask about it actually show up.

I’ve had some weirdos buy things from me and then ask me for their money back, but never for a legitimate reason. I’m always very honest with the things I sell, so I’m extremely hesitant to meet anyone once I’ve made a sale. After all, I’m not running a business, I’m just clearing out clutter. Anyway, one guy bought a stereo amplifier from me, and even tested it in my house before buying it, only to text me about an hour later in a rage because it didn’t have a radio antenna. I told him he could buy one for $2 from RadioShack, but when he got more belligerent I just blocked his number.

Probably the worst craigslist interaction, however, had to do with a small motorized bicycle I built as a fun side project in my garage a few years ago. It was basically a beach cruiser with a weed wacker motor on it, and that’s also exactly what it sounded like when it drove past. Unfortunately in Florida these vehicles are not street legal without a moped tag, so I was restricted to off-highway use only. But I’m an engineer and I like to tinker. (That’s my excuse for a lot of things!) Anyway, I got tired of it and put it on craigslist just to see if there was any interest, and someone wanted to buy it within a week of me posting it. Unfortunately, despite asking me multiple times for a manual, they refused to read the manual, especially the part that detailed the oil to fuel ratio for the two-stroke engine. After one day, the engine seized on them and they demanded their money back. Since it was their fault they turned a great motorized bike into a piece of scrap metal, I did not oblige. I did make $40 though, after buying the bike, repainting it, and fitting the motor to it, so it wasn’t a total loss. At least, not for me! Read the manual, kids.

Oh, and I should mention that I use pseudonyms, a fake email address, and a Google Voice number on craigslist to protect myself, and I generally try to meet at a location that isn’t my place of residence unless it’s inconvenient (selling furniture, vehicles, or other large house-bound items). Just remember, ALWAYS meet in person, ALWAYS deal in cash only (no matter what), and TRY to take a friend with you, or at least tell someone where you’re going (but that rule is true of pretty much all parts of life). That last one I definitely made sure to follow when, a few weeks ago, I sold a motorcycle windshield to a bus driver… IN THE MIDDLE OF HIS ROUTE. But anyway, If you follow these rules, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a pleasant, safe experience on craigslist, all while being well on your way to a more minimal lifestyle!

Photo: My motorized bike, on its first official test drive. By “official” I mean that it was the first test drive after I remembered to put the lock nuts on the engine mount (the first test drive the motor almost fell off) and also after the other test drive where the carburetor fell off while I was going down a hill. It takes a few tests to work out the kinks, but the rewards are worthwhile!

Saturday Links! August 8, 2015

Welcome to August! I’m back from vacation and, after a brief break, ready to tackle the world. Enjoy these interesting tidbits from the interwebs.

Empty Decks and Misguided Frugality, retire29. I’ve gotten into this blog a lot in the past few weeks because the author is very nuanced in the way he sees the world. This is one of those things I’ve always noticed but never really noticed.

Lifestyle Inflation Illustrated, anythingyouwantblog.com. A great reminder that we should be aware of our spending whenever we come into more money. It doesn’t have to be from raises at work, either; it could come from inheritance or even our yearly tax returns.

Living in Switzerland Ruined Me for America and Its Lousy Work Culture by Chantal Panozzo, vox.com. Not every country has the work “ethic” that is common in the United States. Others actually seem to care about their employees and their work-life balances.

BONUS: What I’m listening to this week:

A deep cut from this classic 90’s album.

Photo: Catching some surf up at Corners, my favorite surf break in Jupiter. This was a few months ago, since there isn’t any surf in South Florida for most of the summer. 

Saturday Links! July 25, 2015

I have been trying to live a simpler life in order to make room for things that matter. Turns out a lot of other people have, too! I’m on vacation now, so this is a little shorter than normal, but I’ll be back soon!

The Four Horsemen of the Financial Apocalypse, retire29.com. An interesting take on four things that you should never do in the financial world. I’m a little torn on student loans because I have them, but I find them to be pretty manageable. The other three I am definitely on board with!

Why the Founding Fathers Were Broke, femmefrugality.com. All of the founding fathers lived hundreds of years ago, so it’s sometimes hard to put their lives in context since ours are so radically different. This article does a great job of it, though.

Add carvings of Outkast to giant Confederate monument, says petition, theguardian.com. Nothing really to do with minimalism, but this was just hilarious. I love Outkast, and I would definitely go to see this if Andre and Big Boy were on the side of a mountain.

BONUS! My favorite local band from Charleston, South Carolina!

Photo: My Beetle was in a classic car show! I actually caused a little bit of a ruckus here because I was all the way in the back talking to some hilarious Brits with classic Range Rovers when the show ended. They shut down the street for this, so when it’s time to go you have to be ready or you’ll be blocking everyone else from leaving. I had to run all the way back up to the front and strap the surfboards down before everyone else could leave! My Beetle isn’t exactly “showroom condition” either, so everyone who drove past me asked me if I had broken down. I hadn’t, I just thought the show ended an hour later than it actually did. 

How I Plan to Pay Off My Student Loans… Maybe?

There’s a student loan bubble! Maybe? There’s also a group of people trying to get student loan debtors to go on a debt strike against the evil lenders, except that movement isn’t really gaining steam. I don’t really know how much of a problem there is overall, but I can at least share my part of the story and why I’m skeptical about paying them off, but why I still might do it anyway.

Also, I’d like to note how much minimalism and finances seem to be intertwined, at least for me. The fewer things I spend my money on, the more secure I am and the less mental clutter I have. I worry about fewer things. To me, paying off loans is akin to cleaning out a closet.

So! I graduated with about $40k of student loan debt. I went to a public university but didn’t get enough scholarships to pay for it all. (I went to high school in North Carolina which has a miserable education system with basically no money for college students, unlike South Carolina or Georgia. But that’s a whole other can of worms.) So I’m not in the worst situation ever, but not the most ideal either. Compounding the problem was the fact that 18-year-old me viewed community college as something disdainful so I didn’t get my easy credits and transfer in to a univeristy to save money. I was a very traditional four-year type, and turned to loans as a very feasible way to fund my engineering degree.

I also graduated as somewhat of an outspoken Libertarian who viewed debt as something evil that must be exterminated at all costs. (My political activism has greatly waned since then.) I paid off all of my federal student loans with a signing bonus from my first job, then made higher-than minimum payments on my state-funded loans. I also flipped a house and put my profits to paying down another chunk of my loan, and after everything I’ve done I have slightly under $18k left to go.

WHY I HAVEN’T DONE MORE

On to the excuses! I was a pretty typical 20-something that spent a lot of unnecessary money on fast cars. And lots of eating out. So I probably could have them all paid off if I was still driving my car from high school (except that didn’t have AC and I live in south Florida). But I’m a little torn on this, because I don’t want to be someone pinching pennies eating ramen but I also don’t want to be someone who’s racked up all kinds of debt chasing a lifestyle. I think there’s a good middle ground, and getting my mistakes out of the way early helped me discover what that is. I’m a big fan of budgetsaresexy; the way he tackled his debt is very inspirational, but I don’t know if I want or need to do this.

The other part of the problem is that my three student loans outstanding have interest rates of 3%, 3%, and 0.08%. That last one isn’t a typo. With rates this low I could make a better return putting my money to work elsewhere. I started doing this recently, actually. I figure that if I open an index fund and hold it for five years, I could have enough money to cash it out and pay off my loan. I’d have made maybe 5% in the market this way (hopefully!) and therefore I’d be out on top.

But with the rates that low, why would I cash out the index fund at all? Why not make minimum payments on a loan that basically amouts to free money? I know a lot of people with mortgage rates higher than this and they’re doing virtually nothing to pay them off early. The answer is 100% psycological. I still have that libertarian-leaning attitude that debt is generally bad, even if it’s paid for something good like a house or an education. When I’m free of my loans I’ll simply feel better. Even though they’re low interest loans, it’ll still be nice to keep more of my paychecks every month.

But I still have the battle, because the rational part of me knows I could do better things with the money, and the emotional part of me wants to be free of debt at any expense. Like before, I think a middle ground is warranted. I’ll probably end up paying them off early, but not as early as to sacrifice some of my lifestyle. So I might pay off my student loans early. Maybe. Depending on which part of me wins out.

SPEAKING OF WHICH…

I recently started kiteboarding (video below for those who live inland!) which isn’t a particularly cheap hobby, and I don’t want to sacrifice my entry into the sport to pay down loans marginally faster. It’s all about tradeoffs and maximizing happiness! I’ll be writing a little about this sport in the future, though, because it’s crazy amounts of fun. The reason I live by the beach is so I can do things like surf, paddleboard, and kite. It’s not an expensive lifestyle, but it’s not the cheapest, either. At least I’m not into jet skis and swamp buggies.

I’m also going on vacation to my semi-hometown of Charleston, South Carolina this week. Pictures of this will follow as well!

Continue reading How I Plan to Pay Off My Student Loans… Maybe?