Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Putting my money where my mouth is.

This post was meant to pop up approximately one month, to give a quick update, since I decided I was all-in on the Moustacian train ( But what can I say? I’ve been busy. So how are things looking a month and a half later? Did I commit or fall flat on my face?
As I eluded to recently, the first order of business was figuring out expense ratios on my employer’s 401k plan and making those adjustments after figuring out just what the heck those were (see last post). Done and done.
Next, I opened an online brokerage account after doing some googling to determine who was offering the best deals at the time. Nerdwallet gives a good general breakdown, but YMMV. ( Next I started watching darling Apple to see when might be a good time to buy. The latest phones hadn’t come out yet, nor had the iPad Pro and other goodies, but if history was any indication, the stock would rise, then plummet after announcement, then slowly climb again. Now, ask any advisor what stocks you should invest in, and if they’re not on your payroll, they should be telling you to avoid any single stock pick and instead invest in index funds. If you are paying an advisor, then they’ll tell you the opposite after consulting their crystal ball (they don’t care if you make money or lose money, their commission is on buys and sells). However, Apple is one of the few stocks solid enough that it’s tough to go bust on if you like to gamble. Incidentally, I ended up buying both ‘pre’ and ‘post’ product announcements and then again yesterday. Nobody that ever invested in the stock market has lost money if they buy for the long term. Not even through the last recession nor the crash of ’29. Additionally, if you sell without holding for at least 12 months, you’ll get taxed up the ying-yang, so why not let it ride?
Then the market dropped out. No joke, about a week after going all-in, the market fell apart. But guess what? No better time to buy then when stocks are “on sale”.
Now, after crunching the numbers, having adjusted my 401k diversification and seeing the S&P plummet, I went all-in on my 401k contributions and will continue to do so through the end of the year in an attempt to hit the IRS max contribution limit. This will be a bit of a game as if I cap out early, I won’t get the employer match…or maybe I will (and a question to HR on front-loading and percent-distribution was met with boilerplate that didn’t answer my question). Yes, my take home checks are pretty small, but the net gain is larger in the long run as the majority was deducted tax-free.
Unlike a 401k that limits contributions for the year at Dec 31st, an IRA can be contributed to through April 15th of the following year. Though both traditional and ROTH IRAs have a combined cap of $5500. Since my 401k plan doesn’t offer Vanguard index funds (seriously, look these guys up), it made sense to open a free account with Vanguard themselves. Anyone can do it, and since they manage the funds directly, you’re not paying a second party a hefty expense ratio to do so. This is where you want to invest. I opened a ROTH and invested in a stock heavy mix. Then when the markets dipped yesterday I made another buy. The goal is to max this out by the 2015 tax deadline, then do it again in 2016. Yes, this is considered taxed income, but withdrawals on the deposits can be made at anytime without penalty. If you don’t have a 401k plan through your employer, you should seriously consider a traditional IRA which is pre-tax and see if you meet the guidelines.
So, the goals so far have been pretty simple: Max out any tax-advantaged vehicles. Put any “savings” into index funds (whether taxed or not). Optimize any company matching. Cut frivolous spending (I cut my coffee/lunch bill for the last month down to $1.18 for the ENTIRE month). Invest in stocks when they’re on sale. Oh, and go read Mr. Money Moustache.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Wheel of Interest

As Cara and I were talking the other night, and I was rambling on and on about 401ks and inflation, she threatened to create a ‘wheel of interest’. Only this time there’d be a new category. Financial freedom. You see, ever since I discovered this website back in July, I’ve been on a planning, investing and savings kick.

We’re all told it’s important to save for our future, invest in company retirement plans, especially if there’s an employer match, and to work hard so you’ll (maybe one day) be able to retire. And that’s really about it. Then we’re thrust into the workplace and find ourselves as “adults”. Car payments, mortgage payments on McMansions, and crazy spending seems to be the norm these days. The problem is, the time to get serious about retirement is really years before you plan to retire, when you're just getting a handle on 'life' in general.

I figured I was ahead of the game in many ways- in college I worked as a lab tech making a few bucks on the side to cover my projects. I spent summers and part time my senior year at a company I then joined upon graduating, all the while investing in their 401k program to get the match. Used cars were the order of the day. No credit card spending or debt. And in the meantime, I was saving money up to buy a parcel of farm land that would provide a place to indulge in my eccentric construction projects but also provide farm rent to cover things like property taxes and insurance. This ended up being 50 acres just north of town despite my original intent being only 10.

Sounds good, right? Well, here are some things to ponder….

In today’s market, money sitting in a savings account will lose its value faster than inflation. Hmm, this is where I've always kept my cash.

The average inflation rate is around 3%/yr. That means you are better off locking in a loan on a (slightly used*) car, or mortgaging a house at a rate of 4% or less than you would be paying cash or renting. In fact, you will actually be money ahead in the mortgage at the end of the term even if property values did worse than inflation. Plus the interest paid is deductible. Meanwhile, invest the cash you were going to use and put it in an index fund. Just don’t let it sit in savings.

For several years I ‘trusted’ the default settings on my 401k, and although I occasionally logged in to see if I could create a better mix, I was really shooting in the dark. The fact is, few people take the time to really investigate the investment mixes. As it turns out, these providers are not offering their services out of the kindness of their hearts. You’ll find the option mixes you’re assigned typically have very high expense ratios by default and lots of other little hidden fees. Of course you don’t notice, because over the course of years you don’t notice what’s happening behind the scenes. This is death by a 1000 paper cuts. Do some research, and reallocate your investments so it benefits YOU. If the investment options your provider offers are especially bad, consider contributing only the minimum to get the company match and put the rest in an IRA. Remember, this is compounding money. The more you have, the more it generates, so a few bucks sapped off in fees now potentially equals a lofty sum lost 20 years from now.

And you know what happens with you put a dollar into your 401k or traditional IRA? 1. It’s all pre-tax money so $1 invested really does have $1 earning power. 2. If you contribute enough (and this could involve multiple accts or maxing accts), you can lower your tax bracket which means you put several grand in your pocket in reduced taxes at the end of the year without giving anything away. And 3, as if that wasn’t enough, when it comes time to withdraw that money, it’s taxed at your retirement rate, which could be 15%...down to 0%. It’s a triple win. None of these things are secrets, but it took having them spread out in front of me like so many playing cards to see the obvious. “I’ve been leaving money on the table without realizing it, and spending summer afternoons in a beige cubicle just trying to make up for it.”

Okay, that sounds well and good. Now, about that financial freedom thing. At age 33, how could I even begin to think about retirement? Well, for one, retirement doesn’t mean doing nothing for the rest of your life, it means doing what you want to do before you’re too old to enjoy it. If you want to work on your own terms, fine. If you want to travel, so be it. Bottom line? It means freedom. But here’s the deal… I’m already behind the 8-ball and didn’t know it. So, I’m throwing down the gauntlet; time to put a long term plan into action. I’ll post a follow-up in a few months to see what’s working and what’s not. Time to get serious.

*let someone else take the depreciation hit while still enjoying a competitive APR from the local bank/credit union on an “almost new” vehicle; rates increase with age.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Mid-Summer's Check-In – Part 1

I may have mentioned last year that 2015 was going to be a catch-up/maintenance year out at the compound, and so far, things are shaping up according to plan. 

Last fall, as you might remember, the pole building went up before the snow started flying. Between Ben and I we got the cars stashed and tarps up over the doorways and this held all-winter. Fast-forward to this summer and all the doors are in, the cement floor is poured, the aprons are finished and three dump trucks full of gravel were brought in and spread over 2500 sq ft of geotextile fabric to help with drainage, minimize gravel loss and block weeds. The gutters and downspouts are now on, front and rear. And this week I foam-sealed the corrugations along the bottom blocking dirt and bugs from entering. I think I can officially say that building is finished.
The Garage Pre-Cement

As soon as spring broke I could be found in the cherry picker staining the east side of the lodge. Thankfully I had enough drive from spring fever to do the job because I doubt I'd have the initiative to paint the entire side of the lodge by myself when the days are 90F. Since the other three sides and trim were done in the fall, that should hold things for a few years.
CS3 work on those last-winter days

Another interesting maintenance project was pulling up the dining room floor and packing in more sand around the drain swale. This involved removing each floor plank, piece by piece, and then trying to pack in sand that was "level enough" but not over-proud, then trying to reassemble the entire affair. (Update: As of 24 hrs ago the water softener flooded the dining rm while we were at work and swelled all the plank seams. Great.)

Spring in Iowa immobilizes the 2WD Scottsdale

A real bear, but something that had to be done, was to fix the fascia situation on the lodge. You see, when I finished the roof those years ago, the fascia trim was custom bent locally out of aluminum, so each section had a max length of 8 feet. These created a see-saw effect with lots of overlaps and they were just a touch short width wise. The bigger problem was that airflow could get up under those fascias and blow into the lodge. On extremely windy days, the crepe paper light fixture over the stairs would move around and you could hear the airflow screaming past. 99% of the time it wasn’t a problem, but the 1% let you know you had air coming in. The front fascias were also starting to darken from water running off the front roof and _under_! the fascia trim. Not good, as how much of it was running behind the fascia boards and soaking the soffits? So, all the trim (120'+) came off and was scrapped. The fascia boards were scrubbed and painted (all nice and solid) and bituthene tape was used to seal the top of the boards to the roof deck, which meant getting up underneath the shingles all the way around. Invariably, nails had to be pulled, the surface cleaned so the tape would stick and holes sealed. A grand time. In advance, I took roof profiles and had Menards custom trim service make up lengths of fascia trim (up to 12' for fewer seams) with just a little more projection to protect the tops of the boards. I'm just glad that job is done.
Painted Fascias with New Trim
At roughly the same time, I had some brown trim made up for The Annex and this was slipped underneath the metal roof on the rear of the structure, although I had to pop each roof panel off and back out screws to get it into place. While it was the rainy season, at least it could be done in a day.

Of course the Pumphouse was starting to show it's age, or at least the paint was, so a Saturday was spent scrubbing the siding and repainting the works in oil solid stain. And shortly before that, it was discovered the rubber roof had pulled away from the metal edges and had allowed water to start to rot out the rear fascia board. Luckily it was caught in time and the roof deck was just fine (this is why plywood is nice for smaller projects). Another day spent peeling back the rubber, scrubbing, and gluing the works down with a paint roller seems to have fixed matters. I also used window sealing tape along the rear edge to divert water over the trim should the rubber come loose in the future.

But it hasn't been all work, there's also been lots of travel. In February, when it was still cold and snowy in Iowa, we broke away to Disney World in Orlando and even dropped in on the parents for a day. The sun and warmth did us some good, though 24 months between visits might be a little too frequent for Disney. A month later Ben and I found ourselves pointing the Suburban for Boston to rescue a one-of, well, one, 1963 Radarange. While there are other ‘Marks’ out there, I can't imagine many turquoise paneled ones were built, let alone, survived. The fact that there’s no data plate and no serial number makes me wonder if this was pre-production.
Cruising out East
The trip was a blast, staying with a friend out there for a mini-wash-in of sorts. Then just a couple weeks later, with Suburban now empty, I headed for Dayton, Ohio to give the Hamvention flea market a spin. While I came up mostly empty handed, I did score a couple of goodies that paid for a teletype collection I picked up in Toledo the following day. And I was able to visit world-famous Mendelson’s. If you need it, they’ve got it. Staying in vintage roadside motels actually made the trip a worthwhile experience.
Mendelson's of Dayton

Friday, May 15, 2015

Dayton: Part 1

So here I am, sitting on the bed in a motel built in 1957, watching a TV show that takes place in 1965, crossing the midwest in an automobile from 1987. Without functional A/C. All the better with the windows cranked down. My back aches and I could use another cold MGD. I'm a little sunburned and windblown, but it'll pass. Tomorrow I put another 500 miles on the 'burb, enjoying the backroads and blacktops, looking to top off the 40 gallon tank.

It was a day to be sure. Second year in a row trying out the Dayton Hamfest. I figure I've got a good beat on lodging for the night and the best spot to park without breaking the bank. A medium black coffee and a breakfast sandwich got me to Hara Arena and a back pack and collapsible cart were just what I needed to survive the crowds without doubling back. Once again I made the list for youngest 5% in attendance; didn't even enter the arena this year; a rundown, crumbling, series of structures not unlike the Waterloo Cattle Congress. Here you could find yourself wandering down parking lot rows you just know you've traversed before, yet seeing new things. Sure, that backup generator switch panel looks like a deal, but do you really want to tug it along for the next two hours? Maybe..if the oldtimer would pay you some mind.

Oversized antennas grace automobiles both new and old. "Hey, nice Roadmaster!" Between the brief cloud bursts and burning sun, you make your way past the open concession grills cooking burgers, in search of some shade. You spot WW2 communication receivers for sale, professionally restored and the asking price is what you gave for your last car. Later on you spot a satisfied customer carrying one. By 11AM you're shot. Good deals. Bad deals. And outright bargains gone in the first 15 minutes. You've beat the crumbling pavement and second guessed that EPROM burner from 20 minutes ago. 3 hours is a good run for two arms and a sore back as you make your way to the grassy lot across the street, testing those rubber wheels. Time for a strawberry shake and a moments touch of air conditioning, for the next stop is a downtown factory building in Dayton; 1st and 3rd floors accessible, only. This could prove to be a long day...

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Joys of Film Conversion

The last time I did a major conversion from actual film to video was (yikes) at least 16 years ago back in the high school days. The film was Super-8 in cartridges with an optical soundtrack, however there was one small caveat. I didn’t have a functioning projector. I had audio, but no shutter sync. The trick was to play the film through a std Super 8 machine to capture the picture, and run it through the broken cartridge unit for audio. Then the two had to be brought together after the fact. Of course the speeds were different and this meant trying to adjust the picture to match the soundtrack using a powerful array of PowerPC towers after the VHS footage was copied to a hard drive. If your film was 20 minutes long (or you had a stack of these short films totaling a couple hours) then that’s exactly how long it would take to copy in and to copy out that footage. And you got to watch the same thing over, and over, and over until you were sick of it.

So this week I decided to convert a 16mm film put out by NCR to a format I could post on Youtube. This was interesting. The film is 17 minutes long. Take 1 was by projecting it on the big screen and using my iPhone on a mini-tripod mount. I wasn’t sure if the iPhone would adapt to shutter roll (a mismatch between frame rate of the projector, and “frame rate” of the camera) or if it would be something I could adjust after the fact. The initial results weren’t bad, but there was definitely a flicker I couldn’t resolve in iMovie.

Take 2 was by projecting onto a small screen and with new software for the iPhone that would let me adjust shutter speed and aperture. Initial setup looked promising but there was a new problem. The film was too bright for the camera, and thus cranking down the aperture actually affected the sample rate (obviously there isn’t a mechanical iris or this wouldn’t be a problem). After trying a few things (including projecting through a window screen), I found that blocking off ¾ of the projection lens would reduce the brightness enough that it wouldn’t overload the sensor. Now we were in business. Roll film!

First things first, I imported this footage into iPhoto in order to copy into iMovie (it wouldn’t go direct). Take 2 was much better than take 1, but again, a slight rolling. What was going on? I had a hunch. Sure enough, the camera had locked in at 25FPS instead of 24. Ugh. Time to get all the equipment back out.

Proceed with take 3. 24FPS, ¾ lens blocked, audio adjusted, image focused. Let it roll. By now I was getting sick of this film and escaped to the downstairs for a few minutes. Things proceeded nicely until I checked on the recording a few minutes later (audio blasting away). With a minute-30 left, the iPhone had stopped recording to tell me it was running out of memory. Argh. Okay, let’s back this film up, delete take 2, and record the final 2 minutes of take 3. I could deal with splicing and framing in post-production. 

Good. No frame roll. Good audio. Time to transfer to the Mac. But what’s this? A manual import into iMovie from the camera results in failure. And an import into iPhoto results in an ‘unrecognized format’. Yes, those crazy .movs! Take 2 worked fine, why not Take 3? How about emailing them? Nope, too big to send as attachments. Let’s try a program I’ve got that lets me access the phone via an IP address in my browser. OK, I see the files, let the copying begin. The 2 minute clips comes over in half an hour. I let the big clip run over night.  
Next day…after work. Ok, the files are on the desktop, let’s review. Hmm, what’s this random static and audio spiking? Excellent, they’re _slightly_ corrupt. On the plus side, they play crystal-clear on the iPhone so I know my source is alright. Looks like they must have dropped a few bits during the transfer. Okay, let’s try Dropbox. I download the latest version for the Mac and install. I pull down my copy from the cloud to the phone and log in (it’s been a couple years). Clip 1 copies over just fine and, good news, a half hour later, I have it on the desktop playing clearly. Clip 2 starts but after a few minutes times out. Alright, I guess I have to set the phone prefs to ‘Never Lock’. Really? Okay, let’s try again. It cranks away for half an hour and….surprise! Upload size exceeded! 

I had already tried manual navigation with the phone plugged in to the USB and came up empty. Now what? And then I remembered…possibly Apple’s best, yet most secret app…Image Capture. I fired that up and BINGO. There were my .mov files listed and with a click-and-drag, they were both on my desktop in seconds. So, after 3 full viewings and several nights of futzing around, I now had the files.  

Thankfully, iMovie was a breeze once I had them in the queue. I was able to compensate for color drift, crop the framing, increase saturation, splice the two clips together, and adjust the audio to minimize projector noise (I didn’t use a patch cable this time around). Down-conversion to a compressed file took around 40 minutes..or so it said. It may not be perfect, but at least it’s out there. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Odds 'n' Ends

Here we are, the end of December, and the hard work is behind us. After the Don visit there’s been some puttering and a lot of ‘one-man’ type work between the odd weekends of mud and rain. With Cara’s assistance I plugged any ‘goofs’ in the steel roof with screws, however we’ll need some dry weather to put the ridge cap on.

Ben stopped out for a couple hours one weekend and we put the last piece of west side metal up, leaving only the north to worry about.

With the assistance of the picker and a free Saturday, I put the final top rows of screws in the east and west ends, put up (and squared) the gable fascia pieces, then set to work on the west side getting the soffits sorted. I spent Sunday cutting and installing all the soffits on the north side, trimming the fascia metal to size, and working on the NW corner transition. By the end of the weekend, I had all the overhead metal work done.

And here it is the weekend of the 20th… With Ben’s assistance we framed out the front overhead doors with plenty of blocking, and got the first sheet up. I worked Sunday PM, continuing the sheetmetal across the front. If I were really playing it by the book, I would have started at the center of the north face and worked east and west to ensure the front was 100% symmetrical, but I’m sure it looks fine the way it is. The only things lacking at this point are a ridge on the roof, one corner to trim out (the supplied metal is scratched), and metal trim around the door openings before the doors and tracks can go in.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Siding Weekend

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the forecast called for semi-warm weather, but when I got out of the truck up at the road, it was anything but. The thermometer read 20F but the winds were really whipping and the ground was still ice covered. Ben was having some car trouble at home and I figured I better just call this off. This ended up being a smart move because after the sun came out, I pressed forward with the work I had planned, which turned out to be a one-man job anyhow. This included framing out an opening for the west side service door and installing the frieze channels and 2x4 nailing boards. Lots of fine tuning was required to get these to line up straight and still be within an inch of accepting the rear siding panels (which were pre-cut) while being level with where the soffits would attach. With that, Saturday’s siding plan could commence.

You couldn’t have asked for a better day temp-wise. We hit mid-40’s with a clear sky and warm sun. This was ideal for working on the gable ends of the building, but not so much the south side where the snow-covered roof was melting in the sun and creating a muddy mess below the roof line. That said, with a 9AM start, we put in the first rear sheet to prove out the concept and to set the alignment for the rest of the 45 linear feet. Piece of cake. Then we tackled the gable ends which required cutting each panel top at the correct angle of the roof. After a rudimentary check, the 4:12 roof pitch jibed with basic geometry. A 4 in 12 rise over the width of a 3’ panel meant a 12” slope for each. Using a Malco turbo-shear (which I cannot say enough good things about), we soon got the hang of panel lengths and made quick work of the job. By sundown, we had the bulk of both walls cut, installed, and screwed into place. I spent the evening on the net trying to figure out the best way to trim out the service door, not being satisfied with the ‘standard procedure’ which didn’t seem to address the issue of things like…rain.

And so it was Sunday the 30th that Ben and I had a few minutes before our buddy Don D. would roll up, along with my father, not far behind. We put up the partial pieces of frieze runner and leveled and fastened in the service door. The temps were not as kind as the previous day and we’d spend frequent sessions warming up in the car between jobs, but on the plus side, there was no longer a mud issue and the snow was GONE. Cara joined us around the same time and after some odd jobs, we launched into the rear panel install. The work was swift, with two people staging the panels through the back wall, and three aligning/fastening them down. I’d be surprised if it took more than an hour to finish the whole rear. 

With manpower available, we snapped chalk lines, put in screws, and even cut/installed the final two partial roof sheets using the Malco to get from one end to the other of those 18’ panels. Once again I found myself on the roof, wondering what might break my fall at the bottom. By 1:30 we were done and headed into town to hear the latest Don D. tales.