Updates and Reflections on 2018

It seems a bit odd to be writing this on Christmas Eve, as I have really nothing to reflect on about Christmas itself. But I am sprawled out on my parents’ guest bed in my old bedroom and I felt it was fitting to write here what’s been on my mind this past week.

Updates!

Since the key purpose of this blog is to write about money, I suppose I should say something about it. I suppose. Seven days from now, as long as I’m not laid off or fired, my final HSA contribution will pass and I will hit the golden trifecta of maxing out my 401k, Roth IRA, and HSA. Holy heck has it been a crazy ride. You’d be surprised how fast those pre-tax 401k contributions add up, too. Yeah, yeah, markets tanked in October, people are freaking out, I’m not worried about that. In fact, I’m kind of hoping it drops a little more so that when my limits reset in January, I’ll be buying in a down market.

The G-IRA is complete; I’ve hit my giving goal. My big G-IRA “distribution” was a huge success and the target individual (TI) was completely caught by surprise. Bam! Probably the most fun I’ve ever had giving. Not easily replicable, however. With that done, I originally wanted to spend the rest of the money on some attempts at prophetic giving (taking expensive stuff to strangers, listening to God to hear who to take them to), but for whatever reason that felt really off this year, it just didn’t feel right for the time, so I spent the rest on Christmas gifts for my family. No regrets. And I mean, TI could have taken a fraction of that money and bought a really great [thing] instead, but the real power of the G-IRA is that you have no reason not to go big for someone else. I wish I could say it was purely from the love of my heart, but really what made it easy was just the fact that the money was going to be given to someone anyway, so it may as well have been spent going big for TI. Go big or go home! I think I will be doing a G-IRA next year, too, but I feel like God is giving me a larger target, and that scares the crap out of me. I mean, it’s exciting, but it’s also like, “Nooo! Why?” We’ll see. I mean, this is voluntary after all. But that push, man. God’s all about pushing those boundaries.

On a side note, my church is pretty awesome about giving. They just gave 20g’s away to people in need yesterday. I like this church. Anyway, I’ve got a post I want to write on that soon.

I did finally buy a Playstation 4 for $200 during Black Friday, which is half of what I was thinking about paying back in the Spring, when I wrote my anti-lifestyle inflation post using the PS4 as an example. I think waiting to get 50% off was totally worth it. And I am happy to have a PS4. You can have your cake and eat it, too.

Reflections!

Two periods really stood out to me this year. The first is when I changed the water pump on my car. It was unplanned but I ended up here at my parents’ place while they were out of town. The job was relatively simple, but was temporarily full of despair when I sheered the de-tensioning bolt (I don’t know what else to call it) off my drive belt tensioner, which sucked but really only meant one thing: I had to buy another tensioner and change it myself. The job was slow but otherwise went smoothly. I had a decent amount of peace about it, and two nights in a row, I slept like a baby, right here in this bed that I’m sitting on. I didn’t have a Bible with me and I hate reading the Bible on my phone, but my parents have a few old topic-specific Bible verse books on the bookshelf, so I browsed those. I watched several Disney VHS tapes from when I was a kid. I don’t know how to describe it all. It was probably the most peaceful weekend of the year. It’s like God was here in a profound way. It took me away from my normal settings, just lead me to a place of rest. And there hasn’t been the slightest of leaks from that water pump since 😉

The second was hanging out with my sister’s family. I got to spend time with my oldest niece, who is growing up way too fast, and got to see my new baby niece, who is the smiley-est baby ever and really warms my heart :). And I got to pet the cat. And hang out. Have long conversations, watch my brother-in-law beat this cool, kinda-eerie side-scroller video game, eat good food, and see life outside of Denver, which is starting to boil with overpopulation and insanity. It was also the first time in many, many years that I’ve been on a plane, and I really, really miss flying. So I want to add a part 2 to Thoughts on Travel someday. That was overall just a great week, and much needed.

And yes, 2018 has brought many changes. Whereas 2017 was the year of carnage and death and good friends being complete retards and following God’s call to move out of state, 2018 has, in fact, been the water in the desert. I was keeping a foot in my old church because I still care about people there, but I always knew I was never going to fit into the ecosystem at that church, no matter how great the leadership was or how welcoming the setting. Instead, I now spend that night of the week as part of a rag-tag group of crazy dreamers who get together once a week to seek God through dream interpretation. Oh, I know. Sounds crazy if you’ve never read the Bible ;). But it’s pretty amazing what God is doing in people’s lives.

Spiritually, God has been doing a lot in my life through identity this year. This is good, because when people are truly grounded in their identity in God, they are rock solid, and they have space for others. They can also let go of old friends and move on. 2017 really shook me to the core. I think that’s the closest I’ve ever been to true depression. I’m actually of the suspicion that my community life is not as deep as I would like because that is simply the season I am in, and there is great room for growth in fostering new community.

It has been a date-less year, stacking onto the others, and I think maybe for a reason. Hey, I know some great girls, but sometimes it just doesn’t make sense emotionally or logically, and sometimes the door is simply closed and you can tell. There hasn’t really been anyone to ask out. Sometimes I’ll meet a girl and think, “Hey, God, what about this girl?” And I get a dream that’s all about my identity, instead! In general, it’s a painful topic for me, but I think that’s what the message of identity is about. People who are grounded in their identity are truly safe people who have space to see and address the blessings in other peoples’ lives. And in their own. You can’t confuse your core identity with the various facets of your life. Your job is not your identity. Your friendships are not your identity. Your wealth is not your identity. You love-life is not your identity.

Actually, fun story. Only once this year, as far as I’m aware, has God answered a question about a specific girl. I had a dream one night in which I was in a location owned by friends from an old friend group, and I think it was the only dream I’ve ever had in which that girl was present. But when I looked closely in the house, and I had to look closely, I could see fine white spider webs all over, like fuzzy mold. I got the vacuum to clean up the webs (I am a bit of a cleaner in real life), but it wasn’t working, and the vacuum broke down. I kept trying to fit different mechanical pieces inside to fix it (perhaps different arguments as to why I should pursue her), but nothing worked. Later I got dragged into this zombie game by a family member of one of the friends, and then I woke up.

I don’t recommend bootstrapping your dream interpretations if you haven’t done it in a group, and non-Christians (or some Christians) will think I’m insane, but really the larger message of the dream was that in that girl’s life there are a lot of spider webs, which might be thought of as snares or as neglected spaces into which undesirable things have moved, and, most importantly, I was unable to clean up those spider webs. In other words, I’m not capable of dealing with her issues. Being involved in that location only got me stuck playing games. (“You’re playing love games with Old Gregg?!”) That was crazy. The message seemed pretty clear to me. And if you’re still skeptical, well, let’s just say that’s not the first time God’s answered a question about that girl telling me ‘no’. But this all lead to an interesting extension question: so what are the spider webs that I have in my own life?

Just a little dream nugget for the blog. If you don’t keep a dream journal, you might consider doing so 🙂

As mentioned last post, I have also learned this year how to change lug bolts, which makes me feel pretty bad ass. It’s still tough to recommend, but it’s a great feeling when you pull off a new job on the car and now have that much more skill and ability.

Huge progress on my open source inventory system. Oh, man. It’s so close. I’ve been working on this for two years, but only this past year has the technology clicked. A lot of great blessings through this, so praise to God. I feel like a real developer now and orchestrating the whole project has been a huge lesson in perseverance and humility. Engaging, though, I’ll give it that. Really excited to see what this can do for the company I’m volunteering for.

Times are changing again. I may no longer be in the desert, but the change isn’t over. I may be losing some friends to another dumb state, and I’ll be seeing two friends much less since they just became parents. But tenacity! I still very much care about my old friends, but there is a way forward and going backward isn’t an option.

Thoughts on Cars

There’s one ideal way to own a car: Pay $0 for one that never breaks down. Wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t that be one of the best deals ever?

Yeah, well, too bad. Every car decision is some combination of risk. You can pay a ridiculous portion of your net worth for a new car, which saves you from repairs for a few years but is otherwise a rapidly depreciating asset, or you can pay very little for a used car that just might blow it’s head gasket next week. Pick your poison. You will find any number of suggestions about what you “should” do. Some people think you should always buy new cars and sell them before the warranty ends; others think you should always buy used cars and save yourself the depreciation. But if everyone bought new our world would be trashed even more than it already is, and if everyone bought used, well, eventually there would be nothing left.

Personally, I always buy used. I look for models with the fewest complaints against them and specific cars that preferably have only had one or two previous owners. I thus far have preferred mid-size sedans with front-wheel drive. My target range has been $3000-6000, but I have considered cheaper cars, and I have also thought it would be really nice to be able to buy a $10,000 car in cash. Ideally, I’d have 10k sitting in the bank for another car if/when that day comes.

But here’s the kicker. I’m comfortable buying older cars because I do most of the work on my cars. I’m a fairly outspoken proponent of understanding how cars work and doing the work yourself, but my faith in this latter position has been shaken on several occasions. And this stems from the fact that working on your car can really, really suck.

Earlier today, I was engaged in fierce battle with my Camry. I had needed to change the tie rods for awhile, so I decided to finally get things rolling. This was one step in a series of things needing to be done. I needed to replace a lug nut, change the tie rods, get the tires rotated and balanced, wash the car, and then get an alignment. My tires have started to feather a bit and the steering wheel has been off ever so slightly since the last rotation (a sign that the tires may be wearing unevenly).

So Saturday I decided to go to my parents’ to change the tie rods, which had been leaking grease a tad and had started creaking more. It’s a fairly easy procedure. Loosen the lug nuts, put the car up on jack stands, break tie rod the lock nut free, take the castle nut off, use a device to pop the tie rod free of the steering knuckle, then unscrew the tie rod. Reverse with the new tie rod. It’s one of the easier jobs.

I swapped one side in less than half an hour, then went to the other side. Everything was going fine until I tried to back the lock nut off: it ended up twisting the entire inner tie rod, though it did “break free” of the outer tie rod. This is not good, because that nut needs to move freely for proper alignment. So I spent a large portion of Saturday dousing it in PB Blaster ,hoping this would soak in and free the rust, then taking the impact driver to it while holding the inner tie rod in place with an adjustable wrench. I even took a propane torch to the nut. I then talked to one of my mechanic friends to get some more ideas and see if I was crazy or not. Nope, it happens. There are more effective torching methods, but I didn’t have those. “Letting it soak” is something I keep coming across, too, but I couldn’t believe it was having so much difficulty. (My suggestion for avoiding this problem is to soak any suspension part you may be planning to change in PB Blaster, and do this a day or two ahead of time!)

Inner tie rod and lock nut, post freedom. That inner tie rod’s a bit rusty, huh?

So I put the old tie rod back on, torqued everything down, and went home, frustrated beyond belief. It’s just tie rods, what the hell?

So after waiting for a day, my hope was to finish the job. I went to my parents’ again, put the car in the garage, and started to loosen the lug nuts. But there was a problem: two lug nuts were not coming free. They had been just fine the day before. I didn’t know what else to do – it didn’t make sense. Using a breaker bar, I kept unwinding one of the lug nuts. And then…it completely sheered off.

Dayyyym!

So now I was miserable. I had a great many choice words and slunk into a garage floor catastrophe coma. Was this really happening? How had what should have been a simple job turned into…this? What was I going to do? I could still tighten the other stuck lug nut down, since THAT one hadn’t sheered off yet, and with four lug nuts, I could (somewhat) safely get my car to a shop. If I took a risk on the second one and it sheered off as well, I’d be looking at getting the car towed, or replacing the hub, which could easily be it’s own nightmare, and would definitely require me to stay the night at my parents’ and probably take the next day off work.

Now, deep in the recesses of my mind, I remembered knocking a few lug bolts out of their hub. At the junk several years ago, I had found a freed knuckle assembly lying in front of an old Corolla and had bought it to test on my new press. At some point I had needed to remove the lug bolts before I could press the bearing out. So as I looked online today for answers to my situation, there was suddenly a light at the end of the tunnel to realize that individual lug bolts can in fact be replaced with removing the hub. Of course. Sweet!

At a few bucks a pop, I bought three new lug bolts from Napa, as well an inner tie rod, boot, extra lug nuts, and then an inner tie rod tool from another shop. I’m not saying I wanted to change the inner tie rod, but there was no guarantee that bolt was coming off, and I was not taking any chances!

I don’t have a picture, unfortunately, but it turns out that when you take the rotor, caliper, and caliper mounting bracket off, there is a divot in the knuckle specifically designed for the removal of lug bolts. I actually knocked the first one out with a hammer when it was on another side, since there’s just enough clearance. The second one I aligned to the proper location, and I used a special tie rod puller (oddly enough) that forced the bolt out smoothly and without the jarring effects of the hammer. You get the new lug bolts in by pushing them through the back as far as you can, putting a washer around the front, then torquing a lug nut down so as to pull the lug bolt into place inside the hub. Very fortunately, my impact driver (not to be confused with an impact wrench), was up to the task. Really wish I’d taken a picture of this, but oh well. Also, I should definitely buy an impact wrench.

Also, the lock nut did actually come off the inner tie rod. This was such a relief! There’s definitely something to be said about soaking suspension parts in penetrating oil and waiting a day or two before attempting to remove those parts. I could have changed the inner tie rod while I was down there, it probably would not have hurt anything and the car is getting an alignment anyway, but those can be tricky as well, and more work was the very last thing I wanted to deal with. I put a lot of anti-seize grease on the inner tie rod before putting the new outer tie rod into the place. (Trick: if you put a few beads of anti-seize on the tie rod, the lock nut and/or outer tie rod will spread the anti-seize along the threads for you)

So it all turned out, and tomorrow I’ll get my rotation and alignment figured out and probably drop the car off at a nearby shop that I can walk home from. I can always get alignments from my friend, but I think he’s a bit busy right now :).

Great, but what does this have to do with working on cars?

Well, like I said, sometimes it really sucks. Today really sucked, except that it worked out and I learned something new. I’ve had tie rods go very smoothly, I’ve even had axles go very smoothly. But other times I’ve collapsed on the floor of the garage in mental agony. I’ve also made some mistakes that could have been extremely dangerous. It takes the right conditions, the right tools, and a certain level of grit to pull some of these repairs off. It takes money, too. Shops aren’t cheap, but tools aren’t either. I would argue that tools are cheaper than shops, but you also have to consider the value of your sanity.

Once again, there is no conclusion to this post! I still think people can only benefit from understanding how their cars work, but for all the work I’ve done, I still come across awful little situations like this past weekend. I’m struggling to know what to recommend, honestly. For one, it’s worth having tools for those “oh, shit” moments, and I think it definitely helps to be over prepared for the job at hand. I may follow this post up with some suggestions on how to go about these DIY repairs. Half the battle is just knowing what you’re truly up against, and that’s the problem with recommending people do the work on their cars. You simply can’t predict what you’ll be up against. Doing it yourself only makes sense under certain conditions.

Personal Returns on Education

One clever life strategy is to carefully select your post-secondary education to maximize its ROI in your personal life. I’m not talking so much about monetary earnings as I am about the utility of specific skills in your life when they are used for you.

For example, my degree is in Anthropology. This was a highly intellectually stimulating subject for me, so I really loved it. But it does not translate into high pay (or much of any pay at all), and it’s unlikely to save me any costs. How it is likely to affect my life, in the sense that I mean in this post, is that it has given me broad-based cultural awareness that will likely help me to adapt to life and potentially earn money in foreign cities, something I hope to capitalize upon some day. Mostly, it’s still an intellectual subject 🙂

One subject I’ve been interested in studying is Appliance Repair. My parents’ refrigerator has crapped out twice now, but I was able to directly solve the problem the first time and made an informed guess that turned out to be accurate the second time. This has saved them the hassle of paying for a brand new refrigerator, probably in the range of ~$1400, and in the first case, it saved them from the lie of the repair guy that the compressor was bad and would cost $800 to replace. That’s substantial savings, but let’s think about this more. Your value as an Appliance Repair person comes from your work on many people’s appliances. The chances of your specific refrigerator dying are fairly small in any given year, but let’s say that over the course of your life, your refrigerator dies three times and you replace it each time. If you love what you do, that’s fine, but as far as personal ROI goes, you may be lucky to be saving yourself $5,000, maybe a little more if you consider other appliances and maybe rising prices or refrigerators with more features. HVAC training would have a higher personal ROI, but even then, a few water heaters and maybe a furnace are not going to save you a tremendous amount of money as a factor of your earnings over the course of your life.

Programming, surprisingly, is only marginally better. You could potentially design your own website, and if you are a crazy beast you could even build an e-commerce platform, but in the case of the latter, you’re still likely to hacked into oblivion because programming and security are done in teams, and solo programmers are rarely able to do everything themselves. In the former, you need specific technical skills that may not be a part of your “stack”, or base of knowledge. This blog that you are reading right now is built on WordPress, which is written in the PHP programming language. I don’t know PHP. I’m probably capable of hacking through it, but it wouldn’t be fun. There are tons of sites that have all of these pieces already put together for you, and they are very often a better use of your time and money than going solo, even if you are a professional programmer.

If you can see the trend, it’s that in order to make money in a particular occupation, you have to be highly specialized in that occupation, which has the side effect of being less useful to you, in person.

Accounting is not bad, but you don’t need a degree in Accounting to keep a budget. I have no training in Accounting, but I did go full geek last month and learned how to calculate my paychecks, taxes and everything. It took some reverse engineering of last year’s tax return to double-check my logic, but it was pretty fun for a few days. Likely, Accounting WOULD be extremely useful if you owned a small business.

Art is interesting in that art is expensive, so if you can do your own, you can likely style things exactly as you want for much less. With graphic design, you can make your own business cards, do your own photo retouching, etc. As for design, I have a distinctive international style I use for decorating the living room, and I’ve always thought it would be sweet if I could hammer and cut metal to keep that style going. This will scale with your needs, though, so it only saves as much as you were determined to have in the first place. I also suspect if you love artsy things, it’s easy to find and love cool things made by others, but that’s sort of beside the ROI discussion 😉

I would argue Nursing has high ROI as you become highly trained in many subjects of general health, you can perform your own bloodwork, and especially if you have kids, you will better know when they really need to go to the hospital or when they will be fine without special treatment. These savings can add up significantly over the years, and the knowledge does not require the extensive education that becoming a doctor does, which again, requires a great deal of specialization that may not be directly relevant to you or your family.

Probably the highest personal ROI of any occupation I can think of at 1:00am is Auto Mechanical work. Since most people own a vehicle and enjoy doing so, it makes sense that a mastery of automotive knowledge will help you save tremendous amounts of money keeping your cars running or finding good deals on used cars. Since maintenance is routine and parts can and will fail, this provides a steady stream of work which will create a higher ROI for your knowledge each time. I pride myself on doing most of the work on my car, but I don’t have the special training (or some of the gumption) to do everything, nor the experience to feed my decisions when I set to work. If I were financially independent, I would seriously consider doing an automotive program, and would love to rebuild my own engine some day. The ROI would be lower for mechanic work on heavy machinery, since you are not likely to need knowledge of heavy machinery maintenance for your daily life.

I also suspect that an Associate’s Degree in Business is one of the highest ROI degrees. You learn some accounting, some finance, some law, some communication, all in one package. It may not have the prestige of a Bachelor’s degree, but dollar for dollar, you’re getting a lot of great knowledge for very little time and money cost. Even if you never used the degree in a job setting, the knowledge would probably pay for itself many times over.

Carpentry would also be very high on the list, especially if you own a house.

 

There’s no science to all this, just some perspectives. There are many, oh so many, occupations that we could sit down and talk about. I especially like the Occupational Outlook Handbook, but the sort of analysis I’m doing here is fairly rare. Typically, people only look at either compensation or personal reward (e.g. intellectual stimulation, as with my degree). These are really great to consider, but don’t be ashamed to be strategic with your education 🙂