A dream of spring…

As the days lengthen, the household is beginning to shake itself loose from four months of winter inaction and beginning to lay out the list of things that need done as spring arrives.

This week, I’ve got a repair scheduled for a garage door that’s badly needed adjustment for months. I’ve also made calls to get the yearly generator service put on the books and to get a date for the spring mulching, two other annual expenses I’m perfectly happy to incur. Sure, I could do both of those things myself, but once I figure in the value of my own time (and half a dozen trips to Lowe’s), letting the professionals handle it in 1/3 of the time just makes sense.

Still to come projects are having the windows recalked and the angle iron lintels and a few other bits of trim scraped and repainted. I’ll farm those out too. I’m too old and too fat to fall off ladders. Heading out to pick up a new battery for the lawn tractor is at least one item on the list I’m competent to manage without direct supervision. Judging by how green some parts of the yard have started looking, we’re nearly to the time of year where being able to cut and trim is important. That also means “summarizing” the snowblower and de-winterizing my venerable Echo string trimmer. By the time that gets done and the garage is reset for warm weather operations, it’ll be time to clear off a winter’s worth of grime from the back porch and get the planters ready for a bit of color.

That leaves the wildcard… the master bathroom renovation that I expected to start around the end of January is still pending. There was a 16-week lead time just for the damned vanity, but now we’re past the half-year mark from the date I signed off on the final plan. With a third of the price already paid out to purchase supplies, I feel like I’ve been reasonably patient to this point, but now I just want to get things started so it might actually end someday… though I’ll admit the heated floor felt like a much more reasonable expense in the fall than it does with summer just over the horizon. 

I just made my bi-weekly call to the contractor to check in and remind them I’m still here. I’m not sure it does any good, but it makes me feel slightly better in hoping I won’t be marking a one-year anniversary of starting the design/build process before demo even starts… though I won’t pretend that it’s outside the realm of what’s possible at this point.

It turns out any house can be a money pit if you’re obsessive enough about things being just so.

That math can’t be right…

My Tundra is 12 years old. It’s in fine mechanical shape. Aside from a few chips and minor scratches the body looks great. It’s been in one major and one minor incident. Thanks, most likely, to fanatical devotion to preventative maintenance, it still runs like a top even as it closes in on 140,000 miles on the clock. At some point, though, I know I’m going to need to buy a new truck.

Just out of sheer curiosity, I recently used the Toyota website to price out what more or less replicating exactly the truck I currently own would cost if I were in the market right now. It came out to $61,103… before taxes. So, we’ll figure a nice round $65,000 all-in cost for a middle of the range Tundra here in 2022. 

I’m sorry. What?

Part of the trouble, I know, is it’s been 12 years since I bought a truck… and back then it was in the middle of “all time high” gas prices and they were almost begging people to take the big V8s off the lot. Add in 12 years of inflation, plague related supply shortage, and the general growth in popularity for the pickup form factor. Intellectually there’s no reason I should be surprised at where the price points are now.

Emotionally, though, I’m stunned. Maybe some of it is just age. I’m old enough now to remember when $60,000 was the price of some of the most luxurious vehicles then widely available on the market. Way back in 1995, my used ’91 Chevy Cavalier cost the princely sum of $5,700. Sixty grand would have put me into a brand-new Cadillac Deville with $20,000 to spare. It would have put me in a C-class Mercedes and still left me with $5,000 or $10,000 in change.

I’m having trouble getting my head wrapped around it. Sure, I mean I could buy something that isn’t a truck or look for something coming off a lease, which leads to many other considerations… or maybe I’ll just keep Big Red on the road until the wheels fall off and the floorboards rust through. I damn near bought a whole house in 2001 for what a new truck would cost me 20 years later and just the thought of it is making my brain hurt.

On crypto…

Scan the big news sites and it won’t take long to find an article where someone is decrying cryptocurrency as some kind of scam that swindled poor unsuspecting victims out of their life savings and now the bank will inevitably foreclose on the farm while Ma and Pa are tossed out to the ditch.

It makes an attention grabbing headline, but doesn’t garner any sympathy from me. It’s safe to say that most people don’t know the basics of how the Federal Reserve “creates money.” I’d wager that far fewer know with any kind of precision how an asset like Bitcoin really works, but here we are with scads of people wondering how they suddenly lost so much value, even when they didn’t know how it was generated in the first place.

You can almost hear the outcry now, begging for the government to place increasingly restrictive regulations on cryptocurrency and save the ill- and under-informed from themselves. Letting people live or die with their own decisions doesn’t play well in front of the cameras, I suppose.

In the interest of full disclosure, I hold a very small position in crypto. Mostly it’s a hedge against fear of missing out rather than any expectation of it ever shooting the moon. With much of it picked up back in 2017, I guess you can say I’m long on this brave new frontier of finance. I think some interesting things will come of it, even if no one seems quite sure what any of those will be yet.

Feeling pretty good…

It’s not polite to talk about money. That’s the kind of thing people drilled into your head back in the olden days. Maybe it’s still true. I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t polite to talk about money, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Like most people, I’ve had a complicated relationship with money for as long as I can remember. Some times were fat, others thin. Even in those thin times, though, debt was easy. I never had any trouble finding someone willing to let me borrow on their account. I’ve had some kind of unsecured debt following me around since Citibank gave me my first credit card as a college sophomore.

A decade ago, fleeing from an untenable career situation, I racked up a mountain of debt. It went to the costs of leasing out the house at less than I needed to cover the note (before finally selling it off at a loss), paying my own way a third of the way across the country, setting up housekeeping here along the northern reaches of the Chesapeake, and a bulldog with eye watering medical bills, among less dramatic things. It was all wildly expensive – and what I couldn’t cover out of pocket, I financed.

It’s taken every bit of those ten years, but as of this morning, with one last payment, I clawed out from under the last $279 of non-mortgage debt I was carrying on my books. With a rock bottom interest rate and no intention of staying in this house forever, it’s debt on an appreciating asset (and a deduction) I’m just fine with keeping. I’m perfectly willing to make that my modified definition of “debt free.”

Some people have said it’s a liberating feeling. Maybe it is, but mostly what I feel is relief – knowing that I can fully allocate resources to better goals than continually servicing debt. I could have cut costs to the bone, but you know, you’ve got to live a life too. I’m not saying I’ll never buy another thing with someone else’s dollars, but I’ll be a hell of a lot more judicious than I used to be when it happens.

This day would have arrived a hell of a lot sooner if I qualified for mortgage forgiveness back in 2008 or any of the COVID cash giveaways in 2021. There’s a good chance that’ll be a sore spot that festers for the rest of my life. Missing out on two big freebies aside, I’m feeling pretty good about things just now… and not only because I’m just a few hours into a 16-day weekend.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Parity. Part of my job this week was calling around and talking to people from other organizations who are saddled with their own version of my favorite dog and pony show. It’s no surprise that everyone I spoke to runs theirs a little differently. I didn’t uncover anything unexpected or particularly helpful, but I did discover that everywhere else, the person these other offices put in charge of their annual spectacular is at least graded out as a deputy director. Put another way they are all, a minimum of one good pay grade or two notches on the org chart higher than me. Yeah, that was a feel-good moment right there.

2. Inflation alarm. The federal government poured vast amounts of money into the economy over the last eighteen months in the form of direct payments via enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus payments and the Paycheck Protection Program. People, as they tend to do when they have money in their pockets, went on a buying binge. Stocks, houses, and consumer goods were all in the crosshairs of people with cash to spend. We spent so hard we overwhelmed the supply side’s ability to keep up with demand. And now, the headlines are screaming that we’re supposed to be shocked that inflation has taken hold and the price of good and services is increasing. Beyond the few classes I had to take as part of a social science major, I’m not a student of economics… even so, the results of increasing demand, limited supply, and boatloads of money in circulation is almost entirely predictable, no?

3. The waiting. Here I sit. About seven hours after getting the COVID-19 booster jammed into my arm. I feel fine, with barely even a sore arm to show for my trouble. What I do have, though, is the uncomfortable period of waiting. My first COVID shot was a non event. After getting my second Moderna shot way back in March, I had a bit of an aching arm, but went to bed and woke up the next morning feeling fine. Exactly twenty-four hours after the jab, though, I got to experience the unpleasant hit-by-a-bus feeling advertised as a potential side effect – chills, aches, lethargy – pretty much the full list with the merciful exception of nausea. That one skipped me, somehow. In any case, I’m sitting here, waiting to see what things look like around lunchtime tomorrow. Prevention is worth a pound of cure and all that, but I’m trying to mentally prepare for another lost day.

Unacknowledged milestones…

It seems to me that we’ve largely been conditioned as a society not to talk about money. I’m sure there’s a plethora of sociological studies that define exactly what this is, but I’m not quite interested enough in the details to go digging. Suffice to say, the number of conversations I’ve had with anyone other than various paid advisors about issues of salary, retirement, and general finance is, in a word, limited.

Money and finances are just not topics we bring up in polite company, though maybe it should be. It feels like there would surely be a whole lot of people who would be better off if only they had a bit of financial education – or even just a passing interest and some kind of basic financial literacy. 

I only mention it now because after the terror of watching the hemorrhaging in February and March 2020, and wondering if the blood in the streets would ever stop flowing, a few weeks ago I passed through what I consider a major milestone on the road to reaching a decently funded retirement. Unlike most of the other major milestones we celebrate or at least acknowledge in life – graduations, weddings, births, deaths – there’s no accepted way to mark the occasion.

So don’t mind me, I’m just over here screaming into the void of the internet because we as a society have some kind of complex when it comes to talking about money… except when it comes to complaining about the price of gas or why on earth a beef roast now costs $20.

Revenge of the deferred maintenance…

I’ve spent most of the last year deferring things that would bring people through the door. Part of that is just my natural disinclination to have people wandering around the house, but mostly it was part of my personal plague protection scheme. You can’t catch the bug if no one gets closer to you than the end of the driveway. 

It means now that I’ve had all my shots, it’s time to start working through the backlog. Sigh.

A few weeks ago, I anted up for the whole house power wash. The siding has never looked better and the moss colony that had taken root on the roof seems to (temporarily at least) be a thing of the past. It would have taken me a three-day weekend and probably resulted in me falling off the damned roof. It took them about three hours.

Today, Stanley Steemer crawled through the house finding every HVAC distribution and return vent to price out what the damage is going to be to get the whole system cleaned next week. After six years, it’s probably well past time for that regardless of what it ends up costing.

After that it’s a call to my go-to landscape company to schedule us in for spring mulching. That’s another project that takes me two days followed by weeks of nursing a sore back, but the professionals get finished in a handful of hours. 

There was a time I wanted to do all the work myself. I think it’s safe to say we’re well past that now and moving swiftly into an age where I’m perfectly happy hiring the work done and clawing back as much of my time as reasonably possible. 

We’ll see how I feel about that in a few weeks when I put out the call for bids on the long-delayed master bathroom renovation. Sure, there’s no way in hell I could do that work myself, but paying for it is going to be an agony.

Closing time…

The good news, I suppose, is that after months of screwing around, I’ll be closing on the new mortgage for the homestead on Friday morning. The new rate, 1.26% less than the original note, will save me several hundred dollars a month. 

As far as I can tell, all the paperwork is in good order and there theoretically shouldn’t be any problems getting to the closing table. The team I’ve been working with to get this work done have been spectacular – as johnny on the spot as any bunch of paper pushers I’ve ever dealt with. Color me cautiously optimistic.

I looked into a lot of options this time around – and strongly considered going with a 15 or 20-year mortgage to slice years off the life of the loan. Ultimately, though, reducing the overall cost of housing was the more important consideration. I can certainly allocate the savings to more entertaining or remunerative uses than keeping a roof over our heads. At rates under 3%, there’s very little incentive not to use other people’s money for as long as possible while seeking out a better ROI for my own dollars.

The only catch in this otherwise good news story was the moment I read over the estimated pay off date – sometime in 2051. As a child of the middle-to-late 20th century, 2051 doesn’t even feel like a real year. It’s some Jetson’s, deep space, basically unimaginably distant point in the future. Although I’ve spent nearly as much time in the 21st century as I did the 20th, I don’t think I’ll ever be entirely settled with it.

Under other circumstances, I’d be concerned about having a mortgage sticking that far out into the future – well past the date I expect to throw off the yoke of working for a living. As much as I like this house, though, staying here forever has never been the endgame. I think I’ve got one more big move left in me, hopefully to something built to suit my own undoubtedly quirky specifications. With this latest refinance, I won’t be paying off a hell of a lot of principle over the next 15 years, but I’ll make a modest dent. Throw in a decade and a half of (presumed) appreciation and there should still be a respectable nest egg to throw at building the last and final Fortress Jeff. 

We’ll just have to see how well that particular plan holds up to the intervening years… but again, on this point I’m choosing to be cautiously optimistic. 

Plague economics…

I can’t tell you how many times in the last 6 months I’ve heard or read someone say “Wall Street isn’t Main Street” or “the stock market isn’t the economy.”

That’s usually shorthand for telling your readers or viewers you want them to ignore record setting highs in the market in favor of focusing on more gritty, personal stories about small businesses. Those businesses are important. No one loves their small, local book shops more than I do, but I’m not going to sit here pretending that how the market does is irrelevant to the overall health of the economy or that it’s only “the 1%” who take advantage of its magical power of wealth creation.

Despite the popular press narrative that most people aren’t impacted by the stock market, the opposite is really the case. According to an article released by Pew Research in March 2020, “a majority (52%) have some level of investment in the market. Most of this comes in the form of retirement accounts such as 401(k)s.” If something north of half the people having a vested interest in Wall Street doesn’t count as having a deep influence on Main Street, I don’t know what would.

Yes, how “invested” someone is depends on many factors – age, race, and income, among others – but you really sound like an idiot when you write an article trying to convince me that I should feel badly that the market is booming. I’m never going to be upset by a story that tells me real money is being made by real people. Even when it’s painted as a story of winners and losers, I’d reminded them that there are winners and losers in ever field of endeavor – none of the great -isms of history have managed to change that beyond shifting a bit of who gets what. The wheel turns, but some group is always on top at any given moment – princes of the church, members of the politburo, or heirs to the House of Morgan – and they reap the reward of being in the right seat at the right time. I’ve never felt the need to hate them for that.

The two streets measure (mostly) different aspects of the economy. While I’ve made an effort to support local businesses with my spending during the Great Plague, I won’t for a moment feel bad about seeing growing equity prices. Both sides of the economy are important and while I’d love to see both go like gangbusters in an endless bull market, having half a loaf in this plague-ravaged environment is something to celebrate.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

In a time of global pandemic, impending financial doom, and the collapse of civilization, you might be tempted to think I wouldn’t find any day-to-day petty grievances to air. You, of course, would be exactly wrong. It may be the end of the world as we know it, but it’s far from the end of me being agitated. With that said, let’s get into it…

1. The news. The minute by minute drumbeat of the news is impossible to miss. Crisis, contagion, collapse… It can absorb you if you let it, and I, unfortunately, was letting it for the last few days. The trouble with being monopolized by the news is that it was getting in the way of my reading. So I’ll be making a conscious effort to step back and start ignoring it again. Beyond don’t leave the house unless you need to, I’m not sure what the news is going to tell me at this point that I might find personally useful. I mean if the apocalypse really comes, someone will beep me, right?

2. Bailouts. I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the various vast bailout proposals being kicked around with what fees like very little discussion or analysis other than politicians wish to be seen doing something immediately. Then again I didn’t support what eventually became the sweeping bank bailouts in 2007, government backed loans to the auto industry, or home mortgage “forgiveness.” I’d never be so bold to claim that government doesn’t have a role to play in shoring up the economy, particularly for those businesses shuttered and employees thrown out of work by executive fiat. My concern is mostly that everything I’m seeing reported on the news this week reeks of “lets throw money at it and hope it goes away” being the primary planning principle. A trillion dollars is a shit ton of money, I hope you’ll forgive me for thinking that maybe spending it should involve a bit more analysis than we’ve seen thus far.

3. Planning. Way back in 2005-ish I was involved in some preliminary “pandemic flu” planning. The end result was a plan and supporting documentation, the density of which would stun a team of oxen in their tracks. Pandemics aren’t something new. History could certainly be a guide here even if there wasn’t an actual plan. Everything I’ve seen thus far makes me wonder if anyone even bothered to read or even just dust off the damned thing from way back when.