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.

Be not afraid…

It’s hard to miss all the current reporting on the growing impact of inflation on the overall economy. Even without the reporting, rapidly rising prices for petrol, food, and other consumer goods, the impact of our inflationary economy would be hard to miss. 

Most of the major news outlets paint a worrying picture – particularly for retirees, anyone sitting on a lot of cash (in a savings account or in certificates of deposit, for instance), or those who loaded up on variable rate debt (like your average credit card). That’s a fair concern, but it’s only part of the bigger picture.

If you happen to be a homeowner – especially one who locked in a mortgage when fixed interest rates drifted down under 3% – inflation gives you the bonus of paying back your loan on an appreciating asset with devalued dollars. If you happen to be holding equities as opposed to cash (including things like 401k, IRA, and other retirement savings vehicles), values should largely increase as the cash value of the underlying companies is inflated. All of that, of course, presupposes that your income also paces the rate of inflation, or at least doesn’t entirely stagnate during a period of sustained inflationary pressure.

I’m obviously not calling for a return to the bad old days of inflation, sky high interest rates, and 10% unemployment… but by read is that there are things out there a hell of a lot more frightening than a little pop of inflation every now and then, so for the time being my motto is “be not afraid.”

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. I missed out on the mortgage and rent relief in 2008 and 2020 because I pay my bills and don’t over extend my line of credit. I missed out on stimulus because I spent a decade from age 23-33 moving around the country following jobs that increased my take home pay. I missed Maryland’s vaccine incentive lottery because I got my jab from the first available source – directly from the feds. Now, the Biden Administration wants to give a fresh new hundred-dollar bill to any of the holdouts that show up to get their shot. My question is: At what point, if ever, will doing the right things and making good decisions be specially rewarded? I only ask because the underlying message I’m seeing pretty consistently is “You’ve made good choices and done the right stuff… so sit down, shut the fuck up, and cheerfully fork over those tax dollars so we can pay out and reward people that didn’t.”

2. Personal liberty. I’m a big believer in personal liberty. My position is often best explained in the notion that my rights are inviolate right up to the point where they violate the rights of someone else. Put more colloquially, my right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose. I suppose that’s why I’m confused by so many Republicans and Libertarians who are intent on decrying vaccinations, particularly mandated vaccination, as some kind of violation of their personal liberty. My understanding, and I’m quite sure the logic of the Constitution will bear me out on this, is that we have no protected individual right to spread communicable disease while there is a compelling government interest in reducing the spread of an illness that has proven to be a clear and present threat to public health, the overall economy, and body politic at large. To argue that we do have such a right makes you sound like a goddamned idiot.

3. The World Health Organization. The WHO has decided that America shouldn’t even consider giving anyone COVID-19 booster shots; demanding instead that all doses be funneled out of the country. I don’t mean to put too fine a point on this, but since the WHO dropped the ball back in the early days of the Great Plague by not demanding full disclosure from Communist China, I don’t feel like we need to put all that much stock in what the choose to demand now. Americans are a generous people for the most part. We’re exporting hundreds of millions of doses of the various vaccines – every one of which the American taxpayer footed the bill to research, develop, and produce. We rented the hall and engaged the band, so I have no earthly idea what gives the people from the WHO the absolute stones to think they should be calling the tunes.

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. 

Take it where you find it…

After ten months of watching interest rates plummet through previously unimaginable record lows, I’ve finally stuck out my hand in an effort to catch the falling knife. Almost six years ago, I was thrilled to lock in 4.25% for 30 years. I’d taken 7.5% back in 2001when I bought my St. Mary’s County condo. At the time, that was a steal – especially for a 23-year-old with no significant credit history. I refinanced that one a few times over the years and the shopped around for financing for the Tennessee house in 2007. I closed on that one about three months before the bottom fell out of the housing market in 2008. Good timing, that.

I’d gotten used to being able to move through the mortgage process pretty effortlessly. I have every conceivable piece of electronic paperwork the underwriters may need at my fingertips – often sending it off before the call asking for it even ended. I’m still good for that, but the mortgage business itself is having a bit of a struggle at the moment. Just getting a broker to call me back proved to be more of a challenge than you might think. I suppose it’s a case of having an embarrassment of riches as everyone is racing to their favorite banker to take advantage of the unprecedentedly low rates. I was warned that getting through to closing, usually a 30-day affair, could take up to 90 days because of how much of a backlog they already have in the pipeline. The rate is locked in, with an option to go lower if they should continue to fall, but now that I’ve started the process, I’m impatient to start getting my monthly savings.

Plague, famine, sedition are all loose upon the world. Maybe we’re all going to hell in a handbag. It’s important to take your happiness where you can find it in strange times, so damned if I’m not going to appreciate a blisteringly low interest rate with no points on the way to the collapse of civilization.

Like a half-assed grail quest…

I’ve been reaching out to potential mortgage servicers for the last week or so to see if anyone’s interested in underwriting a refinance for Fortress Jeff. With interest rates stupidly low, I can only assume every other American home owner is doing the same thing right now. That’s a net good overall for homeowners, but has driven the whole process towards being even more of an absolute pain in the ass than it would be under normal circumstances.

If nothing else, you’d think I could get my current mortgage servicer to pick up the damned phone. And yet here we are, with all my calls for the last four days kicked over to voicemail and emails left without response. 

I’m sure they’re busy. I know my mortgage is in no way even remotely close to “big business” for a national bank. But, hey, a quick email letting a long-term customer know they’re in the queue and someone will eventually get back to them – or gods forbid giving an actual estimate of when they may get in touch – would go a long way towards making me feel like they should keep my business and fending off the increasing likelihood that I’ll just slam a request for quotes through one of those online aggregators and go with the absolute low bidder.

Under normal circumstances, I’d just walk into the credit union and ask for their best offer and move along, but it seems that since they’re still operating under COVID procedures, requiring advanced appointments, and also getting flooded with work, adding them to the list would just make for one more outfit that doesn’t seem interested in calling back. They may get added to the mix yet, but life would be altogether easier if the current lender would just get on the stick and work a streamlined loan for me versus starting over as a new customer. 

Yes, it’s a first world problem… and yet since I’m living in the first world, that really just makes it a problem… and one that you wouldn’t think should take so much time and effort to work through, but, of course, here we are. It’s like some kind of half-assed grail quest. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Handholding. If you’re a “professional” well into middle age and need constant hand holding and reassurance, perhaps you’ve got into the wrong career field. I don’t have the time or inclination to sooth your forehead with a cool rag and assure you that everything really will be alright. You might be the most important player in your own drama, but I can promise you’re not carrying enough rank or influence to convince me to give much of a shit before I write you off as a whiny sonofabitch and consign your future efforts to the ever growing file of received, but unread email.

2. $15 an hour. Want $15 an hour, you can start by doing a good job to begin with. The last three times I’ve been through a particular fast food joint they’ve gotten the order wrong – wrong size, wrong item, and then the last time, the whole order, fries included, dumped loose into the bag. I went in to complain about that last one. The manager looked like she couldn’t be bothered, her blank stare clearly not comprehending why I wasn’t satisfied. Pay rates should, in part, reflect the level of difficulty of the job and the quality with which it is performed. Why anyone expects a 100% raise for what seems to be an increasingly abysmal level of service is well and truly beyond me. Maybe think about earning that raise, you’d be amazed how good it feels to have a little self respect instead of getting something for nothing.

3. Interest rates. Mortgage interest rates are bumping along towards or at historic lows. They currently make the first mortgage I got 20+ years ago look almost usurious by comparison. The problem is mostly that the rates are low enough now that it’s starting to tempt me towards refinancing the mortgage on the ol’ homestead. Without fully running the numbers, I’ve got to think there are a few dollars to be saved if I can drop my rate a couple quarters of a percent. And that’s when I start to remember the absolute rage-inducing process that accompanies mortgage refinancing… and I’m left wondering if any kind of savings is really worth going through it unnecessarily. I’ll be off to the next place well before I pay off the note on the current house. The less crazy making course of action may well be keeping what’s already a respectably low interest rate and just ignoring the promise of a few less dollars flowing out every month, tempting though it is.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Tax reform. This country needs real reform of the tax code. Whether you fall into the “tax the rich in oblivion” camp or find yourself in the “Why the hell do 50% of Americans not pay a penny of income tax” team, the need for reform is the one thing we all seem to have in common. The terms of the current Republican tax plan are still largely shrouded in secrecy, but I’ve already seen two items kicked around that will be will mean I can’t support it as long as they’re in play. I’ll be writing my representative this weekend to let him know that the home mortgage deduction and state/local tax deduction are non-negotiable points for me. Those are two big pots of available cash and I know how tempting that must be for the average politician to put their filthy hands all over… but still, going after two of the most popular deductions around feels like just about the most tone deaf way to get the process started.

2. Temptation. There was beer at work today. Sort of. It was the start of this year’s Oktoberfest celebration – an event that my employer has a tremendous amount of love for, which I can only assume comes from the number of employees who have spent some part of their career in Germany since 1945. Look, if the option is to go sit around listening to oom-pah bands and knocking back cold beer or stay at my desk and pretend to be interested in email, well, there’s not really much of a competition. The problem comes when you’re a few drinks in and everyone is starting to get a little lubricated and entertaining. That’s when the little voice in my head trips an alarm to remind me that it’s probably time to go before I say something that’s both funny and true, but wholly unprofessional. The real temptation, though, was to stick around just out of curiosity to see what offensive or inappropriate sound bite might come flying out of my pie hole.

3. Jared Kushner. Having spent a good portion of 2016 being hot and bothered by Secretary Clinton and her email server, it’s only fair that I call out Jared Kushner in his capacity as Senior Advisor to the President. His use of private email to conduct official business should be investigated by Congress. His files and records should be subpoenaed. If there is evidence indicating he has broken the law, he should be charged criminally and tried. While I’m on the subject, I’ll remind those on the left screaming for Kushner’s head, that there is a world of difference between official email and classified message traffic. That being said, it’s apparently impossible to keep either one on non-government servers. Asshats.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Refinance. I’ve had two deals blow up in the last 45 days. One because of obscure federal regulations governing how many condo units have to be owner occupied and one because the appraiser used a nearly-unrelated set of comps and low-balled the house value. So now basically I’m out $850 with nothing to show for it but a shit ton of paperwork and the exact same rates with which I started the process. Some days it’s not at all hard to imagine why people don’t trust, like, or particularly want to do business with large financial institutions.

2. Party Planning. I’ve once again assumed my mantle as supreme party planner. Feel free to talk to me about event registration, catering, party tent reservations, name badges, parking, shuttle bus service, cash bar socials, menu planning, and all of your party, wedding, or other event needs. When I walked out if the gym at dear old Frostburg State with a shiny new social science degree in hand this is not at all the future I had in mind. Let my life experience serve as a reminder to you all that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you’ll have any interest in doing it. But don’t take my word for it, go ahead and spend a few months each year doing something you loath. It’s sure it’s character building or something.

3. All the other things. Perhaps capping off the list of annoyances this week are all the small things. That’s what life is made up of, really. The day-to-day, moment-to-moment instances. Usually they pass by unnoticed and unremarked… until they all start fraying at the same time. This has been one of those kind of weeks, where even the easy somehow makes itself hard to do. If I make it through Friday afternoon without verbally expelling what’s really on my mind at anyone I’ll consider it one of my greatest personal and professional accomplishments to date.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Refinancing. At the moment I’m trying like hell to refinance the condo since interest rates can’t conceivably go much further down. This week, I’m playing an interminable game of “send this, then send that, then send some other thing, send something else, resend the first thing.” While I can understand that not everyone share’s my obsession with order and neatness, it seems to me that just sending one list of the documents I need to provide might go a long way towards streamlining this process.

2. Don’t ask. If you ask if I’m busy and the answer is anything close to “yes, I’m going to lunch,” that should not be a signal to you to then drag me into a 30 minute conversation about something I couldn’t possibly care less about. Instead, you should consider it a signal to STFU so I can go get lunch. #TheMoreYouKnow

3. Nothing original. If you really are going to hold me to a third thing this week, let’s just go with the fact that, occasionally there isn’t a third thing. it’s not that the week has been any less stupid than the others, just that most of the grievances I noticed this week are a little too familiar. They’re the same ones that came up last week and a few weeks before that and maybe even months ago. Being a dedicated creature of habit it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the same things come up over time. I’d be more concerned if they didn’t. There’s just so many times I can create a new and interesting spin on “meetings are stupid,” “people are a pain in the ass,” and why leader is a verb rather than a title.