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.
1. Facebook. If you’re looking at a meme I post and think to yourself “By god, ol’ Jeff is right. It is my Constitutional right to stick a fork in this power outlet,” I’m not sure Facebook should even try to save you from yourself. Similarly, Facebook needs to refine its sarcasm detector, because this is some ridiculous content to spend a lot of time trying to eradicate from everyone’s precious feed. Lighten up, Francis.
2. Updates. At some time during the weekend, my home computer updated itself automagically. As part of this helpful update, “dark mode” was turned on by default for all my Microsoft Office products. Look, I get that software updates are necessary inconvenience. Some of them are downright critical. Still, it would be helpful if changes I didn’t request or expect wouldn’t randomly change the settings I’ve left alone since basically the dawn of personal computing. Then again, I wouldn’t get the opportunity to spend 20 minutes trying to diagnose why my computer was going off the rails.
3. Sizes. I’m going to need food and beverage companies to just stop fucking with product sizes. I suppose the theory is that as long as the price stays the same, people will never notice they’re getting less and less of whatever product they’re purchasing. I’m old enough to remember when coffee was still sold in one-pound packages. Now it’s 12 ounces if you’re lucky. Most packaged products seem to be going the same way. What is now selling as “large” or “jumbo” is what a decade or two ago was just the regular size. But hey, if I need sixteen ounces of something for a recipe it’s definitely better to buy two 14-ounce cans, take a scoop out of one of them and then toss the remainder. Maybe I’ll start mailing these leftover ingredients destined to go bad in the fridge back to their corporate offices. I’m a generally reasonable human being who understands inflation happens over time and price increases are the inevitable consequence. How about just passing along that increase instead of adopting slick marketing gimmicks?
Six weeks ago, I was on a wild tear to get the master bathroom, at long last, updated to the point where it was a functional space for something beyond walking through to get to my closet and an out of the way corner to keep Hershel’s litter box. Getting proposals back that saw my own preliminary cost estimate bested by about 50% has given me a moment of pause… not because I want a real functioning master bathroom any less, but because it is only one item on my list of things to do.
The others, in no particular order of importance are: 1) Patch and reseal the asphalt driveway; 2) Repair or replace leaking gutters; 3) Replace 21 year old air conditioning condenser unit; 4) Replace kitchen counter tops; 5) Be prepared to replace all major kitchen and laundry appliances since every one of them is now well past the point of economical repair; 6) More bookcases (because we always need more bookcases here). There are, of course, other more minor items that need continuous repair and replacement as needed.
Before the cost run ups associated with the Great Plague, the price of a new bathroom would have been an all cash operation. Funding was saved and earmarked. Now, it would mean pulling a loan to cover the unanticipated increase in cost. Doing the bathroom now means sucking all the oxygen out of the room – and being unable to address any of the other projects without further borrowing or kicking them years into the future in order to reestablish a sufficient cash reserve.
I’m going to take the weekend to sleep on it. The most likely solution feels like taking on some of the smaller projects while stashing away more cash to get the bathroom done right. That’s all hoping, of course, that rampaging inflation doesn’t completely throttle the value of the dollar and that at some point the COVID premium on construction supplies and labor moderates back towards historical levels. Those are two significant “maybes’ that there is no way to control for other than sucking it up and paying the bill now.
So yeah, tell me more about this joy of home ownership, won’t you?
1. The office. There’s nothing like being back in the office to really drive home the absolute absurdity of basing employment in the information age solely on the ability of / requirement for someone to sit in a specific geographic space for eight hours five times a week. I’m sure there are some jobs where “being there” makes an actual difference in how well or swiftly the information flows, but in my little corner of the bureaucracy, this week has stood as stark evidence that where work is location agnostic, corralling people into an office just because it’s how we did things in the before time isn’t so much strategic decision making as it is acquiescence to organizational inertia.
2. The end of an error. The fact that a serving Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other unformed officials were put in a position to actively ponder how to counter the possibility of a coup d’état in the United States isn’t so much annoying as it is horrifying… but I’ve been thinking a lot about it the last 36 hours or so. I suspect that as history sorts the wheat and chaff from January 2020 the details will be far more horrific than anything we know in the present. That so many among us still think the end of the Trump Administration was “business as usual” or it was somehow the victim of a vast and unprecedented left-wing conspiracy is both heartbreaking and infuriating.
3. Renovation. With multiple proposals now in hand, I’m edging dangerously close to becoming a broken record that says only “That’s almost what I paid for my first condo” or “I could buy a new damned pickup truck with that.” Evaluating the proposals shouldn’t be hard since they’re all within 8% of each other. I suppose technically that’s good news insofar as it means that’s probably a reasonably accurate estimate of what it’s going to take to put a new bathroom in this place. The hurdle I’m trying to get over, is that across the range of proposals, we’re about 50% over my original planning factor and into a point where cash on hand isn’t going to get the job done. Logically I know home equity loans can be had near lifetime low rates, but it all begs the question if I’m willing to pull a loan because I’m tired of schlepping down the hall to get a shower in the morning.
I’ll admit that a decade ago I picked the vet whose office location was the most convenient. I was just back to Maryland with a bulldog who at least once a month seemed to need to go to the vet immediately. Their office being between five and seven minutes from the house was a much appreciated convenience.
That office closed a few years ago and folded many of their clients, myself included, into their sister facility twenty-five minutes away. We’ve gotten good service there and I like my regular vet and the staff, but their fees tend towards eyewatering territory on a pretty regular basis.
I’m leaning towards transitioning the two youngest members of the household over to a different vet – one that’s still locally owned and operated (and presumably with lower costs for basic veterinary care). With Maggie’s long and complex history over the last several years, though, I expect to keep her with people who know the full back story until we’ve played that hand all the way through.
Part of the reason I liked the big corporate chain vet in the first place was having ready access to emergency and specialists “in the family.” With a host of them now sprung up within reasonable driving distance, I’m not sure that’s the selling point it was then. It feels likely that nothing more than the inertia of dealing with a known quantity is what really kept us where we’ve been this long.
Or not. I’m currently feeling mightily indecisive… and since a decision isn’t needed right the hell now, I’ll probably continue to dither for a bit yet.
1. Diminishing supply. My to be read shelves are starting to look a bit picked over despite the regular trickle of online orders over the last nine months. Sure, there’s still an easy 400 or so lined up in the fiction section and another 150 in non-fiction, but the gaps that weren’t there when the Great Plague started are starting to be noticeable. I’d usually spend the week after Christmas casting net through used book stores and thrift shops in a geographical area that stretched north to south from Philadelphia to DC and east to west from Dover to Frederick. It’s the second of what are historically my two big, bulk buying weeks I’ve missed this year. I’m not at much risk of running short on reading material, but I do miss the hunt – and finding the occasional rare-ish first edition, or signed copy, or the one long out-of-print volume I need to make the set. Book shops are probably a low threat environment, eminently suited for social distancing, but every trip out increases the chance of being exposed unnecessarily. With vaccines now ramping up to full rate production and being shipped out by the millions, it feels like a stupid time to force old patterns to fit present circumstances. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
2. Staying put. As I sit here finalizing this post, it’s Christmas Eve morning. Tomorrow will be the first Christmas in 42 years I won’t wake up in the shadow of Savage Mountain. Like a salmon driven by thousands of generations of history to swim back up stream to the gravel beds where they were born, the trip home for Christmas was as inviolable part of my yearly calendar no matter where in the country I found myself living. Staying put this year is absolutely the right decision… even though there’s a deep, primordial part of my brain is screaming that something is wrong.
3. Shipping. I ordered a book from a shop in Indiana on the 7th of December. It shipped out on the 10th. It pinged in various places on the 12th and 13th before coming to rest in York, Pennsylvania in the 19th, where according to the helpful USPS tracking website it hasn’t been seen since. By contrast, the package I currently have in transit from southern Sweden was picked up by UPS on December 22nd and flown through the night across the Atlantic bloody Ocean. It arrived in Philadelphia, and cleared customs on the 23rd, was driven overnight to New Castle, Delaware and now, on the 24th, is loaded on a truck for delivery. I absolutely paid more for the UPS delivery than I did for the package shipped through the postal service, but if that’s the cost of actually getting what you order in a timely manner, it’s a price I’ll happily pay. I fully understand that things ordered in December sometimes take a bit longer than usual to arrive, but come on, man.
I had a pretty normal undergraduate experience – 4 years, a couple of summer or winter classes, and done. I managed to earn a full academic scholarship at least for tuition, so fortunately I didn’t have to pay the freight for that education. I won’t say I loved every minute of it, but I look back very fondly on those four years.
In the early stages of my federal career I was on the road more weeks than not and opted for an online MBA. I don’t know what the fees for such a thing are now, but back then I was paying $1,850 per six week class, for a total of $24,050 by the time I earned my degree. My impression of online education, based on that MBA experience, is that you could get as much or as little out of it as you were willing to put into it. It wasn’t hard to slip through doing the minimum, but to really learn the subject you needed to put in extra hours beyond the homework and discussion boards. I didn’t love it, but I ended up learning a lot and it served its purpose for a guy whose schedule wouldn’t have otherwise supported getting a degree.
I’m seeing articles indicating that brick and mortar schools largely plan on charging full tuition for their slate of online classes for the fall semester. I fully realize that these schools have sunk costs that they need to keep paying regardless of how instruction is delivered, but at the same time I can’t fathom by what logic an entering freshman would pay full price for severely reduced services. Better I’d think to take your intro level classes from the local community college, save your money, and transfer them on when your school of choice opens back up for learning in the flesh. Under the circumstances, I’d even argue a gap year could be a better investment of time and resources.
Pretending that you’re completely justified in charging full price for the undergrad college experience while providing significantly reduced service feels distinctly like perpetrating a fraud… although if you have a large enough group of people willing to unquestioningly pay the bill, I suppose you can take every cent they’ll willingly hand over.
After getting my notice of another Amazon Prime subscription price increase, I’m realizing that I either need to start using it for more than watching 10 episodes of The Grand Tour a year or get rid of it. I signed up way back when Prime’s major benefit was two day shipping on books. Although it offers many more features now, I find I’m barely using it for any of them. With many of items I’ve bought from Amazon recently not making the 2-day shipping window and/or being damaged to some degree in packing or transit, it’s starting to feel like less of a bargain overall – especially when Amazon has opted to push it over the $100 price point.
I’m well aware that arguing over the value of $21 per year increase is patently ridiculous on its face, but there’s just something about that three-digit bill that really sets me wondering just what the hell I’m paying for and if it’s actually worth it. In all likelihood I’ll just go along letting apathy and inertia carry it along, but don’t let that in any way be confused with my willingness to bitch and complain every year when that $120 bill shows up in my list of financial transactions… because I still want my dented and damaged crap showing up in two (or three or four) days.
I supposed that’s what Amazon has been counting on all along.
1. Ghosting. If you thought dating at 18 was an exercise in the absurd, you should really try dating at 38. I don’t do it often, which is a testament more to my incredible shrinking tolerance to people than it is the number of opportunities available. As obnoxious as I find most human interaction, I think the thing that bothers me most are the ones that just disappear. You plug along being your normal charming self, go on a few dates, and *poof* suddenly they disappear from social media and stop answering texts. It’s one of those times when having generally low expectations of people is such a valuable trait. If you had any kind of decent personality I’ll probably spend a day or two wondering if you ended up in a ditch somewhere, but after that I’ll file you under T-for-twatwaffle and move on with my day. In retrospect maybe I shouldn’t be annoyed and just appreciate that I’ve been saved from discovering that factoid six months down the line after I’ve invested more than a few hours and a couple of meals into figuring out if you are a total asshat.
2. EpiPen. I’m always a little perplexed when people seem to be surprised that it costs money to keep yourself alive if you’re not in perfect physical health. As I pointed out to a colleague, a hundred years ago, people who needed EpiPens or really any significant medical intervention to save them from the earth’s flora and fauna just kind of dropped dead. While I’m not endorsing that as the ideal solution for people with allergies, but when death is the consequence, spending a few hundred bucks to stay alive doesn’t feel like too stiff a price to pay. Somewhere along the lines in this country we’ve developed the idea that more and more “essentials” should just come at no cost to us. I have no idea where that kind of mindset comes from. There’s a cost for everything in life, the only real question is whether it comes out of our pocket in the retail line when we decide it’s a necessity or at the point of a gun when government decides the next installment of our tax bill is due. We can give the government enough power to feed us all, to house us all, to clothe us all, and to medicate us all… and on the day that happens we’ll all be well and truly slaves.
3. Accountability. I’m bombarded multiple times a year with reminders to fulfill approximately 178 yearly training requirements. Among them are such classics as ethics and cyber security. Let me not check those boxes on time and there’s hell to pay. Let me violate one of the rules, policies, or laws they cover and there’s a good chance I’ll end up seeing the inside of a courtroom if not the inside of a federal minimum security prison. I’m smart enough to know that the rules are always somewhat different for the rich and powerful, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It certainly doesn’t mean I have to give my vote to a candidate who doesn’t feel in any way constrained by the rules and requirements that have a tendency to make the job such a pain in the ass for the rest of us. Just once I’d love to see a little accountability and a story of a senior official caught in a web of misconduct that resulted in more than solemn-faced apology or blanket denial.
1. Sales tactics. We live in the real world. I’m perfectly capable of understanding that the price of everything generally tends to go up over time. It’s the nature of inflation. Fine. I don’t know who the marketing executive who decided it was a good idea to make everything smaller while also charging more for it, though. I really truly don’t mind paying more for a product I was going to buy anyway… but I hate the hell out of paying more for less while being expected not to notice that everything from packaged coffee to toilet paper is half the size it use to be.
2. Parties. You’d think retirement parties would be moments of supreme satisfaction. In my experience no matter how nice they are they can’t help but being a reminder that we all spend our lives trading youth for a few bags of cash and some nice words at the end. No matter how well laid on, I always find them just a little bit depressing.
3. Information. I need to get my fingerprints taken. The why isn’t germane important to the story. What is germane, however, is that I spent some of this week calling several of the places the State of Maryland say are approved on their website. Each of the three places I called were only too happy to inform me that they don’t do those pesky state-approved prints any more. It seems to me that if the state is going to mandate prints they might at least be able to tell you where to go to get them. Then again that presupposes that the state has any interest in actually facilitating this particular type of lawful commerce instead of making it enough of a pain in the ass that the average person might be tempted to give up.