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Birthday weekend coming up

August 22nd, 2019 at 06:27 pm

My birthday is this weekend, and I've taken tomorrow off so that I'll have a long weekend. Last year I spent a long weekend in Amish country. This year, with the still-recovering kitty and a focus on trying to cut debt, I'm not going away overnight (until a mandatory business trip next month). Although I left it late, plans for the weekend have come together nicely. Tomorrow, I'm going out to breakfast and kayaking with a couple of friends. Tomorrow evening is a picnic and service with some members of my congregation. Then on Saturday, I'm having brunch with another friend in the morning, and going for a hike and dinner with another friend in the afternoon. Finally, on Sunday, I'll be going out to see "The Farewell" with two friends.

Usually I spend Saturdays doing errands and chores and reading and am quite happy by myself, but having my birthday fall on a weekend seemed to call for something a bit more.

The only time I ever regret my single status is when people talk about travel and vacations and on days like my birthday and Christmas. Those things take more planning and effort as a single than as a member of a couple. But other than that, I'm quite happy on my own and especially with the pets.

Next year is a milestone birthday. I'm going to try to think further ahead for that one. This year I didn't even start making plans until last Friday, but fortunately eveything came together well during the week.

Food shopping / cooking / planning

August 11th, 2019 at 11:37 am

Food is one expense that tends to get out of control for me. I live alone and often work long hours, so I get into ruts where I don't cook much for myself and eat out too much. I'm working on changing this, slowly but surely.

I've managed to cut about $100 per month from the food budget compared to last year--about $65/month less on eating out and $35/month less on groceries. The past four months, in particular, have seen a big drop in eating out--but that's because the height of tax season (Feb, March & the first half of April) is when I end up eating out the most. There was a BIG drop in eating out costs once May came, and I've been pretty moderate this summer.

One thing that is helping is having dedicated credit cards for groceries (American Express Blue Cash Preferred, which costs $95/year but has a 6% back on groceries). I also just started doing the same thing for eating out--I already had a card I wasn't using that gives 2% back on dining out, and I applied for a BOA cash rewards card that gives 3% back on dining out (if you select as your 3% rewards category) that I am waiting to be approved. Cashback rewards are great, but it's mostly keeping track of expenses that is the big benefit to me. Having a card that is just dedicated to the one expense makes me much more aware of how much I am spending in that category, and awareness leads to spending decreases.

When I first started on SA, I used to track expenses regularly, using at various points YNAB and Quicken--but that was back when YNAB was the Excel version and Quicken was a download to your computer rather than online. I've tried the online versions of each and found them more trouble than they were worth.

Right now I monitor expenses by checking in regularly to Personal Capital, which categorizes expenses for me (Mint will also do this), but the dedicated credit card keeps things even more in my awareness.

Since I work in financial services, it's become part of my settling-in-to work routine (after getting a cup of coffee and filling my water carafe) to check my personal account balances as part of getting ready to work for the day. When I was putting groceries on the same card as all my other general expenses, I didn't have a sense on a day-to-day basis of how much I was spending, but now that groceries (and now eating out) go on dedicated credit cards, I am more aware of how much I spend in each category.

Another thing that helps is that I switched my main grocery store. For the past several years, it has been Wegmans. And I still go to Wegmans at least once a month to get things there that I can't get at my new "default" store, Giant. (I gave up quarterly trips to Trader Joes, which is 45 minutes away, after realizing that there was relatively little there that I couldn't get an equivalent of at Wegman's. IF TJ's would move a grocery store up here (as opposed to a warehouse, which IS just 10 miles away), I'd shop there occasionally, but it's no longer worth the time to drive down. I used to have a friend who lived nearby whom I would have lunch with on TJ's days, but she left the area a few years ago, so when I go to TJ's, it's just to go to TJ's.)

I still prefer Wegmans, but Giant finally built a gas station outside the store that I use. With the cash back rewards, I typically get a 20 cent per gallon reduction on one of my two monthly fill-ups and a 10 cent reduction on the other. Bundling rewards this way helps cut costs on both groceries and gas.

There's an Aldi's a little bit further away, but I rarely go these days, as bundling all the grocery costs at Giant makes the most sense. A competitor store to Aldi (apparently owned by a different member of the same family) called Lidl (Lee-dle) opened up about 10 miles a ways, and some time I will go to check it out, but at that distance, it would only be an occasional trip. My friend who lives nearby says they have good seafood.

I'm trying to get into more of a routine for cooking at home. In particular, I'm trying to cook some basics once a week: a few pounds of potatoes, a dozen eggs, some chicken breasts, and one or two recipes with about four servings each which will last me multiple meals. Today I bought ingredients for vichyssoise and "unstuffed cabbage." That, plus a family size bag of a salad mix, will constitute most of my meals for the week. A summer favorite for breaksfast has become either a salad (the salad I am eating most this summer I call my "patriotic salad," with arugala, blueberries, fermented beets, a touch of goat cheese, some sliced almonds, and a fruit flavored vinegar for a dressing) or a "salad smoothie"/homemade v8 with spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, a red pepper, a bit of red onion, fermented beets (I love those!), maybe some celery juice or else a cup of water to make the veggies mix. I'm doing pretty well on the weekly cooking now, when work is relatively light; will have to figure a way to prepare some freezer meals over the holidays to have some "dump and go" things on hand for tax season.

July Net Worth update and some thoughts re retirement

July 31st, 2019 at 07:19 pm

Assets are up 1.2% this month My investments are actually about $250 lower because I took some money to pay down some of the veterinary debt accrued in June. Other than the account I drew from, my investments are up modestly. Where I saw a big increase was in my home value (based on Zillow), up 6.4%. I believe it since I've been keeping an eye out on homes for sale in my neighborhood and they are selling pretty quickly.

Debt is down 5.5%. I paid off some of the kitty debt plus I threw an extra hundred at the mortgage to get it down to an even number (53k). That means I should have it to 51k by the end of the year. My goal is to have it paid off by December 2025, and as long as I am working, that feels do-able. Then I'll be able to take those payments and use them to build up a cash bucket before I retire.

My current thinking is that I might go down to 80% (4 days a week) time after the mortgage is paid off (at about age 65, the end of 2025), then down to 60% time at age 68 and retire at 70--but of course this depends on how my retirement savings have done and what my health is like and of course on my work circumstances. Both my parents and my maternal grandfather retired at 70, so it seems like a reasonable target to shoot for. I love what I do and where I am currently doing it, but after a rough career transition, I am always aware of how quickly circumstances can change, and if I were in a different job, I might want to leave employment more quickly.

I've always (well, for the past 15 years) thought that even after I retired, I would still work tax season to bring in extra cash. It's one of the reasons I chose tax accounting for my career change. When I was working at H & R Block my first tax season as a preparer, about half of the tax staff were retirees (a lot of retired schoolteachers) and there were several in their 70s--even one in his 80s!

July updates

July 21st, 2019 at 04:24 pm

1. Sick kitty is still doing well. She goes back for another round of follow-up tests on Thursday, which hopefully will confirm my subjective perception.
2. Because the markets have been doing well, I took some cash from an investment account to pay off about 2/3s of the debt I incurred from kitty's diagnosis and stay in the hospital. In terms of debt, I'm basically back to where I was in April, down about $7,500 from year-end.
3. Also because the markets are doing well, my assets reached a new high mid-week (down a bit at week's end, along with the market).
4. I've been walking most mornings--like Fern/Patient Saver, I've been striving for 10k a day and have made it more often than not despite July's heat by going out first thing in the morning. Kitty needs a pill that needs to be followed by at least an hour to absorb it, so I give her the pill and leave for a 45-minute walk.
5. Work has been pretty busy, although I was able to manage a one-week staycation the week that Independence Day fell in. This week is busy, then I have a couple of weeks to catch up and prep ahead, and then by late August I'm busy again.
6. I have two out-of-town friends coming for visits and possibly a third in late July/early August.
7. I'm behind in my CFP coursework--I really need to put in a push to finish the current course by mid-August.
8. I went on a shoe-buying spree today. With all the walking, I've been feeling like my shoes have lost their spring and support, and a check on Amazon indicated that I bought my current shoes 4 years ago, so I went and bought two replacement pair at a buy-one -get-one-for-half sale, plus I replaced my Birkenstocks (which are over 5 years old) and bought a summer weight pair of work shoes for $30. A lot of shoes, but they'll last me a while! Total for four pair was just over $200.
9. I've actually begun to make some slow progress decluttering. The basement fiasco back in May got me started, and I've followed up by beginning to clear out some other cluttered areas. Cleared out the medicine cabinet and bathroom shelves over the past couple of weeks, and the spoon/tool drawer in the kitchen another week. And the dining room table is clear, for once--trying to maintain it that way until my August visitor arrives--at least.
10. I had another thyroid ultrasound, a 6 month follow-up. The nodule is slightly smaller and the doctor was ok with my plan to continue with imaging studies every 6 months for the next year or two, since (a) more likely than not that it is not cancerous, and (b) even if it is, it is a slow-growing cancer that is highly treatable. If it doesn't shrink, I suppose I will have it out eventually, but at least I feel ok about pushing the surgery out until I am in my 60s, and this gives me further incentive to take the best care of myself.

A financial Independence day challenge

July 4th, 2019 at 10:16 am

I just did the following exercise for myself, and I challenge you to do the same. Let me know if you did!

1. Check the total balances in your retirement accounts (401ks, 403bs, 457s if you have them, IRAs in all their forms (traditional, Roth, SIMPLE, SEP), and IF you have more than 100,000 in taxable brokerage accounts and bank accounts include that too (leave aside 100k for cash liquidity/emergency).

2. Pull your December 2018 statements on these accounts and look in each statement to find the *interest and dividends* paid for the year Many statements have these, both in the monthly or quarterly statements AND as a Year-to-Date total. Some only give you a monthly or quarterly amount and you have to pull all the statement and add the income up. ALSO, not every bit of "income (interest and dividends) is labeled as such. I have TIAA accounts where the dividends are titled "credits" and you can tell they are dividends because there are a lot of them AND you have both a positive number and a negative number offsetting it on the statement--this means a dividend was received AND the negative means that it was reinvested into the account.

3. From this you can get a very rough ballpark of how much you might expect pre-tax if you were to retire today. TOtal return on investments is split between income (interest and dividends) and capital appreciation (increases in value of the underlying investments), and the split is roughly even. If you figure a 6% real return (above inflation) on investments, take the first figure and multiply it by 3% as an estimate of the capital appreciation you could expect for a year, and then take the second figure and add the numbers up to get the total income.

Also know that while the capital appreciation varies each year and generally will go down one in every five years (about 20% of the time) if you have a 60/40 balanced portfolio (and about one year in four if you were 100% in equities), you will definitely have INCOME (the second number) each year and that number will be more stable.

Hopefully the sum of these two numbers shows a satisfying balance. This is a very rough proxy for your financial independence.

So for me, I have about half a million in investable assets, so if I multiply that by 3%, that's 15k in capital appreciation. Then I figured out the income generated by my portfolio by pulling all the statemets. That was about 30k in income. So that's about 45k a year that my portfolio generates.

However, once you start drawing down the money, that total is eventually going to go down. If you take a look at retirement projections, you acually see balances in retirement accounts continuing to increase for several years because the growth in the portfolio (the amount that you just calculated) exceeds the amount drawn from it. Eventually, however, the draws exceed the net income and appreciation, and the balance begins to decrease. The key is to defer that point as long as possible.

The portfolio is your "goose who lays the golden eggs" and you don't want to kill the goose by taking outsized withdrawals too early!

Kitty is doing better and "vacation" begins

June 28th, 2019 at 05:13 pm

My cat ended up spending a week in the veterinary hospital, and then two more weeks at home with a esophageal feeding tube, which I did use to feed her a few times right after she came home, and then just to administer medications as the meds continued to work. She's not entirely better (and she may never be) but she is significantly improved, and I'm no longer feeling as though her passing is immediately imminent. Both my cats are 14 so I am well aware that I may lose one or both in the next couple of years.

I did add to my debt to get her through the medical crisis but with no regrets--she makes my house a home and makes me laugh and would be a reason to live even if life was otherwise bleak (which it is not).

Life is not bleak but I'm a bit stymied by the fact that I suddenly find myself on vacation with no plans in place. I actually was going to take off starting yesterday, and then all of next week, but I ended up changing to just take all of next week.

I scheduled the long period because I had my six-month follow-up thyroid ultrasound last week and thought that if the nodule had grown, this would allow me a period to take time for surgery. I originally had both an endocrinologist and a surgical oncologist appointment scheduled shortly after the ultrasound, and both doctors ended up moving my appointments into July, but I got the ultrasound results and I know from that the nodule has not grown and is very slightly smaller. The only reason I would have had the surgery is if it had grown or if I were feeling symptoms. Neither thing is true, so I will continue the "watch and wait" strategy. I had intended to also take much better care of my health in terms of improved diet and exercise, and that didn't pan out very well (and still it was smaller). So that is incentive to try again for the improved self-care.

Because I was thinking I might have surgery, I didn't bother making any vacation plans, and because my cat is still not entirely herself, I don't want to leave her overnight.

I DO want to (a) make some significant progress on my Investments course, as I am six weeks behind, and (b) do some more decluttering, and I'll try to find a couple of fun things just so "vacation" isn't all work and no play. I have a friend who is now a "snowbird" and I haven't seen her since last summer and I'll try to get together with her, and we have an LL Bean outlet locally that offers kayaking courses on a local lake, so I'll try to schedule those things plus go see a movie or something. If the cat was better I would go visit a friend who lives in Albany but I'm not ready to leave her overnight yet, so that visit will have to wait. I do have a friend coming to visit me the first weekend in August so I'll just continue decluttering and making my place look nicer for her--and for me, of course. Another friend usually comes out in August and invites me overnight to her riverside cabin, so hopefully in another month I'll feel that I can leave the kitty overnight. She has another panel of blood tests and another followup ultrasound in a month, and hopefully things will continue to improve.

It IS lovely to have her home.

Sick kitty and a blow to the budget

June 14th, 2019 at 03:56 pm

Ten days ago, I noticed that my normally very hungry kitty, Buffy, was just picking at her food. I kept an eye on her for a couple of days since sometimes she has an upset stomach that resolves on its own, but this time, it didn't. I called for an appointment last Thursday and was able to get her in on Friday (since she was picking at her food and didn't otherwise show signs of illness, it didn't seem an emergency). The vet briefly examined her, showed me evidence on the whites of her eyeballs and the inside of her ears that she was jaundiced (which was just a little bit yellowish, not severe enough that I would have picked it up on my own, even if I had known where to look), told me that she was a very sick cat, and recommended hospitalization at one of the local 24 hour veterinary hospitals. I was told that I had 3 choices: hospitalize her and proceed with diagnostic tests, just give her a drug and see if she improved, or euthanize her.

So last Friday, I brought her in, had some initial diagnostics done, had more imaging tests run on Monday which revealed "nothing terrible" (i.e., no cancer), got a diagnosis of "cholangiohepatitis," which is more a description of symptions than an explanation of cause, decided not to have her biopsied at this point but to proceed with steroid treatment, and I finally brought her home yesterday. The steroids helped but started making her diabetic again (she is a diabetic who has been in remission for 4 years), so now she is off the steroids and fingers crossed that the liver improvment continues and the increased blood glucose resolves. One way or another I'll have her blood glucose tested tomorrow (at home if I can manage it and at the vet if I can't), she'll have another blood panel run on Monday, and with any luck the feeding tube that they inserted will be removed. She's lost at least 20% of her body weight but I'm hopeful that her condition can be managed. I'll have a better sense after Monday. In the meantime, I spent about $8,000 on this (some of which I was able to pay with available funds and about 5k currently added to the debt, putting me back financially to about where I was in February.

She's my "heart kitty" and whatever happens it was worth it to me to try and keep her around for another couple of years as long as she can be reasonably healthy.

Not the decision I would make for every pet, but this is my "heart kitty," the one I have been closest to of the four I have owned.

Basement incident and finally a bit of (forced) decluttering

May 27th, 2019 at 11:19 am

I had a little basement snafu this week, which has at least gotten me started on my long-deferred decluttering project.

I forgot to turn off my outside spigot and open up the pipe this year. I didn't burst the pipe right away, but apparently expanded it a little. Then two weeks ago, I had my gardener put in some sod where the borders had gotten very weedy, and he told me to water it twice a day for two weeks, which led to my buying a soaker hose to save myself the time. The extra pressure on the pipes that built up from the soaker hose was enough to burst the pipe, and I didn't discover it right away. Fortunately, I also didn't discover it too late--it was at the point where about half of the basement had about 2" of water.

A neighbor brought over his Shop-Vac and helped me get rid of the standing water. Then I bought I dehumidifer to finish drying it out, plus I had to get rid of about a dozen boxes that had been sitting on the floor. Much of the contents were salvagable, some were not. I've been spending the weekend using this as an impetus to do some decluttering, since I need to call a Dr. Clutter tomorrow. So much extra stuff has built up over the past 2.5 years when I've been at this job and my health has been somewhat sub-optimal (thyroid & adrenal issues) that this round manages to merely get me back to about where I was before I started the job.

I have another vacation period coming up right before & after Independence Day when I hope to make further inroads. I don't expect to get rid of all the excess this year, but perhaps another year or two of spending Memorial Day and Independence Day working on the project will get me back to where I would have been if I'd been getting rid of the excess accumulation all along.

Prior to now in my adult life, I was moving every few years (staying between 1 & 7 years at each residence), but I've now been in my house for 14 years, during which I lost my mother, 3 pets, and changed careers twice and jobs 11 times), so clutter has accumulated like never before in my life. I don't think I'll get to doing Marie Kondo tidying or Swedish death cleaning just yet, but I do think I am at the point of maximum accumulation of "stuff" and I'd like to spend the next few years decluttering in preparation for being able to sell this house.

It's actually by American standards a rather small house (1166 square feet), but it's way too much space for ME, and things have expanded to fill the space. I actually do not use the two biggest rooms in the house (the living room and the master bedroom) very much at all. The living room only gets used when there is company and the master bedroom has become the master storage room. Financially, the home has been a good deal (I now pay about half in mortgage what I would be paying in rent if I were still a renter), but I plan to pay off the house at age 65 (2025) and move sometime between 65 and 70 (after I retire), so even though that is still some years off, I'm thinking more in terms of preparing to sell and move than anything else.