Monday, March 31, 2008

HDTV Antenna - the simple way

So I've mentioned that I'm considering dropping cable TV after the spring season, due to the fact that the 2 "cable only" shows I just can't wait for DVD for are ending, and pretty much everything else I watch is on the major networks.

So I started looking around for an antenna for my TV. I was a little shocked by the wide selection (and the prices! $25 to over $100??? For an antenna?) and I suspected that since the "HDTV" antenna was sitting right next to regular old coax cable marketed as "HDTV READY!" with a fair markup, there may be some hype going on.

Back to the internet to do some research before I spend "dumb money".

As it turns out (as I suspected), an HDTV signal is broadcast over the air in the same manner that TV has always been broadcast. The difference is in the tuner, not the antenna. Something else I learned is that there are a lot of people making their OWN antennas. Hmmm.

So I grabbed a basic design, and decided to go "all out". I bought the screws (98 cents) the washers (88 cents) and the UHF/VHF Transformer (sounds impressive, doesn't it? $3.79 at Lowes). The board, wire coat hangers and cable TV cable were all "reclaimed" or "found". Total cost to me was under $6. That's a savings of $14 over the cheapest "store bought" rabbit ears I could find, and given the nature of rabbit ears I have no doubt that this works far better (just take my word on the engineering techno mumbo jumbo, K? THX!)

I used this design (video) and it took me about an hour while watching Reaper yesterday afternoon. Hooked it up today, and get a BETTER picture than Comcast for the local HD stations. I pick up about 24 stations total, although 6 of those are "regular" and "HD" versions of the same station.

I'll get some pictures up later, but I'm quite pleased with myself.


As some of you already know, I was laid off (fired, canned, removed from employment) last Tuesday. The reason given was that I was unable to meet customer service expectations. At first I was a little shocked, then I adjusted a bit. Wednesday morning I woke up and felt relieved. I won't go into too much detail, but to say that when you're working at a membership driven organization, the amount of abuse that your customers think is OK to heap on you is exponentially larger than at a "regular" business. I was relieved I wouldn't have to go in and take that level of abuse on a daily basis anymore. There's more to the story, but nothing I'd deem interesting enough to post here.

At the end of it all, I think I lasted longer there than the 4 people that held that job before me (one of which is a buddy that I've talked to since I left), and given a turn over rate that high, I don't think it's me.

What's interesting to me is my reaction to this news. Yes, this time is a little different because in addition to having a little saved, I'm also getting unemployment, but there's also very much a feeling that WHO I am is not connected to my job and what I do. I'm open to other possibilities that I'd never have considered before.

One of the first things I'll be doing is committing to making at least one blog post a day. More to come!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Today is SPLURGE day!

I have one "goal" for my weight loss - currently 165, it's moved around a little as I get closer and have a better idea what I'll look like - but I've also set up several "milestones" and allow myself to celebrate them. The last one was when I broke 200 pounds. I was a bad dieter tho - it took me so long to decide what I wanted to do to celebrate, I ended up doing nothing and waiting for my next milestone - 185. Which I hit today.

So today, I hit 185. When I hit that speed bump when I quit smoking, I moved 185 out to yesterday's weigh in as far as when I wanted to see that weight. As it turns out, I missed it by one day. If you'd asked me 10 days ago, I'd have told you I didn't think I'd see it until sometime towards the end of April, so it was a nice surprise to get past it now rather than later.

I went to Perkins with a friend and cashed in those 2 "free meal" vouchers (see this post) and got the pancakes AND a muffin! I learned that since I eat so little (zero?) refined sugar normally, I prefer pancakes without the sugar syrup. They're so rich and fluffy they're a treat just with a little butter.

Tonight I'm having some sort of pasta as a SIDE dish, and we have Perkin's brownies for dessert.

I'm pretty good with this weight loss thing - you can reward yourself with food when you hit milestones. What I don't know what to do with is smoking. I'm pretty sure that rewarding myself for 30 days smoke free with a cigar or cigarette would be a good way to end up a smoker again. Today is day 50 not smoking. I have until day 60 to come up with a reward for myself. Comments and ideas welcome!

Speaking of Smoking and Quitting Smoking, look for a post in the near future about the tobacco free Florida commercials.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

We need a BMI Chart for (former) fat people.

Someone needs to come up with a BMI chart for people that used to be fat.

I've often wondered how in the world I could possibly hit even the max end of the BMI chart for my height. 159 is a BMI of 25 for a 5'7" male, and 25 is "overweight". So I'd need to be 158. Wow. How's that ever going to happen?

So I decided to check my body fat. I checked 3 times with 3 methods, and came up with these numbers:

You have 20.4% body fat.

You have 39.4 Pounds of fat and 153.6 Pounds of lean (muscle, bone, body water). (weight = 193)

You have 21.6% body fat.

You have 41 Pounds of fat and 149 Pounds of lean (muscle, bone, body water). (weight = 190)

You have 22.6% body fat.

You have 43.2 Pounds of fat and 147.8 Pounds of lean (muscle, bone, body water). (weight 191)

We'll take the middle estimate of 21.6% with 149 pounds of lean. That would leave me, at 158 pounds, 9 pounds of fat. We'll round up and call that 5.7% body fat.

But Dan, you may be asking yourself, what's the problem with that?

Allow me to tell you how body fat percentages break down for white males:

Average American 22%
Healthy normal 15%
Top Athletes 3-12%

That's right - to hit "healthy normal" I'd need to weight 175, with about 26 pounds of body fat.

Even if I hit 0% body fat, that still puts me at a BMI of 23.3, way at the high end of "normal".

I've heard several theories, but the one I like best, that makes the most sense to me, is that when you're as fat as I was, your muscles have to develop a greater density just to support all that extra mass. We're talking structural musculature here, so don't get all excited that under all that flab lurks a weight lifter's body. Since we, as fat and former fat people, are carrying this extra muscle, we weigh more and it throws us off the (BMI) chart.

For me, this all works out OK - my goal is to bring my body fat down into the 5-7% range anyway, and see how that looks. But for someone that just wants to lose the weight and get healthy? Looking at this chart could be very demoralizing. So don't look. Use the scale to chart your progress, and when you start getting down closer to the size you want to be, start using body fat to choose a weight goal if you need to. Or choose a clothing size you want to be. If you are, or have been, more than 100 pounds over weight, realize this chart may not apply to you.

Next up: I have muscles now I've never known about!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Journey of 1000 miles.

So far this year I've walked 116 miles. I've set myself a goal to continue to track my walking (or running, if I try that out) until I reach 1000. And it all started with a single step out the front door to "go for a walk".

I'm not tracking all my walking - just the "for exercise" walking. At my current rate, it will take me about a year and 3 months, barring days missed for various reasons (I missed a week earlier this year due to being too sick to get out of bed, then I had to work back up to my 2 miles a day, for example) - I'll keep you posted!

So why this goal, this commitment? Other than the fact that I enjoy my walks? My experience is that consistency is the single most important factor in losing weight or gaining muscle. The weights and reps may change, but the number of times a week and amount of time you spend needs to stay the same or possibly grow slightly.

One of my "hot button" issues (sorry, all the political nonsense is rubbing off - I felt a need to "spin" some "buzz words" ;) has always been weight, weight loss, and more to the point, the way denial sets in because we think it's "kinds" and "polite".

I wish, when I was 300 pounds, and I said all the usual excuses about being big boned and not being able to lose weight, etc. etc. that SOMEONE had had the courage to tell me, in no uncertain terms, that I was what was called "fat". I really couldn't see it. 2 events conspired to help me see it - the first was seeing myself in a picture I didn't expect me to be in. I was flipping through the pictures, and thought to myself "Hey, who's that big fat guy coming in the door?". Since it was a digital pic, I zoomed it in, and it was ME. Ouch. I decided right then and there something needed to be done, but I lacked any urgency about it. I was getting ready to leave for vacation and go see my mom, so there wasn't a hurry. I get to mom's, and she had a scale! Thought I'd hop on and see how bad things were. The scale told me I was pushing 300 pounds! Obviously broken. So I asked mom if she knew how accurate her scale was. As it turned out, she'd been to the doctor earlier that week, and when she got home, she checked her scale against the weight she'd been at the doctor's - it was within half a pound. Double ouch.

Obviously I've yo-yo'd a bit since then (this was 2003), but (finally back the the point) my hot button issue has always been "consistency". You don't have to cut back to eating nothing (in fact, cut too far back and you'll slow your progress), but cut back to a reasonable amount. Measure it however you want - calories, fat grams, carbs, whatever. Eat WHOLE foods. Stay away from processed crap that was created in a lab. Low fat and low carb diets work because they end up limiting the number of calories you are able to consume. They do this 2 ways - first, you have to stop putting food into you when you reach the daily limit (20g of either carbs or fat, whichever you're watching). Second, both diets limit your options, and the food you eat gets *boring*. This is a very enlightening experience. You'll find yourself standing in front of the fridge, looking for something to eat, and seeing nothing that "looks good". You're bored with ALL your food. Then you think to yourself "but, if I were hungry - actually NEEDED food - I'd eat SOMETHING. So obviously I'm not hungry. So why am I here?" Suddenly you start to realize that you've been eating for a LOT of dumb reasons. Bored. Nervous. Angry. Tired. Wired. None of these are good reasons to eat, and they will make you fat. Decide what you want to count, then stick to it. Don't beat yourself up if you "cheat" - but feel free to beat the crap out of yourself if you use "not beating yourself up if you cheat" to rationalize cheating every day. Give it your honest, best effort. If you fail, try again. "Fall down seven times; stand up eight times". Simple. Powerful.

Get at least a multi-vitamin. You're want to take "how much whatever do I need?" out of the equation, but you don't want to end up with scurvy, either! I take a "men's" multi-vitamin, a "super B complex" and a vitamin "D" supplement. Your needs may be different.

Once you've decided what you're going to count, sit down and plan. Don't try and wing it. Plan out 4 weeks of what you're going to eat. For me, I knew I had to keep it as simple as I could. I ate the same thing, day in and day out for 28 days. Low carb shake for breakfast. 2 oz of cheese mid-morning snack. Lunch was a hamburger (probably between 1/3 and 1/2lb pre-cooked weight). Afternoon snack was 2 oz cheese. Dinner was a grilled (well, George Foreman grilled...) chicken breast. Lunch and dinner included whichever low carb veggie I wanted. Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts. Those were the 3 on the list I liked, so those were the ones I choose between. YMMV. Evening "snack" was usually some peanuts or cashews - these were a big treat for me :) Drink lots of water. I try to get around 2 liters a day. That's 4 16.9oz bottles (I refill my bottles, but that's another post), so it isn't really as much as it sounds like.

OK, now you have an eating guide. Step 2 - get off your ass. Seriously, get up and MOVE. Doesn't matter what you do - run, do jumping jacks, push ups, skip, whatever. I'm a walker. Now that I've quit smoking and I've been walking daily for months, I may try jogging, but walking has worked well for me. When I started, I was 300 pounds and smoked a pack a day. I couldn't run for anything. I started walking about a mile a day. Mind you, if you're walking or exercise, then *walk*. Shoot for about 3 miles an hour (think of how fast someone walks when you think "Wow, they're in a hurry!" and that's about the speed you want...). I see some people in my neighborhood that "walk" for "exercise" (they've told me this...) and they have their dog with them, and wander a bit, stop, wander a bit more, stop again...and they say they can't figure out why they aren't seeing the results of all this "exercise". I explained it, and that seems to have solved their problem. Also, look for opportunities to walk "extra" - I parked as far away from the door as I could at work, and I left my lunch in the car. When I went to the store, I parked all the way out at the edge of the lot. If I went to the mall, I parked at the edge of the lot - on the far end of the mall from the store I was going to. Don't give me the "I don't have time!" excuse. Every year you're fat, you loose 3 months off the end of your life. You think you don't have time now? Just do it - don't worry about the time.

Once I started to get into a groove, I stepped it up. Started walking a mile and a half, then 2 miles a day. Takes me about 40 minutes. Once I was at 2 miles, I started carrying weights - and dropped back to a mile a day. I started with 2.5 or 3 pound weights, I don't remember which. It's a LOT more intense to carry weights (I'm talking the dumbell style weights) when you walk - it passively works your chest, arms, abs and obliques. No, I can't find anywhere that say this is true, but I know what *hurts* the next morning! The pattern stayed the same - 1 mile, then 1.5 then 2, then switch to 5lb weights and go 1 mile, then 1.5 etc. I'm trying to decide right now, actually, if I want to go to 8lb weights, or if I'm just gonna leave well enough alone. We'll see.

Measure your progress, but do it for knowledge, not for "inspiration". I chart my weight every day. I've learned a LOT about the way my body works, what it's cycles are, and what my normal fluctuations in weight are. I use my morning weight on the chart, but I weigh myself as soon as I get up, and right before bed. You will be heavier at night, if you didn't know that :)

So, that's my experience. I used it to go from 300 pounds to 170. I let myself get back up to 238.5 (10/21/08), and now I'm down under 189. My goal is 165. Look for a post from me soon on body fat and BMI soon, with an explanation why my goal weight is above my BMI :)

One last thing: I highly recommend you focus on the process rather than the results. Take the time to notice that you begin to feel better, physically. Find something you like about your walks (or whatever). If you're in it for the "here and now" benefits of the process, the results will follow without you having to worry about it. This will also help you stay on track because you're enjoying the process, and merely observing the results. That emotional detachment lets you stay on track and on target!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

When Frozen is better than fresh...

Let me get this out of the way first. For me, frozen chicken breasts make more sense and are a much better deal than fresh. This, for me, is an epiphany. I've always had an aversion to buying pre-frozen meat. Odd, given that I've never had the same issue with pre-frozen veggies. The past few weeks, I've been defrosting and using pre-frozen chicken breasts. The deal was too good to pass up. I was looking at BJ's at "freezer package" fresh chicken breasts - packed in easy to separate packs that you put straight into the freezer!

I'm a single guy. If I buy 12 packs, then 11 of them go straight to the freezer and become "pre-frozen" anyway. All this time, I've been paying $0.79 (average) extra a pound for the privilege of paying for freezer wrap (ziplocks, foil, whatever), spending 15 minutes separating it all out, wrapping it up, and turning it into pre-frozen myself.

From here on out, I'm getting the cheaper, frozen ones from the start.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Finding my passion

I was reading over at The Simple Dollar an article called Seven Steps to Finding What You’re Truly Passionate About, and as I got through the first part of it, I realized I'm perfectly positioned for this. I might even take it one step further, and suggest that if you get through step one (eating right, exercising, eliminating negative personal relationships and getting enough rest) you'll naturally gravitate to "seeking" mode. The rest of the tips, however, will make you an efficient (and as a result of the efficiency, a less frustrated) seeker.

As I've addressed those basic issues in my own life, one after another, I've found myself actively searching for something else. Some of you know (and the rest of you will know after this sentence) that I'm learning about Buddhism. Am I ready to call myself a Buddhist? Not yet. I am going to find and go to a local Buddhist temple or barring that locate a Zendo (meditation center) around here and meet some Buddhists and learn more.

The more I center my life, the more I find myself in need of some more basic interests. I'd love to find a hobby that I can enjoy - I just don't know what. Thanks to Trent over at The Simple Dollar for some excellent tips on making the search easier and more fulfilling!

Thoughts on the 100 Items Challenge

It's interesting to me that my perspective has changed dramatically. I believed that, after this past weekend, I was done cleaning out my space and eliminating unneeded "stuff". Then, while making dinner last night, I found that in the time it took for the veggies to cook (about 10 minutes) I'd completely filled my kitchen trash can with more stuff.

My mindset has changed. Rather than setting aside time to work on a "project", I am actively seeking, as a habit, to simplify and enrich my life. Pretty cool. I found myself going through my jewelry can (you'd have to see it to understand - it's an old, brass basket that I come home and throw my watch and whatever else into) and there were things in there that looked like nothing more than junk to me. 2 rocks (polished and decorated) that were given to me as a gift at my wedding. I was divorced in 2001. I've been carrying these rocks since 1999, out of some bizzare social obligation I felt. They were given to me, so I can't just throw them away. I threw them away. About half the things in there fit into that category - they all went into the trash.

While I was doing all of this, it occurred to me that the 100 items challenge, as currently being practiced on the internet, is pretty silly. Random things are excluded (books and collections) because they would be inconvenient to include. Shared items are excluded. 100 is a random number.

I don't know that I'm going to create my own challenge, nor if I do that I'll try it, but it seems to me that the exclusions should be for "sets" - for instance, my tool set. Each "box" could count as one item - I have 2 tool boxes. That means that the case for my drill, the case for my circular saw, the case for my jig saw and the 2 cases for different drill bits all count. So my tool set, even though it's a set and a collection, would still count as 7 items. I have a chess set (currently boxed) that I would count as one item. My DVD collection would not be a single item. Computer software would have to be handled differently - my collection of games in not one item, but I would count a single title as one item, even if it's multiple CDs.

Infrastructure. That's what I'm calling it. The little things you need to live a modern life. Dishes, silverware, scrub brush. I was looking at my computer last night and trying to figure out how to "count" it. Is the mouse a separate item? The keyboard? The printer? Then I got to one that annoyed me: the network. Does my cable modem count as an "item"? It brings the internet into my home, the same way the electric meter brings electric in - do I count the electric meter? What about my wireless router? It's required to run some of my other stuff - Tivo, computer and Xbox 360. Furniture, I think, would have to be counted. I have to carry it out when I leave, therefore it's mine. Consumables (soap, shampoo, windex, toothpaste, canned tomatoes, spices) get excluded, so long as you only have one of each item. If you want to have 2 kinds of toothpaste, then that second tube is an "item". If you have 2 kinds of cinnamon, then that second bottle is an "item".

Same goes for pots and pans - as long as you have a reasonable amount (looking around the internet, it seems the average "normal" set has 3 pots, 2 skillets and lids for each) then it can be added to "household". Dishes would be the same - the first, household set, up to 8 place settings (if you have more than 4 people in your home, you'll have to adjust this, but be REASONABLE in the spirit of the exercise) can be excluded. Same with the silverware, glasses, etc. Small appliances don't get excluded. That George Foreman Grill? It's an item. So is your food processor, BOTH fondue pots, the espresso maker, the crock pots and toaster. OK, so that's my list - yours may look different. I do count the fondue pots as "sets" - I compromised and got rid of the forks from the second set - I can see a reason to have one electric and one sterno based pot (depending on what I'm making) but I couldn't see a way to justify keeping 2 sets of forks and servers.

So how would you do that for a family? I think the key is to exclude the children and anything that is theirs and theirs alone. Then count everything shared between you and your spouse that doesn't belong "more" to one than the other, and divide that by 2.

One thing is certain. Even after spending all this time going through everything, I still have a ton of junk that doesn't add anything to my life. My commitment to myself is to, over the next few weeks, continue to remove as much of it as I can from my life.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The 100 things Challenge

I was reading over at Zen Habits about the 100 things challenge, thinking to myself "how in the world could I possibly ever do this???". In fact, the first comment was along the lines of "this is insane and stupid!". I agreed, at first. Then I went back and re-read.

This is NOT a single person challenge. I mean single as opposed to married. My bet is that the first commenter was single.

In the "challenge" you exclude non-personal things (dishes, detergent and the kitchen sponge, for example) and anything you share with other family members. Wow, that's a huge loop hole.

I'm single. The couch? Mine. TV? Mine. Tivo? Mine. Computer? Mine. Shampoo? Mine. End table? Mine. Laundry basket? Mine. You see where I'm going with this, I'm sure. These, for someone with a family, are things they get to exclude.

I'll also give you that this is something that is probably done more for fun than anything else, but even giving that, the whole "collections count as one item and books don't count at all" rule is a complete cop out. 1 DVD is 1 item. Don't believe me? Go to WalMart, get a cart, stack 300 DVDs into it. Go to the 10 items or less line. Explain to the people behind you that you don't have 300 items, you have one "collection" that counts as a single item. See what people say.

I'm probably not a good person to ask about that - I got rid of almost all of my DVDs recently. I'll likely get rid of the last few in not too long. I'm using it as an exercise in simplifying as well as an exercise in patience. If I want to see a particular movie, I now have to put it on my list for netflix and wait. Well, technically, I'd have to restart my netflix, then put it on the list. Patience.

I am, however, now curious as to how much I actually own. I think I'm going to count this weekend, then pick a number of items I feel would be a good number and see if I can make it!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Financial Functional Illiterate.

That would be me.

I'm still trying to get my head around doing a budget - and that's actually going well. Right now I'm laying low, waiting for the end of the month. I've laid out my "guesstimate" budget in Excel, signed up for (which tracks most of my purchases) and now I'm waiting to see how well I'm able to stick to my budget, and where I can cut back farther. I find I'm actually a little impatient - I want the end of the month to be here so I can see how I did, and get started on revision 2.

The very, very first thing I'm doing is building up a one month buffer in my Suncoast savings account. It earns a very small amount of interest (about a third of what the E*Trade savings earns) but it is attached to my checking account for overdraft protection. Once I have a month of money in that account, I can stop living paycheck to paycheck, and set up automatic withdraws to my E*trade savings and my investment accounts.

I'm convinced that the only way to get ahead is to NOT be behind. Living paycheck to paycheck, even if all your bills are paid on time, is being behind. It took me a while to get my head around that idea. I can't comfortably set up ANY automatic payments right now - bills, savings, investing or otherwise - because I am not 100% certain there's no way those payments won't accidentally bounce. So priority one is getting a full month's budget stashed in that Suncoast savings account.

Priority 2 is getting an "emergency" fund stashed in that E*Trade savings account. I'm thinking that $1000 should be enough to start with. That should cover any "average" major auto repair or bill. It's also a nice, round number. The trifecta is that it seems to be the number lots of financially literate people recommend to start out an emergency fund with.

Priority 3 is getting my credit cards paid off. Right now, that's down to about $1200.

I know, I know - it sure seems like that last one should be first. That makes the most sense to me. But then, my financial life is a train wreck, and the people out there that have been writing personal finance blogs for months and years say this is the order it has to be done in. At the risk of sounding Zen, financially speaking, I know that I know nothing. So we'll do it their way.

One thing has become very clear - I've been living stupidly. Well, that's not true. I've been living ignorantly. Now that I know better, if I continue to live that way, it would be living stupidly. What I mean is that until now, I've always thought I was making just barely enough to "make ends meet". I had no idea where my money was going, and I was always broke. It's sort of amazing to find out that I make enough to live comfortably, and still have a fair amount left over for savings.

That defines the difference between financial literacy and financial illiteracy. The financially illiterate has a hard time making ends meet no matter what their income level. The financially literate can find a way to live comfortably at a wide variety of income levels.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Update: The Stuff Project

Over the past 2 weekends, I've been working on reducing the amount of stuff that owns me. Yes, you read that right. The further along in this project I get, the more I feel like I was the one that was owned.

The first part of this journey came to be when I decided I wanted to know if I could live in a one bedroom apartment, or if I need a 2 bedroom. You see, I've been living in a one bedroom only because I have a garage I pay extra for. Lots of my stuff lives in that garage so that I can have room to live here, in the apartment.

I needed to know if I could squeeze uncomfortably into a one bedroom apartment, or if I needed a 2 bedroom, so that my stuff could have it's own room. Oh, at first, I was rather unskillfully calling that second bedroom an "office" or "computer room". But the more I began to unclutter my life, the more honest I became. A second bedroom wouldn't be the "computer room" or "office" - my computer was already quite happily sharing a room with me here, in the apartment. I came to the realization that the second room would just be for my stuff. Wow. Scary. My stuff is going to have me paying rent for it now?

This is where it hit me like a brick. I pay rent for that garage. I'm already paying rent for my stuff. $600 this year just so my stuff has a place to live. I'm a slave to my stuff.

I scouted my apartment. I counted how many boxes I could stack up, and where. 25 total. Oh boy - is that going to be enough? We're talking the little boxes paper comes in - the "case" size.

In the end, I needed one big box (about the size of 3 of the paper case boxes) and 2 of the paper case boxes. I'm still not convinced I even need all of that.

Once I got started, it has become easier to let go of things - I hope to make that a habit. Also unusual for me is that I've insisted I make use of what I already have - I may reduce, but I may not add new things. So I did not buy the microwave stand that in the past would have been *required* for this project. Somehow it wasn't needed after all. Same thing with the table and new book case. The result is that I'm content with my space, and with my mind. More content with both, I think, than I would have been if I'd gone and spent the money on the "new" things I "needed" to "make the place work".

I was getting ready to observe that I can now take that extra money I saved and put it all in the bank. That is an unskillful thought. It arises from greed. Since this is money that I'm surprised to have, I believe the correct thing to do is to put some in the bank, and donate some to a cause I can support. Generosity is more skillful. More on the whole Buddhist thing later.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Tivo HD

So Woot! had a refurb Tivo HD up last week for $179.99 (plus the usual Wootly $5 shipping), and I decided to take the plunge. Cable guy was here to install my cable card, and I'm up, running and very very pleased :)

My rationale was this: dollar for dollar, I get really good value out of my cable TV + Tivo setup. My cable bill, including internet, is $87 plus $12.95 a month for Tivo. Now, I'll admit that I'm spoiled, and I have (and love) my HDTV. It's a guilty pleasure that I've been running both a Comcast HD DVR and a regular Tivo. My thought process is that by dropping the Comcast DVR, I'll be saving $11.95 a month on my cable bill, plus I'll gain a bit on my monthly electric since I'll only have one box running instead of 2. Since I'm blowing my entire entertainment and discretionary budget (those 2 items together total $100 a month) on this purchase, that leaves $84.99 as a net cost. Deduct what I'm saving on my cable bill, and this pays itself off in 7 months.

Yes, I'm justifying, and the best thing for me to have done would have been to just cancel cable and get an antenna for my TV. In time, I might get to that point, but for now, I want to know if Galactica makes it to Earth, and who the last cylon is, damn it.

Woot! "customer service" sucks, BTW. I've ordered from Woot 4 times in the past year, and 2 out of the 4 have been bad experiences. The expensive ones, at that.

Tivo's customer service, on the other hand, rocks. Tivo is sending me new cables for (get this) ALL of my home theater components! I made a comment about my other gear "is going to be SO jealous of the brand new Tivo component cables!" and she asked me how many I needed! I just needed one other set, so I didn't get greedy. I also mentioned that I was planning on giving my old Series 2 box away to get a Tivo Rewards referal so I could get one of the back-lit, learning Tivo remotes. She upgraded me on the spot to the better remote.

Tivo was great, and I was more than pleased with their response even before all the upgrades.

Yes, I realize that Woot just shipped me the box they got from Tivo, but part of the cost of doing business is that you have to, as a retailer (and that's what Woot is, make no mistake about it) be prepared to make things right with your customer if a manufacturer drops the ball. A response from Woot that was basically:

"Heh. Oh well. We placed an order for it, you'll get it sometime. Later, loser!"

Pathetically inadequate, especially when the customer has identified that this is the second bad experience in 4 total tries.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Oh wow.

So I started to write a post about index funds and investing. That became a post about budgeting and investing, which turned into a post about budgeting, debt reduction and investing. That turned into budgeting, debt reduction, savings, stopping living paycheck to paycheck, and investing.

I've spent the last hour typing, and I have a JUMBLE of great info that makes no sense.

Over the next few days I'll chop it up into usable posts, and get it up here!

Be patient with me while I get the hang of this - it's a whole new way to blog for me.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The tyranny of "stuff"

Stuff. In America, we have a LOT of it. In fact, we have so much, we often pay people extra to store it for us. "Self Storage" places are everywhere.

We're so attached to our "stuff" that we understand and validate stories like this:

"I know of one couple who couldn't retire to the town they preferred because they couldn't afford a place there big enough for all their stuff..."

How horrifying. To NOT retire to your dream area because you're so attached to your "things" that you need to be sure that they have a nice place to live.

Being in a place where I'm remodeling my world view and psychology, I see both sides of this. The American consumer in me understands on an emotional level this attachment to stuff. Intellectually, I can acknowledge that it makes no sense at all, and is, in fact, outdated.

I read an interesting article a week or so ago about our attitude towards "stuff" and how it's outdated. The author made a good point - go back and look at old pictures. From the 40's, 50's, 60's and even into the 70's - don't look at the people, look at the backgrounds. Notice how empty the houses are. There is a distinct *lack* of "stuff". If you look at old houses, from around the turn of the century, you'll find they didn't have closets in the bedroom. There was no need for them - stuff was rare and valuable and often everything a person owned would fit nicely into a trunk or chest of drawers.

But then something happened. Record players became common. Followed by the 8 track. Now you could own music and other things that had previously been radio only for most folks. This was followed quickly by cassettes, CDs, VHS, DVD, Computers and computer software and cheap crap from sweatshops in far away places. "Stuff" was no longer rare and valuable, it was all over, easy to find, cheap to acquire and always (in the back of our minds, anyway) useful!

Except...our attitudes about "stuff" didn't change. In our heads, we still think of stuff as "rare and valuable", even though it isn't.

I'm guilty of this - big time. In the past, I've paid $80 a month, for a year, to store things that I had been in boxes for the 2 years prior. Round numbers, adding tax, we're talking $1000 to store things I hadn't used for years, and as it turns out, didn't use for years after that. If I want to be totally honest about the cost, I paid an extra $50 a month in rent to have a garage to store my extra "stuff" after that. So total is $1600.

My lease ends on 4/30 - and you can bet I'm dropping that extra $50 a month from my rent.

That's a side benefit to my real purpose. My real purpose is to "detach" from my stuff. Somewhere along the line, I, like most Americans, stopped owning "stuff" and started to be owned by my "stuff". This is not an acceptable state of affairs. At this point in my journey, I'm vaguely aware that there's a balance between having things and not having things, and appropriate and inappropriate relationships to things. I'm not sure where the line is, but I know I'm way over it. Better, then, to have not enough attachment than too much. That is my thinking, so it was time to act.

I spent this weekend going through my things in boxes in the garage. I'm not done, but it's a start. The idea is to get rid of everything that won't fit into my apartment. I'm also going through my apartment and getting rid of anything that doesn't fit some simple criteria:

1) Do I use it at least once a month?
2) Is it irreplaceable?
3) Does it have a specific purpose that makes it useful?

Honestly, I had to "create" category 3 when I realized that my plunger wasn't irreplaceable, and that I hadn't used it in over a year. It's one of those things that you just have to have, even if you aren't using it. Many of my tools also fit into that category, but I've had to tread lightly to be sure that I don't use it to "protect" things that should go.

I've scratched the surface, I'm really not sure how far into the process I've gotten. I know that there was one full car load and then about a quarter car load that's gone to Goodwill already. Yes, I got a receipt - on one hand, the spiritual journey requires I detach from my stuff and stop seeing it as valuable. On the other hand, I'm trying to learn fiscal responsibility, and living in the real world it's silly not to take the $700 or so in tax deductions (and recoup some of the $1600 I've wasted storing this crap!).

The other thing I struggled a little with is what to do with the "stuff" that has value to other people. Yes, I'm perfectly OK with looking at my collection of Magic: The Gathering cards as ink on paper to be thrown away, but I also know that I can trade them for Government Issued Ink on Paper. In the end, I see no reason not to sell what I can. I'm not going to any great lengths - some stuff (trading cards and "collectible" hobby items) will go to local shops, some stuff (a few small furniture items) will go to Craig's list, and the rest (Software, games, DVDs, watches) will go on Ebay. Again, I may as well recoup some of the expense of carting this stuff around.

At the end of the weekend, I feel lighter than I did at the beginning. I still have a ways to go to get to where I want to be with my "stuff". Another issue that's come up while I've been working on this is my relationship with my "space". There's a whole 'nother post coming about the re-arranging of my apartment....

Daylight Savings, Energy Wasting?

There's an interesting article over at WSJ today, about a study that was done when Indiana recently switched over to DST. The conclusion is that observing daylight savings time costs the people of Indiana an additional 8.6 million dollars a year in electricity costs.

WOW. Now, there's some interesting information in the article, talking about the difference between this study and the studies in the early 1970's being air conditioning, which accounts for why there was an energy savings seen back then, and not so much now. Given that we just extended DST nationally for an extra month (the reason being to save more energy and fight global warming), it's ironic that we appear to be doing the opposite.

Still, the article also observes that there may be other reasons to keep DST:

"There may also be social benefits to daylight-saving time that weren't covered in the research. When the extension of daylight-saving time was proposed by Mr. Markey, he cited studies that noted "less crime, fewer traffic fatalities, more recreation time and increased economic activity" with the extra sunlight in the evening."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Refreshing Personal Finance

I'm going to be looking at a variety of budget tools over the next few days - all the free ones. I see no reason to pay a fee for something when there are great, free alternatives available out there.

Initially, I used Excel to generate my basic budget. I'm fortunate that I have about 9 budget items, and that's it. I suppose I could break things out a little more, and have both a "groceries" and a "dry goods" category, but I really don't care if paper towels and windex live in the grocery line category.

Once I had my budget, I wanted to start tracking. I'm looking at a few different free options, and today's was Total set up time was under an hour (1 Credit Union with checking and savings, 2 credit cards, 1 investment account and 1 paypal account). The transactions all categorized fairly well on their own, and as I went in and assigned things manually the systems seems to learn to look for different key words in the transaction descriptions. For instance, at first both credit card payments were tracked based on the "ACH withdraw card" keywords. When I manually renamed one to "HSBC Payment" all of those transactions started tracking off of "ACH Withdraw HSBC". I'm not certain that it's an adaptive system, but if it proves to be then that will be really nice. does a good job of showing you your spending habits, and tracking where your money is going. It has some nice alert features you can set up to send you e-mails or text messages. The spending trends displays a nice pie chart, showing what you've spent where, and you can get that displayed from one month at a time to, "all time". I like that you can click on each category and "drill down".

A few things I've seen that I already don't like is that I can't manually tell it that I'm not using my E*Trade account as an investment account. There's several years of history in my E*Trade account from when I was using it as my default checking account, so it would have been great to load all that in and see historically how I've spent my money, but Mint refuses to get the transactions from that account. Since NOW I'm using it strictly for investments, it's OK - but if you aren't using a "regular" account for your checking and savings, you might have problems.

*Side note: I liked using my E*Trade brokerage account for day-to-day because it was fee-free. Checks were free, they rebate my ATM fees from other banks, and there was no annual or monthly fees. My current credit union doesn't even give me that good a deal!

I'll also be checking out here in the next few days, to see how it compares.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Taking Stock

"The key to wealth is being satisfied with what you have."

It's interesting to me how intertwined things are. At the beginning of this year, I started out having one of my goals as "pay off my debts". Seemed simple enough - pay down my credit cards and pay off a loan. It occurred to me that it couldn't hurt to do a little research about what the most effective way to do that would be.

Along the way, that simple "pay off my debts" goal got changed around into "become financially responsible".

I looked around me, and what I saw was that I didn't live nearly as poorly as I'd thought. I also don't live nearly as well as I could.

Now I need to start by taking a financial inventory - then I'll move on to learning about budgeting tricks. I suspect that there's a lot of learning ahead of me in this category.