Finance · Lifestyle

Road Less Traveled Challenge

Earlier this month, Our Next Life wrote a great post regarding the commonly cited “commandments” of financial independence and early retirement. While I consider myself to be following some of these rules, it got me thinking more about what I’m doing differently from other personal finance bloggers.

There are a few things that have worked well for other people, so I’ve decided to adopt them as well:

  1. The 4% rule. I’m using this as a guideline to ensure that I have enough saved before officially retiring, although I’m hoping to have enough that I’ll use a safe withdrawal rate of 3% or 3.5%, to help increase the odds that my money will last the duration of my retirement.
  2. I have my Roth IRA and Rollover IRA (money from all my 401k accounts from previous employers) with Vanguard. Vanguard seems to be the favorite among bloggers, but I had experience with them because a previous employer used them for our 401k and pension accounts. Holding these accounts with them makes sense to me, especially because of their super low fees and ease of use.
  3. I’m a believer in index funds. Low expense ratios make these a no-brainer.
  4. I’m maxing out my HSA. Wish I’d known about the benefits sooner, as this will only be my second year contributing the maximum amount. There’s more to this account than meets the eye.

Now for the things that I’m doing a little differently from other bloggers:

  1. I’m single, whereas it seems like the majority of bloggers are either married or in long-term relationships. While my status may change, I’m planning my future as if it won’t. I’ll admit that it makes the journey towards FIRE (financial independence/retire early) a little longer. But it also makes things slightly easier, since I can change directions on a dime and don’t need to worry about another person’s spending habits. Only person I need to worry about is myself.
  2. I bought my house at 24 and paid it off in less than 15 years. Many bloggers insist that the money would be better off in investments where it can compound (especially while interest rates are so low), but it was killing me to pay interest when I didn’t need to. It also makes it easier to focus on my larger goal of FIRE now that I’m debt free. While renting is tempting, as often advocated in PF blogs, my townhouse is easy enough to care for that I’m planning to stay for the foreseeable future. Not to mention that it now only costs about $3k/year for me to live there!
  3. I use a robo-advisor, rather than manage my investments myself. I’ve been using Betterment for a year now, as my taxable brokerage account. I’m really happy with the service and plan to stick with them. The less I have to think about rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting, the better. I’m all for easy.
  4. I’ll never be someone who obtains passive income through real estate or high yield dividend stocks. It’s way too time consuming to manage either of these so, to me, the term “passive” doesn’t really apply to these methods. I’ll stick to my index funds.
  5. I question the idea of maxing out a 401k. It’s important to keep in mind that you’re not avoiding taxes but deferring them. Who knows what the tax brackets and rates will look like 20-30 years down the road.
  6. I’m not frugal but I do abide by mindful spending. I’m not trying to spend as little as I can, but instead ensure that my spending aligns with my values and goals. I have no problem with hiring reputable people/companies to take care of maintenance and repairs at my house, since I know my limits. Do I go out to eat with friends often? Yes, yes I do. And I don’t regret it one bit.
  7. I’m not against buying new cars instead of used. Cost is the important factor, not the age of the car. I’d rather have a basic new car than a fully loaded used car, given the same price. As a side note, my most recent car purchase in December of 2008 was for a brand new 2008 Nissan Sentra that cost $16k, including all taxes and fees. I’m still driving it and plan to for some time. I had it paid off a year after I bought it and now have enough saved to buy my next reasonably priced vehicle with cash. It’s all about staying within your means. The Happy Philosopher wrote a great post about new vs. used so be sure to check it out.
  8. Unlike a lot of bloggers, I don’t have any set plans for my retirement. I’ll admit that this has me a little worried because I’ve read articles about how people can slide into depression in retirement if they don’t have something meaningful to fill their time. I have 10 years to think about it, so I’m sure I’ll come up with something by then. For now, I’m looking forward to being able to travel, spend more time with friends and family, and enjoy not living by an employer’s schedule.

I love that the personal finance community has a diverse range of ideologies and goals. Because of this, I try to read as many blogs as I can because each one brings something unique to the discussion. It’s incredible how much I’ve learned thanks to all the people who have been willing to let us into their lives through their blogs. Even if someone writes about something I may not agree with, it always gets me thinking and questioning my own approach and biases.

What “commandments” do you follow and how have you decided to pave your own path to FIRE?


How to Handle the Development Conversation?

I try to make it a policy not to discuss my job or employer on this blog, but I could use some advice so I’m going to break that rule. My post today is a question that I’m posing for other bloggers who are planning to retire early: How are you handling development conversations with your boss?

Every few months, I have to meet with my manager to discuss development and talk about where I see my career headed. Although I’m 10 years out from my planned retirement, it could be closer to 7-8 years if there are no major financial surprises and I decide that the time is right. I realize that this is still a decent amount of time to be working and my career is nowhere near over just yet. But as time goes by, I’m wondering how people who are closer to their early retirement dates have handled these development discussions themselves.

I have a good relationship with my manager and we’ve had some honest conversations. She’s never held anything I’ve said against me but I’m wondering just how much I can and should tell her. After all, most people assume that I’ll still be working for another 25 years, which makes it seem like I’m still in the first half of my career, rather than approaching the end.

Any advice regarding how to handle these conversations? I would love to hear how other people have handled this without announcing their retirement plans.

Finance · Lifestyle

Those Poor Suckers

Let me begin this post by saying that I try really hard not to judge other people. After all, there’s so much going on in life that I can’t possibly know or understand what every single person is dealing with during my brief encounter with him/her. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt instead, and wonder what is going on in their lives to cause them to make certain decisions or act a certain way.

Back in high school, I had a math teacher, Mr. B., who would try to incorporate real life examples into his lessons. There was one that I’ll never forget: He was explaining how to calculate the volume of a cylinder and also how to determine how much material would be needed to make a cylinder of a certain volume. In his example, he used a soda can since it’s something we’d seen a million times and could easily visualize.

While I couldn’t tell you how to actually do these calculations anymore, the lesson I remember learning was that manufacturers could create cans with a greater volume while using the same amount of aluminum to do so. Why do I remember this? Well, Mr. B. told us that whenever he sees students drinking soda from a can, all he can think is, “Those poor suckers.” In his eyes, they were suckers for not knowing that the soda companies could fit far more soda into a can without an increased cost in materials.

While I don’t think of soda drinkers as suckers, the phrase “those poor suckers” often crosses my mind when I see something that doesn’t make sense to me, knowing that there are better options available. So while I may not judge people for their actions, I do think, “those poor suckers” instead. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming they simply don’t know any better.

An example of this is cars. I don’t live in an affluent neighborhood by any means, so when I see a Cadillac or other high-end vehicle driving through, I think, “Those poor suckers,” because they probably don’t know what kind of financial harm they’re doing to themselves. They probably don’t realize what their other, better options even are. I don’t entirely blame them for their ignorance and I certainly don’t judge them. After all, we all have different priorities and are free to spend our money in accordance with those priorities. It’s entirely possible that they aren’t ignorant and instead have chosen a vehicle over anything else they could have done with that money.

So, the moral of the story is to educate yourself as best you can so you can avoid becoming a sucker. Know what your options are, as well as the opportunity cost, so you can choose the best one to align with your goals.

Have you ever seen something that made you think the person was a sucker?

Lifestyle · Relationships

How to Become Ordained…Legitimately

Happy Spring everyone! Since it’s almost wedding season, I thought I’d share with you how I became ordained and ensured it was legitimate. Having a close friend or relative officiate a wedding adds a personal touch and is frugal as well.

It was 7 years ago that my brother and his (now) wife were planning their September wedding.  They wanted something small, including the wedding party. My brother and I are close but there wasn’t room for me in the wedding party. He jokingly said that I should get ordained online so I could be a part of the wedding. It got me thinking: What would it take to become ordained and how much would it cost?

After doing some searching, I got ordained online through the Universal Life Church, based in California. As expected, it was quick and easy, only taking a few minutes. Once that’s done, you can print a certificate from the website.

But to make it legal, I checked with the state and county that I live in. This is where it’ll take a little research on your part, since I can only say what needs to be done for Hennepin County in Minnesota. I went to the county’s website and did a search to see how I could file my ministerial credentials. Back then, it could only be done in person and a certificate from the church with a “live” signature (not stamped or copied) had to be provided. Now it can be filed via mail.

I ordered the certificate from ULC and it arrived a few weeks later. Once I had that, I went to the county’s service center. They made a photocopy of the certificate and I filled out an envelope with my mailing address. A couple weeks later, I received a slip of paper that stated which book and page number my credentials are registered in and the paper was embossed with the county seal.

For less than $15 I was able to get ordained and it’s good for a lifetime. No re-filing is required.

I officiated my brother’s wedding the following September and also had the honor of officiating a close friend’s wedding a year later. Filling out the marriage certificate was a little tricky the first time but much easier the second time around.  Tip: Make sure you have the address of the wedding location before the ceremony.

Hopefully this is helpful to anyone who’s considering getting ordained or was wondering how it’s done.


Lessons Learned From My DIY Haircut

This is going to sound crazy to some people and I’m sure my friends will think I’ve become a hippie by attempting to cut my own hair. But I’m not one of those people who enjoys getting my hair cut. So for the last 6-8 months, I’ve been looking at websites and watching YouTube videos to find a way to cut my hair myself.

I’ve been cutting my bangs for 30 years, so it’s surprising that it’s taken me this long to take the plunge and try cutting the rest of my hair. My main concern has always been that any mistakes would be noticeable, given how straight my hair is. I usually go to a place like Great Clips or Fantastic Sams, and only a couple of times a year at that, so the cost has never been burdensome. It’s more about the hassle of going somewhere, waiting in line, and losing at least an hour of my day for something so basic.

I have a very simple cut: all one length with straight hair that goes about 6″ past my shoulders. I figured it would be easy to find a method for cutting my hair but instead I found lots of ways to cut long layers with a v-shape in the back. I stumbled upon this method and this is what I used to finally cut my hair. I’m very happy with the results.

Since I followed all the steps exactly as they’re listed, I won’t walk through those specifics. I also had a very similar end result as the pictures shown so I haven’t included any of my own. It was difficult to get decent photos anyway, since I was by myself. For a demonstration, you can search for YouTube videos using the description “U shape haircut.”

Here are my tips if you’re going to cut your own hair:

  1. Use the right tools. Make sure you have scissors specifically for cutting hair. I used these but anything similar should do the job. They’re very sharp and they worked great. Instead of using a scrunchie as the instructions state (does anyone own of those anymore??) I used an elastic band instead, already on hand from my local Target. A hand-held mirror is also a must, so you can see the back. I used this, also from Target. To make sure that the cut was straight, I used a level from my toolbox and set it across my chest.
  2. Practice. Walk through all the steps without actually cutting your hair. Do this as many times as you need to so you can become comfortable before you make any actual cuts. I think I did this about 5-10 times before I felt ready.
  3. Relax. It’s critical that you’re in a good place mentally and emotionally. Don’t attempt to cut your hair if you’re stressed out or tired. This will only lead to problems. Save the glass of wine (or any other alcoholic drink) for afterwards, regardless of how tempting it is to use that to calm any nerves.
  4. Cut your hair while dry. Initially I thought I’d cut my hair while wet, to ensure that the hair is smooth and straight. But after walking through the steps with both dry and wet hair, it was actually easier to work with my hair while dry. Doing this also has the benefit of seeing the true amount that you’re cutting so you’ll know the final length before using the scissors.
  5. Take your time. Plan on 2-3 hours total.  While the steps themselves only take about 15 minutes, you’ll want to give yourself enough time to work slowly. I took an hour-long break and then went back to do some cleanup with fresh eyes.
  6. Less is more. I cut close to an inch. Start small and then work your way into cutting more as you feel more comfortable doing so. I grew my hair out a few extra inches to give myself a greater margin of error and I suggest you do the same.

What’s most surprising to me is how it looks exactly the same as when a professional cuts my hair. The sad thing is that it actually looks better than a few haircuts I’ve had.

The hardest part was cutting the V in the back, so it’s one length. If you have someone to do this for you, I’d recommend it. Having longer hair would make this step easier.

I will definitely cut my hair again and I expect it to become easier each time. Do you cut your own hair? Would you ever consider it?


My Fill-the-Bucket List

In case you haven’t seen it, Maggie at Northern Expenditure wrote a great post in January about how we shouldn’t create bucket lists. Instead we should create a fill-the-bucket list with all the great experiences we’ve already had. It’s a wonderful way to reflect on the opportunities you’ve taken advantage of so far in your life.

I’m a little late to the game, but here are my fill the bucket items:

  1. Adopting cats. I know this may be silly to most people, but when I was growing up my parents wouldn’t allow us to have a dog or cat. Believe me, my brother and I asked relentlessly but they didn’t budge. As an adult, I now see why.  My first cat was a stray that my roommate found outside our apartment building. He was just a kitten and I fell in love. Since my roommate already had two cats, I claimed him. He was a wonderful cat, but unfortunately he passed away when he was only 6 years old. I currently have 2 cats who are both 10 years old and I adore them.
  2. Zip lining in Costa Rica. I went to Costa Rica in February 2005 with a friend and, as one of our excursions, we went zip lining in the rain forest. Terrifying at first, but amazing once you get the hang of it.
  3. Getting a tattoo. I’d always wanted a tattoo but couldn’t figure out what design I should get. Once I knew what I wanted, I didn’t hesitate. My mom had given me a necklace with a Celtic knot as the pendant and I get my Irish genes from my dad. So, for my 36th birthday I got inked! I would love to get another if I could figure out another design.
  4. Dying my hair. During my senior year of college, my roommate dyed my hair. I have blonde hair and was looking to go just a couple shades darker. It turned out to be a mess — my hair turned a weird shade of orange.  Eventually it faded and grew out but it was a long few months in between. Made me realize I have zero desire to ever dye my hair again so I’ll be turning gray gracefully instead. Definitely made me appreciate what I already have.
  5. Completing my MBA. Sure, it could be argued that this was necessary for my career but I don’t see it that way. I have no desire to move up past the analyst level so an MBA isn’t really a requirement. Instead it was always a personal goal, since I value education. Fortunately, I had an employer who paid for most of it, making the goal much easier to complete.
  6. Attending lots of stand up comedy shows. I’m a huge stand up comedy fan and try to catch some of the larger acts when they’re in town. I’ve seen Louie Anderson, Janeane Garofalo, Nick Swardson, Jim Gaffigan, Lisa Lampanelli, and Hannibal Burress to name a few.
  7. Participating in the 2014 Twin Cities Donut Crawl. Who needs a bar crawl when you can do a donut crawl instead? It was a chilly November day and we went to three different bakeries to get our donuts. Delicious.
  8. Riding a Segway. In 2013, a friend of mine found a Groupon to ride Segways. She thought she’d have to convince me to do it, but I was all for it. Again, a chilly fall day but we had a blast. And we were the youngest in the group by at least 15 years!
  9. Attending book signings. I’ve met lots of authors, from Suze Orman to Nicholas Evans to Larry Flint. I love hearing the authors discuss their books and meeting them in person. The signing that took the longest? Garrison Keillor.  He spent lots of time chatting with everyone in line. My conversation with him was in regards to the origin of my name. No idea why he asked since my name isn’t very unique.
  10. Various travels. Besides the trips I plan with my friends, I try to take advantage of any other opportunities.  One friend went to San Diego for work so I tagged along. Another friend had a sister who was living in New Jersey so we stayed with her and went into Manhattan to do some sightseeing. Despite all the places I’ve been, there’s still so much of the world to see.

What does your fill-the-bucket list look like?

Lifestyle · Relationships

10 Things I Learned From Being in a Sorority

It’s that time of year again – spring rush! If you don’t know what I’m talking about then you must not have been involved with Greek life in college. Although it’s been 17 years (!) since my last spring rush, the lessons I’ve learned from being in a sorority still serve me well today.

Let me preface by saying that I had no intention of joining a sorority when I first started college. Me? In a sorority? No way. But like most things in life, things aren’t always what they seem. Greek life is often controversial, from the crazy movies to the news headlines. But is that what it’s really like?

In a word, no, that is not at all what my experience was like. Did we like to have parties? Oh yeah, and we had a blast doing it! But there are so many other facets to Greek life that don’t make the headlines, simply because it isn’t scandalous.

Being in a sorority allowed me to meet and become friends with people who I otherwise never would have crossed paths with. It also provided me with skills that I didn’t get from my coursework. Here are the things I learned from my time in a sorority.

1. I found my voice. I was really shy growing up and along with that, I was always very quiet. Being in a sorority, I learned to speak up. You have to when so many people have opinions about how things should be done. I also got to practice my skills of persuasion. This has served me well in my career. I know how to speak up, be tactful, and get my point across.

2. I know who my friends are and who they aren’t. It’s so tiring to hear the stereotypical “you buy your friends” line that people say because you’re in a sorority. It’s simply not true. It’s like any other organization, where I clicked with some people and others I didn’t. Outside of certain events, I wasn’t forced to spend time with anyone I didn’t want to. And I have to say, the friends I made are still some of my closest today. But most of my sisters I no longer see or hear from on a regular basis either because we were never all that close to begin with or we simply grew apart as we got older. This has been an important lesson as I get older and my free time becomes less. It’s important to spend that time with my true friends and I definitely know who they are.

3. With every good party, there are chores to follow. This is the dark side to the parties we would throw, and the chore sign-up sheet was passed around in order of seniority. (side note: My favorite after party chore? Vacuuming the stairs. So easy.) Although my partying days are behind me, this lesson was important because it showed that we respected the space that we met in (and some of the members lived in). Taking care of the house and maintaining a clean living space ensured that we could focus on more pressing matters on a daily basis.

4. Volunteering is good for you and the community. Part of the sorority’s requirement was that we do a certain number of hours of community service each term. Whether it was a walk for a cause or cleaning a park, this requirement got us out of the house and into the community. While time is in short supply these days, I still try to do good by donating money to causes I care about. We’re not individuals, but instead a community and it’s important to be a part of it.

5. You don’t need a lot of money to have a lot of fun. The house I was in was a local sorority, rather than national. That meant that our dues were much cheaper because we had fewer expenses to pay. Of course we didn’t have the national network of other chapters, but it gave us more freedom. Our dues were around $60/term during my four years of college. Not bad at all considering that it paid for rush and pledge events, our winter formal, and some supplies for the house. We were always looking for cheap/free things to do, as well as any deals. The poor college student mentality is something I haven’t lost and I would be lying if I didn’t see a friend or two roll their eyes at my coupons for restaurants. We’re eating there anyway so why not save a few dollars?

6. I learned how to be a leader. Everyone is encouraged to be a chair at some point and I was no exception. I held two chairs during my time in the house: Publicity and Sisterhood. Sisterhood was great because I got to plan a few events each term as a way for people to get together and hang out. This is something I wish I had taken advantage of more while I was in college, since those skills are easily transferable to the workplace. Leadership skills are invaluable to advancing your career.

7. Fundraising is hard. My least favorite activity was fundraising. Besides flat out asking our alums and family members to donate, we also did group fundraising. The one that sticks out in my mind is delivering phone books (yes, this was the late 90s). We’d load up our cars with phone books and then deliver them to houses in certain neighborhoods. So. Many. Phone books. I’m really glad I’m not in a position where I need to do any kind of fundraising in my career but I have gained respect for the organizations that do.

8. Just because it’s available, doesn’t mean you need to partake. Of course there was alcohol at our events. You know what else was? Soda. And people didn’t think twice about someone choosing soda over alcohol. But if you did choose to drink, you had people who were always looking out for you, making sure you were safe. This was a great lesson because peer pressure is often pressure we put upon ourselves, thinking that people care more about what we’re doing than they actually do. Only do what’s in your best interests, regardless of what people around you are doing.

9. More people have my back than I ever would have guessed. I’ll never forget when I started dating someone at the end of my first year. We were at an event that a couple of guys from a fraternity were at and they were giving this guy the third degree. I asked what they were doing and they said they wanted to make sure he was ok for me to be hanging out with. That’s one of the benefits of going to a smaller university with only two sororities and two fraternities on campus — we were like family, regardless of house. The same holds true today: Although I rarely need to lean on my friends for support, I bet anything that most of them would be right by my side the second I needed them, including people I’m not especially close to anymore. That’s the importance of building and maintaining relationships over your lifetime.

10. Hazing = bullying. Prior to college, I wasn’t really familiar with hazing. Our house had a strict no hazing policy, and we allowed pledges to opt out of any activity that made them uncomfortable. I definitely did things that were outside my comfort zone (singing to the fraternities at the university while pledging, to name one), but never was I asked to do anything dangerous or detrimental to my wellbeing. Hazing doesn’t bring people closer together, it drives them apart. Kindness and respect are the cornerstones of healthy relationships and I truly believe these characteristics are necessary to succeed in your career.

Of course, Greek life is similar to anything else in life — the experience is what you make it to be. Looking back, I wish I had taken advantage of more of the opportunities we were given. But I’m sure at the time I felt too busy to be more involved and didn’t realize how fast the time goes by. What great memories….


Goodbye Candy Crush

I finally did it. I removed Candy Crush from my tablet and haven’t looked back. The breakup is official.

It wasn’t uncommon for me to come home from work, make and eat dinner, then pull out my tablet while watching tv at night. Candy Crush was an easy distraction, since it doesn’t take much time to go through my 5 tries. I always thought it was harmless, as addicting as it was. How wrong I’ve been.

Candy Crush is just that, a distraction. Not even slightly beneficial at that. While it didn’t take up much of my time, it absorbed my attention, allowing me to ignore the things that really do matter.

What am I doing with this reclaimed time? Giving my cats the attention they deserve since I’ve been at work all day. Turning off the TV and reading more books instead. Doing things around the house that I’ve pushed aside, with the excuse that they don’t take much time so I can always do them later.

Giving up small, worthless distractions like this allow me to be more present. We all owe it to ourselves to live our lives with purpose and in no way does Candy Crush allow me to live out my purpose.

What are you doing that takes you out of the present? What kind of distractions have filled your life but don’t align with your purpose and values?