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More Medical Maladies

September 17th, 2013 at 03:16 pm

My father is 78 years old. He's in excellent health over all.

I got an email from him. He was admitted to the hospital with atrial fibrillation. At least, I think that's what it is called. They monitored him overnight, then changed his prescription for BP medication and released him. He's downplaying it, but 78 years old is still 78 years old.

The same day as the above, I finally went to the doctor. I told him what happened, and will be having an MRI soon. The orthopedist thinks I've torn my ACL (is there more than one of those?). The thing is, I tore it when I was in my 20's, but it's just now causing me intense pain. I must have turned my knee wrong while working or climbing onto a drilling rig last week. I'm in a knee brace, taking pain meds, and rubbing cortisone on my knee three times a day.

MIL had a scan done, and the doctors are very upbeat about her condition. They think that a mastectomy, removal of the lymph nodes, and a short period of radiation treatment will take care of all of her issues. Prayers or wishes for the doctors' correct prognosis are welcome.

DW, at least, is doing well. She's mostly moved back in, and has finished most of the unpacking. Our storage locker has been released, so we're now $132 more per month into our pocket. The price had just increased two months earlier. I forget what it had been, but it was around $10 per month cheaper. She is upbeat about her mom when I talk to her, but I know she must feel stressed.

I offered both DW and my father the option of me coming back for a couple of weeks. Both of them declined. I'll wait and see, and keep my options open.

Stewlash and E-Trade

July 21st, 2013 at 12:47 am

I finally got around to transferring some funds from an E-Trade account set up by a previous employer. The money has been sitting dormant for about a year. I really should have done it sooner. I've lost out on about 20% gains by not doing so. Oh, well. It wasn't a whole lot of money, but it was still money lost through laziness.

On the Dubai homefront, I made stew yesterday. Then I added a lot of vegetables and a can of tomato sauce, so it is now a stew-goulash crossbreed, which I have coined as "stewlash." It was really good, but as always I used too much black pepper, so it has a bit of a bite.

I ate about a third of it, and put the other two thirds up in the freezer for lunches over the next month or so. I'll make chili sometime this week after I finish cleaning the crock pot. I always soak the ceramic liner for a day before I hand clean it, both of which precede me putting it into the dishwasher. I hate crusty remains from bad dishwashers, and there's no such thing as a good dishwasher in my experience.

DW is getting the house in order. Houston has been getting a lot of rain, so the lawn is coming in nicely where we had to mend the DD2's destructive "improvements." We have mushrooms now, which is not bad, but I asked DW to put down some Daconil (a fungicide) to help prevent future brown patch. I also told her I have Banner (another fungicide) in the shed, and for her to be ready to put it down in a couple of weeks if brown patch encroaches regardless of the Daconil treatment.

While I was doing the E-Trade move, I looked at my Vanguard holdings. They're up about 20% for the year. I know that will dip when QE stops, but it sure is nice to look at it now. I only wish I knew when the dip was coming. Yeah... I know: "Market timing." But you know the dip is coming, as it is unavoidable mathematically.

Home Improvements and Spreadsheets

March 22nd, 2013 at 09:06 am

I'm a spreadsheet nerd. When I make an important financial decision, the first thing I do is break out Excel and start to do comparisons and "what-if" checks.

My house in the US is up another $20K in value in the last two months by the online estimators and my own research into the neighborhood sales online confirms these figures. Also, its apparent rental value is up $200 per month. I already had a spreadsheet for the "sell or rent, which is better" scenario, and put the new numbers in it. As usual, when all factors are considered, there is only a $50 per month differential between renting out the place and selling it and investing the profits. I use a conservative 7% for my investment return calculations.

I opened a new sheet in the workbook and listed my electric, gas, and water usage from figures I could find online in my accounts. I've been making energy efficiency improvements to the house nearly every year since purchasing it. Honestly, I have pretty much run out of improvements to make. The house is in Houston, TX. I've added ridge and soffit vents. I've added a radiant barrier. I've upped the ceiling insulation to absurd depths. I've put in wall insulation as the bungalow was built around 1950 and no one used insulation back then. I have high efficiency everything including washer, refrigerator, air conditioner. I have double-pane, e-squared, argon-filled windows. I have one sliding glass door left to replace with some French doors, and my upgrades will be complete.

As I said, this was all done over a course of years. I finally got around to working out my total energy and utility usage for the place. I had paid as much as $400 for only the electric bill one month, though usually the electricity ran closer to $300 or slightly below during the summer months.

My spreadsheet did not disappoint me. My maximum TOTAL utility bill for the last two years was right at $170. That was only one month during the drought where my water usage was over $100. I told DW while we were doing the watering that "it's cheaper to water than it is to put in a new lawn."

My electricity provider went out of business, so I lost previous billing data, and cannot go back any further. The house is costing about $110 per month for total utilities: gas, electric and water. That's $200 per month right into my pocket when I move back. Right now, DD2 is enjoying this bounty with her husband as they house-sit while I'm overseas.

Since I started doing the upgrades, I have probably invested just about $30K in the changes. That means it is a 9 year payback at 7% per annum. I'm a good five years into the payback period.

Those improvements are as good as money in the bank, in a few more years.

Free eBook for One Week

March 18th, 2013 at 10:59 pm

I posted in the freebies section, but more people probably read here, so I'm double-posting this.



The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown, is being offered free by the publisher to promote Dan Brown's newest book. If you have any kind of eReader (I use Kindle on my iPad and iPhone), then you can get it free from your favorite publisher.

I got my copy from Amazon. I had to go down the list to find the $0.00 Kindle edition, but it was there. I would assume GoogleBooks, iTunes, Barnes&Noble also have free editions, according to the press reports.

The offer ends on 24 March, so if you want a free copy of the DaVinci Code, now is your chance.

Dreams, Wishes, Goals, and Plans

January 14th, 2013 at 04:26 am

I saw a post on the forums here where the OP stated (paraphrased), "I want to save more and buy a house some day."

That's a dream. Dreams are things we like to think about as if they might magically happen. Most of us like to dream about what we'd do with our money, jobs, and family (and to our bosses and neighbors, sometimes) if we win the lottery.

The idea of what we do here at SA is "goal setting." A goal is an objective with the following criteria:

1. A time frame in which to accomplish it
2. A metric that tells us what the goal actually is.
3. A plan that gets us to the metric within the time frame.

Taking the original quote above, we can turn it in to goals with plans instead of dreams with wishes.

"I want to save more" becomes "I will save $25 per biweekly paycheck, putting $1300 into a Roth IRA. I can do this by cutting out four beers (plus tips) at my local pub every two weeks."

The time frame is 1 year. The metric is $1300.00 in a Roth IRA. The plan is to cut back entertainment spending.

"(I want to) buy a house someday" becomes "I am going to save $50,000 within 10 years to purchase a $250,000 home with 20% down and no PMI. I will do this by setting aside $200 per paycheck in a mutual fund account with a target date of 2023. I will get the $200 by turning off my cable TV, scaling back my cell phone plan in 14 months when it expires, bringing my lunch to work 4 days per week, and quitting smoking."

The time frame is ten years. The metric is $50,000. The plan is to cut back on entertainment, luxuries, and bad habits.

Note that neither plan counts on pay raises, but also that neither plan expects a job loss. I feel that these two occurrences are "plan changers" whether to the good or to the bad. In other words, either event will require a re-working of the goals, metrics, and plans, but both are more or less beyond my direct control.

I used to be the first guy from the quote. I am pretty much the second guy, now, when it comes to planning instead of dreaming.

Do you know why most people don't hit their savings target? Because they don't aim at anything; they wish for it to happen.

So, when I buy a lottery ticket, I used to say, "I'm just doing a little retirement planning."

Easy Organic Gardening Tips

October 24th, 2012 at 04:42 am

My father was an organic gardener back in the 1970s before anyone else had ever heard the term "organic." It was his hobby then, and gardening is still his hobby now as he approaches 80. One of his tricks is to mulch and compost non-pine or -spruce type of leaves over the winter. He makes piles of mulched leaves about 5 to six feet wide.

About once every two weeks in the winter, he turns the piles and puts water on them if it hasn't snowed; if it has snowed, the snow melt is the water for the compost process. You'll know if the material is composting because snow will melt off the tops and you'll have brown mounds among the snow.

Now, in the Spring comes the "secret:" In the piles, plant potatoes throughout the pile of "now dirt," then grow corn in the middle, and tomatoes along the edges. My father puts up 4 inch welded wire "cages" along the perimeter. Just use 3.1 times the diameter for the length, or about 18.5 feet for 6 foot piles; he does about 15.5 feet for his 5 foot piles. The welded wire holds up the tomato plants, and they're going to need the support with all the tomatoes that will be growing on them.

Each of those crops pulls different nutrients from the ground so they don't interfere with one-another. He gets bushels of each item from one pile, and normally has about 6 to 10 piles. The size of his harvests is amazing. Also, the weeding is minimal, because the heat from composting and the freeze on the top of the piles from turning kills 99.9% of the weed seeds that make it into the piles over the Winter, and his harvest plants choke out the remaining random weed seeds that make it, with only minimal manual weeding.

He also has an eye for tomato plant "suckers." I don't know how he knows, but he pulls off these baby branches and every branch that remains bears fruit. He says that the "suckers" he pulls off would not have borne fruit. He also finds suckers on his corn plants and removes those, as well, but even I can recognize corn suckers.

The Autumn-Winter compost gives fresh nutrients every year, and he just collects bags of leaves from around his neighborhood in the Fall (now's the time), from houses that don't have anything but deciduous trees such as oaks and elms and suchlike. Just no pine needles is his main goal. Once a guy told my dad that he'd sell his bags of leaves. Needless to say, my dad just drove away and went to the next house. He always asks the owners before picking up the bags of leaves, and will explain to them why if the owner is curious.

Remind me to tell you the story about his plum tree that was so heavily loaded with plums that it fell over.

The Disappearing Deposit, a new tale

October 21st, 2012 at 04:21 am

If you read my first "Disappearing Deposit," you know that it dealt with using a broker to send money from Dubai, where I live, back to the US, where I'm going to return. Eventually, I got my money back, and sent it via telegraphic transfer back to the bank in the US.

Well, being cheap, I found that I can get a CITI account here, and a CITI account in the US, and using their online tools, transfer money between the two accounts.

To get a free account over here, I have to keep about $1000 in the account at all times. To get a free account in the US, I have to keep about $1500 in the account at all times. I decided to open the US account first, as it is a bit harder to do from a distance.

I won't go in to all of the problems with CITI and its online account opening algorithm, but I will mention one of them. To sign in to my account the first time, I had to give my account number, which they never sent by mail, by email, or by any other means. I had to call them to get my account number so I could sign in.

When I signed in, the balance was zero. The problem with that is that I had $1600 withdrawn from my Chase account two days ago, and I have an email from CITI telling me that my account deposit has been made and to go check the account.

Another phone call, and all I'm getting is "I'm sorry, but that department is closed." So much for "24 hour service" that they advertise. At least I did get to speak to a human who kept apologizing, but who had no clue what to do.

I'll call back later to see where my money is. Is it any wonder that people hate bankers nearly as much as they hate politicians and used car salesmen?

After I track down this money, I'll be opening my Dubai CITI account. I am not looking forward to my my first attempt to do an online transfer between the accounts. I hope it does end up being free, and I hope that it also is as easy to do as I was told when I asked about the possibility of doing this at all.

Money Well Spent

October 10th, 2012 at 12:34 pm

A while back, while I was still living in the US - don't worry! I'm coming back eventually. - I bought one of those High-Efficiency Washer and Dryer combinations.

This was during my "spend it even if you don't got it" phase, so I'm not even sure what I paid. But that's not the point.

Shortly after I got the pair, the computer went out on the washer. The repairman came and replaced it. He said something to the effect that had I had to pay for it, the part alone was over $500.00.

Five Hundred Dollars!!

So, I went out and bought one of those high-current, appliance-ready surge arresters for about $50 and put it onto my machine. I've had zero problems since.

So, was this "money well spent" or was this "you fell for it, sucker" money? There's no way for me to say definitively, but I'm putting it in to the former category.

Hazards of Overseas Living

September 16th, 2012 at 09:42 am

I am a United States citizen living in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Firstly, let me say that the title is not talking about the present political difficulties taking place in the Middle East. In fact, Dubai is fairly immune to such disturbances because only about 10% of the population is Arab. Most of us here are expatriates, such as myself.

The hazards I refer to are best illustrated by my present predicament. On September 2, 2012, I sent a wire transfer back to my US bank account, so I could pay my US-based bills. To do this, I need to convert the money into dollars - which costs me money. I then need to give the money to someone to send it - which costs me money. The money then arrives in the US, where my bank charges me a fee for receiving it - which, you guessed it, costs me money.

Naturally, I try to minimize the charges involved in me transferring the money. For the last four months, I have been using an agency set up to transfer money out of the UAE. This was saving me about $15 per transmittal, as I only saved money on the "sending" fee, and not on the exchange or receiving fee. The previous option was using my UAE bank for the transmitting business.

My money from this transfer has not yet gone through. Today makes 2 weeks I have been waiting. I have initiated an investigation. I believe what has happened is the US government has held up the transfer; probably waiting for me to prove I am not laundering funds from Iran. If this turns out to be true, I will be upset. The government has NO RIGHT and NO JUSTIFICATION to make such an arbitrary decision as to hold up my funds transfer. They can record it, and then investigate it, and THEN, they can bring charges if necessary.

My transaction is from me in the UAE, to me in the US. There's nothing illegal about it, and the government has no probable cause to stop the transfer. They are being a-hole bureaucrats, and this is why everyone hates government employees. They're all little Hitlers, given the chance.

So, I have several thousand dollars in limbo, and I'll have to use the bank (at a higher price) for my next transfer. The bank not only costs more, but it also takes longer... at least it takes longer if I don't count this attempt.

I just have to wait, and hope for the best. I've heard of things like this taking up to six months to resolve over here. How would you like to "lose" several thousand dollars for six months or more? I know how I feel about it. I can't say, though, because I try to keep my blog PG rated, at worst.

Cheap, Safe Bug Killer

September 3rd, 2012 at 03:08 am

I learned about this years ago. In the late 1980's, I was living in Houston, Texas. Our house was about 90% carpeted, and we had two dogs. One dog carries, by my approximation, 100 gazillion fleas.

At the time, there was a service that promised to remove fleas, called "Rx for Fleas." I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking about using this service, as they promised to get rid of fleas for up to a year. My friend told me how to make my own bug killing mixture that is safe for pets and children. I've used it ever since.

There are two ingredients. You can buy them cheap, or you can buy them for a lot.

The first ingredient is called "Boric Acid Powder," or orthoboric acid (in powder form). You can get this in a pharmacy, where it is pure and intended to be mixed with water to make a disinfectant liquid for cleaning skin-borne bacteria. I once was prescribed this by a vet to be used to clean the eyes of a rescue kitten. As felines clean themselves (including their faces), I deduced that this acid was not harmful to pets, as advertised. The pharmacy version of Boric Acid Powder costs about $4.00 for about 4 or 6 ounces (7 to 10 grams).

You also buy this powder at a dollar store. It will be in a plastic bottle. It will be called something like "roach proof" or "roach powder" or something like that. Just look on the label for "boric acid" or "orthoboric acid." The only problem with this type is that it often has a light blue tint, as if they added a tiny bit of blue chalk from a pool cue piece of chalk. Just don't use this on white carpets, or you can buy the pharmacy version, which looks like baby powder. Anyway, the dollar store version is one pound (28 grams) for a dollar.

Before I go on to the second ingredient, let me talk a bit more about boric acid powder. Bugs are actually clean critters. They are constantly cleaning themselves by the equivalent of licking themselves clean. Therefore, anything they walk through, they ingest when they clean themselves. When they walk through boric acid powder, they clean it off by swallowing it. The powder gets into their digestive tract where it damages and kills them. I think a person or cat would have to eat like a half a cup to do the same, so small quantities such as you'd get from dust in the air being breathed in or swallowed won't hurt a healthy person, baby, or animal. I'd be careful of lizards, or someone with lung problems.

You can put boric acid powder anywhere that people are not likely to go, but bugs are likely to go. I got a "Planters Peanut" jar (the one with the metal lid held on by a plastic ring; I think it was a pound), and put a bunch of holes in the top using a nail, like a big salt shaker. I use this to "distribute" the powder. Places I've put it are: In my attic near the walls, behind electrical outlets, and onto my garage floor, especially near the walls. I use the pure boric acid, and just "sprinkle" the area. Remember, bugs will walk through it and pick up the talc. It takes very little to kill them.

The second ingredient for the carpet treatment is "diatomaceous earth." This, too, comes in two forms. You can buy it in some hardware store insecticide areas, where it was $4 per pound when I priced it. Instead, you can go to the pool supply area, and buy it for like $10 for 25 pounds (about 11 kg). It is used in pool filters for cleaning the water or backflushing.

Diatoms are really small creatures with skeletons. I don't really know where they fall in the animal kingdom. When diatoms die, their skeletons, carapaces, or shells (whatever) remain. These things are too small to make out as more than dust to the human eye, but to a bug, they are as sharp as razors. When the bug walks through a place with diatomaceous earth (millions of dead diatom shells), they get the powder onto them, and into their joints. The diatoms cut into the joints, and cause the bugs to bleed out.

Mix 10 parts of diatomaceous earth with one part of boric acid powder. This dilutes any coloring in the cheap version of the boric acid powder until it is nearly non-existent. Put about a half jar into the peanut jar, and use it as a "salt shaker" all around your house on the carpets, dog beds, or anything cloth on the floor.

Before starting to sprinkle the powder, make sure all food is covered, and clean all dishware afterward. Personally, I just keep the cupboards closed and don't have any dirty dishes out when I spread the powder around.

It doesn't take a whole lot. I'd say about half a pound (250 gms) per 1000 square feet (100 m2), maybe a little more. Sprinkle it liberally, and then work it in with a broom. Leave it messy and powdery for two days or so, then vacuum and dust normally.

You won't see any change in your bugs for a week or more; however, after about a week, you're going to see hundreds of fleas and think I've steered you wrong. Wait about three days to a week for this invasion to subside. You won't see another flea for six months or more after they subside.

This will remain effective for at least a year, with one warning: If the powder gets wet, it will dissolve and stop working. Therefore, steam cleaning or other means of getting your carpets wet means you have to wait until they are dry, then reapply.

I've used this for years, and I can personally attest to its efficacy.

Things You Can Do With Money

August 25th, 2012 at 03:40 pm

It doesn't matter what you do in the world today, you have to deal with money in one form or another. Have you ever thought about what you can actually do with money? I'm not talking about dreaming what you'll do when you win the lottery. I'm talking about actually sitting down and thinking about money and what it entails.

I had a problem when I was younger of not paying attention to money. I've always been employed, and I've always made enough for my needs and wants, but I don't have extravagant needs or wants. Here, I'll outline what you can do with money, and what it entails. It is only a guideline to help you think about what you're doing, rather than just setting a goal and roboticly working your way toward it without any real understanding of what you're doing.

Money use 1: Borrow it
Since you're reading this blog, chances are that you're already well-versed with this use of money. Borrowing entails someone giving you money for your use today, with the promise that you'll pay back even more money in the future.

What do you get for this money? About the only thing is "immediate satisfaction." And debt. You always get the debt part, and you usually get the immediate part - "immediate" being a relative term - but you don't always get the satisfaction part. Have you ever purchased a used car only to wish two months later that you had not? Or maybe you used your credit card for a night out where you had a little too much to drink, and as you were ruining your shoes and your trousers or pantyhose, you regretted the purchase of at least one of the drinks? You didn't necessarily get satisfaction, but you did get the debt.

Now, there are actually two categories for debt, which I call "dumb debt" and "smart debt." How do you tell the difference? Basically, dumb debt - which is the vast majority of debt - is debt that costs you money and doesn't really do anything for you in a positive manner.

"Smart debt" is debt that you use to achieve some other financial goal. About the only thing that falls into this category is real estate loans. Now, it is arguable that stock purchase loans can also fall into this category, but I don't believe that is anything other than gambling, regardless of the odds. Real estate appreciates as long as you purchased it at its real market value rather than at an inflated going rate. See my previous "Dave Ramsey" blog post where I give a bit more information on this topic.

In most cases, borrowing money incurs only debt and hardship, so it is a dumb thing to do with money.

Use 2: Spend Money
This is not quite as bad as borrowing, and as long as you haven't done "use 1" too much, there's nothing really wrong with this use of money. Spending money entails trading a value of cash for some item, service, or other value that is not cash.

In general, spending money does not decrease your net worth, assuming what you get in return for the money has an equal value. Most assets, though, depreciate in value, so in the long run, spending money decreases your net worth over time, or at least prevents it from increasing more quickly.

Use 3: Saving Money
Saving money is what you do with money when you have it, and don't use it for another purpose listed here. Saving money in and of itself is a good thing. It entails putting the money somewhere safe where it cannot lose numerical value - though it can lose spending ability due to inflation being greater than the savings return.

Saving money puts money somewhere that you can get to it more or less "at will." Usually, you pull money out of savings once savings reaches some given point to use it for some other purpose. Often the other purpose is "spending" as above, which will probably cause your absolute value to go down more quickly.

Use 4: Investing Money
The main differences between saving money and investing money are rate of return, risk, and liquidity. Basically, the rate of return is how much you make for your invested value compared to its value; the risk is how likely it is that your rate of return can be negative. Liquidity is a measure of how quickly you can reclaim your money for another use (including re-investing it elsewhere).

Investing money is a personal decision. There is no "right answer" and there is no "right way" to invest your money. You have to balance your needs, your wants, your assets, and your obligations, and your personal ability to remove yourself from the equation. One of the hardest things to do is to watch an investment lose value, yet "stay the course" and not incur even more losses shifting money around to no avail. But that's all a part of investing.

Investing is one of the wisest things you can do with your money, but you cannot invest until you have "extra money" to invest. You should only invest money that you don't need for spending or saving. An emergency fund is not investing. It is savings for unforeseen events that require money. Paying off debt is not investing. It is the penalty you are paying for past immediate return.

The main thing about investing, though, is that it is gambling. You are betting that your investment gains value at a greater rate than inflation or the economy in general takes it away.

Now, the above statement is going to anger just about every investor who reads it. "Index funds have historically returned (blather) amount over any (X) years." Yes, they have. Absolutely every investment vehicle I've ever seen has also said, "Past performance is no guarantee of future results." Why? Because it is a gamble.

The thing about gambling, though, is that you can improve the odds by various means - most of them legal, many of them illegal. For example, you can run a casino and weight dice to insure a certain roll. That's an illegal way, obviously. Legal ways to improve your investment odds is to research your investments. The best advice I can give in this regard is to invest in something you know and understand.

Use 5: Earn Money
Earning money is performing some service, improving some item, or otherwise doing something that someone will give you money in exchange for. Most people have a "job" where they earn money. Earning money always increases your net worth or asset value. This is your best vehicle for increasing your comfort and ability to do all of the things listed above.

Your ability to earn has very little to do with your intelligence, your education, your network of friends. Your ability to earn hinges on three precise qualities that everyone possesses in one degree or another: Integrity, imagination, and dedication.

Integrity is listed first because it is the most important. Integrity is more than honesty and trustworthiness. It is the sum total of your character. "Character" has been described as your penchant for doing the right thing even if no one is watching. This allows people to trust you, work with you, and rely on you.

Imagination cannot be underestimated. This is the quality one has to see a situation, item, or other intangible or tangible object and apply a unique or unthought-of change that others have not foreseen. This is how ebay, Steve Jobs, and about 99% of the other "successful" people and businesses have made their way. Imagination is the ability to see something that hasn't been seen by others. Earning is your ability to exploit this vision to make money from it.

And that takes the last item: Dedication. This is your ability to stick with something because you know it's going to work out for the better. It is your ability to stay with things when they don't look good, but in your heart you know you can make them good. Dedication means staying with something because you believe in it, no matter what anyone else is saying or thinking.

Dedication is a two-edged sword. If you're wrong in your belief, then you are dedicated to a losing proposition. If you're right, though, you can look like a genius and set yourself up for a windfall. Unlike the gamble of investing, though, with dedication, you're believing in yourself and your vision. That's always a better bet than believing in someone else.

Conclusion
In any case, I've listed the things you can do with money from "worst thing you can do" to "best thing you can do." It is up to you what and how you'll follow the list above. It is also true that how often and how badly you've done them in the past will affect how well and how much of each of them you can do in the future.

Remember that you control your own financial destiny. What you've done to this point will only make it easier or harder for you to get to your desired situation. What you do from this point forward, though, is more important to reaching your goals.