How Much Does Your Commute Cost?

You don’t know because Jack was right.

I hope it’s a lot less than mine. All numbers are approximations.

• 40 weeks x 4 days commuting per week = 160 round trips of about 65 miles = 10,400 miles/year. Divided by 36 miles per gallon = 289 gallons x $3.25/gallon = $939. Because I like round numbers, let’s say the cost of gas continues creeping upwards, so let’s round up to $1,000 year in gas.

• $846 in insurance, but since 20% of my mileage is non-work, let’s pencil that in as $677 (I will resist rounding).

• Approximately $500 in routine services, tires, general wear and tear, so a work adjusted total of $400.

• 80% of my $65 annual registration is $52.

• I paid $38.5K for my car in 2015. Let’s assume it will be worth $5.5k in 2024 when it will have 150k on it. That’s $33k in depreciation over ten years or $3.3k per year.

So $1,000 gas + $677 insurance + $400 in maintenance + $52 in registration + $3,300 in depreciation = $5,429. Are we done? Unfortunately, no, we’re not even close.

Why? Because I haven’t added in the cost of my time spent behind the wheel. Without traffic, my 65 mile roundtrip commute takes 1:25-ish, adjusting for traffic, let’s call it 1:40, or 6 hours and 40 minutes per week for a grand total of 267 hours per year or nearly 7 weeks of full time work sitting behind the wheel.

Hmm, how to value that time? If you or your workplace want to hire me to edit or write something or consult on a work or life problem, I’ll charge something north of $100/hour, but that doesn’t mean all my time is that valuable. How much should we discount my commute time? By half? If my commute time is worth $50/hour, that adds $13,350 to the above total. What if we discount it by half again, using $25/hour as our estimation, then we add $6,675 to our previous total.

At $25/hour, it costs me $12,104 to work each year. At $50/hour, $18,779.

Drumroll. This is as painful a sentence as I’ve written in a long time. It costs me somewhere between $12,000 and $19,000 getting to and from work each year.

If you’ve ever read one of my 1,348 posts and thought there was some semblance of intelligence evident within it, this 1,349th one should disabuse you of that idea forever and ever amen.

 

 

 

 

Going Against Type

It’s human nature to extrapolate what we know about one another to predict the future. More simply, thanks to our pea brains, we put people in boxes. Case in point, my “friends” love nothing more than making fun of me for my sometimes frugal ways.

Truth be told though, I can open my wallet wide open, it’s just that it takes me a lot longer than the average person to be convinced of something’s value. In the last 18 months I’ve cracked the wallet wide open at least four times. From most to least expensive:

• New crib. Hard to express how fortunate I feel to have been able to make this purchase, the largest of our lives. I looked at enough waterfront properties in Olympia over the last several years to know the agreed upon price represented excellent value. We won’t make money on it because of real estate commissions and a 1.78% excise tax, but we won’t lose any either.

• New car. 2015 Acura TLX. It would be nice if I lived close enough to work to walk, run, or cycle. And close enough to everything else to ZipCar. But the crib is 4-5 miles from civilization and work is 30 miles. Amazing vehicle, no regrets, 90-95% as nice as luxury cars twice as expensive. The linked Edmunds review summary is a joke, my last tank, almost exclusively highway, I got 39.3 mpg. At that rate I can push 600 miles before finding a Costco gas station. I’ve averaged 35-36 from beginning. Perfectly quiet; excellent acceleration if you switch from “eco” to “normal”; buttery, Barbara Streisand-like smooth. Only blemish is a tech glitch. Occasionally, brake warning alert flashes on at random times. Last software update didn’t fix that. And since Dan is wondering, yes, a lot of women check me out while driving my new ride, but that’s been true since the first VW Bug beater, so can’t really credit Acura for that.

• 27″ iMac Retina. Three days old. Just read this article on it. Wowza, like being in Kenya. Never thought I’d own another desktop, but probably shouldn’t put myself in a box. Dig it.

• Last, but not least, this bad boy. The new crib sits amidst a lot of large trees. The wind blows most afternoons. This thing is total kick ass. One of my fav purchases in a long time.

So to my friends, put that list of purchases in your collective pipe and smoke it!

 

 

 

Of Coupon Codes and Meaning in Life

Karl Marx believed history was shaped by an overarching dialectic—an enduring conflict between the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production and the proletariat who were stuck selling their labor to the capitalist class. I have my own overarching dialectic that I believe shapes family life, religious communities, municipalities, and even nation-states—an enduring conflict between our material and spiritual selves.

In the simplest terms, it’s a battle between our preoccupation with consumer goods that make our lives more convenient and comfortable versus prioritizing family, friends, those in need, and the ethical stewardship our finite natural resources.

My material self routinely gets the better of my spiritual self. I spend too much time shopping online and I recently I purchased an iPhone 6+ and a new car. But I suspect I’m different than a lot of consumers because I’m keenly aware of the battle that rages inside me. I also live well below my means and know my phone and car, as nice as they are, can’t hold a candle to the joy and meaning my wife, family, friends, students, and writing provide.

How ironic that this time of year is marked by numerous sacred religious traditions and we’re more susceptible than ever to mindless materialism. Consumerism trumps contemplation. This manifests itself in many ways, stampeding store customers have to be the most jarring (the increased popularity of online shopping appears to be dampening that phenomenon).

This weekend in Seattle, The Gap and a few other stores were having a “50% off everything in the store” sale. Which got me thinking about a grand experiment in which all of downtown Seattle businesses had simultaneous “100% off everything in the store” sales. Their motto might be, “This stuff was really ill-conceived and is poorly made, ugly, and of no real use, so please, please take it off our hands.” Tens of thousands would jump in their cars and speed downtown, park haphazardly, and run towards the stores with eyes ablaze.

Free man, free! Nevermind that they’d have no real need for the stuff falling out of their overfilled shopping carts. Free man! Nevermind that they wouldn’t have enough room in their dresser drawers, closets, or garages for the stuff. Free! Nevermind that the stuff wouldn’t fill those empty spaces in their lives created by superficial or strained relationships with others.

My spiritual self has convinced my material self to sit out the mania this December. Join me. Help me tilt the balance from the material to the spiritual.

Frugality’s Point of Diminishing Returns

Frugal people like me sometimes take bargain hunting too far. We need to be smarter about frugality’s point of diminishing returns.

Writing in the New York Times, Henry Petroski states the obvious—U.S. airports, harbors and highway systems are often poorly designed, built, maintained, and funded.

He adds:

. . . infrastructure can also refer to things on a much smaller scale, like private homes . . . . Thinking about the construction, aging and care of this domestic infrastructure can provide insight into how we as a nation might better respond to our mounting public works problems.

Our 60-year-old home is an example of how infrastructure can be built to stand strong, age gracefully and be almost maintenance-free. The foundation sits firmly on solid granite. From the full basement you can see how the exposed beams, joists and underside of the flooring were made of good wood, built to last.

When I see a commercial building under construction today, I see nothing like this in the materials and workmanship, perhaps because it is simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.

I can see the same decline in quality when I try to do work on our house. When it was built, two-by-fours were actually only an eighth of an inch short of those nominal dimensions. Today, a two-by-four is a full half-inch shy. This sort of thing frustrates carpenters and do-it-yourselfers alike, making old construction more difficult to fix and encouraging tearing down and starting over with inferior newer materials and less skilled labor. What a waste of time, effort and money — and, more important, superior infrastructure.

Why the marked decline in the quality of home building? Petroski argues it’s because “expert craftsmen—carpenters, roofers, painters—who work with precision and pride, are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills.”

And then adds:

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

One commenter vehemently disagreed:

“‘This is not the fault of homeowners’. Wrong wrong wrong! I work for homeowners remodeling their homes in San Francisco and environs, and their relentless pursuit of the lowest cost is costing them dearly in the long run. Many do not want to hear that I am licensed, insured & bonded; that I have only full-time long-term employees on whom I pay all required taxes and insurances, and who are respected with medical & retirement benefits; that I pay to have my hazardous waste disposed of legally (rather than pouring it down the toilet); that their toddlers will be in college before they will need my services again; in fact that their toddlers will not be intellectually impaired by improper disturbance of lead-based paint. No, many prefer the fantasy that Yelp is wise, that the China price is obtainable, that my price is merely my opening bid. We here have just built a multi-billion dollar bridge that took a quarter-century, went to the lowest bidder who subbed out major components to China, which is already showing alarming signs of premature senility, and which may not even meet it most elementary function of surviving the next Big One. Some bargain! No, we homeowners, we taxpayers, you & I, us cheapskates, we are at fault.”

In this blame game debate I side with San Francisco. My relentless pursuit of the lowest costs helps create the razor thin profit margins that give rise to all kinds of corner cutting. Us cheapskates are at fault.

This is true with respect to home building and our national infrastructure. Petroski returns to our faltering infrastructure:

We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

. . . we do not have to be homeowners or highway engineers to know that good materials are better than poor and a job done well from the outset will outlast one done shabbily.

As we debate how to pay for infrastructure, we should also have a discussion about raising expectations for what we’re buying. Homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike must call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise.

Again, Petroski places the blame on “suppliers and contractors” and is silent about my tendency to do everything possible to reduce my tax liability.

Meanwhile, some fellow citizens shout that they are “Taxed enough already!” and mindlessly argue that “the government is so wasteful and incompetent, it must be starved.” Any notion of public goods is lost on them. As is the quality of life of our children’s children.

My politics are different than theirs, but I’m susceptible to the same mindless, short-sighted frugality. Until I adopt a more nuanced, enlightened form of frugality, I’m partly to blame for our deteriorating homes, airports, highways, and harbors.

Teaching and Learning New Skills

What’s the best way to teach? It depends. The most effective methods vary depending upon whether one’s aim is the transmission of knowledge, or the application of knowledge, or the development of skills or particular ways of thinking and acting.

More succinctly, is the focus on knowledge, skills, or dispositions? Too many teachers emphasize the transmission of knowledge at the expense of its application and the development of skills and dispositions.

Recently I’ve learned two new skills—how to make a green tea latte and how to change a flat bicycle tire without tire irons. The way I’ve learned these skills has me thinking about how teachers need to adapt to 21st century realities.

I despise all things coffee, which as a Pacific Northwesterner, puts me in a precarious position. I shudder to think of the consequences if I am outed. I used to “pass” by drinking tea, but the truth of the matter is I was never “all in” with tea. Then, one day, before a flight, I was walking through the Seattle airport when a Starbucks employee handed me a small sample cup of their green tea latte. Love at first taste. I began to drink them usually when I scored a gift card, but an addiction began forming, and I began dropping $4 of my own money for occasional warm, sugary, liquid fixes.

Then I got inspired by my neighbors’ and brothers’ declarations of independence from pricey coffee in shops. Their badass expresso machines and money saving morning rituals were the height of cool. So I resolved to stick it to Howard Schultz too and turned to the great 21st teacher of skills—YouTube. I watched four or five different tutorials on how to make “the same green tea latte that you get at Starbucks”.

Now I should make my own instructional vid because after a few months of tinkering, I have it dialed in. Of course, green tea latte making is a subjective and creative art. Mine are made the right way—stronger, hotter, and slightly less sugary than the mass produced default.

And since my sissy will wonder, no, I’m not buying any of the green tea health hype. Any alleged benefits of the green tea matcha powder are no doubt offset by the teaspoon of sugar, cow’s milk, and pure vanilla extract.

Simply put, I like the ritual and love the taste. And while this is weird to write, so probs even stranger to read, I feel different after finishing mine each morning—calmer and more centered. Also cool, I save at least 75% of what the inferior mass produced drink costs and the time and expenses of a roundtrip car trip to the local Starbucks.

Skill two. Recently, while mixing things up on a team training ride, the tube in my front tire exploded. It was harder than normal to change because I had just replaced my tires. New tires sit much more snuggly on the rim, usually necessitating tire irons. I had one, but should have added another to my seat pack after switching out the tires. Sitting in gravel on the shoulder of the road, I stared hopelessly at my rim. Then I remembered a YouTube vid I had recently watched in which a professional cyclist showed how you can pull the skewer out of the hub and use the quick release as a tire iron. Brilliant. I was up and running in a few minutes.

When teaching skills, school teachers and parents and coaches need to show students how to ties shoes, write persuasively, throw a javelin, make a green tea latte, or change a flat bicycle tire. It’s not enough to tell them. YouTube videos aren’t the only way to model skills, but they may be one of the best.

[What’s a helpful skill you’ve learned via YouTube?]

 

What People Get Wrong About Financial Literacy

Every spring a friend in North Carolina and I have a NCAA college basketball tournament bet. He takes the teams representing the Atlantic Coast Conference and I get those representing the Pacific-12. If his teams win more games, I send him a t-shirt, if mine win more, I anxiously await my cotton trophy. This year, neither conference did well, but I barely won a stylish long sleeve Guilford College tee*.

We met teaching and playing noon basketball at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the 90s. This year, along with the shirt(s—one for the Good Wife too, and a coffee mug, Christmas in April), he included four copies of recent Guilfordians, the liberal, liberal arts school’s student paper.

Reading them made it seem like time had stood still. Faculty salaries were still the lowest among a large comparison group of peers. Enrollment was down. Faculty morale was flagging. Some well-liked faculty were leaving to the disappointment of students. Students were protesting the administration’s salaries, which had increased markedly, and were at least average among the same comparison group. Tucked in one of the articles was a devastating detail that will make the new president’s job especially difficult. The small Quaker school has $16m in deferred maintenance. They budget $1.8m a year for continuing maintenance, meaning they’re eight years behind. Some students complained about mold in the dorms.

Colleges on the financial edge routinely defer maintenance. “Let’s delay the roof on the science lab another year.” Eventually, the quality of life for students and faculty suffers, and as with mounting credit card debt, the financial challenges multiply and trustees fret they’ll never catch up. Public schools, churches, and city council’s everywhere face the exact same challenge. Can we manage our finite revenue—whether bonds or levees, charitable contributions, or taxes—well enough to maintain our existing buildings, roadways, and parks? If you want to assess the health of a school district, church, or city, find out how much maintenance they have deferred.

We’re fortunate that our Washington State home backs up to beautiful woods that we’ve enjoyed for sixteen years. In the woods there are hiking and running trails, deer, owls, and a path to a nice city park. Now the woods are for sale and three different developers are interested. Many in our community who have organized to save the woods from being turned into another housing development attended the City Council meeting last week to implore the Council to follow through on their own five-year plan for creating more park space.

The organizing committee has done great work thinking creatively about grants and related funding that makes the purchase seem feasible. imgres But the city has been deferring maintenance on our existing parks. One includes a nice boardwalk along the Puget Sound, a walkway so neglected, parts of it will be closed to the public this summer. While sympathetic to our arguments, the city manager and council both regretted that the city can’t afford to purchase and preserve the woods because they’ve deferred far too much maintenance.

It’s human nature to put off saving for future expenses. Just like colleges, school districts, and churches, I do it all the time too. I replace my nicked up bicycle tires after flatting a few times. I get my lawn mower tuned up when it won’t start. I go to the doctor when I’m near death.

I talked to the college senior recently about car ownership. Most twenty-one year olds think exclusively about the purchase price, “If I can just save $5k for that $5k car.” I impressed on her the need for a “cushion” for additional costs like insurance, gas, and regular maintenance including oil changes, the battery, and tires. In an ideal world, she’d also factor in replacement costs, but that’s pie in the sky. Once I broadened her thinking about car ownership, she realized it’s not financially feasible yet.**

Most financial literacy talk is seriously flawed. Everyone overemphasizes technical knowledge. Do you know the “rule of 72”? Do you understand the power of compounding interest? Do you understand asset allocation, mutual funds, investing costs, dollar cost averaging, and taxes impact on your returns?

People think if schools just taught that knowledge all would be well, but it’s not that people don’t know enough about personal finance, it’s that they lack the self-discipline to spend less than they earn. Including legions of college educated people who would pass a personal finance multiple-choice test.

Schools can’t teach young people to defer purchases, to set aside money to adequately maintain and eventually replace possessions, to live within one’s means. The only way to teach anyone the limits of consumerism, to delay gratification, the importance of savings, and how to live within one’s means, is to model it for them over time.

Fortunately, my parents, especially my dad, taught me those habits without ever sitting me down for any sort of money talk. For colleges, churches, cities, and families, “deferred maintenance” means “We’re in the habit of spending more than we have.” Like mounting interest charges, it ties the hands of college administrators, church councils, city councils, and families.

We are extremely fortunate to be able to meet our family’s basic needs each month with some money left over. We can do one of three things with our surplus. 1) Succumb to status anxiety and buy unnecessary luxury items; 2) Keep existential questions about life’s larger purposes at bay through mindless consumerism; or 3) Set some of the surplus aside for anticipated future expenses.

* During graduate school, my friend was a UC Santa Cruz hippie. The UC Santa Cruz mascot is the banana slug. Second Born and I had lunch in downtown Santa Cruz in late January. After lunch we found a must have t-shirt that featured a large banana slug with the caption “SLUG LIFE”. The perfect gift for my next loss. So good in fact we decided I had to send it this year win or lose. He was very grateful and assured us he’ll get a lot of grief for it from his Geezer basketball pals. That, of course, was our hope.

** Odd to me that she’s not more motivated to make it financially feasible. At eighteen, I couldn’t wait to own my own car. So I parked golf carts and picked up range balls for a few years and bought a VW Bug for $1,500. Most gratifying purchase of all time. For the time being at least, in keeping with her peers, she’s perfectly content to bicycle, use public transportation, or, and maybe this is the problem, use her parents spare car.

Embrace the Waste

I love that about a quarter of PressingPause’s readers are from outside the United States. Hard to know of course if they’re ex patriot readers, or as I assume, genuine article foreign nationals. The contents of this post will most likely strike them as odd. Especially those with no firsthand experience of living in the United States.

Americans are unusually productive and wasteful. We work hard Monday through Friday and then buy lots of things on Saturday and Sunday that we don’t need. Yin and Yang. Over and over. As a result, our homes, no matter the size, get filled up with all sorts of ridiculous stuff. By which I mean The Magic Bullet. The technical term is clutter.

Given this national characteristic, many moons ago, a tradition was born in the U.S. The garage sale. A garage sale is when a family spreads out all of their leftover, unused stuff in front of their home and offers it for sale to anyone that’s interested. Our neighborhood designates the first Saturday in June to be a “neighborhood garage sale”. Too bad you missed ours or you could have bought a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory DVD; some unused, unopened 10w-30 motor oil; or an outdoor umbrella real cheap. Since my family is more frugal than most, we don’t normally participate. But this year I decided it was time to do some “thinning” of our worldly possessions since it’s been a long time and the youngest is getting ready to depart for college. It was especially fun to partner with her.

American wastefulness is often stomach turning, but Saturday during our garage sale, I realized it also provides opportunities. The sociologist in me loved the garage sale. For four hours I talked to a cross-section of society that I almost never get to. Many were first generation Americans smartly taking advantage of multi-generational American waste. For many it was a weekend ritual that they took very seriously.

Rule one, show up early. If the newspaper advert and signs say 8:00 a.m., start cruising the hood at 7:30 a.m. That way you might just luck into a free wheelbarrow or a nice $20 edger. Remember, the good stuff goes fast. My favorite part of the morning was foreign speaking customers who appeared to be just getting going in the U.S. using their smart phones to research prices.

If you have the time, join the garage sale masses. There are excellent bargains all around. Just make a list of things you need first or you’ll soon find yourself on the selling end.

In the U.S., people routinely fill up their garages so that they have to park their cars elsewhere. And sometimes, the garage isn’t nearly big enough for all of their stuff, let alone their cars. When that happens, people rent a second garage in a storage facility. Thus, if you have a lot more capital than time, invest in a storage facility.

A shiny new one recently opened near us and every time I drive by it I think to myself, “Damn. That’s the perfect investment.” Americans’ waste knows no bounds. You can bet on it. And invest in it. And profit from it. Especially where there’s population growth. Simple to build, storage facilities require little overhead. Unlike a rented house, no one is every going to call you at 1 a.m. to complain that the toilet is clogged again. There may be downsides to the investment, but I don’t want to know them. My ignorance makes me blissful.

Do not try to talk me out of it. I’m taking the $160 I made this weekend, embracing the waste, and going all in on another storage facility. I probably need other investors to buy the needed land. Care to join me?