hey kids, we’re quadrillionaires!

Back in 2008 when I was wasting money like a sailor on weekend leave, I bought some Zimbabwe currency notes from eBay to keep as souvenirs.  The nation of Zimbabwe had undergone such massive hyperinflation that they printed notes in obscene denominations to make up for the lack of purchasing power.  This is compared to the Weimer Republic of Germany version of hyperinflation in 1921 in which no new currency denominations were considered and it literally would take a wheelbarrow full of cash to make the most mundane purchases.  At lease Zimbabwe made it easy to carry a wallet full of money with their exponential denomination values but I digress.

The allure of the notes that I bought were that each bill was worth 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollars!  For reference that is Z$100,000,000,000,000.  That’s a lot of zeros. I bought ten of them and acquired a cool 1 quadrillion Z dollars!  I felt like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet all rolled into one for a fleeting second.  I think I paid USD$50 for the lot.  Here is a picture of my fortune below.

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As far as currency goes, they were worthless but it was real life Monopoly money and I stashed it away.

I was recently talking about inflation with my kids and explaining currency and purchasing power.  The discussion reminded me of my Zimbabwe fortune and I used it in my lesson with my children.  A loaf of bread at my local Wegman’s cost $1.00USD and for reference I showed the kids that the quadrillion Zim dollars in front of them wouldn’t even cover it.

We then went online to research the Zim dollars further and to my astonishment they have become quite valuable as collectibles!  My $50 purchase as a joke was now worth about $500.  It might be the most profitable “investment” I have ever made!

I don’t know if I will sell the notes due to the quirky collectability of them.  I also like being able to say I am a quadrillionaire, even if it is a stretch of the imagination.

comparison is a slippery slope

I often read articles such as this Bloomberg one that speaks of an average American’s debt load.  It is very easy to read it and make a binary decision that you are either better or worse off than than your fellow citizens based upon the average revolving debt of $16000. When a mortgage is included, the number jumps to $132500.

This sort of comparison fallacy can breed a false sense of security if you fall under the average and it should not be used as a definitive reason to remain in substantial debt.  It is a trap to compare yourself to someone who is in more debt than you are and then decide your financial situation is reasonable.

I can relate to this dangerous type of comparison that led me down a path of poor health for a while.

When I was working in center city Philadelphia, lunchtime junk food was readily available. There were a number of pizza places, food carts, and Chinese restaurants on the same block as my office.  My colleagues devoured unhealthy foods daily.  They were overweight and out of shape.  I rode my bike to work almost every day and was at a healthy weight.  I only made bad food choices a couple of times per week compared to their daily gluttony.

Imagine my surprise when a routine blood test showed dangerously elevated fats and cholesterol in my results!  I was blinded to my own poor eating choices when I compared myself to my coworkers who ate poorly every day.  The thought of my own dietary indiscretions were overshadowed by my comparison to those around me who were unhealthier than I was.

The blood test snapped me back to reality and I worked to reduce the unhealthy food consumption and more importantly  I identified and eliminated the comparison trap as a crutch to making bad choices.

Think first in 2017

In all cases, my goal for 2017 is singular.

It will be my mission to “think first” in all aspects of my life.

If the kids do something I don’t like, I will think first before getting upset and yelling.

If my wife and I argue, I will think first before escalating and work to resolve first.

If presented with unhealthy food options, I will think first before inhaling them.

If I feel like skipping the gym, I will think first and ponder what the lack of exercise will do to me.

If I find myself buying something mindlessly and without purpose I will think first.

You get the idea.

Something that I used to be really proud of was an ability to make fast decisions based upon any information I had at the time.  As I get older I realize that gathering more information and making even better decisions is more desirable.  By simplifying my mission for 2017 and being more thoughtful and deliberate with a “think first” mantra I hope to have healthier relationships, more effective decisions, and a happier year ahead.

Paying for future items in today’s dollars

the_future_is_now_850x265With interest rates rising in recent weeks I reviewed my portfolio and held a tongue in cheek exercise about inflation proofing it.  With rising rates comes more expensive borrowing costs which ultimately make items more expensive for the consumer.  Inflation will rise (I prefer a more realistic tool like the Chapwood Index over CPI), and we will get less purchasing power for our money.  When you factor in rumblings of Trump tariffs on imported goods that may counteract a strengthening dollar, things may get very expensive very quickly.

The genesis of this article started with a conversation my wife and I had about refinancing our home.  We were able to refi at 3.625% about 6 months ago bringing our mortgage to $1000 per month.  The house we live in would cost about $2500 per month if we were to rent it.  The trade off in interest payments versus cash flow at the time helped us make the decision to refinance.  We may pay the house off early one day in the future, but for now we will enjoy the lower payments.  

In the discussion with my wife I told her to think of having a $1000 mortgage payment in twenty or thirty years.  I followed up with a comment that our cell phone bill might be $1000 in 20 years!  The concept of paying for future items in today’s dollars started to make more sense to her.  Locking in a sub 4% loan for 30 years was a good decision for us at the time.  If my home appreciates at a similar pace to the interest rate I am paying on the loan I feel justified in extending the payback period as relatively risk free.

Another good example, although there was a recent stumble, was the Forever Stamp by the USPS.  If you recall, the purchase of a Forever Stamp allowed you to use that stamp for any domestic first class envelope forever with protection against any future rate hikes. When the forever stamp was put into service in 2007 the price of a first class stamp was 41 cents.  Rates rose every year peaking in 2015 at 49 cents.  This yielded about a 2.5% gain per year if you bought in 2007.

Then a funny thing happened at the USPS when they reduced rates to 47 cents in 2016.  If you bought forever stamps in 2015 you just lost 4% in a trade you probably felt pretty good about when you made it.  The last time the USPS dropped first class shipping rates was almost 100 years ago and it is likely an anomaly based upon prior experience in exponential government growth.

One last interesting story was based upon breakfast cereal.  I once had a conversation with a friend in which I joked that I was making 20% in a year in a new investment.  When he asked me about it I coyly replied that I wasn’t sure he had the stomach for it.  When I shared my secrets about my returns in breakfast cereal he fell out of his chair.  Wheat futures had risen from about $2 per bushel in 2001 to about $10 per bushel in 2008.  I was noticing similar pricing increases in the cereal aisle of my local supermarket.  Since cereal typically has a shelf life of about 6-8 months it was possible to load up and take advantage of locking in prices and watch my “investment” appreciate.  

The point of the story is that there are more ways to invest than the stock market.  No one is going to get rich buying Forever Stamps or hoarding cereal, but when you go through the mental exercise it may help you think about finances in a new light.  Consider alternative investments and ways to spend your money that can take advantage of buying durable goods in today’s prices with today’s dollars.  Many folks in the FIRE community are dead set against debt, but if you have discipline and caution, you can responsibly use debt to your advantage.  Consider this if any big ticket items are in your future.

repair don’t replace!

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My garage door opener had given me plenty of warning that it was about to fail.  The chain would not remain tight and the door jerked and jostled when it opened and closed.  Alas, one day last week the trusty opener failed.  The Chamberlain/Sears unit was over 13 years old when it made its last lift.

I briefly looked at the opener and saw that a bearing had worn down over time and that caused the chain to become loose.  As the chain loosened and the drive bearing wore down on one side, it put undue pressure on the main drive gear causing it to fail.   I Googled a repair and priced a replacement piece, but for some bizarre reason I decided to call in a garage repair person.  I figured working with the chain would be difficult with one person and it was very greasy too.  

The repair company was very friendly over the phone.  They gave me an arrival window and told me that their van has all parts needed for repair of common openers.  As soon as I hung up the phone I had a pit in my stomach and was embarrassed that I did not try the repair myself first.

When the repairman arrived 30 minutes late I knew I was going to be in for a bad time.  He quickly looked at the unit and quoted me a price of $400 to replace it.  I told him that I called for a repair but he said they only repair new units and not old ones.  I was dumbfounded and politely told him I wasn’t going to replace the unit knowing that a simple repair was all that was needed.  He tried to charge me a $29 service fee for coming out to look which of course I didn’t pay.

As soon as he left I ordered the $20 repair kit from Amazon and patiently awaited the arrival.

I planned to do the repair on a rainy day when I would be stuck inside.

I unplugged the unit from power and opened the case.  The disassembly took about 10 minutes and reassembly took about an hour because I removed the chain completely to deal with a twist in it.  It would have been even faster if I knew what I was doing.  

Upon completion of the repair I needed to adjust the open and close limits which were clearly labeled on the side of the opener.  

I was very happy and proud to have made this repair on my own.  I learned about garage repair and saved about $400 along the way.

We live in a society that is too eager to replace than repair.  There is a growing movement that recognizes the waste in both money and resources in simply buying new every time something breaks.  Some items are flimsy and not easy to repair but we owe it to ourselves and our planet to reduce waste and keep the older machines going for as long as possible.  Just look what Sweden is doing to encourage repair over replacement.  It is great to see additional financial incentives over and above those created through repairs.

With educational videos on Youtube.com, websites such as RepairClinic.com, and parts availability on Amazon.com there is no reason not to try fixing things yourself!

The week I skipped the supermarket

Like most American families we go to the supermarket once per week.  I’ll typically go on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday to my local Wegman’s.  I love Wegman’s.  The produce is always fresh, the store brands taste very good, and the prices are fair.

Also like most American families we had a very busy weekend consisting of two soccer tournaments which kept me too busy to get to the store.  

With the exception of a convenience store gallon of milk, I did not grocery shop this week and I want to tell you about my experience.

I try to keep my shopping budget around $140 per week for a family of 4.  I usually plan 4-5 meals per week and expect one pizza night and or one night out.  We all eat breakfast at home every day.  My wife packs her lunch most days and the kids also take their lunches to school.  I make a pot of store brand coffee every day (I cut back from Dunkin Donuts brand).

For dinner I usually buy a Wegman’s roasted chicken for $4.99 which is a great deal and usually provides leftovers for fajitas or chicken chili.

But this week was a little different.

Breakfast was easy because I usually have 2-3 boxes of cereal in wait.

Lunch was a little more challenging because the threat of running out of juice boxes.

Dinner brought out some creativity and freezer digging that made it all possible.

Last week I bought 2 ham steaks in sealed wrappers along with a can of yams.  This made for a fast and easy meal.  You can then take the leftover ham and make carbonara sauce with regular household staples such as ham, peas, milk, butter, cheese, and garlic.  Frozen shrimp became shrimp scampi with wine, oil, butter, lemon, and garlic. Aging bread became toasted with garlic.  Grapes and apples sitting in the coldest part of the fridge lasted most of two weeks.  

I wouldn’t call my regular supermarket shopping hoarding, but having a little extra lying around definitely helped this week.

I would guess that most folks also have more than they need in the pantry and freezer not out an abundance of planning, but an abundance of buying.  

I would suggest you try your own shopping free week or at least make a conscious effort to clear out the stock.  I think you will feel better saving money and preventing waste.  It is also easier to clean the pantry and freezer when they are almost empty!

more stories of value inflation

I previously wrote an article about Value Inflation.  This is the concept that a manufacturer keeps the price of a product the same but reduces the amount of product offered thereby increasing the cost per unit.  It is a stealth inflation if you are not paying attention.  For those of you old enough to remember half gallon containers of ice cream, you know what I mean.

I was recently reminded of value inflation while clothes shopping recently.  I was browsing EMS.com and REI.com and started noticing a pattern in the comment sections of some items I was interested in.

First at EMS.com the Men’s Thunderhead Rain Jacket looked nice and it was on sale.  It carried a 4.5 star review and I jumped down to the comment section where I saw some surprising reviews such as this one:

“skimping a few square inches of material to save on the mfg cost in the name of athletic fit is a mistake. the quality is down as compared to the same jacket of the past. this also limits its use over much more then a base layer. my old version was a better product. i plan on returning this item in unused condition soon. i am pleased with the other ems products which i own; this one, not so much”

I then bounced over to REI.com to check out the REI co-op Tech Tshirt.  I had visions of dressing in jeans and a t shirt to simplify my wardrobe some.  However I found the 3.5 star rated shirt also had complaints about fit and a change in materials:

“I picked up 3 of these a few days ago to supplement my arsenal of “old” Tech Ts for the summer. In the store, I did see some cosmetic changes but figured they were pretty much the same as the ones I already have. I finally got around to looking at them this morning and compared the tags with the older ones. The new ones are 100% polyester with no spandex. I also saw that they were shorter in the tails (I’m a big/tall 56 year old guy so this isn’t a good thing). I decided to look online at the reviews before actually trying one on. Sure enough, the reviews validated what I had thought and once I tried one on, I knew they were going back. They are not as “stretchy” (obviously due to no spandex) and very snug in the shoulder area. Definitely not anywhere near comfortable. REI…why did you mess with a good thing??”

I write about these examples because people will pay for quality.  When we trust brands like EMS and REI and they violate that trust in an effort to squeeze a little more money out of their consumers we all lose.  I appreciate that companies need to be aware of cost containment, but when you change a product and give the customer less value for their hard earned dollar, you will lose that customer.