Thoughts from Inside the Box

Because home is where the heart is you park it.

Source: Thomas Carroll, though the fade was added by me. It's supposed to be a metaphor for the desire to shop/acquire an unnecessary gamut of nonsense dwindling away, or something like that.

It's been a while since I last lambasted any of the ideals that keep the American Economic Engine™ chuggin' along. I'm talkin' about things like "Exceptionalism", "Overconsumption", "Materialism", and any other ‑isms and ‑umptions you want to throw into the mix. Given my relative reticence on the topic, I thought it was high time I took some pot shots at Uncle Sam. Subsequently, I've spent a long time staring at this blank expanse of screen, musing over what edgy and Forced Witticisms™ I can put here. Strangely enough, nothing I put down feels particularly pleasing, probably because I don't think I have anything useful to say on the matter.

Making fun of how we do things in America just feels like low hanging fruit, or more fittingly, a cakewalk. It's a lumbering, slow moving target, weighed down by one too many Big Macs.* Plus, Wall-E already did it way better than I could anyway. So instead, I'm hoping it'll be slightly more productive to shift the focus and talk about how I personally make my purchasing decisions. Summing it all up in a flow chart that came out more complicated and less aesthetically-pleasing than I was hoping for:

Should I Buy that ShinyNewThing™?

If the chart is too small, you can find a bigger version here.

Before we get started, let me just say that this grossly idealistic decision-making process only really applies to buying stuff: physical objects that I plan on keeping around. It doesn't make sense for the necessities like food or toiletries, or experiences like trips and concerts. I'll maybe touch on that at the end.

Step 1 - Recognize the Reality

The starting point of my flow chart is:

Will you literally die if you don't make this purchase?

And the answer is No.

I put this at the tippity-top because it's important to go into a potential purchase with a properly prepped and calibrated cash compass. The fact of the matter? Life will go on even if you don't buy yourself that ShinyNewThing. If you're reading this, there's a healthy chance you live in a wealthy, developed nation and are not in any real risk of starving to death, or dying of a untreated illness. Whatever the object of your affections, however ravenously you find yourself drooling and hankering, your heart will not actually stop beating if you don't acquire it. The Earth will keep spinning. The sun will continue to turn hydrogen into heavier elements. And we'll all still be inhabiting a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

Step 2 - Check your Inventory

Okay, so you've got your heart set on acquiring ShinyNewThing. It glistens like a diamond and you get butterflies any time some of its calculatingly-crafted marketing material flutters past your eyes. It promises to be revolutionary, and improve your life in ways that you can't even begin to understand until you've got your hands wrapped around…whatever it is. But have you taken a good, hard look at what you've already got?

Personal Example: The Samsung Galaxy S7 is out. Compared to my current phone, the S7 has a higher-resolution screen, better cameras, a bigger battery, a faster processor with more cores, twice as much RAM, improved water-resistance, and supports quick charging. Not only will I be able to Snapchat at the speed of light, but this phone will improve my libido and cure most forms of cancer too. And to think, I could buy one with a single week of rent-savings. It seems like a no-brainer, so why haven't I tossed my dusty, worn down, three-year old phone out the (hopefully proverbial) window?

Because it still works.

Not only does it work, but it isn't any less functional just because a newer, better phone came out. It's not like Samsung released the S7 and suddenly every other phone developed crushing feelings of inadequacy and stopped working. If something I own already does the job for me, why would I be in the market for another one? I'm no worse off just because something newer and shinier exists. If I wasn't struggling to make do without it, why get it? Why be complicit an active agitator in a growing E-Waste problem? Why not allocate that money to some other more productive or actually useful area of my life?

But Brandon, what if the thing I already have is broken?

Well in that case, you've just found a great opportunity to learn something new. Do a bit of research and see if it's something you can fix yourself. The Internet is a pretty incredible resource as far as DIY/fix-it projects are concerned. Smartphone took a tumble? There's a decent chance you can fix your phone or laptop screen. Eyeing that new Keurig? See if you can unclog your old coffee maker. A new jacket tickling your fancy? You can probably fix the zipper on the one you just got. Personally, most of what I know about the innards of computers came from replacing dead hard drives and screens and upgrading RAM on my friends' old discarded computers and then using them for my own nefarious purposes. Why not breathe some new life into your possessions and gain a new skill while you're at it?

Brandon, you don't understand. The thing I already have is really, really, irreparably broken.

Perfect, now you have a chance to see if you can live without it. Sometimes you can't, and the answer will unequivocally be "No, I can't live without this because of my job/family/lifestyle/pet tarantula/whatever", and that's fine. But other times, maybe you'll realize that you're actually better off not replacing whatever broke. Maybe your life is simpler without it, or you have more free time because you're not so glued to it, or you just never really needed it in the first place.

A prime example from my life is a pocket projector I had for a few months, which I bought so my friends and I could watch movies in the truck (which we totally did). And that was all fine and dandy, but at the end of the day it was still just another device for me to charge and store and generally have to deal with. It didn't exactly break on me, so this isn't really the best example, but I ended up selling it and felt generally better off for having done it.

Setting up the projector for Truck or Treat™, where I had some friends over to watch Hocus Pocus on Halloween.

Step 3: Just Think About It

Too often we just jump into purchasing things without ever stopping to question what it means to us. We set our sights on some object of our desires, and buy it as soon as we can afford to. That's not hard-coded into our DNA though. It's not like we evolved the desire to buy stuff. We did, however, evolve mushy meat brains vulnerable to being manipulated in lucrative ways by carefully crafted marketing campaigns.** But if we take a step back and look at the decimals and dollars of it all, we can make a more informed decision about how important a purchase is to us.

Where does most of my money come from? Well, since I'm not (yet) retired, it comes from me spending a double-digit number of semi-waking hours each week doing assorted tasks for other people, being just proficient enough that they compensate me for it. I exchange my time for money via my job. Time goes in, money comes out. Simple. Since most of my money comes from my time-commitment to work, it makes sense (at least in my head) to view money as just a loose abstraction over my time, right? Everything I buy takes some non-zero amount of time for me to earn. Thinking about it this way, why would I want to throw my time away for things that aren't worth it? Why would I want to trade weeks or even months of my time for that ShinyNewThing? When will my rant/bombardment of rhetorical questions end?

To clarify: I enjoy my job. I genuinely do. That said, if money was taken out of the equation, it's unlikely I'd continue working the exact same number of hours I do now. If I had unlimited dollar dollar bills y'all, I'd definitely make a few changes in my day to day life, but I'll save those for another post. If you have other plans for your days besides working, why not use the money to make that a reality? As early retirement extraordinaire Mr. Money Mustache will gladly tell you: if you spend a dollar, it's gone forever. But if you invest a dollar, it's now working 24/7 to make you more money, usually through dividends or capital appreciation. And since money is basically time, you're creating more time for future you, which translates to more freedom in your work/life balance. So, at least from my perspective, instead of pouring time into getting that new 52 inch, 4K, 240 Hz, super flat-screen buzzword magic TV, it makes more sense to take those extra dollars and put them to work for me.

The thing is, at the end of the day, a flat-screen TV does nothing to make me a happier person. Neither does having a nicer car, or a shiny, carbon fiber road bicycle. And if it isn't making me happier, healthier, or just plain better as a person, it's not worth wasting my time/money on. Life is horrifically short in the scheme of things, and I'd rather build for my future and invest in experiences. ShinyNewThings eventually become DustyBasementFixtures, but experiences become fond memories. I guess that's my philosophy on spending money: invest in memories, not accessories.

*In my opinion, one Big Mac is approximately one too many Big Macs.

**The color red makes people hungrier. Luxury items cost whole, round number prices; discount items end in "99". Checkout aisles are full of impulsive items. There are entire college degrees dedicated to figuring out how to make people feel a certain way. Etc, etc.

Source: A graph of my estimated one-rep max for each week over the past 10 months.

It's been a while since my last post, and a lot has happened since then. I've hit my one-year truckiversary, surpassed $15,000 in monopoly money savings, and paid off the remainder of my student loans. Expect posts for these things in the coming weeks. As for my absence: I've been dedicating the majority of my free time to building an app for a small nonprofit to help Syrian refugees apply for scholarships. I like to think it's a worthy enough cause to excuse my tardiness and general inability to produce new blog content. Oh, and my laptop unceremoniously died on me. With that out of the way, onwards to the (lean) meat of the post.

I don't know at what point in history we thought it would be cool to start picking up heavy objects for fun. I'd imagine it'd have been pretty recently, it's not like you could stroll into a Chipotle 2,000 years ago after a sweaty, Beyoncé-fueled workout* and replenish all those burnt calories with a double chicken and guac burrito bowl. We live in a brave new world.

Regardless of when lifting and exercise for the sake of exercise became a thing, we're fortunate enough to enjoy the privilege today. I frequently allude to how I take part in the fun: via a modified version of Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 program. That seems like a good starting point for this post, so let's do that.

The Basics

The 5/3/1 is a pretty standard strength-training routine, recommended to me by my good friend (and source of inspiration) Pat K., who wasn't too far off from setting a state record at a recent powerlifting tournament. I'll be channeling his knowledge and advice for pretty much the entirety of this post.

Anyway, the most important thing to know about the 5/3/1 is the concept of a training max (henceforth referred to as TM), which is a baseline amount of weight you'll use for each exercise. To calculate your TM for an exercise, take 90% of your one-rep max. If you don't know what your one-rep max is, use the formula:

weight × (1 + reps / 30).

As an example, if I bench-pressed 195 pounds for 7 repetitions, my estimated one-rep max would be:

195 × (1 + 7/30) = 240.5 pounds

and my TM would be:

240.5 × 90% ≈ 215 pounds

To start a 5/3/1 routine, you calculate your TM for overhead press, parallel squat, bench press, and deadlift, and then the workout is as follows:

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Warm up Warm up Warm up Warm up
Set 1 65% x 5 70% x 3 75% x 5 40% x 5
Set 2 75% x 5 80% x 3 85% x 3 50% x 5
Set 3 85% x 5+ 90% x 3+ 95% x 1+ 60% x 5

A plus sign (+) after a number means "at least this many reps, but ideally you should continue the set until you reach fatigue". In turn, "fatigue" means "the point where your body has failed you and you're a sopping pile of ATP-depleted, lactic acid-filled muscle tissue on the gym floor." Week 4 is called a deload week, and is for recovery, basically a vacation for your muscles. I skip this most cycles, I've only actually ever felt the need to deload once or twice after particularly heavy weeks.

The Warm ups mentioned above are three sets you should do before each day's routine. Those sets are 40% x 5, 50% x 5, and 60% x 3 respectively, and help your muscles get ready for handling the heavier weight you're about to subject them to. They're super important unless you enjoy being irreparably injured.

The Routine

The table above constitutes the core lifts of the 5/3/1 workout. The other main component of a 5/3/1 is the assistance work, which consists of all the supplementary exercises you do after you've done the core work, to add more exercise volume and build complementary muscles. My whole routine (leaving off the warm-up sets for brevity) looks something like:

Monday - Military Press

  • Military Press - Standard 5/3/1
  • Rear Delt Raise 15 lbs × Failure
  • Cable Upright Row 30 lbs × Failure
    Pat's suggestion was dumbbell upright rows with 25 lb weights, but my wrists don't appreciate that.
  • Bench 60% × 8 × 5 sets
  • Pullups Body Weight × 8 × 5 sets
    I do body weight pullups because I don't have a weight vest/belt available to me. Try to keep a constant rest time between sets, and go until failure on the final set.
  • DB Row 6 to 12 reps × 5 sets
    Start with an amount of weight where failure occurs in 6 to 12 reps, and decrease weight with each set, trying to keep yourself in the 6 to 12 rep range. I start with 75 pounds and work my way down in 5 pound intervals from there.

Tuesday - Parallel Squat

Start each squat day with the following:

  • Cardio 10 minutes
    If you're like me and legitimately useless at jogging, this usually means 10 minutes of walking. Take longer strides, to start loosening up your legs.
  • Foam Roll Legs and lower back
    If you've never foam rolled before, it's really relaxing. It's also a great way to limber up before/recover after a workout.
  • Dynamic Stretches
    Pat recommends DeFranco's Agile 8
  • Squat 45 lbs × 8 reps
    A standard Olympic barbell weighs ~45 lbs.

Week 1

  • Squat 65% × 5
  • Squat 75% × 5
  • Squat 85% × 5 × 5 sets
    Go to failure on the last set

Week 2

  • Squat 70% × 3
  • Squat 90% × 3
  • Squat 95% × 3
  • Squat 100% × 3
  • Squat 105% × 3
    Keep adding 5% until you can't do three full reps

Week 3

  • Squat 75% × 5
  • Squat 85% × 3
  • Squat 95% × Failure
  • Squat 85% × Failure
  • Squat 75% × Failure

End each squat day with the following:

  • Glute Ham Raises Body Weight × 8-12
  • Core work and lower back extensions
    I like to do oblique twists ("Wood Choppers"), bicycle kicks, and stability ball roll-ins, but feel free to pick your own proverbial poisons.
  • More Foam Rolling
    Still legs and lower back
  • Static Stretches
    I also like to use an inversion table at the end of my squat days, but I haven't seen those at other gyms.

Thursday - Bench Press

Week 1

  • Bench 65% × 5
  • Bench 75% × 5
  • Bench 85% × 5+
  • Bench 75% × Failure
    This is a dropset, meaning you don't take a rest between the 85% set and this one.

Week 2

  • Bench 70% × 5
  • Bench 80% × 5
  • Bench 90% × 5+
  • Bench 80% × Failure
    This is not a dropset, rest after the previous set.

End bench days on Week 1 and Week 2 with the following:

  • Press 60% × 8 × 4 sets
    Try to minimize rests here, and time them so that you ideally reach failure on the final set.
  • Rear Delt Raise 15 lbs × Failure
  • Weighted Dips Body Weight × Failure
  • Cable Upright Row 30 lbs × Failure

Week 3

Start and end your workout with the following warm ups:

  • External Rotation 10 lbs × 10 reps
  • Internal Rotation 10 lbs × 10 reps

And the rest of the day's routine is:

  • Bench 160 lbs x 3 x 10 sets
    Keep the rests between 60-90 seconds. Add 5 lbs to the 160 lb base every cycle until you can't do the full 10 sets with 60-90 second rest times.

Friday - Deadlift

  • Deadlift- Standard 5/3/1
  • Squat 50% × 8 × 5 sets
  • DB Row Failure in 4-8 reps × 2 sets
  • DB Row Failure in 4-10 reps × 2 sets
  • DB Row Failure in 6-12 reps × 2 sets
    Decrease weight with each set of rows.
  • Pullups Body Weight × Fatigue × 4 sets
    Pat suggests switching up the grip for each set and trying narrow/wide/overhand/underhand pullups.

Going Big

Since the beginning of this vehicular voyage, I've always considered it a benefit how I'm forced to be consistent in my routine. But up until recently, I didn't really have anything tangible to show for it. I mentioned I was going for a combined lift (bench, squat, deadlift) of 850 pounds, and a few weeks ago, I decided I was ready to put the rubber to the proverbial road and go for it. So I took a week off from my normal routine and replaced each day with an attempt to see how much weight I could safely lift with proper form. For that week, I ate more, slept more, stretched more, and generally did things that would put me in tip-top lifting shape. In the end, I managed the following:

Bench - 225 pounds
Squat - 295 pounds
Deadlift - 365 pounds

...for a total of 885 pounds, pleasantly past my target. It's a shame though, because much like our base 10 number system makes $10,000 appealing, it also makes 300 pounds appealing, which I was just shy of with my squat weight. Though at 5' 10" and 170 pounds, I'm happy with those numbers. Happy is different than content though, and naturally, my next goal is 900, then maybe eventually 1,000 pounds. The graph at the top is promising too, with its general upward trajectory (the fluctuations are likely because of the structure of the cycles, diet, and my sometimes non-optimal sleep schedule.)

But Why?

But Brandon, getting out of bed early in the morning and picking things up sounds awful, why would you do that to yourself?

Even if we ignore the benefits of morning exercise, the positive effects of exercise on the brain, and the link between exercise and happiness, there are still a couple of functional reasons. Firstly, there's just less going on at 5:30 in the morning, meaning that I'm way less likely to scare the ever-loving Hell out of some poor passerby when I throw open the back gate and crawl out of my tomb in the twilight. Even though I've learned to not care about people seeing me go about my truckly affairs, I'd prefer to not cause any heart-attacks.

Another big thing is that to me, progress is happiness. I plan on dedicating a whole post to it in the future, so in brief: I'm at my happiest when I'm improving at something, and with exercise it's easy to see and quantify that you're legitimately changing for the better.

The last reason I do it is simple: where else would I shower? I, like most people, prefer to go into work not looking like I just rolled out of the back of a truck. The gym has showers, and that's where I get my daily dose of post-workout de-truckification.

You could totally skip the workout and just use the shower though, duh.

I mean technically, yeah, but it just doesn't work like that on a personal level. I can't just traipse past a room full of equipment and motivated, fit human beings on my way to the showers. No, that right there is more than enough guilt and motivation (mostly guilt) to make that 2 hour pit stop in the weight room.

*Seriously though, Lemonade is a jam.

Source: I'm sure stock photos seem normal in the parallel universe they're clearly photographed in. I'll let the watermarks explain where this gem came from.

Looking at a list of unanswered questions people have sent me, I couldn't find a single reasonable thread that united any of them, save the fact that they all concern my truckly ways. They're all pretty much orthogonal in the N-dimensional space that truck questions occupy. Let's get to them.

What does your family think of your living situation?

I've kinda been doing my own thing since I was 15 or 16, and my family sort of accepts that I'll probably figure out something that works for me. That said, they naturally thought I was insane (and still likely do) when I told them about my truck idea, well over a year ago at this point. The more I explained it to them, the more I was able to convince them that I had some semblance of an idea what I was doing, for better or worse. So in short: they probably think I'm crazy, but they're impressed I haven't managed to burn the truck to the ground yet and/or get myself Very Arrested™.

What are the worst and best parts of living in your truck?

The best part is knowing that I'm building the future I want for myself. The worst part is probably not being able to cook. Not that I was good at cooking before, but I did definitely enjoy whipping up a meal for myself every once in a while. I hijacked a friend's kitchen (thanks Pragya!) to cook a Thanksgiving turkey, but I'm fairly confident that was the last time I attempted any comprehensive culinary conquest. Oh, and not being able to have any pets is also pretty sad, I'd most definitely have a canine companion if I was living in a more conventional location.

What do you do for ventilation?

As a consequence of having a rear gate that locks from the outside, I've always had to keep the door open a crack to avoid being locked in. That's provided sufficient ventilation thus far, though I also just had the sunroof installed in the back of the truck, both to provide some ambient lighting and have a more appropriate ventilation solution. Ventilation wasn't really a problem before, but the closer the source of ventilation is to where you're actually breathing, the better.

Why do you blur people's faces out in photos?

The first time was because I was (and still am) completely unaware of what the legal climate surrounding truck parties looks like, and I guess I'd also like to protect the privacy of my friends and family if at all possible. Plus, it lets me dust off my (extremely limited) Photoshop skills once in a while.

How's El Nino working out?

Initially, pretty poorly. Between the leak, and the impressively loud symphony of rain drops on a thin metal roof, the fairly frequent rain was less than friendly. But between patching up the hole and judiciously applying marine sealant to any location that looked like it might betray me at the first sign of water, the truck is in much better shape these days. I can relax and enjoy the occasional drizzle outside my office window without worrying I'm going to come home to a truck-cuzzi.

The first result for the search "truck jacuzzi", courtesy of Jalopnik

If I wanted to live in a truck, would you guide me through it, like buying the truck, insurance, and all that legal stuff?

I'd like to think I've covered most of that stuff on here, but definitely shoot me a question or email if you come up with anything I missed. I'm always happy to help people convert to the dark side get setup with a simpler, more efficient lifestyle.

Do you have a plan for when you contract a debilitating case of viral gastroenteritis?

I kinda do. My primary plan is to rely on my good health, nutrition, exercise, and sleep schedule to prevent debilitating cases of viral gastroenteritis in the first place. But if I were to find myself involuntarily returning the contents of my stomach with regular frequency, I'd probably take off work and grab a hotel room for a few days to sleep it off. Luckily, I get sick pretty infrequently and haven't had to resort to the suite life just yet. Fingers crossed.

Source: My new sunroof (flanked by my new insulation)…in all its weird, truckly glory.

Truthfully, I've been doing a pretty awful job at keeping you guys updated with what I'm actually doing, truckwise. The last time I even showed off the interior in all its shanty glory was almost a year ago. In the intervening interval since my last Home Improvement update, I've completed a few fairly large truck projects. By "large", I don't mean anything that requires any real technical competence, but certainly larger than fixing the hole or doing arts and crafts.

Insulation

Hold up, didn't you spend a whole post talking about how you didn't need to insulate the truck? What gives?

Okay okay, you caught me. I know I said it didn't make sense to insulate the truck, because it wouldn't be effective and I can just bundle up when I need to, but curiosity got the better of me after the idea was planted in my head. You might remember that I fixed the hole in the truck after receiving wonderfully detailed instructions by a pseudonymous Nancy (still from PK Safety). Well, as it turns out, Nancy also had some well-formulated ideas on how I could insulate the truck. After a modest amount of research, I decided, "What the hell, let's give it a go," and on nothing more than a whim, I started tearing apart the walls.

The wood slats I pulled off the walls, and some of the screws I had to coerce out to get the slats off.

The next step was to line the walls with insulation — Nancy suggested 3/4" rigid EPS foam sheathing. From there, the process is measure, cut, foam seal around the edges, and tape into place. Given that I had to cut about seven 2' x 7' rectangles for each of the two sides, it should have taken a few hours if I was even remotely competent with this type of stuff. But no, instead of a casual few hours of finagling the new fixtures into place, installing insulation became a four month, on-again-off-again affair that kept my truck looking like a war zone for the duration.

How could this have possibly taken you four months?

Naturally, it wasn't four months of constant work, I was only working on it on weekends for the most part, and even then, some weekends I couldn't convince myself I wanted to work on it for more than half an hour or so. The biggest deterrent/problem I encountered was a lack of space. While I have way more than enough (arguably too much) space for simply living and existing, that ceases to be true when I'm trying to cut 4' by 8' sheets of insulation and move around my bed and dresser to access different parts of the wall. So I had to work in sections, e.g. move everything to the back right corner to work on the front left. It basically felt like a giant game of this:

I spent several months playing a life-size version of Unblock Me.

How much space an individual panel takes up when I lay it down to cut it. You'll notice there isn't a ton of room left to maneuver.

Another hysterical complication (which the borderline-prophetic Nancy had warned me about), is that every time you cut into these foam panels with a switchblade, you leave a trail of little styrofoam beads in its wake. So with each and every slice, all ~46 of them, the truck would essentially become a giant snow globe, and even the gentlest of breezes would spin a snowstorm into existence. Not wanting to litter the outside world with these onslaughts of artificial dandruff, I put a plank of wood across the entrance and swept the tiny nuisances away into a trash bag after every few cuts.

What it felt like being in the truck for those four months. I was basically Homeless Snow White™*.

The Final Result

When all was said and done, it didn't look all that bad. I mean sure, it looks like I live in a hobo's spaceship with the shiny tinfoil coating, but at this point we're all painfully aware of how little I care about aesthetics.

I'm intentionally only showing you the right wall, because I did the left wall first and it looks significantly more shoddy. Also, notice the far more appropriate/less disastrous usage of "Great Stuff" expanding foam this time around.

I haven't actually noticed if the truck retains heat any better (or worse) since adding the insulation, it hasn't been cold (or hot) enough to tell. In any case, it was certainly a learning experience, and a great exercise in what I can do with the truck if I'm feeling particularly bored inspired.

Skylight!

Yeah yeah, I know it's technically called a "sunroof", but this is my home and I'll call it whatever I gosh-darn/damn-well please. Anyway, way back when I first got the truck, I mentioned the possibility of getting a skylight. Cutting gaping holes in the truck is well-outside my truck-modification comfort zone though, so I opted to bring in the professionals over at Happy Vans, who did the wonderful job pictured at the top. I've noticed far better air circulation/ventilation over the past few weeks, and it's nice waking up to a truck-full of sunshine on the weekends. The eventual goal is to cut a door between the cab and the back, so that I can actually lock the rear gate at night instead of keeping it cracked open and "locked" with vice grips. Happy Vans will probably be the ones doing that particular project as well.

The only modification I made was attaching some metal screen door mesh with a few neodymium magnets, to keep pests out.

Bike Rack (Redux)

This post is already long enough, and I've already spoken on what goes into building a truck-bike-rack, so here's a not-so-pretty picture of the reassembled bike rack:

Also pictured: the power drill that I bought after getting tired of driving screws into sheet metal and various other obstinate materials with a screwdriver.

*Or Elsa, if you're more about that Frozen life.

Source: An illustration from The Finance Buff on how a Mega Backdoor Roth IRA works.

This post is less about the "trucks" and more about the "tax-advantaged accounts", which hopefully won't offend too many sensibilities. I just figured it's been a while since I last forayed in my financials, and the several ensuing months have seen some modifications to the plan. The biggest of these modifications is that I added a new tool to my early retirement arsenal: the Mega Backdoor Roth.

The Mega Backdoor what?

The Mega Backdoor Roth. I'm no CPA or CFP, or any other fancy three-letter money-managing acronym for that matter, so check here or the other two links above for a more thorough, accurate explanation. The gist of it is that the IRS overall limit on contributions to retirement accounts is $53,000, meaning you can contribute to more than just a 401k. I've mentioned in the past that I'm putting the maximum $18,000 into my 401k, and I'm being matched an additional $9,000 by my employer. That leaves $53,000 - ($18,000 + $9,000) = $26,000 to contribute to other tax-advantaged accounts. Income limits stop me from contributing directly to a Roth IRA, and even if I could, the max contribution via that regulatory avenue is $5,500. Thus, the process for getting that $26,000 into a Roth IRA is as follows:

  1. You add a paycheck deduction to contribute after-tax money to a 401k.* This doesn't actually sound all the useful, and on its own it really isn't. You're being taxed on the money before you put it in, and since it's a 401k, you'll be taxed on it when you take it out, so it functions like a non-tax-advantaged contribution at this point. The real magic happens in the next step.
  2. Every time a paycheck contribution comes in, you roll the after-tax portion over into an out-of-plan Roth IRA.** At this point, you pay taxes on the capital gains you've earned on the contribution, which should be on the order of zero dollars and zero cents since it's only been sitting in there a day or two and the stock market isn't some magical money-printing machine, at least for a plebeian like me.
  3. Wait for the rollover to go through and clear, then invest it in whatever funds tickle your fancy.

The benefit of doing this is that, because it's a Roth IRA, you don't pay taxes when you take it out. The caveat is that, because this is a Roth IRA, you can't take the money out until you're 59.5 years old, barring a few exceptions like for buying a first home. You can however take out the principal whenever you want, if you find yourself in a pinch. This isn't something I was utilizing last year, partly because my paycheck would have been negative and partly because I had no idea how any of this worked. Luckily, I was clued in by a friend (thanks Mike!), and I've since received a bunch of comments/e-mails with similar tidbits of information. Unfortunately, the backdoor Roth isn't available in everyone's plan (your plan needs to support after-tax 401k contributions, among other things), and Vanguard didn't even support it except over the phone until last year.

Deductions Redux

Grab a glass of water, because this post is about to get even drier, as we dive into the wonderful and exciting world of paycheck deductions. I've made a few tweaks since last time, because now my contributions are spread out over the full year instead of the six months I worked last year. Doing some hardcore basic algebra:

  • 401k - In my infinite wisdom, I forgot to update my 401k contribution from the $1,200/paycheck I was doing last year, and continued to not realize it for a few pay cycles, so my contribution per paycheck is now ($18,000 - $1,200 * 2)/24 = $650/paycheck.
  • HSA - My employer still puts $800 into my HSA each year and an additional $200 when I get my physical, so my contribution there is ($3,350 - ($800 + $200))/26 = $90.38/paycheck.
  • Roth IRA - I didn't pull my act together and figure out the backdoor Roth stuff until after my first few paychecks of the year, so I'm currently contributing $26,000/24 = $1,083/paycheck.

After all is said and done, my take-home pay is ~$2,000 a month. In the Bay Area, that would hardly cover rent and basic livings expenses…if I had them. It's a nice reminder that my lifestyle really is accelerating my ability to build the future I want, at no (or maybe even a negative) cost to my happiness. I truly am fortunate to be in the position I am.

Balancing the Books

Okay, so we've crunched the numbers and know how much money is going into these accounts, but what happens once it gets there? Well it's at the mercy of the stock market, of course. I'm no day-trader, so the daily/seemingly arbitrary fluctuations in stocks and funds don't have any real impact on me. I'm it it for the long haul, and I'd like to think that the intrinsic value of the companies represented by the funds I invest in will increase over the course of the next ten years. So for now, the change in my investments doesn't mean much to me. That said, I've been doing this eight months or so at this point, which has been enough time to see some small gains. My brokerage account, which I was putting more into before I started utilizing the backdoor Roth, currently has unrealized gains (because I haven't cashed out yet) of ~$350. The Roth IRA, which I've only been contributing to this year, has unrealized gains of ~$200. According to Health Equity, my HSA investments have appreciated 4.2%, which is ~$200 of growth. In the same period of time, my student loans (which are paid ahead until 2019 and I've been more or less ignoring), have only accrued about ~$226 in interest, so the investments are indeed worth paying off the loans ever so slightly more slowly.

Aside from having to roll over the after-tax 401k money into the Roth IRA, my finances are pretty much on auto-pilot. All of the aforementioned accounts are set to reinvest the dividends as they come in, so those earnings will keep compounding as I put in more money and time goes on. This is nice because it means that I don't even have to think about investing or worry about too much money accumulating in my checking account and fighting in a losing battle with inflation (not that that's actually something to "worry" about anyway).

Talking to an actual CFP

One lovely feature of my employer's plan is that we can schedule appointments with a Vanguard Certified Financial Planner. This is great because my background in finance consists entirely of a handful of Google searches and I occasionally worry I have no idea what I'm doing. I'd consider this to be a problem because I'm throwing 90% of my money (and thus time) into what might as well be a black hole of legislation and taxation, with the expectation that my sacrificial offerings will magically generate financial independence ten years from now. So on Friday (aka yesterday) at 7:45 am, I spoke with a pleasant chap named Bob, who pored over my finances and listened to my early retirement goals. After some thoughtful consideration, he gave me a few pointers.

The gist of the conversation was that my current strategy (maxing out the 401k, HSA, and Roth IRA) is good, though as my total investment grows, he'd like to see more investments in small/medium cap businesses and some international funds. Once my stock grant vests (and subsequently sells) sometime next month, I'll be grabbing some combination of VTIAX, VTI, and VO. Bob also suggested converting some (10-20%) of my investments to California Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund Admiral Shares as I near my early retirement date, which seems pretty reasonable to me. After a discussion about my travel plans, he voiced some concern about my ability to get/pay for health insurance while travelling internationally, though after a bit of research it appears I can actually use my HSA to fund that, which is a nice touch. Having some reassurance from a Professional Adult™ that my future plans are feasible and not totally insane definitely upped my confidence regarding this whole ill-defined "growing up" thing.

*On Vanguard's website, you can change your deductions by going to Employer plans > Manage my money > Change my paycheck deduction.

**On Vanguard's website, you can do this by going to Employer plans > Manage my money > Manage my loans and withdrawals > Withdrawal