Thoughts from Inside the Box

Because home is where the heart is you park it.

Source: Calendar from ClipArtix, truck still from Clker. Slapping them together done by me, a weak first attempt at using Adobe Illustrator.

Staying true to my well-documented inability to write timely posts, here's a post that I probably should have finished three months ago.

I wasn't always the truck-faring degenerate that I am now. Reading some of my earlier posts, I can vividly remember a (roughly four percent) younger, more hesitant Brandon, sitting in an airport terminal, running through the plan over and over in his head, making sure he didn't miss any important details. I'd picked out a class of vehicle, I'd picked out a place to get my private mailbox through, I'd scoped out parking locations. It was all there, I just had to go out and do it. I had some ideas about what truck-life would be like, but no experience to say whether or not my trepidation was justified.

It's hard to believe, at least for me, but I recently celebrated my one-year truckiversary. One whole year. Inside the box. Just a man and his moving truck. And somehow (even in spite of my last post), I managed to survive it without being arrested, abducted, robbed, murdered, or otherwise maimed in some bizarre truck-related incident. Not to say that the intervening year has been a quiet one. On the contrary, it's been pretty eventful. Between surviving my first night, a host of Home Improvement projects, planning the future, my eventual eviction, and all the pseudo-philosophizing along the way, I've been busy.

To celebrate the milestone, I thought it'd be interesting to go back to one of my first posts where I weighed out the pros and cons of adopting my truckly ways, and see how right (or wrong) I was. For your convenience, my dearest reader, I'll quote each pro/con from the original post here.

Pros

  • Money Savings. Even sharing bedrooms, rent in the Bay area is going to cost at least $1,000 a month. That's a bare minimum, it doesn't include utilities or anything else. It's $12,000+ a year that I'm practically just burning. No return, no equity, just gone.

This one definitely held up. Whether it was paying off my student loans or utilizing tax-advantaged accounts, the truck definitely gave me some financial flexibility. What I didn't realize at the time was the different ways those savings would compound. Not only do I get to invest all of that redirected rent money, but I get to invest all the money I'm not spending on furniture, and utilities, and buying food just so my refrigerator doesn't get lonely. Sure, now I spend money on weird truck-improvement projects, but those are comparatively cheap and I usually end up learning something too.

  • Life Experience. I've never truly stepped outside my comfort zone. After living in California for a summer, I realized just how little of the world I've actually seen. If I do plan on travelling the world, I'll need to be comfortable with unconventional living situations, and this is certainly a good place to start. Plus, there is never going to be a better time in my life for me to try this. I'm young, flexible, and I don't have to worry about this decision affecting anyone else in my life.

This one was also spot on. Up until last year, I felt like my life had been pretty tame. I felt like I was following the prescribed course, the one laid out in front of me. You know the one: work hard in high school to get into a good college. Work hard in college to get a good job. Work hard at your job so you can fill your suburban home with stuff you don't need to impress people who don't care. Retire, then figure out what you want to do. I know, I've said all this before. It's true though. And it's also true, I was passively barreling down that exact path, right up to the "fill your suburban home with stuff" part. That's where it kinda lost its appeal for me.

I'm glad to say that the truck has definitely broadened my horizons. I can think of a handful of times where my justification for doing something crazy was, "Hell, I already live in a truck, why not?" Now that my comfort zone can be summed up as "anything that won't definitely kill me", I'm much more open to experiencing everything the world has to offer.

  • Transportation and Proximity. Having a car is very much a necessity, and by living in it on campus, I can cut my commute down to a few seconds instead of hours, which means I can spend my time more productively. Plus, I hate traffic, and my company's 25,000+ employees ensure that there is a whole lot of it in the morning and evening hours.

This actually isn't as big of a deal as a I thought it would be. Since I wake up so early, I wouldn't really deal with traffic even if I was living in an apartment a town or two away. That said, I'd like to think I'm saving resources by not having heating/cooling/electricity and minimizing my driving. I'm no Captain Planet, but it doesn't hurt to do your part.

  • Health Benefits. If I'm living in a van, I have no choice but to go to the gym on campus to shower, so living in a van provides me with a strict daily regimen. In a similar vein, since I'm eating all my meals at work, it means my diet will be organized into three meals a day during the week, without any late-night snacking.

This feels about right, though I might have been a little overly optimistic. I usually exercise 6-7 days a week, but my "strict daily regimen" isn't quite the army drill I made it out to be. I definitely snack a bit at work. I go out to the bar with my friends on occasion, and usually end up dragging myself to the gym an hour behind schedule the next day.

I guess there is a small sorta health-related downside I didn't consider though. I don't get sick very often, but when I do, it's tempting to blame the truck. If I have a sore throat, I'll catch myself thinking "maybe there isn't enough ventilation in the truck", or if I have a runny nose it's something like "maybe the truck is too dusty". I have no way to prove whether or not these things are true, but the fact of the matter is I still get sick less frequently than I did when I lived in an apartment, so even if the truck is occasionally striking down my immune system, it's not often enough to be an issue.

Cons

  • Social Suicide. I will most certainly be "That Guy". No amount of planning or forethought excuses the fact that I'm the psychopath living in a van in the parking lot. People will eventually find out, and it will affect my social life.

This one goes both ways. I was right, people definitely found out. But I was also wrong, too, because I thought it would affect my social life for the worse. Instead, I've been meeting up with like-minded mobile home enthusiasts and I'm more likely to take impromptu trips with friends. Speaking of friends though, mine have no problem filling lulls in conversation by talking about how I'm "the truck guy". And the response I get, without fail, is always, "Oh you're that guy?!"

  • Inconvenience. Living in a car is not convenient. There's no bathroom, shower, or refrigerator in a reasonable distance.

This one ended up being a bit overblown. I don't know if I have superhuman bladder muscles or what, but I've never found myself running to a bathroom at two in the morning or anything ridiculous like that. And as a consequence of my routine, I don't end up missing the lack of shower either, gyms have more than handled that one for me. As for refrigerators, the only reason I could possibly want one is to bring home leftovers after going out for dinner, but I'm a human garbage disposal and my plate is always licked spotless by the end of a meal, so that's a moot point.

  • Stress and Anxiety. The whole process is supremely stressful. Picking out a van, buying it, converting my license, getting insurance, all without a car and all before I've even started working and making money is a lot to deal with. Not to mention the illegality of most of it. Then once all of those things are out of the way, I'm still pretty anxious about being caught, and how I'm going to sneak into and out of my van.

The initial process was stressful, and reading this over I can feel my blood pressure rising at the thought of those early days. I don't worry about being caught anymore. For one, I found out that it is actually legal to sleep in your car where I live, as long as the car is legally parked. For two, I've been doing it so long that it doesn't really phase me anymore, which I talked about a bit in this post. Hell, just last weekend I hopped out of the back of the truck in the middle of the night because there were a bunch of kids sitting on my tailgate. They were talking about tagging up the side of my home and I wanted to let them know that I'm the only one who does any truck decorating. The look on their faces was totally priceless.

  • Upfront Expenses. At least with renting an apartment, I'd be paying gradually, without too much upfront cost. But between buying the car, buying insurance, fixing the car, setting it up, and the taxes and fees on top of all those things, it's a pretty big financial burden for someone who hasn't even started working yet.

It's true, the cost of the truck would have cut my student loans in half if I had spent the money on that instead. However, it's more likely I'd have been using at least a few thousand dollars to pay for a security deposit and a few months rent when trying to land an apartment. At the time, it seemed like I was signing my life away for this box truck, but after a few paychecks it didn't matter anymore.

  • Good luck getting laid. Interestingly enough, it was my mom who asked me about this one. I can only imagine that it's going to be next to impossible to get laid when I'm the van guy. Sure, I can get a hotel for the night, but it's still strange and I still have a bit of explaining and convincing to do. Since I'm not nearly smooth enough for that, I've accepted the fact that I'm going to be celibate for the next who knows how long.

People have always been uncomfortably curious about this one, so I'm sure my continued silence will be disappointing to some. But as it is, my life is not an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. And I can pretty confidently say that I don't want it to become one, either.

I've said before (and will say again now): I'm consistently surprised at how receptive people are to the lifestyle I've chosen. At the very least, very few people treat me like the trailer park-reject I thought I was going to be seen as. Because of how expensive it is to live out here, my housing situation comes up more often than not in casual conversation, even without any coaxing from me. It normally leads to some genuinely interesting conversations around goals and priorities.

Summing it up

Overall, I like to think the truck has changed me for the better. I'm certainly more cognizant of my tendencies to judge, of my work-life balance, and of what simplicity means to me. And looking back over my list, it's good to see I was more wrong about the "Cons" than anything else. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I would change if I did it all again, and I usually don't come up with much. In fact, if I could go back in time and give my younger self advice, right when his plane had just landed in California, I'd really only have one thing to say: try a smaller truck.

Before I say anything else, let me be clear: this isn't me making up some spooky story, this actually happened to me this morning, Monday August 1st, at 6 am.

I had a series of strange dreams about spies and nuclear war last night. Pretty dramatic, but I have weird dreams all the time. The problem is that things got weirder after I woke up. First, I noticed a bitter taste in my mouth that I have no explanation for. I ate nothing strange last night and washed up using the same products I've been using for as long as I care to remember. That's not a big deal though. What is a big deal is this:

In case it's hard to tell, that's a muddied footprint on my sunroof, which I had installed a few months ago. Half-awake, I wanted to think it was literally anything else. Maybe a bird had dropped a fish or something and it had left that mark. Maybe it was just the imprint of a weird leaf. Highly unlikely (bordering on nonsensical), but I really desperately wanted to believe it wasn't a footprint. Unfortunately, I walked outside and proceeded to find this:


I took pictures like I was cataloging a damned crime scene, because I practically was.

Unfortunately, that confirms my fears pretty concretely. Someone left a trail of hand and footprints as they climbed their way onto the roof of the truck while I was sleeping last night. It's also pretty obvious that I desperately need to wash the truck, but I'm glad I didn't in this one specific instance, because if the truck was clean, the footprints wouldn't have been so visible.

Searching For Answers

I don't remember much out of the ordinary from last night. Sounds from cars leaving a nearby concert, maybe some kids hanging around and talking. The strangest thing I heard was a cop talking to someone and asking what they were doing. I don't know if the person was in a car or not, but the cop asked them for their license. They were slow to respond and seemed confused. I don't remember much else because I was half asleep, but I've never heard of cops hanging around this area, so it's pretty curious that they were there in the first place. While I was taking the above pictures, I noticed a man standing next to his car maybe 50 feet away. I asked him if he saw anything, but he didn't speak much English. I showed him the footprints on the truck and motioned to my feet to try to convey what had happened. He showed me the bottom of his shoes (which had a totally different pattern than the marks on the truck) and said he didn't know anything. Oh, and I checked all of my own shoes to see if the pattern matched, in case I had been sleep-walking or something (couldn't rule anything out). As expected, no match there either.

And that's all I have, leaving me with far more questions than answers. First and foremost:

How the hell did I not wake up? I didn't have ear plugs in and I'm a pretty light sleeper. Usually a person talking or a gust of wind is enough to stir me into something nearing consciousness. The movement of someone jumping onto the truck and walking directly above me should have woken me up, and the truck must have groaned and creaked loudly when they got onto the roof, which isn't meant to support anything nearing the weight of a person.

Why did they leave a footprint on the sunroof too? They couldn't have possibly stood on it, it's slippery, slanted, and has small plastic pieces that would have broken trying to support their weight. That means (barring any better explanations that escape me) they pressed their foot against the sunroof just to leave the print. If I hadn't seen that one, it's unlikely I'd have found the other footprints on the hood and cab.

And what were they even doing up there? Were they watching me sleep? Were they looking for something? I don't even know what they would have seen looking down into the truck. I was sleeping directly under the sunroof and I get the heebie-jeebies thinking about waking up in the middle of the night to see someone looking down at me. I'm not even sure if they'd be able to see me, there's no light in the truck and very little coming in from outside, most of which they'd be blocking with their body, plus the sunroof has a pretty heavy tint on it. Unless they had a flashlight, I don't know if they'd have seen much. I couldn't get any pictures of the roof, because I was unwilling to climb up there myself, but I did pull myself up so I could peek onto the roof. I didn't see any footprints towards the back, so they didn't walk around once they were up there. Maybe it was just some bored kid with a short attention span trying to get a better vantage point. Maybe they were looking for something to steal, and were trying to "case" the truck. If they were, I have bad news for them: I don't really have anything of value in there. In fact, if I came back to the truck to find every single thing missing, it'd hardly change my plans for the day.

I feel like I'm in the world's worst rendition of Cinderella, where the glass slipper has been replaced with a muddy sneaker print, and my Cinderella is a creepy dude who watches people in the middle of the night.

Source: Great Lakes, my loan servicer. Paying off your student loans is apparently such a big deal these days that they literally fill the page with confetti when you manage it.

Student loan debt is, uh…a problem in the good ole US of A, to say the least. It has passed credit cards for the number two spot on the list of "biggest things holding American wallets hostage," behind only mortgages at this point. When millennials wake up in a cold sweat in the dead of night, filled with a deep, overwhelming, and existential sense of dread, it's probably because student loans are haunting their dreams. Okay, hopefully it's not that bad, but it's no wonder student loans get a bad rap, with millions of The Indebted™ buckling in for the long haul, getting ready to work and whittle at the loans for the next decade (or more).*

Looking back through my posts, it's clear I've been pretty active in trying to take my own personal student loan blackhole down a notch (or twenty thousand). Hell, it was one of my inspirations for trying to live more simply; I figured that the sooner I got this cap-and-gown-wearing monkey off my back, the sooner I'd have the financial flexibility to branch out and explore.

Personally, I think a cap-and-gown-wearing monkey is a great metaphor for student loan debt. It's also just adorable.

Indefinitely borrowed from this blog.


I'm happy to say that, as of June 7th, I've officially paid my student loans in full. What follows is my account of everything that made it possible.

My Story

I didn't grow up particularly wealthy. I didn't grow up particularly poor either. "Decidedly Middle Class" is what I'd call it, if you asked me. I'm fortunate enough to have two parents who love me dearly, even if they gave up on each other a long time ago. I never had a college fund, just some Bar Mitzvah money that disappeared with my parents' marriage and my childhood home. Never figured out what happened to the money, but I got this really great shirt when my Dad came back from Las Vegas.**

Anyway, when it came time to apply to colleges, my guidance councilors basically told me the sky was the limit. Accepting their advice with a little too much fresh-faced optimism, I applied to Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, Frank W. Olin, Harvey Mudd, MIT, Stanford, and Yale, in no particular order. Oh, and I applied to UMass Amherst too, almost as an afterthought. They didn't require an extra essay and they waived the application fee, so I figured why not?



I got denied from every single school



...except for UMass.



I wasn't outright denied from all those schools. Some of them waitlisted me first, and then promptly denied me once a more-qualified applicant accepted. I'd argue that this was actually worse. In retrospect, I was definitely a bit too idealistic. Sure, I had good grades, but I wasn't exactly a seven-sport athlete who had cured cancer by the age of four, which feels like the bare minimum these days in the increasingly ridiculous rat race of college admissions. It probably didn't help that my high school is ranked 226th in the state of Massachusetts (at least according to some random website I found). Anyway, the whole experience was wholly ego-crippling for 18-year old Brandon, who didn't realize the blessing in disguise that had been handed to him.

Here's the quite literal deal: UMass Amherst is a state school, and a good state school at that. It's also a Massachusetts state school. And 18-year old Brandon was a Massachusetts resident. This means he could go to school there for over $16,000 less each year than his out-of-state counterparts. This is a nice discount on a school that was already only half the price of the next priciest school he applied to. Further, Brandon's state test scores from like, middle school, qualified him for a state scholarship that covered all tuition for four years.

Wait what, free tuition for your whole college career? That sounds way too good to be true. Also, stop talking in third-person.

It's totally way too good to be true. Tuition is free, but state schools redefine tuition to be a small chunk of the cost of attendance. Still, an $857 discount per semester is icing on the already heavily-discounted cake. And so we're off to a good start.

Onwards, to College

My FAFSA made it clear I'd still be paying a few grand out of pocket each semester (because I was Decidedly Middle Class™ and all). So I applied for the highest-paying job on campus I could find: driving buses. I got the job and started training a few weeks into my college career. I set up a payment plan with the school every semester. I checked the loans I was taking every year and declined them when I thought I could pay the difference, especially when they were unsubsidized. I applied for every scholarship that seemed vaguely relevant. I eventually started developing software systems for the bus company and learned how to build pretty legit web apps. I took that knowledge and used it to do some independent contract-work. I graded Computer Science classes on the side. I paid down the compounding student loan interest whenever I had some extra money.

Driving a bus for perhaps the last time, to my own graduation. As is tradition.

Paying It Back

The party is over. It's June 2015 and I've graduated college. I shook some hands, hopped off the stage, threw my cap-and-gown aside, and hopped on a plane. At this point, I've already purchased and moved into The Box and settled into a nice routine. It's time to face the facts and figure out my finances. My loans have a six-month grace period before I have to start paying them, but since they've been compounding interest the entire time (including some of the subsidized ones as I found out, much to my chagrin), I figure I'll get started right away. Step one is figuring out how much I owe, and who I owe it to. You'd think this would be the simple part, but with all the emails and exit interviews and papers to sign and forms to fill out, it's easy to lose track. I didn't have any private/third-party loans, but I can only imagine it being that much more confusing.

Type Interest Rate Amount
Subsidized Stafford 3.4% $10,000
Subsidized Stafford 3.86% $4,292.50
Subsidized Stafford 4.66% $4,635
Federal Perkins 5% $1,000
Unsubsidized Stafford 6.8% $2,000

After all was said and done, I graduated college with $21,927.50 of debt. A large chunk of change to be sure, but that's not even half a year's tuition at a lot of brand-name schools, so I consider myself fortunate in that regard. I had already paid an additional $27,915.50 out of pocket during my four years, and another $772.29 went to interest. In total, my college education cost me $50,615.29.

My loan balances with respect to time. The large dips generally correspond to stock grants and bonuses.

Once I started working, paying the loans down became a game. Since my monthly expenses were (and still are, for that matter) virtually nil, what wasn't going into tax-advantaged accounts was split between my investment portfolio (75% VTI, 25% VXUS) and loans, in a ratio that changed depending on my mood and desire to see the debt graph (pictured above) head south. I funneled bonuses and stock grants to the cause, which correspond to the larger dips on the chart.

Lessons Learned

I'm incredibly fortunate in that I was able to pay off my debts in a relatively short period of time. Ironically, the largest factor that enabled me to do so was basically out of my control. At 18 years old, I would have chosen any other college on my list, had any of them accepted me. Given that they'd all have been at least twice the price, it follows that it'd have taken me twice as long (or longer). Worse still, I can't see how it would have been any better for me in the long run. It's easy for me to say this now, but I believe that you'll get out of school whatever you're willing to put into it, regardless of the brand name (and accompanying price tag).

After that initial decision of where to go, it really just comes down to looking your debt in the face and knowing everything about it. Who are the loans with? What interest rates do they have? Do they accumulate interest while you're in school? When do their grace periods end? How much will the monthly payment be? Which payment plan options do they offer? How much can you afford to pay? Are there any debt forgiveness programs for your profession? The more you know about the enemy, the more manageable they are.

As a parting note, though this post isn't all that timely given that I paid off my loans almost two months ago, it is timely because my more-symbolic-than-actually-to-be-taken-seriously savings clock has nearly reached the total volume of student debt I started with. So my (very approximate) rent savings alone nearly paid for my education. There's probably some more meaningful, deeply symbolic message to be extracted from that, but I'll leave that as an exercise to the reader.

*More info about the state of student loan debt in the US can be found here.

**I'm not bitter though. If I had had a college fund and hadn't had to work through college, I wouldn't have landed the jobs that gave me the experience that prepared me for my current (dream) job. There's always an upside.

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.