Source: The (tentative) poster design for my on-demand moving company.
Also, I bought royalty-free rights to a repository of icons, so expect a little less attribution in the future when I make my Frankenphotos.

I knew embarrassingly little about The Box™ when I bought it. I spent weeks obsessing over what kind of vehicle I wanted, but I purchased my current home of two years after only an hour or so of looking it over.

For example: I had the truck for nearly a month before I figured out it used to be a moving truck. More specifically, it used to be a Budget truck, and I just had no idea. I only found out by chance observation; if you look closely, you can still see the faded "Budget" logo, forever etched into the truck. Let me show you, with the help of my good friend science:


We start with a picture of the truck.

Then, we enhance the photo.

Enhance further.

Keep enhance-ing.

Very…nice. Now, we apply a binary low-pass reverse-osmotic filter.

Preheat oven to 350°. Build a Visual Basic GUI. Dash of paprika.

Utilize RBF back-propagation through inverse big data dimensionality reduction.

Boom. It appears to be the Budget logo.

Science aside, this isn't particularly shocking: most truck rental companies sell their moving trucks once they're done with them. Mine just went through a few more hands before it got to me.

I swear I have a reason for dredging up the truck's humble, Budget-y origins once again. The truck and I have helped heft, hoist, and haul people's junk around on no less than ten separate occasions. For somewhat obvious reasons, I haven't had to move at all since I relocated to California. I mean, I guess it depends on how you think about it. Sure, I've never had to pick up my stuff and move it to a new place, but every time I go get gas I'm hauling all of my belongings with me. Home is where I park it, after all.

On to the part I want to talk about: for at least seven or eight of those moves, I actually offered to help schlep stuff around. No prompting or anything. They mention they're moving, I offer my truck and services. As weird as it sounds, I legitimately enjoy helping people move, and that's what I'll spend the rest of this post discussing (both for my own bemusement and to try and indoctrinate you, dear reader, to do the same).

Good Exercise

This one's probably the most obvious. Moving is a great way to put all of those squats and deadlifts to good use. Lifting from your legs, maintaining a neutral lower back, keeping your core tight — all just as applicable for moving as they are for lifting. The more stuff someone has to move, the more intense and effective your workout gets. And this isn't your Dad's workout, it's much more dynamic than any boring old routine you can do in the gym. It's a full-on functional workout. It'll hit your posterior chain like a freight train. Worried you aren't working your stabilizer muscles enough? Carry a bunch of rickety furniture down a few flights of stairs and you'll be sore in muscles you didn't know you had. The muscular pump you get after a few hours of moving Ikea sofas around is a reward all its own.

Smug Self-Satisfaction

Wow, I have a lot of stuff.

-Pretty much everyone I've helped move, ever

I hear some variation of the above quote, without fail, every time I help someone move. And it makes sense, right? You never really acknowledge how much stuff you have until you have to shuffle it through a labyrinth of hallways and elevators. Step by sweaty step. Box by bloody box. Taking part in that experience is another one of the benefits for me, because it reminds me how glad I am to have so little. I love that I don't have box after box of who-knows-what packed away in my garage, because I don't need those things and I don't have a garage. It's kind of like my Couch Conundrum, just because I can have something doesn't mean I should. So I end up feeling more grateful for just how good and easy my life is after each move.

Being a Decent Person

Moving is one of those activities that people seem to legitimately dread. Maybe it's the prospect of attempting to tame and pack the always-growing piles of dusty knickknacks. Maybe it's the fear of trying to pick up the old bulky television that hasn't been moved since the Reagan administration. Maybe they just aren't looking forward to shelling out money for a truck or professional movers. For one reason or another, most people aren't overjoyed at the idea of hauling all their belongings from Point A to Point B. So if a someone mentions they're moving sometime in the future, offering your services might relieve a bit of their moving-related stress. In my experience, people seem to genuinely appreciate it. Helping people move has turned a few coworkers and "friends of friends" into friends — the bond created by a formidable move is not soon broken.

Free Food

You know what's really satisfying after a few hours of moving heavy stuff around? A hearty meal.

You know what's even better than that? Not having to pay for it.

While I'll always outright decline payment for helping people move, I'll gladly accept a post-move meal. Post-move meals are among the greatest small pleasures one can experience in life. Think about it: you're hungry, you're sweaty, you're sore, what could be a more perfect remedy than free, delicious food with friends? Food is good, the satisfaction of a job well done is good, and combining those is just the bee's knees.

The Way It Was Meant To Be

Plainly and simply: hauling crap around is the truck's God-intended manufacturer-intended purpose. The truck was made to roam the open highways, full of useless garbage packed into equally useless plastic bins, and it just wouldn't be right of me to deprive it of that joy. This magnificent piece of machinery was meant to meander down microscopic suburban side streets, narrowly dodging low-hanging branches and awkwardly parked minivans. And who am I to deny the truck its God-given manufacturer-given destiny?

Really Bad Jokes

If nothing else, I get to make the same terrible dad joke every time I help someone move. As we pack their boxes and floor lamps and TVs into the truck, alongside my bed and dresser, I'll say something stupid like, "Looks like we're moving in together, I didn't realize it would get this serious so quickly." And they'll chuckle halfheartedly, quietly wondering why they didn't just hire a professional mover.

Source: From 360 Logica, pretty much the first result when I searched "Web 2.0". It has virtually nothing to do with this post.

If this is your first time visiting the blog (or you use an RSS reader), this post won't really make a ton of sense. But the veteran Box Truck Buffs might notice that the site looks quite a bit different today. For reference, the old site:

The old layout, in all of its Bootstrap-laden goodness. May it rest in sweet responsive peace.

With the truck getting a makeover, I figured it was just about time the blog did the same. Over the past few months, I've been working on the redesign haphazardly and in random bursts whenever the mood strikes me, and I think it's ready (or close enough) for prime time. But why even redesign the blog in the first place?

In the Beginning

When I first "designed" the blog, I had just moved out to California and was juggling buying the truck, getting all my paperwork in order, starting a new job, and a bunch of other random things. With all that on my plate, I didn't have a ton of time to spend on building the blog. And since I hate CSS with a fiery, burning passion, I spent the vast majority of my time working on the backend. What all of this meant is that I basically slapped some Bootstrap on the frontend and stole utilized the Bootstrap blog template, more or less unaltered. Aside from a few minor tweaks and additions over the past two years, the layout of the blog hadn't changed all that much.

But it always kind of bothered me just how bland and uninteresting the blog looked. And at the risk of sounding like a self-involved faux-philosophical starving artist-type, I wanted the blog to look more like a reflection of my own ideals, mainly simplicity and minimalism. Not that the previous design was particularly ornate, but it didn't look anything like it would have if I'd made it from scratch.

Making it from Scratch

The first thing I did was delete the Bootstrap CSS and JavaScript, which are over-engineered for my needs anyway. Then I spent a few months attempting to do and redo the site in a variety of CSS frameworks. It turns out there are quite a few to choose from, each with their own set of features, benefits, and drawbacks. Personally, I just wanted something basic: a CSS Reset, a grid, and maybe some consistent form and button stylings. Eventually, I settled on Skeleton, which was pretty simple and straight-forward. I didn't realize that it hadn't been updated since 2014 until I was already in too deep. Oh well. The world of frontend development moves nauseatingly fast.

What Actually Changed?

Death of the Savings Clock

The Savings Clock was one of the first things I added to the site. It served as a symbol for my progress, and gave me some fun milestones to watch for. It did a good job of showcasing how ridiculous rent prices in the Bay can be — for example, I had saved more than the total cost of my student loans after only a year.

But it had some problems too. For one, it wasn't accurate, and it never could be. There are just too many dynamic factors to consider (rent price, insurance costs, depreciation, etc), so the numbers mean less and less over time. On top of that, having a savings clock doesn't send the message I'm trying to get across. An always-ticking money counter on the side of the blog says, "Hey, I'm forcing myself to live in a truck because I'm some sort of Mega Scrooge™, look at the fruits of my unrivaled cheapness and mental instability." As I've surely beat to death in other posts, that's not what this is about.

Anyway, as a part of the redesign, the savings clock has kicked the (Bit)bucket. It served its purpose admirably, but its days of countin' are done.

"About Me" Page

As it turns out, I'd never actually explained anything about who I am, except in little random tidbits disbursed across a hundred or so posts. Not very accessible. I figured a brief intro wouldn't hurt, so, it's hiding under the "About" section at the top.

"Ask A Question" Page

I've long had a place for people to ask questions, which is great. But I get the same set of ~10 or so questions over and over again, which is less great. So I added a short FAQ with answers to a few of those common questions, and strategically moved the question box over there. If I'm lucky, maybe people will stop asking "Where do you go to the bathroom?" with the same frequency I actually go to the bathroom.

The Little Things

While Bootstrap is built to be responsive, I hadn't done anything special for the mobile-version of the site before. This time around, I made sure I was paying attention to all of the little stuff that gets annoying on mobile. Hopefully this new site makes good use of screen real estate on mobile, without being too crowded.

A small feature people had asked for was the ability to view higher-resolution versions of inline images in posts. Now, you can click on images to "zoom" in, though I make no guarantees on how well this actually works.

What's Next

Webpack

Not only is Webpack a useful tool, it has a cool and trendy logo, too.

Webpack is a technology I'd like to add to the mix at some point. Basically, it takes all of the assets in a site (JS, CSS, Images) and smooshes them into one file for each type, nicely minified and stuff. Removing Bootstrap was a good start, loading the post index now requires 11 requests and 81 KB, where it used to take 16 requests and 184 KB. Webpack and gzip can likely shrink that way further.

Comments

I've mentioned this before, but I'd really like to add comments to the site and allow for some discussion. I have a working integration with Disqus, but I'm considering rolling my own solution, for maximum flexibility and minimal external dependencies.

RSS/SEO Improvements

While the RSS feed works, it's not as fully-featured as it could be, particularly around things like images. Similarly, there are some <meta> tags I could add to posts to make it clearer for search engines and screen readers what's going on in a given page.

Build Your Own Savings Clock

When one savings clock dies, another is born. I've been working on a new page for the site that allows people to track progress on something they care about, whether it's dollars saved, calories burned, tacos eaten, you name it. It's not quite ready for prime time yet, but I'll definitely post when it is.


Brief aside: Like all projects I work on in my spare time, I expect there to be a few hiccups and bumps with the updated site. As always, send me an email or a question to let me know about any problems with the site.

Source: Truck eternally from Clker, Egg from Clipart Kid, BandAid also coincidentally from Clipart Kid, and various cracks from CanStockPhoto

Once upon a time there was an ugly truck.

He was a lonely soul, a poor mess of rust and twisted metal, left to idle all alone. While certainly a sad state of affairs, it hadn't always been this way for him. In his youth as a rental truck, he'd helped families move every which way. Later, he became a work truck, the lifeblood of an independent carpenter. As fulfilling as his past had been, it had also left its fair share of chips and dents and scrapes and scratches, which he wore like badges of honor.

In his present life (though one could hardly call it "living"*), home was a used-car dealership along the side of a small expressway in Fremont, California. With his mangled bumpers, duct-taped roof, graffiti'd paneling, and rusted roll-up doors, he was hidden far away at the back, but not far enough to mute the mocking jeers of the newer trucks at the front. With their lower mileage, more recent model years, gleaming, uncracked paint jobs, and complete lack of leaks, they were much more appealing and were quickly swept off to their new exciting lives. After a while, the ugly truck had lost all hope that he would ever have a purpose in life again, and he resigned himself to decay in silence.

Then one day, a boy appeared at the dealership, nervous and apprehensive. He looked lost and out of place as he ambled around the parking lot, passing diffident, fleeting glances at each of the trucks. Eventually his ambling brought him to the back of the lot, where the ugly truck had been half-halfheartedly watching, not wanting to get raise his dejected spirits for nothing. But it wasn't for nothing! The boy looked hopefully at the ugly truck, his eyes full of future plans. As they drove around the dealership for the first time, the ugly truck knew that things were going to be alright.

[The End]

[...or the beginning, depending on how you want to look at it]


Poorly shoehorned children's stories aside, the truck has been an important part of my life ever since that fateful day, nearly two years ago. Neither of us has metamorphosed into a beautiful swan by any stretch of the imagination, but I'd like to think that we're both improving as time goes on, with each passing project. Not that improving was particularly hard, I mean, look how low the bar was set:

Our sorry protagonist, the ugly truckling.

I only dredge up the truck's roots to highlight how far it's come. I'd previously alluded to some of the work I wanted to have done, and I'm happy to report I just got it back from the shop, shiny and freshly improved.

Truck 2.0

When I first talked to the body shop, I asked them for quotes on a whole gamut of repairs and improvements, ranging from replacing and resealing the entire floor to swapping out the roll-up backdoor for some swing doors. Independently, I researched how much these repairs should cost, and kept a spreadsheet of the maximum price I was willing to pay for each individual unit of truck work. The quote I got back was more than twice the cost of the entire truck, and then some ($21,600!). While the raw magnitude of the price tag was initially shocking to me, it actually wasn't outrageous given the laundry list of improvements I had asked for. I simply said no to each thing that was out of my budget and quickly crossed them off my wishlist. For the remaining, in-budget items, I gave them the proverbial green light. In the end, I ended up having the top radius and corner caps replaced, getting a new driver's side fender, and getting an inner door installed.

No More Leaks

Shiny new top radius and smooth, uninterrupted fiberglass.

By far the biggest problem I had with the truck was the leaks. Not "leaks" in the White House sense of the word, I don't think I have any truck secrets to hide. Rather, "leaks" as in, if I did nothing about it, I would wake up in a dank truck swamp after a rainy night. The increasingly obnoxious and unsightly hacks I had put in place to mitigate the issue weren't going to work forever, it was just a plain ole fact that I needed something more permanent. So I had the cracked, scratched, and dented fixings around the perimeter of the truck-top replaced, figuring that the damage there was causing the leaks. I also had all-new clearance lights installed in the front and back, for good measure.

The good news is that the truck-top was indeed the problem. The bad news is that there is still the slightest of leaks. Like, a multi-hour downpour last week only resulted in a few drops. I'm still on the fence as to whether or not I want to bring it back in and have it looked at, or if I should just throw marine sealant at it until it gives up.

Shiny New Headlight

Driver's side headlight, good as new.

I swear, that is an actual, real-life picture of my truck, though I hardly recognize it myself. The fender is all new, as is the headlight and the header panel assembly that everything slots into. You may (or may not) remember that it was damaged early on by some unexplained phenomenon.

Something I realized way after the fact: the headlight may have actually been dislodged earlier than I noticed, maybe even before I bought the truck. My tentative hypothesis is that it just got worse and more noticeable over time, the more I drove it. This is pretty believable because I'm extremely unobservant. And looking at some of my old, grainy, potato-quality photos I could find of the truck, it looks like the headlight may have already been knocked out of its mount. In any case, it's a 1,000% improvement: shiny, new, correctly attached, and forbidden from coming into contact with anything ever again.

Super Stealth Mode

My new gateway to and from Narnia.

This was probably the least practical piece of work I had done, but also my favorite. Ever since I first got the truck, I've always had to think very carefully about where I park it. I only had one entrance/exit, and it was a giant, gaping square void at the back of the truck. If I parked facing a busy area, it meant my comings and goings were laid bare for all to see, which is awkward when I need to grab something from The Box™ in the middle of the day when I'm out and/or about.

But "awkwardness" and "social stigma" aren't things I've historically been concerned about. Arguably more importantly, my singular door meant that I couldn't lock the back gate while I was in the truck, so anyone could come in…while I was sleeping (and at my most vulnerable). This was never actually an issue, except for one time, when my friends "broke in" at midnight on my birthday with beer and cheesecake. And if being force-fed Smirnoff in a hazy half-slumber is the worst thing to come out of my willy-nilly approach to security, I think I'm doing alright.

Cheesecake and beer aside, I eventually wised up and implemented a simple, somewhat secure solution, suggested to me by a few readers. The solution was this: Once the door is in a mostly-down position, clamp vice grips over each of the roll-up door tracks. This way, the rollers will get caught on the vice grips if someone attempted to open it. With enough force, someone could probably still open the door, but they'd make a real racket in the process. It might not be a coincidence that I started doing this right after some strange happenings in my neck of the woods asphalt.

But vice grips and surprise cheesecake are both things of the past, because one of the new truck improvements was an interior door leading from the driver's compartment into my pleasantly prismic pigsty. When I told the body shop I wanted an interior door installed, I was expecting a simple sliding door or something on a hinge. What I got was way more interesting, and hilariously over-engineered. As I understand it, they had this really nice roll-up door sitting around not doing anything, and they were like, "Yeah sure, that'll do". So they measured and cut and welded and eventually this functional Franken-door came into being. They didn't charge me for the door (which they said was worth $2,000+), so I certainly wasn't complaining.

I've been using the door for a few weeks now, and I have to say that I'm thoroughly enjoying it. It's taken some getting used to though; it must weigh nearly 50 pounds and doesn't have a conventional garage door torsion spring, so it's kind of unwieldy to work with. I've figured out an awkward little dance to close the door behind me when I get out in the morning, but there's still definitely room for improvement. The big benefits are that I can keep the back gate locked shut all the time, park in whatever orientation I damn well want, and come and go whenever I damn well please. Very liberating indeed.

What's the Damage?

Moving on, it's clear I had a good chunk of work done. And as it turns out, people and labor and truck parts and stuff don't come cheap. In total, the repairs cost me a healthy ~$3,800.

Brandon, that's an obscene amount of money! And in my humble opinion, you're an idiot.

It's definitely not a small sum of money, but hear me out: I know that I plan on selling the truck eventually, even if I don't know when. Since it's already fairly old (2006) and I don't drive it a lot, it's not going to depreciate much further, as long as I keep it in decent shape. Letting the wood rot from the leaks, or the headlight fall out completely wouldn't exactly be "keeping it in decent shape". Plus, since I plan on selling it as a super-secret-stealth-hardcore-camper-truck-type-thing, improvements like the interior door make a lot of sense. So the benefit is two-fold: I get to take advantage of all the improvements now, and they make the truck more valuable in the long run. But even if the repairs and improvements didn't add any value to the truck whatsoever, $3,800 isn't that expensive when you phrase it as "two months rent".

And another question, where did you stay when the repairs were being done? Did you just roam the streets?

First question: Alaska!

Second question: No.

A sunset along the Seward Highway, and the top of Mount Alyeska.

Both images were carefully selected to highlight how philosophical and mysterious I am.

In total, the truck spent like a week and a half in the body shop. Luckily, this happened to somewhat coincide with a trip my friends and I were taking to Alaska. So I drove the truck to the body shop, caught a ride 10 minutes to the airport, and off I went. When I got back from Alaska, I spent a few days at my non-truck-homed girlfriend's place.

Why the Ugly Truck?

Reading over the allegory of the Ugly Truckling, there's a question that naturally leaps to mind: why didn't I pick a more reasonable vehicle, like an RV, or even just one of the newer, nicer trucks?

I've touched on some of this in the past, but I didn't want an RV because I was worried that would be too comfortable and I would forget why I was even doing this in the first place: because the world outside my four walls is infinitely more interesting, and that's where I want to spend my time. I didn't pick a newer, shinier truck because I liked (and still like) the idea of a fixer-upper. I wanted to be able to rip apart the interior without worrying I was doing damage, and attempt little repairs on my own. Thus far, I think it's been a pretty solid learning opportunity.

I certainly had a few ulterior motives too. Older trucks are naturally cheaper, and like I mentioned above, they also leave less room to depreciate. Less logically, a silly anecdote from my childhood might explain why I gravitated to the Ugly Truckling:

When I was little, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother's house. She had this set of ceramic-handled silverware, and from looking at them, you could tell they'd been around since The War. Which war it was, nobody knew for sure. But anyway, a bunch of the spoons had chips in their ceramic handles, and I was always careful to avoid those ones. One day, my grandmother caught me carefully picking my spoon and asked me what I was doing. When I explained that some of the spoons were broken, this is what she said to me:


"Broken spoons need love too."


And it's stuck with me ever since.


*Partly because it was a sad excuse for an existence, and partly because trucks are inanimate objects and don't "live" in the way that humans and other animate organisms do.

Source: Hiking and sledding on Mount Rigi with some co-workers. Probably the first picture I've ever taken and enjoyed looking at.

I'd previously mentioned that I had an upcoming work trip to Zürich, and in keeping with my usual blogging tardiness, that trip was two months ago. Actually, I (perhaps ironically) got back from India a few weeks ago, so expect that post soon in a few millennia. But anyway, let's talk about Switzerland: a country of cheese, chocolates, and armed neutrality*.


Waiting to leave SFO on a gloomy evening.

Leaving on a jet plane

As it turns out, Zürich is kinda far away. Like, 5,889.11 miles, give or take a few. Luckily, the Wright Brothers solved this problem a while ago, so off I went on a fancy, new-fangled flying machine in relative luxury. I've been consistently impressed with the quality of economy class on international flights (first Lufthansa, and now Swiss), they really put our domestic carriers to shame. Between the hot meals, warm cloths so you aren't bathing in your own face-grease the whole flight, and honest-to-God leg room, my mind is legitimately blown every time. Fun fact that I didn't know until recently: foreign airlines can't operate point-to-point routes within the US. Given that, it makes sense that domestic airlines aren't really trying that hard, they only have to compete with like two other equally awful carriers on most routes.

Moving on from my tangent: though the plane was a slightly more tubular metal container than I'm used to sleeping in, I slept soundly, in spite of the shape. A short 11 hours after takeoff,** I found myself in Zürich.

Taking the Train

Being able to navigate in a foreign country is a useful skill, not only for Amazing Race contestants. Unfortunately, navigating public transit is also a skill I sorely lack, which is ironic because I used to drive public buses. But anyway, the trains (and the rest of public transportation in Switzerland) are really, really good. So good in fact, it can be a bit overwhelming for someone used to the US's decidedly mediocre public offerings. After a bit of jet-lagged, blank-eyed staring at a departure board for longer than I'd like to admit, I hopped on a train heading in the general direction I was going: Zürich HB, the main Zürich train station.

A rough depiction of what I found myself up against, from DC Rainmaker

The trains in Zürich are buttery smooth, like riding on velvety Swiss clouds. I never noticed how rocky train rides here are, but comparatively, it feels more like I'm riding a jackhammer when I Caltrain up to San Francisco. I'm being dramatic, but the trains in Switzerland are indeed modern marvels of engineering. As a testament to their coolness, a Zürich-based co-worker told me that if the trains are more than a few minutes late, people start Snapchat-ing and Tweet-ing pics of the late train, because they're usually so punctual. Not only are they timely, but they also go everywhere, including up mountains. We were able to get to the top of Mount Rigi with a few trains and five minutes of walking. Take notes, America.

Doing Some Exploring

Regrettably, I didn't have a lot of time to explore. I was, after all, on a work trip. Had that not been the case, I'd likely have started each morning at the main train station and picked a random train to dictate the plans for the day. I did at least attempt to do some exploring though. But words are boring, so instead of making you read about it, here are some pictures.

Lucerne

Lucerne (or Luzern, depending on who you're talking to) has a rich history that stretches back to the 8th century, and you can see a lot of that history in a lot of the architecture, which has been preserved or restored. It's also just a beautiful area.

Brewery/Hotel

Some friends were staying in this cool brewery-turned-hotel-and-spa, which has an ornate library area and a bunch of the original brewery equipment.

Snow Pup!

I have an infinitely-exploitable*** soft spot for cute animals. I found this majestic and sagacious creature at the top of Mount Rigi and had to stop for a pic (and some petting).

Observations

Weather

I was surprised to find that one of my favorite things about Switzerland was the weather. Silicon Valley has a watered-down version of seasons, and Zürich in the winter reminded me a lot of Boston. It was part nostalgia, part missing the sensation of crisp winter air, but in any case it was immensely enjoyable. I frequently found myself stepping outside, solely to take some slow, deep, refreshing breaths.

Language and Economics

It probably shouldn't surprise me at this point, but everyone in Switzerland speaks some combination of German, French, Italian, and English, and usually at least three of those. It's at least in part because the EU is a giant cultural melting pot, but I was impressed no less. Interestingly enough, the Swiss dialect of German is incomprehensible to German speakers from Germany, though the written language is mostly the same. At least that's my understanding. In a vaguely-related train of thought, everyone being so multi-lingual and high-skilled means that even jobs that would usually be considered "entry-level" in the US pay really well. In fact, only 10% of jobs pay less than ~$50,000/year. As a result, service industry staples like restaurants are comparatively really expensive, because people are expensive.

Driving

While I (thankfully) didn't do any driving in Switzerland, I did spend quite a bit of time watching other people do it. To my untrained eyes, it looked pretty complicated. There were tons of signs and lanes, and the trains would lackadaisically wander back and forth between dedicated lanes and mixing in with the general population. Switzerland also seems to take join in sprinkling random intersections with roundabouts. They still drive on the right side of the road though, so no added confusion there.

Sledding

I forgot how much fun sledding is. I hadn't been since I was a wee lad, and even then I wasn't sledding down full-blown mountains. Rekindling the flames of my childhood, I raced down several sled trails at borderline reckless speeds, laughing hysterically throughout the entire chaotic decent. I definitely destroyed the tread on my boots in the process; stomping your feet is the only way to turn or slow down (unless you're willing to stop with your face). But I'd trade in the tread in an instant to do it again.

*I had the good fortune to sample at least two of those things during my short trip.

**Swiss conveniently flies direct from SFO -> ZRH.

***If you have an adorable dog and need someone to watch and/or walk them, I'm wholly incapable of declining the request.

Source: Trying out a new (slightly less anatomically accurate) truck graphic this time, from Tumundografico

Each financial post I do brings at least a few questions about my plan or different investment strategies. Before we get to it, I'll start with my usual disclaimer that I have no background in finance or financial planning, and taking financial advice exclusively from the guy living in a box truck probably isn't a sound strategy. With that out of the way, let's get to the questions.

Do you invest in bitcoins?

Nope. Aside from reading the white paper on Bitcoin, I'm not all that knowledgeable about it, and my current allotment of funds is about the right level of risk for me (>90% stocks, all broad index funds). Plus, I think unless you really know what you're doing, it's dangerous to treat a currency like a commodity.

Why race to pay off a loan with 3.4% interest? That's equivalent to investing at a 3.4% annual return, which is not a great return rate.

This is referring to my now non-existent student loans. I don't have a great answer for this one, except that I did delay paying the loans off for about six months, for exactly the reason given in the question. However, I do think there's something to be said about the psychological comfort of not having any debt looming ominously overhead. In my opinion, that was worth the decreased rate of return on my investment. In any case, I'm clearly not rushing to get a mortgage any time soon.

Another way of looking at it is that paying off my loans was a way of de-risking my portfolio a bit. The overwhelming majority of my portfolio is stocks, so "investing" $20,000 at 3.4% is like a really well-performing bond. It's a bit of a stretch, but the math works out.

Seems like you're putting a lot of money into accounts you won't be able to access until you're around 60 years old. Wondering if you're planning to save enough in cash or non-IRAs to live on from when you're in your 30s until you are able to withdraw from the tax-advantaged accounts. Have you done the math on how much you'll need during that time?

Nope, haven't done much of the math around this, but we can dabble in it now. I've been known to throw around phrases like "Trinity Study" and "Safe Withdrawal Rate", which is to say once I have a nest egg equal to 25x my yearly spending, I can (in theory) be financially-independent indefinitely. And while that's a good high-level description, it glosses over some of the details mentioned in the question here, mainly that my "nest egg" isn't a single account, it's spread over a bunch of different types of accounts, some of which have disparate and intentionally complicated rules.

My plans are nicely summed up by a Vanguard article I came across recently, titled 5 ways to make your portfolio more tax-efficient. The first item on their list is "Save as much as you can in tax-advantaged accounts", which I definitely do. I max out every possible tax-advantaged account I can get my hands on. The thinking is that the less money I subject to taxes (either now or later), the more money is available to grow and compound.

Skipping item two (and four and five), the third item from the Vanguard article is "Tap into your accounts in the right order", and this is where the math and planning come into play. For the sake of argument, let's say that I do this for 9 years. The first account to draw from is my non-tax-advantaged, normal brokerage account. About a year and a half into my adventure, this account has collected about $55,000 dollars. Doing some extremely conservative calculations (5% growth, yearly compounding, +$33,000/year), I'll have about $450,000 at the end of that 9 year period.

Once I've sucked all of the money out of my brokerage account, the next fund I would dip into is my Roth IRA. The big trick here is that I can withdraw the principal without paying any tax or penalty. Since I'm contributing the max $27,000/year to that, that's an additional $243,000 (remember, just the principal, no gains) I can take out whenever I need. After that's been exhausted, I can take out some tax-free HSA money offset with medical expenses paid out of pocket over the next nine years, and there are a few other rules and exceptions I can use to squeeze out a few more penalty-free dollars (SEPPs, Roth Conversion Ladders, Other Exceptions, oh my!).

Conservatively, that means I'll have $450,000 + $243,000 + HSA and other stuff = ~$700,000. Since 9 years have passed in this hypothetical example, I'd be around 33 years old. Do I think I could make $700,000 last for the 27-32 years until I can start taking penalty-free 401k, Roth IRA, and HSA distributions? Using the rule-of-thumb Safe Withdrawal Rate, this means I'd be living on ~$28,000 a year. While not impossible, it'd be a little tighter than I'd like it to be. I have a few options here for augmenting that income: 1) mess around with SEPPs and conversion ladders, 2) take the penalty, which isn't totally unreasonable, or 3) don't retire in 9 years.

It's very likely that the actual solution here is: 4) all the above. If my goals are in the same place in five years or so, I'll probably quit working in the traditional sense, and pick up one-off contract jobs like I used to do in college. I could also work remotely/part-time. The supplemental income from the part-time work would hopefully be enough to live minimally, but comfortably.

Is there a fee for each time you do the rollover? If so, have you done the analysis to see how long you should wait to do the rollover to the Roth?

Nope! No fees, but I do have to remember to do it every paycheck, because you do have to pay taxes on the gains when you do the rollover. So if I do it immediately, there's usually either $0.00 or $0.01 of tax to pay. But because I'm extremely easily distracted, sometimes I'll forget about it for a week or so, and then I end up having to pay like a whole dollar or two of tax. Not a big deal, but it's something I'll likely have to think about when doing my taxes this month.

I thought if you maxed out your normal 401k (the pre-tax one) you could not contribute more funds to the after-tax 401k in the same calendar year. Am I mistaken about that?

In short: yes, you are indeed mistaken.

In slightly less short: the IRS has two separate limits that are relevant here. The first is the pre-tax employee 401k contribution limit, which is $18,000 for 2017, and only includes your own personal contributions. The second limit is the overall 401k contribution limit, which is $54,000 for 2017 and includes your personal contributions, employer contributions, and after-tax contributions. I contribute $18,000 to pre-tax, and my employer matches $9,000, which leaves me $54,000 - ($18,000 + $9,000) = $27,000 to contribute to my after-tax 401k in 2017.


Thanks for joining us me for probably the least interesting, most detail-oriented Q & A thus far. As always, if you have any burning questions, feel free to pose them in the box to the right (or bottom on mobile), or shoot me an email.


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