Posts tagged "Money"

9 Results Found

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.

Source: As always, truck from Clker, City from 123RF, more fireworks from Clipart Kid, and road from Clipart Panda. Composition haphazardly done by me.

New Year, New Me Same Truck-Dwelling Degenerate

Excuse the contrarianism for a second here, but I'm not a fan of New Year's Resolutions. Don't get me wrong, I love seeing people take the initiative, work hard, and reach their goals. My qualm is that, if you want to change something about your life, just do it. Don't wait until we reach an arbitrary point in our orbit around the Sun to better yourself. After all, January 1st is a day just like any other, nothing makes it any more conducive to success.

Complaining aside, that's not to say I don't have plans for myself in the New Year, I definitely do. They're just the same plans I've been working with and tweaking for the past year and a half. If someone in a hypothetical and unnecessarily violent world put a gun to my head and asked me to sum up, in a single word, what my plans are, I'd probably say: "Investing".

Investing

"Investing in what?" you may ask. I've already talked about how I've been investing in index funds like VTI and VXUS through my 401k, Roth IRA, HSA, and brokerage accounts, and nothing has changed there. That's all still on auto-pilot, silently siphoned out of my paycheck and quietly compounding interest. And it's still working really well for me, and has already netted me >$10,000 in dividends and appreciation.*

My investments through Vanguard, a year and a half in.

But with my student loans paid off and a freshly-minted promotion, I should start looking to diversify my assets outside of stocks, especially as I start to build up a more sizable nest egg . So we'll start with some more of the financial investing I'm considering, but that's far from the only way one can invest.

Finances

Okay, so the stock situation is solid and doesn't need any intervention, at least until I near retirement and start investing more heavily in bonds, per Bob's advice. But still, it wouldn't be particularly savvy to keep >95% of my wealth tied to the performance of two funds, regardless of how diversified each may be. So, I've been looking at my options, and there are a few promising avenues. for consideration

Real Estate

Brandon, how the hell are you going to invest in real estate when you live in a truck?

It's true, one of the reasons I live in a truck is because housing is ridiculously expensive out here, and buying a home (or rental property) would require me making deals with some unsavory, otherworldly creatures. That said, I can invest in REITs. REITs, or Real Estate Investment Trusts, are traded like stocks, but are primarily invested in real estate and mortgages and other things that track the value of the real estate market. So I might not being able to buy a home, but REITs are a less messy way for a beginner to get into the real estate market. At the very least, I need to do more research on their risks, returns, and tax properties before I actually put my money where my mouth a house is.

Peer-to-Peer Lending

Peer-to-Peer Lending is another type of investing where, you guessed it, money is lent between peers. Sites like PeerStreet and Patch of Land allow you to choose from a catalog of (usually real estate-related) loans to invest in, and as the loan gets paid off, you get a proportional chunk of the interest. You can vary the "quality" (read: riskiness) of the loans you're willing to fund in exchange for potentially higher returns and correspondingly higher default rates. These sites quote yearly returns of 6-12% on your investment, which is definitely enough to warrant a more thorough look.

It sounds good for sure, but there are naturally a few things worth considering. For one, loans are far less liquid than stocks are, it's not as easy to sell your stake in a loan. You can sell your share on a secondary loan market, but that's not nearly as simple as selling a stock. The other wrench in the mix: depending on the peer-to-peer site, most loans are only available to accredited investors, which requires (among other things) having a net worth of one million dollars. As nice as that would be, I'm clearly not there yet. As with REITs above, I need to do more research to determine the viability of investing with these sites.

The Truck

It's no secret that I plan on dumping the truck at some point. Hopefully not anytime soon though; it's not particularly well-suited for being sold in it's current state. If you think about it, there're two groups of people that'd be interested in it: people who need moving trucks, and people who want to live in vans. The problem is that it'd be weird to use as a moving truck, because it has weird amenities, like a coat rack, insulation, a bike rack, and a sky light. And unless you have a routine very similar to mine, the truck doesn't really provide enough utility to make it a full-time residence. So the market for people who would buy my truck as is…well, it's likely just me. And I think it goes without saying I'm not in the market at the moment. I'll save the details for their own post, but I have a bunch of plans for making the truck more palatable for all of those lurking potential stealth campers out there.

Myself

Investing in yourself is arguably the most important investment you can make. After all, you only have one fleshy meat body and sponge brain to pilot around your consciousness. We're all pretty much stuck with the results of whatever investments we make in ourselves.

With that in mind, I'd like to read a bunch of books that I've started but have yet to finish, mainly because I have the attention span of a guppy.** I'd also like to finish a bunch of half-written blog posts that have been collecting virtual dust on my server, along with a fancy-shmancy unfinished site-redesign.

On the fleshy-meat-side-of-things, I've been tweaking my workout routine, and I'd really like to break 1,000 combined pounds on my bench, squat, and deadlift, ideally without becoming potato-shaped. On the cardiovascular-side of things, a friend of mine recently mentioned doing the AIDS/LifeCycle 7-day bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which sounds like great motivation for whipping my cardio into shape.

Why Investing is the Cat's Pajamas

The nice thing about investing is that the results generally compound on themselves. It's pretty easy to see this with monetary investments, where compound interest and re-invested dividends are real, tangible values. But it rings just as true with investments in yourself as well, just in less-visible ways. For example, regular exercise keeps your resting heart rate low, which means your heart doesn't have to work nearly as hard for the rest of your life. This has great perks, like decreased risk for cardiovascular disease. And if Not Dying™ isn't a good enough reason to invest in something, I don't know what is.

*Naturally, the gains and losses are wholly irrelevant until I start taking distributions and realizing it as income, which likely won't happen for another ten years. Still, it's fun to look at it every so often, even with no intention of doing anything with it.

**For the curious, the books are: The Martian, The Hitchhiker's Guide series, Walden, The Achievement Factory, The Millionaire Next Door, and Search Inside Yourself.

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: 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

Way back in July of last year, someone gave me the idea to track how much money I was saving by not having to pay rent in the area. I crunched the numbers (in reality, like two numbers) and wrote the code, and the savings clock was born. When I flipped the switch, it showed a fairly disheartening negative $6,000 because I was still half in the hole from purchasing my Ford-fabricated flat. But in the intervening seven or eight months, I've had the pleasure of watching that number dwindle its way to zero (where I hit my break-even point), and as of this writing, work its way up to five digits in our (just as arbitrary as my formula) base 10 number system.

So Brandon, you've successfully saved $10,000, plus another $10,000 or so if you sold the truck. Has it been worth it?

This is a paraphrased version of a question I received recently, and it definitely made me think a bit. First off though, I'm not sure I agree with the phraseology, because this is basically the equivalent of saying: Would you live in a truck for nine months for $20,000? and I don't think that's the right approach. The short answer to both of those questions is unequivocally "Yes.", but I don't think that's really doing it justice. Phrasing it like that makes it sound like a dare, like it's something I'm enduring just for the money. It's not about being worth it or not, it's about finding a lifestyle that fits my needs. It's about figuring out where my priorities lie and what my goals are, and then picking a life that makes them achievable. I've said before that being in the right mindset really is everything. And that applies more generally than just software engineers living in trucks too; going into any situation with an open mind and some goals will do wonders for your perception and overall happiness. I've written pages of posts expounding all the good things the truck lifestyle has done for me, but to put it into perspective, let's take a stroll through the hypothetical life of a much more vanilla Brandon, who chickened out of his crazy truck-centric life plans. We'll call him Normal Brandon™, or NB for short

What would Normal Brandon's life look like?

When NB first moves out to California, he spends two weeks living in his corporate housing, filling up his days with an endless search for long-term housing. After trawling around Craigslist, Zillow, and the "New Engineers" group his company set up, he eventually finds a roommate or two who are interested in living in South Bay, and together they find a place to inhabit. They all agree on the cheapest option they can find, which happens to be a second-floor apartment just outside of Mountain View. For ~$1,500 per person each and every month (plus utilities), they each get roughly 80 ft2 of bedroom space. They also each get a complimentary half-hour commute in the consistently bumper-to-bumper traffic along the 101. In the event there is any amount of water falling from the sky, make that an hour-long commute. Not ideal, but certainly not the worst thing that's ever happened.

NB starts work and quickly settles into a routine. Since the corporate buses don't start running until around 7 am, he ditches the early morning exercise routine he adopted in college, and instead exercises after work, around 5 pm. As it turns out, this is peak gym time, and half of his workout consists of aggressive thumb-twiddling while waiting for a squat rack. To pass the time, NB silently judges everyone around him, criticizing form, or outfits, or any number of other silly things because NB is jaded and cranky over wasting so much time. He starts going to the gym less frequently to save himself the frustration. Back at his apartment, his roommates are thinking of getting some furniture to make the place less spartan-looking. NB agrees and chips in, and the trio pick up some Ikea couches and end tables, and a 46" flat screen TV.

NB spends most of his waking time during the week working. Normally he'll either go out Friday or Saturday, and then spend the other nights hanging out and watching a movie or two and playing some video games. Oh, and he sleeps in until like noon.

This goes on for a decade or so until NB's biological clock kicks in and he finds himself in a serious relationship, at which point he gets married, buys a house in the suburbs, produces 1.9 children, and spends the next 30 years working to pay off his mortgage and finance trips to Disney Land.


You're probably thinking, "You know, NB's life doesn't actually sound all that bad." And I'd have to agree, it sounds like he has everything in order and is living some variation of the American Dream. He certainly doesn't sound unhappy.

He does sound boring though.

And that's what I'm most worried about. He sounds comfortable, he sounds complacent, and he sounds decidedly average. I'm worried he's going to wake up one day and realize he's 65 years old, wondering where the time went, all while he watched his perfectly unextraordinary life pass him by. I'm worried that he'll forget all of his goals and dreams and aspirations and he'll be content simply existing, a passionless lump of aging and dying cells smiling soullessly and nodding along to the tune of yet another water cooler conversation. And then he'll retire, ready to experience his new-found freedom just as his body begins to fail him.I apologize for the grimness, I swear it'll lighten up now

So yes, I've saved $10,000+, but I've also reshaped the path I'm travelling on. Granted, this whole discussion suffers from the straw man fallacy, it's not like I can grab myself from an alternate timeline and see how he turned out. Nonetheless, the relative comfort and ease of the life I didn't choose leave a lot to be desired. For one, I wouldn't be as painfully aware of my work/life balance. I enjoy what I do for work, and it's easy to get lost in it. If I didn't have to think long and hard about how to live so close to work without it becoming my life, it's likely I'd end up like the slowly boiling frog: working ever-longer days just because I didn't know what else to do, until eventually that's all I do or know or am. Without the threat of not showering and becoming a total bum looming over my shoulder, I wouldn't have nearly as much motivation to stay active and exercise, and I wouldn't be as consistent with it. And god forbid I had electricity and a living room, I'd end up buying a whole host of things that do nothing to make me a happier, healthier person.

But if it really came down to it, I could handle working longer, I could handle being less healthy, and I could handle owning things I don't need. What I would have trouble handling is the idea that I could lose my passion for life so easily. Getting into a routine is a double-edged sword. On one hand, everything goes much smoother when you've figured out a schedule that flows from one thing to the next. On the other hand, it's too easy to fall back to a routine just because it's what you're the most comfortable with, even if it isn't the best for you, or even what you want. And while I have all these websites and apps I want to build and posts I want to write and books I want to read and languages I want to learn and places I want to go, I could see all of those things just casually fading into the background noise of my perfectly acceptable normal life. The truck is a ridiculous, obnoxious reminder that I'm not ready to give up on any of that. And that is what makes it "worth it".

Source: Questionably relevant image courtesy of Go by Truck

I gave my spiel about such lightweight topics as money, financial planning, and how I plan to live the rest of my ephemeral human life. Naturally people had some questions and thoughts of their own to contribute, and I'm more than happy to bring those into the mix.

Any reason you're using an ETF instead of a mutual fund? I don't see the soundness in the incurring fees on a brokerage account.

So I mentioned I'm using Vanguard for my brokerage account, and (as of now) my investments are in VOO. If you look at this handy chart here and included below for good measure, there are no commissions or fees as long as you're trading Vanguard funds/ETFs.

Vanguard is pretty awesome.

So between that, and the generally higher expense ratios for actively-managed mutual funds, Vanguard ETFs seem like the better option for me right now. But I'm also the first one to admit that I'm still very actively learning about all this stuff, and I appreciate any and all advice people have to offer.

I hope [...] you're not actually going to invest all of you "investment money" in that one ETF.

I probably didn't make this clear enough in my money post, but I won't be blindly dumping all my money into the one ETF. While it is diversified, it is still all my money being susceptible to the fluctuations of a single fund. I don't have enough money in my brokerage account to worry about it yet, but I will start picking out other types of funds to invest in once I'm putting serious cash (>$100k) into it . In the mean time, my 401k and HSA are invested in funds that are at the very least not identical to VOO, and 10% of my 401k (which has 10x more money in it than my brokerage account) is invested in bonds, so I'm not putting all my eggs into one basket by any means. I'll likely never pick out my own stocks, but I'll certainly branch out once I have some time to research what my options are. In the mean time, my current mix provides a nice balance of risk/reward.

Appreciate you sharing the numbers. What percentage are you spending/saving?

This is a tricky one to answer because my spending hasn't been consistent in the slightest. When I was first getting the truck setup, I was really making it rain on my expenses. Between getting truck-work done, and buying beds, dressers, bikes, clothes, and all the other bare necessities, my weekly spending was easily 10x what it is now. Six months into it, I think I have every large object covered. I can't think of anything I could buy that would make my life better in any meaningful way, and more likely than not, it'd just take up my precious and relatively scarce truck space. All that considered, it's much easier for me to hit my target savings rate (~90%) now as compared to six months ago. My biweekly take-home pay is $1,640.89 (as of now), and I have monthly truck insurance of $70, a music streaming membership for $10, a GitHub account for $7, and a DigitalOcean server for $5. That leaves me about $60 a week for random leisure spending, which is more than enough for a nice dinner, some drinks, and hanging out at a quiet cafe and typing up blog posts. It'll be easier to consistently hit the target when my income goes up in the New Year (raises, changes to 401k/HSA, etc).

How much are you spending on fuel?

Not much, especially since I learned I can keep my insurance cheap by driving less than 3,000 miles a year. Sometimes I'll go two weeks or so without driving, and then I'll drive it just to make sure it hasn't died on me/the tires aren't warping. The last time I drove it any significant distance was to help a friend move, and that was about 50 miles round trip. I probably drive, on average, 50 miles a month, so like $15 in gas a month. My bike and a sprinkle of public transportation serve me well for pretty much all the travelling I do in the area.

Back in the good ole college days (like six months ago), I was the proud owner of a 1986 Corvette, which had roughly the same fuel efficiency as my truck, but would probably make a much less comfortable home. Despite costing me a fortune in fuel, insurance, and repairs, I'm glad to have had it: at least I was able to get all most of the crazy, testosterone-loaded joyrides out of my system before entering the real world. It's strange to think I went from one extreme (loud, gas guzzling, male compensation machine) to the other extreme (long quiet scenic leg-powered bike rides) in such a short time. Hell, Last Year Brandon™ would have painted the front fender a fresh coat of cherry red with bicyclists like Present Day Brandon™. I blame the change on California and a life philosophy shaped by six months with The Truck.

The love of my life, Yvette.

In your savings clock, are you including the amount you spend on your various Home Improvement projects?

I'm not, and that may skew the numbers a little bit. That said, even the largest of my past and current Home Improvement projects hasn't cost me more than $100 (plus my time). I ignore smaller things like this in my calculation for simplicity, but also because it balances out other random costs of existing that my situation doesn't necessitate. For example, if I had an apartment, I'd likely be paying for some combination of water, electricity, and Internet, and I'd probably buy some food just so my refrigerator wasn't so lonely. At the end of it all, the savings clock is a very rough approximation, but rent and truck insurance are the dominating terms in the equation, and the rest is just noise.

Source: Totally unrelated to the subject matter at hand, but it's a great album and I stole a quote from it for the title.

Disclaimer: All salaries and bonuses in this post -- even those based on real paychecks -- are entirely fictional. All financial information is paraphrased.....poorly. The following post was written by a 23-year old man who lives in a truck entirely of his own volition and holds a degree in something wholly-unrelated to both business and finance. As such, its content should not be viewed or seriously considered as advice by anyone.

Now that that's out of the way, let's begin.

In The Beginning

There's a laundry list of reasons why I do what I do, but one of my bigger goals was to clear out my (fairly unburdensome) student loan debt quickly, certainly more expediently than the 10-year plan my loan servicer was trying to spoon-feed me (with a healthy $3,000 of interest). And despite spending months planning out the various intricacies of truck-life and trying to anticipate all possible eventualities, I had spent virtually no time formulating a proper financial plan. Sure, I had used some broad hand-wavy gestures coupled with the word "investment" before, but apart from a brief experiment using Acorns in college, I hadn't the faintest idea what I was doing. With my loans dwindling with each incoming paycheck, it's time to seriously evaluate what my long-term goals are, and how I plan to reach them.

Motivation

This post serves two mostly-orthogonal purposes:

  1. Letting people know what I'm doing with my money. Hopefully, some of the ideas here (which I've poached aggregated from a variety of sources) will be useful in some shape or form to one or more people in the future.
  2. Forcing my own hand in figuring this stuff out. I do a lot of rough-estimate, back-of-the-proverbial-envelope-type calculations, but now I have about six months of my own real-life financial data. I know how much money is coming in, and how much is going to the various things that allow me to live a happy, healthy life…sometimes with less of an emphasis on the "healthy" part.

Brief Preface

There's this (distinctly American) taboo concerning salary discussion, which I've never quite understood. I mean I get it, capitalism dictates that your sole source of worth in this life comes from how much money you can rake in (and then how grandly you can dish it out). As such, discussing salaries will always be very touchy and emotional a colossal dick-measuring contest. Also, knowing the salaries of your peers would give you leverage when negotiating your own pay (which is why sites like Glassdoor exist). But that clearly doesn't interest the bottom line of an employer. Since this is a monologue and not a discussion though, we're going to throw the taboo and stigma out the window: it's counterproductive, especially when trying to do some frank, no-frills financial planning. Not that the taboo-ness particularly matters to me, I'm clearly not a staunch defender of social convention anyway.

The Money

At work, I mash keys on my keyboard and swivel my mouse around until the pixels on my screen arrange themselves in a pattern that pleases me and those around me (nod to XKCD). For doing so, I'm compensated by my employer, and this compensation is broken into roughly three categories:

  • Salary. My base salary is $105,000.
  • Bonus. Once a year, I receive a bonus roughly equal to 15% of my salary (give or take a performance multiplier). 15% of $105,000 is $15,750.
  • Stock. Every year, I get a certain number of shares of the company. Because stocks are prone to the whims of a bunch of anxious men in fancy suits, I'm going to take about 10% off of the current value of the stock, which means roughly $40,000 a year in stocks. I know I said we'd be staying away from estimation, but this is one of those inherently nebulous things. If there was anyone who knew where the price of a stock was heading, they'd either be arrested, filthy rich, or some combination of the two.

So my total before-tax earnings are (approximately) $105,000 + $15,750 + $40,000 = $160,750.

Where's The Money Go

It's clear what money I have coming in, but where is it actually going? The way I see it, there are two categories to explore. There's the money that I'm never formally introduced to, because it's absorbed into a vast web of legislation and tax-advantaged accounts, and then there's the money that lives to see the light of day my checking account.

Death and Taxes

Since bonuses and stocks are distributed yearly on their own schedules, the money I get in my paychecks naturally comes from my base salary. So $105,000 divided over 26 pay periods would mean $105,000/26 = $4,038.46 every two weeks. And sure enough, that's the number I see at the beginning of my paycheck. From there, we have two types of deductions: Death and Taxes.

  • Death. This portion consists of my 401k contribution ($1,200), my HSA contribution ($293.75), and my downright ruthless dental and vision insurance ($3.57). These things go under the "Death" portion because they're health-related and I can't access any of that money (without penalty) until I'm 59.5/65 (as of the present day's legislation for the 401k and HSA respectively). And who knows what I'll be like when I'm 60 (assuming a truck-related incident doesn't take me out of the game before then)? I can only assume I'll be dead inside, hollowed out from years of engaging in such soul-sucking adult activities as sitting in traffic and having mindless conversations about the weather.
  • Taxes. This portion consists of the money I distribute among various government cubicles: a Disability Tax ($36.31), State Income Tax ($164.34), Medicare ($54.34), Federal Income Tax ($412.93), and Social Security Tax ($232.33). I've capitalized all of these terms because they sound Very Important™.

After both Death and Taxes, my biweekly take-home pay is $4,038.46 - ($1,200 + $293.75 + $3.57) - ($36.31 + $164.34 + $54.34 + $412.93 + $232.33) = $1,640.89.

Woah woah Brandon, hold on for a second. The yearly contribution limit for a 401k is $18,000, and $3,350 for a personal HSA. Crunching the numbers, your paycheck contributions are way too high!!

You'd normally be correct, over-eager eagle-eyed finance-savvy reader. The discrepancy is that I started working in May. I didn't start contributing to the 401k until June, and I didn't get my act together and start dumping small fistfuls of money into the HSA until September. The great thing about this is that starting at the beginning of next year, these two contributions are going to drop pretty dramatically (because they're spread over a full year), adding about $900 to my bi-weekly bottom line.

The Leftovers

We've established that 60% of my salary is gone before I see a cent of it (which is fine for reasons we'll get to soon), where does the rest of it go? If I were living in an apartment and paying the rate of $2,180 I estimated here, >65% of my after-tax money would go to that. But that, as we're all well-aware at this point, is not the case. So where is that money going? I was actually kind of curious myself, so I opened up my various credit card/bank statements and have itemized everything that cost more than $100 and was purchased on or after May 26th.

Non-Exhaustive List of Big Expenses

Expense Amount Thoughts
Speeding Ticket $470 I'm pretty sad that this is my most expensive "purchase". For someone who hates burning money on things with absolutely no return or value whatsoever, this one is tough to swallow. Oh well, maybe I'll be less of an idiot in the future.
Truck Insurance Round 2 $421.88 A necessary evil, made more palatable by the recent cost reduction.
Bike $380.60 Worth all 38,060 cents. In the two weeks I've had it, I've logged well over 100 miles. And for the person who asked what kind of bike it is, it's a Raleigh Misceo 1.0
Expensive "Art" $334.24 Long story short, I thought it would be funny to pretend to buy an expensive piece of art that a friend was looking at. Well the joke is on me, Hautelook has a strict "No Returns" policy.
Motorcycle Gear $330.44 Helmet, gloves, boots, jacket, etc. I don't have a motorcycle, and I don't have any plans to get one until I'm debt-free and I can buy it in cash. But I needed the gear for the lessons (see three items down). The gear is pretty nice, and inexpensive for what it is.
Projector $329.45 I haven't talked about this yet (I'll write a post eventually), but I did purchase a small, battery-powered projector for watching truck movies. Sure, it goes against my philosophy of minimizing time inside the box, but it's mostly for facilitating truck hangout sessions. I think that's a valid exception to the rule.
Rental Car $269.80 My partner in crime the faithful night I received my half-grand speeding ticket. Necessary for a week of driving between Amherst and Boston.
Motorcycle Lessons $258 I can't remember what originally motivated me to take the lessons in the first place, I think it had something to do with the electric bicycle. While learning to ride a motorcycle wasn't exactly a necessity, it was a ton of fun. It's all the fun of a bicycle, but faster (and louder, more expensive, worse for the environment, worse for your body, etc)!
Bike Gear $249.39 Helmet, lights, glasses, etc. The benefits of investing in quality cycling gear are twofold. Firstly, the gear is going to last and save you money. Secondly, the gear is nice and safe and comfortable and pleasant and just makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, which makes you want to ride more frequently.
Truck Wash/Detail $158.49 I try not to outsource work that I can do myself, but it's not like I have hoses or, you know, running water around to wash the truck myself. And the interior was in rough shape when I got it: from the few clues available to me (a receipt, some strange stains, and some stranger smells), I think the previous owner was really sticking to the script as far as trucker stereotypes go. Plus, my preferred parking place periodically pretends it's the Midwest during the Dust Bowl, so the truck gets pretty filthy.
New Clothes $154.37 I took a trip to JCPenny (I think?) when I first moved out here and picked up a few shirts and a few pairs of jeans. I hadn't brought much with me when I moved out here, and it seemed reasonable to look the part for my new job and disguise my inner homeless person.
Seven Hills $150 Fancy dinner with a few friends. Ordered one of everything on the menu and split the tab, each of us paid $150.
Townshend $140 Dinner date, catching up with a friend while I was back in Boston. I like to sip cocktails and discuss professional development over ambient candlelight, also known as "pretending to be a well-adjusted member of society" for a night.
Passport $136.75 Necessary for my eventual travels. What sort of eventual adventurer would I be without a proper passport? A domestic one, that's for sure.
Gochi $135 Another dinner date, ate a bunch of things I wouldn't dare attempt to pronounce.
The Boiling Crab $120 One more dinner date, this time featuring the merciless pulverization of pre-killed sea creatures slathered in fat and spices. Fun for the whole family.

That accounts for most, if not all, of the big things, but naturally there are hundreds of smaller purchases that paint the picture more vividly: the (slightly) more reasonably-priced meals out, the movie tickets, the too-frequent Starbucks visits, the weekly Home Depot trips, etc. It'd be silly to have gathered all this information if we weren't going to draw some meaningful conclusions from it though. One thing I noticed is, though I haven't included the dates for the expenses, most of my earlier expenditures can be characterized by one mindset, while the later ones subscribe to a different school of thought. When I first adopted the truck life, my financial thinking was along the lines of, "I don't have to pay rent, that's ~$2,000 a month I can blow on whatever I want!" That mindset, as I'm slowly figuring out, is the wrong one to have. The new mindset is, "Consumption alone doesn't make happiness. Find what really brings you happiness, and invest your resources into that." I know, I know, I sound like a damn fortune cookie, but let me explain how that maps to my real-life plans.

The Plan

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I didn't really know what I wanted aside from freedom from debt. It wasn't until the Internet became privy to my life and started feeding me new perspectives and resources that it really clicked: I'm in the perfect position to retire early, and it aligns precisely with my goals. The more I thought about it, the less I could believe I hadn't seen it earlier. My motivation for all of this had always been "to travel the world", but what I didn't realize was how that was only a small piece of the bigger picture.

Making it a Reality

It's easy to say, "I want to retire early". But we all know talk is cheap, so let's start acting. More than a few people had pointed me towards Early Retirement Extreme, Mad Fientist, and Mr. Money Mustache, none of which I had ever heard of before. Mr. Money Mustache (MMM), in particular, has tons of ideas and philosophies that I'd been applying to my own life totally independently. His concept of "Mustachianism" centers on how to think about happiness, conscientious consumption, and life-hacks to cut unnecessary expenses, which normally circles around to his love of bikes. One thing that MMM had that I did not (aside from 20 years of extra life-experience) was a solid investment plan.

Investment

How early you can retire correlates with how much of your money you save. When you save money such that you can live on ~4% of the principal balance a year, you can retire. And by "save money", I mean take it and invest it in things that appreciate in value by, on average, >7% a year. This is something that was missing from my original plan, because I had banked (no pun intended) on maxing out my 401k for the next 35 years and then retiring on that money. Getting started with this huge shift in plans was surprisingly easy. My company uses Vanguard to manage our 401k accounts, so it was dangerously easy for me to open up a personal investment account through them and throw some money in there.

But Brandon, you know nothing about investing, how could you possibly have made a reasonable, balanced portfolio?

Because index funds are magical. I have no interest in buying individual stocks, I'm no Warren Buffett. I want something that averages out the market, smoothing over dips in different sectors and provides fairly consistent returns over long periods of time. But which index fund do I pick? I have no opinions on what direction the dividend market is heading (price-earnings ratios and their meaning are complete voodoo witchcraft to me), so I didn't put any particular emphasis on whether or not the index included dividend-paying companies. I didn't want to get too fancy with international companies, that's another area where I'm not nearly well-versed enough to make reasonable, informed decisions. I also knew that I wanted something with a low-expense ratio, so that my returns actually make it back to me and not to some hotshot banker putting a down payment on his third Lambo. All of these things led me to VOO - Vanguard S&P 500 ETF, an index fund from Vanguard that tracks the S&P 500 Index. It has a super low expense ratio (0.05%), and there's nothing too crazy or exotic about it. So I took $1,000 that I was going to use to pay down my loans, and I used it to buy a few shares of VOO.

But Brandon, I thought the goal was to pay down your student loans quickly so they don't accumulate interest?

That was (and still is) the goal, but there are a couple things to consider. First, I've paid off all of the higher interest (6.8%) student loans I had, the remaining loans all have a (dirt-cheap) 3.4% interest rate. And though past performance is not an indicator of future results, VOO has had annual returns of >10%. Even accounting for inflation, throwing my money at VOO and letting my loans accumulate interest is likely a profitable plan. That said, it's hard to put a value on the peace of mind you get from being debt-free, so my plan going forward is to split my savings-money between investing and loans, with about a 60/40 split leaning towards Vanguard. Once I get my bonus in a few months, I'll likely use that to put the final nail in the coffin of my short-lived student loan debt.

But Brandon, if you plan to retire so early, why bother with your HSA and 401k at all? It's not like you can use that money.

Good question, straw man alter ego. There are a couple perfectly valid reasons, but the biggest one is free money. My company matches 50% of my 401k contribution up to the $18,000 limit, meaning they hand me $9,000 a year extra just because I'm looking out for future me. Similarly, they drop $1,000 into the HSA every year as part of my health insurance plan. Another good reason is that I'm putting before tax money into these accounts, so they decrease my tax burden as well. On top of that, I learned that I can invest my HSA money, effectively turning it into a second retirement fund. One of the options for HSA investing was VIIIX, which is basically the same thing as VOO above, just in a different type of account. All of this means that even when I retire early, both of these funds will continue to (hopefully) earn money and compound, and I get magical cash windfalls for my 60th and 65th birthdays. Plus, with a trick I learned about here, you can actually take tax-free money out of your HSA before 65.

Lifestyle and Looking Forward

I'm already on track to make this a reality, and retire at 30 (or earlier, who knows), but going into it with the right mindset will make it even easier. I've been on my soapbox talking about how true happiness, for most people, isn't hiding in shopping malls or the crevices between the fresh leather seats of a new car, but I haven't been living my own credo to the fullest. Looking back at the past six months and my expense list above, I had more than my fair share of expensive nights out that only served to fatten me up and slim my wallet, leaving me with a few fuzzy memories and a productivity-ruining hangover. I get so much more lasting happiness from taking quiet bike rides down the Bay Trail, or even just sweeping out the truck on a lazy Sunday morning, opening the back gate to let the sunshine in and the gentle breeze twirl my dust pile around. It's just a matter of training myself to look in the right places.

As for my actual "early retirement", I probably shouldn't even call it that. When I say "early retirement", I really just mean the freedom to do what I want, and not have to work to survive. It's very unlikely that I'd actually stop working; I have sketches for grand plans that involve spending months on beaches in southeast Asia coding up whatever projects cross my mind. The only tricky thing for me now is figuring out how much money I'd need to retire on. My current life is heavily subsidised by my employer, and retiring would necessarily take that away from me. Luckily, I have a few years to figure it all out. For now, I'm just going to enjoy the interesting technical challenges I'm presented with on a daily basis, and watch my future unfold.

Source: Zillow

I was talking to someone, who we'll call Michael (because that's his name), about the truck life and this blog, and he said, "You know, it'd be cool if you had a place on the site where you could see how much money you've saved." Well Michael, I agree with you wholeheartedly, so starting today, there'll be a live-updating clock on the right left side (or bottom on mobile) of the page that shows the amount of money I've saved by living in a truck. I've mentioned on numerous occasions that it's not entirely about the money, but regardless, it's an interesting metric to have. However, without an explanation as to how I arrived at that value, this whole thing would be pretty pointless. So here is my magic money formula.

The Recipe

The formula itself is pretty simple. I alluded to it in this post, but stated more explicitly, the formula is:

Savings = Time In Truck*(Cost of Rent - Truck Insurance) - Cost of Truck

So I'm glossing over the units here, but "Time in Truck", "Cost of Rent", and "Truck Insurance" are all measured by the month, and the cost of the truck was the initial investment. Now let's plug some numbers in.

Time In Truck

The "Time in Truck" is the total amount of time I've been living in a truck instead of paying rent somewhere. My first night in the truck was my first day of work, and would have been roughly when I moved into an apartment if that's the route I had gone. So "Time in Truck" is the number of months (as a decimal value) since May 26th, 2015. As of this writing, it's about 1.863 months, assuming 30-day months for simplicity.*

Cost of Rent

Since I didn't end up getting an actual apartment, it's impossible to know the actual amount I'd have paid in rent per month. However, I do know that I was looking for a studio apartment in the Mountain View area, and luckily there are more than enough services that can tell me, on average, how much that would cost me. Zillow is the premier service for buying, selling, and renting online. They have a pretty extensive database of housing prices, especially with respect to time. According to their site, as of May 2015, a studio apartment in Mountain View averages $2,180 a month. So that's what we'll use for our "Cost of Rent" value.

Truck Insurance

It turns out I'm not entirely off the hook for all monthly expenses. My sole monthly, truck-related expense is insurance, which costs me about $121 a month. In all likelihood, I'd still get a car and pay for insurance if I wasn't living in the truck, but to make my estimates conservative, we're not going to consider that.

Cost of Truck

I've mentioned before, but after haggling, fees, repairs, and taxes, the truck cost me almost exactly $10,000.

The Final Formula

Savings = Time*(2180 - 121) - Cost of Truck = Time*2,059 - 10,000

But wait, why is it negative?

At the time of this writing, my net "savings" are a little over −$6,100. It's negative right now because I spent more money buying the truck than I've saved on rent. But if you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that we can calculate the "break-even point", where Savings = $0. Using a tiny bit of math and a tiny bit of Wolfram Alpha, we can see that my break-even point will occur on Wednesday, October 21st, 2015 at 4:50 PM. I'll have to throw a party or something. I'll certainly make a post noting the clock is in the black.

*Yes, I'm well-aware that assuming a 30-day month will cause the calculated savings to drift further away from the actual savings as time goes on. I don't particularly care right now, maybe I'll use a more accurate measure in the future.

Subscribe

If you want to get emailed when I write a post, add your email here. Don't worry, you can always unsubscribe.