Book review – Meet the Frugalwoods

Recently Elizabeth Thames, more commonly known as “Mrs. Frugalwoods” came out with a book detailing their path to financial independence and a new life on a farm in central Vermont. Most readers know the basic story, as they have been following her blog (see link to right) for years.

The book is told entirely from Mrs. Frugalwoods point of view (she does include conversations with her husband often). It tells the story from her college graduation, her first job (making $10,000 while living in Brooklyn and working for Americorp), and then on to other locals, jobs and adventures. Along the way, she manages to save a large percentage of her income by living a frugal, but not extreme, existence.

After the two of them marry and move to Boston for work (and after they have bought a house) they decide to pursue Financial Independence. The two of them are having coffee/tea at a shop, and Mr. Frugalwoods shows her a spreadsheet with reveals that, based on cutting some of their current expenses (they were already saving about 45% of their take home pay), and then renting their house in Cambridge, MA, in 3 years and 5 months. they could purchase a farm in Vermont and be financially independent.

It is at that that the Frugalwoods blog starts, and they “kick it into high gear” and start to really save. It is this part of the book where she goes into some detail on how to trim expenses even more, and some of the steps they took to move towards extreme frugality. She even gave up her haircuts and had her husband start cutting her hair! As a budding FI person, this is the part that I like, the concrete methods used, the things I could learn from and copy.

The conclusion of the book has them reach their FI number, and at the same time, give birth to their first child, and buy their farm in central Vermont. All a happy ending, though the adventure for them is really only just beginning. I’m sure as you read her blog, you will get to learn more about their new lives.

As far as a finance book, I would have to say it was lacking a lot of the math and calculations that folks in the community are used to seeing. The book is lacking in net worth calculations, expense ratios, etc. As a numbers geek, I was hoping for more concrete examples of how they reached their goals.

If you look a good story of how one woman and her family reached FI and found a life that they wanted, it’s a good yarn.

 

Mr. 39 Months.

Tax Time and Stoic Philosophy

From “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday

“Nothing will ever befall me that I will receive with gloom or a bad disposition. I will pay my taxes gladly. Now, all the things which cause complaint or dread are like the taxes of life – things from which, my dear Lucilious, you should never hope for exemption or seek escape.” Seneca

As your income taxes come due, you might be like many people – complaining at what you have to fork over to the government. Forty percent of everything I make goes to these people? And for what?!

First off, taxes go to a lot of programs and services you almost certainly take for granted. Second, you think you’re so special? People have been complaining about their taxes for thousands of years, and now they’re dead. Get over it. Third, this is a good problem to have. Far better than, say, making so little there is nothing left to pay the government or living in an anarchy and having to pay for every basic service in a struggle against nature.

But more important, income taxes are not the only taxes you pay in life. They are just the financial form. Everything we do has a toll attached to it. Waiting around is a tax on traveling. Rumors and gossip are the taxes that come from acquiring a public persona. Disagreements and occasional frustration are taxes placed on even the happiest of relationships. Theft is a tax on abundance and having things that other people want. Stress and problems are tariffs that come attached to success. And on and on and on.

There are many forms of taxes in life. You can argue with them, you can go to great – but ultimately futile – lengths to evade them, or you can simply pay them and enjoy the fruits of what you get to keep.”

In the end, we’ll pay our taxes, but nothing says we can’t do our best to keep them as low as possible.

Mr. 39 Months

 

 

Staying “up to speed”professionally, while working on FIRE

Most of us working on FIRE are not there yet. We have to continue to slave away at work while we build up our resources and dream about life once we are there. Or we have hit FI, but continue to work because we enjoy what we are doing. Either way, we need to continue to work on staying competent in our roles as the technology and work change (in some cases, very dramatically)

Mr. 39 Months happens to work in the logistics industry (warehousing, trucking, etc.) – an industry which has started to feel the effects of the next wave of automation. Previously, automation meant conveyor systems to move packages, packaging machines to handle some of the mundane tasks, etc. The new wave of automation coming out is more heavily weighted towards robots and AI (an area that I am behind the curve on).

Every other year, my industry has a trade show, called Modex, in Atlanta GA. Imagine a floor about the size of 2-3 football fields, filled with the latest technology in pallet racking, conveyors, robots, software, hardware, etc. As an engineer, its like a kid in a candy store. The problem is having enough time to both see everything, and to talk in-depth with the vendors of technology you feel can be used in your company.

In addition, these shows have numerous seminars and training sessions that cover the technology, which enables you to better understand its uses, and how it might impact your company. While these sessions are put on by specific companies (who are trying to get you to buy their product) it still is a great way to train yourself in a new work method or piece of equipment.

I had a great time over the 4-days, learned a lot, and helped to improve my ability to assist my company. I would urge everyone who is working to seek out the professional society and trade shows for that group, and make an effort to attend. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

 

Mr. 39 Months

Rent a home vs Buy? The age old question….

There has been a lot of ink spent on trying to answer this most basic of questions. In the FIRE community, there are strong voices advocated each choice, and there are a lot of bloggers, even though their analysis shows that renting for them is optimal who choose to get a house anyway.

It is a decision that is based on numerous variables, each of which has to be determined for a market that is dramatically fractured. In my state of New Jersey, the price for the town next to mine is ½ to 1/3 the price of my own town. This is primarily due to the school system and the perceived value of that town.

Some of the monetary variables that need to be considered include:

  • Home value
  • Mortgage rate
  • Down payment
  • Property taxes
  • Repair costs
  • Condo fees
  • Decorating/remodel costs
  • Increases in home value
  • Increases in rent rates
  • Home insurance costs vs rental insurance costs

In addition, there are numerous non-monetary factors that impact this:

  • Neighborhood/School system – major factor with families
  • Closeness to other family
  • Not selling/owning home vs. continuing to rent into your retirement (i.e. if you purchase a home, its yours after 15/30 years, but if you rent, you are still renting at the age of 65)
  • Flexibility/ease to move (hard to move quickly while having to sell a home)
  • Ease of finding rental (in some markets, like Colorado, it’s almost impossible to find a rental. Home prices have shot up so much that it has forced out rental opportunities)
  • Rental increases in excess of model (you don’t have control of this, unlike a locked in mortgage rate – the owner could jump your rates 10% and you are out of luck)

I would say these intangible factors are what causes a lot of the FIRE bloggers who have done the math to buy a home anyway, even if the numbers say it doesn’t make sense.

In the end, the answer is – it depends. There are too many variables and too much personal preference involved in the decision. Everyone has to do the math for their specific situation, take into account the non-monetary factors, and then decide.

To help, here are some “make vs. buy” tools available for free on the internet.

NerdWallet: 4 years

Realtor.com: 9 years

NY Time: 9 Years

Zillow.com: 2 years

Smartasset.com: Depends on what you put in

I think NerdWallet and Zillow leave out a few things that need to be considered (Zillow has a hidden agenda to get you to buy a home). Realtor and NY times include a lot more items to be considered (maintenance of home, Condo fees, etc.). I like smart asset, because it lets you input a lot more of the data yourself (mortgage rate, repair costs, etc.) so you can match it easier to your current situation.

Any thoughts on make vs buy for you?

 

Mr. 39 Months

Quarterly Update – Apr 2018

Well, it’s early April, a quarter of the way through the year, and hopefully a good start for the year’s goals. Again, a lot of folks don’t like to do this sort of thing, but as an engineer and amateur financial junkie, I actually love taking a look at these sort of things. Even when I’ve had a bad quarter (or bad year) I like to look at the numbers and see what my situation is, and the future outlook – and financially the first quarter had both good and bad.

So how am I doing in comparison to my goals for 2018?

My Goals for 2018 (some financial, some not):

Finance:

  • Save $81K in tax-advantaged accounts (saved almost $37K in 2017): Grade B. Saved almost $14K in 1st qtr, and looking to dump $21K from my bonus into it in early April.
  • Save $9K in regular: Grade A. Got this done right out of the gate. The $5K I had to take from my inherited IRA went right into this, and I took $4K from savings and put it in as well. The $333/month I was going to dollar-cost average into it will just go to plus back up my savings.
  • Increase dividend income from all accounts to $24K/year: Grade B. Was at $4,456 for 1st qtr vs. $4,089 in 1st qtr 2017. I usually get a big boost in 4th qtr, so we will see if I hit it.
  • Passive income covers 33% of base living expenses in retirement, i.e. $24K of my $72K expected expenses: Grade B. See above – need to hit $24K of dividends, since I don’t have other forms of passive income right now.
  • Beat net worth growth rate of 7%: Grade D. Market is down, thus hurting my net worth. It hasn’t grown hardly at all, despite the $23K that I dumped into it. If market recovers, I should still be able to hit this.

Business:

  • Begin attending regular meetings of my local real estate investors association. Grade C. Attended four (4) meetings over 3 months. Good info, but nowhere near as much as I should be investing time for. There was a great one last night on estimating repair costs, but it was full and I couldn’t attend.
  • Double the number of blog visitors in 2018. Grade A. I’ve already exceeded last years numbers by 15%. I’m sure part of it is that I have more content. Still, I need to do a better job of providing stuff folks want to read.
  • Write/publish a book on finance.  Grade: Incomplete. Did some initial work on it, but really haven’t put as much work into this as it needs.

Personal:

  • Increase weight lifted by 10% from 2018 (increased by 12.7% in 2017 Grade B: Up 3% from the beginning of the year
  • Average 3 hours of cardio per week (currently averaging about an hour).Grade C: Averaging about 1.7 Hours a week as of March.
  • Take part in at least one long bike ride, like MS bike-a-thon (80 miles) Grade: Incomplete. Bike scheduled for September
  • Backpack over 100 miles on AT (did over 100 in 2017) Grade: Incomplete. Hike’s scheduled for June and October
  • Begin volunteering at Pennsbury Manor at their joiner’s shop (woodworking) Grade C: Volunteer training set for April 15th, and then I will start
  • Reduce weight by 20 lbs. from Jan 2018 (lost 9 lbs. in 2017). Grade D: Only lost 4 lbs. in 1st Qtr. Need to get better at fitness and diet.
  • Read at least one book a month. Grade A. Read five (5) books in 1st qtr, one work of fiction, two self help, and two histories. Really enjoying this personal goal

Travel:

  • Visit a national park (visited Shenandoah NP in 2017). Grade: Incomplete. Scheduled to visit two parks in May (Redwoods NP in California and Crater Lake in Oregon)
  • Visit family in Tennessee, Vermont and New York. Family is very important to me. One of the things I am looking forward to with financial independence is the opportunity to visit family more often. Grade B. Visited family in TN in March, but only for a short time. Looking forward to more visits throughout the year.
  • Visit Portland, OR and northern California. Grade: Incomplete. Scheduled to visit in May 2018.
  • Visit Ellis Island. Wanted to do this in 2017, but didn’t make it. As 50% Czech from immigrant great grandparents from the turn of the century, I believe they went through there, and I want to see it Grade: F. Still haven’t been there and I have had the opportunities.
  • Go on an international trip. Not sure which one (Canada, Caribbean, etc.) but I’d like to get out this year. Grade: Incomplete. Nothing scheduled at this time.
  • Visit the Asheville NC area. It’s one of the areas that we are considering retiring to (close to my old home in Tennessee, interesting crafts, shops & outdoor sports, etc.). Trying to learn more about the area (we’ve been there a couple of times). Grade: Incomplete. Nothing scheduled at this time.

Overall, I’d give myself a B. Got a lot done, but still have more to go.

 

How are you going on your goals for 2018?

 

Mr. 39 Months

Status Update, Apr 1 2018

Well, not much progress was made during the month of March, but I also didn’t lose, which (when you think of February) could be considered a plus. I did get one month closer to FI (27 months to go!). While I am not “going gangbusters” right now, I’m not unhappy. As I said in my previous post, I believe I am going to be able to get some investments on sale in early April. Still haven’t gotten back to $1M in invest-able assets (thank you February) – but I will soon.

Retirement Accounts: Remember, my allocation for these is:

  • 30% Bond Index Fund
  • 17.5% S&P500 Index Fund
  • 17.5% International Index Fund
  • 17.5% Small Cap Index Fund
  • 17.5% REIT Index Fund

I ended up being about 0.4% up here, after all the craziness. While the S&P 500 Index and International Equity lost significantly, the bonds and small cap did alright. The surprise was the REITs! After getting pummeled in 2017 and the beginning of 2018, they hopped up over 4% in March, and enabled me to stay in the black. Another reason for asset allocation. Note that these returns include reinvesting dividends.

My 401K/Deferred account at work was down 1.1% for March – but this one doesn’t have a REIT option in its choices, so I didn’t get the benefit of the REITs for March (but didn’t suffer from this in this account for 2017).

Dividend Income Account: Allocation:

  • 25% Dividend Stocks
  • 25% REITs
  • 50% Bond Index Funds

Did well, considering – 1.7% up for March. Again, don’t forget that it is ¼ REITs, and they really helped it out. The bonds didn’t really go up much, but I did get the advantage of all the dividends. Overall, dividends were about 3% annual yield – and I will reinvest those in the assets that went down in 1st quarter.

Value Investing Account: Allocation (remember I refocused this at the beginning of February):

  • 60% in individual value stocks I picked myself (3 each, 20% for each)
  • 40% in Vanguard Value Index fund

Another bad performance for the stocks that I picked myself. Down 4.7% for the month of March. Everything in this account is down. I believe I am going to give it to the end of the year, and if it’s no better, then its going to Low-cost index funds!. Again, this is more of a “fun money” account where I experiment. It keeps showing me that I’m not a good stock picker.

The allocations are not too much “out of whack” so I don’t intend to re-balance until July (unless something major happens).

How did you do in March?

 

Mr. 39 Months

One of the benefits of a major stock market correction…

A lot of folks have been bemoaning the drop in the market, talking about the billions of $ that have been lost, and how the market seems to been in danger of a major correction. The doom-and-gloom people have been out in force. Still, most folks in the FIRE community have taken in all in with a “grain of salt” because of our long-term outlook and our financial knowledge. We all remember that it’s all paper losses, until you sell.

One of the major benefits of a market drop is the potential to buy things “on sale.” If we truly believe that the long-term trend of the market is up, then this sudden drop gives us the chance to purchase something we wanted. I know most folks in the US flock to sales like crazy (especially around Christmas), but seem to shy away from “sales” on stocks. Seems odd, doesn’t it.

This has an added benefit when you find yourself with some excess funds, for some reason. Mr. 39 Months company paid out their bonus for 2017, and since the company did well, I got a decent amount of money. With the timing the way it is, I can drop that into the market and buy some items on sale at the equivalent of a 4.1% discount (based on Jan 31 prices). Also, since I put 100% of it into my deferred account, I am able to put that money into the market without paying taxes on it (I did have to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes).

The result was a nice bump in the money that I can access when I retire early, as part of my draw down strategy.

Find any bargains out there?

 

Mr. 39 Months

Woodworking with a legend

Roy Underhill has been showing traditional woodworking on PBS for 37 years. He was a master carpenter and Woodwright for Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia before he started. He has concentrated on traditional 18th/19th century tools and woodcraft, and has been a prime mover for the rebirth of hand-tool woodworking in America. Roy has a definite, almost manic style of presentation, both on TV and in person. Always a joker, He keeps it light while helping to explain the intricacies of using a 19th century tool to come up with accurate results.

About ten years ago, he opened up a school for woodworking, where folks can come and attend classes, see and use the tools (he has a host of them available if folks don’t have their own) and purchase tools to take home if they’d like (there is a separate store, owned by Ed Lebetkin, upstairs). The schools is in a store front in the quaint town of Pittsboro, NC.

I’ve taken classes there on hand tool use, and a special one on wooden molding planes. Last week I took a class with Will Myers and Roy at his school, where we built a great “portable” workbench. This one is based on a bench that Will found in the Moravian museum in North Carolina, which they believe is a design built around 1800. As most woodworkers know, a good bench is strong, sturdy and heavy, so it can withstand the pounding without moving or breaking. This one breaks down into six major parts, the heaviest of which is the 4” think workbench top (around 100 lbs.). It’s fairly portable, but sturdy when you set it up.

There is something really enjoyable about doing all the work by hand. Every cut is hand-sawn, every hole is hand-drilled, and every joint is cut out and fitted. By the end of five days, we were able to take home a workbench that was 85%-90% complete, including a great front vise. The remaining work that needed to be done is relatively easy (I’ve already gotten about half of it done over the last 2-3 days, in the evenings).

I would greatly recommend to anyone that if they have hobbies, don’t wait till you retire early. Take the opportunity to explore them now, if only to confirm it is something that you’d like to do for a long time.

 

What new skill would you like to try out?

 

Mr. 39 Months

Update to draw down strategy – Mar 2018

After going through the health care analysis earlier, I (like so many others) have had to adjust my retirement plans and drawdown strategy to account for Obamacare and changes to it. Like so many others, as well, I will have to continually monitor the situation and make changes. In addition, Mrs. 39 Months looks like she wants to continue to work after we hit FI, but her job probably wouldn’t provide benefits.

The key issue is the provision for subsidies for individuals that do not make more than 4X the poverty level (the poverty level was around $16,000 for 2017). Thus, if your income, before deductions, is $64K or less, you can be eligible for subsidies. This may mean the difference between paying $1,400 a month and $600 a month for the same level of healthcare. Needless to say, if the situation remains the same, I’ll either need to make $64K, or $74K (the $10K necessary to pay the additional medical). I know many folks in the FIRE community knew this, but I thought it was $64K after deductions, not before.

Our initial budget post-retirement, was going to be about $72K, in order to pay for everything, including medical. This would provide for all bills, some travel, and $1K a month each for Mrs. 39 Months and myself in “fun money”/personal expenses. That would push us over the $64K figure. In addition, if Mrs. 39 Months works (earning around $24K), it adds a level of complexity. So how do I “square this circle?”

When we hit FI (27 months from now), we should have the following amounts.

  • Savings: $132K (can spend without having to pay taxes)
  • Deferred Income from work: $179K (when paid out, have to pay taxes on it)
  • Brokerage Account: $94K (can spend about $60K of it without paying taxes. The rest, will be taxable.
  • Inherited IRA from my father: $137K (taxable when we take it out)
  • 401K/IRAs: $546K (taxable + penalty)
  • Roth IRAs: $257K (non-taxable)
  • Total: $1,345K liquid assets
  • House: $298K (not depending on it unless absolutely necessary, i.e. no reverse mortgage)

Complications

  • Mrs. 39 Months making $24K/year. Have to start from there
  • Inherited IRA will force us to take around $6K a year
  • When I leave company, I have to start taking my deferred amount. I believe I get to stretch it over 5 years, but that still winds up as a minimum of $36K a year

As you can see, I’m already up to $60K, without the ability to alter it. How do I get to $72K of income, without going over the $64K of taxable income?

Options

  1. Use the money in my brokerage account by selling some of the stocks there. I would only have to pay for any capital gains on it. Since it looks like about 2/3 of money in it will be basis money, I could take out $12K, and it would only show as $4K of income.
  2. Use some of my Roth IRA money, which is not taxable, to make up for the shortage. Even though I would only be 56 when I hit FIRE, I can still withdraw the money I put in, tax free. However, I am loathe to do this.
  3. Get myself a side gig/part time job to keep myself from going crazy from retirement boredom and pay for the additional medical costs. We will have to see about that.

What is my current plan? I’m going to plan for option 1, and if I get really bored in retirement, I’ll probably shoot for #3, with the understanding that I will be working half of my time just to pay for medical. Like so many others in the US, medical is driving the train!

Of course, all this could change over the next 27 months as we move forward.

So, any changes to your drawdown plans, folks?

 

 

Mr 39 Months
 

Great chart at “Four Pillars” on how long it will take to reach FI at certain income and spending levels   

I think the chart below is excellent. Its from FourPillarFreedom.com (a blog I’ve got to start reading now) that was linked to by The Simple Dollar. It shows, at certain income and spending levels, how many years it will take you to reach FI (assuming the 4% rule and a 5% interest after inflation). I believe it also takes into account taxes, etc. in the annual spending (i.e. your annual spend should include your taxes)

Many folks find it difficult to explain to people why they should save so much, and how it takes effort and sacrifice to reach our financial goals. This chart makes it a little easier to explain to people how long they would have to work in order to retire/reach FI.

Four Pillars has a lot of other tools (listed under his “Visuals” area) that help to show many of the FI concepts.

Check him out.

 

Mr. 39 Months