Time to take a look back

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Two years since I quit my job and a year of blogging — how time flies

zprogressionLife is fleeting. I guess we all know that and it isn’t such a profound thing to say. But there are times when weeks flash by in what feels like minutes. “Wow,” we sigh after an exhausting week, “That week sure flew by.” And so the minutes of our days turn into weeks, which somehow become months. Then, in a quiet moment, we realize decades have slipped away from us.

That’s how it’s been around here the last few months. I can barely remember what’s been happening as I lurch from thing I have to do to thing that has to be done next. So, dear readers, I apologize for disappearing on you for the past several weeks. I won’t promise that it won’t happen again.

What’s been going on? Really, just life. Pretired Baby is officially a toddler now and has me on the move. He also had a major sleep regression a little over a month ago. That joyful stage included screaming in the middle of the night, a sleep schedule thrown into disarray and fighting us at bedtime. On top of that he’s been ridiculously clingy — always with me. To the point where he throws a fit if I even leave the room. Exhausting!

Meanwhile we’ve also been making a big push on the basement remodel project. I’ll save some of the detail for a later post, but let’s just say it’s been a good reminder that you never know what you’re going to find when you take drywall off walls. Naturally right at the same time my consulting client needed a bunch of work all at once so that has kept me hopping.

That’s all just a long way of saying I’m sorry I’ve been too busy to write. We’re making a few schedule tweaks to the childcare coverage and Pretired Baby’s sleep schedule has been getting back to normal so hopefully we’ll be back to normal soon. Fortunately we have a much-needed vacation coming up that should allow us to take a breath at least.

But these crazy past few weeks aren’t the only reason I’m pausing to take a look back.

I’m just a few days away from marking two years since I quit my horrible job to get ready for the baby’s arrival. And I just passed one year of blogging — appropriately I was too busy to post something about it on my anniversary.

This is what I mean by time flying by. Two years since I left my job? Really?

I don’t remember a ton of detail about that last day of work. I had some lunch with some buddies. I deleted a lot of old email. I left kind of early. All I know for sure is that the most dangerous place in Seattle that day was between my car and the freeway. The strips of rubber I left on the road that day are probably still there, marking my trail with black hate.

I quit knowing it was an uncertain move. Sure, I had no short-term economic worries. I had no debt outside of my real estate, enough free cash to last quite a while and a wife who still worked (even though I was committed to paying my own expenses). I was already on my wife’s free healthcare because the plan at that job was terrible. Since I hadn’t yet sold my fourplex, I had some theoretical monthly income and equity I could tap if I ever got desperate. And I’ve always known I probably need 3-5 more years of income to totally ice my pretirement.

But to keep things interesting, we decided that would be the perfect time to gut the kitchen and do a complete remodel. We sent Pretired Mama away for awhile and I got out the sledgehammer and destroyed the place. I’m still amazed how quickly we pulled that one off. It was a little crazy to try to squeeze that in before the baby arrived, but we were smart to get it done before he got here, I think, especially knowing how things are now.

I wisely quit in the spring so I would be able to enjoy the summer at home. And it was a beautiful summer. Yeah, I was busy working on the house, but it felt great and having wide open days with no job or baby meant I could move fast. No desk sitting meant I felt better than I had in years. I’d step outside to cut some studs on the chop saw and the sun would feel magical on my skin. The neighborhood was quiet and empty. Bliss.

Then the baby happened.

I had a lot to learn. How to feed him. How to calm him. I’ve changed a shitload of diapers. I’ve done a ton of laundry. Fortunately my wife got a few months off from her job so we were both home full-time for about four months together. Then it was just me. Then I spun up my consulting business again, doing most of my work during naps. And then I started a major basement remodel. Oh yeah, and started a blog.

The blog has grown far beyond my wildest dreams. It started as a lark, almost more as a way to get some things off my chest more than anything else. But the response has been tremendous and surprising. Now that this site is becoming a “thing” I’m beginning to formulate some actual goals for the future. Goals? Wow, I hope this doesn’t start to feel like a job! Either way I’ll share some of those goals in the coming days. 

And, yes, I have more posts to come. I still have a lot to say. I just need to find the time! 

So here’s to many more years of blogging and hopefully many more years of not working! Thanks for joining me on my journey!

What do you do when there’s nowhere to invest?

nowhere to invest

Nowhere to invest? With a sky-high stock market, it often seems like there’s nowhere to put money.
Image courtesy Renjith Krishnan via FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

I had an interesting exchange with a reader named Bradley recently. Bradley’s basic question was “with the market at all-time highs, where do you put your money? It’s a good question because it does feel a bit like there’s nowhere to invest right now.

And it’s a particularly relevant question for me because I’ve been facing this exact dilemma with the recent windfall from the sale of my fourplex. Making matters “worse,” I just sold another piece of property so I have even more cash coming my way.

If you’ve ever made the mistake of reading any news site comment sections related to the stock market, you already know that there are two main contingents who both believe they are 100 percent correct: One says the market is headed for a crash very soon and only a fool would gamble his money in the stock market. The other group, equally sure their beliefs are correct, say the market will keep going up, up, up and only a fool stays out of the market worrying about a crash. (To get a handle on your investment portfolio, be sure to sign up for a free account from Personal Capital.)

Naturally, both sides are right and both are wrong. In reality, we all know that this market will undergo a significant correction at some point. We also know that the market will grow its way out of that dip. What we don’t know, of course, is when and we don’t know how long it will take to recover. That’s why the most important factor in any investment is the investor’s personal situation. For example, this is why people nearing retirement are typically advised to move to safer holdings as they age, although ironically people in this situation currently are among those who feel strongest that there is nowhere to invest. For some perspective, consider that my first money market account back in the late ’90s paid five percent!

There was a pretty interesting piece in CNN Money in January. While generally sticking with fairly standard allocations and advice, the writer reminds us that good ol’ cash also used to be seen as an asset class.

I recommend heading over and reading the whole thing. Lots of interesting data points pulled together, such as the fact that the market usually has a 10 percent drop once a year but hasn’t seen one in 2 1/2 years (at the time the article was published).  The writer suggests 10 years of disappointing returns await. And, oh yeah, the level of borrowed money in the market is already reaching pre-crash levels. So we’ve got a bubble again, inflated with Fed policy, borrowed money, greed and blind trust.

I might be the last honest blogger, because I’ll just tell you the truth: I have no idea what’s going to happen or when. I held my real estate winnings in cash at the end of last year, partly because I was expecting at least a small correction (which we’ve finally gotten a little taste of) and partly because I haven’t had time to really focus on it. (Which is not to say I didn’t do anything with my money last year. I actually was moving and reallocating funds quite a bit, which is still going on.)

So far this year, I have picked up a few individual stocks when I see a good value, but I’ve held off on buying much more in the way of mutual funds so far. And, in fact, I’ve been moving more money into cash, as I finally dump some stuff I’ve been packing around with higher costs. I’m dreading the tax impacts after this year, but I just want to clean up my portfolio.

My short-term strategy right now is to go ahead and sell my high-cost funds (I have seven of them left at this point with various amounts of money in them). Thus, my cash position is increasing. I’m selling those semi-quickly. Meanwhile I’ll be moving this cash back into individual stocks and/or low-cost Vanguard funds — however, this will happen much more slowly, basically dollar-cost averaging my way back in. By default, depending on how slowly I move these dollars back into the market, I’ll be effectively keeping significant assets in cash as well. I don’t want to say I’m hoping for a big market crash, but if one were to happen, this would be a pretty awesome time.

So that basic framework aside, let’s get back to the main question: what do you do when there’s nowhere to invest?

Let’s start by recognizing that, really, there is always somewhere to invest. Maybe with a sky-high market, now isn’t the time to move a large sum in all at once. But there are always a few undervalued stocks. But you have to be careful. It always rains after I wash my car and the market always dips when I make a purchase. And with the market so inflated, I have been thinking quite a bit about what options do exist outside the usual menu we typically think about. Here are a few things I’ve thought about.

Pay off debt

If you’re carrying any consumer debt at all, this is a good place to start. Whatever your interest rate is on the debt you’re carrying is your effective return by paying off that loan. Still carrying a car loan? Maybe instead of buying into an over-inflated stock market, you pay that car off for good. The free cash flow you now enjoy could dollar-cost average its way into the market or you could save it up so you’re ready to pounce when things drop.

Keep funds in cash

Why consider holding money in cash? Well, on one hand it’s a defensive move — you’re protected from a big crash. When everyone else is panicking, you’re kicking back on your pile of cash. That pile is, however, slowly disintegrating under you, however, as inflation eats away at your buying power. There is another advantage, of course. Imagine if you’d been sitting on big pile of cash during the real estate crash. I know if I didn’t have all my money tied up in, yes, real estate, I would have been on a shopping spree. Thus retaining cash can be an offensive move as well. Sit, wait for a big drop and start swinging your big weapon.

Pay off your house

If you don’t know where to put your money right now but you’re still carrying a mortgage, perhaps it’s a good time to increase your security by putting a bullet in your mortgage. If you’re worried about missing a big market dip, maybe open a HELOC on your now paid-off mortgage. If things look irresistible, you can pull out the funds from your house again and take advantage of market conditions. Remember the crash you’re waiting for could be two or three years away and you could be enjoying the cashflow improvement in the meantime.

Lower your overhead

Recently I wrote about forcing cashflow and how it can hurt you or benefit you. If you’ve got a sum of money and no place to put it, spending some of that money on increasing your cashflow situation can be a savvy move. For example, I’m still considering making the move on solar panels for our house (no-brainer if we’re going to stay in this house long-term). A $15,000 investment in solar would permanently remove our $75/month electricity bill. The downside is it doesn’t pay if we move. But the idea is the important part. For you, it could mean upgrading to a more efficient car, new insulation for your house, moving closer to work, buying new clothes that don’t need dry cleaning. You name it.

Increase your security

You could also tap your funds for  increasing your financial security as well. This might mean stepping up and paying for a few things now just so you don’t have to bother with it later. Maybe your roof is starting to fail — writing that check now while you have the cash not only removes a hassle from your list, but think about the alternative: Imagine you bought in big to the market at the top and suddenly find yourself with several years of waiting before you’re out of your hole. Then, while you’re waiting, the roof fails completely, leaving you in desperate need for cash. By making sure these aspects of your life are rock-solid now while you have this free cash, you’ll be in a much more solid position when crash time comes.

Be creative

People forget there are other places to invest outside the stock market. There are too many to list here, but for example a guy I used to work with owned shares in a local pizza place. There are always people looking for private investors — some people have friends or family who are interested in starting business for example. (Be careful!) You could even buy a small business if desired. Always wanted to own your own restaurant? Now is your chance! If you can think of it, you could probably make it happen. Have a great idea for a mobile app? You could probably hire a development team overseas for less than $20,000 and bring your idea to reality. In addition, there are online lending options such as Lending Club or Prosper where you can make a decent rate on your invested funds.

Jump in anyway

And, of course, where most of us will end up is back in the market, hoping any dip is not too deep or long-lasting. This is where I’ll probably end up as well. I’ll dollar-cost average my way in, at least, but more than likely I’ll limp my way back in and just wait out any dips, just like I always do. In the end, prudent, boring investing in low-cost index dividend funds is usually the best bet. But when you have a big chunk of cash you’re sitting on, it’d sure be nice to start out with a lower price.

What do you think? Any other creative places to put money while the market remains so high? What would you do if you had a large sum that needed a home?

Links to third party sites may contain affiliate tracking.

The latest on my quest to reduce my cell phone bill

I’ve been working hard to reduce my cell phone bill. Here’s the latest

reduce my cell phone bill

My continued quest to reduce my cell phone bill — you can never have too many smartphones around.

It was way back in July when I last talked about my attempts to reduce my cell phone bill. If you’re looking for ways to bring down your monthly costs and are still dealing with an overpriced monthly contract plan, it may be an interesting read for you.

Back then I had begun testing a VERY low-cost cell phone structure, combining a Freedom Spot Photon 4G Mobile Hotspot with very low-cost prepaid (but auto-renewing) cell service from AirVoice. Total cost: $10/month. The trick is to move your main number to Google Voice and use the AirVoice number only for emergencies.

I’ve done quite a bit research since then on possible low-cost cell phone options and tried to keep track along the way. The results of my search for ways to reduce my cell phone bill are below, if you want to just jump ahead.

But first the update on my FreedomPop+AirVoice super cheap solution. The positives were that I could keep my same phone, which I was happy with, the low cost and the fact that I had no contract. Not being under a contract left me free to easily test without being committed to two years stuck with one carrier.

The negatives were that I had to pack a separate piece of electronics around all the time (not that big of a deal), and that the FreedomPop’s coverage was extremely limited (much bigger deal). Basically it gets a nice, strong signal in the main city, but anytime you leave the heavily populated areas, say 15 miles from downtown in any direction, it completely loses its signal. That actually became something a big pain any time we took a road trip. (One additional pain was that I got a lot of spam calls via the AirVoice number, which I found odd.)

So while I got used to the hassles of this set up  and didn’t even think much about it after a while, I began to consider my next test. There is a bit of a price war going on right now so real prices for cell phone service have been dropping rapidly, just as I predicted they would. So it’s pretty easy to find a solution for around $30 these days. But I wanted to save even more!

Giving Ting a try

My latest attempt at reducing my cell phone bill was to sign up with Ting. I canceled my AirVoice plan (I still use the FreedomPop from time-to-time as it has more utility for me than just supporting my cell phone.)

Ting has one of the most interesting models for reducing cell phone costs that I’ve so far found. I highly recommend trying it to just about anyone because it’s very likely they could save you a lot of money right away.

The way Ting works is they bucket your actual usage and charge you for what you actually used. Duh! Why has no one done this before? If you check out their Rates page, you can click the various boxes in their grid and the page will compute what your bill would be.

I’ve been using them for two billing cycles now and both bills were less than $12! That’s pretty sweet, given that I’m willing to pay up to $30/month if needed. And, remember, this is a no-contract carrier, so anytime I decide I’m unhappy, I can walk.

I did have to buy another phone because Ting uses Sprint’s network and my old phone was an AT&T phone. I picked up a used one for $120 — about what I can get for my old phone. I haven’t sold my AT&T phone yet, just in case I decide to try something else. So right now I own a Sprint phone and an AT&T phone.

Google Voice is still the backbone

It’s important to keep in mind that keeping my cell phone costs so low is only possible because I use Google Voice as the carrier for my main phone number. All my texting and most of my calls are done via Google Voice. The only data I use via Ting is when I can’t reach my home or other WiFi, which given that I’m home most of the time is rare.

Google Voice works pretty well for the most part. I love the transcribed voice mails and it’s very handy to “move your phone” by simply logging on elsewhere.

Phone conversations are sometimes choppy and there is that annoying slight delay that causes the two people to occasionally talk over each other. But, hey, it’s free, right?

You can read up more on how Google Voice works in my last post.

You get what you pay for

So this solution is not without its hassles. I’ve experienced delays in sending and receiving text messages, calls via Google Voice where the other party is very frustrated they can’t hear me (they say I’m “breaking up”). Calls were much more reliable before I got this Sprint-based phone to use with Ting. With everything else being the same — same WiFi, same App, same location — the call quality was much worse with my Samsung Galaxy SII than my HTC Vivid. I believe that this is because the WiFi receiver is not as powerful in the Galaxy.

Frustratingly when on a recent call with a consulting client, I had to give up on Google Voice and call her via my Ting line. She said it sounded MUCH better — and then that call dropped. Embarrassing! (Note that I’m not necessarily saying Ting is lacking because of this. We live on the back of a hill and always have weak cell phone signals here.)

So I’m still testing. I can deal with a little bit lower quality, but I do need reliability. I don’t talk on the phone very much but when I need to, it had better be there.

The app world is still pretty shaky

I have found a lot of difference between the various apps that exist to support Google Voice. There are three that I’ve tried: TalkaTone, GrooveIP and Spare Phone. TalkaTone was godawful. I suppose I should try it again, but my experience was so bad I cringe thinking about it. For quite a while GooveIP was great, although I was hoping for some software updates to correct some problems in maintaining a connection to Google Voice. They actually did improve that massively in a few later updates, but unfortunately they also seem to have screwed up the call quality. Just a few days I dropped that to try Spare Phone. Spare Phone is a much simpler app and has been working pretty well lately. It’s still too early to make a final judgment, but I like it so far. My only complaint is some scratchy call quality on my end. People I’ve talked to haven’t complained yet, so time will tell.

Other ways to reduce my cell phone bill

While it has some great benefits, using Google Voice is a fairly extreme way to drop your cell phone costs. By channeling the majority of your calls and texts through Google, you can greatly bring your costs down if you choose a low-cost cell phone.

There are some other ways to go, though. A few honorable mentions from my research.

  • Red Pocket Mobile 
    Red Pocket Mobile offers coverage on both GSM and CDMA networks so this could save you from having to buy a new phone if you want to test out a low-cost cell phone carrier.
  • Republic Wireless
    While I’m a huge fan of the Ting business model, the Republic Wireless model is probably my second favorite. Republic works by utilizing WiFi for its calling the majority of the time and then uses a cellular network when WiFi is unavailable. They cleverly switch seamlessly (UPDATE: Maybe not seamlessly — see comments) back and forth between the two networks so you don’t notice the switch. Thus they’re able to keep their monthly prices low — $25 for a standard plan. The big negative, of course, is that you have to use their proprietary phones to make this work. That means buying another phone for as much as $300. Assume you’ll keep your phone for two years and convert that to a monthly price and that’s another $12.50/month. So you’d basically be back to $37.50/month, which is no longer one of the cheaper options. If you can be disciplined and keep your phone for four years, that’d effectively put you at $31.25, but, again, that’s basically the same as many of the carriers below. If I could get a Republic Wireless phone cheaper, I’d be all over this. But if you need to buy a new smartphone anyway, this could be a good option for you. 
  • FreedomPop
    FreedomPop is really shaking things up in the industry by taking the price right to zero. Free data, Free texts and free voice — all of which are very limited — could be just the ticket for a light user. Based on my mobile internet experience, however, I’d be very worried about the coverage map. Hopefully this spreads and helps bring down the cost for the entire industry. 

These days there are many ways to reduce my cell phone bill so I don’t think I’ll ever need to pay more than around $30/month. I’ve been lower than $12 for around six months or so and while I can’t say it’s completely bulletproof, at this price I can handle some hiccups.

Here is a table I put together based on my research of low-cost providers. Take a look, explore. Your mileage may vary, but as long as you stay away from any long-term contracts, you can test a few different options until you find a good fit for your situation:

Lowering my cell phone bill: No-contract cell phone options

CarrierTalkTextDataPricingNotes
TingVariesVariesVariesVariesI love the Ting model -- a true pay for what you use structure.
FreedomPop200 minutes500500MBFree! (If you stay under their usage limits)Check the FreedomPop web site for details on their free phone plan. The Freedom Spot Mobile Hotspot is available at Amazon.
Republic WirelessUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$25/month (3G)Republic Wireless has a unique offering heavily utilizing WiFi to enable calling. Based on the network speed desired, Republic has plans higher and lower than shown here.
AirVoice WirelessUnlimitedUnlimited100MB$30/monthAlso check out their other plans. There are quite a few viable options available for low cost.
ChitChat Mobile250 minutesUnlimited250MB$20/monthChitChat offers mix-and-match style pricing. Take a look at what you need and see if one of their plans would work for you.
Simple MobileUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$25/month
Consumer Cellular200 minutes1000100MB$25/monthConsumer Cellular is oriented toward the senior market. Many mix and match options to choose from.
I-Wireless200 minutesUnlimited200MB$25/monthOwned by grocery chain Kroger.
T-Mobile Prepaid100 minutesUnlimitedUnlimited$30/month
TracFone Wireless200 minutesIncludedIncluded$30/monthSeveral plans offer triple minutes with phone purchase. They also offer some pay as you go plans. Many of their offerings include bonuses in minutes and texts. It may be worth investigating their options if you think they might work for you.
Straight Talk Wireless1000 minutes1000Unlimited$30/month
H2O WirelessUnlimitedUnlimited500MB$30/month
Virgin Mobile300 minutesUnlimitedUnlimited$35/month
Go Smart MobileUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$35/month
Net 10 WirelessUnlimitedUnlimitedUp to 500MB$40/month
MetroPCSUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$40/monthOwned by T-Mobile
GoPhone500 minutesUnlimited200 MB$40/monthAdditional data can be added to this plan for $5/MB. They also have other plans available.
PTEL MobileUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$40/monthA $35 plan is also available without high speed internet.
CricketUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$50/month
Boost MobileUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$55/monthBoost also offers a gimmick where you can drop your bill by paying on time.
AIO WirelessUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$55/monthOwned by AT&T
Verizon Wireless PrepaidUnlimitedUnlimited2GB$60/month
Red Pocket MobileUnlimitedUnlimited100MB$30/monthAlso has a basic $10/month plan. Red Pocket offers both CDMA and GSM so you may be able to bring your existing phone regardless of your current carrier.
Prices and details shown here are subject to change. Some links include affiliate links so I may get a few cents if you make a purchase.

How much are you guys paying for cell phone service these day? What service are you using to keep cell phone costs low? 

One year with a baby — how am I holding up?

Pretired Baby had a good Christmas

Pretired Baby had a good Christmas

Today marks the one-year mark from the day Pretired Mama went back to work after her maternity leave. Closing the door and turning around to care for a baby all by myself is an overwhelming feeling.

In the early days, it actually wasn’t that difficult. Milk-sleep-poop-repeat. Milk-sleep-poop-repeat. The weather was even nice enough that we were able to take walks together nearly every day. He slept often enough that I had no trouble getting all my chores done each day, even having food on the table most days when Mama came home from work.

As time went on, we got into a routine. Since he was immobile and very mellow, I found the time to do some part-time consulting and even started a blog! Pretired Baby did his part, being quiet when I needed to talk to a client and exceeding all his growth benchmarks. So one year with a baby so far, here we are: comfortable with each other, hopelessly attached and used to our little routine.

I had grandparents watching him one day a week, which was a great help in my sanity as well as giving me the precious block of hours I needed to do some work. My wife has had quite a bit of time off as well, a few weeks between jobs and quite a bit of free time around the holidays, as well as quite a bit of freedom to work from home. Just recently we added a nanny one day a week to give me a little more bandwidth, which is helping quite a bit, but is expensive.

But all-in-all I think we did pretty well. Although some people think men shouldn’t be the primary caregiver, no one died and I’d even say he’s thriving. His language skills are developing very rapidly, he’s running around like crazy and is a very happy little boy.

That said, things are getting harder now. No longer can I just park him next to me while I work. He is also sleeping much less, cutting greatly into my work and blog time. Plus I’m more worn out now after a day of chasing him around. While I wouldn’t trade my time with him for money, the unrelenting nature of this job is exhausting. Some days I crave a break from him and then I feel guilty for that craving.

He needs more attention now and we run out of things to do on rainy days. I picked up The Toddler’s Busy Book but most of the suggestions are good for kids that are 2+. Hopefully it’ll come in handy a little later.

We’ll try to do our first trip to Hawaii this winter and I’m already dreading how crazy he’s going to get on the plane with no nap. Hopefully it’ll be worth it.

He’ll be two this summer and after that milestone we may look at daycare for one or two days a week to start getting him used to being around other kids. Unless you guys start clicking my ads, I’ll have to take on more work to cover that additional cost, but that could be a nice transition toward the extra money I really need to bank to reach my full pretirement goal.

So it should be an interesting few years coming up. It’s been an honor to be able to stay home and take care of my baby. I wish my wife could be here with me, but we’re both so glad one of us could be here.

I have no idea what the next year will look like, but one thing is for sure: it’ll continue to be an adventure!

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