My Bike Gets New Brakes

Squeal! Squeak! Welcome to the noises made by my tired old bicycle as I tried to slow down while rounding a corner that was banked the wrong way. The intersection is in the neighborhood, so I didn’t want to disturb my neighbors. I also didn’t want to end up in their bushes or in the local emergency room. Okay. Frugality is fine, but safety can’t be ignored. For several reasons I was glad to be back on the bike again and I didn’t want my brakes to stop me from riding. Spend a little. Get a lot. That’s a nice cost/benefit trade.

Allow me to introduce my bicycle. It is a classic, hard-tail, 1992-ish Trek 8000 mountain bike. No springs. No shock absorbers. No disk brakes. It is old, purple, and slightly rusted. It is also the bicycle that I rode from an island north of Seattle to an island south of Miami, from Roche Harbor on San Juan Island to Key West in Florida. Want details? I wrote a book about the ride. It was my first book, before I considered myself a writer. It continues to sell, though that may also be because it describes America before and after 9/11. Or, maybe folks just like the title. Just Keep Pedaling.

Here I am, 25 years later, still riding the same bike. Why change? If it can get me to across North America it can get me (slowly) to the store.

Feel sorry for it. It hasn’t been properly cared for. The squeak came from the front brakes. The squeal came from the back brakes. From what I can recall, those are the same brake pads I used on the ride. Even if I treated the bike to a few new parts after the ride, I can’t recall doing much else to it for the last few years. Money has been tight. Even though bikes are cheaper than cars and trucks, other bills were more important.

Now, bicycling is more important.

The doctor gave me the bad news about diabetes. Shudder. One prescription, exercise. I can do that. About three years ago, I was lucky enough to be part of a 24/7 coworks. Money was even tighter. Gas was expensive. Riding ten miles each way took a lot longer, but that gave me two times each day when I wasn’t staring at a computer. I was a lot skinnier then.

Staring at computers happens more often and longer, now. That’s a good thing, at least for finances. Then, I was working hard at finding work. Now, at least I’m more likely to be working on something billable. Unfortunately, almost all of my paid work involves a keyboard and a monitor. My work world has been largely reduced to a space within arm’s reach. By the end of each day my eyes are getting a bit buggy. A recent set of massages (something like $20 for 15 minutes) is painfully comical as she finds strings of knots. (Thank you, Faith Bushby.) Eye strain and bad ergonomics are causing the wrong ripples down my back. Get out on the bike and there’s a great incentive to look farther and look around.

Now that I’m giving myself one day off each week, I have to remind myself what I did when I had time off. It may sound weird, but I’ve been working so hard for so long that I’ve forgotten how I spent my time. Sitting around the house also means sitting beside my work space. Going for a drive in the truck isn’t exactly relaxing, not at that gas mileage and with its set of probably more expensive noises. When I’m on the bike, I don’t mistake someone’s home oil heat exhaust for a problem under the hood. The turning radius is much tighter, too.

So, out I went to ride. And each ride got noisier and hairier.

More than a year ago, our one bicycle shop closed. Friends talked about it as if we’d lost our last post office or grocery. I may have an epic ride in my past, but an entire peloton of friends use their bicycles as their primary transportation. (Occupy Your Bike!) They regularly put more miles on their bikes than they do in their cars, even the ones with electrics and hybrids. Someone stepped into the gap, managed a dramatic shift as suppliers (and their inventory) fell away and had to be coaxed back. I worried about the reincarnation succeeding. He made it. Bayview Cycles is now so busy that I feel sorry for the guy. He managed to fit my bike into his queue on a day when he would probably work past sunset. And, the sun sets very late this time of year this far north. (He was probably also inundated because we’ve had over 150 days of rain in the last eight months, and now are in a ten day dry spell that’s wrapped around the holiday.)

It is easy to take frugality too far. Habits take many forms, including continuing to avoid something. I was lucky enough to get a small boost in business, could work from a coffeeshop near the bike shop, and use the one to pay for the other. The money balanced out for that day. The longer term effects are much more valuable. Bicycling isn’t a panacea. Nothing is. But, for less than most folks will spend on dinner, I bought the opportunity to get healthier physically and mentally, get some chores done, and have some fun. That’s a nice deal, and one my neighbors may appreciate, too.

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Tell A Story

We aren’t Vulcans, I suspect. (If any true Vulcans are reading this blog, WOW!) Facts, data, and logic may rule bank accounts and portfolio totals; but people are inspired by stories. I’ve heard a few stories about plans for careers and retirements lately. It sounds like folks are seeing change coming and deciding to control as much of their future as possible. Rarely do those plans get described as numbers. They’re more likely to be told as stories, even the ones with lots of blank pages.

Maybe it’s a sign that people are assuming that any change in government won’t happen soon enough or reach them. They’re making their plans based on getting no help from their government. Since the election, local entrepreneurs are getting busy. I call them entrepreneurs because they don’t expect any help from any businesses, either.

A Virtual Reality arcade seems to be making progress. The business plan looks encouraging; but at a presentation to a local lending network, the greatest audience response was from the vision of a place for teenagers to play that is innovative, safe, and doesn’t revolve around eating and drinking. Ethan Worthington, entrepreneur described what it was like to be a teenager in a tourist town. South Whidbey is know for being a quiet place for a vacation. It can also be expensive, designed for people with lots of discretionary money, and restricted to people over 21. Younger people need a place to hang out, too; regardless of whether they’re residents or visitors.

Imagine a cookbook written by a bagpipe playing biscotti baker, Don Scobie. That business model may sound like it is targeted at a niche within a niche within a niche, generally not a large market. The numbers aren’t there. Take each piece though, and see that one book can be known for its novelty, and a nexus for tendrils that reach much further than a single book. Cookbooks are common, and can be profitable. Cookbooks with attitude get a chance to stand out. Cookbooks written by a cook in a kilt, well, that will appeal to someone for sure. Take the attitude necessary to proudly perform with an old Scottish squeezebox, and clear one of the greatest marketing hurdles – an entrepreneur who is comfortable entertaining a crowd. Writing, speaking, playing, teaching, and even things like songs and videos can gather to create a large enough business (and potentially messy bookkeeping), but the story will be the driver.

Skip ahead a few decades to people getting ready for retirement.

A couple in the neighborhood told me their plan for retirement. They’re almost there. Sell their first house, try to figure out how to make their second house their only house, and take the jump. They understand the math because their other house is swept up in Seattle’s ridiculously busy real estate market. As they put it, “Even hovels are going for $650,000.” Sell now, and retire now. The fascinating part wasn’t the math. It was their very active editing of what their new life will be like. They won’t be rich, but they know the money isn’t as important as discovering how and where they’ll live. They are several iterations of He said, She said from finding one answer; but they’re trading the stories first. Detailed money issues can come later,  just to make sure.

Another couple finally found a home at the beach. Well, not at the beach. That would require millions in their neighborhood. But, a ten minute trip from the house to the water isn’t bad and saves them hundreds of thousands of dollars. Listen to them and hear what they will do rather than how they will afford it.

About those blank pages…

Several people have found themselves deciding to be entrepreneurs without knowing their full story of what they want to be. They know that what they have isn’t enough, and that they need, not just want, something better. They’re the brave ones, letting go of their insufficient stability and having faith that they’ll swim, float, and be swept to a better life. They know how much they need, and that is a basic inspiration, but the optimism comes from hoping they can reach and exercise their potential.

The retirement stories have blank pages, too. People who worked for corporations for decades have a reasonable chance to relax. People who worked for small businesses, or who owned businesses that were subsistence operations can find themselves with too little to retire in their homes. Their house has become their retirement, and the only way that works is to sell it. I know too many friends who have one option: sell the house when they can and move somewhere cheaper. Cheaper no longer describes Seattle. Cheaper is becoming less likely in the counties around it. This area is becoming like many areas with large inequalities in wealth and income. The poor progressively move farther out, sometimes taking the core culture with them. For some of my friends, that story is one of concession and compromise – and giving up what they’ve built for most of their lives.

Personal finance is personal. Finance is about facts, data, and logic. All of the people I talked to know that. Some have detailed spreadsheets. Some have rough calculations. They all have stories. The stories are their motivations.

My story

My story is a collection of drafts, each based on a different scenario. I’m a writer and an engineer. Both disciplines work best when an open mind considers a wide variety of options. Any one of the threads in My Backup Plan and My Litany of Optimism can lead to a different story. I understand the arithmetic for most of them. When I sit on the deck and think about them, it is their stories that come to mind. Stay tuned to see which (or something completely) comes true. In any case, live long and prosper.

AKA an opportunity to read my palm

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Good To See You

I’m tired of hearing bad news. I also don’t want to fall into the overly optimistic trap of only acknowledging good news. That light in the tunnel could be good or bad. Reality is in that messy middle where the two mix.The mix hasn’t been very balanced, lately. Sometimes the best news is the paradox that some things don’t change while change remains a constant.

Thanks to my other main blog,, I daily get a dose of news items that are reasons to be “eager and anxious about the future.” The posts were originally daily, but lately the frequency has gone down because talk about politics has gone up. I try to find news that is based on data (something that is considered too dull to report, for some reason), and apolitical. It’s that apolitical part that’s shrunk the available articles to comment on. I may not post daily, but I do check the news daily (now only 6 days a week – Yay!). The research frequently ends with me shaking my head. Oh, what a weird world we live in.

There is good news. Renewable energy is becoming so successful that it is threatening entrenched fossil fuel industries, and kicking off their corporate immune responses. Adoption of electric cars, high-efficiency households, and a return to walking and bicycling means healthier living in many ways. The awareness of injustices around the world are initially bad news, but their exposure means wrongs are more likely to be righted. (See the Giraffe Heroes Project and Robert Teel’s blog for a series of topics.)

There is also bad news, and too much of it. Pick a topic: climate, food sustainability, pandemics, natural disasters, human disasters, finance, and of course, politics. They are juicy topics, things that are keeping many writers employed, or at least busy. But, as I said, I’m getting tired of bad news – and looking forward to good news, and reporting on it, too.

This blog is about personal finance. Thanks to the way the world and regulatory agencies work, it is best for me to write about personal finance by describing my finances. I continue to have my Litany of Optimism. It gets replayed every day, and usually more than once. So far, except for the almost accidental increase in my house’s value, most of the optimisms continue to be a litany, not news. I don’t want to bore people with echoes of unsubstantiated optimisms, so I don’t write about them much. Ironically, when I do write about good news, there’s a tendency for a backlash. Good news about a small improvement in revenues thanks to a new client has frequently been met with a larger reduction in revenues from existing clients, as if I don’t have time for both. Very frustrating, because I want to share good news.

I continue to be an apocaloptimist, someone who is optimistic that we’ll recover well from whatever apocalypse we’re headed towards. That will be a very messy mixed reality, but we are an adaptable species, even when it comes to having the species survive our own messes.

I hear something similar when talking to friends. Good news is cheered, but it is something that will benefit others and some other time. Solar energy, electric cars, warm and cozy houses, and improved human rights are things that will happen – in someone else’s life. Bad news, however, gets delivered on a personal basis. Furnaces and vehicles break down, and must be repaired, not replaced. Injustices must be endured. #Resist is great – on an abstract level. Resistance on a personal level is frequently painful and futile.

News has even changed how I greet people. Instead of “How are you doing?”, I remind myself to say, “Good to see you.” I’ve scared people by asking them about how they are doing. They want to respond, don’t want to lie, and can’t find a polite way out. Telling them that I am glad to see them starts the conversation with an honest compliment instead of a probing question.

One of the items on my Litany of Optimism is luck, good luck in particular. I can’t recall a success story or biography that doesn’t include a key moment of good luck, even if it was at birth. Luck can be enabled, but it can’t be planned. Luck has no guarantees, but it also has no limits. As one friend frequently points out, even a small piece of good luck can have amazing consequences, as long as it is the right good luck. Some people hope for millions by playing the lottery. I do. A few hundred thousand may not be enough to retire on, but it certainly alleviates a lot of ills, figurative and literal. A few tens of thousands, the amount some people spend on a new car, could change a life by getting someone out of homelessness, giving someone the right training for a career, keeping someone from spiraling into debt. A few thousand may do the same, but that begins to get closer to only helping those who are on the edge.

Evidently, I’ve had some sort of good luck. Amidst the repercussions of my Triple Whammy and a variety of other ills, I’ve managed to keep my house, fill my pantry, and have the time for at least one asset to appreciate (my house.) A series of repairs have helped maintain home and vehicle. Health issues may be temporary. The fact that I haven’t had worse luck has been good luck.

The planet’s, species’, and my news could use a major dose of good luck and good news for balance. I trust that it will happen, though I don’t know how, where, why, or when. Until then, I’ll continue to practice saying hello by saying that it’s good to see you. I look forward to greeting the good news the same way. Good news? It’s good to see you.

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Indulging In Volunteering

Celebrate! My first week of taking one day off each week. That’s why I spent so much time this weekend working without getting paid. That may not sound right, but it was a good idea. Give me some free time and I spend some of it working for free, volunteering. Yesterday there were a few hundred of us doing the same thing, and I helped a bit. They inspired me to do some solo volunteering today, and that felt good, too. There’s an infinity of ways to practice self-indulgence. Sometimes that includes helping others.

Small towns are known for barn-raisings. That’s a nice image, though barns are more likely to be made from metal and built by work crews, now. Locally, there’s an organization that does something similar, but in ways that make more sense in today’s world. Hearts and Hammers pulls together a few hundred volunteers to help a few dozen homeowners for free. It is a smart organization. If someone wants to volunteer, their answer is usually, yes. I don’t know the details of their selection process, logistics, and organization; but I do know that they found work for people whose greatest strength was enthusiasm, plenty of work for professional contractors, and even work for cooks. They served breakfast and dinner for those hundreds, and then someone organized entertainment, too. It is an all-day, sweaty party that leaves dozens of households better off for the price of a lot of sore muscles – and smiles.

I was lucky. They only asked me to take photos at five of the sites. The only time I had to sweat was when I hopped into my sun-warmed truck. I was also lucky because I got a mini-tour of the work they did. One crew helped someone resurrect a natural and native garden that was getting out of control now that a spouse had passed. Another site had a dozen trees felled for safety, rails, and probably some sunshine and firewood. Want to attack blackberries? One group easily filled a truck. I saw two kitchens getting rebuilt, plus a bathroom, a porch, and a wheelchair ramp.

It was fascinating watching the energy and activity. Professionals’ trucks were open displays of amazing tools and equipment. Parked beside them were econo-cars and luxury sedans. Carhartts, jeans, sweats, and whatever happened to be handy made for a fashion show that will never see the bright lights, but should.

It was also a display of humility and courage. It isn’t easy to ask for help. The most common cause was simple bad luck. One, two, then three upsets overlapping can drain most people’s rainy day funds. If a medical condition is involved, it may also mean that the work can’t get done by DIY. That’s when a community impresses.

I enjoy photography. Most of my photos are of nature or abstracts, or both. I didn’t expect the photo coordinator to contact me, but I’ve always been impressed by Hearts and Hammers, so it was a good introduction. Besides, there are some long-delayed projects around my house that I can’t afford to fix. Friends have suggested I nominate some of my chores. Maybe next year, but no, because by next year I’ll be able to afford to get the work done – a rationalization I’ve used for several years.

I enjoyed taking photos of people at work. There’s no time for posturing and posing. People are less likely to complain about a hair being out of place, or having a smudge on their face. Taking pictures of people volunteering is also fun because there are lots of smiles.

It felt odd staying behind the camera. There were a few times when I lent a hand, but I wanted to be more active. So, on my first regularly scheduled day off, I indulged myself by getting sweaty, muddy, dirty, and scratched. It wasn’t an official work party, but as Site Steward for a Land Trust property (Hammon’s Preserve, Whidbey Camano Land Trust), I knew where there was lots of work waiting for me, and tasks that were literally growing in the meantime. I decided to tackle a tangle of thorns and barbs, a blackberry patch that was overgrowing a barbed wire fence.

Until about a decade ago, the property was a nine acre farm. Some livestock lived there, too; so their pastures are fertile. The herbivores are gone. The weeds are happy.

Thanks to dozens of work parties, we’ve made progress against Scotch broom, holly, English ivy, thistles – and blackberries always blackberries.

Whacking blackberries is gratifying. Sure, there are scratches; but cutting back dozens of feet of thorny branches from new and old barbed wire leaves an open corridor of accomplishments.

About halfway through, I had a welcome break. The neighbor came out to thank me. They’ve lived there for forty years, so he had stories to tell about the farm, the farmer, and the history of the farm buildings. Evidently, the one we consider a tool shed was originally a tiny schoolhouse. I wondered why it had a spot for a woodstove and a lot of empty space. We put a new roof on it without realizing it was historic.

Whether it was Hearts and Hammers, or Whidbey Camano Land Trust, or any other organization that hopes to help, it is hard to know how far the effort reaches. We put a roof on a tool shed, and saved a bit of history. A few dozen people have better homes now, which may free them up to accomplish something greater or at least live with less worry.

I admit that some of my volunteering is indulgent. I do it because it makes me feel good. I’m probably not the only one. But, when I think about the ways I could’ve spent these days, that sounds like a pretty good trade. I hope it helped. I know it helped me.

Now, after I post this, I have some laundry to do.

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My Real Goods Is Gone

Solar power is becoming so popular that it is helping send coal into a downward financial spiral. An industry that disruptive and successful sounds like a good investment. That’s what I thought. Today, I sold my shares, oops, share, of RGSE, aka Real Goods Solar, a firm and an advocacy that I’ve been following since they started in 1978. Just shy of 40 years later, the total value of the company has dropped to under $10,000,000. There are houses selling for more. Somehow in less than three years, in a phenomenal growth market and industry, they managed to fall rather than rise from a reasonable market cap of $134,000,000. Having the right idea at the right time doesn’t guarantee success. Another reason for diversification.

Through the early years it was privately held, then it went public and the stock has traded as RGTC, RSOL, and RGSE. For a while it was part of GAIA, but was spun off again, which encouraged me to buy again. At the start, the company sold the things that helped people move off-the-grid. The customers were willing to pay a premium to be able to disconnect from mainstream society and the fossil fuel economy. For a while, Real Goods branched into more suburban products: solar powered lawn lights, sustainable materials, niceties that helped people demonstrate their preference for more natural products without having to leave the world of asphalt and cul-de-sacs. I was one of them. As solar technology progressed, the map of where it was viable grew. The economics worked best for large installations, so they provided installation services for companies and municipalities. Within the last few years, the technology has become so common and affordable that the regions that can go off-the-grid are overlapping the main grid. The solar enthusiast in me has been celebrating the progress.

The investor in me watched RGSE attempt to grow, stumble, and falter; but I saw optimism in the growth of its competitors. Today, First Solar (FSLR) has a market cap of $3,630,000,000. Solar City (SCTY) has a market cap of $2,014,000,000. They prove the market potential exists. I saw RGSE as the economy priced investment that could grow to those levels. That didn’t happen.

I’ve made the same mistake before. When went public, they mostly sold books. I thought online sales had good potential (and way underestimated that one) and already had shares in a bookstore, Barnes & Noble. Rather than buy into the purely online company, I bought stock in B&N had the benefit of people being able to have it either way, delivered at home or at the store, online plus personal customer service, and a chance to hold the book in hand before buying it. That didn’t work.

First mover advantage is a term used to explain Amazon’s success. The same’s true for Starbucks and other trendsetters. But, Real Goods existed before the World Wide Web. Barnes & Noble had decades of history. Coffee shops existed before Starbucks decided to redefine the model. Simple strategies are rarely simple in reality.

Years of supposedly diligently following the company didn’t help me catch the two year slide from $3.10 to $1.20. Ah, but let’s adjust for a 20/1 reverse split and a 30/1 reverse split. The $1.20 is post-splits, so it stays the same. The $3.10 is effectively $1860. Because of the splits, my hundreds of shares were reduced to one share.

While the company was imploding (and I was possibly working too hard to devote the appropriate attention to it), the solar and wind industries are imploding the coal industry. As solar and wind technologies have become more efficient, more people and institutions have been using them. As more units are built and sold, the economies of scale reduce the cost to produce the units. The effective price per kilo-watt drops. At the same time, that’s power that isn’t being fueled by coal. The reverse economy of scale kicks in. Coal mines, transportation systems, and power plants have large fixed costs. Those costs have to be covered by fewer customers, so the effective price per kilo-watt rises. As coal’s price rises, solar and wind become more appealing amplifying the difference. Solar and wind technologies are continuing to mature. That cycle should raise their market share and lower coal’s. Throw in some large side effects like pollution, remediation, and infrastructure, and the days of coal mining dim. (See for a story about the UK getting by without coal for a day.)

With a story like that, Real Goods should do well; but that’s been the story for years, and they haven’t done well. I’m a bit embarrassed to relay this story because it’s yet another blow to my portfolio; but, one of my personal challenges is to progress past the money taboos so common in our culture. My embarrassment proves I have some progress to make.

As much as this is a cautionary tale about investing in individual stocks, this is also an example of why IRAs are not panaceas. If the stock was outside my IRA, I could’ve claimed the losses on my taxes. That would’ve come in handy these last few years. Some day I may run the numbers and quantify the costs and benefits of using an IRA rather than a traditional account. An IRA makes sense when it never gets touched. But, emergencies happen, rainy day funds dry up, and in those cases using an IRA triggers penalties while also being denied some benefits.

Years of Annual Reports heading to be recycled, naturally

Silly as it may be, the reason I sold today was because it was convenient. I’ve finally found some space in my work schedule (a good and a bad thing for an entrepreneur.) In the midst of finally getting lots of tiny delayed tasks accomplished, I decided to clean up my portfolio by getting rid of the last lonely share of Real Goods. The total position was worth $1.20. The cost of the commission was higher. My net benefit is freeing up some storage space, simplifying my research tasks, and removing yet another reminder of this largely unprofitable investing era. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen to the other stocks in my portfolio: AMSC, AST, GERN, MVIS, NPTN.

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My Rule Of 7 – One Day Off

Good news sneaks up and tests me against one of my rules. For the last six years I’ve been working according to My Rule Of 7. When my net worth was over $700,000, I knew I didn’t have to work very hard. When my net worth was under $100,000, I knew it was time to work every day of the week. My Rule Of 7 is incredibly simplistic; so, maybe I should call it more of a guideline. I’ve finally realized that if I was going to respect the Rule, then I should, er, get to, start taking one day off each week. My net worth may have finally risen above $100,000. The weird part is watching myself push and pull the idea of not working every day. Oh, what ruts we build for ourselves.

As an entrepreneur it would be great to celebrate reaching this milestone from all of that work. As an investor it would be great to cheer a sudden rise in my portfolio. (The opposite of that happened thanks to AMSC, MVIS, and NPTN.) It wasn’t hard work or insightful investing that is going to give me a day off; it is simply staying in my house while the real estate market recovered. (Which I was able to do because of all that hard work, so it wasn’t for nothing.)

Figuring out net worth is easy if it is all in cash or in liquid assets like stocks. Check the statement. Subtract the debt. There’s the number. Reality is more complicated because what people own and owe changes every day. It is an imperfect exercise, but it is worth doing. Most folks have more assets than they realize.

I hesitated adding in my house’s value because I don’t plan to sell, it would take a long time to sell if I decided to do so, and the value is always a guessing game until someone actually buys it. But, like I just said, it is an imperfect exercise, but it is worth doing. Again, an overly simplistic check convinced me to go ahead. Assume I could clear $700,000 by selling my house. If I ignored that and kept working, I’d be inside a life that hurt my health, and left me with very little time for family, friends, and fun. If I sold and cleared $700,000, taking 5% to spend a year recuperating would be one of the healthiest and fun things I could do. In the meantime, I’d put $665,000 to work on getting back up to $700,000.

Ah, but what is the market value of my house?

I’m fortunate enough to have a variety of perspectives from which to estimate my house’s value. I wrote a (ill-timed) book about personal finance. (Dream. Invest. Live.) I’ve bought and sold several houses. I write about real estate for Curbed and 360Modern. Put it all together and I feel confident that the value of the house has at least returned to its pre-Recession price. Seattle’s ridiculously hot market is starting to warm the island. Some neighboring counties are rising at about 10%, with a few flukes that are much higher. If not now, then reasonably soon, my house could be worth about 10% to 20% more than it was when I bought it. (~$290,000 x 1.15 = ~ $335,000) Take that purchase price, assume 1.5% per year growth and get something similar, $338,000.

Two other estimates are available for free. Both Redfin and Zillow provide market estimates. Redfin’s estimate ~ $275,000; which is probably based on recent sales without projections. There have been so few houses like mine on the market that the estimate is probably hampered by a lack of data. Zillow also has to deal with the lack of data, but I suspect Zillow is applying an algorithm that includes the regional market growth. Zillow’s Zestimate is a very sweet ~$463,000. One thing I like about Zillow’s estimate is that it comes with a range. In my house’s case, from a low of $361,000 to a high of $560,000. Ah, for that high number, but I have my doubts about it. Just for fun I found the average of Redfin’s estimate and Zillow’s low estimate. Voila, ~$318,000.

There are people who do this sort of thing for a living, real estate professionals. One has heard me talking about this sort of thing long enough to at least help bracket my estimate. Yes, Redfin is probably too low. Yes, Zillow is probably too high. Yes, somewhere in the between $300,000 and $350,000 is a good enough estimate for what I’m trying to do. (Getting real about putting it on the market would require an in-depth analysis, and I’m not going to ask someone to do that for free and fun.)

So, without revealing my mortgage balance (hey, some privacy, eh) it is reasonable to assume that my net worth has finally risen about $100,000. Throw in my portfolio and a few other assets as a buffer on conservatism and – whew.

And yet I hesitate; and yet I know I shouldn’t. Life is meant to be lived. Wealth, or at least the money to fund a lifestyle, can come from unexpected directions. That doesn’t mean it should be discounted. Recognizing values in our lives grants them the respect they, and we, deserve. Too many people dismiss the money they have in an IRA, or the value of their collectibles, or even the value of their home. If they already have sufficient funds, then that’s fine. But too many work as if the products of their labors and their life have no value. If I think they should value what they have, then I should value what I have.

Next week I’ll start taking one day off each week. Fellow entrepreneurs can know how radical that act can be. For a day I won’t be making any money. It won’t be a paid vacation. But, it is something that I’ve worked towards and that has arrived, even if it happened in  a way I didn’t expect.

Now, the trick will be remembering what to do with a regular day off. It may sound silly, but I’ve forgotten what I did when I wasn’t working every day. Sounds like a task to add to my To-Do list. Hmm, something about that sounds like a rut I should get out of.

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It Has Been A Quiet Week

It’s been a quiet week, here beside Cultus Bay. That’s a rare thing to hear from me lately, but it’s true. And it was welcome. In the world of ironies, though, the less I worked, the more good news happened to arrive.

Life has been crazy enough since my Triple Whammy. Many people have patiently listened to my descriptions of working seven days a week, frequently from 8 to 8. The last four months were a climax of overlapping (mostly temporary) assignments that were the first time in years when I made more than my bills (just in time for taxes); but at the cost of my health (oops, diabetes).

Without any great planning, several deadlines were accomplished and passed. A few major but temporary projects were completed. And then, a great gap in my schedule. There were a few items to work on, but my work life looked like a downhill roll after a long bicycle ride uphill. One of the messages from my health scare was that self-care had been neglected. I knew I’d neglected it. But, times and taxes demanded taking the risk of the added stress and strain. Now, health demanded taking time for taking care.

I quietly settled into a week with only one scheduled meeting. Shh. Don’t tell anyone.

It is easy to fall out of good habits. It took me several evenings to remember what I would do when I had free time. A very spooky feeling. I’m not surprised when I hear about people who fear retirement because they won’t know how to spend their time. Relax. There’ll always be something to do, and it’s also good to learn when to do nothing – and learning to relax can take effort.

It was weird enough to realize I forgot how I spent evenings. It was even weirder to feel my body adjust. For a day or two, everything seemed the same. Then, aches began for seemingly no reason; my muscles were so tight for so long that relaxing them hurt. Time for a massage. I got a tour of the extent of the tensed muscles thanks to a quick massage by Faith Bushby (she does in-store massages at Star Store Basics in Langley on Wednesdays). My body was so tight that it was as if eye strain was the new normal. A bit of relaxation and I could see more clearly. How many hints does a guy need to relax?

There was weirdness at work, too, and in a good way. Instead of sending out a swarm of emails asking for my next assignments, the assignments started showing up unsolicited. By the end of the week (and it isn’t over yet), I had three or four new assignments with existing clients, plus leads on two more. Evidently (and happily), I’m now some unofficial Welcome to Whidbey person. Someone connected via Twitter and we connected at a local coffee shop. Synchronicity happens and the meeting revealed some nice networking opportunities, plus I may have inadvertently connected a household with a house for sale (that I happened to have written the listing’s marketing remarks for). (Maybe I should try this realty thing, after all.) The flourish on top was a raise, a >75% raise from a client who finally realized that I’d “been working for peanuts.” Granted, this is after an 80% cut in the budget (the math: (1-0.8)*(1+0.75) = 0.35 ), but that means “only” a 65% cut for less time; and I can use the extra time for that personal care I mentioned.

A friend and ace consultant, Steve Smolinsky, has an entertaining and insightful blog about life and corporate culture. For years he has advocated for the kind of time I just spent. His calls them Clarity Breaks. Of course, his application of the idea is clearer and not interrupted with even the low level of chores and tasks I took on; but the effect is similar. Sometimes the best way to move ahead is to stand still.

I’ve been pushing hard because I’ve had to, but as I’ve shown, it is possible to push too much. Clarity Breaks aren’t new to me. Most people have ways to take some time for themselves. I do, or at least did, too. Look back on some of these posts when evening found me sitting on the deck with a cocktail beside me.

Ah, those were the days. Some day, again.

The cocktail wasn’t necessary except as an anchor that kept me in my seat for long enough to drink it, and relax. Whether it is a cocktail (which I can’t have now, rats) or a cup of tea, I found that sitting still for an hour usually ended with quickly and efficiently completing a series of tasks. Relaxing isn’t just about making a person more efficient, but it is one of the easier successes to describe and celebrate.

I suspect that given enough discretionary cash, I’d take a week to clear my mind, probably a month to reinvigorate my body, and months to regain my health. I’m not there, yet.

Two other things happened that put the rest in perspective, even that garnish. MVIS had a good week. Two impressive days saw the stock rise over 10%. By the end of the week, MVIS was up over 27%. I’ll save the analysis until after next week’s conference call, but that activity increased my net worth by almost a month’s living expenses. My portfolio and my house are probably both undervalued and both have reasons that their values may rise faster than my typical monthly revenues – without me having to push hard (except when I mow the lawn.) Maybe that’s the secret. Do less. Relax. Let things take care of themselves.

It has been a quiet week, and the quiet times can be the best times – in many ways.

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Small Town Working Spaces

Random acts of kindness are greatly appreciated. For a week or so this month I had the luxury of using an empty desk in the heart of Langley, our small tourist town. Two people have been watching the development of coworks on the south half of Whidbey Island, know that I’m an advocate for working spaces for Gig Economy workers, and knew that I have yet to find a place that meets my requirements. They offered, I accepted, it was good; and it isn’t the only option in town. Coworks have hit a series of quiet milestones in the Village by the Sea, so I wanted to celebrate their accomplishments and help chronicle the new way of working as it works its way into a historic place.

Ross Chapin is an architect known around the world for designing Pocket Neighborhoods, intentional communities that emphasize shared spaces, fine detail, and consequentially more sustainable living. Ann Medlock’s work extends around the world as her position as Founder and Executive Director of Giraffe Project, an organization that supports “compassionate risk-takers who are largely unknown, people who have the courage to stick their necks out for the common good“. Quaint little Langley, home to two of many similarly impactful people. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Ross has nice offices. He also has a few empty desks. Ann works from one, and they’re hunting for a couple of other people to work from the other two (the sweet window seats.) Thanks to their generosity and a cooperative schedule, I was treated to trying out one of the window desks for a while. (Great people watching in a tourist town.)

Workers in the Gig Economy frequently try to fit themselves and their laptops into coffeeshop and library furnishings and schedules. Quiet and privacy are traded for access to food, drink, Internet access, with a bit of accidental social networking. These aren’t casual workers, though. Their schedules can spread across time zones, coordinating with clients and colleagues can require quiet backgrounds, and a cafe table or the arm of a chair can be a bit limiting when the work requires spreading out papers and other devices.

To me, what Ross is offering is the higher-end of a coworking environment. A few desks with a lot of room and a professional environment. One of the biggest benefits for me was being able to have a key. 24/7 access better reflects the Gig Economy’s schedule. It was also nice to be able to run errands without having to shut everything down and cart it around.

Not all solutions are the same. Three other coworks have passed major hurdles.

Fine Balance Imaging and Printing created a two section coworks. The outer section is more open, has several desks, access to the kitchen amenities, and a professional and fine art printing and supply business. Need a copy or something scanned? Do you want one or 10,000 copies? Need a pen NOW? They got that. The other section is behind a door, creating a combination conference room, web conference site, and room for spreading out those papers. It has been a handy place for private client calls.

South Whidbey Commons is relocating their coworks (I believe) from the attic (which I reported from earlier) to the much more accessible and roomier backroom. There’s enough of a separation that the pesky espresso machine sounds can’t make it around the corner and down the hall; but food and drink are still available. Some of my clients prefer meeting there for the coffee, sometimes because it is familiar, and sometimes because it is a non-profit that teaches teenagers how to run a business.

The third place is the showcase of what is making this surge of coworks more possible (besides the tantalizing profit margins of running a coworks), The Big GiG. The Big Gig Center is one of Whidbey Telecom’s demonstration sites for one of their initiatives that should be making national news. They’ve brought 10G Internet access to the island. Like with any such infrastructure project, it starts from a hub and works its way out. (My house is probably years away, but that’s okay.) The download speeds are impressive, but the upload speeds are incredible. Uploads that take an hour at home take minutes or seconds at the Big GiG. Sometimes they go by so quickly that I miss the notification, think it didn’t do anything, and then find that it was done about the time my finger lifted from the keyboard. One of their demonstration areas holds three desks, each with large monitors, power stands, task lighting, ergonomic chairs, and (temporary) storage. There’s also a conference table, massive whiteboard, and maybe VR some day. My clients who want the quietest environment ask to meet there.

So, why aren’t these all considered to be open for business and spreading the word? Thank small town politeness and considerations. Rather than try to outcompete each other, the various principals are trying to find a way to work as a consortium. Very impressive. Pay the consortium and work wherever works best. That’s an effort I encourage. In the meantime, it also means that some of the spaces are available for free, or at least for the price of a cup of coffee. (Good thing that I drink tea, which is even cheaper.)

I have no favorite, and that isn’t just me being diplomatic. I seem to be attracting a different set of clients recently, but I don’t know if this is temporary or the entrance to a new phase of my business. At this point, no one solution meets all of my requirements, though as a consortium they get very close.

For me, coworks emphasize the co-. The more people the better. 24/7 is important to me because, even though Langley works on tourist time, I frequently work from 8 to 8. Being able to leave my computer at the site would mean better health (a recent issue) because it makes it easier to commute by bicycle. Being able to bring my own food and drink keeps the cost of working out of the house down. There are hints of these various things happening, but not yet.

Coworks in small towns aren’t limited to Langley, of course. Even on the island I enjoyed using a space at Whidbey Tel’s Freeland office, and I hear there may be a coworks in my even smaller town of Clinton (though the commute’s about the same distance.)

The old economy of paychecks and W-2s is being replaced by the Gig Economy and its 1099s. In ten years, the number of Americans working as contractors rose by 60% with no signs of stopping. The economy is changing. My business is changing. And, I’m glad to see that the towns on South Whidbey are changing, too. Now, what do I have to pay to join the consortium, please?

(Check the “coworks” tag for more of the history including previous coworks.)

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Diabetes Begins

I look forward to writing the post that will be titled Diabetes Ends. I was delivered the shock of news last week. I am diabetic. Any doubt I had about the Gig Economy being unhealthy was proved correct, at least for me. The bad news was delivered by someone who created a safe place for me to hear it; and yet, the impact was severe. The good news is that I have a lot of tools available for fixing this fractured lifestyle. Let’s get to work.

Thank you, Molly Fox, a naturopath who began practicing in Langley, within walking distance of several coworks and offices I use. We’ll get back to her in a paragraph or two.

I thought I’d written a post about my return to dealing with doctors. Here’s a synopsis because I can’t find the right link.

Life’s been so busy with working seven days a week and having seven bosses that the story may have rattled around in my brain without finding its way into the blog. Go back about eight years and find that I had a series of bad events with conventional medicine. (That lead to Walking Thinking Drinking Across Scotland.) The highlight was trying to pass a stress test the day the hospital held a terrorism drill. Evidently, my blood pressure spiked that day. Several other episodes had a similar theme; “We’re going to measure this to see if you’re going to die of that.” After enough repetitions, just hearing the blood pressure cuff inflate would kick off a three-day anxiety attack. Silly? Maybe. But true. Then my Triple Whammy hit. Losing almost everything meant any visit to the doctor was a opening to a bankruptcy, or so I imagined and no doctor dissuaded me. Friends called me for rides to the hospital for emergencies that I knew I couldn’t afford, even with insurance.

But, I knew I had to get back to regular health care. So, I scheduled a meet & greet with the last clinic I’d used, explained the situation, and nervously showed up early. Instead of a simple, informal conversation just to get used to the place again, they launched into the conventional routine stressing the “need” to get their data. I’ll skip the details, but they kicked off the very anxiety attack I was trying to avoid. I was trying to become one of their patients, told them how that could happen, and watched the system (not the people) work exactly against that.

To their practitioners, most medical systems are conventional. I’ve tried a few others and have noticed that the non-mainstream or non-Western ones tend to take a different approach; less bureaucracy, a greater emphasis on health, less expensive, and much more personal. I decided to give Molly a try. Within the first few minutes I felt at ease. She listened to my concerns, filled out a few forms but with a casual manner, and did something I thought was brilliant. Rather than try to find ways to get the vital signs that would ironically make me feel less healthy, she worked with simple things that would be familiar to the old-style family doctor. Evidently, she learned a lot from a stethoscope, the weird little hammer to the knee, and generally examining me without making me uncomfortable or feeling threatened. The conversation was a long list of things that were healthy. Imagine that, a health care professional emphasizing health – with of course the suggestion that I could lose some weight. But I already knew that.

I agreed to return for another test, this time a blood test, which brings us to last week’s news. The good news was that almost everything was fine. As gentle as she was, the one bit of bad news was worse than I thought, though not as bad as it could be. I may be diabetic, but it isn’t to the extent of pricking my finger or giving myself injections. It also can’t be ignored, and I’m not ignoring it. Hence, this post; because such things influence personal finance on both the income and expense side.

Work is probably the main cause of the condition, and is necessary to pay for the cure. Actually, that is incorrect. Working too hard wasn’t as bad as working so hard that I didn’t exercise, meditate, or relax enough. My fitness dropped. My weight climbed. Simple things like bad ergonomics allowed various aches and pains to accumulate. Work is not, however, necessary to pay for the cure; money is. Right now, unless I’ve won the lottery, money comes from work. Until there’s an excess of money, I must maintain about this level of work.

That’s life in the Gig Economy. As I said on Marketplace, working in the Gig Economy is expensive. Here’s a case where I pay for hundreds of dollars per month for insurance, but for far less than that I can find good health care. Those hundreds of dollars going to health insurance come from days of working. If I could swap that money for time to exercise, meditate, and relax, I might not be in this condition. That is an option I am considering, not carrying health insurance so I can be healthy. Then the biggest penalty may be whatever the government imposes.

I took a day to reflect on work, life, health, and anything else that came to mind. (My apologies to those clients whose work was delayed by a day. I think I may have lost one or two because of it.) The news was better than I thought. In general, my work schedule has been full; but the last three months had a perfect storm of rush jobs, reworks from redefined tasks, and the real storm of terrible weather for working out. That was temporary. Spring has returned. Already my work calendar is returning to normal, I’ve identified some adjustments, and found at least three full time island jobs that would be a great improvement. I’ve already applied for the position of Executive Director for the Port of Coupeville, and Communications and Outreach Specialist at Whidbey Camano Land Trust; both are jobs that fit personal passions: sustainable economics and environment.

Regardless of my place in 1099 and W-2 economies, I have to add one more task to my list: me. Exercise; hey, I rode across America, hiked the Cascades, and walked across Scotland. I can do this. Diet: I enjoy cooking, now I get to invent new recipes that avoid gluten, milk, cream, and grains. As one person said, “Sounds like bacon and eggs three times a day.” Intriguing. There may be pills involved. There will definitely be more tests involved. One of my sources of optimism is that there is always change involved. I couldn’t have predicted I’d be in this situation, so I don’t know what comes next. But, as another friend said, “What?! Diabetes!? Haven’t you had enough bad luck? It’s time for something good to happen to you.” I agree.

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Lower Income Higher Taxes

Whew. I paid my taxes, again, of course. I’m glad that’s over, though the costs will linger. My income taxes continue their inverse relationship with logic. The less I make, the more I pay. I suspect I’m not the only one. At least this year I was almost able to pay them.

This year held an improvement.

Last year’s filing ended with;
$4,000. That’s more than my bank account. Maybe I can scrounge enough to pay it, but then there won’t be enough for things like the mortgage and my healthcare premium.
Out comes the credit card, which I recognized was an option. (Cue the groans, lamentations, critiques, and offers of help from many friends. I hear you…)

This year’s filing ended with about a 5% drop in revenue and a 25% increase in what I owe; $5,000. The good news is that this year I had that much in my bank account. The bad news is that I need that cushion because of an expected dip in revenues. I could pay the IRS in full, but if my business doesn’t fill in the gap I’d be living too risky of a life. In this situation, I would’ve preferred to pay the majority with cash and make up the rest with the credit card; but that wasn’t an option. It all goes on the card, and next month I’ll make a very large payment – or even pay it all off if the right job/gig(s) come by.

The total time to collect all of the records, shuffle them into a spreadsheet, and run through TurboTax was one calendar week and about five hours. That doesn’t sound like much now that I’m done, but it was grueling while I was in the middle of it.

When I was semi-retired and living from money I made investing in stocks, my tax rate was effectively zero. That was possible because I lived a frugal life (so I didn’t have to sell much), invested for the long term (which has about the lowest tax rate), and tended to have a few losses to balance the gains. While that can sound like I was losing as much as I was making, that wasn’t the case. Watch a stock rise from $3 to $45, and peel off a slice big enough for one year’s living expenses while leaving the rest to grow. The sell produces cash, not just profits; but it is only the profits that are taxed. Watch a stock fall from $3 to $0 and notice a limit to the losses. Play the game right (and it is effectively a game to many) and don’t worry about paying much in taxes until the portfolio is so large that any taxes become relatively small – as long as the sales fund a frugal not a flagrant lifestyle.

The other thing about living off a portfolio is simplicity. Live a simple life. Fill out simple forms.

Tax laws change. Rates change. Keeping track is tough enough that people devote their careers to keeping up, and that’s not easy. They’re worth their money.

Now, my life is complicated. My portfolio is a collection of seeds in ground that I think is fertile, yet the shoots aren’t sprouting – yet. Maybe they’re more like mushrooms that take years to mature and pop out seemingly overnight. My business is primarily consulting and communications. I help people plan their projects or provide a fresh perspective on seemingly intractable issues; but I also make money from writing, photography, speaking, and teaching. Business revenues are a mix of retail, wholesale, royalties, commissions, and contracts. The numbers for many of the categories are small, but the IRS requires that they all be accounted for. Fortunately, TurboTax handles that complexity readily. I don’t know if TurboTax is best, but it is convenient, relatively inexpensive, and familiar.

I’m an optimist. Every year since I’ve been relying on my business instead of my portfolio, I remind myself that next year can be completely different and better. Maybe I can simplify and do them myself. Maybe I can afford to have someone else do them. A portfolio that recovers, word-of-mouth leading to increased consulting business, a good job, or maybe even one of my books becoming rediscovered and becoming a best-seller. Hey, I can dream.

Whether next year is different or not isn’t the issue. Conventional wisdom holds that the more you make the more you pay. I know that’s not true. As my fortunes have dipped my taxes have risen. I suspect I’m not the only one. Tune in again next year and see what changes – to me and all of us.

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