The true cost of car ownership

The American Automobile Association (AAA) says that, on average, it costs 52.2 cents to drive one mile. To drive a Ford Focus like mine 20,000 miles per year, the average cost is 37.6 cents per mile.

How close are the AAA estimates? I ran some numbers.

Based on the purchase price of my vehicle ($16,500), the interest paid ($1,300), and the number of miles on the odometer (81,762 in 66 months), I calculated that for the past year my average cost per mile is $0.2170 over 20,274 miles. But that's only for the car itself. I've also accumulated the following operating expenses:

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More about...Transportation

The frugal photographer

Expensive hobbies and a frugal lifestyle can be tough to balance. Few hobbies are more expensive than photography. So what's a frugal photographer to do? The three best cheap things you can do to improve your photography skill are:

  1. Learn your camera. Read your camera manual, and carry it with you. This is the cheapest improvement you can make. Learn what your camera can and cannot do. Make a lot of photographs.
  2. Take a class from your local art school or community college. For a couple hundred bucks, you'll have access to a professional photographer, to other enthusiastic amateurs, and possibly to expensive darkroom equipment.
  3. Use a tripod. This is a sure-fire way to sharper pictures. You don't need to spend a fortune; anything is better than hand-held. I've been using a cheap $50 tripod for five years and love it for everything except taking photos from the middle of a stream.

If you did just these three things, your photos would improve such that you wouldn't need to buy any more gear. But if you're like me, you're going to want to invest in more equipment anyhow. If that's the case, then consider some further advice:

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More about...Frugality

Frugality in Practice: Using the Public Library

Most of us have financial blindspots. One of mine is books. I love books. I have a large library that grows larger all the time.

When I first embarked upon my quest for frugality, I began tracking every penny I spent. I was shocked to learn how much I spent on my book habit. In the past eighteen months, I've cut my book expenditures in half, and I'd like to trim them even further.

One way I save on books is by frequenting the public library. Now that I've learned how to use it, it's an important part of my life. Here are a few of the things the library offers:

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Handy personal finance spreadsheets

Good personal finance spreadsheets are hard to find on the web because sploggers monopolize the search results. Still, I've managed to collect links to a stack of them that I'd like to share.

Spreadsheets more useful than web-based calculators because:

  • You can modify the fields and formats to meet your own needs,
  • You can create "what-if" scenarios by making copies of a sheet, and
  • You can save the data for later use.

The following links are all real sites from real people with real useful information to share.

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More about...Budgeting

How compound returns favor the young

In an earlier entry about the cost of waiting one year to begin investing for retirement, I posted a chart from AllFinancialMatters that demonstrated the power of compound returns. Vintek posted a math exercise related to the subject.

I got this from a book called The Random Walk Guide to Investing by Burton Malkiel. It's a book I recommend, and I'll eventually talk about it in the forum. Here's the exercise:

William and James are twin brothers who are 65 years old. 45 years ago (at the end of the year when he reached 20), William started an IRA and put $2K in the account at the end of each year. After 20 years of contributions, William stopped making new deposits but left the accumulated contributions in the IRA fund. The fund produced returns of 10% per year tax-free. James started his own IRA when he reached the age of 40 (just after William quit) and contributed $2K per year for 25 years, making his last contribution today. James invested 25% more money in total than William. James also earned 10% on his investments tax-free. What are the values of William's and James's IRA funds today?

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More about...Retirement, Planning

How many credit cards should you carry?

An AskMetafilter user wonders: How many credit cards do typical people have?

For various reasons I have four credit cards. I always thought of this as too many, but haven't cancelled mine since the crappiest one is also the oldest, and has no fee, and I want to maintain the age of the card on my credit report. Most people I know have one or two cards. But reading online forums on credit, I see plenty of people with more than four. How many is normal? How many do you have?

According to How Many Credit Cards is Too Many? at MoneyCentral, "most Americans carry between five and ten credit cards". According to Steve Bucci at bankrate.com:

The average person carries eleven "credit vehicles." Typically, seven are different types of cards and four are installment loans for cars, furniture, student loans or mortgages.

I heard recently that the average number of credit accounts was 12.7 per person, which is slightly higher than Bankrate's numbers indicate. The numbers I heard are closer to the average credit statistics at myfico.com:

On average, today's consumer has a total of thirteen credit obligations on record at a credit bureau. These include credit cards (such as department store charge cards, gas cards, or bank cards) and installment loans (auto loans, mortgage loans, student loans, etc.). Not included are savings and checking accounts (typically not reported to a credit bureau). Of these thirteen credit obligations, nine are likely to be credit cards and four are likely to be installment loans.

Perhaps of more interest to some readers, Nellie Mae has statistics from the year 2000 about student credit card use. Undergrads carry about three credit cards each and graduate students carry about four credit cards each. The credit trap begins early.

Myfico.com also offers information about average debt load:

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Six steps to learning difficult subjects quickly

Throughout our lives we encounter situations where we need to acquire new skills. Sometimes it's nice to have a method for acquiring the basics quickly. Paul's Tips has a technique for learning difficult subjects quickly.

Here's a strategy I've found useful for learning dry and difficult material quickly. At various times, I've used it to build up my knowledge of subjects like economics, investing, writing and computer programming languages. Some people have been surprised at how fast I can learn these kinds of skills, but I think anyone can do it with the right plan. Of course, you can use this to teach yourself interesting things as well, but most people don't have any problem learning stuff that's fun.

His steps:

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More about...Education

Why I love community college

Community colleges are an oft-overlooked resource for cheap education. They offer classes from trained professionals and provide access to expensive equipment that you otherwise would never be able to use. I love community college for several of reasons:

  • Affordability — Community college classes are affordable. Despite recent tuition increases, a class at Portland Community College costs about $200. Community education courses (non-credit classes) cost even less. Some employers will pay for classes; my business will pay for one class per employee per term. If your employer doesn't have a similar policy, ask!
  • Facilities — Community colleges have facilities and practical training unavailable at most universities. My local community college has a wood shop, an automotive shop, and quality darkrooms. Many students take classes simply for access to the facilities. A typical woodworking class is self-directed — you decide what your project is, and then have open access to expensive equipment and an instructor willing to help you use it.
  • Instructors — Community college classes are generally taught by real professionals from the field. When I learned computer programming, my classes were taught by instructors who wrote code every day for actual employers. (One of my instructors also taught at Portland State University — she taught the exact same courses at Portland Community College for a quarter the cost.) When I take photography classes, I'm being taught by active professional photographers. One of my writing instructors was Craig Lesley, a prominent Northwest author.
  • Networking — Community college classes allow you to network with instructors and students, making valuable contacts in your hobby or profession. I took photography classes at the community college for a couple of years, and the contacts I made in these classes continue to benefit me: I can e-mail my former instructors with questions and ideas; I trade photography equipment with other students; I get to watch as certain students make the leap from amateur to professional. I'm currently in a writers group with a former instructor. Some students land jobs through the contacts they make in class.
  • Convenience — Community colleges are aware that they serve a large population of students seeking continuing education. They try to make their classes as convenient as possible. I've taken night classes in computer science, writing, photography, algebra, Spanish, and business management. I've taken weekend classes in application design. I've taken late-afternoon classes in assembly language programming. Community colleges make it easy to get additional education.
  • Education — Most importantly, community colleges act as a safety net for those who need an education. Some kids aren't ready for high school. Others aren't ready for college. Community colleges are there to help those who have realized the value of an education and are looking to correct mistakes they've made in the past. Even adults in mid-career can use community college courses to change their focus. After eighteen months of community college computer programming courses, I landed a job hacking C++ for an environmental engineer.

When I was in high school, I made fun of the local community college. You'd never catch me going to such a place. No, instead I went to a fancy private institution where yearly tuition cost as much as a nice car. And while I was earning my degree from this fancy private institution (which I love, by the way — don't get me wrong), I made fun of the local community college. That was a place for losers. I'm older now, and wiser.

Over the past fifteen years I've attended a score of community college courses. Only one (small business management) has been a dud. Oftentimes on AskMetafilter, a user will post a question like "How can I improve my photography skills?" or "I want to get better at programming for cheap" or "What's a good way to learn woodworking?" My answer is always: sign up for a class at the community college.

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A Brief Guide to Better Sleep

Good sleep is one of the best free investments you can make in yourself. I spent much of last year on a quest for improved sleep, and eventually found it. Here's how.

In The Owner's Manual for the Brain, Pierce J. Howard summarizes sleep research with the following lists:

To get to sleep more quickly:

  • Consume dairy products (the warmer the better).
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners.
  • Avoid food additives.
  • Avoid caffeine within six hours of bedtime.
  • Keep to a regular bedtime.
  • Consume carbohydrates and fats; avoid protein.
  • Read or view unexciting material.
  • Avoid exercise within four hours of bedtime.
  • Sleep in absolute darkness and complete silence.
  • Take melatonin.

To get better quality sleep:

  • Lose weight.
  • Avoid alcohol within four hours of bedtime.
  • Drink water after alcohol consumption.
  • Plan sleep according to sleep cycles and circadian rhythms.
  • Do aerobic exercise regularly, but not close to bedtime.

To get back to sleep after waking:

  • Write down what's on your mind.
  • Read something unexciting.
  • Drink warm milk and honey.

Some of these concepts merit further discussion. (Note: while most of what follows is in my own words, some sentences are lifted verbatim from Howard's book.)

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More about...Health & Fitness