I've been on the internet for a long, long time.
Via local Bulletin Board Systems, I started reading USENET newsgroups -- mostly Star Trek and comic book and computer game stuff -- during college in the late 1980s. I got sucked into the world of MUDs. Soon after graduating, I heard about this new thing called the World Wide Web, so I installed Mosaic on my Macintosh SE.
I was drawn to the web (and the internet) in part because it seemed so egalitarian. Anyone could start a website about anything, and as long as they produced great stuff and shared it, people would read. I also liked the fact that almost everything was free. It didn't cost anything (besides your $19.95 monthly dial-up service) to access any of this information. The early web was a de facto sharing economy.
Best of all? The web was a wide open space, a blank slate, a platform free from dominance by mainstream media. Little people like me could have a voice.
None of this lasted long.
The Monetization of the Web
Soon, banner ads came along. I hated banner ads when they first appeared. "My site will never have banner ads," I told my friends. (This was my first real lesson that you should never say never. My friends have been giving me grief about this for more than fifteen years!)
In 1998, Google arrived and changed everything. Until that point, web search was a miserable experience. It wasn't very good and it was overly monetized. Google was the opposite. It was amazing and had no monetization at all.
Hahahahahahahaha. How things have changed. Today, Google is all about ads. And using it is more and more a miserable experience. Look at this mess:
How long until Google has transformed itself into AltaVista?
In time, the mainstream media realized that the web wasn't going anywhere. By the early 2000s, they were treating it as an important part of their operations. By the early 2010s, the web had become the most important part of most media companies' platforms. And if it hadn't, those companies would soon be dead.
Meanwhile, two parallel (but related) trends developed.
- First, there was the rise of "software as a service" (Saas). In the olden days -- 1995, say -- when you wanted a computer program, you went down to Circuit City and bought it. You paid for it once and you owned it forever. As "web apps" became a thing, companies shifted from one-time payments to a subscription model. Today, even big companies like Microsoft and Adobe have adopted the practice of continually charging for their products. (And if they don't use a subscription model, they often "sunset" their software, which is essentially the same damn thing.)
- Second, forward-thinking sites and companies learned there was money to be made by disrupting existing business models. Netflix is a great example. Founded in 1997, this company has single-handedly destroyed multiple industries, most notably retail video. And, eventually, Netflix began to disrupt the monolithic television industry itself! Initially, this was beneficial to consumers. Now, in 2019, it's become apparent that oops, nope it's not. (See also.)
Twenty-five years ago, when the web was young, it was all about free. Anyone who could afford a computer and a $19.95/month dial-up connection was free to create and publish whatever they wanted -- and free to consume what other people had created. It was like some sort of digital utopia.
Death by a Thousand Cuts
Today, the web is most decidedly not free. And it's getting less free with every passing month. Let's be honest: More and more, life online is expensive. It's like death by a thousand cuts.
Two years ago, credit reporting agency Equifax suffered an enormous security breach. Hackers gained access to the personal data of 147 million Americans: Social Security numbers, credit card details, and other sensitive information. Almost half the U.S. population was affected.
Recently, Equifax reached a settlement agreement with the Federal Trade Commission to provide compensation for those impacted by the data breach. The FTC has posted summary details at its website. And if you're a real masochist, you can read the entire text of the settlement via PDF.
Over the past week, there have been a lot of stories going around that everyone is entitled to $125 due to the Equifax settlement. Here, for instance, is one of my real-life Facebook friends excited at the possibility of free money.
On Friday, one U.S. Representative tweeted: "Everyone: go get your check from Equifax! $125 is a nice chunk of change. Get that money and pay off a bill, sock it away, take a day off, treat yourself, whatever you'd like." And at Slate, one author wrote that you have a moral obligation to claim money in the settlement.
I'll admit: Even I believed I was going to get $125. I told Kim about it so that she could get her $125 too.
But being a skeptic by nature, I've been digging a little deeper. Turns out things with the Equifax settlement are a little more complicated than "everyone gets $125". In fact, most people won't (or shouldn't) get any money.
I used to be the sort of guy who loved to have a list of goals. At least once a year -- usually around New Year -- I'd sit down and make a list of all the things that were wrong with me, all of the things I wanted to change.
In 2007, for instance, I made a list of 101 things I wanted to accomplish in 1001 days. (It took me longer than three years to finish that list, by the way. In fact, I still haven't done everything on it because my priorities have changed. But now, ten years later, I see that I have completed nearly all of the ones that still matter.)
Eventually I realized that making a long lists of resolutions is a sure path to disappointment -- at least for me. There's a reason you see newspaper and TV stories every spring about how most people aren't able to maintain the resolutions they set at the first of the year. It's because most of us try to do too much. (And, I think, because we try to set goals that aren't truly aligned with our primary purpose in life.)
Nowadays, I do something different, something that's actually proven to be successful. Instead of trying to change many things at once, I've learned to change only one thing at a time.
One Thing at a Time
In 2010, for instance, I focused on fitness. In fact, I dubbed 2010 "The Year of Fitness". My aim was to lose fifty pounds. Every decision I made, I made with that goal in mind. You know what? It worked. Though I didn't lose fifty pounds that year, I did lose forty. (And I lost the final ten by the middle of 2011.)
I was able to do this because for the entire year, my only goal was to get in shape. I was focused. Nothing else mattered. I didn't have any other big goals clouding my view or competing for my attention. I set one goal, and I worked hard to meet it.
In 2011, my one goal was to learn Spanish. And I did it. Three times a week, I paid a Spanish tutor for ninety minutes of personal instruction. In my spare time, I watched Spanish movies and listend to Spanish music. I read Spanish books. I consumed Spanish podcasts. Within a year, I'd achieved reasonable fluency in the language. I could carry on converstations in South America, and I could read Spanish-language novels. (Though not all Spanish-language novels.)
In 2012, I tried something a little different. Instead of one big goal for the year, I chose to work on one goal each month. Some examples:
- In March, I had lunch or dinner with a different friend every day. This let me reconnect with people I'd been missing.
- In April, I embarked upon my Extreme Dating Project. I'd just been divorced, and my goal was to meet as many women as possible. (April was a fun month! And it led to my current relationship with Kim.)
- Next, my goal became to make it to the gym every day in May. I didn't quite succeed -- I only worked out 28 out of 31 days -- but I came close.
- My next goal was "no junk in June". I focused on my diet, which helped me lose five pounds and two percent body fat.
Sometimes I spend a year on any given goal. Sometimes, I spend a month. And sometimes I spend even longer! After Kim and I decided we wanted to take an RV trip across the United States, for instance, I spent the next eighteen months devoted to that project.
During the first part of 2015, we shopped for and purchased a motorhome, then prepped it for life on the road. We left Portland on 25 March 2015 and spent the next six months exploring the U.S. We paused for six months in Savannah, Georgia, before beginning our homeward journey this time last year. On 29 June 2016, we made it back to Portland. We had a blast -- because for those eighteen months, we were committed to one thing and one thing only.
You get the idea. At any given time, I'm concerned with only one major goal.
My father died twenty-four years ago today.
As I drove to the airport this morning -- I'm on a short trip to San Diego -- my mind drifted back to him and what he was like.
I don't think of Dad often anymore, and when I do it's mostly superficial stuff: Dad was fat. His hair was wild and wavy. He could be gruff. He was funny and had a contagious laugh. Sometimes he wasn't a very nice guy. Sometimes he was. But it's tough to remember what Dad was like as a presence, you know?
What I remember most about him was how Dad could do anything he set his mind to. This isn't nostalgic hero worship. It's how he actually was. My father could teach himself to do anything he wanted. And he wanted to do a lot.
A Self-Made Man
I'm not sure where my father's love of learning and experimenting came from. His parents were a simple, devout Mennonite couple.
When I knew Grandma and Grandpa, they managed a small farm. They had milk cows. They raised blueberries. They grew and canned vegetables. Grandpa cut his own wood. He'd been a janitor at the local high school, but by the time I was around, he was retired. Every night, he and Grandma sipped Sanka and played Scrabble. Their existence was simple, ordered, and serene.
My father wasn't simple. His life wasn't ordered. He was not a serene man. He was complex. He was messy. He was boisterous. He was a force of nature. (I come by my ADD honestly.) He had many interests, and he liked to indulge them all.
It's funny. Fifteen years ago, daily personal finance was a chore for me. I didn't understand how to go day to day making smart choices that were aligned with my values. I wasn't even sure what my values were!
Today, things are much easier. Sure, there are challenges. Sometimes I make poor choices. But mostly, what I spend aligns with what I want out of life. (With the caveat, of course, that who I am and what I want shifts over time.)
I'm glad I've developed good habits. Right now, it's keeping me from making a rash decision. For most of 2019, Kim and I have both been fighting the new-car itch. The old J.D. would have succumbed by now. This year's model still does dumb things like spending hours building custom cars on the Mini website, but so far I'm not scratching that new-car itch.
Instead, I've come up with a plan, a path to a car purchase. And Kim has come up with a plan of her own too.
My Plan for Purchasing a New Car
"Look at this," I told Kim a couple of weeks ago. I carried my laptop over to show her my latest Mini design: a super-powered orange convertible that makes no sense for our lives.
Kim shook her head. "You've got to stop going to the Mini website," she said. "And you especially have to stop using that build-your-own-car tool. That's dangerous." She's right.
Earlier this week, as Tally and I strolled through the hills and picked blackberries, I did some serious thinking about if/when I should get a new car. I think I've gained some clarity.
Sure, if I cashed out some of my investments, I could justify making this purchase today. But, as I learned last year, this sort of action carries a huge tax consequence. If I sold investments to buy the car, I'd effectively be paying a 15% premium to make the purchase. I'm not willing to do this.
Plus, it's hard for me to rationalize paying so much for a new car. It's crazy how expensive vehicles are these days. (Do I sound like an old man yet?)
Speaking of being an old man: The one thing that even allows me to consider a new new car is that I'm getting older. I'm fifty. It's highly probable that if I purchased a new vehicle, it'd be the last new-vehicle purchase of my life. (I tend to keep my cars a long time. I can see that at 67 or 70, I'd buy another used car because a new Mini would last me until then.)
While the dog sniffed the roadside for rabbits, I formulated an actual plan for buying a new car. I decided that there are three conditions that would lead me to make this purchase. From least likely to most likely, those conditions are:
- Interest rates on auto loans drop low enough for me to justify making payments. As I said, I don't want to cash out my investments to buy a car. My monthly income has reached a level where I could conceivably use part of it to pay for a car, but I don't want to pay a lot of interest if I do. Right now, the U.S. national average for a 60-month loan is 4.21%. That's too high. 0.0% would be low enough, obviously. But at what level would I be willing to take out a loan? I'm not sure. I think 2% may be too high, but 1% is okay.
- My current Mini Cooper dies. My car has had a couple of major repairs since 2016, but mostly it runs fine. There's no rush to replace it. But if it were totaled in an accident (heaven forbid!) or if something else major were to go wrong, well then I'd consider moving on to a new car.
- I save enough to pay cash for all (or most) of a new vehicle. GRS is starting to make more money. Not a lot -- not like in the olden days -- but some. I plan to set this aside in a car fund. Meanwhile, whenever I get lump sums, I'll stick that money in the car fund too. (I'm negotiating a project that might give me roughly $15,000 — if it ever happens.)
If any one of these three comes to fruition, I'll do pull the trigger. I'll buy a new car. (Unless, of course, I manage to shake this new-car itch for good. But that's unlikely.) In the meantime, I'll make do with the two vehicles I already own: my 2004 Mini Cooper and my 1993 Toyota truck. I like them both and they run well. They're good enough, you know?
Okay, enough with the navel gazing! I've been very introspective around here lately. While that was necessary (and cathartic), it's time to get back to work, to turn our attention to money once more.
Before we begin, though, let's talk about some changes to my workflow. Mainly, these will affect me, but they'll indirectly affect GRS readers too.
Refining Get Rich Slowly
As most of you have gathered by now, I'm going to shift how I approach my writing schedule. As in: I'm not going to stick to a schedule. I'm not going to feel pressured to publish. Instead, I'm going to write what I want, when I want. I think we'll all like the results.
"Who are you?" my cousin Duane asked me on Saturday afternoon. We'd spent the day playing nerd games together and were taking a break for pizza.
"What?" I said. I wasn't expecting a philosophical question over supper.
"I don't think you know who you are," Duane said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I don't think you know who you are," he repeated. "You write about money and frugality, yet you spend $200 on dinner." Duane was referring to the fancy meal we'd had in May at a Michelin-star restaurant in France. I knew it had been bugging him, but he hadn't said anything about it until now. (And that meal cost $267.41 for the two of us, not $200.)
"You paid $1900 for your used pickup, but you don't wash it. It's filthy. You buy new clothes that you don't need, but you leave your old clothes on the floor so that your cats pee on them." It's true. Kim and I have a cat that will, from time to time, pee on my clothes.
"You say you don't like attention, that you don't want to be a celebrity, yet you're always taking on new work that puts you in the spotlight. You're thinking of doing a course for Audible, for instance, and you're talking about doing more speaking gigs -- even though you hate speaking gigs," Duane said.
All of these things were true. I couldn't argue.
"Who are you?" Duane asked. Well, that's a mighty fine question, Duane. That's a mighty fine question.
During my recent two-week break from blogging, I wasn't just focusing on my mental health. I did a couple of television interviews. I continued to hammer out details for a potential major project (details soon, I think). And last Monday, I drove to Seattle to attend a screening of Playing with FIRE, the new film about financial independence and early retirement.
I was impressed with the turnout. I thought that maybe 100 people would show up. But the local Choose FI group stepped up their game. The theater -- which reportedly contained 278 seats -- was packed with an enthusiastic audience.
Although I've seen the film before, this was my first chance to view it on the big screen. I thought it looked great! (Even the parts with me.)
And again, I was impressed how the movie, which is ostensibly the story of Scott Rieckens' journey of discovery, really belongs to his wife, Taylor, who has to overcome her skepticism (and fear) in order to adopt a leaner lifestyle.
After the screening, I participated in a Q&A panel alongside Scott, Taylor, and Vicki Robin, who is one of my personal heroes. I was so interested in what Vicki had to say, in fact, that I whipped out my laptop to take notes!
What follows are some of Vicki's thoughts -- and my responses now that I've had time to think about what she said. Most of this is from the Q&A panel. Some of it comes from a conversation earlier in the evening.
I hate phones.
I hate answering phones. I hate making phone calls. I especially hate doing business by phone. Maybe it's a part of my social anxiety, but I will go to great lengths to not use my phone. (The phone "app" doesn't even live on the homescreen of my phone!)
If I ever have a question for my bank, for instance, I will get in my car and drive to the bank before I'll pick up the phone.
For much of the past two weeks, I've been wrestling with my mental health. I could sense a crisis coming, so I scheduled some time away. I didn't want to have to be worrying about blog posts while I was worrying about everything else. Thus, my "summer vacation".
Long-time readers are aware that I've struggled with depression for most of my life.
In sixth grade, I missed five weeks of school with what my father called "parrot fever". (We had parrots, and he attributed my issues to a parrot allergy.) After our family physician could find nothing wrong with me, Dad took me to his therapist. Hushed conversations followed the appointment. The verdict: I was dealing with depression.