PAX Plans

As many have noticed, I’m not at PAX. It’s a sad state of affairs, but our finances just didn’t make it this year and we’ll have to pay higher taxes next year, so a big trip right before tax-time seemed unwise.

Despite that, I’m already making plans for next year. April and I are charting a vacation in March over Spring Break that will take us to Oostberg, Wisconsin. From there, we’ll hit Chicago, and then we’ll hop over to Boston for PAX East.

Some friends of ours just moved to Oostberg so the husband of the duo could become the pastor of a church there, so we’re going to fly to Milwaukee, take a bus to Sheboygan, and see if they’ll pick us up there. On the return trip, after they get us to Sheboygan, we’ll take a train to Chicago where we’ll spend a couple of days. Flying from Chicago to Boston is only $100 a ticket, so we’ll hop on over a few days before PAX to explore the city.

I’ve got some work stuff going on that might result in a raise, so I’m hoping to manage both PAX East and PAX Prime next year, though attending Prime will be just a quick jaunt to Seattle for a three day party. The last time I attended PAX Prime it was a two week vacation for me, but since we’ll be doing Boston in March I won’t be able to afford two long vacates. A lot of people I met at PAX only attend Prime, so I’d really like to go there, but the timing is more difficult. PAX Prime is right after our fall semester starts, and since I work at a University it’s hard to get away. Spring Break for PAX East is a bit more convenient.

For those of you at PAX this year, I hope you all have a blast. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there, but hopefully we’ll see each other next year in the holy land. Have fun and stay safe!

What’s a Writer Worth?

Writers are getting paid less these days, and it has a lot of people very worked up. ((Check out the comments of this About.com article to find a nest of angry writers.)) Just as I’m entering the writing scene and learning how to make money by wordsmithing, pay is plummeting in comparison with the time it takes to put together a well-researched article. Newspapers are folding, everything’s moving online, and writers are about a penny per dozen. The world is changing, and for many writers it may mean the end of their careers.

Whose fault is it?

I haven’t been following this debate because it all seems nonsensical to me. I admit that I’m a socialist when it comes to taking care of people — I think we have a moral imperative to help the helpless, so to speak, and that includes things like medical care and other benefits — but there are areas where I am 100% capitalist. As far as I’m concerned, a writer’s pay is set by the market.

There are a lot of writers who hate “content farms,” the name given to companies like Demand Studios, Suite101, and Emerging Cast. They feel that these companies devalue writing because they pay so little — articles for which magazines once would have paid five hundred dollars or more are being written for fifteen dollars.

Some writers blame young people, who they feel don’t understand or appreciate the true value of writing. These youngsters sign up for freelance sites and write some words for quick cash, thereby ruining Writing As We Know It.

Others blame pseudo-writers. They’d probably use something more insulting than the word “pseudo,” but their point is that these people aren’t writers. They’re just people doing writing, and that’s making it hard for the legitimate writers.

Still others blame the content farms, who clearly don’t value good work. While it’s true that content farms don’t care overly much about the quality of the work they accept, the adage “It takes two to tango” cannot be ignored.

How much do you value good writing?

In a purely financial sense, I’d say I value writing somewhere between zero and twenty-five dollars. After all, that’s about how much I’m wiling to pay for it.

On one end of the spectrum, I consume most of my written content online for free. There are fees for Internet access, my computer, and the cost of my time to read whatever is before me… but I’m not paying the writer anything for reading their work. I value it with my time, but not financially.

Opposite the Internet mentality of everything-should-be-free are the dead tree books I buy to line my shelves. Most of these are paperback, so about $8 each, but as soon as I see a Terry Pratchett novel, I’m happy to grab the hardback for about $25.

Writing on the Internet is generally funded by advertisements. To put it another way, a writer’s words help attract attention to someone else’s product, which the reader does value and is willing to put money towards, and the author gets a cut of that revenue. This is really no different from how newspapers have always done business (good content attracts a large readership, which means advertisements can be sold for more), but the ceiling has been eliminated. There is no longer a limit on distribution channels or the population interested in the content. This means more eyeballs.

The same medium that allows more people to read the same content also increases the amount of content. Many towns only have one newspaper, and while larger cities might have multiple in circulation, it is nothing compared to the hundreds of millions of web sites in existence. There’s a lot more supply of content now than there used to be, while the rise of streaming audio and video has reduced demand for the written word.

Is Writing a Worthy Skill?

Two extremist viewpoints come to mind when I think about the worth of writing.

First, writing is putting words on a page. Back before mandatory public schools and improved access to educational materials via libraries and the Internet, people who could read were scarce, and people who could write (and write well) were scarcer. The further back you go through the history books, the less readers and writers there were.

Being a scribe was a trade, a skill you could sell to merchants, nobles, and common folk who wanted something written down. You were part of a rare educated few, and capitalizing on that scarcity was easy. The market still set the wage you would be paid, but prices were higher because supply was lower.

Things are different now: sixty-five to eighty-five percent of the population of the United States is literate, so most people can read and write for themselves. We might go to a lawyer to have them create a contract, or to an architect to have them design a building, but for most purposes we can shift for ourselves. (To learn more about literacy, check out Literacy in the United States: Readers and Reading Since 1880.)

As literacy and the ability to write increased, newspapers still had value because they were able to send reporters to remote locations and gather the details, then provide the stories of remote locations to the neighborhood readers. This isn’t such a feat anymore because local bloggers will be happy to relate the goings-on. If writing is just putting words on a page, then there are hundreds of millions of people who can fill that role. Without scarcity, writing has less worth.

Visiting the other extreme for my second point, there is value in the ability to pull that information together. We would rather read something that is well-written than something that is not; we can all think of one or two poorly written blogs that we scanned once and left because it wasn’t worth bookmarking. In addition, we’d rather someone do the work of researching for us and present us the distilled facts. This saves us time and effort, and it is a valuable service.

Good writers, and in particular good journalists, serve this purpose. Their worth is derived not just by writing, but by bringing together the relevant data and creating a single excellent resource. By presenting all of the data without bias, they contribute to a more informed and balanced society. Excellent journalism should be valued by both the citizenry and the government because it strengthens both.

Everyone’s a Writer

When we combine increased literacy with the Internet, we reach a point where anyone and everyone can be a writer. If everyone was competing for the same jobs, it would mean that the better writers would continue to get paid well and the majority would languish in obscurity. Unfortunately for traditional writers, this has not been the case.

The death of traditional writing and publishing hasn’t been the content farms, which are a relatively recent invention. The death of expensive writing has been ensured since the Internet was born, and its murderer is passion.

For the writers angrily commenting on and taking part in this debate about content farms and the value of writing, this may be a difficult concept, but the truth is that there are people willing to do the work they are doing but for free. Fifteen dollars from Demand Studio is just icing on the cake. Certainly, there are people churning out these articles for their full-time job, and there are people doing it for some nice money on the side, but there are also people who just like to write about different topics.

I wonder if some of these angry people pointing fingers at the youngsters or at the content farms have never browsed a blog ring. People write stuff for free because they’re interested in it, or love the subject, and want to share their knowledge with others. Wikipedia falls under the same category, where thousands of contributors build a knowledge base for no financial advantage. Local citizens attend city hall meetings and report on the votes, or ask questions of politicians to update their blog, or write Wikipedia entries to record their hours of research.

It’s the Internet–the great leveler. Shakespeare’s line has finally become reality, and when all the world is a stage, that means every person is an actor. You can’t expect actors to make hundreds or thousands of dollars for a few hours work under those conditions.

So how can writers make money?

It will certainly be more difficult, but I think it is still possible. In the end, they will just have to be excellent, a little lucky, and completely passionate. If a writer writes to make money, the market will set their value. Right now it looks like that’s around $0.03 a word for most content, and even at the higher end the most I’m seeing a lot of the time is $0.10 a word.

Of course, there are people making a lot more than that with blogging, both through affiliate linking and advertising. (Check out Affiliate Marketing on the Web to learn more about this.) It raises the question for me of whether or not it’s worthwhile to pursue writing for other publications — why bother writing for a content farm or a magazine when I can write for myself, market my site to generate traffic, and make money that way?

Consumers will give money to work they value. This is how webcomic artists (at least some) make a living–they create art and writing that people enjoy, so those fans buy merchandise, books, and prints. (An excellent resource about how to accomplish this is How To Make Webcomics by Scott Kurtz and Kristopher Straub.) If you create good work, people will support it.

For many nouveau-writers, though, writing isn’t about making money. It’s not even about seeing their name on the front cover or in the newspapers, otherwise Wikipedia would have bylines. People write because they enjoy it and find worth in the writing. Someday, that may be all the worth that is left in writing. For me, it will be enough.

Accepting the reality of our situation

When April and I were shopping for a house, we knew we needed something in good shape. We couldn’t buy a fixer up because 1) we didn’t know how to fix things and 2) we wouldn’t have the time to fix something even if we knew how. Subsequently, we paid more for a house than we otherwise might have, and when we found the one we wanted, we paid full price to make sure we got it. I didn’t feel we had time to fool around with alternatives.

Several months ago, our dishwasher stopped working. I looked it up on the Internet because it’s The Future Now and discovered that a motor in the door had probably burnt out. This motor was about $7.50 and all it required was ordering it, turning the power off, taking the door apart, and replacing the motor. Last week I finally called an appliance repair place because none of that ever happened. Our dishwasher is finally working and our dishes are wonderfully sparkly and clean.

Today I hired an accountant to do our taxes. I’ve been doing my taxes since I got my first job in 2002, and only once visited H&R Block where they laughed at me for bringing in such a simple return and then charged me $80 (that was in 2004, I believe). Since then I’ve gotten a higher paying job, gotten married, we bought a house and a car, and actually have a savings account with more than two zeroes at the end of it (before the decimal point). I’m good at not spending money, and I’m OK at basic accounting and budgeting, but I suck at math and taxes worry the bajeezus out of me. Plus, I want to start a company within the next two years and I’d rather establish a relationship with a good CPA now rather than later; having someone do our individual taxes will be a good way to gauge how I feel about this guy.

All  this despite my continued feeling that we need to be constantly saving, cutting back, and living cheap. It is a strange conflict within myself, probably arising from having grown up somewhat poor and now being more affluent. We had a nice house and everything when I was a kid, but money was always extremely tight–we were living the American Standard of looking good while not actually being good. Now April and I are doing both, but I still have trouble shaking the feeling that things Aren’t Good. They are, but it’s hard to remember.

As a general rule, I am a frugal man, and April and I cut back on things as we’re able and continue to find ways to live more efficiently and inexpensively. But as of today, I think it’s time for me to accept what I’ve been pushing to the back of my thoughts for the last two years: we’re firmly middle class and have reached the point of paying other people to do stuff for us so we don’t have to. I barely hold it together between work, class, and D&D, the extroverted requirements of which completely drain me emotionally and mentally. Tonight I’ve been torn between writing (which I haven’t done hardly any of this semester) and doing homework, and since I couldn’t bring myself to do the latter (pointless, hated assignments) but felt like I ought to, I likewise didn’t do the former. I’ve got at least three more theological essays in mind to write, but each will take 4-5 hours, and the other ideas continue to pile up. I just can’t muster up a whole lot of desire when I’m so tired.

So instead I gathered up tax documents from the last four years and emailed them to our accountant. I put dishes in the dishwasher and felt the warm glow of knowing they’d be sparkly clean when they came out while reveling in the fact that I can’t even hear the dishwasher because it’s so nice and quiet. I thought about April’s observation that our house is like a fort, like a blanket stretched over two chairs, and sat comfortably in our living room watching Star Trek, which I am getting through Netflix. I read on Reddit about a guy who just made $20 million recently and knew with great certainty that I am not and will never be that guy… but I am comfortable and happy, and I need to just accept where and what I am and stop trying to force myself to be what I’m not.

Is that OK? This ongoing ambivalence refuses to go away.

Addendum:: Other things causing this internal conflict

My coat has been torn and falling apart for a while. The lining under my left arm had torn badly, making it hard to put on and take off, and the coat had holes in the pockets and a button that had come off and been lost. I couldn’t fix it myself, but I’ve refused to take it for a tailor for three years because it was “too expensive.” I took my coat in on Thursday to get it fixed. It’s a pretty wonderful feeling (and only cost $18!).

That same day, I took our car in to get the oil changed (after getting an estimate on how much it’ll cost to repair the damage from the girl that hit it two weeks ago). They asked about rotating the tires (6000+ miles) and I said sure. Even on something like that, I feel weird and fabulously wealthy paying someone else to do that while I sit in a warm waiting room and read a book.

The dishwasher was on Friday and the accountant was yesterday (Monday), so I’ve just had a bunch of spend-money-on-services events recently that I don’t normally experience. I guess what it comes down to is I feel awesome, yet feel like I shouldn’t feel awesome? I definitely thank God for his provision and recognize that he continues to bless us beyond all understanding, but it’s almost like I’ve been programmed (three guesses who did the programming) to feel guilty for being blessed. I’m thinking I should stop [feeling guilty].

Money: What Works For Us

There are a few simple steps that work for April and me in regards to being financially responsible and solvent. I think they’d be helpful to others, but take or leave this as you wish. This is just what works for us.

Step 1: Tithe

Take 10% of your gross income and give it to the church. This is your income before taxes and before deductions. Whatever your yearly salary is, whatever your monthly or weekly paycheck, look at the biggest number and multiply by 0.10. Write a check for that amount and put it in the tithing box, plate, whatever.

I do this for a few reasons:

  1. God tells us to.
  2. God provides everything for us, so this isn’t much for him to ask.
  3. It helps His church.
  4. It is an important act of faith that I give the money to God’s church to do with as they feel directed, rather than trying to direct it myself.
  5. From experience, God has continually provided better and better for me as I have tithed.
  6. Tithing has improved my faith in other matters.

No matter how little money you make, you can afford to tithe. If you cannot afford to tithe, you’re doing something wrong. You need to seriously reevaluate your budget and lifestyle and make cuts. If you can’t tithe, you’re living beyond your means, which is just dangerous.

Step 2: Budget AKA Pay Your Bills/Debt

Set up a budget (you might consider using Mint, which I wrote about recently, or maybe just a piece of paper with your amounts/dates).

Stick to the budget. Make minimum payments on your debt.

Step 2.1

I had this in my rant about Dave Ramsey followers, but it bears restating. Don’t spend all your damned money. Live within your means. Discipline yourself. You’ll be happier in the long run.

Step 3: Save

Put your money into a good savings account until you have enough for six months worth of bills/debt. I recommend a High Yield Money Market Account from Everbank, but any high interest savings will do. Bankrate.com has a good listing of these.

Part of our savings is soon going to be invested in stocks as well, but that’s because I’ve been getting some education on this recently and feel confident I can do it safely and reliably. I don’t recommend this unless you have had similar tutelage.

Step 4: Pay everything off

Car, house, student loans, everything. Once you’ve got enough money saved where you don’t have to worry about going into more debt if you get laid off, your roof needs repaired, or something else comes up, you start buckling down and making payments.

In mine and April’s case, we’re making minimum payments and saving/investing until she gets a full time job, at which time 100% of her paycheck will go towards paying everything off. I make sure we can live on just my paycheck and that we don’t over-extend ourselves for this very reason. If she needs to quit her job for school, or if she doesn’t get a job right after graduating, we’ll be OK. When she does get a job, we’ll pay things off very quickly.

Step 5: Save More

Now you begin investing in Roth IRAs and other savings mediums. My intent is to set up a savings for each kid when they are conceived for their 1) First Car, 2) College, and 3) Wedding. If they decide they don’t want a car, college, and/or wedding, then I guess they’ll just have a nice cash bed to roll around on. We’ll have an IRA for retirement and stocks for investing.

I did the math a couple of years ago and realized that there were two options:

  1. Invest in retirement/savings while paying off debt
  2. Pay off everything, then invest in retirement savings

Option 2 resulted in exponentially higher end-sums, even with a delay of several years, because we’d be able to invest so much more per month. Seems like most of the financial consultants agree.

Ask for Help

If you need help, ask for it. Get an accountability partner who will regularly go over your finances with you. This should be a monthly meeting, at the least, to look at transactions, trends, and to discuss challenges.

There are two things we absolutely must not let happen. First, we cannot let or rely upon others to manage our money for us. It’s what keeps you in food, clothing, and a home, and other people will care about that a whole lot less than you will. At the same time, we mustn’t let our money manage us.

Just because the Good Book says that “money is the root of all evil” doesn’t mean we should try and ignore its implications on our lives. We have to be responsible with what God has given us. Likewise, we should recognize that God has given us the Church, just as he gave us to the Church and gave Himself for the Church. This community exists expressly to provide fellowship and aid. Don’t hesitate to ask.

Common Sense Is Common -or- Why Dave Ramsey Frustrates Me

The first sentence to come out of my fingers when I sat down to write this was

Dave Ramsey is the voice of reason to a jilted, overspent generation of high credit rollers and over mortgaged has-beens.

I recognize that’s a little harsh, though. More harsh than is warranted by this article, because I’ve not really got any beef with Dave Ramsey. From the times I’ve heard him speak, I have gotten the impression he is just as frustrated as I am.

As I begin to think, speak, and write more about money (which as I said before, I generally avoid and don’t intend to do for much longer), more people have begun to throw Dave Ramsey at me. They can’t or won’t tell me why they specifically reference Ramsey, or what it is he says, other than that he has “changed their lives.” What’s more, Ramsey appears to be the cure-all for financially moribund middle-America, so his creeds are recommended regardless of the situation.

The fervor with which people cite Ramsey is astounding to me, though, because there’s really not much there to cite. Let me see if I can summarize what this dude says:

  1. You’re in debt. Stop spending your damned money on things you don’t need
  2. Save some up in case of an emergency so you don’t need to go further in debt
  3. Pay minor things off (credit cards, car, student loans)
  4. Save up more money in case you get laid off (or a bigger emergency happens)
  5. Pay bigger things off (house)
  6. Don’t start spending all your damned money again. Instead, save it in high interest accounts such as a Roth IRA

You know what I call this? Good Advice. And that’s great, but it’s also Money Management 101. This is the most basic of the basic, the common sensical approach to money that everyone should be taking from the time they get their first job. Don’t buy stuff you can’t afford. If you do take on debt (as pretty much everyone but the very wealthy must at some point), don’t take on more than you can afford. Pay stuff off. Make a budget and stick to it.

It’s. Not. Hard.

There are two types of followers of Ramsey that annoy me. First, there’s the follower that thinks Ramsey’s words are like unto those of Jesus, our Most Holy Messiah, and that Dave Ramsey is the saviour of this world whose advice will revolutionize the way we live. No it’s not, it’s freaking common sense. I don’t mind you needing someone to tell you to get your act together–it’s hard for us to see our failings from within our failed situation, so we need someone from the outside to point it out–but we don’t fall down weeping in joy at the moral from a Disney movie so why should we make such a big deal when some dude on the radio shares some common sense?

Second, the person who trumpets Ramsey’s advice but doesn’t follow it. They’ve been through the Financial Peace University, they’ve read the books, listened to the radio show, and told everyone they know how much they love it and how helpful Ramsey’s advice is… but they’re still in a growing amount of debt and can’t seem to get their spending under control. It’s good that they can at least recognize the value in common sense, but it’s frustrating that they can’t practice it. It’s even more frustrating when they trumpet the value of Ramsey’s teachings to people who don’t have money problems.

Ramsey telling people how to save money is like a hunting instructor telling kids not to shoot at people with orange vests, or to put the freaking safety on before holstering a pistol. Don’t spend money you don’t need to, pay of debt, save.

I can’t help but think Ramsey’s downing whiskey some nights, head in his hands, wondering why people still need him to tell them these things.

Anyways, stop recommending Ramsey to me. I’m on it. I was already doing all this before I’d even heard of Dave Ramsey, because he didn’t invent this. It’s just freaking common sense.

Post Script: Maybe my lack of problems with money is a unique thing, and that’s why this bugs me so much. I grew up having to deal with bankruptcy, not having enough food to eat, and in a household that had way over-extended itself and taken on too much debt. I grew up with the fear of not knowing if the mortgage would be paid or if we’d have a house next month, and whenever we did go grocery shopping I would be on the lookout for the cheapest stuff.

A kid shouldn’t have to deal with that, and since I was very young, my goal was to make sure my kids wouldn’t have to. I understand the money thing, but that’s probably because I had to live with hard times that most of the people I know avoided.

Regardless, I guess what I’m getting at is I’m tired of people forcing advice on me that is completely unfounded. I don’t mind uninvited advice, because we won’t usually ask for advice when we most need it. Give advice when you think you need to–that’s fine. What I’m annoyed with is advice given by someone who has no knowledge of the situation into which they are attempting to impart advice. It’s pretentious at best, insulting at worst.

Post Post Script: I just replied to a comment on Facebook with the below text and wanted to post it here, as the final paragraph helps to sum up another facet of my frustration.

Like I wrote, it’s OK to offer advice, it’s just better to find out more about the situation before lobbing it like a mortar.

And it’s absolutely great if it’s helpful to you. There’s nothing wrong with that either.

Though you had brought Ramsey up, you were by no means the only person, nor were you the most animated one. I’ve been asked at least 1-2 times a week for the last 2-3 months if I want to borrow a Ramsey book, attend the FPU, or some other Ramsey-related thing. I swear, if people had talked to me about Jesus when I wasn’t Christian as often as they talk to me now about Ramsey, I’d have converted a long time ago 😛

Review of Mint Financial Site

Mint Home

Mint.com is a total pain in the ass to set up. But once you have it set up, it is the greatest thing ever.

What Mint offers you is centralized reporting, monitoring, and analysis of your personal finances. It does this by logging into your online banking accounts, reading your transactions and balances, and categorizing and organizing everything to make it easy for you to understand. ((I imagine you’re thinking, “OMG this seems like a huge security risk!” You may never be comfortable with something like this, but I’ll tell you why I’m not too worried. 1) It was just bought by Intuit, the company that also makes Quicken. They’ve got a reputation on the line, plus some federal oversight, so I trust them. 2) I read through all their privacy, terms of service, and end user license agreement stuff. It looks legit to me, and after a couple of months of using them, still seems solid.))

Fracking Online Bank Accounts

If you've got a lot of accounts, Mint will take even more work to get Just Right.
If you've got a lot of accounts, Mint will take even more work to get Just Right.

It’s hard to say which feature I value most in Mint, but the ability to see all of my finances in one place is pretty wonderful. Regardless of which credit card or checking account we use, I have one list of transactions. I can see at a glance how our investments are doing, how much is in our savings, and what bills have come out.

But this also means I have to have every account in there to get the full picture, and I couldn’t rest until I had them all in. My investment accounts were the hardest as they had the most strict security, followed by a couple of credit cards. Error after error, setting and resetting security questions, every problem you can think of. And yet, once it’s done, it is simply wonderful.

If you’ve got a lot of accounts like we do, you’re going to be tempted to quit before you have even started. When you run into snags, it’s easy to throw your hands up and move on. You haven’t seen what the site does yet, so it doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Let me assure you, once you get this step done, it gets way better. Most of the accounts will stay setup forever, and while you might have to put some security answers in now and again, mostly everything will Just Work. Get past the initial setup and you will be rewarded.

With MINTY PIE

Minty Pie

Once you have all your accounts in, Mint will have built a list of your last however-many transactions. You may need to spend some time tweaking categories and whatnot, but that’s kind of fun. You can select from a long list that Mint already has ((Pro tip: Don’t set transactions to broad categories, such as Auto, but to specific ones such as Auto Insurance. This will help a lot when you get to budgeting.)) or make your own–just try and be consistent. Once everything is categorized, you can begin to see some trends.

The trending tools in Mint give you two neat functions. First, you can see how much you spent on what. I’m not the type to keep a check register of every purchase we make, but one month I tried to do so. I needed to know where our money was going, so I tried to mark down every cup of coffee, every order of Chinese food, and every MP3 we purchased. It quickly got out of control and I just couldn’t manage it–I gave up. Mint does all of that automatically, based off our actual accounts, which is freaking awesome. And then it shows me all that in a delicious pie chart.

You can drill down into this to see how much you spent inside each broad category (for instance, inside Food & Dining we have: Groceries, Restaurants, Coffee Shops, and Fast Food), and you can also organize it by tag or merchant. What’s also neat is the ability to set this to bar graphs and compare it against other people (who use Mint, obviously) in your country, state, or in other places of the world. It helps put expenses into perspective if you see that, on average, everyone is spending way less than you on something. Or, as might be the case, if they’re spending way more than you, you can feel kind of good about it.

Trends will help you see where your money is going, and that will help you decide what your budget needs to be.

Realistic Budgeting

budgetbars
As a general rule, your budget should not look like a Christmas tree.

Something Mint has taught me about budgeting is how to make our budget realistic. It’s easy to set a budget and not stick to it, which is what I have done for years. Or, to put it more accurately, we would budget for the big expenses (rent/mortgage, utilities, insurance, groceries, etc.) but not for little ones (coffee, eating out, clothes). We didn’t have any way to save for those things specifically, nor did we have any way to measure and account for them. If we needed to, we took from savings.

Once we could see how we generally spent our money from the trend analysis, though, we could set some definite goals and limits. It’s important to be able to tell yourself, “No, I won’t spend more than $$ on <item I want>,” but it’s worthwhile to prioritize your desires and make sure you’re not miserable. For instance, I want April to feel free to buy coffee in the morning, but we can’t afford for her to buy a latte every day. We budget enough for her to get a regular coffee most days and limit ourselves to that. We don’t say, “No more coffee!” because that would be crazy.

Mint will also let you do rolling budgets and pre-filled budgets for extra-monthly expenses. Let me give two examples to clarify these.

A rolling budget allows you to roll the balance of a budget from one month to the next. We use this for most of ours, but the best example is on utilities. Over the course of the year, our utilities average about $141 per month. During nice months (like the one we just finished) though, it’ll be a lot less. We can budget $141, knowing that’s average, and when we only spend $80 on utilities, the other $59 can roll to the next month. This will add up until we hit one of those terrible periods where our utility cost spikes to $250 a month for 2-3 months, and since we budgeted and rolled money accordingly, we’re fine. Doing things this way prevents us from spending the excess (we could have just spent the extra $59 on something else, but then we’d be screwed later) because the money stays in the utility budget and is accounted for.

A pre-filled budget is ideal for expenses that only crop up occasionally. For instance, we pay a $22 trash fee every three months so the nice men with the truck will come and pick up our garbage. Mint lets me set that up and then fills a budget of $7 every month, so in three months there will be $22. This helps me save for the expense and keep us accountable.

We use rolling budgets for food, clothing, and some other things as well so we can do fun things. Maybe April can’t get the dress she wants this month, but the money will roll over and she can get it next month, or something. We have a pre-filled budget for Sam’s Club as well, where we spend lots of money on bulk items (and by buying in bulk we save more in the long run). We don’t need to go every month, but we spend a lot of money when we do, so it’s good to plan for that in advance.

Grow Strong in the Force

Keeping an eye on your finances, knowing where your money is going, and adjusting your spending accordingly to meet your goals are important keys to financial success. If you have ever reached the end of your bank account and been confused where all your money went, something like Mint would probably be really helpful for you. You don’t have to use this site, but from experience I can say that it’s a lot easier than doing all this by hand.

I was previously managing our finances through a Google Spreadsheet. I kept track of the big expenses throughout the month, kept an eye on what would be left in our checking account by the end of the month, and tried to coordinate everything between the different accounts. It worked, but I didn’t have a good overall picture of our finances or financial health. I couldn’t analyze the trends in our spending. Now I can, and that means I can make adjustments far more easily.

I’d suggest you at least drop by their site and check it out. Mint has been a HUGE help to me, and I think it could be helpful to a lot of other people I know too. Let me know if you have any questions or need any help with it.

Investools Workshop

investools

I recently spent a weekend at an Investools Workshop, a two day program (eight hours a day) of learning about stocks, options, and investing. There was a lot of up-selling and sales pitch in there as well, but let me assure you, this was some solid training about how to invest. I was quite impressed and I learned a lot from this program. The most important thing I learned, though, wasn’t the trick of how to invest smart. Rather, it was the principle of money management.

Here’s what it comes down to: I don’t let someone else run my life. Similarly, I shouldn’t let someone else run my money.

Now, on the theological side, yes, God runs my life and my finances. Let’s accept that as being the case and leave it be. ((I believe wholeheartedly that God wants us to live our lives, and that he wants us to be good stewards of what he has given us. We don’t do that by sitting around doing nothing, or giving our talents to other people rather than cultivating them.))

The traditional method, as I was taught it, is to give your money to MetLife or some other mutual fund company. They invest it and make it grow, and they send you statements about how your money is doing. Until you start nearing retirement, you should probably just toss these in a drawer and forget about them because they don’t matter. You don’t lose or make any money until you sell your stocks, and you don’t sell until you retire, so forget’about’it. Let MetLife take care of your money and everything will be just fine.

As I have come to realize, though, MetLife et. al. sucks at managing money. I saw this myself before I first heard about Investools at the Get Motivated seminar. They just aren’t that good at managing money, and Investools clued me in about the “why.” The reason MetLife et. al. suck at managing money and subsequently lose tons of it as the stock market plummets (while others are still raking it in) is because they’re too big. There are a lot of restrictions on how much and how fast they can trade, so when things start too crash, they can’t react quick enough. When the market starts to go up, they can’t invest in time. In general, they’re sluggish and so they lose.

Five years ago, individuals didn’t have the tools needed to invest easily by themselves. Now they do, and the best toolset from what I have seen is pictured/linked above. It really gives you a lot of analyses you can’t get elsewhere, and without it I don’t think I could invest nearly as well. Right now I’m just working with fake money, but my confidence is growing as my analyses (with the help of the tools provided by Wealth Magazine) are proven correct.

If I rely on MetLife (and then pay them all the fees they’ll charge me over the years), we’re simply not going to have enough to retire. And it’s not just about retiring and Living The Good Life for our final years. I also have to take into consideration the declining health of the age’d. My goal since I was nine years old was to be a good husband and a good father, and part of that is making sure we’re not a burden to our kids. Being out of money but needing healthcare for another twenty years would suck for them, and I don’t want to do that to them. We’ll prepare early.

I don’t know how this will all work out, but I know this much: we need to at least be responsible enough to look after our own finances. We can’t just dump money in a mutual fund’s lap and assume they’ll take care of us. Therefore I’ll manage our finances myself, and Investools has given me what I need to do that.

Much Ado About Money

There are two reasons I haven’t written about money or our personal finances before. First, I felt like I was gloating, though I wasn’t. It’s just that we’re in a good place financially, and while I’d like to share some tips and my steps for how we got here, I felt like it was improper. Second, I haven’t written about money because I didn’t have all that much to say. I can list my steps, but that’s about it.

My first draft, written months ago on this topic, was long and annoying. I hated it, so I never published it. I’m not even rewriting it now–instead, I have some new things to say, and they might actually be worthwhile.

Here’s the bottom line: April and I do quite well financially, and we do that despite making less money than most everyone we know. Well, maybe not “everyone,” but we make less than a lot of people, especially those I work with. ((To clarify, I’m not saying we “do better” than everyone, either. Part of my perception is that we define comfort differently, so the sort of lifestyle that is nice to us is “unacceptable” to others. I tend to think those others might need to reevaluate their priorities, but that’s neither here nor there. All I’m trying to say is, we feel pretty comfortable with our current life, and I know a lot of people who make more money but are less comfortable. My implication throughout the series is that this is because they don’t manage their money well.)) I suspect we will continue to do quite well, and while we probably won’t be winning any hypothetical contests, we’re alright. Others will have more than us, but we’re reasonably comfortable, and that’s worth something.

I’m learning how to invest and manage our money, and we’ve got a solid financial plan for the next ten years or so. As I start to think and talk more about finances, though, I keep having advice thrown at me. This advice is well meaning, but it’s also annoying, and I want to address that too.

So it’s now Financials Week here at SilverPen Pub. Feel free to tune out if you want (I’m sure April will, since she has to hear about this stuff all the time), but I’d really encourage you to join the discussion. Share what works for you, and let me know if there’s something more you’d like to hear about.

Stay tuned to read more about investing, Mint.com, Dave Ramsey, and what works for us.

Why do you want to be published?

I was reading a discussion on Writerface the other day where the poster wondered about getting published. He was having quite an ordeal, having received numerous rejection letters and the like, and as I read through the forum thread I received confirmation that everyone deals with the same issues. It has always been difficult to get published, but with the current state of the economy and the decline of print media in general, publishers are even more hesitant to put work into print, especially for untested authors.

Being the sort of Internet-junkie I am, though, I couldn’t help but wonder why people want to get published so much. Yeah, I fancy myself an author, or at least I will do once I finally finish writing a book, but I’m doing it because I like to write. As I read through the forum, the fight to be published was portrayed as a fierce struggle, but for what?

Why do people want to be published? I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who not only intends to self-publish but who gives his work away for free online, so my thoughts are probably more cynical than accurate, but I could only come up with the following two reasons.

1) For the money

Shakespeare got to get paid, son, and I recognize that. I also recognize that publishing companies have far greater marketing capabilities than an individual, and one shouldn’t expect any marking from a Print-on-Demand (POD) Publisher. It’s hard to get your name out there and get noticed, and having a real publisher pick up your book and print/advertise it makes a huge difference.

But I can’t help but notice all the independent online businesses that are doing pretty damn well, and in particular I look at webcomic artists for a lot of my business inspiration. They put their work online for free, sell art and merchandise, and I read a great many who make a living off it. But even if you don’t make a living from the work, you can at least supplement your income. They do their own advertising, their own work, and most of the webcomics I read have visitor counts in the tens of thousands every day.

2) For the recognition

Maybe it’s just gratifying for a publisher to select you for publication. I could see feeling like you’ve really made it as an author when someone gives you the external feedback of publication + money, and that pat on the head would go a long way towards legitimizing one’s work. After being published, you can be secure in knowing that you don’t just think you’re a good writer. You’re good enough that someone else was willing to pay you for it and stake their own name, money, and time on your writing.

Part of me can’t help but point out that you can get that same recognition by working independently, if that’s what you really want, but seriously… if that’s your motivation, you should probably close your laptop and stop turning out crap just to make people like you. Write what you want because you want to write it. Communicate something you’re passionate about, and if it’s good, people will read it. If it’s not, well, at least you tried, I guess. Maybe learn to write better?

Recognition will come if you deserve it.

There’s no Rhyme or Reason, or is there?

Part of me can see the following logic. You wrote this because you want to communicate something, so you want that to get to the most people possible, and a publishing company can do that a lot better/easier/faster than self-publishing. Most self-published work gets read by only a few dozen people due to lack of advertisement, so if you really want to get your words out there, you have to go through a publishing company. Self-publishing, either through POD or on the Internet, just makes your message part of the noise, and you’ll get lost in it.

That’s a valid argument, but I don’t think it’s true. There are more books published in a single year now than in all of history, so being in print doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get noticed. Obviously, advertising makes a huge difference (do you really think Twilight would have been a hit if it had been POD published with no marketing?), but there are plenty of examples of run-away-hits (such as The Shack, apparently) that spread due to word-of-mouth.

You can’t account for what Makes It and what doesn’t, so I’m inclined to think that good work will be rewarded. If what you write happens to be good and liked by people, you’ll get noticed regardless of where you are or how you’re publishing. Just make sure you’re enjoying yourself along the way and the rest will fall into line.