Thursday, May 26, 2016

You are what you . . . drink?

"A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems."
--Alfréd Rényi

(Rényi actually said "device", not "machine", but this little saying of his has become part of the folk-wisdom of mathematics, and like many sayings, it has various forms; the version above is the version I "grew up" with, mathematically speaking).

I started drinking coffee the summer I was working on my doctoral dissertation.  My thesis advisor had gone to Oxford for a whole year, and I scraped together money to follow him there for just one summer.  "Summer" is a relative term in Oxford, especially in June, when it rained every day but one. The heat in the buildings was off (because, y'know, "summer"), but the outside June temperatures never rose above 60-some degrees.  I was miserably cold a lot of the time, and I turned to warm drinks to try to help me feel better.  British tea was an acquired taste that I couldn't manage to acquire, so I took up coffee.

Fortunately for me, July and August warmed up (AND I figured out the Sobolev inequality that helped me nail that compactness argument that I needed to finish my thesis--whoop!), but the rainy, cold June had made its mark on me:  by the time I left Old England to return to New England I was hooked both on mathematical theorem proving and on coffee.

Coffee, coffee, coffee . . .  I love it.  There are so many ways it has permeated my life.  Like Bach, I have sung (or rather, said) its praises: in our family game of "I like", my third or fourth offering has  often been, "I like . . . drinking coffee."

I've designed my bags so that they can carry my favorite insulated bottle (perfect for getting coffee on the go).

And I have come to love the coffee-making ritual in our marriage: my husband grinds the coffee beans at night, and I press the "start" button in the morning.  I make coffee and transfer it to a thermos for low-cost warmth preservation.

Coffee has been a part of my mathematical identity; it's been a part of my marriage; it's shaped the physical possessions that I own and the way I model gratitude with my children.

Can you sense there's a change coming?

There have been downsides to drinking coffee.  The expense . . . well, since we mostly brew coffee at home, coffee has been an affordable luxury, even to a Miser like me.  Even so, there's no getting around the fact that coffee is one of the more expensive ongoing pantry purchases we make in our home.  A larger downside is that I've been so addicted for so long, that even when I don't *want* to shape my life around coffee, I sort of *have* to.  In particular, when I'm traveling, locating early morning coffee (trash-free, where possible) has loomed large in my travel arrangements.

I've toyed around with the idea of giving up coffee for a while. I held back in part because it would be just another way to freak out my husband, who already thinks I live a life of hair-shirt-self-sacrifice, and worries about being dragged into the same. But then I came down with a health scare that turned out to be persistent heart burn (it's how I learned I'm beautiful on the inside).  And after taking mondo piles of medication day after day, I finally decided to say good-bye to . . . well, to a big part of my life.

Sigh-yay.  (!/?)

And so I've gone over to the herbal tea side of the world.  (Note: herbal teas -- cheaper than coffee and not addictive).  I get them from market (canning jars, no trash).  And just so I can inject a little of the happy side of me in here, I'll note that canning jar lids make great mug covers to keep the tea warm, and small canning jars are a great place to drop your tea ball when you take it out of the mug.

Friday, May 20, 2016

300 reasons to care about a single dollar

I don't know about you, but for me, high-cost items are something I buy once (maybe only a few times), whereas thing that cost a few dollars a piece are things I tend to buy over and over again.  Back in 2002, I spent something like $16K for the car we still have, but my few-bucks-at-a-time milk and yogurt purchases happen basically every week.

Which is why I tend to be fairly blasé about big purchases, and fairly obsessed about seemingly small, on-going trends.

Here's the way I think about these numbers in my head: one dollar per month is the same as three hundred dollars in a retirement fund.

It's a fairly standard rule of thumb to assume a 4% "safe withdrawal rate" during retirement.  The way retirement experts explain what this rule of thumb means is to say that people should aim to have about 25 times their annual expenses in retirement funds (after social security, pensions, etc). But I don't really think about my own expenses on an annual basis; I think about my expenses in monthly terms. I get paid monthly; the majority of our bills come once a month; I do our financial updates with my husband monthly, and my spreadsheets track our expenses monthly.  

So, the 4% rule translates to this:  for every dollar we want to spend each month in retirement, we need to have about $300 in our retirement funds.  And on the flip side: this means that if we can find ways to cut $1/month from our on-going expenses, I've just saved myself the burden of socking away $300 for the future.  That's a pretty big incentive to pay attention to small amounts.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Random bucket thoughts

My good friend dropped off two buckets of horse manure at my front door while I was out.  (Who'd have thought I'd ever write a sentence like that?  She lives near a horse owner who offers to fill buckets for people who need compost enrichment.  I'm really lucky to have friends with neighbors like that!)

Speaking of buckets, I think I want a canvas water bucket.  I have no idea what I'd do with one, but now that I know that such at thing exists, I am just sort of obsessing about it.

And my husband's military career finally "kicked the bucket" (that is, he mustered out).  His end of service coincided with a giant Aviation Ball at which many soldiers got awards of various kinds, and I got one, too:  a "Certificate of Appreciation", apparently given to every spouse who hasn't gotten divorced by the time the soldier leaves the army.

And finally, I got this in the mail, which just goes to show that targeted marketing goes only so far:
Because I have no problem getting my annual check-ups, but if they came with massages, make-up sessions, and "retail therapy", I'd consider skipping doctor visits!  I'm not sure how this fits in the bucket theme, but I think it's very funny.

And speaking of funny and buckets, here's one of my favorite clean limericks:

There was an old man from Nantucket
who hid all his cash in a bucket.
His daughter, named Nan,
ran away with a man,
and as for the bucket, Nan tuck it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Where the money goes

Now that we're getting more money than I had budgeted for, where will it go?

Well, like any good consumers, we've bought ourselves a fancy new vehicle!  In fact, our new purchase cost us three times the value of our current lovely car.  Ooh, we are riding pretty!

Heh-heh.  The new vehicle is indeed fancy, but it's a bike.  And our car is a 2001 Prius with an ugly crunchy dent on the driver's side, so its Blue Book value is fairly pitifully low.  So, while this bike is still expensive by normal standards (it costs four times as much as my SPDM did, and I think I bought a super-expensive bike myself), the cost was still just a tad under $6K.

My husband's fancy new vehicle.
The blue book value of our car.  

When the SPDM got a flat,
we could switch wheels between our bikes
while we got my tire replaced. 
The reason for getting this bike is that my husband's other racing bikes are 15-20 years old.  And while they're still perfectly good bikes from a commuter/weekend rider point of view, they are getting too old for the racing circuit.  For example, a cyclist who has a flat often just trades wheels with the race support crew, but modern racing wheels don't fit on my husband's old bikes (just like newer Microsoft Word documents can't be read by old Microsoft software.  bleah.)

Is this a "frugal" purchase?  In some sense, of course, no:  nearly 6000 times no, you might say.   On the other hand, my husband regularly rides with people who spent $10K or more for their bikes, so in comparison to theirs, his is super cheap (!).   And the bike is hardly an impulse purchase:  he spends 2-3 hours a day riding.  We're really spending this money on something that is central to how he spends his time and how he creates his identity.  It's meaningful to us, even if it is a luxury item.

Okay, but it's not like we're about to shower ourselves in material goods.  We haven't felt particularly deprived this past year, so it's not like we think our lives will be better if we start spending large parts of our days in stores.  In fact, this past year of wide-open schedules has been so nice, that it makes even more sense to put our money aside to make wide-open schedules a permanent thing in a few more years.

In fact, we're highly influenced by the Your Money or Your Life argument that increasing spending on ourselves brings diminishing--and even possibly negative--returns on happiness.  We just spent a pile of money on a bike that takes us past comfort to luxury.  If we start buying more for ourselves, the result will be clutter.  At this point, the best way to use the money to make ourselves happier is by diverting it into places where there are true needs.

What happens if we spend more money on things
is that we have to clean and take care of those things.
If we share with other people,
the joy just bounces back on us.

So here's the priority for the extra incoming money.
  1. Bump up the charitable giving to pre-sabbatical levels (or maybe even higher).
  2. Max out my retirement accounts.
  3. Set aside money for home repair projects (there are a bathroom and the kitchen that work fine, but should probably be spiffed up before we sell, five or so years from now).
  4. If there's enough extra left over, establish a Donor Advised Fund.
(A couple of people have suggested adding money to college funds.  Fortunately, those are already fully stocked (in fact, probably a little over-stocked, because my sons are likely to go to a nearby, inexpensive Tech school rather than a pricey four-year college).  And we've already started a 529 plan for my grandchild.  If we didn't have future educational expenses already taken care of, these would be fairly high up on that list.)

Monday, May 16, 2016

Miser Mom's Money Problems

A year ago,  our household saw a dramatic decrease in income: my husband retired (cutting his income to $0) and I went on sabbatical (reducing my income to three fourths of the usual).  Our pastor asked my husband if finances had me worried -- my pastor knows I'm a little on the fanatical side when it comes to frugality.  My husband just had to laugh.  "Are you kidding?  This is Miser Mom!  Being forced to figure out how to live on so much less is like heaven to her!"

And it was true.  I happily sat down with my spreadsheets.  I cut back on retirement investments for the year; I trimmed our charitable contributions a tad; I made sure our emergency funds were solid; I rallied the family members into monthly meetings about living within our earnings; and then we marched confidently into this financially lean year.  All was good.

And then, my husband came home a month or so ago to tell me about a change in our status.  He'd waded through the Rube-Goldberg-maze of Social Security regulations, and had decided that rather than wait until 70, it makes sense for him to start collecting Social Security now.  The logic--according to the officials he'd talked with--has three parts to it:  (1) something about benefits being based on average salary, so by not working now he's lowering benefits if he waits longer.  This doesn't mesh with what I've heard elsewhere, but my husband believes it and the deed is done, so I'm just saying this is the reason HE gave.  (2) Experts say that waiting makes financial sense if you expect to live a long while.  For some reason my husband has it in his head that he will go downhill quickly after 70 and so the money now makes more sense.  I'm dubious.  But, more convincingly, (3) we have adopted special-needs kids who are still under the age of 18.  And there's a social security bonus until they reach a certain age, meaning collecting social security now brings us extra money.

So all of a sudden, we now have a surprising influx of money to off-set the relative austerity measures.  Especially because of that adoption bonus, my husband will be "earning" twice as much as he did during his last year of work (when, admittedly, he worked part time).  It's raining dollars in the Miser Mom house suddenly.

My husband told me about the money we'd be getting, and he looked at my face, and he laughed again. "Yeah, I knew this would be a problem for you."

And I admit that I was feeling more than a little bit of angst.  Because, really, what are we going to DO with this money?

I know that having more money isn't really a problem.  I do think it's funny that my first reaction to my husband's news was to squirm.  But I do squirm:  money is a powerful thing, and I don't want to spend it in a way that subverts my values.  I don't want to blindly succumb to lifestyle inflation.  I don't want to buy something now that obligates me to future expenses that I will regret.  This money gives our family more chances to do the things we want to do, but it also gives us more chances to do the wrong things.  So figuring out how to move this money back into our life takes just as much thought -- or maybe more -- than it took to cut it out of our lives.

By now, a month or two later, we've come up with a plan.  (I mean, it's me, so of course I have lists and plans for everything). The actual plan is the subject for other posts -- for now, all I want to say is that getting extra money isn't all whoop-de-doo.

Still, if you'll excuse me, our family has a little whoop-ing to do.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Spending $915 on mathematics

Phew!  My computer is back.  I (well, my awesome Tech-Sters) managed to save almost everything, with the exception of random sets of photos.  So I'm going to quickly blitz through the post I wanted to put up last week.

The first week of May, I went to a kick-butt math workshop in San Jose.  I didn't snag funding to go, but I was fairly sure that the workshop would be good enough for me that I decided to pay out of pocket for this six-day trip.

doubles as a suitcase;
I left the milk/egg containers at home.
Not surprisingly, the biggest expense was cross-country airfare, to the tune of $565. I got to leave my discarded yard-sale books in Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, and Chicago (but I wasn't done with books in the other three cities I spent time on the ground in); being willing to take multiple legs brings the airfare down somewhat.  I also packed everything for the week into my Market backpack, avoiding luggage fees.

Speaking of transportation, using the IRS rate, we spent another $50 on mileage to and from my home airport; also I spent another $25 on a four-mile taxi trip from the airport in San Jose to my lodgings.   Once I was in San Jose, I walked the 2 miles to and from the workshop daily.  (One mathematician said, rather wide-eyed, "but that will take 40 minutes!", and I didn't quite know how to respond.  "Um, yes, but it's actually good to spend that much time walking each day?").

Lodging was the next biggest expense.  San Jose is wickedly costly -- the nearby Holiday Inn was offering rates of $257 per night.  Clearly, I was not going to spend 5 nights at that price.  I tried hard to find friends in the area who might be happy to put me up, but when that proved unsuccessful (no local friends with guest rooms), one of my former students suggested AirBnB.  And so I spent $334 for the week -- plus, my host drove me back to the airport, saving me another $25 cab fare.  Awesome!

A former student (now mathematician)
and me, at a reception.  Yay food!
Another frugal win was spending only $16 on food.  I got lucky in that the workshop offered all participants (even me, who wasn't officially funded by them) a continental breakfast, lunch, and a late-afternoon reception.  So most days, I didn't eat any "dinner" but was still more than well-fed.  I bought $3 coffee in the airport, once each direction (can't take it through security, so that was the only way to get it), and on the way home I broke down and bought a $11 sandwich, because my trail mix and chickpeas had run out.

And the chickpeas -- that's what I really wanted to post about.  Because I've been bringing trail mix with me on many trips, and I *love* that I can eat it without standing in lines/generating trash/paying wads of money.  But it's dry, and sometimes I also want something with a chewier (meatier?) texture.
So, I don't have pictures (dang computer crash), but I just want to say:  roasted parmesan chickpeas!!!!  Here is a recipe from Michael Pollan.  Also, garlic and paprika roasted chickpeas!  Yum.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Love/Hate the computer when it crashes

I worry about spending too much time on my computer.  So when my computer crashed, it was sort of a bit of a blessing.

Sort of.  I sent my computer into the tech-sters at my college, who shook their head. They were glad I'd regularly backed up my computer, as was I (in my grad school computer lab, there was a poster on the wall saying, "Jesus saves!  And then he makes back ups!").

For two days, without my computer, I did . . . um . . . I did noncomputer stuff.  I read through the pile o'books that's been sitting by my bed stand for three weeks.  I cleaned a bunch of stuff in my sewing/bill-paying room.  I read some more.  I visited my computer in the sick room, and tsked over it, and then I read some more.  It was sort of a good detox, not that I'd recommend a computer crash for fun and relaxation as a general principle.

Even now that my computer is back, I have been at sixes and sevens over it.  Documents have gotten lost, moved.  Reinstalling the hard-drive meant getting rid of math-specific programs like Geogebra and TexShop, which were easy or else hard to reinstall, for reasons completely mystifying to me.

Worse, I seem to have lost lots and lots of pictures.  When I wrote to the tech guy about my images disappearing from folders like it's the rapture and the images files been raised to heaven without the rest of the world, he wrote back,
CrashPlan does not back up images (like jpgs), so none of those would have been saved there. I pulled over everything that I could from the hard drive and backed it up. 
Wait, what!?!?  Every single one of my photos has been lost?  All the family photos I've spent this year scanning?  All of the math images I've spent this year creating?  Gone?  And no-one even told me that CrashPlan just happens to back up everything except jpgs?

Consider this a public service announcement: Crash Plan won't save your jpg images -- not the photos from your phone, not the jpgs that you got permission to download from museum websites, not any of them.  Sigh.

I'm going to get back to trying to recreate the photos somehow . . . I hope.  But at least you know now why I've been missing from the blogosphere this past week.  Sigh again.