Monday, December 30, 2013

Best Posts of 2013

It's that time of year again! Here are my top stories of the year. Enjoy!

(BTW, I took that photo using a new app called PebbleCam that lets me preview and snap the photo on my Pebble Watch.)

By Views

Is It Worth Buying A Manufactured Home?
Apparently there's some interest in buying manufactured homes because this was the #1 post by far! It had over twice as many views as #2. My guess is that one of the reasons it did well was because A) it contained a lot of details and A) it included information not easily find-able on the internet.

The Benefits of Mowing Lawns
I was shocked by how popular this post was. Perhaps it had more to do with the cool picture than the content. Though, I do think I made a good case for mowing your own lawn.

Top Gun in IMAX 3D #Review
Let's just say the timing was good on this one. That and it is the best movie of all time.

My picks

How To Have Fun In Las Vegas Without Gambling
Of all the posts I've done, this is perhaps the one I share the most. I'm actually surprised, in a good way, by how many people go to Las Vegas but don't want to gamble.

The Jeep Wave
This was was just super fun to learn about because it's so goofy, but true! Sometimes I'll be driving our Prius and wave because I think I'm in the Jeep. I bet that really confuses the other person.

The Slight Edge #BookReview
I've read a lot of good books this year, and for some reason fell off the wagon on my book reviews. Here's my Hunger Games Trilogy review: The books are better than the movies, though the 2nd movie is really good. The 3rd book is only OK, so I'm not sure why they're going to make 2 movies out of it... Well... I know why, I just don't think it's a good reason.

Anyways, The Slight Edge was awesome. It was up there with Made to Stick, which I read in 2012. Let me put it this way: if/when I ever hire someone, this will be on the stack of required reading.

So there they are! I hope 2014 is an exciting year for you!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

We hope you're having a wonderful Christmas this year. We decided not to travel this year and are enjoying a low-key holiday. My mom gave us this flag which we have flying outside our home. It's a gentle reminder of why we're celebrating Christmas: because Jesus was born, and ultimately died for us. Now that's worth celebrating!

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Making a Masterpiece out of Aluminum Foil Dryer Balls

I had a fun post planned for today. Back in July 2012 I read a cool article about using aluminum foil balls in the dryer to keep clothes static free. We published it in our monthly newsletter which goes out to our residents, family, and friends. Like most of the articles we include, we actually try them out because they sound cool.

So, a year and a half ago we made a couple balls. And just this week, one of those balls finally cracked. I thought it looked cool and thus came an opportunity to write about it and a couple other drying tips:

  • Cut your dryer sheets in half... you really don't need that huge sheet.
  • Wash your lint trap with soapy water every once in a while because a thin film builds up that blocks airflow. You'll notice faster drying times.
  • If you live somewhere that doesn't rain a lot, try drying your cloths outside on a line.
But then before sitting down to write about it, I decided to read a friend's new blog. She left for Mexico 3 months ago and decided to write about her experiences. Here's a small excerpt:
"I am learning to sense God’s presence in new ways through conversations, different aspects of His creation, and in some of the most simple and—some might argue—undignified tasks. I am learning to practice the presence of God while cleaning toilets; talking to a classmate from New Zealand, Mexico, Belgium or the Dominican Republic; watching a sea turtle burry her eggs in the sand; hand-washing and hang-drying my cotton shirts; playing soccer on the beach with giggling children; waiting with hunger in the dinner line, my physical hunger a subtle reminder of a deeper hunger growing within me; sweeping porches; washing dishes; talking to 17-year old Ameyalli after her basketball game at the park; picking out my roommates’ (and probably mine too) hair from our shower drain; being challenged and inspired through guest speakers;"

Yeah. I'm suddenly trying to figure out the value of my life if the biggest thing I chose to write about this week is an aluminum dryer ball cracking. Clearly, if I try to measure my life in similar experiences it's a futile effort because I'll never come close to her. This also begs a different question: what is the right way to measure your life? Should it even be measured?

I'll admit that I don't know the answer, but I do like John Wooden's famous quote: "Make each day a master piece." It seems to sum of the Lord's prayer pretty well which says, "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." (Matthew 6:9-13)

By the way, what is God's will? Mark 12:28 answers this: "And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, "Which commandment is the most important of all?" Jesus answered, "The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these.""

In other words, make the most of what you're given today to glorify God. For some of us, that means working hard at our job today, spending time with your kids, taking the time to listen to a friend you meet at the bar, cheerfully cleaning a toilet, or writing a blog post about dryer balls to help others save money. In each case, you're creating a masterpiece if you take your situation, set yourself aside, and focus on a) loving God and b) loving your neighbor. This is a commitment every single one of us can make. It's a commitment that is worth measuring and pursuing.

The follow up to this commitment is to change your environment if you don't feel like you're able to accomplish God's will as best you can. For some people it's obvious: too much TV or alcohol can steal your focus on creating a masterpiece. Cut back on those and replace them with activities focused on God's will. For some people, it means packing up and heading to Mexico. For my friend, I know her problem was that life was good (almost too easy) and she found herself looking for more. I actually think getting away is a great way to shake things up and re-align your priorities for when you get back. It doesn't always have to be 3+ months either. One week of purposeful mission-style service will do it for most folks.

So, in summary (I feel like I need one after this ramble):
  • Make each day a masterpiece.
  • Do this by loving God and loving people.
  • If you feel like your not, change your environment so you can.
  • That just might include making an aluminum dryer ball, cleaning your lint trap, and cutting your dryer sheets in half. Then taking that $5 you save each month and using it to bless someone else's life.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christmas Decorations

Jessi and I spent Thanksgiving in California with family. When we returned home, we couldn't help but notice there were ZERO Christmas lights anywhere on our block. So, we decided to lead by example and hang some lights this year. Here's what we did:

Our adventure started with driving to get a tree. Jessi took this photo that makes Vinnie look huge!

We found, and cut, the perfect tree and somehow managed to get a perfect picture too.

Jessi made this angel in kindergarten.

Here's what the tree looks like all decorated!

I made a joke that Vinnie would look super cute in a scarf. Then this happened.

We also set up a nativity scene on one of our bookshelves. This nativity set used to belong to Jessi's Grandma Christian.

 Then we set up our stockings on the other bookshelf.

Finally, we decorated outside... In the middle of a snow storm. We went for a classic look with snowflakes in the windows. We didn't want to set the bar too high, that way other families would feel like they could do it too. It looks really pretty with the snow.

And we're proud to say that at least one other family decided to get their act together and put up some of their own lights.

Monday, December 02, 2013

The Debt Snowball Begins To Avalanche

It's time for another celebration as I just sent off the last check (via Bill Pay) on another loan. I think it'll be fun to see how we're doing.

We started this journey 2 years ago. At the time, we had $78,000 in debt (excluding real estate investments). and we were ready for all of it to be gone. Including our car loan, the minimums totaled $996 and all we could add at the time was an extra $200. It wasn't a ton, but it was enough for us. Then about every 6 months, we would kick in another $1,000 from accumulated savings. My calculations showed it would take us 5 years to pay it all back at this rate. We were OK with that because we knew we could increase that amount over time.

When I got a raise, all of it went towards paying back the loans. When we increased the rent on a unit, the increase went towards paying back the loans. When we moved to a smaller place, we put the difference towards the loans.

In 2 years, we've managed to get our debt down to $44,000... not as fast as some of the Dave Ramsay callers I hear, but good enough for us. That means we've paid $38,000 in payments $34,000 of which was to principle. Because of how snowballing works, more and more goes towards principle over time, and that means we're now on a 4 year track. Woohoo!

In those 2 years we also increased our extra payments by $767 per month, and by snowballing our old payments, we're now doing an extra $1,345 each month (with an extra $1,000 every 6 months or so, as savings allow).

In those 2 years, we've learned some things. Here they are:

Lesson #1
Start where you can. We could only do an extra $200 at first. That's OK. It's important to just get started. The same is true for saving for retirement: just start. Then next year, you can re-evaluate and add more.

Lesson #2
When making extra payments, it really adds up because 100% of it goes towards principle. So even though it may not seem like much at first, it has a huge impact. This is especially true at the beginning of a loan when a majority of your payment goes towards interest.

Lesson #2.5
People get caught in questions about the order: Biggest balance first? Largest Interest rate first? Type of loan first? So many choices! I would argue it doesn't matter. Just pick one. The BIGGEST determination of how fast you pay off our loans is the amount EXTRA you pay. Instead of spending time figuring out the optimal order, spend that time figuring out how to pay just a little extra.

Lesson #3
Make sure to celebrate your small wins. You can brag about it on your blog to show off how awesome you are. Or, like we're also doing, take a trip to Disney World. In January, we're going for a long weekend. Since it's off-season, we saved money on our plane tickets. We're also staying with friends (and running in a 10K race with them... the "official" reason for going), and used my sister's employee/intern discount for park tickets. As such, we were able to keep the cost under $1,345 for the two of us. Celebrating milestones keeps you excited during a very long process.

Lesson #4
Once you see the fruits of paying off your loans, use that excitement to find other ways to add to the pile. It might be cutting back on something that you don't really use, or finding a side job/gig and putting 100% of your earnings there.

Lesson #5
You can pay off your loans with crazy intensity, but you don't have to. In this time, we managed to also buy a car, another investment property and a new home. Though, you'll notice that each of these purchases were designed to improve our monthly cash flow. Despite that, I'm thinking about setting a 2014 goal of not making any large purchases, or doing any large renovations.

So there you go. If you're lucky enough to get a raise/bonus this year, think about kicking off your journey of getting out of debt before spending it on a new iPad Air.