Here’s a challenge, and a celebration. What do a furnace, a bicycle, and a lawn mower have in common? Each has been a source of anxiety that has become a reason for celebration for me. Odd? Sure. There isn’t a section in the greeting card aisle for “Happy new lawn mower. May all your clippings merrily mulch.” But being able to use my furnace, my bicycle, and a mower without worry is the sort of thing that usually doesn’t show up in personal finance shows, podcasts, or books (though I will as I write the sequel to Dream. Invest. Live.) For everyone who hasn’t had enough money to replace or repair basic necessities, regaining that ability can be better than anything wrapped up with a bow on top. Don’t worry; I’m not going to try to use all three at once.
Buy quality, when you can afford it. In the long run, quality lasts and saves money by requiring less maintenance, and may last a lifetime if taken care of. If you can’t afford quality, at least afford maintenance, or at least repair, or at least replace as necessary. Old and broken equipment can be hazardous, which can be even more expensive if someone gets hurt. But, people who have to decide whether to pay this bill or that bill can look at maintenance, repair, or replacement as major luxuries. That car with the broken headlight may not be a sign of neglect. They’re probably very aware of it whenever they drive. They just might not be able to afford it. Imagine their relief when they can replace a bulb without worry.
My little house is the only place I’ve called home. I’ve lived in many places, but this is the only one that gets the label of ‘home.’ One of its better features is radiant floor heating. It isn’t quick, but it’s quiet, and I don’t have to worry about the fire hazard from heaters, or losing spare change down a vent filled with dust bunnies. But. Radiant floor heat is complicated, requires regular maintenance, and isn’t something that’s east to repair simply by looking at the various parts. It’s a mess. Every year, the company that installed it sends me maintenance reminders that I ignore. I couldn’t afford the inspections, and certainly couldn’t afford to repair or replace anything. That’s a risk, because the system uses hot water for heat, and that can leak.
Now that I’m working from home I notice things that may have been overlooked. A few mornings ago I heard a water hammer noise coming from the utility room. Bam. Bam. Bam. For a minute or so it sounded like the pipes were trying to pop themselves free. A boiler blowing up is bad. Duh. Even simply breaking would make a mess, leave me without heat (more of an issue in this island summer than you might expect), and without hot water. OK. The house has a long list of deferred maintenance items, and this one jumped to the top of the list. Grab the installer’s postcard that I’d saved. A friend’s repairs cost thousands. Despite a ridiculously busy schedule, the installer could come out and inspect and repair in a day or two instead of a week or three. Less than $300 later, two or three parts were cleaned, repaired, or replaced and I could take a hot shower without worry. If you think that means I’ve taken cold, or at least chilly, showers for years, yep. Welcome to part of my world I didn’t talk about.
It is a good thing hot showers are available again because I need to get more bicycling in. StayHome as a real estate broker has meant less exercise. I like to cook. I like to eat. My neighborhood is usually empty except in summer when visitors return to summer homes and vacation rentals. But. Those homes and rentals have been busy since the start of StayHome. Why stress out in the city when you can relax in the country? So they relax, and too many of them think that means they can relax their use of masks and distancing. Sorry, folks. The same rules apply. That means going for walks means navigating an invisible fog of careless behavior. My answer: get on the bicycle and go for a ride. Mask up, sprint through the fog, then relax while cruising country roads.
That sounds good, but the bicycle is the same venerable vehicle that carried me across the county twenty years ago. (See Just Keep Pedaling for details.) Even then, it was a ten year old bicycle. Now, when I took it to a shop to get one or two things fixed, they informed me that it was in such sad shape that they’d only sell me a new one (after I got on the months-long waiting list). So much for exercise. My storied bike was too dangerous to ride? I wanted a second opinion. Two weeks and $200 later, a bike shop at the other end of the island ($20 in gas for each trip) serviced, repaired, and replaced enough components to make it safe to ride again. (Looking forward to tomorrow’s test ride.) One consequence: I liked some of the new bicycles I saw in the second shop, and might buy one after I retire some other anxieties – after I help a few more people buy and sell some houses.)
And then there’s the mower. My lot is about 8,000 square feet. Part of that is house and carport (~1,500 square feet), part is driveway, part is garden, part is deck. The remainder that is grass doesn’t take long to mow. For my first few years here, I used a reel mower, a person-powered mower. That worked fine, except aesthetically; at least it kept the grass within neighborhood norms. Ah, but spring would come and there’d be a season of struggling to keep up, even on a small lawn. A neighbor got tired of watching me sweat, went onto craigslist, found a broken mower, fixed it, and gave it to me for free. A gift. A very welcome gift. Power!
Alas, it was old when he got it, and I’ve used it heavily for enough years that parts started falling off. The rubber flap that keeps the grass from flying out the back began to fray into nothing. The gate that turns it into a mulching mower blew open, so I had to wear a mask before it was popular just to keep from breathing grass clippings. I mowed through a green fog. The kicker though, was when I decided to get the blade professionally sharpened. It came back sharp, but also out of balance. The mower shook so much I was sure the shaft was weakening. The sound was terrible, louder than a gas mower. I know mowers can throw their blades and I worried. One remedy was to balance the blade with a grinder (which I don’t have), or to add weights. All it took was a double wrap of tape. Easy, cheap – and needed to be replaced about every twenty minutes.
The perceived threat of getting cut off at the ankles can create at least some anxiety. (Understatement.) For about $200 I took the leap and bought a brand new mower. (You’re allowed to gasp.) Quiet, smooth, clean, and worry-free. Worth the money.
The money is the issue. Many of my anxieties, my stresses, and therefore my health issues come from having to hang onto whatever I can to get by. Keep in mind, that I’m making more income, have lower expenses, greater assets, and lower debts than tens of millions of Americans. Imagine what it is like for them. The three items above cost less than $1,000, which I didn’t feel comfortable spending until a recent house sale completed successfully. Before that sale and the ones that preceded it, $1,000 sounded exorbitant. After that sale, $1,000 sounds reasonable. For those with little, it doesn’t take much to make a big difference. One small improvement may mow a lawn, but relieve worry, and let someone move on to more important things.
One of the reasons I chronicled this here is for my own benefit. (And thanks for reading this far.) Within days of retiring these anxieties they become innocuous memories that are easily forgotten. I wanted to capture them to remind myself to celebrate them now, but more importantly later. It is also a reminder of those small things making big differences.
Next month is the anniversary of my Triple Whammy. About nine years ago I lost 98% of my net worth. My recovery from that isn’t over yet. These three items moved themselves up from the middle of a very long list of deferred maintenance of things, including my health. There are good reasons for me to be optimistic that I can retire those items and their anxieties. It may take months or even a few years, but as each is removed from the list, the recovery accelerates. One of optimisms for the future is precisely that phenomenon. So much worry, anger, anxiety, and despair can probably be retired for far less than most imagine. That would be something to celebrate.
As for trying to use the furnace, the bicycle, and the mower at the same time, well, I’m sure there’s a way. It might even make a good video. Repairing our collective sense of humor may be worth much more than we can measure.