Tea And Frugality

Sitting beside me, and somewhat inside me, is a cup of Formosa Oolong, a tea with a name that would cause a controversy if mentioned in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, it is welcome, which isn’t a surprise to folks that follow me on social media, particularly Twitter (@tetrimbath). There, my tea habits inspired a hashtag, #TomTea. It started as a silly idea, but sometimes silly things are more important than serious things. Regardless, I have Starbucks and frugality to thank for a beverage I enjoy every day.

Millions of people know Starbucks because of its coffees. I know it because of its teas and spices. Way back then, Starbucks had one store, it was in Pike Place Market, and I was playing tourist in the Big City (Seattle) which was near the Boeing plant where I just got a job.

It might seem strange, but I made it through college getting a degree in Aerospace and Ocean Engineering without resorting to coffee. I relied on tea. I fell asleep a lot, but it is hard to tell if that was from not enough caffeine, or the fact that studying frequently meant only three or four hours of sleep each night. Many tea bags were wrung out as I tried to balance keeping school costs down by finishing on time versus getting high enough grades to get a job afterwards.

Picture a newbie to the PNW. This was 1980, when Seattle’s reputation was for dreary, not dynamic. Tourism was happening, but Boeing was the big thing. Still, Pike Place was already known as a draw for tourists, but mostly for locals who wanted more authentic choices. The hour or so drive made it impractical for me to shop there, but it was novel and I didn’t know what else to do on the weekends. (Hiking and skiing and bicycling and sailing kicked in later, but that is an entire shelf of stories. Go to my Amazon Author Page for more.)

Wander into the Market. Roam around because the booths were varied and the people were friendly; but don’t know what to look for because shopping without branding was a culture shift and an education. But, ah, Starbucks. At least I’d heard of them.

1820251403starbuck_sign_original_logo

Step in. Find a skinny shop with a counter at the back of the space, a long line of shoppers, and a wall of coffee, teas, and spices. Check the original logo. Coffee, Tea, Spices, and a more graphic depiction of the mermaid which has subsequently been sanitized and recolored. Finally get to the front of the line, ask for a cup of tea, and begin an education.

It was obvious that I wasn’t going to get just a tea bag and a cup of hot water. The person working there (I don’t think they used the title ‘barista’ much then) took the time to describe some of the teas, the benefit of loose leaf, the proper way to brew it, and the proper way to store the leaves. A cup, hot water, a tea-filled strainer shaped like a spoon, and directions to have one of the very few seats at the window counter. Spend four minutes watching the people go by, then remove the tea, maybe let the cup cool a bit, and enjoy.

This was better than yet another cup of Red Rose or Lipton or Tetley. This was a bit of a ritual, but not too much of one. It was also a welcome introduction into a West Coast culture, not the tea, but the concept of treating a customer as a person, not a transaction; and the idea that a little education can become the basis of a long term relationship.

That day may have been the turning point when it would’ve been just as easy to become a coffee drinker. Instead, it was the time when I started exploring other shops, blends, flavorings, and experiments that continue forty years later. As an investor, it was the day that planted the desire to own some of their stock, something that happened about six months after SBUX went public. (For more of that story, dive into my book on personal finance, Dream. Invest. Live.)

Now, I drink about a liter and a half per day. Sometimes it is one type in a thermos, doled out as I work. Sometimes it is strong black tea in the morning, shifting to oolongs, then greens, and maybe some herbal infusions by the end of the day. There’s much to learn, and no need to do so. That’s relaxing, too.

In addition to the flavor, I appreciate the frugality. Tea is cheaper and simpler than coffee. Dead leaves are relatively easy to keep from going stale. A tight tin kept in a cupboard suffices, nicely. Bulk loose leaf can cost as little as under $2 per ounce, and an ounce can last weeks. Good loose leaf tea, in particular, can last longer because the same leaves can be used more than once, hence one ounce lasting a long time. I don’t test this overnight, but I’ve used the same leaves five times without noticing much degradation. The caffeine was probably mostly washed out in the first steep, but some use that as a way to organically and cheaply make decaf. Toss out the first cup, make another, and then another, saving money with every extra cup. Or in the summer, make one pot with fresh leaves, then use those leaves in a sun tea jug, or the opposite.

No need for the equipment necessary for fancy coffee concoctions. Hot water, dead leaves, and a way to strain out the leaves is all that’s necessary. Get fancy, use a tea kettle to actually get water at 190F-210F. Get fancier, pour the hot water into a tea pot where the leaves can steep with room to bloom. Maybe use a French press instead, because it gets the word ‘French’ involved. Then, either wrap the pot in a cozy (not quite my style, but useful), or pour the tea into a thermos. Milk, lemon, honey – scotch – are all optional. No need for thousands of dollars spent on a cappuccino machine.

Just like coffee, all true teas come from only one species of plant. How that’s grown and processed, and where it is grown create varieties that keep it from being dull. Oolong isn’t green, and not black, and not Pu-Erh, and not white, and not – well, there’s undoubtedly something else out there. I’m not an expert, just an enthusiast. Explore there a bit, though, and find how easy it is to create blends that have never been branded, to develop mixes that are customized to one set of taste buds.

If I want a ‘breakfast’ tea, I know to buy Assam and Keemun, and mix them by pouring them into a jar. I now tend to skip flavored teas because they might use oils that stain my teeth and cup. Infusions (what many people call herbal teas) are even easier and more frugal. My current favorite is a blend of herbs from my yard (lemon balm, mint, maybe some rosemary or sage or lavender), plus some local weeds (nettles from a friend’s yard), and a bulk spice like rooibos or honey bush (great name) or licorice.

Currently, combining the collections from my kitchen cupboard and my office desk drawer I can choose from about two dozen teas. Some are getting low, so I just ordered more from Dandelion Botanical, and intend to order some more from Joyful Alchemy. I don’t need more. I just want more.

Living a frugal life is not about saying No all the time. It is about knowing when to say Yes. Good tea is an affordable indulgence. I might be in the midst of trying to deal with insurance and mortgage providers, conversations that tie into monthly thousand dollar expenses, but beside me will be a cup that is simply filled guilt-free. That’s one way to combine caffeine and calm that I can appreciate.

image

OK. So sometimes a tea bag is handy. Maybe it is time for me to educate a local coffeeshop or two.

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Health Insurance Confusion 2019-2020-

Neglecting to click one button leads me to a health insurance bill of over $1,200, and there wasn’t even a doctor’s visit or prescription or consultation involved. I called my health insurance company to clear up a lost $90 payment, and found that I owed them >$1,100, and stumbled into the fact that they double charged me months ago, at least once. The consequence of one frustrating phone call and two helpful (or at least diplomatic) phone calls is a bill that arrived today. I owe them $1,202.16. So, the $90 isn’t resolved, the tax credit isn’t being applied, and there’s no agreement about their overcharging. This is not healthy, and it isn’t over, yet.

Let’s start with my mistake. Check back through some of my posts and find my journey through Obamacare, Washington State Health Plan Finder, and my distaste for bureaucracy. For the first time, I didn’t contact the State’s marketplace because it seemed unnecessary in recent years.

The first year of Obamacare was confusing. I struggled through, and was glad for the subsidy. The task was tough enough that I chronicled it in One Confused ObamaCare Applicant. It turned out to be a useful post for thousands, and remains this blog’s most popular post. Each year after that I dutifully called the State’s support number, usually because I couldn’t remember the username and password. It seemed that every time I called the response was something like; “Everything is fine. Your coverage has been renewed.” I wrote about it for a while, but that seemed unnecessary.

This year was different. I recall receiving letters and emails saying that my coverage was renewed, so I decided to put the topic aside, and simply keep paying my bills. Then, the adjustment came. No surprise. It was a new year so I expected a new premium. But, the bill came in late. I didn’t want to be late with the payment, so I blindly paid the most recent amount, and then paid the difference when the bill arrived. That was about $90.

They received it late, and considered me delinquent. Hence, the call to them. It was probably just a case of bills and checks passing each other in the mail. But, I knew they received both payments. My bank told me so. I called, bounced through phone menus, and began talking to someone who couldn’t find the $90, and informed me that I owed them over $1,000. My reaction was not healthy, but I tried to remain diplomatic. I’ll save you the description of the frustration, but imagine talking to someone who can only respond with what they have on the screen in front of them. After asking to elevate the conversation with a manager or a supervisor more than once, I was connected to a boss.

The boss/manager/supervisor (a distinction that was important to them) took the time to listen, ask questions, and start untangling the mess. Remember my mistake, that button I didn’t click? That was the button on a web site that I was supposed to click. Clicking that button was necessary for renewing my tax credits (~$700 per month). (That number is startling when I think of how much health care that health insurance money could buy, but this is how much the insurance company gets monthly for a service I can’t afford to use.) OK. After a call to WA Health Plan Finder, I realized my mistake, they reinstated my tax credits – which will start in February. Better late than never, but if it never happened I’d simply cancel the insurance out of necessity.

As for the $90, it turns out that my insurance company won’t accept electronic payments from my bank. One mega-corporation and another regional large financial institution haven’t figured out how to transfer money any other way except by printing and mailing a check. That explains the delays in some of the payments. It doesn’t explain how the insurance company lost track of it. Sure enough, the manager encouraged me to find images of the cancelled checks, and the bank helped me find them online. So, it was my job to find copies of the cancelled checks via the bank because the insurance company couldn’t find them. Weird, but I was able to do so. Also unsettling that they’d lose something as basic as a payment.

If they lost that one, did they lose any others? I looked back through 2019’s payment history and found two times when they sent me a delinquent bill notice. I dutifully and embarrassingly paid them as double payments to get ahead of the next month. Just like the recent bill that showed up too late to pay on time, something similar happened earlier that I assumed they rectified with my payments. From what I can tell, they may have done so in one case but not the other. While tracking down their lost $90 check I may have found one or two lost $650 checks.

Nods to the manager who took each item separately. I think the $90 check is now ‘found’. The manager thought I might be able to get the tax credit retroactively applied to January, but no. (Though I should get the difference back when I file taxes in 2021. 2021!) The manager also tried to reconcile the doubled payments, but seems to have counted some of the double payments as single payments. That’s unresolved, at least from my perspective.

I am fortunate enough that this is all happening after closing a real estate transaction a few days earlier. If I began the investigation at the start of the month my anxiety level would’ve spiked at a time when I was already overwrought with another issue.

How many people is this happening to, and how much worse does it get when treatments are involved? The corporation has the money, can demand more, and can degrade someone’s credit rating while the consumer has to counter without teams of lawyers or the funds to pay. Cases that include tax credits involve people without sufficient funds by definition. Asymmetric power multiplied by millions.

When I called back to double check on the tax credit I heard something real. The insurance company’s customer support person sounded new. While clicking through the screens they had a question. Without putting me on hold or putting them on mute, they called over their boss/manager/supervisor. I got to listen to the conversation. The company probably has recording or the transcript or both. When the new person saw how much I owed without the tax credit they said something like, “How can anyone afford that?” I suspect that person has more empathy and understanding than most because they’re probably making an annual salary close to mine. Call centers aren’t known for big paychecks. The supervisor/manager/boss may not be in a much better position.

It is easy to feel assaulted and dismissed when confronting a corporation, especially one that can represent a person’s largest monthly expense that provides no benefit, and yet requires time and effort to maintain at best a neutral relationship. It is harder to not take out frustrations on those who have the job to be the public face for the corporation.

I am glad for the help I received. I am dismayed that the corporation is so poorly run that they can’t keep track of the money I send them. Other corporations impress me with carrying forward credits, and working through payment issues.

I have a similar frustration with mortgage companies. (Yet Another Mortgage Story)

Healthcare and housing are major issues in the US. Both are backed by major corporations. Yet both seem to be inefficient and, in some cases, unresponsive. Healthcare and housing are also major issues for humans. These are fundamental issues that will take more than one competent manager/boss/supervisor to patiently untangle. These two issues are also entangled at the personal level. I am considering refinancing my mortgage, but refinancing a mortgage is tied to having an acceptable credit rating, and poor practice from an insurer can damage my ability to obtain new financing.

On a personal level, without teams of lawyers or a community of politicians working on near-term solutions, it becomes necessary to make more money to feed their machines. Making the extra money to pay for health care or improve personal finances results in unhealthy life choices. So much for ‘do no harm‘ and ‘fiduciary responsibilities.’

In the meantime, I do have the best health care I can recall. My local naturopath operates from a subscription service. For one monthly fee I get monthly doctor appointments that are long enough to have real conversations, and care options that fit my lifestyle, finances, and values. They are sensitive enough to their patients’ situations that they apologized for a $10 or $20 monthly increase. Even with that, I get a year’s treatment from them for the price of one month’s (basically worthless) health insurance (not health care) payment. There are solutions, but I’m not finding them in corporations.

My health insurance bill arrived today. Despite things being resolved or unresolved, they are billing me $1,202.16.
“PLEASE NOTE YOUR ACCOUNT IS CURRENTLY PAST DUE AND SUBJECT TO LOSS OF COVERAGE.”
I intend to pay because as an optimist I hope things will be sorted out, but I also know that if they cancelled my coverage, I and the State would save over $1,000 every month. (Yeah, yeah, I know. There are fees and fines, but they’re starting to look very attractive.)

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Oh Know 2020

Oh, no. It looks like 2020 is going to be bumpier than 2019. Allow me to reflect on what I know about 2020, and what it may mean for personal finance, frugality, and planning. As for predicting the future – Ha!; the universe laughs. I’m glad it appreciates the joke. (If you want the bright side skip to the very bottom.)

Impeachment

That happened in 2019. Whether anything happens in 2020 – well, something will happen anyway. There are possibilities for removal. There are possibilities for additional impeachments for one or reaching others. Regardless, the singular event last year is already creating crashing waves internally and externally. Every event will move financial markets, cause more social divisions, and affect individuals. People have already died from the repercussions. Indirect effects will be harder to track, but in addition to real warfare, trade warfare will affect businesses, jobs, personal finances, and what we buy and sell. That will be trivial for some, and critical for others.

Elections

Elections probably won’t resolve the divisions. If no politician loses their position, the other side will amplify their offense. If leading politicians lose their positions, their side will amplify an offensive defense. Lawyers on both sides are probably already getting ready for suits to file in November. Debates can be productive, but this election season will probably be a bit nutso, distracting, and wasteful. Imagine that much political money being directed to fixing problems instead of fixing elections. Of course, fixing the election system might be a good first step. Fight or flight may turn from academic to action. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see political refugees move state to state to get away from losses of liberties, or move to places that accept their lifestyles. Later 2020 may inspire a lot of movement, even while suits wander through courts.

Social Unrest

It is nice to imagine that the international protests against various governments or in favor of certain causes will progress to action. Protests tend to fade or reach a resolution; but those who have power do not give it up easily. The social breakthroughs are hard to see amidst the mass marches. Maybe that’s because it make take a hundred marches to reach a breakthrough, which is celebrated by only one march. The pervasiveness of the protests proves we’re not trying to solve one issue but many, too many. In America, such movements rarely result in interruptions in transportation, communication, food, or other vital services; but America is made up of people, and people are what make up those other protests. If it can happen there, it can happen here. (A somewhat catchy phrase that’s more correctly stated, if it can happen in one country it can happen in any country. ‘Here’ is relative, but pardon the bias as most of my readers are in the US. We’ll see if the US remains U after all of this.)

Climate Disasters

Climate change is no longer debatable. It is actual. While it is rare that short term disasters like storms and wildfires are solely due to climate change, the effects are amplified. The more significant changes are more subtle and may not affect 2020 as much as the short term amplified disasters. If we were wise we’d prepare for them, but there will probably be enough of the short term events to divert tens of billions of dollars as we try to fix what we’ve broken. Add climate unrest and refugees to the social versions.

Natural Disasters

DSC_5840Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and basically bad weather are a constant. One bit of good news is that we’re getting better at predicting them, and can prepare and mitigate them – if we decide to do so. If not, it basically costs about seven times more to repair than prepare. (I believe that’s a FEMA estimate.) Of course, getting governments to act can be difficult, especially when they’re distracted by their own actions. It is a good reason to personally prepare for emergencies. (Minimalism Meets Emergency Preparedness)

Financial Instability

The economy is doing great! As long as you’re wealthy and in the US, or even wealthier anywhere. A recession is probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. The US recovery is setting records, which proves to me that economics and politics are actually disconnected more than most think. Yet, politicians will use economic data to fight political battles. Some worries are increasing economic inequalities (having a hard time finding affordable housing?), negative interest rates (something common outside the US, for now), increasing governmental debt (with ‘fixes’ that exacerbate rather alleviate), and system analyses that predict the economic model is unstable and is likely to reach higher highs (which is where we are now) and lower lows (something that we know can happen quickly.)

Unknowns (the beginning of the earlier-mentioned good stuff)

Here’s where some of the good news may happen. Revelations happen. Archaic systems eventually fail and can be replaced with functional innovations. The American Revolution was a good thing. Getting rid of slavery was a good thing. Defeating fascism was a good thing. Those three things happened in relatively short time after decades of discussion. None were resolved simply. Institutions like the NRA and certain faiths are faltering, hopefully to be replaced with initiatives that treat people as people, instead of disposable ideological pawns. Renewable energy has accelerated while fossil fuels are entering a financial spiral. Energy efficiencies like LEDs, electric vehicles, and more sustainable building practices are upsetting anachronistic industries. The ‘Health Care’ industry’s name is being challenged as transparency is illuminating ridiculous prices and business practices, and finding room for innovative treatments – which are sometimes thousands of years old. These changes won’t fully resolve in one year. Human civilization has too much inertia for that, but this may be a breakthrough year.

The Best News

2021, 2022, … The world has gotten weird. This year looks to me to be weirder than last year. And yet, I think this is our crisis year, our catharsis year, our breakthrough year. People are finding their voices. The majority remain silent, happy in cocoons of entertainment. That’s nothing new. The goal of most people is to live, which frequently takes a day’s worth of effort every day with no time left for issues beyond the household’s walls. They may not stand up for a march, but if enough of them move to vote, that may be more than enough.

Personal Actions

Fortunately, frugal people already are living lives and have acquired the skills that help navigate such chaotic times. Live simply, and it is easy to ignore the complexities that aim to detour and distract attention. Respect your resources, and know what you value rather than what a corporation or organization tells you to value. Trust yourself and your self, because those are the core of any person, though many are told to mindlessly obey others. Spend less than you make. Invest the rest, which sometimes means investing in yourself, your self, and your community. Keep it simple. Use what you have as you can. And know that the only constant is change, and change can simply take time.

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Popular Posts in 2019

I find each year’s popular posts list an interesting exercise. As an investor, it provides hints about what people, in particular other investors, are researching. As a writer, the list provides great feedback about what may bring people back. As yet another person on this planet, what is it people care about?

The top ten in 2019

In other words:

  • Stocks, particularly MVIS
  • My inventions
  • Another inventor’s perspective
  • Serendipity and general weirdness in the world
  • Emergency Preparedness
  • Real estate and Affordability trends on Whidbey Island

About half of the posts are from before 2019. I’m glad and curious about the continuing popularity of my invention for Dockside Tidal Power, an energy device I’d like to develop, but don’t have the resources for – yet. Of course, maybe someone else is taking it and developing it without telling me. An intriguing possibility.

The specific posts may change, but the topics tend to be the same. Stocks, inventions, wondering at weirdness, and Whidbey Island. Of course, I’ll continue to write about other aspects of personal finance. This blog is based on the personal finance book I wrote, Dream. Invest. Live; and is becoming the sketch ground for the sequel.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

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Semi Annual Exercise EOY 2019

Sigh. The too common refrain. Companies making progress in a rising market, but their stocks languish from too little good news, delays, or damaging tweets outside their control. 

Dream Invest Live coverThis is my regular exercise to understand what I own, why I own it, and whether I should buy or sell. My strategy is described in better detail in Dream. Invest. Live., my book written prior to but published during the beginnings of the Great Recession, or as I call it, the Second Great Depression. A perfect storm of bad luck (someone else’s assessment) I call My Triple Whammy imploded my diversified portfolio. This exercise was easy and encouraging prior to that. Since then, I continue the exercise because the exercise remains valuable. Rather than being deterred by the downfall, I’ve decided to continue. Life and investments can exhibit cycles. Down then up then down then up – maybe in 2020? Tracking my portfolio through the ups and downs is more valuable than only looking at the ups. The downs hold the more valuable lessons.

Personal finance has changed within the last twenty years. 

Discount brokerages are the norm. Look at the New York Stock Exchange floor to see that computers have more control than humans. Advantages of nano-seconds enter the competition between computers, leaving humans with our tenth of seconds reaction times lagging. Within the last few years, tweets swing markets and economies. Corporations have lower tax rates and are hiding more in tax havens while incomes stall. Traders, people who hold stock for seconds or at most days, may be impacted the most.

Investors, those who analyze a company’s financials, estimate value and potential, and buy or sell accordingly are potentially less affected. They work with trends that last months, quarters, and maybe years. Nano-second response times don’t change the timing of quarterly reports. The initial trades are affected as computers feed fresh data through ultra-fast computers, but the overall effects have time to accumulate.

Aside from traders and investors are speculators, individuals who work in uncertainties. Computers work in data. Speculators are more comfortable with what-if, could-be, assumptions layered on assumptions. If MicroVision captures 1% of the global display market, what is that worth? Speculators keep themselves busy with such considerations. Computers can conduct massive Monte-Carlo simulations, but judgment is required to produce a result. Humans still have a niche.

I prefer to be an investor, but my remaining stocks have fallen into speculative territory. High upsides, high risk, and little institutional interest because the computers can’t properly analyze unknowns – or are better used analyzing more concrete companies. I am human. I should work from my strengths, especially where the competition is weak. I feel weak currently, but I also remember feeling strong, strong when stocks with low prices and far-off potential finally succeeded. That’s when dismissive advice becomes congratulations on foresight. I don’t know if it will happen, but it can’t happen if I quit. Hence, the exercise continues.

Here are the links to the discussion boards I use. Those discussions are less philosophical and hopefully more practical. Feel free to comment here or there, and to pass along links to others. The bigger the discussion, the better the chance of valuable insights (as long as the trolls and flamers are moderated appropriately.)

Investor Village

AMSC

LCTX

GERN

MVIS

NPTN

The Motley Fool

AMSC

GERN

MVIS

NPTN

Silicon Investor

AMSC

GERN

MVIS

Reddit

MVIS

 

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Writing Prompts

Ring! It was 7:08AM. “Hello. Can I talk to Thomas Trimbath?” It didn’t sound good. Early morning phone calls using Thomas instead of Tom could be some official relaying bad news. I answered yes. “I’d like to talk to you about publishing your book.” Oh, it was one of those phone calls. I asked her what time she thought it was. Ah, an East Coast call assuming everyone lived in their world, or at least their time zone. I politely pointed out that I lived somewhere else on the planet. She was surprised I was so pleasant about it. Writers know everything is a story, and an opportunity for insights. So, I thanked her and she didn’t know why.

Before I hung up, I also took the opportunity to practice my reverse cold calling. I don’t cold call. I don’t call strangers to try and sell them – anything. Maybe that explains why my marketing isn’t as aggressive as others, but there’s enough aggression in the world. There’s no need to make more. I do, however turn the conversation around on those who cold call me. Want me to buy something you’re selling? Well, first you get to hear what I have to sell. Evidently, she wasn’t in the market for real estate on Whidbey Island. (I’m a broker with Coldwell Banker Koetje, in case you’re curious; and a disclosure the state requires me to make.) The irony is that Whidbey Island’s writing community is enormous, disorganized, but enormous. Maybe she should move her business here. Some of the most expensive houses are owned by authors. Oh well, her missed opportunity.

Dream Invest Live coverAfter I hung up, showered, had breakfast, and was heading into work I replayed my memory of the call. She wants to publish “my book”. Which one? Amazon shows six. Blurb shows six. I’m working on a sequel to Dream. Invest. Live., the basis of this blog. A sci-fi novel is over 25,000 words into the first draft. A book based on tea is at least sketched out. That’s three more for the Amazon list. The photos for the next photo book on Blurb are already done; Twelve Months at Possession Beach, book seven in a five part series of Whidbey Island photo essays. (Side note: Fans of Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy can appreciate the math.) “My book”? She missed a multiple of opportunities, not just one. (My apologies to the librarians I announced my plans to in early 2019. Instead of two publications and two in draft, I have one photo book in publication, and only one partial draft. Hey, real estate keeps me busy. You know?) DSC_9020_clean_bright - Joe Edits 030719 - FRONT COVER

I doubt that I’d use her services, regardless. My frugality appreciates the world of self-publishing where the costs are minimal, the upside is as good as a Lotto jackpot, and the control is mine. Mine. Mine! You hear that? Seriously, I’m not that serious about it. Despite that, or maybe because of it, I now get calls for what one writer called, their “Author Hero.” Gosh. If you’re serious about such things, check out the video produced by Don Scoby (Whidbey Island’s bagpipe playing biscotti baker and cookbook author) and me.

Her early morning phone call also made me think of other members of the unofficial writing community. As of 2019, Don and I have been producing a blog and podcast called WritingOnWhidbeyIsland.com (also known as WOWI, an acronym many writers dislike, which may be why we keep using it.) Self-publishing was dismissed when I published Just Keep Pedaling in 2002.51fqu8xbkxl.sr160240_bg243243243 Now, almost every author we’ve interviewed has either used or considered modern self-publishing. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win – evidently.

Almost every author also shares at least some aspect of frugality. One interpretation of frugality is the respect for resources and what is in the world around us. Authors are frugal with their words. Few are extravagant spenders, unless it is to attend conferences or travel for new experiences. (Though there are some very nice writer’s studios on the island. But I digress and pull myself back from conducting a market analysis of the value of a studio.) There may be 100,000 words in a book, but that probably means another 100,000 were in then out of the manuscript.

Her call was a reminder of how easy it is to disrespect others, to treat people impersonally, as if we are members of a market, not individuals. To assume that everyone lives in a world like ours. To assume that everyone has the same motivations and incentives. She even had a programmed response in mind, expecting me to be rude when I found out who was calling and why.

Her call has been valuable to me. From a conversation that lasted less than three minutes, I’ve been reminded of how easy it is to sit in a box and treat people as if they were packages.

She also reminded me of the work I get to do, of my opportunities to treat people as people, and of a world I left behind.

Now, back to the reality of unwinding from a stressful transaction, diving into a long list of end-of-year tasks (including my semi-annual stock portfolio analyses), and maybe upgrading my writing “studio”. Laptops are on sale, and I already have a comfy chair and a wide selection of teas.

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Apologies And Choices

My apologies to family, friends, community – and to my self. Somehow next week is Christmas. Life in this new world has meant making apologies to old customs, habits, traditions, and expectations. That means an impressive workload means less time for cards, gifts, decorations, and those mythical celebrations that are supposedly part of the season. Ironically, the extra work means extra hope which is one gift I’ve chosen to concentrate on.

Conventional wisdom is that, except for retail, business slows down at the end of the year. People are supposedly distracted by shopping and cooking and arranging the trappings of the season. My life took an unexpectedly positive turn around Thanksgiving, a well-named time. From wondering how I was going to financially survive until the new year, within a week I found myself helping someone buy land, someone else list their house, and someone else buy a condo so they could relax after decades of tending acreage. Life as a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker on Whidbey Island, eh?

I’m a romantic. Being raised just outside of Pittsburgh during the end of the Baby Boom meant growing up with a good chance of white Christmases, carols in church, and having lots of kids to play with during school breaks or snow days. Mom put white twinkle lights where ever she could. Dad defending his array of big colored lights that were enough to warm the room. Everyone got and gave several presents. The term ‘feast’ was an understatement. My naturopath probably doesn’t want to hear about my binge-ing on sugar covered nut roll cookies consumed with glasses of full fat milk while playing Battleship, or whatever that year’s game was. Cards were strung into garland effectively delivered by mail. Of course Santa existed, and of course the doubter in me kept quiet rather than reveal the fact that I didn’t think he could make it all the way around the world or get down our chimney. Thanks for the presents, packages, and bows – and the To/From cards that I lost track of.

Now, I work in that overlap between what was the traditional model of real estate broker, the new model of independent contractor, and whatever it is I am in the Gig Economy. When I was in the salary world it was a push, but it was possible to at least touch on all of the old traditions. Now, work when work is available, and be thankful for it regardless of schedule. Besides, it is good to help people who want to be helped.

So, here I sit, waiting for emails about contracts and house inspections, phone calls from clients, and checking social media because calls and letters are no longer the only way to contact someone.

So, here I sit, realizing a week from today will be Christmas. Presents and cards are arriving at home, some opened and unwrapped (particularly the ones shipped with dry ice); but no tree, no cards, no gifts made or bought and ready to give, and little thought about what I’ll make for Christmas dinner.

Choices.

The beginning of the island’s pre-Christmas storm is about to be delivered in a few hours, and the main package of the Pineapple Express (an atmospheric river event) is due in a day or two. The email Inbox is empty of unread messages. The phone isn’t ringing or dinging or whatever they do now. If I decide to work from home and leave now maybe, maybe, I’ll be able to harvest enough rosemary to make a wreath or two, write a few cards, order at least a few gifts that will be just a bit late for Christmas (unless Amazon plays Santa), and rummage through the boxes of decorations for some heirloom pieces to remind me of life decades ago.

Within the next few days I plan to buy a live pine seedling, bring it inside, decorate it, and then plant it with hope it will adjust and survive – a model for our new world, upon reflection.

So, excuse me as I write something more concise than usual, but life is about choices. I’ll apologize what won’t get done by choice or necessity, as I also choose to blend a bit of the new and the old, at least for a little while.

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Yet Another Mortgage Story

I think this makes seven or eight, but without driving home and diving into decades-old statements I can only estimate that my little house, my home, has had over a half-dozen mortgage companies/servicers in just under thirteen years. About every other year, they change. The more tortuous period was when I was unable to pay my bills. Ironically, about half of those transfers were bankruptcies. Thanks, but I can’t take the credit for dismantling billion-dollar corporations. Considering what I’ve witnessed, I’m sure their efforts are a larger cause than mine.

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Today I tried paying my bill. The middle of the month is coming up and I was anxious to pay before late fees and credit dings hit. Yesterday I tried paying my bill. But this most recent company didn’t brand itself as a mortgage servicer but as a debt collector. They’d only let me pay my bill if I gave them access to my bank account. Considering that the day before I’d received the second notice that my attempts to pay had failed, I was reluctant to give them that level of access. I’ll give them money, but not access to my entire account. I’d only do that with someone I trust, and the way they were conducting their business generated distrust, instead. Not the way to run a business, particularly a financial business that is tied to housing, particularly one that has installed so many barriers to getting paid.

The bill pay service with my bank has worked for all of the other mortgagers. This time, the transfers bounced, but only after several days, delaying my eventual payment. Evidently, it was time to start that process anew. But first, I wanted to pay by phone, authorize a one-time payment, and get it done. I could set up bill pay when I had more time. (Life in real estate on Whidbey Island is rather busy – understatement – currently.) Easy enough, call them up. Except that the phone number on their web site doesn’t work. The phone number they gave to the previous mortgage servicer didn’t work, either. I finally found a phone number on one of those boiler-plate sheets that are easy to ignore. OK. Let’s do this.

Call. Outside working hours, please call back. Call back. Put on hold. Two minutes later, enter phone number, address, account number, date of birth, social security number and account routing number and account number and whoa! Most companies will ask for some of that, then accept a debit card. Getting paid is what business is about. Get transferred out of voicemail by hitting random keys. Two minutes on hold, talk to one person who asks for the same info, express my strong reluctance, get passed to another employee. Get asked the same questions, have the same conversation, get transferred again. Each transfer was supposed to be to someone who could accept a debit card payment. “All agents are currently busy.” My apologies. Did I do that?

Six minutes later, finally a human who acts more human. Have the same questions, discussion, and I finally interrupt the cycle by asking for a mailing address where I can overnight the check. I read off the three addresses they provided on the paperwork. None of them are valid. The phone numbers weren’t right. The addresses weren’t right. The employee, I congratulate on patience, points out that there are another three addresses, one that I’ve forgotten, one for the headquarters, and one for accepting overnight mail. Each of the three are in different states with different corporate names in the address. This is efficient?

If you’ve actually read this tedious chronology, congratulate yourself. Now, imagine how often this is happening. Multiply the experience by potentially millions of homeowners. My call involved four employees. I’m glad they have a job, but how much time and money was wasted shuffling me from one to the other. This one episode cost them a half-hour of pay, directly; and as business owners know, the burden rate from the indirect costs amplify that cost. The employees must be tracked and managed. The episode must be recorded, archived, entered into the database, and maybe analyzed. I doubt there will be a response, but if there is, that will cost them, too.

Mortgage defaults are blamed for many things, but I suspect they aren’t the only cause. Review what happened in my Mesmerizing Mortgage Mediation Meeting. Browse a bit of the circus that is in My Mortgage Modification Chronology. Financial institutions were known for conservative, prudent, and efficient operations. Today’s episodes cemented my doubts about the modern version of such operations.

A few years ago, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver produced a show called Debt Buyers. John Oliver is a comedian, so there was certainly a fun tone to the piece; but it pointed out that every time debt is sold, it is sold at a discount. My original mortgage was with Whidbey Island Bank. They sold that mortgage (debt) to one of those now-defunct C mortgagers like Countrywide or Crossland. I doubt Whidbey Island Bank did that to lose money, so they sold off risk and made some money. I think there was another transfer. Eventually it went through Bank of America. Maybe the next leap was to Greentree (but I think there were two Greentrees involved.) From there, DiTech, which just went bankrupt, and now to Shellpoint. If at each step the debt was sold for even a slight discount, they bought over $200K of debt in my mortgage for thousands less. I wonder how much I’d have to offer to clear it. I doubt they work that way. There’s too much profit in the monthly payments and possible sale of an appreciating property. That income stream can fund a lot of inefficiency.

Part of this post is a vent. Part is another entry in the (hopefully) inevitable sequel to my book on Dream Invest Live coverDream. Invest. Live. Part of this is a light on the reality of the stereotype of conventional financial institutions. No one is perfect, but sadly, a corporation’s inefficiencies can cause a person’s late fees, wasted time, increased stress – all at a profit to the corporation.

Two years ago I was interviewed about My Forty Year Mortgage. The interviewer wondered why someone who understands personal finance well enough to write about it would knowingly agree to making interest payments for forty years. 1) It was the only mortgage modification option provided to me, and I was glad to take it and keep my home. 2) Inflation can significantly decrease the impact of the future interest payments. 3) The rate is capped at about 4%, historically low (with a hope that we don’t experience deflation). And 4) from what I’ve seen of the industry, I suspect it will be forced to radically change within that time because, as someone who has analyzed businesses and systems, their processes are not sustainable – and haven’t been for the over half dozen corporations I’ve been involved with.

Ironically, today’s episode may inspire me to go back to the beginning. As my income improves, and hopefully my credit rating returns, I wonder what sort of mortgage I can find, what sort of credible mortgage company I can find, and whether that would make my life a little bit safer and saner.

By the end of the day I decided to trust at least one person, the last one I talked to at Shellpoint. Instead of shuttling me along, she talked and listened for over a quarter of an hour. According to her, one of the terms of this transfer is a forgiveness of late fees for the first sixty days. I said my goodbyes, opened the bill pay menu, added yet another mortgagor to the list, and paid via an electronic service that will maybe could be possibly get there at or on the due date. Let’s hope there’s no reason to refresh this story. There are better things in life for me to write and think about.

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Paying For Bad Packaging

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge a letter by its envelope. Don’t judge what’s in the box by looking at the box. Skip the judgments and maybe even make some money. Weirder things happen.

Two envelopes showed up in the mail. There were more, but those two dropped my mood two notches. It’s possible to earn a living income (or more) as a real estate broker.  (Hi, Washington State asks me to disclose that I am – “a licensed real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Koetje on Whidbey Island.” Hey, I didn’t want to make it part of the story, but I’m being careful with their regulations.) Anyway. Real estate can pay well, but it doesn’t pay every two weeks or on any regular schedule – at least for me for now. There are income gaps that are ignored by the need to pay expenses. Seeing an envelope from my old mortgage company and my new propane supplier days after recently paying those bills made me dread contacting the companies. Did the old and new mortgage company double bill me, and do so after the due date? Did the online Bill Pay not pay the propane company? I reacted before I opened the envelopes. I also procrastinated by waiting until I was at work where the office phone was designed for calls to be left on hold while I got other work done.

Yet another advantage of not living in The Big City is having phone calls answered by humans in the first two rings. The bill was $75 over the bill I paid a few days ago at the end of the month. If that was a late fee, it was a big one. One quick call to Van der Yacht Propane pointed out the money and the bill passing each other in the mail. Yep. I’d paid my bill, but their tank rental fee ($75) was sent to me before the money cleared. Instead of being over-charged or late, all I had to do was pay a regular rental fee. Whew.

As for the mortgage, I’ve lost count of how many mortgage companies and servicers have handled my monthly payment. The Great Recession swing them through a lot of loops. I wonder if, pardon me as I estimate, at least seven companies have truly been able (oops, eight) to keep track of who owes and who owns what. After all of that confusion, a double bill wouldn’t be a surprise. Surprise! It wasn’t a bill. It was a notice that I’d be receiving a check for the escrow money they’d set aside to pay property taxes. Whew.

Coincidentally, the propane bill was almost exactly the same as the escrow check. In and out equal nearly zero.

What was I reacting to, again? (Only slightly rhetorical)

We, or at least I, react to packaging. Dispassionately waiting until the envelope is logical, but humans are emotional, too. Maybe I should find a Vulcan to handle my mail.

Packaging is so important that we pay more for fancy packaging and pay much less for poor packaging.

20191206_144022I’m frugal. I browse the discount bin at the supermarket. Dings, dents, and damaged goods cost much less even if the contents are fine. Anyone who follows my Facebook or Twitter (#TomTea) feeds knows I drink tea. I’m not a tea snob. It’s just something I post about as an aside to the day. I can measure my progress through the day by how and what I drink. (If I’m drinking Tetley after 4PM you know it is going to be a long day and a sleepless night.) There it was, a box of Taylor’s Lemon & Ginger, crushed and crumpled. The box was crushed and crumpled, not the tea. Tea doesn’t do that, unless on purpose. Twenty tea bags that would cost several dollars was marked down to 99 cents. It’s fine. (As I sip.) The value and quality of the tea didn’t change. The impact of the packaging did.

20191206_144143A gracious and generous gesture by Victorinox happened about the same time and showed me another side of the packaging issue. I found one of my old Swiss army knives in a tool box. As if the normal set of tools wasn’t enough, this one included an altimeter. The altimeter that fit in the knife works because of a battery, a tiny battery, a battery thin enough to fit in whatever is left of the volume that isn’t already filled with knives, screwdrivers, scissors, files, and of course, a corkscrew and toothpick. So civilized, the Swiss. Hence, the graciousness of them when I contacted them about finding a replacement battery; and their generosity when they mailed me one for free. A battery skinnier than my pinkynail. A battery that is smaller than a stamp, but that required an envelope measuring 9 inches by 6 inches. The cost of the person’s paycheck for answering the call, the cost of the battery, the cost of shipping, and the cost of the envelope are costs associated with packaging their response, not just the battery. Impressive. Sadly, the battery couldn’t fix the fact that years in backpacks and toolboxes probably ruined the electronics in the altimeter. I’m not asking them to fix that, too. They’ve done more than enough, already. I’ve cost them too much, already.

And the coincidences accumulate.

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Nine by six is the size of my most of my books. According to some readers, one in particular is my best writing and possibly worth submitting for awards. I probably won’t because we do judge books by their covers. The writing inside may be worth mentioning, but the title and the cover do too little to connect with the content. Twelve Months at Merritt Lake. No verbs. No action. No emotion. The cover is a photograph, but only one that makes sense after the book’s been read. A clear day punctuated by a sweet wilderness camp, rifle shots, and helicopters attacking a nearby forest fire. I use my book as an example, but think about how some shop on Amazon. It was sad enough that judging a book by its contents was tough in bookstores. It takes too long. So, readers judge books by their covers. Now, covers are reduced to Amazon images a few pixels wide and tall. The cost to the author for poor packaging is in poor sales.

Humans are quick to judge. Maybe that was less likely when life moved slowly. Now, we judge people and events on a few words or even a few letters. See an (R) or (D) or (G) or (I) beside a politician’s name and the judgment is made. Some do the same thing with skin color, or gender, or accent, or whatever discriminator is being used to discriminate between this person and that person. Even in the world of personal finance, a car that safely drive at the speed limit holds a basic value, but tens of thousands of dollars are layered around that with brands, luxuries, and paint jobs. A house that is safe, secure, and structurally sound meets necessities, but style and whether the walls are painted or the windows washed can change opinions and purchases.

Maybe we shouldn’t be affected by such things, but we are. The pragmatist in me struggles with this notion. The frugal person in me appreciates the opportunities. The reflective part of me knows I am susceptible to the my own mix of feelings and consequences. I guess that proves that I am human. Time to sit back, sip some tea, make this post a bit prettier – all as we approach the holidays with wrapping paper and bows and silly sweaters.

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Thankful For Serendipity

Intuition, a hunch, listening to a hint I bought a new pair of jeans – just in time. The coolness wafting into my pants told me so.

Buy local! I do, or at least I try. South Whidbey has a (1) (one) place that calls itself a department store: Webbs. Clothing, bedding (which is just clothing for beds), shoes, socks, hats, etc. I tend to drop by as a treat every time I help someone buy or sell their house. Sometimes necessity urges action.

For the last two years I’ve worn one pair of jeans to the office. In some places, real estate brokers wear semi-formal wear and drive tastefully subdued luxury sedans. This is the south part of Whidbey Island. Sure, there are luxury properties, but I’m also likely to be stepping into the Before version of a fixer-upper, or strolling across fields or through forests. Jeans don’t get chewed up as much fine fabrics. Wingtips aren’t as practical as sandals that can be easily slipped on and off, or boots that can bash through brush.

Two years of my version of desk work, field work, and house work meant a hole grew in the knee. Not a very draft place. I’ll be getting there.

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Recently I attended a county housing presentation, in the audience, this time. A young, stylish woman walked in wearing distressed jeans. The tastefully arranged holes and wear spots covered, or uncovered, about a third of where fabric should be. I pointed her out to an experienced fellow broker who understands women’s fashion because she is one. She pointed out to me that the young, stylish woman probably paid a lot more for her jeans than I did for mine, and achieved a completely different effect. Yep. Though, I may have paid for the hole in my jeans with lots of time, if not lots of money.

OK. After the last washing, the hole went from cute and easy to overlook to that’s not quite right. Break a habit and buy some pants for the first time in over two years. At least they’re mens jeans, not something that has to be sized, fitted, tailored, and pampered. As I paid for them the clerk asked whether I wanted a bag. Let’s see. They’re jeans. They better not bruise, tear, or break if I drop them. No bag necessary. Throw them across my shoulder, toss them in the truck, make fun of buying them as I walk into the office.

Before getting back to work, though, it made sense to visit the rest room. No need for details – but. As I walked back to my desk afterwards, I wondered if I’d sat in something. My butt felt far too cool. Discreetly put my hand on my butt hoping not to find a wet spot. None. Instead I felt my skin. Uh oh.

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I wasn’t sure which would be worse, a wet spot or a hole. A wet spot could be temporary. A hole in the seat, however, could’ve been there for as long as the hole in the knee. Who knew? Literally. Who knew? Who knew but hadn’t told me? Someone in the office? Folks on the street? Clients? No one. No one noticed. Whew.

The washing that expanded the knee’s wear spot weakened the backside, but didn’t expose it – at least not in a way that anyone noticed. I may have just noticed it as it happened.

It is easy to forget about such events, but it made me think. Why did I have the sudden intuition or hunch to Go Buy Pants Now? What hints did my subconscious notice that I missed? I don’t know. I respect my subconscious but we rarely converse, and if dreams are our conversations then we have a lot of learning to do about communicating.

I believe in intuition and inspiration. … At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.” – Albert Einstein

About the time I became a real estate broker I was also pursuing other possibilities. Each had costs and benefits. My intuition suggested I become a broker. (Getting turned down for some of the other offers limited the field, too.) Since then, three of those jobs have vanished. Each was a steadier income. Some even had benefits like healthcare. All were more temporary than my conscious mind expected.

Getting older means unavoidably accumulating experiences. My intuition at twenty had less to work with than my intuition at sixty. As I look back, I find that following my intuition would not have been a panacea; but my biggest mistakes were when I didn’t follow my intuition. I did what I ‘should’, what I was supposed to do. An exercise I’ve worked from both ends is; “What advice would you give your younger self?” and the flip was to find someone older and ask them for the advice they wished they received at my age. (See Thirty Year Wisdom for that result.) My advice to me has been to trust myself more.

The only person that lives every moment of your life is you. Anyone trying to give you advice can only become aware of a small slice of your experiences. Many are very good at doing so, usually by narrowing the topic to something they have studied. None of us can be consciously aware of everything, which is why it is good to keep a council of advisors handy.

Advisors aren’t the people who will live my life. I live my life. The future is unknowable. Decisions made today will have a shifting set of unpredictable consequences. I know I won’t always pick right. I have enough examples of that, already. But I’ve found there’s one advisor who at least knows me the best, and is intimately tied to how my life is lived. My intuition may not speak the same language, but I’m becoming more confident in listening to its hints. In at least one instance, it’s saved me from mooning the people around me. Now, that’s valuable. Thank you, me.

PS My frugal friends quickly pointed out that a rip right below the pocket is the worst because it is difficult to turn them into cutoffs or garden pants. My ultra-frugal friends quickly concocted ways to patch it from the inside. Quick advice, and fun to watch them deliver it because they’d experienced it, too.

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