Friday, December 4, 2009

Q&A: When and Where to Save

Now that we've made a decision on where to put our money, generally speaking (and it's okay if your decision is different than mine), it's time to decide on when to put it there. First, we'll look at which accounts get priority when allocating contributions. Then, we'll look at the timing of those contributions throughout the year.


The highest priority for your money is definitely 401(k) contributions that qualify for employer matching contributions. This is typically an instant 50-100% return, depending on your employer's plan. Once you've passed the match cutoff, deciding between 401(k) contributions and IRA contributions depends on a number of factors. Hey, it sounds like we need yet another bulleted list!
  • Maxing out contributions? - If you plan to max out both 401(k) and IRA contributions, keep in mind that the only way to contribute to your 401(k) is through salary deferrals. It is important to contribute enough to your 401(k) early in the year to make maximizing your contributions possible. There is more flexibility in contributing to an IRA. You have all year to contribute, plus until tax filing of the following year. Your 401(k) is more time-sensitive, and therefore may have a higher priority.

  • Investment options - 401(k)s typically have a very limited number of investment options. For example, IBM offers mutual funds that follow large sector indexes. Additional mutual funds are available for a small administration fee, though even these choices are limited. By contrast, my IRA through E*TRADE has access to over 7000 mutual funds, 1000 ETFs, plus stocks, bonds, and options, of course. The nice thing about 401(k) investment options is that they usually (but not always) have very low expense ratios. Still, it's important to look at net returns, and IRAs often have many more investment options than 401(k) plans, which means more opportunities for better overall returns.

  • Roth vs Traditional - If your employer doesn't offer a Roth 401(k), but you've decided that Roth is a better option for you, prioritizing contributions to a Roth IRA before additional 401(k) deferrals makes sense.

  • IRA vs Nothing - Of course, if your employer doesn't offer a 401(k) at all, an IRA is your only option. I would strongly suggest taking the issue up with management or HR!

Naturally, tax-advantaged accounts have received the priority. When you have extra money and no tax-advantaged accounts left to put it in, a regular brokerage account finally comes into the picture.


Generally speaking, trying to time the market is not recommended. It is possible, perhaps likely, that you will miss out on significant gains. I'll admit to some attempts at timing the market, though. I think the important thing is to be careful not to try to time the market too much. It would probably be bad to hold your $5000 IRA contribution waiting for a low point in the market, but I don't think it's bad to alter your 401(k) deferral percentage based on large market trends. For example, I lowered my my 401(k) deferral percentage at the beginning of 2008 and 2009, then raised it about halfway through so that I would contribute more during the latter half of the year, while still maxing out my contributions. For 2006 and 2007, when the market was good, I maxed out my 401(k) contributions in little more than 6-8 months. The economy shows some signs of improving, so I might set my deferral percentage to max out my 2010 contributions around August. This is different than the usual definition of timing the market, too - I still have all previous contributions invested, and I am still making regularly timed contributions. Basically, I don't feel bad about my 401(k) deferral adjustments. In all years, I contributed to my IRA fully in the first quarter. As discussed previously, I am using my Roth IRA for more aggressive stock and option trading through E*TRADE. This year, I didn't try to time the market with my IRA contribution(s), but I did not make a contribution until I had a specific trade I wanted to make. It just so happened that there were trades I wanted to make in February and March.

There are, of course, some other things to consider than how to best time the market without trying to time it too precisely. For example, it is very important to maximize your employer match, as it is highly unlikely that market gains will be as high as 50-100%. When I max out my contributions early in the year, IBM will continue to make their matching contributions with each paycheck. Basically, as long as I've contributed up to the match cutoff, IBM will match fully, no matter what the timing of my contributions. Some employers may not have a match maximizer program. In this case, it is important to spread out your 401(k) contributions so that you get your full matching contributions each paycheck. This isn't always ideal from a budgeting standpoint, however. It can be nice to max out your contributions (and here I don't necessarily mean the yearly contribution limit, but whatever amount you plan on contributing) a bit before the end of the year so you have more spending money for the holiday season.

One nice thing about 401(k) contributions is that they are usually added to your portfolio without transaction fees. In regular brokerage accounts and IRAs, investing money can often be subject to transaction fees, immediately reducing your return. You can get around this by choosing to invest in no-load, no-transaction fee mutual funds, for example. Another option involves the timing of your contributions - making fewer but larger individual investments will result in lower overall transaction fees. If your IRA is not readily accessible online, it can also be a hassle to write multiple checks throughout the year. Before I moved my IRA to E*TRADE, I made my IRA contribution in one or two payments just because I am that lazy when it comes to check writing.

Finally, I'd like to mention a more technical note on mutual funds and taxes as it relates to timing investments. As we discussed earlier, mutual funds are required to pass on gains to share owners. They usually do this at the end of the year, but the actual timing can vary. As I mentioned before, as an owner of the mutual fund, you own a portion of the profits and those count as income, even when reinvesting them in the mutual fund. When buying mutual funds in a taxed account, it can be beneficial to wait until after this distribution so that you avoid the tax liability on profits you didn't actually receive. (More information on mutual fund NAV pricing and distribution tax consequences.) Similarly, it can be beneficial to sell a mutual fund from a taxable account before this profit distribution. If you read the second link in the preceding parenthetical statement, this may sound counter-intuitive. If the distribution lowers the NAV, wouldn't the gain from the sale be reduced accordingly, making the tax burden the same? The difference is that the distribution likely contains significant short term gains, while a sale is more likely to be long term gains. Of course, how much of this sale is long term gains depends on your transaction history, but you should be able to estimate the upcoming gains distribution's short term percentage based on prior years' distributions.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Q&A: Investment and Tax Strategies Across Accounts

The different tax structures of the various account types - traditional, Roth, and regular taxed brokerage accounts - should be taken into consideration when planning your investment strategies. How do we take advantage of these different account types, all while maintaining a balanced portfolio? The answer is to break up your asset classes into each type of account, rather than trying to make each one roughly balanced. It can be advantageous to hold certain asset types in each account type. I'm going to keep things relatively simple and talk just about stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and ETFs (and a bit about options, I suppose, but not commodities or specifics on market capitalizations and whatnot).
  • Stocks - Your basic stock has dividends and stock price appreciation. While some stocks are chosen for their dividend yield, when we talk about stocks, we usually are focused on stock price appreciation as a goal. For stocks that are held longer than a year, we expect/hope that the majority of our profits are the result of stock price appreciation. This will result in long term capital gains, which is always taxed at a lower rate than regular income tax.

  • Bonds - Bonds have coupons and price, which taken together produce a yield. Because the coupon (the interest rate) doesn't change, price and yield are inversely proportional. While the price may go up and down while you hold the bond, your yield is locked in when you buy the bond. We are usually focused on this yield, which provides a steady stream of income (and is taxed as such). Bonds are a more conservative investment, where yields are expected to be lower than the average return of stocks, but with less risk.

  • Mutual funds - Mutual funds provide a convenient way of diversification. Owning a share of a mutual fund gives you an ownership stake in all assets the fund holds. You also own a share of the profits, and the taxes due on those profits. The form of those profits - short term or long term - are mostly under the control of the fund manager, and may not be ideal for your current tax situation. Some funds are actively managed and change their assets often (have high turnover). These funds tend to have a lot of realized gains every year, and behave more like bonds, tax-wise. Other funds are passively managed, or tax managed, and do their best to avoid gains that have to be passed on to the shareholders. These funds tend to have fewer realized gains per year, and behave more like stocks, tax-wise. The performance of mutual funds depends on the assets it invests in.

  • ETFs - Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are like mutual funds, but all ETFs follow an index, and so are like passively managed mutual funds. They also don't have to buy or sell their underlying stocks as often as mutual funds, and instead do in-kind trades, which the IRS doesn't tax. So, ETFs generally behave more like stocks, tax-wise, than mutual funds, but there are a few ETFs that aren't as tax-efficient as their mutual fund peers, but these tend to be mutual funds that themselves already behave as stocks. More information, for anyone who wants it.

  • Options - Options include your two basic types of options contracts - puts and calls. A put option is merely a contract to buy a block of shares (usually 100) at a given price. Similarly, a call option is a contract to sell a block of shares at a given price. Most options trades are for short term contracts, and are therefore short term gains taxed at high rates. For example, so far all of my options profits and losses have been short term. Options can be used to add extra value to owned stocks, insure an equity position, or put cash to use, but either way, gains (and/or losses) are expected to be relatively large.

With our asset types defined, we can now match them with their ideal account type. First, let's take a quick look at how much of your portfolio each should be. Unfortunately, there's no single answer. Each investor has to decide for themselves what level of risk they are willing to accept in their pursuit of returns. Common stock/bond ratios are 80/20, 70/30, and 60/40. This can be achieved through mutual funds and/or ETFs, or directly through individual stocks and bonds - with individual stocks and bonds being more risky. The percentage of your portfolio invested in bonds usually increases as you approach retirement, as well. Because I am young and have time to make up any losses I might suffer, I have decided to be risky and have nearly 100% stocks, including some individual stocks. I also use some options trading, which has definitely been risky.
  • Brokerage accounts - Regular brokerage accounts are taxed as often as possible. Every trade in the account is subject to income or capital gains taxes, as applicable. They are not tax advantaged at all. Consequently, brokerage accounts lend themselves to few trades that result in long term gain. From above, that would be ETFs and stocks - specifically stocks that are good buy-and-hold stocks.

  • Traditional accounts - Traditional retirement accounts are taxed as regular income when you take the money out, but grow tax free. I think traditional accounts are ideal for the bond portion of your portfolio. Bonds are full of short term gains that we can avoid the tax on, and aren't expected to produce returns as large as other investment types, which means our tax at retirement will be lower. Perfect!

  • Roth accounts - Since Roth accounts grow tax free and end tax free, I find them to be ideal for my more aggressive investments. As I said, most of my portfolio is made up of stocks, but if I did have bonds, I would try to keep them out of my Roth accounts. Also whenever possible, I do my options trading in a Roth account.

So, to summarize, I would like my Roth accounts to contain mostly aggressive stocks and mutual funds, my traditional accounts to hold mostly bonds and bond-like mutual funds, and my brokerage accounts to contain mostly stable stocks and ETFs, or tax-exempt bonds/mutual funds. Of course, it's not always easy to allocate things between traditional and Roth accounts. For example, my 401(k) plan has a limited number of investment options - all mutual funds (or IBM stock). To make things more challenging, my 401(k) does not make it easy to consolidate information on which assets are in traditional versus Roth accounts, and managing separate investment allocations between pre and post-tax accounts is not automatic. Thus, I have not implemented any special treatment for the traditional side of my 401(k) as of yet. If your IRA account is through a financial planner, they may only offer mutual funds, or hands-on trading may be impractical. It was for the latter reason that I transferred my Roth IRA to E*TRADE. This gave me access to thousands of mutual funds and ETFs, along with individual stocks and bonds. It also let me take advantage of options trading opportunities tax free.

In my next post, I will take a look at the relative priority of each type of account, and my thoughts on spacing contributions throughout the year.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Q&A: Roth Versus Traditional

I was recently asked a few interesting (to me) financial questions about 401(k)s, IRAs, and contribution strategies. I've decided to answer those questions in a few Q&A blog posts so everyone can benefit (or get screwed if my strategies aren't sound).

The primary difference of concern between Roth and traditional IRAs and 401(k)s is taxes. Traditional contributions are pre-tax (they are tax deductible), but the distributions are considered as regular income and taxed accordingly. Roth contributions are post-tax, but the distributions are tax-free. So, traditional contributions lower our tax burden now, but increase it later, and Roth contributions raise (or don't benefit) our tax burden today, but lower it later. Another way of looking at it is that traditional contributions are tax-deferred, and Roth contributions include prepaid tax. This gives us two things to think about: our tax bracket now and our expected tax bracket when we start taking distributions.

The general wisdom is that if you expect your income tax bracket to be higher in the future, you should choose Roth retirement accounts. Determining if your tax bracket will be higher can be a complicated question. Personally, I took the following items into consideration when trying to evaluate my future tax bracket:
  • Current income - For IRAs, traditional contributions are only tax deductible for those earning less than $53,000 (phased out through $63,000). This made my decision for IRA contributions easy - Roth is still allowed until you make $105,000-$120,000. Traditional 401(k) vs Roth 401(k) still required the following bullet points, too.

  • Future income - I've been maxing out my 401(k) and IRA contribution limits since I've been working at IBM. I am on track to have more money coming in than I really know what to do with. I expect my future income to be quite high.

  • Current vs. future tax deductions - I can currently deduct mortgage interest, but when I retire, I will not have a mortgage. That's actually my only major deduction at the moment. But, does your employer only offer a traditional 401(k) plan, or have you already decided against the Roth 401(k)? Have children? Taking classes? More deductions that might not apply in retirement!

  • Historical tax bracket trends - As you can see from the graph in the link, we are enjoying relatively low tax rates (especially for the rich, which we all hope to be). Does this mean tax rates will rise in the future? Not necessarily, but it wouldn't surprise me.

  • National sales tax - I like a lot of the features of a national sales tax instead of an income tax. However, if we go to a national sales tax, our future tax brackets will all be zero percent. After George W. Bush got torn apart for merely suggesting that we look at the plan, I decided a national sales tax isn't too likely to happen, but it's still something to consider.

  • Alternative Minimum Tax - The AMT is one of the most complicated set of tax laws out there. It was designed to ensure the wealthy can't deduct their way out of too many taxes, basically. There is some fear that an AMT-like system will be implemented to tax some ROTH distributions that are currently promised to be tax-free. As much as the government loves to tax, I think this, too, is unlikely.

Another thing to consider is how much you will contribute. When you contribute fully, there is an advantage to Roth accounts. Each dollar contributed into a Roth account is equivalent to a pretax contribution plus taxes. Thus, you can make a larger (pre-tax equivalent) retirement contribution via a Roth account. This assumes the same tax bracket now and at retirement, and is definitely not the only consideration. This same type of idea is relevant to estate planning, too. Roth accounts are more valuable, dollar for dollar, than traditional retirement accounts. Retirement accounts are assessed at their account value, not at their after-tax value. A traditional and a Roth account of the same value will be taxed the same amount as part of the estate tax, but the traditional IRA will then have additional income taxes taken out when your heirs take their mandatory distributions.

There are a couple of features that really sold Roth IRAs to me. Because Roth 401(k)s can be converted to a Roth IRA without having to pay taxes when you leave the company, these also end up applying indirectly to Roth 401(k)s! The first feature is that there are no forced distributions from a Roth IRA. You can keep compounding those returns as long as you don't need the money. This gives you a lot more flexibility in your tax and estate planning. The second feature is that Roth IRAs allow you to withdraw the contributions at any time. This makes Roth IRAs a sort of emergency fund - but definitely an emergency fund of near-last resort. Once withdrawn, there is no way of putting that money back in, and you will lose future compounding returns. A better option is probably a 401(k) loan, and a better option than that is probably a home-equity loan (HELOC). Still, it's a nice feature.

As I mentioned in the current income bullet above, only the Roth IRA made sense for me at all. For 401(k)s, there are no income limitations for the vast majority of people. When deciding between a traditional 401(k) and Roth 401(k), or a mix between the two, I looked at the above points and decided that my income is likely to be greater in the future, my tax rate is likely to be higher, and the Roth variety gives me more flexibility later. Still, it is tempting to hedge your future-tax-bracket bet by splitting 401(k) contributions between traditional and Roth 401(k)s. Splitting contributions is allowed, but I have decided against it for the time being for two reasons. First, the Roth 401(k) option has only been offered at IBM as of the beginning of 2008. This means I've already bet two years worth of contributions on traditional 401(k) being better because there was no other bet to make. This year will mark two years of Roth 401(k) betting. Second, employer match contributions have to sit in a traditional 401(k) account. I view these matching contributions as an additional bet on traditional 401(k). Even if you don't view it as a bet, it is at least going to affect your future income levels at retirement and/or when forced distributions kick in at 70.5. Thus, I am maxing out my Roth 401(k) contributions, for the time being.

[For anyone curious, as of the time of this writing, Roth contributions make up 47.19% of my 401(k), and 100% of my IRA.]

In my next post, I will take a look at how tax-advantaged accounts can affect investment choices and how I (plan to) balance my portfolio across my varying accounts to better utilize that tax advantage.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Quick Post, Video

I haven't had much of anything to say recently. I've been struggling to come up with topics, much less something interesting. Today, I've been pleasantly stuck in my own world, and this is the theme song: Fiona Apple - Across the Universe. It's been on repeat in my head. I apologize if it gets stuck in your head, too, but I think there are worse things that can happen. Fiona Apple!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Favorite Time of the Month

I look forward to the beginning of the month. It's a very special time for me. My mortgage payment goes out at the beginning of the month. This prompts me to... wait for it... update my spreadsheet!

My budget spreadsheet is the first I created with multiple worksheets. It has nine (one of which goes unused, and the other just has information used in calculations on other sheets)! I've always been a long-term thinking/planner. While I like the idea of tracking things monthly, like Jonathon does over at MyMoneyBlog, I think I'm content with updating things monthly but tracking things on a yearly basis. You can look at my spreadsheet as a long term planning item, and as my monthly tracking place. Alternatively, you can look at as my monthly history, and my spreadsheet as my yearly outlook. It's really not much of a budget, I guess.

Recently, I haven't been using much of the spreadsheet besides the Retirement Planning tab. (I may have to look at what this says about my current job satisfaction at a later time.) This tab isn't so much of a plan of how to get to retirement - my 401(k), Roth IRA, other savings, and house are my retirement plan already being taken care of. The Retirement Planning tab lets me know when I can retire and live forever off of my accrued savings. I compute the live forever part of that by determining if the growth of my investments will outpace inflation.

By my current assumptions of 3% inflation, 7% retirement portfolio return, and $70,000 (in 2006 dollars) yearly withdrawals, I can retire permanently at age 56. Now, $70,000 seems like a ridiculously large amount of money to spend in a year, to me. However, I would like to have a wife, and I don't want to underestimate those associated expenses... Seriously, though, that should allow for most travel plans I can think of, charitable giving, and regular living expenses, with hopefully enough left over to handle unexpected expenses, or temporary-ish ones like college costs for children.

Even though I don't use most of the parts that I programmed into it, updating the spreadsheet is still a very fun activity. Very few things are better than a large table of numbers.

This was supposed to be posted nearer to the beginning of the month, but my main computer was having issues. Chkdsk seems to have sorted them out, though. It took a few hours, but it completed. I was fooled a few times by long periods of no screen updates and the keyboard not working. That is, I restarted the process more times than necessary, I think. For future reference, the Num Lock and Caps Lock keys don't work when chkdsk is running, and it's apparently normal for some operations to take an hour without updating the screen.

Friday, October 30, 2009

On Finding a Web Host

Disclaimer: links to web hosts are referral links. Signing up through them is appreciated, but I don't expect anyone to. =)

For the past few days, I have been searching for a quality web host - preferably for ridiculously cheap. These two criteria (quality and inexpensiveness) are often at odds, but not always. I got a few recommendations, including DreamHost, Host Gator, and LunarPages. DreamHost was recommended about a year ago, while Host Gator and LunarPages were new recommendations. I was looking for some more information on the hosts, though.

As it turns out, it is very difficult to find information on web host quality. Most of the search results you get back for "web host reviews" and "top web hosts" and similar queries are lists of affiliate links ordered by highest paying referrals. In other words, they're a list of top web host affiliate programs, rather than top web hosts. I'm sure it's not the only honest web review site out there (assuming it is honest, of course), and it might not be the best, but struck me as fairly honest. One of his other sites,, was also helpful with some raw performance data. The fact that he hosted his sites on Host Gator was perhaps the best selling point.

That, coupled with the fact that the recommendation for LunarPages was qualified with some reports of downtime, left me heavily leaning toward using Host Gator. When I looked, also listed HostGator in the top two in all three performance categories on the main page. I also found recommendations somewhere to have separate companies manage the web hosting and domain registration. I'm not convinced that is really necessary, but since Host Gator charges $15/year or so, and most places only charge $10/year, I figured I'd look into it. Five bucks is five bucks, right? I found Namecheap to be the most recommended place to register a domain, but as I'll explain in the next paragraph, I didn't end up using either it or Host Gator.

Just before I registered the domain, I decided to check one last time what DreamHost's domain registration costs, and how I could manage two accounts at once through them. It was when I was exploring my account control panel for a domain I ordered a year ago that I noticed I can host multiple domains through the same account. The only added cost is the domain registration of $9.99/year, which is close enough to Namecheap's rate. I originally signed up with DreamHost during a special for something like $22 for two years of hosting. It really was a ridiculously good price. I'm sure they are counting on renewals, which I don't think any host offers ongoing discounts on. So, while I probably can't continue getting hosting for so cheap, a little bit of research into multiple domain hosting saved me a lot of money, or at least put off the decision of finding a new web host for another year. All three web hosts listed in this post appear to offer multiple domain hosting, so my decision isn't narrowed down at this point. Chances are that I'll stick with DreamHost just to avoid the hassle of transferring things, unless prices are wildly different.

Now, all I need to do is develop an attractive web page. As you can tell from this blog, I go for simple layouts and colors (or lack thereof). Building an attractive page will be a first for me! (Help...)

Host Gator

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Old School Assignment

I have discussed a story from my childhood and how it reflects my personality. I think this old assignment from college also reflects my personality, so I thought I would share that, too.

I found an old Technical Writing assignment after I fixed my file server. The assignment was to write a technical manual on an item in the kitchen. Almost everyone chose a toaster, a blender, an oven, or some other type of appliance. Everyone except me, that is. I created a manual for a bowl.

Click for full size (readable) image!

HipStuff was one of the companies my roommate and I planned. It started with his idea of HipSoft, which had the slogan "Software that doesn't suck." We had Hip subsidiaries planned for a lot of sectors, and the category was always one syllable. HipCo was the parent company, and HipStuff was kind of a catch-all. We also had HipFilm, I think, which would make movies that didn't suck. I found out this year that G4 shows movies as: "Movies that don't suck." I don't think they stole the idea from us, despite the similarity.

I remember adding the feature of the No-Tip base after I started the diagram. I started with a circle, naturally enough, but then realized the bowls would tip over. I was so astonished that I could miss something so fundamental that I decided to make it an official feature. I also particularly like the feature about the "Uniformly Symmetrical Shape," and the cleaning tip that mentions "extensive drying times" instead of a bowl full of (soapy) water. Mostly, I just like the idea of a bowl requiring a manual. My teacher was not thrilled, but had no choice but to give me an 'A'.

That was probably a common feeling... "Mark just spat in the face of the spirit of this assignment, but he did it correctly. Drat!"

New Parts for File Server

I fixed my file server a couple of weeks ago. I now have my 3.5TB of storage space available again! If you'll recall, I've fixed my file server a few times before...

I started trying to fix my file server a couple of months ago by reinstalling Ubuntu. Unfortunately, this would hang at about 5% on the formatting/partitioning step. I suspected a faulty system hard drive, but didn't get around to trying another one until early October. I tried an old (from back in high school, for at least part of the machine) 40GB drive. The installation went through, but the system wouldn't boot from that drive. Since the drive had been in my garage for a number of years, I didn't particularly trust it. So, I went to Micro Center and picked up a 500GB hard drive that was on sale. It, too, allowed the installation to complete but would not boot up. It should be noted that the system hard drive has to be an IDE hard drive because I use all the SATA ports for the RAID array.

I figured it was most likely a faulty motherboard at this point. I went to and picked out a cheap motherboard and processor (I always prefer to buy them together to ensure I have the right socket and so I don't have to mess with reapplying thermal grease whenever possible). Along with my new camera, the parts arrived in just a few days. I really do love Newegg.

There's not much else to tell. The installation went well, the raid was recreated without much hassle. I did learn a new command: mdadm --scan --detail /dev/md0 >> /etc/mdadm/mdadm.conf. I don't remember having to run this command or having to mess with mdadm.conf at all, in fact, in the past. I'm not sure what has changed, but in order to get the raid device to persist after rebooting, I had to do this. I'm just happy it all works.

And it does all work! I no longer have that noisy north bridge fan (this motherboard doesn't have a north bridge fan to get noisy)! Everything seems much more stable and efficient. I'm really quite pleased with the new motherboard. I'm also happy with the new camera. I took some pictures of the file server, which I can't believe I haven't done before!

The old, very dusty, motherboard.

My newly installed motherboard. So pretty.

The entire case. This is my first Micro ATX motherboard, and it is surprisingly tiny.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

One-Time Expenses

A couple of days ago, my friend and I were talking about many things. One of these things included a comment about one-time expenses and how there seems to be one every month. I decided to analyze my one-time expenses over the past year and see what I can learn about my budget (as informal as it is). So:
  • December: Living room TV: ~$800, second 24" monitor: ~$300.
  • January: Video games: ~$100. Not too bad...
  • February: Ladder to fix the roof: ~200, paying some guy to fix the roof: ~$60.
  • March: No big expenses. Go me!
  • April: Nothing again!
  • May: Fiona died, and I took Apple in to get tests and shots: $130.
  • June: Adopted Mac & Cheese: ~$100, initial vet visit for Mac & Cheese: $110
  • July: Apple's eye infection: ~$50, Mac & Cheese declawed: ~$260, new tennis racquets: ~$230, video games: ~$100.
  • August: I did good again!
  • September: Video games: ~$75, miscellaneous family expenses: ~$200.
  • October: File server parts & digital camera: ~$400.
  • November: Planned car repairs: ~$400

This puts me at just about $300 per month for one-time expenses. I also want to get a new bed at some point, a storm door for the front, a new car eventually, and probably a few other things I have forgotten about while compiling the above list. The storm door will improve the heating/cooling efficiency of the house. The bed, at least, will likely be purchased at Nebraska Furniture Mart (can you believe I used to be anti-NFM at one point?) and therefore be spread out over the following 24-30 months...

I think the video games will also be a less frequent expense for awhile, since a lot of the video game purchases were large packs of games, and should keep me busy for quite a long time, really. There are still at least 10-20 games I haven't even installed/tried. I really hope my pet expenses (one-time, that is - food and litter are frequent purchases) are very low going forward. Regular check-ups only, please! My file server is running much smoother now (see future post), so that will hopefully truly be a one-time expense for the year or more. I remember justifying my living room TV as roommate retention. It's at least getting use. Some car repairs are definitely necessary - I worry about every strange noise I hear when I drive right now, which is not pleasant at all.

...I think what I learned is that even after compiling a list of one-time expenses while expecting a ridiculously high total, I still went into justification-mode after seeing it. I do keep my regular expenses fairly low, and I'm not at all worried about my cash flow. As I discussed previously, I save $200 each month, and that's after maxing out my 401(k) and Roth IRA contributions every year. I save a lot of money each year, and have multiple layers of financial cushions should I ever need to cut back on expenses. However, even if it's not strictly necessary, I think an occasional analysis of spending patterns is helpful.

Update: Speaking of Nebraska Furniture Mart, I forgot about my living room couch. It was purchased on my NFM card, though, and I technically haven't started paying that off yet - I'm still working on my dining room furniture. Or maybe it is my downstairs TV. I love 0% interest! Also, I think it important to mention my new furnace, since it was almost a full year's worth of one-time expenses by itself. Things happen.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Reserve Cash vs Investing

As I discussed awhile back, here, I have a primary E*TRADE Complete Savings account, and a reserve E*TRADE Complete Savings account. I set up a $200/month automatic transfer from my Complete Savings account to my Reserve Cash account quite awhile ago. This was in addition to a sizable initial funding.

So far, this has worked very well at keeping me from investing this cash in (riskier) stocks. For the most part, I think this has worked because the balance of each account is relatively small, so it doesn't feel like I have that much extra to invest. You'll notice that I don't say spend - I have an automatic transfer of $1200/month to my checking account, which covers all credit card transactions plus those utilities not charged to the credit card. This has been more than enough to cover my limited expenses so far. It also helps me keep the few bigger purchases I make, such as buying a new camera, well spaced throughout the year. My main problem in keeping a cash reserve is that I feel that money is wasted just sitting there, when it could be averaging 8% per year sitting in the stock market.

I think this feeling will become a larger issue very soon, when my Reserve Cash account will surpass my Complete Savings account. At that point, I fear it will suddenly appear to be a much larger chunk of money than it is. To combat this feeling, I think I need a specific goal. For example, MyMoneyBlog's author keeps $100K in reserve, which is way too much cash to have on hand (at least for me). If I take my $1200 spending money plus $1400 mortgage payment, I get monthly expenses of $2600. In an emergency, I can take off more than $100 from my mortgage payment, and can easily cut down spending. But, to be conservative, let's leave one month's expenses at $2500 (a small adjustment for nice round numbers).

My first thought is to keep $10K in my reserve account. This would be at least 4 months of expenses, and is a nice round number. Combined with the fact that I always keep at least $3K in my Complete Savings account just in case there's a problem with my direct deposit for a month, this seems like a more than adequate cash reserve. However, never having had an emergency in my life, I'd be interested to hear other perspectives. Is 4 months of expenses a stupidly low cushion, despite most places recommending 3-6 months? How many months expenses do you keep on hand?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New Camera

My old camera is a PowerShot A610 5.0 MP camera. It still works, but it requires a lot of batteries. I bought some rechargeable batteries, but they only keep the thing running for about 15 pictures. They also lose their charge after sitting in the camera for a day or two, and they don't stay charged if I leave them in the charger, either. Basically, the (name brand) rechargeable batteries I bought are crap.

I've decided that my next camera will have a Li-ion battery pack to avoid these problems. If my new cell phone is any indication, it should last quite a long time with each charge. It looks like this will also allow for a smaller camera, since they can make Li-ion batteries in whatever size they need for the camera.

That decided, the question is now what type of camera to get. So far, I'm a fan of the Canon PowerShot SD780 IS and the Canon EOS Rebel XSi. I like the idea of getting a camera that will be able to handle any future photography plans I may have (ie, the Rebel), but I think I have to admit that 99% of its features would go completely unused by me. I don't know what most of them are, let alone how to use them effectively. The only thing I know I'd like currently is the rapid frame rate. On the other hand, I'll never learn about photography if I only ever have a point and shoot camera.

And then there's the size. You basically have to plan on taking pictures with a DSLR camera. It's not practical to take on a walk on the off chance you get inspired by a flower or eccentric person. The SD780 is only a little bit bigger than my cell phone, and less than an ounce heavier.

It comes down to practical versus ideal. The point and shoot will suit my current needs wonderfully, I'm sure. I've always liked the idea of being artistic, though. Photography is one of the few art forms where you don't have to be able to create beautiful things. You can be a successful photographer by knowing how to capture the beauty in things. (I realize many photographers do create beautiful things and photograph them, or alter photographs to make them better, etc. In no way do I mean to trivialize photographic artists or their art.) Can I capture the beauty in things, or do I just think I could? Would I devote the time required to learn about photography, thereby making a DSLR actually perform better for me than a point and shoot camera?

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Story From My Childhood

My grandma told me a story that my older brother, Brian, recently told her about our childhood. I think it says a lot about who I was and still am.

Brian and I were working in her backyard by picking up acorns. I don't know what the context was - perhaps we were just picking up acorns to make barefoot walking more comfortable, or perhaps we were prepping the yard for being covered with sand, brick, and rock. After all, it wouldn't be good to have hundreds of oak trees trying to grow up out of a patio. Either way, Brian and I each had a bucket that we were filling with acorns for some reason.

After awhile, Brian noticed that my bucket was a lot more full than his was. My grandma said he was surprised because he is four years older, but maybe he'll grace us with a comment giving his side of the story directly. He asked me, "Did you pick up all those acorns yourself?" I responded, "No." After a bit of silence, he prompted, "Well, how did all those acorns get in there?" "One fell from the tree and landed in the bucket," I answered.

This tells me three things about myself that remain true to this day. First, I have an aptitude for tedious tasks like picking up acorns or knitting. Second, I don't always recognize when more information is expected after I give an initial answer. Third, I generally don't lie, especially when it comes to pointing out technicalities.

It's also interesting to analyze my memory of this. I don't remember the words said, but I do remember the acorn falling into the bucket, and I remember that I pointed it out somehow when explaining the fullness of my bucket. I don't remember anything else about the scene, though. I was pretty young, so I'll use that as my excuse. Anyway, nothing major in this post, just thought it was cute and fun.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

New Car On the Horizon

A few days ago, I was driving home on the highway and may car starting making a noise somewhere between a screech and a whine. It was a constant sort of noise, but once I got off the highway, I found that it varied depending on the speed of the wheel - I assume it was once per revolution. It also sounded worse when I applied the brake. I pulled into the gas station, but did not see anything wrong with the wheel right off.

As I continued to drive home, the noise stopped abruptly with a little *plink* sound, and it looked like a washer or something similar was bouncing around behind my car. This was not a comforting development, even though the noise went away.

I took my car in on Monday, and they charged me $50 or so to diagnose the problem. They didn't actually find anything that would result in the noise and missing part that I described, but they found plenty of other problems:

  • Air dam deflector - $151.00 - This is apparently a piece of plastic that scoops air into the engine area. I see no reason to spend $151.00 on a piece of plastic.

  • Front brake pads and resurface rotors - $180.00 - I knew I needed new brakes soon, but I think they are now likely to find something else wrong with the brake assembly when they get around to putting new ones in.

  • Transmission side cover gasket leaks - $274.00 - This one makes me a bit nervous. It evidently isn't leaking horribly, but a leak of transmission fluid is bad. I am clearly an auto maintenance expert, you can tell.

  • Rear sway bar links - $244.00 - I knew about this one from awhile back, and they said it wasn't critical. The sway bar distributes load from side to side, so the fact that mine is broken makes my handling worse on turns, and I'm more likely to slide around. It hasn't been a problem yet.

  • Left/Rear strut with spring - $531.00 - They skipped this in their haste to go over the list before closing. It's expensive and sounds important. At the moment, I have to plan on fixing it.

  • Serpentine belt - $92.00 - The main belt, apparently. They said it has major cracks and they found part of it wrapped around the axle, so it's already falling apart. This is the most pressing issue.

  • Muffler strap - $99.00 - This is just a simple bracket that helps hold the muffler on. There is no reason this should cost $99.00, and I refuse to fix it.

All told, the things that aren't completely trivial would cost $1321 to fix. I also need an oil change soon. Thus, I entered into a cost analysis to see if getting a new car was a better investment than continued maintenance.

Car: Civic Corolla Focus Prius
Price1: 18225 16750 15995 22000
Monthly cost2,5: $285.94 $255.21 $239.48 $364.58
Monthly Insurance3: $25.5 $26.00 $24.83 $21.83
Monthly Total: $311.44 $281.21 $264.31 $386.42
Months to recoup4,5: 18.69 20.69 22.02 15.06

  1. Price is base price of a model, not including any packages. I don't need any packages or options, but dealers rarely have plain cars in stock, so this price will probably be an underestimate. It also doesn't include fees, taxes, charges, whathaveyou.

  2. Monthly cost is based on a 48-month 0% loan. I probably can't get that rate at the moment, but it also doesn't account for any down payment or trade-in money, and so shouldn't be too terribly far off.

  3. Monthly insurance is the cost to insure the new vehicle minus my current monthly rate on my old car.

  4. Months to recoup is how long I would have to keep driving my current car to make the repairs worthwhile.

  5. Figures reflect a $4500 price reduction corresponding to a CARS trade-in (my family has an old van that is rapidly dying). This represents an opportunity cost associated with repairing my current vehicle as opposed to buying a new one.

At this point, I find it unlikely that I can drive my car for another year or two without the need for further repairs. The bonus of a $4500 price reduction makes getting a new car very practical!

UPDATE (08.22.2009-1019): It would appear that we cannot get into the safe deposit box that contains our car titles, so there can be no trade-ins. With the $4500 bonus out of the picture, the recoup time becomes just 2-4 months, making the repairs far more practical. No new car for me!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Adventures in Iowa

On Friday, July 10, my dad and I embarked on a trip to Iowa. It was advertised as a tour of a research lab. I feel like I just bought a Snuggie (I've never owned a Snuggie or similar product, so I apologize to the makers of Snuggie or Snuggie owners if they are actually worth purchasing - they just look stupid to me).

The research lab turned out to be a cluttered garage. The owner, Hans, turned out to be a complete nutball. Between paranoid statements about the CIA, NSA, aliens, and/or shady business partners, he showed us a number of "inventions."

His anti-gravity device was in no way an anti-gravity device. It was simply a device that had 3 cams arranged such that one was pointing down, and two were pointing up. Why all three weren't oriented in the same direction was something that really didn't strike me as important. So, when run by a motor, it would shift it's center of gravity in a circular pattern. This could indeed cause a scale to register a lower weight as it shakes, but it is not an anti-gravity device. Hans said he built a larger version and mounted it to a truck. He said the owner was floored when he turned it on and the truck flipped over. First, the guy's truck just flipped over, so being floored is a perfectly understandable reaction. Second, this is a completely expected occurrence when you throw weight around in a circular pattern. It's going to want to shift things.

Amazingly enough, Hans' "gravity engine" was not a gravity engine, and did not produce free energy. It was basically a less plausible version of this old perpetual motion design. He had another engine that used a cam to alter the polarity of an electromagnet, which would in turn drive the engine for another cycle. This is another common idea among perpetual motion tinkerers, but is not "free energy."

He had several sizes of a heater that he claimed was 300-450% efficient. His explanation of how it worked involved spinning magnets, which somehow resonate, which creates a vortex, which results in some particle (I didn't catch the name - possibly made up) shifting between dimensions. First, if it's a resonance thing, the rotational speed would matter a lot. I would expect it to be efficient only at a few speeds (the resonant frequency and perhaps the harmonics). Second, I am guessing that he made some errors in his calculation of the efficiency, such as using Fahrenheit instead of Celsius, or made some incorrect assumptions about the air flow. Or maybe both. Third, I don't think he has any evidence of particles jumping dimensions.

Perhaps he used the same device that he used to track the burnt out star that is hurtling our way and will end life as we know it on October 28, 2011, right when the Mayan calendar predicts, once you adjust for the different day length a few thousand years ago. The device in question? It's a loop of wire connected to what looked like an inductor and an LED. Whatever it was detecting, it was local.

He also had a "machine" that read in some signal or other from whatever object you put in it. The claim was that you could read a person, figure out what was wrong from the frequency information, then output an inverse signal into some water and it would cure you of everything. You could also output the frequency of solar radiation (as downloaded from a NASA site in WAV format) into distilled water and turn cheap whiskey into expensive whiskey by adding a few drops. Does anyone know if cheap whiskey gets smoother when you add a bit of regular distilled water? What else can you do with this amazing item? Why, you can scan a sample of mold, then output it to a *picture* of the house of your enemy, and that house will grow lots of mold. I remain unconvinced.

He also invented a laser harp, which happened to also have been invented in 1981 by someone else. He didn't provide a date for his invention, so I suppose it could have been before that. I highly doubt it, though - where would he have found the time with all his CIA and Area 51 work? Either way, the laser harp was actually somewhat neat.

Ah, but life isn't about the destination, it's about the journey! Well, the journeying in Iowa sucks. A lot. The drive out wasn't too bad, actually. I was operating on only two hours of sleep and kept dozing off in the passenger seat. We had Subway for lunch in Grinnell, then went straight on to Hans' place. We stayed in a hotel in that same town and ate dinner at... Subway again. But, Subway is decent food, and I generally have no problem eating the same thing for every meal for a few days.

Driving home on Sunday turned out to be challenging. We were supposed to stop by another guy's house for lunch and a tour of his warehouse - not exactly sure why, but lunch is lunch. He said it was only a few minutes out of the way, and I had forgotten that Iowa has its own space-time, so we agreed to go. It ended up being over an hour out of the way, which meant it was also another hour coming back. Or, it would have been an hour out of the way, but we were in Iowa.

We stopped in Jesup, IA, "The Right Place", for gas. The road between the highway and the gas station was closed, so we tried to go through town. The town was roped off, though, due to a combine/tractor parade. We decided to ask a local how to get over to the gas station, but that ended up being counterproductive. She apparently never learned to speak English, or navigate her hometown, in her 40+ years of life. From the few words I could pick out, her directions were basically trial and error: "I'd try going that way, then that way, and somehow I'd figure it out." 5 minutes wasted.

The parking lot next to the road under construction looked like it might have cut through, so we decided to head back that way. In fact, it would have cut through had there not been cars parked in the aisles. The parking lot in question is further from the parade than any other part of the town. I really don't know why people were parked there. The owner of the used car dealership assured us that there was a street open, so we headed back over towards the parade.

After a couple of trials and errors, we did find a street that was mostly open, except for pedestrians standing around near their lawn chairs. We turned on our signal, however, and they started moving out of the way. We were almost past them when a police officer ran out from behind a truck on the street we were turning on to and screamed for us to go back. We tried to explain that we just wanted to get gas, but he would hear none of it until we backed up. So, we backed up. We started to explain again, but he wanted us to back up some more. We backed up some more. "10 or 15 more feet!" We backed up 10 or 15 more feet.

He explained that he couldn't have us going through there because there were people not paying attention, and that as soon as the parade cleared out (it was stationary), he would let us through. Never mind the fact that the people were paying attention and had already moved out of the way, or the fact that backing up in a somewhat large vehicle is far more dangerous than going forward. After a few minutes, the parade hadn't moved, but he waved us through. Iowa has its own logic.

Tractor parades are apparently common, as we hit another one a little bit later. It was progressing slowly on the highway - a prime candidate for some passing. We encountered the tractors traveling over what must be the only hills in Iowa, and the double yellow line taunted us off and on for miles. Once we got past these tractors, we were almost at our lunch destination.

Lunch was fairly good, actually. Traditional country cooking, even when there aren't enough green beans or corn to go around, is always welcome. The warehouse was pretty empty, and there wasn't a whole lot of point to the tour. However, it was still a worthwhile side trip. I got to hear a funny comment when the father was talking about when he first suspected his pregnant daughter was having sex. Her brother said, "You didn't suspect them when he started having a stupid grin on his face?" He replied, "I just thought he bought a new gun." Definitely made the trip worth it.

The ride back from there was very uneventful. His house was fairly close to I-35, so we avoided any other tractors or wrong places. We stopped near Lamoni, IA for dinner and had more country-style cooking - this time a buffet with plenty of green beans and corn. I'm really not sure why we did lunch and dinner so similarly both days. No real complaints, though.

A few minutes after dinner, we had passed out of Iowa and into Missouri, and I vowed to resist any future trips back to Iowa. Its space-time and associated logic are disorienting and frustrating. It is better left alone.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Body Image and TV

Recently, I watched a few minutes of America's Next Top Model, or Make Me a Supermodel, or one of those shows. It was extremely depressing. Here's a show that finds the most beautiful people it can, and then makes them compete. That's fine on its own, but I am saddened when I see what it does to these people.

The example I saw was a girl winning a photoshoot contest. She picked another girl to go along with her to some swimsuit ad campaign award, which I guess was a mini-contest between the two of them. The other girl theorized that she was chosen because she was the largest girl. When she lost, she said something similar to "I feel like working out. 10 miles ought to do something." This was a gorgeous woman reduced to tears and well on her way to an eating disorder.

I know people that could have a very successful career as a model, but I would never tell them that. Anyway, it was just depressing television, and I have no plans of watching any more of those types of shows. I'll stick with Star Trek and its Utopian societies.

3 Years at IBM

July 10th marked my three-year anniversary at IBM. I happened to take the day off, but that was just a coincidence. I have to say, I don't feel a whole lot different. While I purchased a home, got cats, and gained other adult responsibilities/experiences, I can't point to any real personal growth. I guess that gives me a goal for the next three years.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mortgage Refinance Completed

On Wednesday, May 20, 2009, I completed my first mortgage refinance using United Home Loans. I stayed with a 30-year fixed mortgage, but was able to reduce my interest rate down to 4.625% and save $176.51/month on my monthly payment. The process will have increased my principal by ~$5000, but a lot of that is the interest for the month of May that I rolled into the new loan, a quarter point for waiving escrow, plus some money back to ensure that I didn't have to mess with getting a cashier's check. The closing costs were comparable to the other places I looked, and the rates were quite competitive.

Most importantly, yesterday marked one of the worst days in the MBS (mortgage-backed securities) market, which resulted in rates climbing into the 5.25%-5.5% range. I timed my closing pretty well! The site I follow, Mortgage News Daily, seems to think rates will come down again this year, but it's a whole different feeling to follow the MBS market when I have no direct financial stake in the matter.

A couple people have expressed surprise that I decided to waive escrow, seeing how it cost me .25% of my loan amount. I did some number crunching before coming to this decision, and in my case it definitely made sense. First, I had just paid property taxes, and my insurance doesn't have to be renewed until December, yet they were going to collect 6 months worth up front, or about $3000. I don't think I'd like to pay $3000 out of pocket now if I don't have to, which means I probably would have rolled that cost into the new loan amount. A $3000 loan equates to $15.42/month in extra payments, which means I will recoup my escrow payment in about 3 years directly. That .25% is listed as a discount point, though, which means its tax-deductible. I also get some interest on the $3000 that can stay in my savings account (I actually used it to max out my Roth IRA for the year, so hopefully that will result in even better returns). I also keep the flexibility of scheduling my property tax payments. This gives me the opportunity to shift my tax burden between years a bit by paying either half or all my property taxes in December. Mostly, I don't like the idea of giving my money to somebody and getting nothing out of it, so there is psychological value for me in waiving escrow.

Some of the closing costs are offset by not making a payment in the beginning of June (at the cost of increased principal, of course). This will mean $1500 extra into my pocket this month. I think I will lower my payment to $1400/month on my new loan, however. This will mean an extra $100/month for me, but still be prepaying my mortgage faster than I was on my old loan. Here, I'm fighting the strong psychological benefit of paying off debt with the intellectual knowledge that prepaying on a 4.625% (tax-deductible) loan almost certainly is not the best use of my money. I just love seeing the balance jump down!

401(k) Surpasses Merrill Lynch

Friday marked the first time my 401(k) account was worth more than my Merrill Lynch investment account. Before the recession, this was a milestone I wasn't expecting to happen for another couple of years yet. Since my Merrill account has been halved by the economic downturn, though, my regular 401(k) contributions have a larger relative effect. Of course my 401(k) was halved, too - I don't mean to badmouth Merrill Lynch.

There's nothing more to say on this topic, really. I just found it interesting how the economy tanking altered my various accounts relative value. For example, my Roth IRA is not roughly half of my Merrill or 401(k) account, which is far higher than originally projected. Fun times!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

.NET Compilation for 64-bit Platform Support

At work, I was faced with a problem of a .NET program looking at the wrong registry values, and picking up the wrong machine.config. You see, a 32-bit application running on 64-bit Windows is supposed to be presented with its own 32-bit view of the machine, from registry entries to system DLLs. This is all pretty spectacular, which is why they call it WOW. For more information on WOW64, Wikipedia is your friend.

.NET is a bit tricky, though. By default, .NET applications are compiled with the /platform:anyCPU [MSDN /platform documentation]. This means they will run as 32-bit applications on 32-bit systems, and as 64-bit applications on 64-bit systems. When a .NET application is part of a larger system of applications, this can cause incompatibilities. All the regular C-compiled executables will run in 32-bit, but your .NET app will be interacting with the 64-bit environment and be out of sync.

To solve this, you can simply specify /platform:x86 when part of a 32-bit package, and /platform:x64 when part of a 64-bit package.

The next question is: How do I know if a .NET program was compiled with the /platform option specified as x86, x64, or anyCPU?

For regular applications, a Google search yielded the following blog post on using dumpbin to determine if it is a 32-bit or 64-bit application. For .NET applications, using dumpbin /HEADERS isn't quite enough. Programs compiled with the anyCPU option will still show up as:
14C machine (x86)
32 bit word machine

Dumpbin has other options, though, and /CLRHEADER comes to the rescue. For anyCPU applications, the relevant portion is:
1 flags
IL Only

x86 applications get:
B flags
IL Only
32-Bit Required

Dumpbin is a highly useful diagnostic tool, as I find out often.

Update: I just tried dumpbin on an /platform:x86 application running on 32-bit Windows, and the "flags" attribute had no lines beneath it, but it looks like the "1" vs "B" is still accurate. Perhaps this expansion is new in Visual Studio 2008's dumpbin.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Taxes 2008

This post is analogous to last year's tax post.

Taxes for 2008 turned out to be much simpler than last year for the following reasons:
  • I only lived in one state, and so did not need to split my income.

  • I closed one of my accounts to pay for the down payment on my house in 2007, so I no longer have to worry about all those forms and trades. That account had tons of trading activity.

  • I was familiar with which sites I needed to log in to in order to get various 1099 forms - mainly Countrywide.

  • TurboTax imported last year's return so I didn't have as much data entry on my personal information.

I was actually fairly pleased with TurboTax. It still had a few problems (there was no official way to enter short sales [such as cash-secured puts], so I'm not sure I did that right, but the total profits/losses are correct), but was improved from last year overall.

In addition to TurboTax, I used Kansas' WebFile page to e-file my Kansas return. I basically just entered things in line by line from the form TurboTax generated, but didn't have to print it out or mail it. I think that will be the more environmentally friendly route, plus get me my refund sooner.

Speaking of refunds, I get big refunds! From the federal government, I get $5397 back, and I get $854 from Kansas. Governments, you're welcome for the 0% loans over the last year! Please place money in my savings account soon.

What will I do with all that money? Well, you should read this post on things I want to buy, and this post on mortgage refinancing, all while keeping in mind that a cash reserve is nice to have and build.

Why was my refund so large when I owed so much last year? Another list:
  • This was my first full year of paying my mortgage, which means a full year of mortgage interest deducted.

  • This year sucked for investments, so I had no realized capital gains. I'd rather pay taxes than not be building wealth, though.

  • This was my first full year of paying property taxes, which are deductible.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Things I Want To Buy #2

This is a follow-up post to Things I Want To Buy.

I didn't end up buying a restringing machine, and gave up the idea after my uncle said it was definitely more trouble than it was worth. I got a new primary computer, but have had some problems with it. Mainly, it runs hotter than my friend's similarly spec'd one. Rather aggravating.

Anyway, an updated list!
  • I still need my deck repainted/stained. I want to get that scheduled by the end of the month, at least.

  • I still need a new electric lawn mower. I plan on giving my old one to my brother for his rental house, and I never want to use it again. Thus, I will need this before I can mow my lawn.

  • I want a storm door for my front doorway. Storm doors are apparently rather expensive, so I may wait until the end of summer, as a warm draft is not nearly as bothersome as a cold draft.

  • At some point, I'll need a new car. My current car keeps getting something else wrong with it. Most recently, I noticed that it no longer beeps at me when my seat belt isn't buckled. This doesn't actually bother me, but it's a sign that the car is aging. I'm hoping to get another year or more out of it, though, especially since I don't drive all that much.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Raid Write Intent Bitmaps

During my last raid crash, I couldn't seem to get the damn thing to resync. I tried multiple times, but it would always lock up. I almost took the drastic step of borrowing a raid array to back things up as much as possible and then rebuild from scratch! However, in my many hours of research into potential solutions, I found that most people prevented the problem using a little thing called write intent bitmaps.

As far as I know, they are not available with hardware raid solutions, such as dedicated cards or those built into motherboards. Linux software raid, however, makes it ridiculously easy. Once I finally did get things resync'd (dumb luck, really. I didn't try anything new - it just started working), I immediately turned on the write intent bitmap feature.

mdadm --grow --bitmap=internal /dev/md0

This may reduce write performance slightly (up to 10%), but given that something is funky with my machine and it crashes during most full resyncs, I'm all for the saved resync time. Since I've turned this on, I haven't had a single problem with the array or the machine. There have been a couple blown fuses due to a space heater on the same circuit, but the machine came up and stayed up just fine, barely requiring a few seconds to resync. I can't tell you how happy I was.

So, switch on over to mdadm, add an internal bitmap, and rejoice in the short resync times.