How to become a millionaire in 10 years (safely)

I saw a blog post today called How to become a millionaire in 10 years. The majority of commenters dismissed it outright.

I don’t like that attitude. The plan makes some assumptions that aren’t always true. But having the plan is an important first step. What’s impossible now might not be impossible in a few years, so it makes sense to do what you can now.The plan, in brief, is this: Invest $996 a week, get a 12% return, and in 10 years, you’ve got a million bucks.

Let’s look at the first objection. It is optimistic. Unfortunately, the guy who floats that figure the most frequently is exaggerating. But you can come close by tweaking your strategy a bit. Twelve may be a bit optimistic, but it’s probably close enough. If you’re pessimistic, use a figure of 7% and adjust the rest of your math.

It may be tempting to try to do better. I suggest not. Average returns are all you need. Warren Buffett has said repeatedly that it’s better to spend your energy increasing your earning power rather than trying to outperform the market.

The second objection was that the numbers were just too unreasonable, so how do you become a millionaire in 20 years?

That’s easy. Save less. According to this handy calculator, $1,100 a month for 20 years at 12% more than does the trick.

Or you can save $2,000 a month for 15 years and pass the million mark.

So the math is sound. Let’s tackle that really big objection: How in tarnation do you come up with $996 a week to save? (And no, you don’t have to already be a millionaire in order to do it.)

The key is the same as paying off debt quickly. Don’t try to do it all at once. Take some baby steps. If the best you can do is half that, you still reach the goal in 15 years. Start by saving what you can, then ratchet it up when you can.

I set out to find a large number of common ways that people can save $996 per week (or more). Step one is the big kahuna, which will save most people a cool $24,000 a year right off the bat.

Step one: Pay off your cars and your mortgage. Between a house and two cars in the driveway, it’s safe to say most families are spending $2,000 a month. Some are spending a little more, others a little less. The trick here is the debt snowball. Look at your statements, pick the car you can pay off the soonest, then scrape together whatever extra cash you can and pay that much extra every month until you have that car paid off. Then take what you were paying on that car, and apply all that money to the other car. After that, apply all that money to the house.

Chances are very good that you can pay all of that off in less than seven years. The biggest reason why is because banks generally won’t loan you more money than you would be able to pay off in that timeframe. The reason for the subprime mortgage crisis was because banks started ignoring that rule and giving loans to pretty much anyone.

If you are a middle class family that manages to pay the bills somehow, some way every month, I’m reasonably confident in saying that you can pay off all your debt in seven years, then dump that car and mortgage money into an index fund and be a millionaire in another 20.

What about cars in the meantime? Drive the paid-off cars as long as you can, then replace them with the least expensive vehicles that are practical. Given a choice between driving a Lexus and looking like a millionaire, or driving a Toyota Corolla and being a millionaire, personally, I’d choose the latter.

So this gets you roughly halfway there. Let’s see if we can nickel and dime our way to the other half.

Step two: Live off one salary. If you’re married and your spouse works, try as much as possible to live off one salary and bank the other. This was the strategy my in-laws used to pay off their debts (rather than the debt snowball). If one of you brings home $26,000 a year or more after taxes, that gets you the other half immediately. Congratulations.

If step two is impractical or impossible, or doesn’t quite get you there, here are some smaller steps to get you there.

Step three: Put your raises and windfalls towards savings, rather than lifestyle changes. Someone I know was talking just yesterday about a job opportunity that paid a cool $30,000 more than he makes currently. “Lifestyle change!” he said excitedly.

Personally, I’ve never been able to make that kind of a jump, although I’ve made a couple of much smaller jumps since 2006.

Unfortunately it’s often difficult to get much of a raise from a current employer–the money comes when you change jobs. If you’re able to, say, move to a new employer and get a raise of around 10 percent, that takes care of a few of your 52 weeks. Do that every 2-3 years, and you can work your way towards the goal.

This strategy can take care of about four weeks.

Step four: Bank your tax refund. If you get a tax refund every year, instead of using that money to buy something, put it towards the goal.

In most cases, I would think the tax refund takes care of anywhere from 1-3 weeks.

Brown-bag your lunch. Early in my career, I ate out pretty much every day. My day started with a cup of coffee and a doughnut in the cafeteria ($2), and on a good day, lunch cost another $5. Eventually I realized these habits were costing me almost $1,400 a year. Brown-bagging isn’t free, but I figure brown-bagging every day costs less than $400 a year.

That’s another week, or possibly two.

Cut the cable and phone. My local cable provider charges up to $70 per month for some of its packages. Basic cable costs $40, which is still outrageous. If you can live without cable altogether, you can get anywhere from half a week to 3/4 of a week right there. If not, cut back as much as possible.

So how do you live without cable? My wife and I rent movies from Red Box about once a week. It costs a dollar. Other than that, we watch over the air TV. Sometimes there’s nothing on, but when I visit people who have cable, a lot of times there’s nothing on at their house either. The DTV changeover means there’ll be more local channels–many PBS stations are broadcasting on several frequencies, and DTV stations have a range of about 120 miles, so there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to pick up stations from nearby cities that you couldn’t get before.

So try it. If you can’t live without it, cut back as much as you can.

The same goes for your phone line. Are you paying for Call Notes? Cancel it and get an answering machine. Call waiting? Cancel it unless you can’t live without it, but in this day and age when everyone has cell phones and e-mail, I’ll bet you can. Call forwarding? Cut. If you buy everything Southwestern Bell tries to sell you, you can easily pay $50 or more per month for your phone line. When I ordered phone service, I asked for just a dial tone, and repeated the request every time they tried to upsell me. I pay just a shade over $20 a month for my dialtone. I can receive all the calls I want for free, and make all the local calls I want for free too.

By cutting back on cable and phone, most people should be able to save another $996 a year.

Take a long, hard look at the cell phone. Do you have two cell phones with $99 ulimited talk plans? Do you really need two?

Cricket offers an unlimited talk plan for $35 a month. But you may be able to save even more by cutting down the number of cell phones you have, or just getting pay as you go phones for emergency use and sharing phones as much as possible.

And keep in mind that a landline lets you make all the local calls you want. Ditching the land line and going all cellular may be trendy, but it’s not always economical.

My wife and I have one cell phone with a plan that costs us $30 a month, plus a pay-as-you-go phone that we refill as needed, for $25 a pop. It ends up costing us $10 a month, on average.

I can see how someone could potentially save another week’s worth by getting stingy with the cell phones. Maybe more.

Save on your utilities. Buying a programmable thermostat and setting it to not work as much at night and to minimize heating/cooling during the hours when we’re not home saved us a bundle. To the tune of $100 a month.

Weatherproofing the house helps too. Put film on the windows during the winter, and put weatherstripping on all the doors. I also went into my basement, where the utilities come into the house, and found a number of holes for wires that are much larger than they need to be. I filled those in with putty to keep the elements out.

If you really want to be a stingy Scottish miser, invest a few hundred dollars in a whole-house fan. These fans can replace all the air in your house in a matter of minutes. So in the morning when it’s coolest, you can open some doors and windows, run the fan for a few minutes, then shut off the fan, close the house back up, and give your air conditioner a big head start.

Also, for some reason society says we should keep our houses at 70 degrees in the summer and 80 degrees in the winter. Why? We keep ours at about 75 during the summer and between 70 and 75 in the winter. Once you get used to it, it’s comfortable. The savings aren’t exactly peanuts.

Using fans can help keep the air moving, making those temperatures more tolerable.

Squeezing the utilities ought to take care of another week or two.

Go out less. I know some people who easily spend $100 a week going out on Friday nights. Rent a movie from Redbox, have a couple of drinks at home, and save the difference, which is five weeks’ worth.

Cut the Starbucks habit. Do you start off your day with the stereotypical $5 cup of coffee at Starbucks? That’s $1,050 right there. Bank $996 to cut off another week, and you have $54 left to buy a coffee maker (if you don’t have one) and a year’s worth of reasonably good coffee.

Cut the bottled water habit. If you drink three bottles of water a day, that’s commendable because it’s healthy, but you’ve also fallen for the biggest scam in recent memory. Cut the bottled water, buy a water filter, and bank a thousand bucks.

Cut back on expensive hobbies. I’d rather not think about what I used to spend on my Lionel train habit. I know some people spend five figures a year on theirs. I was never that bad, but at its peak I know I was spending more than $1,000 a year on it. I’ve cut back, and the last two or three years I’ve probably spent a couple hundred.

I think it’s safe to say that most households have at least one or two expensive hobbies that could be cut back and still be enjoyable. Buy less and try enjoying what you have. Or buy used instead of new.

Or perhaps they could (gulp) be eliminated, for the time being at least.

Call this one another week’s worth.

Use the library. I know someone who is a voracious reader, which is admirable. She reads a couple of books a week, easily. That’s admirable, but the problem is she buys all these books at retail. A book collector might perk up and call it an investment, but there’s very little collectible interest in Nicholas Sparks and Nora Roberts. She buys the books, reads them once, and then they sit on the shelf until she gives them to someone.

She probably could save $1,000 a year by using the library instead.

Eat out less. Eating out once a week at $20 a pop easily works out to $1,000 a year. Cut that back, whether it’s by eating somewhere less expensive or just eating out one less time, and you’ve got another week’s worth of $996.

Use public transportation to go to work. The average person commutes about 20 miles a workday. That’s $2,436 a year if you go by the IRS standard mileage rates, which factors in depreciation and maintenance on top of gas. The savings wouldn’t quite get me a full two weeks’ worth due to the cost of a monthly pass, but it would get me close. Call it two weeks.

Buy used and generic when possible. I’ve read that the poor are less likely to buy generic than the wealthy, out of fear of being ripped off. The fear is usually unfounded. Generics usually are made in the same factory right alongside one of their brand name competitors, and the only difference is the label that gets put on in the end.

But let’s talk used. Last week my wife and I bought my son about $80 worth of toys, but we paid $4 for them. They came from a church rummage sale. They were a bit dirty, but we ran them through the dishwasher to clean and sanitize them (they’re plastic). The swing was missing the strap to strap him in, but we replaced it with a belt from a thrift store, which cost another dollar. It fits perfectly.

At the same rummage sale, I bought myself a button-down shirt for a dollar. It looked new. I remember paying $20-$25 in a store for something comparable.

I bought the shoes I’m wearing right now at an estate sale. They didn’t look like they’d ever been worn, and I checked the fit before I bought them. I’ve been wearing them for more than a year now. I paid $3 for them. They would have cost me $50 in a store.

Most people buy a new computer every three or four years. I buy off-lease business computers every three or four years instead. They’re better built so they’re less likely to break (I’ve never had one break on me), and a $100 business PC that’s a few years old will be about as fast as a new computer that costs about $500. So I figure this practice saves me about $400 every three or four years.

I once saw someone in line ahead of me at a department store try to drop a thousand dollars on new clothes. He had several nice shirts, some nice pants, socks, some nice ties. I was pretty impressed with his haul. The problem was he tried to buy them on credit, and was denied. My work clothes mostly come from secondhand sources. They don’t look as nice as what that guy had, but what good does it do to look nice if you can’t pay your bills?

I figure it’s pretty easy to save a thousand or two a year by buying generic and used stuff.

Be careful with the flex-spend account. Back when I was single, I was annoyed because every year HR made us attend a meeting trying to coerce us into signing up for a Flexible Spending Account (also known as a cafeteria plan). These plans made no sense for me whatsoever. Some years my medical expenses were $100. Some years they were $200. Other years they were $20. So if I put $1,000 in, as they tried to convince me to do, I would have been wasting a lot of money. Being in the 14% tax bracket, at best I stood to save $28 if I had a $200 year. But if I put in $200, then I might turn around and have a $20 year and waste $180.

Now I’m married and my wife is diabetic. In this case it’s a no-brainer. We sat down and figured out how often she goes to the doctor, and what she spends on supplies in a given month. Her expenses are predictable, and high enough to make it worth doing. Between her expenses and having a son, I put the maximum in, since babies are always needing various FSA-eligible things, and they go to the doctor on a regularly scheduled basis.

If you’re in the 28% tax bracket and you put $3,000 into an FSA, being able to use pre-tax dollars for those medical expenses saves you about $840 a year. Not quite a week’s worth, but close. You can probably scrape up the other $156.

But if your medical expenses are always really low, you can save a bundle by not putting anything in such a plan. Employers love these plans because people frequently don’t track them very well, and anything left in the kitty at the end of the year goes to the company. It’s a great way to steal from your employees, frankly, and that’s why HR departments push them so hard. If you don’t need one, don’t put the money in, and pay yourself instead.

I think it’s safe to chalk up judicious use (or non-use) of an FSA as another week’s worth.

Be careful with AFLAC. AFLAC is a similar thing. My employer’s HR loves to push AFLAC on us. “I have three kids. I know I’m going to make at least one trip to the ER every year, and that pays for my AFLAC,” the pitch goes.

Think it through. I have a peculiar talent for injuring myself with sharp objects. But I’ve found that my best bet is to go to urgent care when it happens and put it on my FSA. Urgent care always gets to me faster than the overburdened ER, and it costs half as much. I did the math, and AFLAC just didn’t make sense. One trip to the ER didn’t cover a full year’s worth of AFLAC.

Maybe when my son gets older and starts playing sports and stuff, AFLAC will make sense. I’ll revisit it then. But do the math yourself, rather than just taking HR’s pitch. They’re salespeople. Their job isn’t to help you, their job is to make the company money by taking back as much of your salary as possible.

Making the right decision on AFLAC isn’t going to save you a full week’s worth, but it can make up for a shortfall.

Get a side gig. I’ve come up with more than 26 week’s worth of common ways to save $996, but not all of them will necessarily apply to everyone. Having a side gig is a good way to make up the shortfall. I can tell you to mow lawns or fix bicycles or make quilts, but I’d rather let you find something more ideal, since the best thing for you to do probably isn’t the best thing for me. Here’s a series of questions to ask yourself to help you find a side gig.

What do you enjoy?
Is there some service that you can provide at a better value than your potential competitors, whether it’s because you’re cheaper, or because your work is higher quality?
Is there some product that has resale value that you know how to find and then resell some way, after making any necessary repairs?

Basically, you need to find a product or a service that you already know well and enjoy that allows you to add value to it. Don’t quit your job to do it; do it on weekends or evenings with the goal of making a bit. If you can make $50 a week, that works out to $2,500 a year. That’s a reasonable early goal, then build it up from there. Some side gigs grow into full-time jobs but others don’t. Your chances of succeeding are much better if you don’t try to rely on it as a full-time job.

Start small, then let it grow (hopefully) to fill whatever number of $996 shortfalls you have in a year. And as you gain skill and experience, it could potentially grow beyond that, either allowing you to reduce some cutbacks, or achieve the ultimate goal more quickly.

So there you have it. Not everything in this list applies to everybody. But I would say the majority of these things do apply to anyone who can call themselves upper middle class. Such a family can take this list, find 52 things, and join the ranks of the wealthy in a decade or two, if they’re willing to let savings take priority over keeping up appearances.

But I also suspect that pretty much anyone who owns a home and two vehicles can probably take this list and find lots of things they can cut. They might not be able to find a full $996 a week for all 52 weeks of the year. So it will take them longer, but it’s possible. Making some sacrifices now in order to have financial independence later is worth it.

The most important thing is to put everything on the table. The year 2005 was my turning point. I lost my job, and it seemed like everyone who needed IT people couldn’t afford them. Stretching the pennies was necessary for us to stay afloat when I was in between jobs. Eventually I found one. The cutbacks that allowed us to make ends meet while my best source of income was doing odd computer jobs also allowed us to pay off our house early after I regained steady employment.

With the house out of the way, financial independence certainly is my next goal. I’m not sure that this formula is precisely what I want to follow in order to get there. But it’s important not to dismiss such formulas immediately just because they seem difficult or nearly impossible.

The key to success, financial or otherwise, is to take difficult problems and find solutions, rather than dismissing them immediately as impossible. One strategy is to break the problem down. This problem conveniently breaks down into 52 smaller problems. I’ll admit I had to sit and think a very long time to come up with 52 smaller answers.

I just have one more thing to say. Please try. I’m currently reading a financial book written in 1975 that said the average U.S. household headed by someone aged 24-34 had $2,500 in savings. In today’s dollars, that’s a shade over $10,000. Today, the average household has zero savings and around $10,000 in credit card debt, on top of car payments and rent or a mortgage. That has a lot to do with why our economy is such a wreck right now. We can’t buy any more stuff because we’re paying too much in interest.

It’s not too late for one or two generations to rise from these ashes and buy our country back. So let’s do it.

How to find motivation to balance your budget

This week I read a story on Get Rich Slowly about a couple who refuses to budget. The conversation ended when the person who needed to budget bragged about getting five shrubs on sale for $10 each. She didn’t need them, but the deal was too good to pass up.Consumerism is an easy trap to fall into because of easy credit, and the messages are all around us. Most people who know me probably categorize me as an extreme cheapskate. Certainly there are lots of things I could be doing that I don’t, but even by doing a few little things you can improve your financial situation immensely.

Watch less TV. I think this is a really big one, because TV is the primary source of marketing messages. It’s not just the commercials either. The TV shows give lots of messages about how you’re supposed to live. It’s not a realistic picture.

At one point in my life I was able to go a year without watching TV, just watching the World Series each year. I watch more now. I try to catch This Old House on Sunday evenings and sometimes I’ll watch a show with my wife, so I probably watch 3-4 hours a week now. But that’s a lot less than average.

My advice to someone who wants to watch more TV than I do would be to watch older movies (1940s-1960s), as that would make it harder to compare your life to someone else’s. Plus, there’s a lot less product placement and other marketing shenanigans going on, and if you watch it on video, no commercials.

Have realistic expectations. A lot of 20-somethings seem to think they have to have furniture as nice as their parents. That’s unrealistic and sometimes impractical. The previous generation didn’t always have what they have now. Walk into the home of a 50-something, and some of the furniture will be new, but some of it will be 10-15 years old, possibly more. The furnishings were bought over the course of many years. Plus, nicer things are impractical when you have kids running around. There will be spills and stains and dirt. Kids need to be taught to respect things, but what’s the point of ruining a $1,000 sofa to teach the lesson? It’s better to put something older and cheaper in harm’s way instead–much easier on the credit card and on your sanity.

Budget. A budget isn’t some mystical thing. It’s a simple list of your money as it comes and goes. It can be as simple as a spreadsheet. In one column, list all your sources of income–your paycheck, plus anything you make on the side. Add up that total.

In another column, list your monthly expenses. That’s everything–your car payment, rent or mortgage, credit card bills, utility bills, gasoline, food, and entertainment. You may have to save your receipts for a month to do this realistically. Add up that total. Hopefully it’s a smaller number than the first total.

I first did this in college when I was treasurer for my fraternity. We were in serious financial trouble but nobody knew why. I grabbed the checkbook, did the simple analysis I described above, and figured out we were spending more than $400 per member every month. We were only charging $380 a month for people to live there.

When we couldn’t raise rates, I started cancelling things. I cancelled the Super Bowl Party. I cancelled cable TV in the lounge. If it wasn’t a basic necessity of life, it went. It made me unpopular and it didn’t balance the budget, but it cut the shortfall.

I’m guessing most of the people who voted against me raising rates are having more trouble paying their bills today than they need to.

The expenses involved in a personal budget are different than for an organization, but the principles are identical. You still need to have more coming in every month than comes out, and if you can’t figure out how to make more, the only way to have more money is to spend less.

Reward yourself. Practically. A few years ago my budget was tight and I’d taken on an expensive hobby. Then I realized what I spent on food every day. It started with $1 for a cup of coffee and a doughnut. Lunch was $5 at the cafeteria. And usually I spent another dollar or two in the vending machine. I let my ego tell me it wasn’t worth my time to pack a lunch.

Then I did this math equation: (365-52-52-10-10)*7 and came up with $1,687. I was spending $1,687 a year on (mostly) bad food because I thought I was too important to pack my own lunch.

I was also making about $15,000 a year less than I make now. Dice.com tells me I’m slightly underpaid now, let alone then. Who was I kidding? That $1,687 was a luxury I couldn’t afford.

So I went to the store, bought a Thermos and a big can of coffee, bought some instant oatmeal and some breakfast bars and granola bars, and started packing fruit and sandwiches. What was left became my hobby budget.

I couldn’t motivate myself to cut that expense just to have more money, but being able to afford something I otherwise couldn’t was enough motivation for me. Eventually I shrunk the hobby budget and started using that money to pay down debt.

But had my situation been different I don’t think it would have been a bad thing, necessarily, to keep using that to fund a hobby. It’s easy to get discouraged when it seems like everyone else is passing you by, even if they’re passing you by on borrowed money.

Look at opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is about the only thing I remember from college economics. The theory goes like this: The cost of a new car isn’t $20,000. It’s what else I could have done with that money. So the cost of a new car is a plasma TV ($5,000), a high-def DVD player ($500), a nice computer ($1,500), a new high-efficiency furnace ($4,000), a nice vacation ($3,000), all three current generation video game systems (roughly $1,000), a new living room set ($2,000), and you’d still have $3,000 left to replace two or three appliances with high-end models, or all your major appliances with new low-to-mid-range models.

Would it be worth driving an older car for a few more years to be able to afford to go on a home-improvement binge like that?

Or here’s the way I prefer to look at it. I could invest that money conservatively, using a no-load index fund that just does exactly what the Dow Jones Industrial Average does. Historically, money invested in the DJIA doubles every seven years. Some seven-year periods are better than others, of course. If I dump $20,000 into that kind of a fund, it will be worth $320,000 in 28 years.

The sticker price on the Honda Civic sitting in my driveway was around $15,000, but that’s not what it cost me. It didn’t cost $16,500 either (I paid some interest on it because I didn’t have the cash to buy it outright immediately). It cost $264,000.

I know some people look down on me for driving what’s now a five-year-old car, but I can build myself a very nice nest egg just by keeping my cars two or three times as long as everyone else does. Will they still be looking down on me if I retire at 65 and they have to work 10 more years because they still have debt to pay off?

If the cost of a secure future is driving a car typical of what 16-year-olds drive, I’ll pay that price. It’s a bargain.

Don’t pay interest. If you have a choice between financing something and waiting a while and paying cash, wait and pay cash. Paying interest is like paying rent. It’s paying money off and having nothing to show for it in the end.

I do use interest-free periods to buy things because that gives me a little more time to get the money together. I financed a furnace earlier this year because they offered 6 months same as cash. I probably could have paid cash on the spot but it would have been less comfortable. Being able to spread my payments out over six months allows me to pay more on the mortgage, which does charge interest.

The road to financial independence

Early in The Millionaire Next Door, Danko and Stanley single out the Scottish. When my wife, Emily, read it, she said, “That explains everything about you!”

When I read it, I thought it explained everything about my two grandfathers–one was rich, one was poor, both were Scottish, and both spent their money pretty much the same way.

I’ve been reading a lot of these kinds of books because I’m not going to let what happened to us back in May ever happen again.But I blame Emily. She’s the one who started bringing me these kinds of books.

So what am I doing? I can’t list everything, but I can definitely give enough examples to highlight this Scot’s mindset.

Pick up that quarter. You know that adage that if a lawyer drops a quarter, it costs him more money to bend down and pick it up than to leave it be? Forget that. A lawyer standing in a parking lot isn’t billing time. I always pick up that quarter. I’m not a vulture–if I see someone drop a coin or three, I pick them up and hand them to the person. But if it’s on the ground and there’s no sign of the rightful owner, it goes in my pocket, whether it’s 75 cents or a penny.

Be scrappy. When I was out of work, I walked around picking up aluminum cans. At 45 cents a pound with a 10-pound minimum (a pound is roughly 35 cans), it was a slow way to make money. But if you’re out walking for exercise anyway, pick ’em up. I pick up cans when I spot them in parking lots, and I save the cans the local hoodlums throw in my yard. The last time we took cans in, we got more than $8. That pays for dinner for a night or two, if you cook. I only gather cans when someone’s not paying me to do something else, but during those times, why not?

Pay down your debt. Once Em and I got on our feet financially and it was clear we wouldn’t have to live off our savings anymore, we paid off our cars. We’d been making extra payments anyway. By paying off her 5-year loan in 3 years and mine in 2, we probably saved $3,000 in interest charges. That 3 grand is going to come in handy.

And that’s Biblical: Romans 13:8 says, “Owe no man anything, except love.” Does that mean my home mortgage and my car loans are sin? Yep. At least we’ve got two sins out of our lives.

If you can’t pay it all off, make extra payments. Even tiny extra payments help. Do a Google search for a financial calculator. Plug in your home mortgage. Many will figure the effects of extra payments for you. On my mortgage, just $10 a month pays off my house a full month sooner. A lousy ten bucks a month eliminates a single $1,000 mortgage payment. I can come up with 10 bucks. About 18 months ago I quit buying a doughnut and coffee at work, taking a thermos and a couple of packets of oatmeal every morning so I’d quit spending $1 a day on those things. The total savings per month was almost 20 bucks. Packing my lunch saved another couple of bucks a day. You get the idea.

Initially I was doing it for hobby money, until I realized how much more I would save by eliminating debt first. Once that $1,000 mortgage payment and $300 car payment are no longer over my head, I can buy a lot more $10 train cars. Even if the price doubles by then, which it probably won’t.

Keep an eye out for business opportunities. My brother in law has the right idea. He and his wife bought the laundromat in the town they live in. They have to fix something once a week, but compared to their regular jobs, it’s easy money. Within a few years it will have paid for itself and the money will just be there.

He’s looking to start another business too. Ethanol costs about $1.84 a gallon and the price is steady. That’s 70 cents less than a gallon of gasoline sells for in their town. So a lot of farmers use ethanol. Many would anyway, because they’d rather support corn farmers than middle eastern oil tycoons. So he’s looking to buy an ethanol station.

Emily and I moonlight selling stuff online. She loves shopping at thrift stores and yard sales. I spotted a copy of How to Make a Fortune With Other People’s Junk and bought it (with a coupon, of course). We’re not following it exactly, but it put us on the right track. We’re small time but we’re profitable, and now she’s getting paid to do one of her favorite things.

The goal isn’t the high life. This might be the most important thing. The reason most wealthy people stay wealthy is because their goal isn’t a swanky $500,000 home in a ritzy suburb with two new foreign luxury cars in the driveway all the time.

Don’t get me wrong: I may not drive a Honda Civic all my life. But I could see myself driving a Toyota Camry or a Honda Accord whether my net worth was $160,000 or $16 million. A BMW or Mercedes (or a Lincoln or Cadillac, for that matter) does nothing to improve quality of life.

The goal is something completely different: not to be anyone’s slave.

A year ago, whenever my phone rang after hours, I had to answer it. If I failed to answer the phone more than maybe once a year, I was afraid I’d be fired. So I picked up the phone and did whatever the person on the other end asked, whether it was reasonable or not, whether it made sense or not. Sometimes that meant I had to cancel plans. But it meant extra money, and I thought it proved how indispensible I was.

And it was all over one Thursday afternoon. There were cutbacks at work, and my position was eliminated. So I got in a car that belonged to Honda and drove to a house owned by the bank, where I sat down (at least the couch was owned by me) to figure out how much money was in the bank and how many months that money would last while I looked for another job.

Freedom is being able to say yes when the phone rings because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s what you have to do in order to support your lifestyle. Freedom is when it doesn’t matter if your job evaporates because you boss’ boss’ boss screwed up and lost a horrific amount of money because the main reason you’re working for him is because it’s more interesting than sitting around at home watching daytime TV.

Most people don’t have a job. Their job has them. And the main reason is because their lifestyle has them.

In a way I’m glad I learned this at age 30. I’m also very glad that Emily understands it, and that when I can’t explain something peculiar about the way I spend or (more often) don’t spend, she trusts me. This doesn’t work very well when only one person is on board.

And as long as both of us can hold down a job for about five years–a reasonable expectation, since both of us have done it before–we’ll get there.

Quirks about St. Louis

I guess one thing I like about St. Louis is that it isn’t completely cookie-cutter yet–I can still go to a place called MacArthur’s for a better doughnut than a Krispy Kreme and a much better sandwich than Subway, or to The Concord Grill for a much better hamburger than Applebee’s or TGI Friday’s, or to Fortel’s for the best pizza, period–but St. Louisans themselves have some delightful quirks to make fun of.

You can tell I’m not a St. Louis native because I haven’t asked you what high school you went to yet. You might be 48 years old and the president of the company you work for, but for some reason that’s more important than your name and what you do for a living. Because, after all, St. Louisans measure the quality of their weekend by the number of former classmates they ran into.

When Dick Gephardt decided to run for president, I’m sure the first paragraph of the news story read, “Southwest High School graduate Dick Gephardt announced Tuesday his intention to run for president–of the United States–in 2004.” The second or third paragraph should mention he graduated in 1958. And somewhere buried in the middle of the story, there’d be a mention that he served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 26 years. The mention of minor details such as his political party was probably cut to make room for a bigger photo of Southwest High School.

And the only quote from Gephardt ought to talk about how he manages to keep in touch with his old classmates from Washington D.C. and where to get a good pork steak outside of St. Louis.

At least that’s how I would have run the story if I’d been the editor and wanted St. Louisans to read it.

And I never have figured out what you’re supposed to do with a pork steak. Put it in your baseball glove for extra padding? What a true St. Louisan does is throw the fat- and gristle-laden thing on a grill, dry, cook it until charred, then wave a little bit of Maull’s over it and call it real BBQ.

No wonder Kansas City is on the opposite side of the state. It’s trying to stay as far away from that vile dish as possible.

Sorry about that. I got rolling in an e-mail message this morning so I’m cheating and posting that. I’ll answer someone’s writing and publishing question later this weekend.

Doughnuts and the Evil Internet Exploiter Empire

Doughnuts. My phone rang last night. It was my sister.
“What are you doing?”

“Eating doughnuts.” Actually that wasn’t what I said, but it sounds better. People tell me I should label it when I write fiction. Usually they mean that as an insult. But they can get over it. Nobody makes them read me. But I took their words to heart. So that line is fiction. The rest is true. If I told you what I really said, you’d think my mind wanders, and I don’t want you to think that.

“I see.” (And probably you do too.)

“I was real tired after church. Brad told me I looked fried. So I went out and got doughnuts.”

“And what’s that have to do with being tired?”

“Nothing. I just felt like some doughnuts.”

“I see.”

“I got a dozen so I can have doughnuts for breakfast too.”

“Da-vid! You got a dozen doughnuts?”

“Yep.”

“It’ll take you a year to eat a dozen doughnuts!”

“Nuh-uh. I had two already. So I’ve got 10 left. That’s enough for breakfast. Besides, doughnuts are good for you. They have wheat, and… What else is in doughnuts that are good for you?”

“Not a thing.”

“There’s gotta be something.”

“Sugar’s not necessarily bad for you, but there’s nothing else I’d call good. I wouldn’t eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but–“

“Now there’s an idea. Wait a minute. I can’t. I’ve only got 10 left. If I weigh 300 pounds next time you see me, you’ll know why.”

Internet Explorer. The word is out about Internet Explorer and why you shouldn’t use it. Because Microsoft in its infinite paranoia wisdom decreed that a Web browser is an indispensable component of an operating system (just like pinball), IE has a vulnerability that can allow it to run arbitrary code. Because no other browser on any other platform feels the need to join itself at the hip, elbow and head to an operating system, the vulnerability doesn’t exist elsewhere. I wanted to point out this problem in Optimizing Windows, but if I recall correctly, my editor’s comment to that section was, “Spare us the editorials.” Or something. That’ll teach me to insult his favorite Web browser.

So now I know that I was right, and that O’Reilly are Microsoft lackeys. But I can tell you something useful too.

You can liberate your computer from the Evil Internet Exploiter Empire. Your computer doesn’t have to be part of the Browser Wars Battlefield.

Now you’re probably expecting me to say something about Linux for the umpteenth time. But you don’t even have to run Linux to set yourself free. Head over to www.98lite.net and download IEradicator. It’ll remove IE from Windows 9x, and it’ll even remove it from Windows 2000, as long as you’re not running SP2 yet. So remove IE, then install SP2. You’ll get a faster and more secure OS. And you can run your choice of browsers. Opera’s not half bad. Mozilla’s not half bad. And if you like small and lightweight, there’s K-Meleon, which is a small, browser-only IE lookalike that uses the Mozilla engine. And there’s Offbyone, which fits on a floppy. Offbyone isn’t full-featured like the others and it’s only HTML 3.2 compliant, but it’s a great emergency browser you can use to download something better in a pinch. It’s saved me at least twice now. You’ll never find a faster browser in Windows, so if you’re in a hurry and the site you want to see renders fine in it, you can have the site up in Offbyone before one of the other browsers has finished displaying a splash screen.

02/01/2001

I don’t like to do “this is what I did yesterday” messages but that’s all I’ve got. Mostly I re-imaged some Macs. I did get to put an HP optical drive in a Compaq Proliant server we bought used for pennies on the dollar from a failed dot-com. But no one had any drive rails. Luckily, I had a Compaq 386 sitting under my desk. I opened it up, pulled the 5.25″ drive, walked over to the Proliant, and it slid right in. Perfect. I unbolted the drive, bolted the rails to the optical drive (I had to find different screws), and put the drive right in. And the guy who normally handles the servers asked how I did it so fast. Hey, I did tech review on a book about PC hardware. I know how to work on these things… And I worked on far too many Compaqs my first two years of college. (And far too many IBMs my last two years of college.)

Hot tip: Compaq drive rails cost something like $30 from Compaq. Compaq 386s are free, when you can find them. Or they’re cheap. Or someone pays you 15 bucks to haul them away. Or, there’s eBay. I just found 12 people selling them there, with zero bids on them. Asking price: $4.99-$9.99.

I also parted out a Pentium-75 that no longer works. This is the only dead Micron PC I’ve seen, honestly. And I suspect the problem is the third-party memory in it (the memory there isn’t Micron, which tells me the original stuff was pilfered at some point). Since it’s useless, it’s either part it out and discard the stuff that can’t be used, or pay someone to haul it off. Well, I’m having a hard time getting my Soyo SY-7SBB motherboards running. Outside the case, they’re fine. Put them in one of my AT cases, and they don’t work. I suspect not enough grounding, or grounding in places it doesn’t want it. This Micron case is much more configurable than any of the AT cases I have, so it’ll help me solve the mystery. (I won’t go modifying my IBM PC/AT case until I figure out, with the Micron case’s help, where I need ground points. Then I’ll Dremel out the existing caseworks and put in spacers where I need them to be. Ah, the troubles I’ll go to for a chance to see someone’s face when they see something unexpected…

Last night after church, one of our seminary students was cleaning off his car. (We got some ice last night.) He had this dinky little plastic ice scraper that would probably fit in your shirt pocket. I was waiting for my car to warm up, noticed him struggling with that thing, so I pulled out my heavy-duty scraper, with its long metal handle and big brush, and walked over to his car. “I can tell you’re from Texas,” I said. Boom, boom, boom, and in 30 seconds I had all the remaining ice off his windshield. He watched me with huge eyes. I just laughed as I brushed off his windshield.

Heavy-duty ice scrapers are your friend. One day last week I had a half-inch layer of solid ice on my car. With this scraper, it still took me 10 minutes to clean it off. With a hand-size scraper, my only choice would have been to let the car run for 30 minutes with the defroster going full force.

And what’s this? I had 317 page reads at 3 p.m. yesterday. On a so-so DAY I get 317 reads. (I can get 600 on a good day; about 260 on a bad day.) That can’t be one person, because one person reading, if they spend two minutes per post, will get 30 in an hour. Maybe it was someone looking for something. I hope they found it. Or maybe a speed reader really really really likes my stuff.

And this from Gatermann. I got mail from a reader asking about getting a modem running under Linux. I noticed he used Southwestern Bell and suggested that was probably the problem, not his modem or Linux. I suggested he contact tech support and ask if Linux works. Gatermann piped in. They won’t even know what Linux is, he said. Remember, these are the people who couldn’t understand why they couldn’t ping me when I couldn’t get an IP address. (Yeah, I rolled my eyes too the first time Tom told me that story.)

But I suspect everyone there has heard of Linux. Heck, my ex-girlfriends know about Linux. The one I talked about taking me to the state capital and eating doughnuts on the steps (hey, if there are any Mizzou alumni out there and you know anything about this tradition, would you please e-mail me about it? Thanks in advance), one night we were sitting out there, and she brought up Linux. SHE did. At the time, I hated Linux because all I’d seen was Slackware. Another girl I dated briefly brought up Linux as much as she could because she knew I was writing a book about Linux at the time. Heck, people walk up to me at church and ask me if I know anything about Linux!

So Southwestern Bell employees have probably heard of Linux. But Tom’s right, they probably can’t say anything meaningful about it.

Are we talking about more than just sunsets?

As I was hurtling down Missouri 370 en route to I-70 this past weekend, I heard a commercial for some brand of booze on the radio. I don’t remember which. Its advice for life was to be yourself (translation: drink lots of their product), and, among other things, to watch one sunset a week (and then, ideally, stay up all night drinking their product and take in the sunrise as well).
At that moment, the sun was beginning to set, and I was in a largely undeveloped area and we still had snow on the ground. I really wished I had my camera with me, because it could have made for a spectacular photo, had one of the master photographers I know like Tom Gatermann or Dan Coleman been there to take it. It had so much potential, it had the possibility of being an OK photo with me behind the camera. But it’s lost now.

So I started thinking a lot about sunsets. The late, great Mike Royko wrote a column about them, in the third person, after his first wife died. They owned a small cabin in Wisconsin, and when they vacationed there, they dropped everything and watched the sun set every night. After she died, he sold the cabin because he couldn’t bear to go there alone. He closed with the words: “Maybe a young couple who likes to watch sunsets together will like it. He hopes so.”

The column broke my heart when I read it. It usually still does. The talk of sunsets reminded me of the column, and I wondered why I don’t watch more sunsets.

Mostly it’s an issue of time. I have distractions, like making money and publishing stuff. (The two aren’t necessarily related.) So I work eight hours a day for my steady paycheck, then come home and write. Half the time I don’t even know when the sun sets. I just notice one day that I’d been driving home in daylight for a long time, but suddenly I’m not anymore.

But besides that, there’s another thing. Sunsets are best when watched with someone special. So I wondered why I’ve never watched a sunset with someone special, and I realized that’s because for some odd reason I always date in the fall and winter and during those seasons the sun generally sets while I’m still at work. I’ve never had a girlfriend in the spring or summer months. Ever. My relationships tend to be short, which partially explains it, but why I always start them in October (except for one I started in September), I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with baseball season.

Why the September Wonder and I never watched a sunset, I don’t know for sure. At that hour we were usually eating dinner. But I’ll tell you something. I’m glad we never watched a sunset together.

We shared our lives with one another. She knows things about me that no one else knows. No one. And I know things about her that her parents, her sisters, and her close friends didn’t know.

We shared our experiences too. One of her favorite things to do was to drive to Jefferson City, buy doughnuts, then go sit on the steps of the capitol building at night and eat them. It’s a weird University of Missouri tradition whose origins I never tracked down–some alumni have heard of it, while others look at me really funny when I bring it up. Probably the same way I looked at her funny when she brought it up, come to think of it.

Well, you can tell from looking at me that I don’t eat a lot of doughnuts, and she didn’t look like she ate many either. So there’s nothing special about doughnuts to either of us. As for the capitol, well, that stands for government, and I don’t like government very much and as far as I could tell she didn’t care much for government either. So I guess the big deal about this tradition is you find out who your friends are. Eating doughnuts on the steps of the capitol with a bore is no fun. If they’re willing to try, they’re a friend. If you both have fun, you’ve both found a friend worth keeping. Because, let’s face it, Jefferson City at night is a whole lot less interesting than a sunset. A sunset can stand on its own, while Jefferson City at night is only as interesting as the person you’re with.

I told her I’d miss eating doughnuts on the steps of the capitol building with her if that ever became impractical or impossible. She said there’d always be other things. Then she told me to get lost.

I wondered after she found someone new and flaunted him in front of me whether they ever ate doughnuts on the steps of the capitol building. And I wondered if she could do the deed without me coming to mind. Did my ghost still haunt her?

I shared a piece of me with her too. It was a restaurant, also in Jefferson City, called Madison’s Cafe. Great Italian restaurant. Growing up in Jefferson City nearly 20 years ago, my dad used to take us there. Going back there always reminds me of him. But now on those rare occasions when I go back there, it doesn’t just remind me of my dad anymore. It also reminds me of her. And I wish I’d held that piece of me back from her until she’d proven her ability to stick around for more than five minutes.

Can I ever take another girl to Madison’s? Assuming it wasn’t an obnoxious drive, sure. But I guarantee it wouldn’t be on the first date. Because I don’t want her to taint more memories. Once she’s established, that’s the right time.

Yes, I’m very glad I didn’t watch sunsets with that girl from September who turned out not to be cooler than baseball. It means I still have something special left to share with The One Who Will Stick Around for a While, once I manage to find her.

Then I started thinking I really ought to write some of these thoughts down. Then I realized I’d become so lost in my own thoughts, in my own past, that the sun had gone down and I’d missed the best part of the present.

Nuts.

A quick Opera tip. I felt bad about not including a computer tip today, so here goes. To see a list of all of Opera’s many keyboard shortcuts, hit Ctrl-B.

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