Achieving Another Degree of Financial Freedom (again)

Back in late 2010 we paid off all our consumer debt. We bought our last new car along the way but we basically stayed debt free through 2012. Then we moved to Austin, Texas in early 2013. That move cost us some money and put us back into debt. I'm happy to say that we've done it again and paid off all our consumer debt for the second (and hopefully last!) time. The last two new cars we've purchased both were paid off early; each with two years to spare.

There are two reasons the move put us back into debt. The first was exhausting our emergency fund in 2011 when I was laid off for a number of months. I wasn't able to build it back up before we moved. The second reason is that we short sold our house in Virginia, and that came at a cost - a substantial out-of-pocket cost. That forced us to rely on credit cards to finance the move.

The only debt we have left is a sizable student loan. We haven't even begun to figure out how to pay that off. For right now we are making the monthly payments. We have more pressing shorter term financial goals to achieve before we can make a dent in the student loan. Those shorter term goals are rebuilding the emergency fund, saving for a house down payment, and for a family Disney and Legoland trip.

We're celebrating our debt free(dom) by taking a family vacation. We booked a beach weekend in August.


Sell Phones

In my ongoing series Rage Against the Machine, I explore my love/hate relationship with technology. In this post I discuss how we made our own "BOGO free" mobile phones deal.

I was way overdue for a new mobile phone. My Google Nexus S Android smartphone was over two and half years old, it had outlived it's update lifespan and was definitely acting its age. I was waiting until my wife's phone plan expired in mid August of this year because we had never been on a plan together, I wanted to save some money being on a shared plain and be on the same phone hardware cycle as her. My wife had a iPhone 4, which is two generations older than the current iPhone. It was time we both upgraded.

black and white Samsung Galaxy S4
My dream phone was the current Google Nexus phone, the Nexus 4. It is sold on the Google Play store unlocked. Unlocked phones are pricey because they aren't tied to any carrier who can subsidize the cost of the phone when you subscribe to one of their plans. I love the Nexus phones because they come with the latest version of the Android OS, are the first phones to get Android updates and because it's sold unlocked directly by Google there is no carrier branding or preloaded apps. But my wife talked me into getting the Samsung Galaxy S4 on T-Mobile from Costco. They sells phones and plans on all the major carriers and were selling the S4 for $100 with a two year contract. The S4 comes with the newest version of Android available to locked phones, 4.2.2, which is only one version older than the newest available, 4.3. We chose T-Mobile because they were the only carrier with unlimited talk, text, and data. Overall we got a good deal. We bought his and hers phones-a black one for me and a white one for her.

Then we had to figure out what to do with our old phones. We could recycle them, let them become toys for our boys or sell them. I figured if they were worth anything we should get some money for them. I was surprised at the value of our old, outdated phones. We sold the iPhone for $75 on Gazelle.com and sold the Nexus 4 on USell.com for $42. Both websites turned out to be legit and no hassle. You tell them what phone you have and rate the condition, then they give you the estimate. If you accept they send you a free shipping kit. After they receive the phone they review its condition. If they accept they send you the payment. Between the two sell transactions we recouped the cost of one S4. Essentially we made our own "buy one get one free" deal. It worked out pretty well.


I could ride 500 miles

And I have! Last week I passed the half millennium mark commuting on my bike.  I started my bike commuting on January 20, 2013. Here are my aggregated stats as of August 27, 2013:

Total Distance546.84
Total Time07:06:30
Moving Time04:19:21
Number of Tracks111
Average Speed9.92
Average Moving Speed10.45
Elevation Gain39,661
Min Elevation682
Max Elevation1,014

I never forgot to record my rides, but a few times I had technical difficulties so the totals are give or take 10 miles.


Far Out Dude - Lego VW T1 Camper Van

passenger side front corner view with pop-up roof
We're blasting back to 1962 and cruising in psychedelic style with my latest LEGO build - a Volkswagen T1 Camper Van. This authentic model is a replica of the classic 1962 VW camper van. Every iconic feature is here! On the outside, the terrific detailing includes 'V' shape three-way color split at the front, rounded roof and window frames, opening 'splittie' safari windshield, opening doors, iconic pop-up roof with textile curtain surround, roof rack, rear side air intake vents and lots more! The detailing is equally impressive on the inside, from the authentic VW air-cooled flat four cylinder boxer engine, front cabin bench seat, gear stick, angled dashboard and iconic spherical speedometer, to custom LEGO® features like folding rear bench seat, folding dinette table, closet with mirror and even a painting!

front view
  • Features 11 windows, authentic plaid-print textile curtains and wing mirror!
  • Rear door opens to reveal detailed engine!
  • Interior also features rear bench seat that transforms into a bed, ‘Make LEGO Models, Not War’ T-shirt and rear shelf with plant!
  • Measures 11.8 inches (30cm) long and 5.5 inches (14cm) high!
Fletch helped me build this set. Sorting the 1332 piece set took 2.5 hrs and the build took 7.5 hrs for an overall 10 hrs. Growing up my family had multiple Volkswagens, including two vans (which we affectionately called a "bus") - a 1973 blue and 1975 tan models. So this set was extra special to me. I put it on the shelf alongside my other Lego VW set - a 1960 Beetle. See all the pics of the camper van build here.
on display
drivers side
interior with pop-up camper


Adventures in Bike Commuting

Wild animals seen or crossed my path (sorry no pics):

  1. deer
  2. rabbit
  3. fox
  4. wild turkey (really, no joke!) 

  1. Blown tire
  2. Tail light fell off in the middle of an intersection and was run over by multiple cars
Weather/Environmental factors:

  1. Ride in darkness in the morning. Part of my trip is on undeveloped and unlit residential streets.
  2. Rain
  3. Strong wind
  4. 30 to 40 degree temperature differences between my morning and afternoon commutes.
All this only after five weeks of bike commuting.


Bike Commuting

Since moving to Texas, I've been commuting by bike to work. Partly out of necessity, partly due to the need for exercise. We still only have one car and Austin lacks the robust public transportation that the DC metro area has. Instead of buying a car, I sought alternative ways to get to work. I work for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, aka TCEQ, which is about 12 miles from my house. I found a van pool that picks up at the CapMetro Lakeline station about five miles from my house. No buses run in my neighborhood, so I had to find a way to get to the station. Waking up the family every morning at the crack of dawn to get to me to the station by 7am then pick me up in the afternoon was out of the question. I certainly wasn't going to call a taxi everyday, so my only other option was to ride my bike.

I rode the route a couple of times the weekend before I was to start working. The route is mostly flat and part of the route has a bike lane. My biking Dad's group friends back in DC will be happy to know that I ride my bike as a single speed, not having to change gears on my route. The van pool picks up at 7am, so I leave the house at 6:15am. It takes about 30 minutes. After a week I found a short cut through an elementary school that cut a half mile off the route. Then a couple of days ago I found a residential road closed to traffic because it's still under construction that takes me off the busy, traffic filled main road. Now the route is entirely through residential neighborhoods. The closed road is paved but unlit, and even with a great bike headlight, it's scary riding down a dark, deserted road at 6:30 in the morning. Check out my route in the map below.

View 2/12/2013 6:12am in a larger map

The move cost us a bundle, so I haven't bought a commuter bike yet. I'm riding my mountain bike for the time being. I pack my work clothes, lunch and anything else I need in a backpack. Fortunately TCEQ has a gym with a locker room and showers, which comes in very handy for a bike commuter. I bought a quality headlight and taillight so cars will see me and I can see where I'm going in the wee hours of the morning. As we get settled in Austin and I free up some fundage, I'll buy a commuter bike, trunk bag, panniers, more bike clothes and rain gear. I've already rode in light rain twice.

Austin is a bike friendly town. I see quite a few people bike commuting. I'm happy to be part of that community. Riding 10 miles a day five days a week is hard but fun. It only takes an hour round trip, and even with a 40 minute round trip van ride, my commute in Austin is still shorter than my DC commute. And I get a workout in to boot.


On the Move

Cross-posted on the Shock Family Circus Blog.

We announced our move to Austin early last month. With that came a job search for me and house hunting for the family. I'm happy to announce that we've found both - a new job and a new house. I started my job search at the beginning of December. After three weeks I had four job interviews and received two offers. I actually cancelled one of the interviews as my schedule wouldn't allow for it and I had already received the offers. I'll be working for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as a web developer. It's the same job I've been doing for the past 13 years, just with a new employer in a different part of the country.

We are renting a four bedroom, 2.5 bathroom, two car garage, 2400+ sq ft single family home on a corner lot on a cul-de-sac in the Round Rock suburb of North Austin. It's an awesome house. It's over a thousand square feet bigger than our condo in Virginia. We need the room as the family had outgrown the condo. The house has a fenced in backyard so the boys have a safe place to run around. There's also an outdoor fireplace and built in grill, so the adults can enjoy the backyard and we can entertain outside all year long. The garage is detached, which totally fascinates me but I don't know why. It'll be nice not having neighbors who share "common area". I'm planning on commuting by bike because public transportation in Austin isn't as robust as it is in DC, I need the exercise, and I want to maintain our single car family status.

In other good news, The Mortgage Debt Relief Act was extended through 2013 as part of the Fiscal Cliff legislation. That means we won't be taxed on the forgiven debt of our short sale. We were hoping to close by the end of 2012 so as to avoid the taxation, since we didn't know if the MDRA was going to get extended. We haven't closed yet due to circumstances out of our control, but with the extension, the pressure is off.

I was hoping to ride all this good fortune into a fantasy football championship, but that didn't happen. I have the highest winning percentage in my league over the last 5 seasons, I've been in the playoffs six straight years but have a 1-11 post season record. In the 12 years I've been playing in the league that I'm commissioner of, my best finish has been third place. :(