20140709_191804It’s a beautiful summer day. We are camped at Cultus Lake, a forested lake resort nestled in a ring of mountains less than 2 hours east of Vancouver, BC. My kids (all grown up now) have dropped by to visit. Now that I have a captive audience, I was going to give them a talk about personal finances – something I have been planning to do for awhile – but as we were all sitting around the campfire, laughing, reminiscing about camping trips from years gone by, roasting hot dogs, it just seemed like too heavy a topic. “I’m still going to do it,” I warned. “Maybe I’ll make it a blog post.” So here we are.

So why bring the topic up at this late stage? Shouldn’t this discussion have taken place a long time ago – like when they got their first piggy bank? And what makes me the expert, anyway?

*     *     *

When I was working, every two weeks, like clockwork, a chunk of money would land in my bank account. Ker-chunk! Now I could pay my bills, buy things, and go out for sushi. Life was good.

Ker-chunk! Spend. Repeat.

I never thought about it too much. I was one of the lucky ones. I had a pretty good sense of where I stood. I had a frugal streak (possibly genetic) and managed to stay out of the bigger whirlpools, eddies, and rocks in the white-water rapids of financial waters.

Then, earlier this year, I retired. All of a sudden, the ker-chunks stopped. Now there is only silence. And I have become self-conscious about my spending habits and personal financial resources.

20140710_115957Most people don’t like to think or talk about their personal finances. Like sex, finance is a trendy, even over-hyped, topic – but only in the abstract, or where other people, especially celebrities, are the focus of the discussion. But when it gets close to home, people get defensive, evasive or launch into elaborate fiction.

*     *     *

Back in the days when we still wrote cheques, maybe 25 years or so ago, I religiously mailed off my mortgage payment at the beginning of the month, and recorded the info in the appropriate place. But I never balanced my cheque-book when my bank statement came. If I needed to write a cheque, I would just peek at my bank balance to make sure there was enough money in there to cover it, and send it off.

Then, one day, I was taken by surprise. The employee at the mortgage company who opened the envelopes and credited the mortgage account (a good thing for me) then simply stuffed the cheques that came in into the bottom drawer of her desk (not so good).

The mortgage company, who did balance their accounts on a regular basis noticed something wrong, traced it to the errant  envelope-opener, replaced her, and deposited the entire drawer-load of cheques into their account. Six months of mortgage payment cheques went through all at once. The next time I peeked at my account balance my heart almost stopped.

I said earlier that I had a good sense of where I stood. Maybe it wasn’t all that good. I could tell you about my larger, regular expenditures. Where the rest of my money went, I wasn’t so sure. I think that’s how it works for most people.

“I don’t know where it goes. I never added it up. My whole life has been cash.”

Which brings me to my first two rules:

1.   Spend less than you earn.

This is a good general principle. Keeps you out of trouble. Most people will agree that, yes, this is a good rule to follow. (Its corollary is that any use of credit should be done very carefully and only after great consideration.)

2.   Know where it goes.

You have to know the value of the things you have and how much you owe other people. The first is usually pretty easy to determine (not very much). The second is pretty easy to avoid thinking about (more than I should – I get a headache if I even try to think about it).

You also have to know how much you take home every month and how much you spend.

 

Assets

$ in   ——–>                           ——–>  $ out

Debts

 

If you were a business, that would be your Balance Sheet and your Income Statement. I can see your eyes rolling. (“I never signed up to be an accountant.”)

So you can’t know if you are following rule 1 of you don’t follow rule 2. As you can see, the system breaks down very fast.

20140710_115722The last few months I’ve been tracking every dollar I spend. It’s been interesting. I may not approve of all my spending but I’ve found it fascinating to see where it all goes. How much it costs me to live. (OK, I admit, I miss a few dollars here and there, but it doesn’t matter. I catch most of them.)

I break it down into categories: Groceries, Personal Care, Entertainment, Car Expenses,….  Figure out which ones work for you. You know how your life breaks down. And you can always fix them if you don’t get them right the first time around.

I do it in a notebook. By hand. I know, I know, there’s an app for that. Some damn fine apps, too. But I have excuses. Lousy Internet, for one. The point is, I do it. There are not so many items that it’s a chore, but I have to make sure I do it every day – otherwise it’s real easy to miss something. Do it however it works for you, but do it.

3.   Have a budget.

I hate budgets. I’ll bet you do too. I never signed up to be an accountant. But you need something. And something is better than nothing. So, here’s an easy one: the 50/20/30 Budget.

You start with your take home pay (what you actually end up with after all those deductions).

50% of it should go to essential expenses: housing, transportation, utilities, groceries,…

20% of it should go to debt repayment and savings.

30% of it should go to everything else. You lifestyle choices: phone, cable, entertainment, shopping,…

Look at your “where it goes” list and then see how it compares with your “budget”. Ha-ha-ha-ha….!

How does it fit? Not very well? Not surprising – that’s how it is for most people. Do you need to make changes? I mean, you will need to make changes. (No, new party shoes are not an essential expense.)  It usually comes down to “I need more take-home pay” or “I need to spend less”. More likely it’s the latter and that can really cramp your style. Sorry.

Do it!

4.   Develop a plan.

After you’ve been tracking your spending, and working on your budget for awhile, you will actually have some money to pay down your debts and to save for the future. That 20% part of the budget really is important.

Now is the time to look for a longer term plan for your life. There are all kinds of financial plans – some simple, some incredibly complex. You can find them in the library, online, and in brochures in the rack where you bank. Every financial advisor has one to offer. (No, you don’t need all those CD’s, DVD’s, books, and seminars – that 20% is for you.)

There is no one “right” plan.  As you go along, you will get better at deciding what is the right plan for you. But until then, here’s one that will get you started on your way. It will answer the question “what exactly should I do now?” It’s taken from Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover Plan and captures many of the concepts considered important. Here are the basic steps:

1. Save and put aside a $1000 emergency fund – you’ll need this because something always comes up at the worst possible moment. Your transmission will fail. Your computer will fall out of the window. You’ll need a root canal. Your credit card is not your friend – be prepared in advance for contingencies.

2. Reduce your debts to zero (except for your mortgage, if you have one).

3. Increase your emergency fund so that it will cover 3 to 6 months of living expenses – Because you’ve been tracking your spending, you’ll know how much that is. If everything goes wrong in your life, you can survive without financial stress melt-down for a reasonable time and get your life together again.

4. Put 15% of your gross income into a retirement fund. This is the point where you will start to learn about investments. You will be ready for it. It will all begin to make sense. (You’ll also find that this number is just about the 20% of your take-home that you originally allocated to savings and debt repayment – and, hey, you’ve repaid your debts at this point. See how it all fits together?)

5. You will find that your financial planning has paid off. You have more money to invest. Now is the time to save for other important things – like maybe your kids’ education (if you have kids) – and pay off the mortgage on your house. And to enjoy the money you have.

Do these steps in order. Don’t start on a higher one until the earlier ones are done. (If you’re paying off your debts and you have to spend your $1000 contingency fund, then first rebuild that fund and then go back to repaying your debts.)

*     *     *

There are many budgets, many plans. This is one suggested starting point – you have to start somewhere. You can fine tune your plan as you learn. Like going to the gym it will take dedication and perseverance. That means time. And false starts. And disappointments. But when it begins to work, you will be energized and on your way to a more solid financial footing.

Me? I wish I was at the bottom of the list, but I’m somewhere between rule 2 and rule 4. I’m working and learning as I go along,I’m no expert but just someone trying to figure all this out myself and become more organized and consistent. And successful. It’s never too late.

Hey,… I’ll see you at the bottom of the list.

20140624_114424Margaret and I were thinking about what to have for breakfast.

We were hoping for a little inspiration. Today we wanted something other than the usual default choices. Nothing too wild and crazy, though. It was still morning and we were working our way through our wake-up coffee.

I suggested oatmeal. Now that may not sound too creative, but it was a significant deviation from my usual slam-down bacon, sausage, eggs, hash browns, and toast cravings.

Margaret looked at me over her coffee mug. “I think I’d like something savoury.”

“Too bad there’s no such thing as savoury oatmeal,” I said.

I’d never heard of savoury oatmeal. Never seen it on a menu anywhere. Not one of the serving suggestion on the back of the oatmeal package mentions it.

But why not? Somebody, somewhere must have thought of it. Tried it. Was the dish a winner or a disaster? (I could not, in any stretch of my imagination, see myself squirting ketchup onto oatmeal.) And if they had, they would surely have posted about the experience in the Internet.

I turned to Google. ‘Savory oatmeal’ A huge list of discussions and recipes rolled up. I was amazed. (Well, maybe not so amazed. I am convinced someone somewhere has done every thing that is even remotely conceivable and posted about it.) There were some great-sounding suggestions.

20140624_094730Out came the pot and the pan. Get the oatmeal bubbling. Sauté some mushrooms, onions,and a little green pepper. Add the cooked oatmeal to the pan. A little rosemary, basil, and a few grinds of pepper. (Maybe a little salt if you didn’t already salt the oatmeal.) Fold in some grated cheddar. Serve out and top with a sprinkle of parmesan and a poached egg.

Wonderful…!

Why have I never seen this on a breakfast menu somewhere?

So go and Google it yourself. Who knows – sriracha oatmeal may be the wake-you-up start to the day you’ve always been looking for.

IMG_5639Today is Saturday.

That doesn’t mean a thing to me now that I’m retired. It’s what I was told by this old retired guy while I was still working. “What’s it like to be retired?” I asked him. He thought a moment, then smiled and said, “Every day is Saturday.”

I knew what he meant. Instead of waking up to the alarm and putting on the coffee in the half-dark so that you can get a little caffeine into your system and get the going-to-work routine happening, you can linger a bit in bed, get up and look out the windows to see what kind of a day it’s going to be, and ask yourself, “So. What do I want to do today?”

clockpicNow, a couple of months into retirement, I’m finding out that it’s sort of like that. However, too many Saturdays in a row can get a bit confusing. I get up, look out the windows, and ask myself, “I wonder what day this is?” I’m thinking about getting one of those clocks that, instead of having numbers around the dial, has Sunday, Monday, Tuesday….

IMG_5700Even though we’re on a motorhome trip, it’s still not all vacation. Things need to be fixed. Maintenance done. Meals to be made, of course. And there’s laundry to do. There are shopping trips to make and bills that need to be paid. The dog needs its shots. The Internet has stopped working again. Sometimes I wonder where I ever found the time to work.

Margaret is also trying to shape my new life. She explained to me, “Being retired does not mean that you never have to do anything anymore.” From somewhere she has come up with a list of things that need doing. “But, but, it’s Saturday….”

I think what happens is that what used to be the background tasks have now floated up to much higher priority, filling the void left by the disappearance of my 9-to-5 job. They feel more important now. Some of them I’m actually getting done. The rest I can still push forward to an unspecified future time – some other Saturday.

When I think back, the appeal of Saturdays was not that I did nothing at all. It gave me a chance to tackle some chores – hopefully keeping that ever-growing to-do list from getting completely overwhelming – while still having the flexibility to get out and do some fun things, to visit with friends, to finally watch that movie I’ve wanted to see for so long.

My old Saturdays had to do with squeezing stuff into the scarce time available. My new Saturdays are more about putting the time I have to good use and not frittering it away by doing nothing. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with doing nothing. It’s just, when I do nothing, I want it to be a conscious choice – something I’m aware I’m doing – so I can really enjoy it, wallow in the freedom of its sweetness. I want to know where my days go.

It’s Saturday. And it’s still early. What do I want to do today?

It was one of those delightful but rare occasions. The whole family was available to get together. And we did. We gathered for a pub dinner at one IMG 0331 of Surrey’s local watering holes. Lots of dishes and lots of sharing. The soup of the day was listed on the chalkboard as Manhattan Clam Chowder (that’s the red one) and someone ordered a bowl of it. Surprising, since I thought that I was the only family member who liked it – all the others preferring the Boston or New England version (the white one).

It was a serious bowl – big, steaming, and yummy. But not at all what I expected. When I make the Manhattan version (which is rarely, since I’m the only one that eats it) the clams are swimming in a barely spicy light broth along with tomatoes and some crunchy vegetables. This version was thick, rich, red, and creamy – more of a bisque. Not authentic. But, hey, who cares. It was delicious and we all liked it.

* * *

kinobay About 20 years or so ago, we had just tucked our travel trailer into a nice little RV park in Kino Bay, on the edge of the Sea of Cortez on Mexico’s west coast.

The kids rushed down to the beach to splash in the waves. They were soon back at the trailer.

“Hey, Dad. Look at this. It’s really weird. Whenever we splash our hands in the waves we end up with these.” She held up a handful of small clams. Hmm-m-m. Forty-five minutes later we had a big plastic bucket half full of clams.

Hopefully they were safe to eat. I took a few over and checked with the people at the office. My Spanish was pretty iffy but I finally figured out that their apparent concern was not about the clams we had gathered, just why I would want to eat these little clams when I could buy some much bigger ones in town.

OK. Not a definitive answer but on the way back to the trailer I ran into a small group of neighbours visiting from the US. They had been camped on this beach awhile. “Oh, they’re fine to eat. We cooked up a big batch of those last week.” I looked at them appraisingly. They still looked healthy. Good enough for me!

Margaret hauled out a big pot and soon we had a steamed clam feast around the dinette. And enough left over to make a good-sized batch of clam chowder. (The white kind.)

* * *

The nice thing about taking the time to make your own chowder is that you end up with lots of clams in every bowl. Not at all like the canned variety or even restaurant offerings.IMG 0333 When I eat those , as delicious as the chowder may be, I’m always hunting (fishing?) around in the bowl to see if I can find any evidence of clams.

Now I need to dig out my Manhattan chowder recipe. I think my family is ready for it.

[Thanks to Three Palms at Kino Bay for the great beach picture]

I like my morning routines. Like opening the blinds and peering out to make sure the neighbourhood is still there and everything016 is all right. But my most important morning routine is loading up the coffee maker and waiting for it to gurgle through and give me my first morning cup of coffee.

In my coffee mug.

Somehow it’s not the same if it’s from just any coffee mug. I’m happy sharing a cup, or sipping one solitarily, from just about anything, The cap from a thermos, a paper Tim Hortons cup, an old melmac mug from the back corner of someone’s cupboard. But if I’m at home, I want to use mymug.

There’s nothing extraordinary about my coffee mug, It doesn’t call attention to itself – it’s rather nicely bland. But it sits in my hand right when I’m warming them on a cold morning. Holds a decent amount of coffee. Doesn’t tip over.

I’m not overly attached to it. I’ve had a number of them over the years. Different types, styles, and sizes. Lost them in a number of ways: crashed on the floor, chipped on the edge of the sink, tumbled to the pavement getting out of the car. No sense of tragedy, no mourning. Just the beginning of a search for the next “right” mug. One that fits my updated personality. I always find one, eventually.

013I’ve come to realize that I’m not alone. We’ve assembled quite a motley collection of mugs in our kitchen cupboard. Whenever our more regular visitors drop over and it’s coffee or tea time, there’s a distinct ceramic clattering that goes on as everyone searches for their mug in the cupboard. (“Hey! Where’s my teddy bear mug?”) They all eventually get matched up with their own familiars.

Then the visiting can begin. Steaming beverages, usual chairs (“That’s where I sit.”), catching up on life. It all seems to work better when everyone and everything is well-acquainted.

I like routines.

I found out that when you cut the stringy end off a green onion, you can poke it into some dirt and it will quickly grow into a big 009healthy green onion. I water it a little but otherwise I just ignore it. It still grows like crazy.

Now I’m not a gardener. Never had much luck in that area. But it seems some things are easy to grow. (These must certainly be plants that are related to weeds.)

007So I have a little box of green onions in the driveway. Next to them I have a pot of rosemary and also some thyme and oregano.

I am getting more confident with herbs.

When it’s time to season the lamb chops, jazz up the spaghetti sauce, or create a salad dressing, I’m out there with my kitchen shears removing snippets of flavour and… I mean this fresh stuff will instantly infuse your brain with intense aroma. Wonderful!

And I also know what I’m putting into my dinner. Off-the-supermarket-shelf stuff almost always seems to contain unpronouncable mystery ingredients. I squint at the label. What is that stuff?

Does my jerk seasoning really need calcium stearate in it (“…an insoluble calcium salt of stearic acid and palmitic acid… formed when soap is mixed with water that contains calcium ions and is the scum produced in regions of hard water”)? Will I truly be happier if my spices contain an anti-caking agent to keep them from clumping and sticking together so it’s easier to shake them out of the container?

Does my salt need calcium silicate added to it? I don’t mind breaking up the clumps in my jar of sea salt. I shake the jar and they go away. My mom used to put grains of rice in the salt shaker to keep it dry and free-flowing. Works for me.

Why do they add palm oil to my raisins anyway?

I don’t always know which additives are innocuous, and which ones aren’t. So my solution is to get closer to the source of what I’m eating and strive to know what it’s made of.

Actually, the next time I move, I think I’ll look for a place that has a nice healthy vegetable garden next door. Abundant produce that needs to be pawned off on the neighbours.

But I’ll be keeping an eye on what gets spread on the garden late at night under the light of the moon.

* * * * *

Check out these ideas for growing food from kitchen scraps and for making your own spice blends.

I love peas & carrots with my dinner.

Most people don’t. It brings back memories of that mushy vegetable dish slopped up next to the shoe-leather piece of beef and starchy mashed potatoes served up at the cafeteria, just before the grumpy server splashes a ladle full of brown gravy on top of everything. You remember brown gravy. It has no taste. It’s just brown. And salty. And… brown. But you can stir it up to make a peas-and-carrot-and-mashed-potato-and-gravy soup.

I think people have secret cravings for those horrible things they suffered through as a kid. Peas & carrots are one of those. But today’s peas & carrots are not the mushy side dishes of yesteryear.

I love peas and carrots today because I resurrect it from the steam table glop that it used to be and raise it to an acceptable culinary level. Maybe not to the level of my crisp stir fried garden vegetables lightly tossed and coated with the complex flavours of the east. But something that combines a little veggie bite with subtle memories of cafeteria trays from years, nay decades, gone by. And it’s too easy.

Here we go.009

Peas. I use the frozen ones. Canned ones don’t cut it, and freshly shucked from the garden are a little over the top. (I just shuck the ones from the garden right into my mouth. The best way to enjoy them.)

Carrots. Here’s the trick. Fresh carrots. I chop them into coins. (I want to be able to see them without my reading glasses.)

Sometimes I add a little shaved onion for a little extra taste.

Into a pot. A little water. Cooked only until the carrots are barely tender. (They need some bite left in them!)

Drain. A swirl of butter. Maybe a sprink018le of fresh parsley. Park them next to the potatoes. Not mashed. May I recommend the delightful Yukon Gold variety?

Enjoy! This is not your cafeteria side dish. But the memories….

What a great summer long weekend!

The weather is fantastic. I’ve chugged some big glasses of orange juice to cool me down. I’ve done some chores around the house. And now it’s grillin’ time.

I’ve taken off my doin’-the-chores clothes. I’ve had a lo-o-ong cool shower. And I’m ready to grill.

012

So… for my grilling outfit I’ve chosen…. Well. if I still lived in California, it would be obvious that I’m wearing my leisure pants. Cool. comfortable in the afternoon heat.

But this is the Pacific northwest. It’s the southwest corner of BC. People here don’t wear… ‘leisure pants’. So what the heck am I wearing? Oh my God, I’m in my jams!

What will the neighbours think? Are they peeking out of their windows now even as my grill belches flames out the sides? Are they squinting through their barely closed blinds, all aghast?

Do I care?

Heck, no! It’s summer. This is one of the best weekends we’ve had.

The rib steaks I seasoned earlier this afternoon with my secret rub. On they go!

013

The fresh local corn is grilled to perfection, waiting for butter and salt and pepper. The baked potatoes are perfect.

017

Marg has grilled a pile of garlicky mushrooms. There’s some asparagus around here somewhere. I’m in barbeque heaven. This is what we live for!

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So as the sun goes down, I’m reveling in the glory of a perfect dinner and the end of a perfect day.

Could it get any better?

Dessert anyone…?

About me…

I'm an occasional writer, a refugee from the technology biz, a family guy, and a curmudgeon. Until recently I was most likely to be seen behind the wheel of a bus. Now you are more likely to find me behind the wheel of my RV.

Click on my picture if you'd like to know a little more about me.

I actually read a lot more blogs than these. (Too many, I think - takes up all my spare time some days.) I just don't have this list up to date yet.
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