Semantics for better fitness

In my five-month and counting quest to get in shape through biking, I’ve found it helps to get some definitions straight. I owe most, if not all, of these to Jacob over at Early Retirement Extreme.

  • Strength: the ability to lift X weight once, or a small number of times
  • Power: the ability to lift X total weight in a short period of time (example: 5000 pounds by lifting 100 pounds 50 times in two minutes)

Strength is marginally useful¬† – power is ultimately what you should be after. Bodybuilders have strength. They’ve spent countless hours toning and bulking, isolating individual muscle groups to get maximum definition. They are probably relatively fit, but their bodies aren’t optimized for actual work. How many times do you have to lift 400 pounds twice? Not many that exist outside of a gym. By contrast, there are numerous scenarios where you need to lift 40 pounds 10, 50, or 100 times over a short period of time. Gardening, childcare, moving books, being a machinist, etc.

When doing aerobic training, it’s hard to know just how hard to push oneself. Rides I complete with a smile and barely a drop of sweat totally exhausted me five months ago. There are, however, two different kinds of ‘walls’ you can hit.

You can exhaust either of these, but rarely at the same time:

  • Exhausting endurance means that, given a short period of time, your body will replenish itself. You need to catch your breath and allow the lactic acid buildup in your muscles to go down. Give yourself a breather and you can keep going, if you want to.
  • Exhausting stamina is another thing entirely. If you keep pushing yourself, you can collapse and/or seriously injure a joint because your muscles are totally ‘gassed’. It will take a day or more to recover.

Endurance and stamina both increase as you start training. At different periods I’ve run into both walls, but rarely at the same time. It’s hard to know what exhausting your stamina feels like until you’ve actually hit it and collapsed, but once you do you can recognize the signs your body gives you.

Past a certain point, however, your stamina can’t improve until you truly push through the wall. The reason for this is that, by default, the human body isn’t very good at burning pure fat. We’re used to burning the glycogen stored in our livers, which amounts to around 1600 kilocalories. The first few times I depleted my glycogen, I felt awful. Nausea, dizziness, lethargy – not fun things when you’re still a few miles from home. I had to eat constantly for fear that my body couldn’t digest and replenish the energy stores fast enough for me to use them.

Now that I’ve done this repeatedly, my body has learned how to do this efficiently and effectively. I’ve broken through one element of the stamina barrier. I can burn 2,000+ calories on an empty stomach and feel great. My stomach rumbles with hunger but I lose zero mental capacity. I know my stamina isn’t infinite, but it’s a great feeling to have.

I’m in the best cardiovascular shape of my life and I’m only getting better.

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Home-Economics Series 1 – Budget Rules of Thumb

Making a budget is simple. In fact, the simpler the better. Here’s how I do it.

If you’re a regular reader, you already know how I break down expenses into fixed recurring expenses and flexible ones. Fixed expenses include:

  • Housing. The cost of this depends a lot on your area, but we’ve never spent more than 30% of net pay, and I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable exceeding that. A few good rules for housing include: being within easy biking distance (<10 miles) of work, shopping, and any other regular destinations, having a place to garden, and ideally less than 200 sqft per person.
  • Communication. This includes internet and phone service. Less than $100/month is reasonable.
  • Debt. Obviously, try not to have any debt at all, but if you do have it, know exactly what you pay and what your interest rates are. Put as much free cashflow as you can each month towards the highest interest rate debt, unless all of your debt is below 4%. Between 4-5%, the “return” from pre-paying debt and real rates of return (capital gains minus inflation) from market investment will be on par with each other.
  • Health. This includes insurance and any regular prescriptions. With the rapid fluctuation in price year to year, it’s hard to offer any rule of thumb in raw dollars, but a general rule is to use a HDHP combined with an HSA whenever possible. Investing in an HSA is the single most tax-efficient vehicle offered in the US, since it avoids income and FICA taxes, and after 59.5 years can be used for general spending, not just health expenses. The exception to this rule is if you have a chronic condition where constant and regular expenditures are cheaper under a more full-coverage plan.
  • Property/Auto/Life Insurance. The primary rule of thumb here is to consider how much insurance you truly need. Wherever possible, act as your own insurance company. See this excellent post over at RootofGood for more details.
  • Utilities (water/sewer/electric/gas/trash). These will vary widely based on your area, size of residence, etc but optimize as much as possible. If you own a house, many homeowners consider the several hundred dollar cost of a professional energy audit the best money they’ve ever spent.

Where people typically trip up is in tracking flexible or consumable expenses. I use the lowest-tech method to track expenses: pen and paper. Each month I grab a blank sheet of paper (or blank side of a piece of scrap paper) and grid off 5 separate categories:

  • Necessities: this is all essential spending, including groceries and household items (toilet paper, cleaners, light bulbs, etc). Food costs vary by area, but a generous rule of thumb is $150 per person, per month including alcohol.
  • Vehicle Fuel and Maintenance: this varies based on your commute length, but drive as little as possible. If you are single or have no kids, consider not owning a car at all. I am consistently floored by how much the average American devotes to transportation. This should not be your #2 area of expenses. For us, cars are behind housing, medical, and necessities.
  • Medical Out of Pocket. Useful especially if you need to make transfers from an HSA. Personal health varies widely, but if you have regular, recurring expenses consider any and all lifestyle changes you can do to reduce or remove prescriptions and other costs from your life.
  • Discretionary. This would be any joint purchases (if you’re a couple), including furniture, appliances, and also agreed-upon spending of shared ‘couples’ money if you’re in a relationship. Any spending here should be carefully evaluated against your savings goals, whether something is available used or free through Craigslist, etc.
  • Personal. A guide to marital peace is having a monthly “mad money” account where each partner can spend, no questions asked. Consider this recommended but optional.

Now comes the reckoning. Based on your net income, how much money is left over each month? Ideally, you should be saving at least 50% of your net income. This will allow you to retire in 17 years. Considering the gains in productivity since the 19th century, you’re wasting money if you can’t hit this meager goal.* If you can’t possibly see how you could do this, comment here, but I would strongly consider posting a Case Study at the MMM forums where there are a lot of other smart people besides yours truly willing to help. If you’re on an income close to poverty level or below, read the book Early Retirement Extreme.

More than anything, open your mind. Be flexible. Money purchases time. Time is freedom.

The higher the percentage, the shorter your work life becomes. The math behind this is shockingly simple. The Goblin family is behind the eight-ball thanks to student loan debt and an underwater house not eligible for HARP, but we live on a very small percentage of our income. It will take us longer to become debt free than it will to amass enough assets to be financially independent.

*If you’re offended by the word “meager” here, you need to evaluate just how thoroughly your life is dominated by advertising and a misalinged scale of needs versus wants.


Winter Biking After One Season

We have at least one more solid month of ‘sincere’ winter here, but since I biked through my first rain storm since November, I figure I can be optimistic and say winter is ending – if not over entirely. Looking back on four months solid of cold-weather biking, I scratch my head a little at why people are so scared of it. Sure, I was scared at first, but it’s actually surprisingly easy.

The first thought I have is that hybrid bikes are the best option for most winter situations. I started the season with the only bike I’ve ever owned: a Schwinn Mesa MTB. I figured, if nothing else, it was a safe ride for the winter and by spring I could afford to buy a better bike. My lovely Alchemist insisted on buying me an early 30th birthday present, which is how I ended up with my second bike: a Trek 7500 FX.

I gave it one ride and fell in love. At the time, though, the roads were clear and dry. The tires have very light tread on them. How in the world would they perform on slush or snow? As it turns out, hybrid tires have more grip than MTB tires. The thinner profile cuts through the snow to the pavement. While I have fishtailed some, it’s a lot less prone to that behavior than my old MTB. As a final bonus, the lighter aluminum frame makes it easier to recover than the heavy steel frame. All bikes save the ridiculous “balloon” tire models will struggle in deep snow but hybrids are a great choice for road work in the winter.

My area has had a very cold winter, like much of the country, which has definitely tested my ability to stick with commuting and fitness riding. The bare essential gear you need for sub-freezing biking consists of:

  • Windproof gloves
  • Insulated boots (though feet wrapped in plastic bags can potentially “fix” standard boots/shoes)
  • A rain/wind shell (all the layers in the world mean nothing if wind and moisture cut through them).

For all the stories about getting “frostbite in X minutes” the only temperature danger happens at is below -10F. And once you hit that point, you can easily remain on the bike with additional preparation. This means a fleece face mask (on my shopping list for next winter), additional layers top and bottom, and a support network if you get stranded (friends/family, biking on or near a public transportation route).

If temperatures in your area reach a sustained -20F, it will also be a great idea to replace your standard lubrication with low-temperature snowmobile grease on shift/brake levers, rear derailleur, and the freewheel.

Don’t be scared of biking in the cold. It’s challenging but rewarding in a way that cozy gym exercise isn’t. Ask questions. Experiment. Resist the temptation to buy gear unless you truly need it.

Bike as many days as you can, even if it’s short distances. I spent most of the season biking 3-4 days a week. Over the past week I’ve biked every single day, and my body feels great. I can’t fit longer rides in 7 days a week but my stress level is so much lower now that I ride every day. When you skip a day, it’s so easy to skip another, and another because ‘it’s snowing’ or ‘it’s cold’ or ‘I’m tired’. NO. Bike every day, if you can. Even if, like this morning, I gave up after 9 miles and 40 minutes because the rain was so bad I had a half-inch of water in my boots.*

Did you bike this winter? How’d you fare?

*Boots are waterproof, but my pants weren’t. Sigh. Used some of my personal money to order rain pants after I thawed out. 33F rain is COLD.


If school is about skills, why do they ignore the most essential ones?

Education is a critical component of society. Without new members acquiring knowledge to replace the ones leaving their productive lives by choice, illness, or death society would collapse. Time is a river moving inexorably forward and generations must keep up with it or the human race will vanish.

Let’s ignore theories of education in particular. As someone who homeschools, it’s guaranteed I have strong opinions about that, but I want to talk about education in a broad sense. What’s the core of modern education?

  • Reading
  • Math
  • Communication
  • Specialized knowledge (e.g., sciences, history, geography)

All of these can be tested. Competency can be evaluated. Schools, states, and countries can be ranked.

Thinking back on my own experience, my formal education all but ignored the two most critical skills people need. This is true for any particular individual as well as the broad sense of preparing the next generation:

  • Personal Fitness
  • Personal Finance

Whoa, whoa. What about all the mandatory hours of Physical Education? Let me ask you this: did you learn a single useful bit of fitness knowledge in PE class? I certainly didn’t. Maybe you did. That’s okay, we can set it aside. It’s the second neglected skill that’s my real concern in this post.

I’ll put it this way: other than how to count it, did you learn anything about money in school? Anything even remotely connected to it? Maybe you had an Economics class, but I never had a single lesson on personal finance.

One of my biggest motivations for homeschooling was a desire to educate my children in a non-traditional manner. The core of reading, math, and communication is something we’re already working on. They soak up factual science knowledge and are learning to observe the world around them. I plan to start them on programming at a very young age (first, I have to learn it though!).

But a critical aspect of this non-traditional education is how to be healthy, physically and financially. Frugal living, to me, is only peripherally about delayed gratification. Yes, I need to save money now to retire in the (not-distant) future. Living frugally is also about living with a low environmental impact. Being a good steward of the environment around me. None of this is taught in schools.

“Well, it should be taught in the home!”

Obvious, I am doing that with my goblins. Look at the health, physical and financial, of those around you. Clearly it’s not being taught by most.


Valentine’s Leap

IndyfootHow do you express love?

First, you have to understand what love is. Love is seeing a person as they are. Labels are burned like the mental chaff they are. Thoughts go from waves to ripples to a perfectly still reflecting pool. Hovering over the pool is a perfect, unquenchable fire.

It is you. It is the other. It is one.

Old love can be cozy, it can be predictable, but I think the key to deep love is the capacity to surprise. We should cherish every time our beloved surprises us.

Humans can be conditioned, genetically programmed, but at our core is freedom of choice. I have choice. My beloved has choice. Agency means that at the core of every person is something that’s utterly unknowable*. Every time they surprise us, then, it’s one more layer of unknowability peeled back. It’s one more petal of the beautiful flower in bloom.

As tempting as it is, I don’t want to make any comment on Valentine’s Day consumerism, anti-consumerism, or the relative merits of each. What I want to do is meditate, still myself, and reflect on the fact that my beloved has at her core something that is utterly unknowable. A mystery that’s perpetually unfolding but can never exhaust itself. Between us is a chasm, an abyss.

Love is the leap of faith across that abyss.

Rejoice in the unknown mystery.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

*For the more scholarly among us, I have in mind something akin to Pseudo-Dionysius’ idea, in The Divine Names, that God is hyperousios, beyond-being.


A very preliminary retirement budget

I’ve been thinking about this the past few days and finally added a worksheet to my Google Drive budget spreadsheet with a FIRE number based on a preliminary budget. The idea is to put together a reasonable annual budget, then multiply it by 25 to arrive at the amount of assets it would require based on a 4% withdrawal rate.

Here goes:

  • Groceries/Essentials $6000 (This is based on our current budget. If we FIRE after the kids are gone, this could be cut nearly in half.)
  • Housing- Insurance/Taxes $2500
  • Housing- Maintenance/Improvement $2000
  • Utility – Gas/Electric $2400 (This can be lower with efficiency improvement, but energy prices WILL go up. Hedging here.)
  • Utility – Water $1000
  • Utility – Cell Phone $900
  • Utility – Internet $720
  • Auto – Fuel $900
  • Auto – Maintenance/Improvement $1000
  • Medical/Dental $3400 (This is a very gray area. I pulled this from RootofGood’s budget. A lot of my research over the next few years is going to be nailing down this aspect of our retirement budget. It’s also really hard to forecast given how crazy American healthcare is right now.)
  • Gifts $500
  • Personal Spending Money $1200 (Clothes, games, music, electronics, bike/tools, etc)
  • Dining Out $600
  • Travel $4000 (This is generous for both domestic or international travel. It also functions as a cushion. If we have a bad year of unexpected expenses, we simply reduce travel spending.)
  • Annual Total: $27,120

The NUMBER (assuming no future income): $678,000

The NUMBER (assuming $15,000 annual part-time income): $303,000

*Note: our current net worth is -$28,948 (updated quarterly)

The first NUMBER is about what I expected. What I found interesting is how dramatically the FIRE number changes with even a modest amount of income. I pull $15,000 in easily at my current job, and that’s only 14 hours a week. If the Alchemist and I both worked, we might even leisurely hit the $25K mark and not even touch our retirement assets at all except for major emergencies. In fact, I think both of us probably will work some during retirement (don’t call the Internet Retirement Police).

What this budget doesn’t include is any college savings for the kids. This is a very controversial topic in the personal finance community. I generally come down on the side of having the kids try career paths that either don’t involve college (trades, entrepreneur, etc) or attending college while/after working so that they don’t incur any debt. It’s hard to say what will happen with the college bubble in 10 years when my oldest has to worry about it.

Rental income or dividend yields would also be a way of lowering the NUMBER but require capital to generate income. I’m tempted to dive in to either strategy but currently the guaranteed return involved in paying down our 6.5% debt is a much more enticing option.


Homeschooling Rhythm

Rhythm is weird word. I have to think about it every time I spell it. But it’s crucial to living the good life.

Earth, nature, and even our own (often) artificial lives need rhythm. The seasons move. Appetites and activity levels wax and wane with the weather.

It can be easy to find yourself out of whack when you homeschool. There’s no forced schedule. If, like us, you aren’t part of a co-op, there’s precious few points of reference to use as a progress meter. New days bring new opportunities, but I find it’s important to develop a core rhythm. You can improvise or syncopate but you need a base melody to work from.

I was scared of winter. Every homeschooling parent told me February was the test of homeschooling. They had horror stories of being sick, cooped up in the house, and perpetually at each other’s throats. It was hard to keep their kids motivated. Our house is small. The kids and I use little more than 300 sqft of living space 99% of the time. Could we really survive when that was it and I couldn’t send them outside? (Despite being hardy Wisconsin stock none of us have particularly relished snow sports this year.)

Surprisingly, February has been our best month of homeschooling so far. The girls don’t grumble over math time. In fact, they’re kicking butt on their worksheets and we’re almost ready to move on to a new unit (multiplication). We’re having fun learning about 19th century life with the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I’m not sure how much soaks in, but they ask enough questions that I’m hopeful. I feel like we accomplish a little bit each day and in a short enough time that they get free play and I get writing time.

I’m looking forward to warmer weather when we can get our first vegetable garden in, but I’ll make sure to keep the core rhythm strong even when there’s a need to get stuff done. I don’t want to lose the routine just as we’ve gotten it.