An Addiction To Books

Hello, I’m m741, and I used to be addicted to books. Well, to admit the truth… I still am. I have a problem. But I’m working on it.

I don’t own very much, but I do have a lot of books. Three years ago, I had 8 bookcases of books. 25 books/shelf * 6 shelves/case * 8 cases = 1200 books. Maybe 1250. And they’re fucking heavy! Jesus, moving was a pain.

Why do I love books so much? I had a lot of them, after all, so there must be some reason. I’ll tell you why: I loved books because they represented a better me. Books I’d read that changed me, or books I wanted to read that would make me more informed. A huge library of personal entertainment available right in front of me. But the hard truth is that I don’t do so much reading: roughly a book each week. At that rate, it would have taken me 24 years to read all the books I owned. What’s the point in that?

Two years ago, I eliminated a bookcase – down to 7. I’d gotten a crappy e-reader and threw out all the classics I owned but would probably never read. Pygmalion, Dante’s Inferno, The Good Earth — so long, goodbye. I could buy them for cheap of get them free.

But to me the real turning point was when I first downloaded a collection of books. In 20 minutes it’s trivial to download many times more books than I had accumulated in 20 years. Books have entered a post-scarcity world. We’re just flooded with the things. It’s not like I would enjoy reading any faster. I could have 100,000 digital books, and wouldn’t matter to me at all. It might even make me less happy since I could still only read 50 books per year.

This past year, I’ve eliminated another bookcase – down to 6. Each weekend I take a load of books – 10-15 books each week – to a book sale in a local church. I’d like to eliminate another case or two this year. Progress, right?

Here’s a few tips I’ve uncovered:

  • When choosing books to eliminate, ask why you are holding onto them. Some books I’ve read, and they’re meaningful to me: I get pleasure seeing them on my shelf. A close friend or relative ahs given me other books, and they’re a memento of that person. I see no reason to eliminate these books.. Some books, I have because I thought they’d be interesting, but they weren’t interesting enough to read for 4+ years! Some books, I got because I’d heard they were good, but I really have no interest in reading at all.
  • Libraries are great, but they don’t always work. I can’t go to the library on a weekday, because I work too late. And on a weekend, I don’t want to walk half an hour to the library and half an hour back. So I was constantly having overdue books, and that gets expensive quick. The booksale is much better – not as good a selection, but I’d rather buy a book for 50 cents (or free!) and be able to hold onto it for two months, and maybe even keep it if I really like it. I’ve probably spent about $15 on 20-30 books this past year, and returned 10-15 of them after reading (or deciding not to read them).
  • Read your books! The biggest reason I held onto books was because I thought they looked interesting and couldn’t bear to discard them unread. After I’ve read them, I have no such compunction donating them.
  • Record your readings. Another sticking point was that I wanted to remember everything I’d read by pointing to it on the shelf. But it’s actually a lot easier to point to it on a website. You can use something like GoodReads to record everything you read. Or just a spreadsheet or text file.
  • There’s little to no reason to hold onto any public domain books, or books which you can find cheap online. They take up no space on your hard drive… and one hard drive is physically smaller than a single book.

Skill a Week: Apartment Cleaning

Forgive me, this is closer to a realization and a few tips. Every weekend where I don’t have something planned, I tell myself “this weekend, I’m going to do a great job cleaning my apartment!” And I never do. Now, there’s no particular reason for me to clean, usually. Sure, it’s nice to have a clean apartment, and I feel more responsible when I have one, but in the end I could instead live in squalor.

When my back’s against the wall, though, it’s awfully easy to clean an apartment. For instance, between Friday night and Saturday morning, I spent about six hours cleaning. And in that time, I totally re-arranged two rooms (a much better arrangement), cleaned a kitchen counter full of dishes, scrubbed the stove, cleaned the bathroom, mopped five rooms, changed bed linens, moved my computer, and dozens of other small things. In six hours! And that’s the amount of time I spend procrastinating on a normal weekend!

So, the lesson here is that, once you get started, it’s shockingly easy to do a serious amount cleaning, so long as you put your mind to it.

And here’s a very simple cleaning tip I picked up. Previously my cleaning arsenal had mostly consisted of windex, bleach, draino, paper towels, vinegar and baking soda. At a dollar store I found 6 dishrags in a bundle for $1 (they’re very shoddy/loosely knit). They’re so much more effective and re-usable than paper towels. First you can use them for drying things, then wiping down mostly-clean surfaces, then mopping up drink spills, and then finally cleaning/scrubbing seriously dirty things – one dishrag can easily replace a roll of paper towels. If they get disgusting, you can throw them out; if they’re just dirty, you can run them through the washing machine. One thing I cleaned was the stove – I think paper towels are too soft to cut through accumulated oil spatter, but the dishrags were rough enough that it posed no problem.

Also useful – using an old sponge to cut through layers of grime in the bathtub or bathroom sink. I’d used paper towels here as well and they always left some grime behind. But after 2-3 months of use a sponge gets gross and is only suitable for this type of cleaning (or wiping down kitchen counters).

Skill a Week: Knife Sharpening

The last set of knives I bought was probably 5 years ago. They were wonderfully sharp when I bought them, now they’ve become dull. After all, 5 years of wear is quite a bit (I also inherited a few cheap knives that probable hadn’t been sharpened in 15 years)! Of course, since I’m trying to cook more frequently, it’s important to have a razor-sharp knife.

So, it was either replace the knives or sharpen them. And if to sharpen, what method to use? Well, if you asked me 5 years ago, I might have just replaced them. I suspect a lot of people end up doing that. But these were decent knives, so I didn’t want to get rid of them. Then, the question became how to sharpen the knives. There’s a lot of options. For instance, I was considering this Accusharp knife sharpener.

I was really enthusiastic at first, but I also felt uncomfortable. There was a dissonance I felt when considering this purchase that made me uncomfortable. First, the reviews were mixed. The device sounded effective, but according to experts it was damaging to some knives. I didn’t want that – but then, if I sharpened by hand I’m sure I wouldn’t do a great job either. Worst than being semi-effective, it was a cheap, disposable solution for knife sharpening. It also wasn’t “traditional,” and in the end, even if I saved time, I wouldn’t learn anything that could be usefully applied to other edged devices. So – it was down to sharpening by hand.

I ended up buying a Japanese waterstone (I might also buy a sharpening steel next year). I’m not sure exactly what it’s made of, but it feels like a very smooth, dry, piece of fabricated stone. When I say it feels dry, I mean it – it’s as though it sucks the moisture out of your hands when you handle it. You have to let it soak before using it – hence the name ‘waterstone’.

I looked up a few Youtube tutorials, and found this one featuring an older Japanese chef the most useful.

I also learned a few things through experience. First, leaning over the stone is important to maintaining the right angle of the blade through the full stroke. Second, the slurry of stone powder generated by sharpening is critical – as it gets generated, the sharpening goes better and better. Maintaining that slurry on top of the stone is key.

I sharpened five knives, and it ended up taking me an hour. I bet after another few sessions of sharpening, I’d be able to do the same 5 knives in half an hour. The knives are delightfully sharp. To me, the best test is with a tomato. By the end of my sharpening, I could simply hold the knife on top of a tomato and it would be able to slice right through.

This is a skill that’s only periodically useful, maybe every few months. But I enjoyed sharpening. Once I got a rhythm going, it was almost meditative, and it also felt good to be doing something by hand.

Skill a Week: Frugal Apartment Clothes Cleaning

A bit late, maybe, but the skill I’d like to highlight this week is a cheaper way of cleaning clothes (particularly for apartment-dwellers).

Prior to this year, I had lived in a building that had a washer & dryer, except for two years in college. It’s a huge pain having to travel to do laundry; even worse, if you work odd hours you might not be able to get to a laundromat. Here’s the solution I’ve worked out:

I bought a small portable washing machine. There are two varieties: a hand-operated model, and an electric washer. I went with the electric model, because I’m lazy. Its priced at $250, but 9 months in, I’m happy with it. Assuming it doesn’t break for another year or two, I won’t have any complaints.

It’s light enough to be easily carried by two people. It’s 17″ by 17″, and under 3 feet tall. It uses a regular power outlet, and a nozzle attachment you put on a sink. The waste water goes into the tub. The load size is enough for a king-sized sheet, plus maybe a few socks, or 8-10 undershirts. Like I said, it’s already paid for itself in terms of convenience. If I assumed the laundromat would cost $5/week, I’m approaching payoff in pure cost terms as well.

In addition to the small electric washer, I have a drying rack (from Ikea). Everything dries on it, and there’s no wear on clothes compared to a heated dryer. If I had a yard, I’d use a clothesline… but I don’t. For half my clothes (sheets, towels, underclothes, some shirts), the drying rack is good enough. For the other half, particularly work clothes, I don’t want the wrinkles. I have two solutions here. Historically I’ve just taken all the work clothes – a single huge load is feasible, since they’re all pre-dried – and carried it to the laundromat, where 50 cents and 15 minutes is enough to heat and de-wrinkle.

However, that’s kind of a pain, and some clothes just need a quick once-over, so I’ve been (re-)teaching myself to iron clothes. I don’t mind the process of ironing. It can be rather calming. On the hole, it probably costs the same as the laundromat, in electricity terms. But it’s convenient to be able to do just a few shirts at a time.

Skill a Week: Cheap Food

The inaugural “Skill a Week” is one way I’ve been practicing to make cheap food: rice and beans (or, a vegetarian chili). It’s cheap, healthy, and tastes good. What’s not to like?

By the way, I don’t claim to be an expert. I’ve prepared this dish probably 10 times or so and consider this variation a success.

The Recipe

This recipe provides enough for 6 cereal bowl-size servings. If you usually eat a large volume of food, like me, that probably translates to 4 meals that will stuff you.

Ingredients

Note that this is just a rough guideline – feel free to toss whatever in. I’ve included costs for the full batch, based on buying store brand foods, but not in bulk, in the NYC area. I really just have a rough guideline for the cost of spices; suffice it to say that ethnic grocers and non-name brand (ie, non-McCormick) spices are the way to go. Also, feel free to experiment. I’ve tried some garam masala, sriracha sauce, vegetable broth, bay leaf, etc. The key spices are chili powder, garlic, and lemon juice – the lemon juice in particular makes a huge difference.

Ingedient Qty Cal Fat Carb Protein Cost ($)
Garlic Paste 2 Tbsp 15 0 6 2 .15
Goya Salsa 1 Cup 85 0 20 0 1.05
Dried Black Beans 3 Cups 1200 0 264 84 2.25
Brown Rice (Dry) 1 Cup 685 5.5 143 15 .30
Onion 2 Medium 100 0 23.5 2 .75
Lemon Juice Concentrate 1/4 Cup 0 0 0 0 .15
Chili Powder 2 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Cumin Seeds 1 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Turmeric 1 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Black Pepper 1 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Salt 1 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Olive Oil 2 Tbsp 240 28 0 0 .50
Total 2325 33.5 456 103 5.40
Per Serving 388 5.5 76 17 .90

Preparation

  1. Beans are (ahem) well-known to be gassy. However, proper preparation can reduce this unfortunately side-effect substantially. The key is to get the beans pre-soaked, which starts to destroy some of the chemicals that lead to gas. I start preparing the beans about 2 hours before I begin cooking. Take 3 cups of dried beans and put them in a pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. As soon as the water is boiling, turn off the stove and let the beans sit for 1 hour. They’ll absorb a lot of water during this time. After the first hour, strain the beans and rinse – you’ll see a ton of black run-off. Put them back in the pot, and cover with water again. Wait another hour and then strain them again. This is pretty flexible, you can try 45 minutes or 90 minutes or whatever.
  2. Dice up the onions, and fry in a pan. I add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Then I add the black pepper, 1/2 the garlic paste, 1/2 the chili, and the cumin. It smells really good. Continue frying for about 5 minutes while preparing the other ingredients.
  3. I cook my beans in a pressure cooker. I’ll put some oil in the bottom to prevent burning, and spread that around, then dump the beans in. Add in 1 cup of dry rice, and then 5 1/2 cups of water. The water is also flexible, I found 5 1/2 cups gives about the consistency I want, thin enough to eat with a spoon, but not soupy.
  4. Add the onions to the beans, the rest of the garlic, the rest of the chili, and the turmeric. Bring the pressure cooker up to pressure
  5. Cook 30 minutes after reaching pressure, then turn off the heat and wait 5-10 minutes for the pressure to subside.
  6. Open the pressure cooker, and add 1/4 cup lemon juice, and 1 cup of whatever cheap salsa you found. Add salt to taste. The chili will be mildly spicy, at this point I add in additional hot sauce. The salt and tomatoes/lemon (both of which are acidic), if added earlier, will give the beans a tougher texture, this is why I wait until most of the cooking is done before adding these ingredients.
  7. Cover the pressure cooker again, and cook at pressure for 10-15 minutes
  8. Done! I add some cheese to my chili before serving; I’ve found that at heat even big chunks of 75% fat free cheese will melt (usually fat free cheese melts poorly). Store leftovers for work lunches or dinner.
  9. I don’t have a microwave, so to reconstitute I put 1/2 tablespoon of oil in a pot to prevent burning, add 1-1.5 servings of chili, and then ~1/2 cup of water, and heat for 7-8 minutes.

Hopefully this was useful. I enjoy the chili and for 90 cents per serving, the price is right, too. Any suggestions would be appreciated. The latest thing I heard was to try adding cinnamon; I might also try cocoa powder.

Hurricane

So this past weekend there was a hurricane in my area. It wasn’t much of an event, for me. I lost power for 3 days, but it could have been much worse. Nonetheless, there were two take-aways: I’m not prepared for serious disasters, and … what am I doing with my life?

Emergency Preparedness

I’ve always considered coolness under pressure, and being prepared for unusual situations, to be among my skills. (I suppose many people feel the same way, the same as everybody considers themselves an above-average driver). My presumption made my unpreparedness for this hurricane all the more jarring.

When I say that carrying myself well in serious situations is my strong point, I mean that I’m pretty proud of the way I’ve handled the few difficult or emergency situations I’ve been in. I’m also an Eagle Scout, I’ve backpacked for over a week at a time, I know basic first aid and so on. I try to think about different eventualities, and I’m very careful when hiking.

Nonetheless, after the hurricane, with stores closed and no power, I was left with some pasta and beans. Most of the other dry food I had was expired. So I subsisted on chili, macaroni & cheese, a can of pineapple chunks. I didn’t have candles or even a true flashlight, but I did have two little single-LED lights that I was able to use. Without those I would have been in bad shape once it got dark out.

I need to keep more supplies at hand. Although for the NYC metro area, this was a major disaster, I feel like many places, even in the US, can have much more serious disasters (earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Florida/Gulf Coast, Tornadoes in Kansas). Personally I think that disasters are going to become more frequent, and I’d like to be able to weather any disaster without having to worry about rushing to buy supplies. Such desperate actions indicate a softness that I don’t find appealing. I’d also like to be able to draw on fresh knowledge if I’m confronted with a serious medical problem, or whatnot. In my daydreams I’m all set for a survival/post-apocalyptic situations, but reality doesn’t bear those dreams out.

I Stepped Into a Hurricane

I had no electricity for three days, and absent that, much of my identity disappeared. There were only three things I did without power: sleep, read, and feed myself. That’s pretty much it, and I find that disturbing. I have essentially no non-electronic hobbies. When I think about life in the 19th century, this is what I find most confusing. There’s some evidence that people were a bit bored back then: for instance Edward Everett’s speech preceding Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was about two hours long, and people considered it short. Can you imagine people wanting to listen to a single speech for two hours today? Still, it seems like people kept busy.

Overall it seems people worked about the same hours as people today, or had seasonal hours – such as when farming. I’m sure people read, maybe played a musical instrument or knitted. Letter-writing, conversation and drinking were popular past-times, much more than today. But what else were people doing? I find it baffling, they must have done other things. What could I do, that would keep me occupied and engaged if I had no power?

At this point, I’m looking to institute a “no electricity hour,” where I’d shut down everything electric except a light, and then figure out how to keep myself occupied.

I’m also distressed at my lack of worthwhile skills. I’m re-reading Shop Class as Soulcraft, and it resonates as much as the first time. I’m totally disengaged from the real world. I can barely feed myself, fer chrissakes. I’m not mechanically inclined, can barely repair anything, or build things on my own.

To remediate this, I’m planning on starting a series on this blog called Skill a Week, where I’ll describe some skill I’ve taught myself, why it’s useful/interesting from a self-sufficiency and frugality perspective, and provide tips/instructions for people also interested in learning that skill. Don’t expect any skill to be particularly complicated; the idea is it’s something to pick up in a short amount of time and use with regularity. It could be a recipe/cooking skill, a way to repair something, a new way of learning, and so on. I want to be forced to push my boundaries and maybe help other people learn as well.

An Ode to Spices

I hope you’ll forgive me, but… spices are the spice of life. Wait, wait… don’t go. I’m serious.

Somehow the only spices you see at restaurants are black pepper, salt, and sometimes tabasco sauce. Fuck tabasco sauce, the stuff is nasty. There’s a ton of awesome spices out there. Essentially no calories, often very cheap, and they add a ton of flavor.

A few of my favorite spices/additives (which go into almost anything):

  • Crushed red pepper. Traditionally this is usually used on pizza, but it’s great with eggs, mac and cheese, fried tofu, etc
  • Garlic. Garlic powder is good, but even better is crushed garlic – it’s refrigerated and usually has some liquid in it: a big container of it is maybe $5. After warming up some oil in a frying pan, toss some in. Smells great.
  • Mustard. Very good in Mac & Cheese. Very cheap for plain yellow mustard
  • Chili powder. Adds some nice flavor to savory dishes
  • Indian spices. Most indian dishes use some combination of the following spices: cardamon, cumin, garam masala, chili powder, coriander.
  • Cinnamon. Good for sweeter dishes. Spices up oatmeal, milkshakes, etc
  • Lemon juice. Great for fruit smoothies and other dishes, can really bring out the flavor of things
  • Unsweetened chocolate. It’s low calorie. While I’m not a fan of it on its own, it can make chocolate flavor much more intense.
  • Hot sauce. I’ll probably have to write a full post on hot sauce. I add it to almost everything. Most people only think of tabasco sauce when they think of hot sauce, and it’s just an embarrassment. It’s not even spicy. There’s a lot of great-tasting hot sauce out there that can improve just about any food. Here’s my favorite kind right now (El Yucateco Habanero)

Spices are super cheap, too. Here’s how much cinnamon I can purchase for $5:

This is fuckton of cinnamon.

That’s 16 ounces of cinnamon – almost a half kil! A lot of spices are that cheap – there’s a whole rack of these containers at the supermarket. I know spices can lose intensity over time… just use more.

The Cost of Entertainment

Something you may not think about, in so many words, is the hourly cost of entertainment. For things that fall into the pure entertainment category, such as movies, TV, books, games, etc, there’s a huge spread in value.

The worst offenders are movies. In a theater, you’re spending between 3 and 10 dollars per person, per hour of entertainment (depending upon whether you catch a matinee, and whether you’re watching 3D, Imax, etc). On DVD, the cost can drop significantly, because multiple people can watch, and you’ll usually end up watching a bought movie at least 3-4 times. So that can drop the cost to under $1 per person/hour. Rentals are a great option. Via Redline, DVDs can be 25 cents per person-hour (2 hour movie, for 2 people, for a $1 rental). And there’s always the library.

TV can be expensive – if you’ve got cable. Then you’re spending roughly $50 per month – assuming 2 people watch 2 hours a day (that’s a lot of TV), then you’re spending about 20 cents per hour of entertainment. On the other hand, network TV is free – but you sit through commercials, and most network shows have little redeeming value.

Books are highly variable. A $10 new book will probably cost 2-$3 per hour of entertainment, which is pricy. But used books are very common, and very cheap – usually $1 or less. For used paperbacks (25 or 50 cents), the cost per hour is maybe 5 cents. That’s a great deal! The library is another option here.

Finally, there’s games. I think these can frequently be the best value of all. If you buy a video game on sale on Steam, it’s usually 75% to 90% off – I refuse to spend more than $10 on a game now.

Let’s say that hypothetically you bought Age of Empires III on Steam – the complete package, the game and 2 expansions, was $10, and this is rather expensive for a 3-4 year old game. I’ve probably put upwards of 50 hours into that game. And it’s by no means the most engrossing game I’ve played. I’ve probably put several hundred hours into earlier Age of Empires games, Unreal Tournament, etc. The cost per hour typically goes under 5 cents. The key here is to focus on ‘true games,’ rather than games which are a form of interactive cinema. Half Life – which is super high-quality – is pretty much an on-rails shooter with limited replay value. The same goes for a lot of other popular games. On the other hand, Starcraft is really closer in function to chess – there are distinct skills which require a lot of dedication to master.

Speaking of chess – board games are something I’ve recently gotten into, and they’re also a great value. I’ll give an example: my friend recently purchased a board game expansion (7 Wonders: Leaders). This cost $20. 4 people played this game for 5 hours this past weekend. So the cost per person-hour was $1. And this was the first play! Assuming the game is well-done, you’ll play the game a lot more. The cost can easily drop below 10-15 cents per person-hour. And this isn’t including “game sets,” such as checkers (with which you can play dozens of different games) or a standard pack of playing cards.

So – this is just something to consider. Sometimes it’s worth spending to see a movie in a theater – but usually there are far more rewarding options. And this isn’t even discussing hobbies. Gardening or woodworking can even earn you money, and you get to develop skills.

Comprehensive Guide to Tracking Your Finances

I’ve got a few questions for you about your finances… go ahead and tally up the questions you can respond to. What investment returns would you need if you wanted to retire today? What dividend stocks have posted consistent returns annually? How much did you spend last month on food? How much did you earn in dividends? At current rates, how long do you have to wait to retire? If you’re laid off, how long will you last without a job? What percent of your income have you saved each month? Is your savings rate better than last year? If you want to travel, what type of hotel costs the same as staying at home? Exactly how much do you have saved in checking accounts, safety deposits, investment accounts, your 401k? What were your big expenses two months ago?

A few years ago I couldn’t answer any of that. Now, it’s a button-click away. So I figure it’s about time for a comprehensive summary of my method for tracking all my retirement and financial independence variables. First I’ll go through some arguments why you should use this method for tracking data, then I’ll go through how to set it up for yourself and use it. Finally, before we get started, a big shout-out to Akratic on the ERE forum. Although I’ve made changes, updated, and re-arranged, I’d estimate that 75% of the spreadsheet is based on his original version.

What Does This Data-Tracking Method Give Me?

Before 2011, my biggest financial problem wasn’t income, or student debt, or anything like that. It was that I had no idea what I was spending, earning, or how my finances impacted my future! This is bad from a pure empirical perspective, but it felt even worse psychologically. I was unmooored – unconfident in my finances and unsure of my future. Sure I had some savings in the bank, but what if I was laid off? When I tried to cut costs, was I really making progress? How could I best reduce expenses if I didn’t know what I spent on?

Those are reasons for tracking your finances. Why use this sheet?

It gives you access to a ton of your data, in a way that makes sense for you, which you can configure how you want. Also it’s free. All those questions above – you’ll get answers to them. I’ve tested this sheet for two years, and I think other people have used derived versions of the same sheet. So I’d say it’s well-polished and has proven its usefulness.

Why use a spreadsheet at all?

There are other options for saving all your financial information. You could use something like Quicken, or you could try Mint.com or other websites.

I’m not going to pretend that a spreadsheet is more automated than either of those two solutions — it’s not. But the total amount of time you can expect to spend is probably a few hours of setup and adjusting to perfection, and then maybe 2-5 minutes entering data each day, and an hour reviewing once per month. I think this is well worth it for any data geek (or anyone who wants to carefully analyze their finances).

I prefer the lac of automation, anyway: it’s difficult for me to gloss over expenses. It forces me to review all my account balances monthly to make sure they’re sensible. It reminds me to pay bills which can’t be automated.

Finally, Quicken and Mint are not built for people like you or me who are considering retirement or financial independence. The data that we most want concerns time to retirement, dividend stocks, and various ways of viewing this information. The worst thing is inputting all your data into a system and then finding that it won’t tell you what you want. With a spreadsheet, that data is always available, just a formula away. Not to mention, it’s a whole lot easier to re-arrange data in a spreadsheet than in proprietary financial software.

One last thing – although this spreadsheet is manual, that means it’s one less safety risk for you. No providing bank account info to external parties.

You’ve convinced me! How can I get started?

The first thing to do is to go to the google docs page which contains the spreadsheet.

Upon opening, you’ll see a row of tabs at the bottom. At the top is standard file info; there are controls for display and a function bar (this is useful if you want to write your own formulas). Under “File,” select “Make a Copy,” put in your new filename, and you should be ready start entering your own data and exploring the spreadsheet. See below for information on all the features.

I’ve filled in this spreadsheet with fake data, so don’t try too much to match the stated expenses to income or other fields. For your own version, you can zero everything out and just replace the data for January.

Summary Tab

The first, summary, tab is intuitively titled “Summary”. This is your dashboard for monthly info. Total expenses, investment returns, net worth, time to retirement, target savings rates, Your Money or Your Life crossover points, and much more is presented here.

Most of this data is aggregated from the other sheets. I manually enter my average investment income from my stock broker, but this is a redundant field you may not want to use. Otherwise you shouldn’t have to adjust anything on this tab. There are some rows with subtly different data. For instance, “Simple Months Saved” assumes you have only cash and spend your current expense level each month. “Months Saved with Interest” uses a standard formula to calculate your interest earned, less the previous month’s expenses, until you run out of money.

However, there’s some things to play around with (helpfully titled “To Play Around With”). First there’s the SWR, which is what you estimate as investment returns. You can see how bull or bear markets could impact your future. Generally this should be kept at 4%, but if you’re conservative, change it to 3% (or experiment with 5%, etc).

Second, there’s a standard of living adjustment. If you currently live in an expensive city and plan on moving to a cheaper city (or a cheaper apartment, etc), adjust this. Alternately, if you plan on moving somewhere more expensive, you can adjust for that as well. The value “100” will reduce your expenses by 100, and trigger a recalculation of all the derived values. “-100” will increase your expenses by 100.

Finally, post-tax income can be used to adjust your savings rate. Maybe you’re 10 years from retirement, but if you get that $5k raise, you’ve just saved 2 years! Or you hate your job and want to move somewhere calmer, it will only cost you 1 year.

Finances Tab

Here is a month-by-month breakdown of your expenses and income by category. Check to see your trends on food expenses, entertainment, clothing, or something else.

Also useful is a savings rate check (and graph). Standard financial advice is to save 10% of your salary. Terrible! See if you can keep it at 50%, 60% or even 90%. The higher the better.

All the data here should be pulled from the other sheets – no need to enter anything at all. Just double-check some of the values.

+FI/-FI Tabs

The next two tabs are data tabs, representing income and expenses (+FI signifying income – increasing financial independence).

Taking a peek inside, there are two internal columns (colored light gray), and then columns for the year, month, category, and total expenses.

The behavior for income and expenses is a little different. Typically I only have 2-4 sources of income in a given month: my paychecks, some dividends, maybe a gift or selling a car or something. So I record all this directly on the +FI tab.

On the other hand, I usually have a ton of individual expenses. I want to store these each day. I do that on the next tab, itemized expenses. -FI should pull the data from there automatically.

As mentioned, I edit the +FI tab directly, adding a new row whenever something hits my bank account.

The -FI tab needs to be edited as well: each month I will copy the lines from the previous month and increment the month (eg, from 1 to 2 when starting February). After this I confirm that the greyed-out lines match up with the new month. Then, I can ignore this tab for another month.

Itemized Expenses tab

This is definitely the most-edited tab. Each day when I spend money, I go in and choose a category for each expense, and write a little note with details.

As with the FI tabs, you should double-check your data, particularly if copying or pasting rows. These expenses should be aggregated automatically in the -FI tab.

Net Worth Tab

Arguably my favorite tab, this is dedicated to showing the change in your net worth over time, breaking it down into separate accounts and debits.

The first column is used if you want to set aside certain accounts for non-retirement purposes – maybe travel or a new car, maybe you treat your 401k differently. “1” indicates something that will be used for retirement. “0” indicates something that is not intended for that.

The next column is just a convenient placeholder, if you feel like storing your account name. All the following columns are basically raw data. I enter this info on the 1st or 2nd of every month. It provides a good break and hopefully shows some progress I might not have felt on a day-by-day basis.

Investments Tab

This final tab is an attempt to track investments. It will pull in data automatically from external sources like Yahoo! Finance or Google Finance.

This is in no way intended to be comprehensive. Mostly I wanted to screen and review stocks based on dividend info, which my broker is sorely lacking, and which is difficult to drill into on most sites.

First there’s some raw data. You should enter your shares and unit cost, everything else on the row should be calculated automatically. PnL stands for “Profit and Loss,” and is the total amount of money you have earned or lost so far (in pure stock price terms). Percent gain is relative to the amount you invested to start with. The market price used for these calculations is pulled from Google Finance automatically.

EPS stands for “Earnings Per Share,” and is the reported earnings for the company over the last year. This is also sourced from Google Finance.

The next set of columns is about dividend info. The data here is actually a manipulated table of each individual dividend payment from Yahoo! Finance and can be a little rough. In particular, if a company changes the dates of its dividends, that is not reflected.

Payout is the amount of earnings that were paid to shareholders as a dividend: a high value here is bad, because it is usually less sustainable (there is leeway for the company to sustain bad quarters without cutting dividends). If I see this at 80% or 90% I will investigate.

Annual Dividend and Annual Income are the total dividend payouts over the last calendar year, and the total income you received from the company over the last calendar year (assuming you owned it for the full year).

Previous Dividend and Previous Income are the same values, but for the year before. The idea here is to check, on a stock-by-stock basis, whether you received a “raise” or “pay cut” for holding this stock.

Finally, there’s a dividend worksheet. I use this for screening. Enter a name and you’ll see the total dividends each year for the past 5 years, the percent increase or decrease in dividends, and finally a plot of price changes over time. I would absolutely double-check this data befor e making a purchasing decision – but I find it useful to start my buying (or selling) process.

End

Hopefully this was useful. If you have any questions, feel free to ask below and I’ll try to answer as best I can. If you use this and have any upgrades or suggestions, I’d be happy to hear those as well! I’ll also try to keep this guide as updated as possible, as things change over time.

My Language-Learning Method

You can go about learning a language in a variety of ways – for instance, you could pick up a textbook and start memorizing grammar rules. Or you could pick up a dictionary and start memorizing each type of fruit or vegetable. That’s typically what you learn in school, but it’s not a very effective method and discourages a lot of people.

Another popular method is ‘immersion’ where you are forced to converse in the language, starting very simple, and without English as a recourse. I believe this is a great method if you can truly become immersed. But it requires at least one other person and ideally a bunch of people speaking the other language.

As someone who tends to memorize words ‘visually’ (I rarely make spelling mistakes), I prefer seeing the words I’m learning. I want to read them before I hear them in conversation: with a lot of languages, when you hear a word it’s difficult to figure out the letters behind it until you see them. From a native speaker, “t” and “d” might sound alike, or even “t” and “g.” Of course, knowing proper pronunciation is important, but I like knowing how given letters map to give sounds.

The method I’ve settled on as most appropriate for me, when learning a new language, is trying to read in the foreign language as soon as possible, while tracking vocabulary with flash cards.

For flash cards I use Anki, which is a popular spaced-repetition flash card system. The idea behind spaced repetition is that you don’t need to see easy flash cards as frequently as difficult cards. The program will automatically track the difficulty of a card and this will change how many days it takes you to see the card again. So you start seeing the word every day, and then every week and then every few months, when a simple reminder will keep it fresh. This drastically reduces the clutter in a set of flash cards.

Along with Anki, I will typically have two books open, one in English and one in the foreign language. If I’m not familiar with the language I will read a few sentences in English, and then re-read them in the foreign language, slowly working my way along. If I’m more familiar with the foreign language, I will try to read entirely in that language, and use the English as a reference. Sometimes I will pause and try to understand every nuance of a sentence; in other cases I will just try to get the gist. I trust that I will pick up grammar subconsciously.

If I see a word a few times I will have some idea what it means, at which point I will refer to a foreign language dictionary and add it to my flash cards, for review the following day.

If you’re very lucky you’ll be able to find the same book in English text, foreign text, and as a foreign-language audio book. This is the best scenario: read the book in the foreign language, and then just listen to it in that language and see how much you understand.