Financial responsibility has been an ever-growing fascination of mine. The concept of budgeting didn't make sense to me for a long time - as long as I was bringing in money, I didn't want to worry about it. Once I started tracking all the money coming in and going out, those worries became tangible. I look back on past me and wonder why I kept my head in the sand, but I acknowledge that past me didn't know any better. Present me has been on top of my finances for years now, and future me has some lofty financial goals. This fascination - of knowing what my money is doing - is our topic for today.
I remember my college days - working five jobs, studying a full courseload, and taking out student loans. Back then, my big financial focus was on bringing in more money. As long as the checks kept rolling in, I'd be ok. I wasn't ok, to be fair. I had no concept of tracking my spending and my litmus test for financial stability was whether I could afford to pay all my bills. Looking back, the financial mindset I had then is surprisingly commonplace - I was, by definition, living paycheck to paycheck. I wasn't saving money, and my money wasn't working for me. I was working to make ends meet.
As my college days continued, the ever-present threat of my student loans grew larger and more terrifying. That very large number kept growing, and for all my efforts to throw what I could afford at it, it grew larger still. At the time, this just didn't make sense - if I'm paying the debt, it should decrease, not increase. If it's increasing, even though I'm paying it, there's something wrong. This sent me down a rabbit hole of research, mathematical formulas, and working with my student loan servicer to make sure that I understood the math correctly. I'll provide a simple example here and then work through integrating that example with a total picture of all loans.
Say you've got a loan for $5,000 at 6.8%. Your student loan servicer puts you on a payment plan assuming a ten-year payoff (120 months). Your monthly payment for this loan is $57.54. Not too bad, right? Wrong.
|6.8%||Interest rate [i]|
|$0.93||Daily interest [d]||=(P*I)/365.25|
|$28.86||Monthly interest [m]||=d*31|
|120||Loan term (months) [n]|
|$57.54||Monthly payment [Pmt]||=-PMT(i/12,n,P)|
|$28.68||Payment to principal||=Pmt-m|
|$1,866.26||Loan interest paid||=-CUMIPMT(i/12,n,P,1,n,1)|
Using the above math, your $5,000 loan ends up costing $6,866.26. Here's the thing, though: student loan interest accrues daily. What this means is on the end of day 1, your $5,000 loan is a $5,000.93 loan. At the end of the month, your $5,000 loan is a $5,028.86 loan. You pay your $57.54, knocking your balance down to $4,971.32 Here's a quick amortization chart for the first six months of payments:
You'll note that over time the accrued interest decreases and the payment to principal increases, but it's a slow process. Ideally you're paying down the principal, rather than paying interest to the loan servicer. They're assuming a ten year repayment, but with diligence you'll pay them down much faster.
The challenge is in tracking and calculating these numbers across multiple loans. Towards the end of my college career I set up a spreadsheet to track all of my loans using these same formulas across each of their principal balances and interest rates. I additionally calculated out how many months left I have at my current payment rate, and the monthly payment for each loan I'd have to make to pay them off in three years. Finally, I calculated out a rank for each loan to prioritize which loans would get the most impact from extra payments. Here's an example, including the Excel formulas to calculate everything:
|Principal [P]||Rate [i]||Daily [d]||Monthly [m]||To principal||Payment [Pmt]||Remaining [n]||Interest paid||3 years?|
Each time I make a payment I update the Principal value for each loan - the value of the loan on the day of the payment minus the payment amount. The rest of the sheet calculates everything else automatically. Using these calculations across each loan allows me to track the total value of all loans, the total interest paid, the expected interest paid, where to prioritize extra payments, and the remaining number of payments until each loan is paid off.
Once the big, scary student loan monster had been reduced to simple math, the next priority for me was creating a budget. I knew that I wanted to pay off my loans faster than ten years, and I wanted to minimize the total amount of interest paid. In order to afford extra payments, I needed to know where my money was going. I wanted to save money, and the formula for that is simple: spend less money than you earn. Seems easy enough, right? Well...
It turns out a lot of people don't really keep tabs on where their money goes. Looking back, it seems pretty reckless - that paycheck-to-paycheck mentality allowed me to survive, but it didn't help me thrive. I wanted to put an end to that and do things right. Creating a budget requires knowing where your money is going. For me, that meant tracking every penny I spent and every penny I received. My budget started on a sticky note, one sticky note per month.
Tracking income can be challenging. If you're working an hourly job or receive tips, the monthly income you receive can be wildly variable. The important thing is to keep track of it. Even if you don't have a consistent paycheck, being able to estimate your monthly income will make budgeting a lot easier. When I started budgeting I was working a minimum wage hourly job with tips. Every paycheck and each day's tips were added to the income line on my sticky note. At the end of the month I'd total up each line and sum both categories to count my total monthly income.
|Budget (Month, Year)|
|Income: Tips||$30+20+12+14+35 ...|
Tracking expenses (your spending) is crucial. Not only should you know every dollar that was spent, but also which category of things you spent it in. At first, I had to look at my spending for a month to figure out rough categories. As time went on, my spending categories switched around a bit until I figured out the right mix for me. Initially, my categories were fairly simple: rent, utilities, debts (student loans), travel, food, and discretionary. Just like the income, each time I spent money I would add the amount that I spent to the appropriate category. At the end of the month, I would add up each of the numbers in each category to get a total of each category and a total spend for my expenses.
|Utilities||$20+50+70||Gas/electric, water/sewage/trash, internet, cellphone|
|Travel||$30+50||Gas, car insurance, repairs|
|Food||$76.54+21+148.60+13.18+21||Groceries, eating out|
|Discretionary||$35+18.64+90||Allowance: clothes, haircuts, toys|
Using the above sticky note budget across a handful of months, I was able to estimate my monthly income and expenses across each category. Using those estimates as a guideline, I was able to make room for extra payments on the student loans as well as set aside money for savings. It took a few months of diligently tracking everything, but the habit was worth the hassle. With time and experience, the goal with budgeting is to allocate a set number of dollars to each category of spending, and to have every dollar of your income accounted for. Those budget categories can be exact (I know what my rent costs) or rough numbers (I want to spend no more than $350 on groceries). Here's a simplified example.
|Income||$1,800||$1,914.54||Paychecks + Tips|
|Utilities||$140||$20+50+70||Gas/electric, W/S/T, internet, phone|
|Travel||$100||$30+50||Gas, car insurance, repairs|
|Discretionary||$150||$35+18.64+90||Allowance: clothes, haircuts, toys|
|Savings||$450||$716.04||What's left at the end of the month|
With the chart above, each budget category has an allocated amount. I knew from experience that I'd bring in an average amount of money every month, and I could use that to allocate my spending across the rest of my budget. For each expense category, I had estimated what I expected (or wanted) to spend. The leftover money I allocated to savings. Then, at the end of the month, I totaled up my income and subtracted each expense from it. What was left was my savings - they money that I could set aside to build up my emergency fund.
As I mentioned above, the fomula for savings is simple: spend less than you earn. Armed with my sticky note budget, I was able to monitor my spending in various categories and adjust my habits to spend less when needed. For example, as time went on I split the food category into two: groceries and eating out. This allowed me to see that I had been spending more money than I'd like eating out, and to put my focus on groceries. With that attention to reduced spending, I'd end up with money left over at the end of the month. This money got transferred to savings.
Having money in savings is great, but knowing why you're doing it is even better. I think of savings goals in a few different tiers. The first step is to build up an emergency fund.
An emergency fund is the first step towards financial responsibility. If you don't want to live paycheck to paycheck, you have to have enough money in savings to cover an emergency. To start, save up $1,000. Then, save up a month's worth of expenses. Once you're a month ahead, you're not living paycheck to paycheck. Then, save up 3-6 months of expenses to cover you in case of an emergency like a job loss or other catestrophic event. This part is really challenging! What I found was the first $5,000 was the hardest. Once I'd save up a decent amount, some event would happen that wiped out a good portion of the emergency fund. I wanted to be frustrated, as I'd worked hard to save up for it. In reality, the emergency fund was working exactly how it's supposed to - it's money that you have available in case of emergencies. For example, I had to get new tires and brakes on my car, to the tune of $800. At the time, that was a significant amount of money, but I had it available in my emergency fund to make it work.
Over the years my financial situation has gotten increasingly more complex, and my long-term goals have become more and more attainable. The reason these things are managable is because I took a good, long look at what my money was doing. It wasn't easy (even today there's struggles) but it's been worthwhile. I suppose the takeaway here is that I've been fascinated with knowing what my money is doing, and I wanted to share that in the hopes that it helps somebody else. I remember in my younger days wondering why nobody taught financial responsibility. As I get older I realize that part of being an adult is taking responsibility for myself, and that means having difficult conversations, asking for help, and taking all the advice I can get. I hope this information is useful to you, and thanks for reading!
Friendships are an interesting part of being a functional human being, and they're something I've always struggled to define. In my normal day to day I'll interact with dozens of people. Some of those people are new - fresh, untainted, never before interacted hot-off-the-presses other human beings. Strangers in the elevators, delivery personnel, cashiers and other service workers, people in the aisle at the grocery store looking at the same cuts of meat. Some of those people are regular. Coworkers, receptionists, clients, the barista at your favorite coffee shop, the people you sit next to in class. Some of those people are ever-present over long periods of time. Your family, the people you knew from high school, the people who share your hobbies and interest and adventures. Some of those people know you really well. Those who you trust, who you confide in, who advise you. Which of them are friends? Where is the line drawn?
There's an old quote I don't know the attribution for - a stranger's just a friend you haven't met. To me, this implies that the opportunity for friendship is endless and bountiful. Any stranger can become a friend, this is without question. What's the trigger event? Is it a continuum? If I drew a line between two points - one one end, stranger, on the other, friend - what sequence of events or descriptive qualifiers could I place on the line where it swung from one to the other? Well, let me give it a shot.
First, I take what I know and I define it in certain terms. A stranger is someone I haven't met before. If I meet them once, they were a stranger. If I meet them again, they're a stranger no longer. I leave the apartment for work in the morning and some strange woman is accompanying her dog to the bathroom on the lawn. "Good morning", I say in passing. Smiles are exchanged. No name, no life history, no context, no friendship. The next day, the same woman accompanies her dog to the bathroom on the lawn. Mustn't be a stranger at this point; now it's a neighbor. "Cute dog. What's their name?" Smalltalk ensues. If this happens frequently enough, that person fits squarely in the acquaintance category.
OK, so stranger is defined - a transient category that breaks the moment a subsequent encounter occurs. Acquaintance, then. This is someone that I interact with regularly. I probably know their name, I may know bits and pieces of their lives, we likely talk briefly about rapport-establishing topics and maybe even talk in depth about a limited number of things now and again. These are people I may see every day, but typically I only see them in a single context. Coworkers getting coffee at breakfast. Other customers at the cafe on similar days. When I worked as a barista, this category would encompass the regular customers I chatted with. Even though we'd interact frequently, discuss a myriad of topics, and inquire about happenings in each others' lives, I'd still bucket this as an acquaintance. I think, then, that acquaintances are people with whom you've established a decent rapport, but only interact with in limited contexts - only at work, for example.
Friends are the next logical step, I think, and this is where it gets fuzzy. Say the neighbor asks me out for coffee some time while her dog uses the grass next to me as a toilet. We shift contexts - now we're building a communicative history, sharing experiences, and developing interpersonal intimacy. As we do more things together in other contexts we get more entangled in each other's lives. I invite a coworker out on a bike ride - we ride, we chat, we get to know each other outside of work. This grows into a friendship as well. Right? Well...
Then there's people who you share experiences with, build intimacy with, learn, grow with, understand, support, share inside jokes, struggle, have conflicts, resolve them, and enjoy silence together. This is the category that I would typically ascribe to friends, but they're so incredibly rare and require so much investment in time and energy to build. In this category I may have anywhere from one to a small handful of people. These relationships are so incredibly valuable that they become a pillar of support and encouragement in one's life. These are most certainly friends by any account.
The fuzzy areas, then, are: what draws the boundary between friends and best friends, and what happens when one is flush with acquaintances and friend poor? For the dozens of people I interact with on a day to day, the bulk of them are acquaintances, certainly. Maybe one of them is a friend, or, a friend by the absurdly high standard that my mind has previously held for the title. In this, I think that friends, or, the potential thereof, are in abundance. Any number of these acquaintances has the potential to become a friend and even a best friend, given the time, energy, and wherewithal to grow. Not all friendships need to reach the intimacy that a best friend requires. Most friendships, I think, are acquaintances that shift between contexts. The best friend, that level of intimacy, is something special. Something rare. A title that needn't be held by everyone, but an opportunity available to anyone given the time.
So, what then defines the boundary between stranger and friend? Well, if we've interacted on numerous occasions, you're definitely not a stranger. If we interact regularly in the same context, you're definitely an acquaintance. If we interact in different context, sharing experiences and developing interpersonal intimacy, we're probably friends. And, if that grows into vulnerability, trust, advice, and confiding, it's likely that you're one of the ones that's going to stick around.
Life is plastic. Not like, polyethylene plastic, but malleable, ever-changing, adapting. There's this concept in neuroscience called neuroplasticity - the idea being that our brain is constantly remapping its routes between neurons. If you bridge two neurons often, stronger pathways are formed. If you don't connect from one to another regularly, those pathways degenerate. If a shorter path can be found, the brain will build the most efficient path between neurons that need to connect. Functionally this means that we improve what we use and discard what we don't. Practically, this means that we're ever changing, always growing, becoming more efficient and effective at everything we do.
Social relationships are similarly plastic, I think. People meet, they exchange conversations, they move on. As those same people reconnect, stronger bonds are formed. Interpersonal relationships are strengthened over time with shared experiences and interpersonal intimacy. After a while, you just get someone. You understand them, they understand you, there's limited ambiguity, and for whatever ambiguity is left, you know each other's boundaries and communicative style well enough to fill in the gaps. In contrast, people you connect with less frequently are less easily understood. It takes a certain level of rapport to develop a friendship. It takes a different type of rapport to maintain an acquaintance. Less still, people you interact with infrequently. The more you interact with a person, the stronger the bond becomes. What is true of our neurons seems similarly true outside of them.
The challenge, I think, is when a strong bond is suddenly and forcefully cut. Many years ago I was in a motorcycle accident suffering a traumatic brain injury. Functionally, a sharp impact of my brain on the inside of my skull managed to sever a significant number of neural pathways. To an outsider looking in I had physical injuries to reflect the incident, but from the inside looking out all sense had been shattered. Consider that you know your own name, what day of the week it is, where you left your keys, what you were doing five seconds ago. We take for granted the interconnected web in our minds that allows for all that stuff to function seamlessly. When that web is suddenly disconnected in seemingly random ways, little things like "what was I just doing?" don't connect anywhere meaningful. All things considered, it's fairly disconcerting. Take what you know that you know, and understand that you know that you know it, but you can't get to it from here, so functionally you don't know it, even though you know that you do. Now, thankfully, our minds can rebuild. It takes time and effort, but those pathways regrow stronger and better than before. That time is challenging and the road is an uphill struggle - believe me I speak from experience. But that isn't the point.
When we're connected to someone, and I mean really, deeply connected, a sudden separation is hard to reconcile. I know where I left my keys just as strongly as I knew that my future involved someone. I struggle with the disconnect as much as I struggled with my memories so many years ago. The disconnect, be it physical or emotional, remains a struggle. Yet, with time, this too shall heal. Pathways are reformed, new relationships are created, and more efficient and effective routes are made so that we may continue succeeding.
Herein lies the dilemma. The pretense here is that pathways are severed, and from those severed pathways new pathways are formed. What happens when the path isn't severed, but instead, remains connected? Like a poorly connected electrical circuit, electric shocks arc across failed pathways in an effort to reconnect. At times, the reconnection seems functional, and at others, the signal gets lost in the static. Should the pathway be cut entirely? Should a new wire bridge the old circuit back in place? Will the old circuit continue to build new, strong pathways circumventing the old, broken pathways? Time will tell.
I suppose, at the end of the day, life is a constant learning experience. For everything that happens to me, I reflect on what I can learn from it. This is no different. I can only reflect on what is and wonder on what will or could be. I already know what was, and that's a part of the history that shapes what's to come. The best I can do is learn and grow. Always reaching out, trying to make connections, and strengthening the connections that are made successfully.
We're a lot like neurons, you and I.
Let me make something abundantly clear: your political ideology does not make you lesser or greater than anyone else. "Us versus them" is a rhetorical tactic implemented to divide and distance people from one another. Labeling the other as an outsider diminishes your perspective of their humanity; makes you forget that they're a person, just like you.
Political ideologies are an abstract morality based on beliefs, values, and your own personal expectation of the social contract. We come up with ideas about what we think is good, right, and just. We align ourselves with others who share the same ideas of what we think is good, right and just. We vote for like-minded candidates, hoping to swing the political spectrum towards our own personal moral construct. We consume media that promotes messaging to support that morality. We place ourselves in isolated spheres of influence, where we surround ourselves with things that confirm our belief structures and promote our values. We distance ourselves from opposing viewpoints. Therein lies the problem.
We humans are fickle creatures - for all the heuristic capabilities we have to make sense of disparate information, our minds are easily fooled. We're prone to seek out information that confirms our beliefs and reject information that doesn't. This is called confirmation bias. The problem lies in beliefs, and how emotionally invested we get in holding them. A belief, for the sake of simplicity, is a template we place on our perception so that we can filter out complexity and map out how we think the world ought to function. Notice that I used the words "template", "filter", and "ought". A belief needn't be factual.
I believe the sun rises every day, and for every day I've been alive, that belief has been proven right. I look to the east at daybreak, and as the morning brings rise to the day, the sun rises higher in the sky. Something as simple as looking east at sunrise will confirm my belief. Hell, the word "sunrise" brackets the concept for the very belief I'm discussing. Yet, for all this confirmation, this belief only holds true for my perception in my tiny little corner of space. From the perspective of the sun, the sun is stationary and the earth orbits around it. From the perspective of the center of the milky way, the sun is but a tiny speck of twinkling dust circling around in the void. My belief only holds true if I limit my perspective and ignore any evidence to the contrary. In truth, the sun doesn't rise at all. The sun orbits and we orbit around it. Yet I still believe it's going to rise tomorrow. Look to the east at sunrise - that's all the confirmation I need.
Beliefs are learned, not innate. We are given beliefs by our families, friends, and cultures. We create beliefs as we live and experience. We use beliefs to shortcut all the complexity for how the world works by placing upon our perception that template for how it ought. Beliefs are often deeply entwined with emotions. We're passionate about our beliefs. That level of emotional investment is hard to reject when presented with evidence that our beliefs might be wrong. It's easier to keep believing in a lie than it is to acknowlege that what we believe is wrong. Thanks to social media and the internet's globalization, it's a short hop to find something that confirms our beliefs - whether or not that messaging is true. Truth is surprisingly easy to identify, given that you have appropriate means to observe and measure whatever you're trying to ascertain. For all the beliefs imbued upon me by my culture and lived experience, a "sunrise" is easily disproven by putting a camera on a satellite and sending it into the void.
This, I think, is where differences of opinion come into play.
We acknowledge that beliefs and truth are not necessarily aligned, and we begrudgingly accept that beliefs are hard to change. We know that beliefs can be firmly held, deeply intertwined with strong feelings which makes them all the more difficult to confront. Coincidentally, these are all things that the media knows as well, and there's good money to be made by riling people up and telling them what they want to hear. Observe any news - television, internet, newspaper, blogs, social media. See if you can separate the information from the attitude. News media takes information and frames that information to present it in a certain light. The same information can be presented in numerous frames, each with a different tone, takeaway, and attitude. These frames, this mechanism for persuasion, is rhetoric. Nearly 2500 years ago, Gorgias recognized that words have the power to trick people; rhetoric was a magical incantation that could beguile the soul just as doctors use drugs to control the body. The media is doing this to people constantly, intentionally, and for profit.
Take an opinion you've formed recently on a current event. Where did that opinion come from? How do you talk about it? How do other people talk about it? How is it presented in the news? How is it presented in news that promotes a political agenda you disagree with? What are the facts? What are the feelings? What parts of it are true? What parts of it have to do with your beliefs? Can you separate the facts from the beliefs? Can you find examples where that opinion is divisive? What is the good in that belief? What is the good in the beliefs of people who hold a different opinion? Deconstruct that opinion and match it up with the different sources that helped you shape it. It can be challenging, but it's an important exercise in understanding how humans work.
Anyway, for all that pontificating, my takeaway is this: we're all prone to believe different things. That difference is the diversity that helps us learn, grow, and enrich our understanding of the world around us. When those differences become a tool to separate us from one another, something awful happens - we lose sight of humanity, box people in with negative labels, and lock ourselves away from new ways of thinking. A belief doesn't define a person. It shouldn't define you, and it certainly doesn't define people you may not agree with. We are comprised of and capable of so many more wonderful things - our thoughts, our feelings, our experiences, our hopes, our dreams, our friends and family, our intents, and our actions. Let those be the things that align you with others. It's far more fulfilling to come together than it is to divide.
Step 1: point domain at a thing. Done.
Step 2: put some words on the thing so people can see it. Done.
Step 3: make thing domain points at more complex. Done.
Step 4: make complex thing easy to edit so more words can be put on the thing. In progress.
A while back I tossed together some PHP for a proof of concept. I reflected on my disdain for content management platforms like WordPress. There's a few reasons I don't like content management platforms: first, they're a constant target for script attacts, and second, they're massive, bloated, and overburdened with features. There's a part of me that wants to just toss some basic html up and call it a day - no attack vector, no bloat. No convenience. No complexity. Boring. Thinking back to the old days, I rolled my own content management system from the ground up. It's dreadfully simple (you're looking at it) but it does exactly what I need. I can add new pages (check!), give them vanity urls (check!), embed a video (check!), order them in a table of contents (check!), easily customize categories and sub-menus (check!), and edit things without mucking about in the database (so check, much wow!). There's a few pieces I need to work on, of course. That table of contents is manually designated, so re-ordering contents is basically math homework. I don't have a system in place to upload binary data. There's still some ... quirky behavior. But for a first pass, I think it'll do.
I suppose every project starts somewhere. I think this is a good start, and it's got enough room to grow that I can duct-tape some stuff on it as the need arises.
Considering a reboot. Got a bunch of the old data on SCSI drives, but I have zero hardware capable of reading them. Might pick up a jenky old server with a SCSI card to offload the data onto something contemporary. Doubt I'd put the old server's data online (it's likely wildly insecure, last updated circa 2006) but I could certainly use the old skins as a starting point. The database? Lord, who knows. Remember the forums? The chat? The bots? The gallery? The iweb? The merch? The metal DDR pads? The LAN parties? All those long nights spent coding, fueled by caffeine. Lots of fun projects.
I've spun up a handful of other projects over the years. They were missing something special, I think. This one was made for the sake of making things, not for any particular reason, aim, or goal. It was a tinkerer's plaything. Always evolving, always growing, gluing and taping new things onto it for the simple pleasure of doing so. That's something I've missed. All the other projects were driven for some sort of business goal, some outcome. Ugh, it just strips all the fun out of it when it starts that way. Well, if nothing else, here's a start.