Financial Independence // Mr. Money Mustache Favorites

I haven’t really talked about it much on this site, but I am a strong proponent of the idea of Financial Independence and the notion of retiring early (and by retirement, I don’t necessarily mean sitting on the beach sipping Mai Tai’s all day — more of an idea that you can choose what you want to do and not be beholden to “the man” for a paycheck).

Anyways, one of the most popular of the Financial Independence websites around is Mr. Money Mustache — a part-financial, part-self-help site of Longmont, Colorado resident Pete Adeney (you can read the story of his path to retirement in his early 30s from his post here). Mr. Money Mustache’s tone is definitely direct and to-the-point, but his message is clear and easily understandable to all: spend less than you earn (preferably by large margins), religiously avoid debt (with the possible exception of a mortgage), and save whatever the surplus is in investments which pay a return that will, eventually, cover your modest expenses. Oh yeah, and ditch you car and ride your bike to most places.

I’ve been reading his blog for a few years now — starting from the very beginning of his 400+ posts — and just this past week, I finally got all caught up. Oftentimes, I found myself e-mailing particularly useful posts to myself, amassing a library of about 40 of my favorite reads. They detail topics ranging from discussions on expenses, explanations of investment strategies, and storytelling of poignant life lessons. Below are links to my favorites, categorized by theme.

Reducing Expenses
Free Yourself From Having to Buy People Gifts
Giving Experiences Rather than Things
Great Ideas for (Nearly) Free Toys for Kids
Psychological Effect of New Things
On the Reduction of Cleaning
Changing Mobile Phone Service Plans
AWD Does Not Make You Safer

Generating Income
Culling Possessions and Selling Them Online
Sunk Cost Effect: How If You Wouldn’t Buy It, Sell It

Home Purchase and Improvement
How to Buy a House
How to Sell Your House
The Power of Not Having a Mortgage
On the Use of Air Conditioning
Getting Started with Carpentry
The Efficiency and Savings of Having a Metal Roof

Investment/Market Explanations
Tracking Price to Expense Ratios
Ways to Get Into Retirement Accounts Penalty-Free
Explanation of Managed Payout Funds
Thoughts on Market Cycles with Links to jlcollinsnh Stock Series
Handy Tool to View Market Returns Over Time
Calculating Your Net Worth and Savings Rate
Creative Ways of Giving Money

Life Lessons
The Value of Hard Work
Becoming an Efficient Person
To Achieve Greatness, You Must First Acknowledge that you Suck
Thoughts on How Amazing Current Life Is
If Everyone Followed Financial Independence Principles
The Power of a Reducing your News Consumption
Your Circles of Concern and Control
Why We are Irrational Consumers
Life is Not a Contest
Having Kids: Do Whatever Is Right for You
Getting Your Brain Back, Post-Retirement
What MMM is Teaching His Kid About Money
How Your 20s is the Best Time to Develop Financial Independence Habits
Thoughts on Education
2016 Talk at the World Domination Summit
Money and Confidence are Interchangeable

I know these are a lot of posts, but it’s only a sliver of what you can find on the site. By far, the most helpful ones to consider are the Life Lessons. Becoming Financial Independent is a rewarding journey that allows you to focus in on what really is important to you. For me, time spent with my daughter and wife are leaps and bounds more valuable than time spent in the office: why shouldn’t I try my hardest now to make that an actuality? A by-product of striving for a low consumption life also has the added effect of being great for the world, both from a moral and ecological perspective. Anyways, just some things to consider when evaluating your life and what you want to accomplish with your short time spent on Earth!

Number Sense Manual // Update

Just wanted to let all the avid Number Sense participants know that I am (finally!) in the process of revising and editing my Number Sense Manual. I’m about halfway done with revamping the LaTeX code which, hopefully, makes it more readable (a lot has changed in 10 years!). Once I’m done with that I plan on adding a few more sections detailing the tricks that can be used to solve some of the more recent exam questions. I also want to expand the content to include popular Middle School tricks since there seems to be a lot of demand for that. I’m hoping to have an updated manual by the end of March – so stay tuned!

2017 Re-Cap

Following in the footsteps of my year-end summary from last year, here is a list of some of my accomplishments as well as my shortcomings from 2017. Taking time to self reflect on major milestones is important to track where you’ve been as well as where you want to go. As nice as it would be to accomplishment everything that you set out for in a give year, life happens. With that in mind, these sort of lists aren’t necessarily chronicling “successes” and “failures” as they are showing what your real priorities are within the past year and how you can adjust them for the future if you find that your aspirations are out-of-sync with your actualities.

Professional Achievements

  • Received our site’s first patent concerning my team’s work on updating our facility’s linear accelerator.
  • Submitted a second patent concerning an unrelated efficiency our team implemented on our linear accelerator.
  • Presented at the HEART conference this year concerning the capabilities of our radiation test stands.
  • Helped spearhead an effort securing a high value, long-term contract (apologies for the vagueness…).
  • Became laboratory lead engineer (where else… the linear accelerator group!) and gained more first-time customers than I’ve seen since joining the site.
  • Completed all work efforts to the facility’s and customer’s satisfaction — with numerous highly regarded customer reviews.
  • Personally recognized at the division level for all of my efforts.
  • Submitted application to become a Senior Member of IEEE, having accumulated 10 years of experience and detailing professional growth over the last 5 years

Personal (+ Family!) Achievements

Where I Came Up Short (a lot of areas! — because having a child is tough!)

  • Still have not taken the Project Management Professional (PMP) Exam and receive certification which complemented some of my MBA coursework — will DEFINITELY accomplish this year since this has been on the list for two years now.
  • Did not become certified National Instruments LabVIEW Developer — however, I don’t think this is a priority anymore, so I’ll scrub it for next year.
  • Did not read as many books as I would prefer. (As an aside: highly recommend newly minted Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler’s book Nudge — at least the first half where he explains sources of personal biases). I’m setting a goal of 24 books for 2018.
  • Did not actually run a lot of miles last year (282, to be exact). After my 50 mile race, I kind-of slacked for a few months. When I tried to get back into the swing of things, I suffered a pulled groin muscle that sidelined me for most of fall. I’m setting a goal of 1,000 miles in 2018.
  • Kind-of sucked with time management in 2017. Yes, having a kid is part of it — and I didn’t fully appreciate that part of it until Eleanor started to crawl — but, overall, I had an incredibly busy work year that bled into my free-time a lot. My goal is letting myself be OK with better allocating work amongst my team as well as to getting myself more on a schedule.

Anyways, here’s to a very action-packed 2017 and the hope that 2018 will be just as fulfilling!

Website // Quick One-Year Analysis

Can’t believe I’ve had this website up and running for a full year now! With the help of Google Analytics, I’ve been looking at plots of different traffic data and I thought I would share with you two that are most telling.

This first shows a plot of unique website users since last November, while the second shows unique downloads (mostly of the .pdfs of my Number Sense practice materials) during the same time period. (Note: I only have been keeping track of that information since mid-July — shout-out to my buddy Jerod for helping me out with that.)

Unique Users 2017

Unique Downloads 2017

As you can see, the exponential growth is pretty evident which validates what I’ve thought all along: students and teachers are thirsty for free practice material to help their students succeed in STEM-fields.

Anyway, I plan on helping out where I can in the coming years and have some exciting things I want to put together! Here’s to another fruitful year!

Reddit Post // US House of Representatives’ Tax Plan

My Top Reddit Post of All-Time

Funny thing happened earlier this past week: after being a relatively inactive user for the past 9 years, I decided to submit a recent NY Times piece outlining the proposed US House of Representatives’ Tax Plan to one of my favorite subreddits, /r/financialindependence.

Outside of the daily discussion threads, this subreddit’s typical activity is far less than what the 300,000+ subscribes would suggest. So it came as a little bit of a shock that my post garnered so much interest (almost 1000 “upvotes” and just as many comments).

Perusing the comments sections, I helped some people understand the US Tax Code a little bit better and outlined some obvious winners and losers of the proopsed changes. In a nutshell: if your household* taxable income (less your standard pre-tax contributions such as for 401(k) and HSA plans) is around $90,000 — enough to cap out the lowest proposed tax bracket of 12% — , you have children, and you have previously been filing using the standard deduction then, CONGRATULATIONS, you are the biggest winner of the new tax plan.**

As for the losers, if you are a dual-income household who make around $200,000 to $400,000, have children, and have previously heavily itemized, you are the biggest losers and will, most likely, be paying more for taxes. This mostly describes households in high-cost of living areas (California, New York City, etc…) that are traditionally blue-state stalwarts.

Anyways, I highly recommend people who pay taxes educate themselves on how exactly the bulk of the US Tax Code works (if you are a “normal person,” it’s actually not too complicated) and judge for yourself how the proposed changes would affect you.

* This is presuming you are married filing-jointly. If you are an individual, cut the income levels approximately in half for the big winners/losers.

** Note: the top 1% (or more specifically, the top 0.2%) are truly the biggest winners as the estate tax repeal would far exceed any modest benefits the “middle class” would get from the new plan (also the elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax is a huge benefit to certain wealthy people who make specific types of income).

Advice for College-Applying Students

Now that the college application process is in full swing for you High School Seniors out there, I thought I’d do a follow-up on my Advice for College-Bound Students and focus in on providing a few insights when trying to select an appropriate college.

For those that didn’t read through the prior post, here is a tl;dr version of my college experience from a decade ago:

  • Got accepted into a few top-tier universities (including Rice) as well as the usual lineup of Texas public universities (UT, A&M, and TTU).
  • At the time much to my regret (but in retrospect, probably the smartest thing I’ve done), I decided to attend Texas Tech University under a full-scholarship.
  • Had a pretty rough transition period where I was close to transferring, but ultimately decided to stick it out and get more involved with stuff outside the classroom.
  • Wound up with a handful of degrees (both Bachelor’s and Master’s) and some incredible life experiences that shaped me into what I am today!

As you can see, my college experience – especially the application and decision-making process of where to go – was a roller coaster of emotions. I only highlight this fact to show you that I’ve been through what most of you are probably starting to experience now and, through the lens of hindsight, I feel like I can give you a few things to chew to help with your own decision making.

(1) College is what you make of it. I harped on this point in my prior post, but it is true. Opportunities exist everywhere at pretty much every single college or university out there and it’s up to you to seek them out.

(2) Educationally speaking, Bachelor’s degree coursework is virtually universal across all accredited institutions. Regardless of where you go you are pretty much going to learn the same stuff in order to get your Bachelor’s degree. This is based off of a plethora of anecdotal evidence and the fact that universities typically structure curriculum to meet accreditation requirements. As a result, the stuff you learn is fairly homogenous across institutions.

(3) The true value of the Ivy’s and other prestigious universities is that there are more opportunities per student and there is incredible social value attached with a degree from there. This makes it easier to form meaningful connections with important people and “move up the chain” faster (whether that be starting off a career a ladder rung or two higher or gaining entrance into well-known graduate programs). Other would, however, argue about this benefit…

(4) Student loan debt sucks. I wish I could shake every incoming freshman and yell this fact to them. Although I was super upset at the time, one the best thing’s my parents have done for me is vehemently refuse to co-sign on any sort of student loans. This made it difficult to secure funding at reasonable interest rates and forced me to re-examine my decision under a more rational lens, ultimately leading to my making the financially prudent decision to go where I had a full-ride.

I know all of these crazy high tuition amounts ($20-$50k+ per year) seem like monopoly money. Eventually though, you actually have to pay it back. Even if you have an incredibly well-paying job, this debt almost never gets resolved under short timeframes. I can’t stress this enough: student debt incredibly stunts your financial trajectory and really does affect your long-term goals. Because you’ll be paying off student loans early in your career, this means that you won’t be saving up for whatever future big-ticket items you have in mind. This creates a domino effect: you’ll buy a house later in life, you’ll (most likely) be married and have kids later in life, and you’ll retire later in the life. This is a very real thing and has a very large impact on your future. (In fact, I plan on doing a more in-depth post about this very topic later).

(5) Once you have your foot in the door for whatever post-college endeavor you find yourself in, no one really cares about your Bachelor degree anymore. I subscribe to the screening theory of education that a college degree’s value is not derived from the curriculum but rather from the soft-skills – stuff like grit, time management, and prioritizing – that you gain over the four years of constant deadlines and projects. These are the skills that you take to your next step (whether it’s a job or a grad degree or whatever) and once you are jumping off from that entry-job or Master’s degree, no one really cares about where you did your undergrad from.

Keeping these things in mind, it’s pretty easy to see what the optimal strategy from selecting an appropriate college would be:

  • Go to wherever gives you the best financial deal to minimize your student loan debt. Strive to apply for any scholarships in order to lessen the financial hit.
  • Explore opportunities outside the classroom that that university has to offer that align with your interests and what you like doing. Ultimately, make a mark with those opportunities and connect with similar people. Basically, become that big fish in a small pond.
  • If you decide to pursue a graduate school, explore universities that are well-known in whatever sub-field you’re interested in (this is the time when prestige starts to matter). If you decide to enter the workplace, best of luck! Keep in mind that because of the extra-curricular and the informal networking you developed with others, you are a leg-up in getting hired!

Anyways, just some thoughts for you to consider. Of course, this approach isn’t for everyone and there are unique situations out there, but as a whole I stand by it being the best path for extracting the most value for the least amount of cost out of your higher education.

Number Sense Practice Tests // Update

First off, thanks to everyone that has made my Auto-Generated Number Sense Practice Tests (both for High School and Middle School) such a success!

In late July, A friend of mine added a better way to track the number of downloads of all the practice exams posted on my website. I’m very happy to report that there were just about 2,000 unique downloads in about a span of 9 weeks! Incredible! I’m very proud to say that I’ve played (albeit a small) part in fostering a love of math with so many students!

Just to give y’all a quick update of the status of the project:

  • There are about 11,000 question in the Middle School and about 8,000 questions in the High School databases. Collectively, that represents enough problems to total 225 exams!
  • Now that the databases are pretty robust, I’m going to concentrate on making column-specific drill sheets. Basically, they’ll be full 80-question tests that focus on just questions from Column 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the exam. That way, students can better stretch themselves practicing on questions that they are currently reaching within the time limit.
  • I’m also going to start making topic-specific drill sheets. This will pair nicely with the work I’ve already done with my Number Sense Manual as I’ll provide even more practice problems for each topic. For instance, if you want to learn how to multiply two numbers close to 100, I’ll have drill sheets specifically highlighting those types of questions.
  • I’ve decided against making videos of each individual topic for the time being. If you’re looking for better explanations of the tricks outside of my manual, I suggest going to Math Ninja’s Youtube Page as he has already made a ton of videos detailing how to do most of the tricks.

That’s about it! Good luck to all the students and teachers with their competitions during the 2017-2018 school year!

30 Day Challenge // Part 1

Was inspired by a recent TED talk I heard concerning challenging yourself to do something new every day for thirty consecutive days. Basically, it’s a behavioral modification technique that is rooted in the idea that in order to develop a new habit you need about a month’s time of doing it continuously. If you really wish that you could stop biting your fingernails — go a month with biting them and, odds are, the behavior will stick.

For my first set of thirty day challenges, I simply wanted to go without mindless surfing, so I axed out Facebook and Reddit completely from my life. Additionally, I also wanted to give either my dog or baby a walk around the neighborhood because it is something I love to do but oftentimes — whether through fatigue or scheduling — I hadn’t been able to do consistently.

Well, with August in the books I’m here to report that I almost completely kept to my two goals! I successfully didn’t check Facebook or Reddit for the whole month and I only missed three days of walking due to inclement weather — so I’ll chalk that up as a success as well. I definitely can see both of these new habits sticking and plan on brainstorming a complete set of challenges I want to do and start implementing them on a monthly basis, two-at-a-time.

Patent Issued // Customizable RF for Use in Particle Accelerator Applications

Patent 9,750,123

Received notification that my team’s US Patent concerning recent advancements to our linear accelerator officially got issued yesterday (August 29th). If you want to look it up, you can do a US Patent Search for Patent #9,750,123 or just click on the link here (note: might not work on mobile).

This was a pretty big milestone that was celebrated at our site and it gave me a chance to go through Boeing’s Invention Disclosure process for the first time. All-in-all it was relatively painless and I was very impressed by how quickly our patent attorney was able to pick up on the technical concepts despite being not too familiar with high energy physics. Probably the worst thing about the whole deal was the long wait — the patent was filed last August and it took a little over a year to go through the US Patent Office review process.

Regardless, it was worth the wait and I am very pleased with the outcome! Currently, I have two more invention disclosures in the works that are in various stages of development, so I hope that this is the first of several patent awards for myself and my team in the near-future!

Advice for College-Bound Students

Since the majority of the current traffic to my site is motivated, high achieving students (who else would be wanting to practice mental math over the summer?!), I thought I’d spend a short amount of time talking about my path to where I got to currently and share a few valuable things I’ve learned along the way.

For starters, I know personally how important where you go college means to you. If you were anything like me, that decision occupied the majority of your senior year of high school. Additionally, you can’t help but compare where you go with other people. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would go to Texas Tech — especially after I got into some other top tier universities. Nothing was more depressing as I sat on the award’s podium at TMSCA State sharing with the newsletter writer that I was going to Tech after hearing my fellow winners rattle off a seemingly top-ten list of prestigious universities (Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Cal Tech, etc…). At another time, I’ll talk a bit more about my decision making process of going, for free, to a state-school rather than accepting student loans to go to a more renowned university…

Anyways, one thing that I now learned, with the help of hindsight, that I didn’t particularly think much about back then is how college is a means to end rather than the end itself. No doubt, you are so wrapped-up in completing all your essays, applying for financial aid (whether it’s scholarships or FAFSAs), and prioritizing where you want to go with every admissions letter you receive that it’s tough to take some time and reflect on exactly what you want to use college for and how it can help you advance towards some of your over-arching life goals. I know, heady “adult” stuff for 17/18 year-olds to think about.

Nowadays more so than ever, what you study in college — especially for your Bachelor’s Degree — will not be applicable in 99% of things you will need to do for your future profession. So why do we go through this costly routine if it doesn’t matter? The simple answer is to show future employers (or reaffirm to yourself, if you are fortunate to have entrepreneurship tendencies) that you can do something hard and can challenge yourself further than you have ever challenged yourself before. Although we think of college as a quantitative judge of character (what was your degree, your GPA, your GRE score, etc…), in actuality it is a qualitative one. The most important things you can learn while at university are not Maxwell’s equations or the litany of Joyce’s obscure allusions in Ulysses, but rather stuff like proper time management, self motivation, goal setting (and achieving), and work-life balancing.

And these qualitative lessons are applicable wherever you decide to go. Even if you go to an non-elite university where the coursework is a breeze for you, there are always additionally opportunities that you can find to push yourself forward and help improve on your character . I tell yourself as someone who learned this lesson the hard way. I spent my first year at Tech mostly brooding about easy I had it and how unchallenged as was — wishing a lot for just something more. What I slowly realized is that if I wanted to challenge myself, I can’t relay on others to do this, I have to rely on myself. This idea, what some would call “grit,” was the number one thing I took from college, and needless to say, I didn’t learn it from a textbook. As a direct result of my sudden personality change, I approached professors to help with Putnam training, enrolled in graduate-level courses early on in my under-grad, wrote IEEE student papers, and the list goes on… These are all things I did mostly outside of my classes to become a better person — both from a technical as well as from an inner-human perspective. Even with these few activities I did during my undergrad, it started a chain reaction that led me to where I am today: it led to my getting considered and accepted into an all-expenses-paid dual-degree graduate program that I got to do in Denmark and Germany → my securing an awesome job at the height of the financial crisis when good jobs were hard to come by → my current career advancement and my successful completion of my MBA → and no doubt it will lead to where I want to be in the future, whatever that is.

So when you are choosing colleges and where to go to, please don’t lose sight of what exactly is the worth of college. To be honest, most universities teach the same material in their classes, but it’s what you decide to do to push yourself beyond the lessons that will lead you to the true value of that degree.