CategoryPersonal

Spending Trends 2017

We use Mint to track our spending. We’ve been doing so since 2008 and so after 9 years, we’ve amassed a trove of data[1] that helps us analyze where and how often we spend our money. I usually tweet out certain tidbits but I thought I could share them on here for better perusal and sharing. Of course, I will not share exact dollar amounts we spent but only overall trends and at the most name merchants that we frequented more often than others. Previously, I blogged about exact dollar amounts we earned as part of our credit card cashback.

Overall, we ended up spending quite a bit more compared to 2016. We frequented 332 distinct merchants in 2017[2].

Big Increase Categories

But first, paying to replace the aging roof out of our own pocket[3] accounted for nearly half of that increase. Also, we did start remodeling our bathroom so the ‘Home Improvement’ category was much to blame. But it’s an investment in your home so money well spent. Second, we noticed we spent more on eating out especially at fine dining places. Here are the top ten places we ate out at ordered by the amount we spent:

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Footnotes:
  1. Admittedly, so has Mint []
  2. Think about that when you’re estimating the economic impact of one family on a region []
  3. AllState is known for evaluating very strictly and admittedly, we didn’t have much hail damage. The roof was just too old. []

Leaving Facebook

I deactivated my account on Facebook on New Years’ Eve [1]. There was no specific reason or motive for doing so. I’ve been living without the Facebook app on my phone for more than 6 months now [2] and have not missed it much. I used to access Facebook via the browser on the phone and laptop using the web view interface. It works just as well if not better in case you’re wondering.

So why did I quit a social networking site that I’ve been using for the last 12 years [3]? Continue reading

Footnotes:
  1. Why wait for the new year to begin your resolution, right? []
  2. Admittedly, after hearing about Facebook’s attempts at tracking our location even when we’re not using the app []
  3. Yes, I opened my account back in 2005 when Facebook was open to only college students in select universities. I used to enter the classes I was enrolled in to find my classmates to add as friends. I still had some of them as friends []

Maximizing Cashback

Before I recap my 2017 spending trends using Mint [1], like I do every year, I wanted to elaborate on my use of credit card cashback. I do not use actual dollar amounts on my spending trends post but I’ll make an exception for cashback trends. We made a total of $926.95 on cashback on our 3 credit cards – Bank of America CashRewards, Discover, and Citi Card DoubleCash[2]

The first reaction to mentioning this to anyone is – wow! you guys must’ve spent a lot. Although there’s a strong correlation but not always a linear one. Also, we earned nearly $200 more in cashback this year compared to last year and even if you assume a 1% cashback rate, we definitely didn’t spend $200,000 more. In fact, we DEFINITELY didn’t spend that much in total. Further, even if I tell you the exact cashback rate we get on our credit cards which I will shortly, it’s nearly impossible to extrapolate that to our total spending for the year. Finally, note that for big spending items for home repair and upkeep like changing your roof, we save up and use cash. You don’t get cashback on that spending although ironically you would make the most on that. I’ll explain why you shouldn’t even if the contractors accept credit cards.

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Footnotes:
  1. check back after Jan.1st []
  2. We’re not frequent travelers and have no interest, no pun intended, on airline miles []

Being Mortal

I started reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal nearly a year ago and somehow never got around to finishing it. It’s admittedly a difficult read in the sense that it can be overwhelming at times. I finally finished it last night partly because my wife wanted to start it on the Kindle and also because my grandfather, or as everyone called him, Dada passed away on Sunday. He was the last of my immediate grandparents to pass away.

By all measures, he lead a good and charmed life. He was 95 and suffered from no major illness apart from heart disease that afflicts all Indian males. He lived couple of blocks from my parents and my dad regularly checked on him; so much so that my dad would refuse to come visit us for more than a few weeks because he didn’t want to leave Dada alone in case “something happened”. The “something” never happened. Dada was never limited in his movements and walked all around the town as far as I can remember. He passed away peacefully during his afternoon nap. It’s the kind of death that everyone wishes for but very few get. He outlived my grandmother who couldn’t recognize her own son by the time she passed away, by three and half years. Dada had a fractious relationship with his children and grandchildren. As they say, if you can’t say anything good about a person after he’s dead, you are better off not saying anything. So I’ll not say anything. All I’ll say is that I hope I don’t end up like him in spite of him leading a charmed life.

Going back to Gawande’s book, the premise focuses on the quality of life rather than the length of life and more specifically, the manner in which you choose to pass away. Medical science has advanced to such a degree that humans can be kept alive for a much longer time than you would imagine. But no one has stopped to ask the question of whether we should. Or as in Amitabh’s immortal (no pun intended) words, yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai. Gawande cites several examples from his professional and personal life that focuses on the individual’s choice on care and ultimately, way to die. The Republicans’ favorite chant ‘death panels’ actually referred to the end of life counseling that doctors offered their patients. It’s the ultimate decision you can take for your life.

You do not choose to be born in this world and as of today, most laws even prevent you from actively choosing to die but at least you can choose the way you die when and only when you’re diagnosed to. The DNR is the most commonly known legal process in our pop culture and medical professionals are taught to honor it just as they’re taught to honor the first do no harm principle. Others like hospice care are fraught with emotions that you may not be fighting back hard enough. But after a while, it’s useless fighting nature.

Being Mortal will not only make you aware of your mortality but actually prepare you for it. I say that in the most humble and optimistic way. You aren’t immortal. You’re going to die. You’re born in perhaps one or two ways but you can die in umpteen different and uncharacteristic ways. The worst I believe, waiting to die which can be a long and painful process not only for the person but also for their loved ones. Modern medicine can perhaps keep you alive for as long as it is possible today but it’s entirely within your rights and choice to decide when enough is enough.

Even before I finished reading the book or even before hearing about Dada’s death, we had confirmed our appointment for signing our living wills and codifying end-of-life processes with an estate planning attorney. I have had the conversation with my brother about his role in the process. It reminded him to do the same as well. It’s the conversation we should feel comfortable having with our loved ones. It shouldn’t take a death to start having that conversation.

Grand Canyon Vistas

I wrote about my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon previously which unfortunately was in fading light at the end of a long day plagued with travel delays. However, the next day was perfect and we started off with gifting my parents a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon for their 40th wedding anniversary. [1] By their accounts, it was nothing less than spectacular and I can only imagine given what we saw later standing at the rim.

Grand Canyon vacation

View from Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon

We started out by first driving to the Desert View watchtower which is about 20 miles from the park entrance and then driving back to stop at various points for views of the canyon. Fortunately, the crowds weren’t bad since school was still in session and the season wouldn’t begin until a few weeks later. It was a slightly cloudy day and we even got a few drops of rain as we stood on the edge of the precipice taking in the sights of the canyon. I hestitate to repeat but the grandeur of the Grand Canyon cannot be understated and it lives up to all the hype you hear before visiting it. The watchtower is a newish structure built on the framework of an older rudimentary building by the Native Americans. This vista was discovered way before any white man stepped on this continent and I’m sure it must’ve been worshipped.

Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon vacation

We stopped at two more points – Lipan Point and Moran Point – on the way back to the Visitor Center for more of the spectacular views. As you trace your eyesight down the serrated edges of the canyon, you see the river below that carved it as a thin green line making its way out. I wondered for a moment if the river will continue to burrow its way and the canyon would look different after couple of hundred years but the plaque on the edge said the river had literally reached the foundation of the continent and wouldn’t make the Canyon any deeper. Now it’s up to us to be as minimally disruptive as we can to this amazing natural wonder.

Grand Canyon vacation

Moran Point - Grand Canyon

We made it to the Visitor Center by 1pm but unfortunately, it started pouring and we had to shelve our plans to continue and had to start driving back to Vegas. We’ll definitely back and maybe visit it from Phoenix to take in more of the dry and arid landscapes of Arizona.

Grand Canyon vacation

Moran Point Panorama - Grand Canyon

Footnotes:
  1. It’s at least $200 a pop so obviously, we all couldn’t go plus it was meant to be something exclusive and special for them. More on experiential gifts rather than material gifts later. []

The Grandest of All Canyons

Thanks to an hour and a half delay due to a high-speed chase that culminated in a shootout on the famed Route 66 – now an interstate, go figure – we were racing down route 64 to catch a glimpse of the canyon that’s referred to in the grandest of the terms, before sundown. Add to that a wailing toddler frustrated at being strapped in a child seat for 6 hours and a fuming parent whom we never can make happy, nerves were frayed all around. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t make it as light failed rapidly as the sun went down at 7:30pm. We parked our car in the now-almost-deserted parking lot and rushed to Mather Point, the observation outlook near the Visitor Center. The biting cold, very different from the hot weather in Las Vegas that we left a few hours ago, hit us but we made it to the edge. All the frustration and tiredness simply vanished.

The view was even more spectacular than I had imagined. The Grand Canyon has never been described in subtle tones (hues maybe) but in spite of the hype, it completely lives up to it. “Holy shit” were the first words out of my mouth as I saw the vast expance from the South Rim of this gigantic chasm in the earth. I’m not sure what makes an impression. Maybe it is the sudden explosion of space after driving thru uncharacteristically tall trees, or the hues on the layers of the rock weathered by time, or the literal edge of the continent you’re standing at, or simply the stark beauty of the harshness of nature.

This is the view I got that evening. Not much of a picture considering the circumstances and the light and better pictures and vistas would come the next day but nevertheless that first sight of the canyon cannot be experienced again.

Grand Canyon Mather Point

More later.

Back in New Orleans

Kitchen confidential at Nawlins

I was in New Orleans for a conference last couple of days; the last time I was there was after Hurricane Katrina for a sustainable urbanism class field trip and before that, it was on our way to Texas from Atlanta. So I effectively got a before-n-after Katrina view of the city. This time around, I didn’t have much time to take in the sights. However, I still found time to take long leisurely strolls in the French Quarter at dusk. Honestly, although there is more to ‘Nawlins’ than the Quarter, it’s the only part that interests me. The architecture, the food, the antique shops, and apparently, it’s the only part that’s thoroughly scrubbed clean every night.

The French Quarter

Although the lunches were mostly restricted to horrible conference food, I did manage to get out for two awesome dinners. First, at Brennan’s, a quaint restaurant with courtyard seating that serve exquisite New Orleans fine dining. Second, we were invited to a dinner at Emeril’s casual dining restaurant NOLA, also in the Quarter. Contrary to the fine dining place, this place had huge portions and yet amazing and we left absolutely stuffed.

Pork Chop at Emeril's NOLA Restaurant

I admit, I’m not a big New Orleans fan and don’t really prefer the crowds of Mardi Gras but someday I’ll learn to appreciate that too. We avoided the Mardi Gras crowds by a week so I’m sure the city will be crawling with revelers starting this week and leading up to Fat Tuesday.

A New Addition to the Family

We have been considering getting another dog for a while. But at the same time, being responsible for one more individual in the household especially when things get uncertain have been deterring us. The least we could do was to restart fostering pets. We fostered for more than a year before the kid was born and found the experience immensely rewarding. Since the kid was growing up, we weren’t sure about adding another unknown variable into the mix but now that he’s four and acts responsibly, we thought of giving it a shot again.

We contacted Austin Pets Alive and subscribed to their mailing list where they send out requests for fosters. We are selective about the breeds and sizes we want to foster due to Lucy and our home size. Both of us also work full-time and the kid goes to daycare so the dogs must be crate-trained as well. Sadly, there are a lot of pitbulls in the shelter but as much as sorrow we feel for them, we cannot foster pitbulls. So we keep looking. Finally, one day we came upon a request for a temporary pet-sitting for an adorable chow-chow mix. His foster parents were leaving on a vacation and wanted one of the volunteers to temporarily care for him. Although he was larger than we would’ve liked, we agreed and got Leo for two weeks.

Leo

Leo turned out to be the cutest and the friendliest dog we had the pleasure of ‘fostering’. He was a chow-chow mix and we think the mix part [1] won out as there wasn’t an iota of meanness to him and he had this habit of rolling over as soon as you start to pet him a little more vigorously. Lucy, as usual, ignored him and then tried to play roughshod with him in her own inimitable style but he couldn’t care less and was actually a little wary of her although he outsized her three times over. We had steeled ourselves to not fall for him but when it was time to return him to his original foster, Ash was all tears on the way home. It didn’t help that the foster family saw how much he loved us and dropped enough hints trying to make us adopt him permanently.

Our vacillation lasted all of two days as we decided to adopt him and bring him home permanently. We filled out the paperwork and had no troubles being approved. A week later, our family had one more member.

Footnotes:
  1. either labrador or golden retriever []

Beware of Phishing Attacks

The majority of the time your online accounts get ‘hacked’, it is because of social engineering more than technical vulnerabilities. This is applicable for normal folks like us and obviously high-value targets face the full ‘brute force’ of the technical attacks. Social engineering hacks or ‘phishing’ makes you believe that the communication mostly via email is from a person you know and trust and it makes you click a link in the email that will further ask for your login details. Once you enter those in, bam! They’re in.

Yesterday, I got an unusual email from my dad [1]:

Phishing Attack

Fortunately, it rang plenty of alarm bells when I opened the email. First, the tone of the email was casual and if you know my dad, his emails even with his sons are extremely formal. Even the ones he sends as personal emails start and end very officiously.

Second, it asked me to click on an allegedly Google Docs link. My dad (and his assistant) are barely able to use email let alone Google Docs. Sometimes I wish they were more technically savvy but in spite of trying several times, I haven’t been able to teach him. In fact, his email is operated entirely by his assistant and we communicate with him via his assistant (we call her Maushi so it’s not that formal of an arrangement). He dictates his email to her and she types it out and sends it to us. Third, if it was some kind of official work, he would call me and tell me about it several times within the span of that call. This email was way too short to be anything from him. Finally, if you hover over the link in the email, it doesn’t point to Google Docs and also, the To: field in the email was blank indicating the use of BCC: My brother confirmed that he too got the same email and so did another family friend.

Anyway, my suspicions were confirmed when I directly called his assistant and told her to change their email password. Obviously, she hadn’t sent the email. But I learnt something more scary. Couple of weeks ago, my dad had received a similar email (except it asked for money to be wired) purportedly from my brother. But instead of calling him first, they exchanged a few emails with the spammer and only when it got a little too suspicious[2], did they call my brother. However, the spammer correctly targeted my dad’s fondness for wanting to send money even when we explicitly always tell him that we don’t want any. Luckily, he did not send any money but I’m sure he must’ve clicked some link in the email that may have given them access to his address book. It must be similar to the script that lets Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn to import your address book.

This post is just meant to warn you to not trust any email containing links from your personal contacts especially if it sounds a little suspicious. Always call or Whatsapp them to first confirm whether it really came from them. The few minutes (or hours) you wait for their reply may end up saving you a lot of trouble.

Footnotes:
  1. the screenshot is from my Spam folder where the message now resides []
  2. they wanted to money to be sent within India whereas my brother is currently in Canada []

A Beach Vacation

Be patient. You’re on island time now” said a sign behind the counter at a coffee shop in Port Aransas. That’s exactly how we felt – on island time. With no pressing deadlines and nowhere to go, we could finally kick back and relax. Otherwise even vacations with tightly packed itineraries can be stressful for us. But this time, we did it differently.

Due to our busy work lives, we couldn’t get away last year. We finally got a chance to take a much-needed beach vacation before the summer heat sets in. Nothing too far or fancy, we booked a condo right off the beach at Port Aransas. This small town is on a barrier island off the south Texas coast. Most of the island is a protected reserve with the exception of several condominium complexes set right off the beachfront. No more than 3,000 people call this town their home and vacationers outnumber them 10 to 1 during the peak summer months. Our daily schedule was simple. Get up at leisure, have a quick and light breakfast in our condo and head straight to the beach. Spend couple of times on the beach with the kid who was returning to the coast after nearly 2 years. Since he’s just beginning to form memories, this could very well have been his first time.

As the sun rises, we drive down to the town’s center for some wonderful fish and shrimp tacos and then head back to the condo for a well deserved afternoon nap. Late afternoon, we could either hit the beach again or drive down to Padre Island, one of America’s ten national seashores. It’s a pristine naturally-preserved 50-mile coastline with only with seaweed as litter. It’s the perfect place for a long beach walks with the kid running up and down the beach with the occasional splash in the sea. We can stop for a while to gaze at some barnacle-crusted driftwood otherwise just pass other beach visitors who are just as peaceful.

The evening ends with yet another stomach-stuffing seafood right on the seafront in two of Corpus Christi’s famed restaurants. One of them offers excellent choices in fried seafood (fish, shrimp, oyster, crawfish, etc.) and the other is a slightly more-classy [1] place with grilled and stuffed fish. We head back to our condo and can take yet another walk on the beach, which is a mere 100 feet from our condo doorstep, separated only by grassy sand dunes. The other option during the evenings is to drive down to Corpus Christi, the larger town on the coast to visit the Texas State Aquarium or the USS Lexington, the now-retired aircraft carrier museum.

We just rinse and repeat our schedule for the next three days until it is time to leave which the kid obviously is not ready to. But return we must. But we’ll be back.

More photos after the fold:

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Footnotes:
  1. I use that term very loosely []

Razorblogging Part Trois

Continuing the proud tradition of razorblogging on this blog, I present the third (trois) in the series to reflect the constantly shifting preferences to keep me free of facial hair. After going old school with a stainless steel razor for nearly four years, I’m back to the warm comforts of gliding safety razors that modern innovation has bestowed upon us. However, I do not go back to the arms of Gillette and its ever-increasing number of blades. Instead I decided to give the startup guys a chance. Currently I’m a month-old customer of Harry’s [1]. I heard about them on some tech podcasts and between the Dollar Shave Club, I decided to give them a try.

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Footnotes:
  1. Not an affiliate link and definitely not a paid review []

My Photo Management Approach

I’ve been interested and involved in amateur photography for a while now. I started shooting with film and even got around to developing in a darkroom before photography went completely digital. I think my parents still have my crappy first attempts at shooting the Taj Mahal when we first visited it in 1989.

Not Windows XP

Butler Park, Austin

It takes time to develop the technique and have an eye for capturing the right moments or the right angle but all I can say is that it gets better, the more you shoot. Shoot a hundred, keep about 10, and show only 3 and soon people start thinking that all of your photos look like the 3 you show them. You don’t have to dispel that notion.

But given the ease and often ephemeral nature of photos these days, don’t neglect the importance of backing up your photos. I’m describing the approach I use and yours may be different given the tools you use.

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Experimenting with Composting

Sqrlta asked me to write a short post on my experiences with composting. There are several excellent how-to articles on the web on composting that may do a better job but this is my experience and suited for my purpose.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, we were lucky enough to have space demarcated for composting although it was an open-style composting made up of wooden planks and chicken mesh. The previous owners had simply dumped dry leaves and twigs in and weren’t actively composting kitchen waste. The first thing I did was remove the mesh and planks from one side of the composting area and place a plastic composting container that I got from Amazon.

Compost Enclosures

Compost Enclosures – one open and other closed

Although you get composting barrels that make for better aeration and stirring, I found those expensive for my first foray into composting[1]. Plus, this container perfectly fit in the current enclosure I had carved out. The important aspects of composting are that its bottom should be in contact with the ground so organisms like earthworms can make their way through your compost. It should be well aerated and needs to be frequently stirred. Ideally, it should be damp and should have a proportionate mix of brown (dry leaves, small twigs, etc.) and green waste (kitchen waste). The container did not take too long to assemble and I already had some dry brown leaves to start. Also, make sure to keep it covered with a tight lid at all times so you do not attract rodents. It is advisable to place the compost container/area a little away from the house or rather the entrances of your house.

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Footnotes:
  1. Most cities offer rebates for composting if you provide a receipt. Check with your city’s recycling/composting department first []

Spring Gardening Prep

It’s that time of the year again when the cold recedes and spring is around the corner. Although the winter isn’t much in Texas, it still prevents you from tending to your garden and everything looks dreary. We have two large live oak trees; one in the front yard and one in the back. The thing with live oak trees is that, they shed leaves in early spring instead of fall. So the truest sign of spring in our parts is when the ground is littered with an inch-deep layers of leaves. Now, you can’t start clearing them up because you’ve to wait until the trees have shed them all otherwise it’s just a futile effort at keeping your yard clean. For 2-3 weeks, your yard looks absolutely dreadful and only when you start seeing fresh buds on the treetops, should you consider cleaning up the leaves. You probably read about how much leaves those two trees shed.

Then follows the hard part; the personal part that you don’t pay someone else to do it because you want your personal touch. I’m talking about the flower beds, the planting beds, and the vegetable garden. We cleared out a corner of our front lawn because it was getting too much sun and not much grass was growing. So rather than force the hand of nature, we decided to plant some flowering and non-flowering/ornamental plants that loved lots of sun. Preparing such beds for the spring seems minor but is an arduous task. First it involves a trip to Lowes where you consider getting plants to replace the ones that did not work last year, plant food, some cow manure to boost, and of course, bags and bags of mulch [1].

However, this year it was different. We did not buy compost which otherwise is an integral part of prepping the garden for the new year. When we bought this house, we learnt that being Austin and all, the previous owners were very environment-friendly. Not only did they have water-saving adaptions in the water closet but also to our delight, two open-air compost enclosures. It wasn’t working exactly as composting should but at least it was a start. I could always work with what we got and then turn it into something we could actually use. I had read and done (rather got done) some composting on our farm in India but never actually done it on a daily basis. So how did we do? Well, I’ll keep that for the next post [2]

Footnotes:
  1. Trust me, you can never fall short of mulch []
  2. It will keep me coming back to write, right? []

Nothing Much To Say

Who says blogging has to be hifalutin[1]? Well, sometimes I do. We consider Twitter for stray random thoughts and reserve blogging for serious long rants or as they say now, think pieces. But it doesn’t have to be, just like this post proves it. I started typing without knowing what I was going to write and now I’m just making it up as I write.

I’m just enjoying a rare day when I have no pending tasks. Having submitted a much-worked-on deliverable today morning, I’m content enough to chill out in my freshly-cleaned backyard with a beer and this blog post. Our backyard was cluttered with leaves almost an inch-deep. Our regular lawn guy was out of town so it kept delaying but in hindsight, that let our two large live oaks shed all their leaves, like they do every spring. So basically we experience fall at the beginning of spring. Anyway, he finally got around to cleaning it up yesterday and had quoted us $5 per bag. Over email, he estimated it would be 5-6 bags. It ended up being 30 bags! Holy guacamole!

30 Bags of Live Oak

Anyway, now that it is clean, edged, and trimmed, the front and backyard look fabulous and will finally let us get started on our spring gardening. It’s the time we are probably better off direct depositing our paychecks to Lowes. But as I sit here in my backyard with a beer and 70F sunshine, it all feels worth it. Heck, I even tried out the latest in tech fads – Periscope live streaming.

Footnotes:
  1. isn’t that just oxymoronic? Damn, I did it again []

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