Coffee heat rising

I Are a English Major…

…I are not a accountant! Gaaaahhhhhh!!!!!

Ugh. And Yuch! At the end of last year (that would be about four weeks ago, no?), after I downloaded and itemized an entire year’s worth of data from three credit-union accounts (each of which had several sub-accounts) and two American Express accounts, then itemized the tax-related entries, a halcyon idea fluttered into my by-then dangerously fevered little brain:

If I were to download this garbage once each month, the task would be a LOT less annoying, less exhausting, and less frustrating. Then  come next January 3 or so, the job would be done! I wouldn’t have to sit here for hour after hour after un-fuckingENDING hour struggling with that brainbanging tedious job.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Even, we might say, sensible.

Yes?

Well.

No.

This morning I sat down to whip out the January transactions.

Three hours later…

Y’know…this stuff shouldn’t be that hard. But it is. It is, because anything that is touched by computer technology is fucked up.

Example: It should be simple — right? — to download a month’s worth of data from the credit union into a boring Excel spreadsheet, the avatar of simplicity.

And it is…if you like your data bass-ackwards. For reasons utterly incomprehensible to the 20th-century mind, the credit union insists on presenting transactions in reverse chronological order. There’s no way to make the things appear in a sane order online. So you have to download all that crap into an Excel spreadsheet and then have Excel flip the order.

Not very hard. Annoying, but not hard. EXCEPT…when you’re dealing with half a dozen accounts. Then you have six times the annoyance factor, and that does present a problem.

American Express, which used to present data in normal chronological order, as I recall, has decided it must do the same.: bass-ackward So…there, too: an extra layer of hassle. Extra layer x 2, for two accounts.

The last time I did the annual tax-prep task, I had no trouble downloading data from the AMEX site. Today…no chance. I could NOT see a simple way to download the current statement to disk. Asked their customer service bot or whatever she/he/it is. Got an endless, brain-banging series of ditzy instructions. Told it that I thought life would be much easier if I simply typed the data from the printed statements into Excel. Which is exactly what I did.

Took about 10 or 15 minutes, less than the amount of time I spent grinding my teeth and wrestling with AMEX’s inscrutable website.

Unstuck in time, is what we are. Sorry, young pups: but this 21st-century world you’ve inherited is some precinct of Hell.

Dear Credit Union: What ARE you thinking?

This morning I finally bestirred myself to open the stacks and stacks of not-quite-junk-mail, pesty notices, Important Tax Information, and statements and bills that have to be attended to, sooner or later. And what should pop out of an envelope from the credit union but not one, not two, but THREE negotiable (-looking) blank checks in my name, with my  credit union account number them, along with an invite to hurry right out and cash them.

WTflyingF?????????

Turns out they’re an offer to fork over chunks of cash from my line of credit.

Yes. I have an old, unused line of credit with that august institution, one I took out when I was doing some renovations to my previous house…from which I moved some 16 years ago. I haven’t borrowed on that account in a good 20 years, but apparently it’s still very much alive. And the worthies of the credit union very much wish I would please rack up some more interest on a nice fat loan.

The things looked just like checks for an ordinary checking account. The sales pitch: fill these out in the amount you want, take it in, and cash it. Soooo simple!

HOLY ess-aitch-ai! You sent that to the mail thieves and the trash scavengers, dear Credit Union?

They may not be truly negotiable. But they sure look like they are. All it would take is a smart trash scavenger (or his boss) to engineer some fake ID with my name and address on it, hand it to his girlfriend, and send her in with a five- or ten-thousand-dollar check to manufacture a real nasty surprise for me.

Honest to God. What possesses people?

So I had to take a break from ripping open envelopes, filing, and trashing to send a written request to those chuckleheads: please do not mail me anything that looks even faintly like a negotiable instrument.

Into the shredder the things went. But…what an annoyance!

Green Hemorrhage

Wow! The long greens have been washing out of the Funny Farm like a flash flood! I’m freakin’ going broke here…but oddly, most of this results not from impulse buying or budget-free living but from a weird confluence of bureaucratic gouges and house-related expenses. Some of them pretty hefty expenses. Most of these were either for things that had to be done or for things I figured were better attended to now than put off.

First, of course, we had the blinding $2500 property tax bill. Put that on a charge card. The statement just came floating into the mailbox…so that has to be paid forthwith. With any luck it will elicit a little kickback from American Express…more, I hope, than the gouge the County charges for the privilege of putting it on a card.

Then, the pool fiascos…holy mackerel!!!

After the $10,000 replastering job, as you’ll recall, the pool was absolutely gorgeous for a week or two…then it filled up with green London Fog. For $100+ per visit, Swimming Pool Service & Repair’s redoubtable Aaron came over and tried to beat the stuff back. Repeated visits and a $125 filter cleaning did nothing. Finally, after I remarked that I was thinking about simply filling the pool in, enough being enough, already, they came over and tried again a couple of times. Much to no avail… The green fog just came right back. (3 x $100: $300, + 125: $425)

You’ll recall that at the outset of this adventure, on the advice of WonderAccountant’s pool guy, I was pouring two gallons of chlorine into the drink: $13 a day…that would be $390 a month. This doesn’t count the soda ash and assorted other chemicals or the new test kit I had to order from Amazon.

Finally Aaron proposed that they should drain the pool, power-spray it with chlorine, and sanitize the pump, the filter, and any other equipment. Hoping against hope to save the pool I agreed to this: $350.

And indeed: they did a wonderful job! The water was sparkling clear and it stayed clear with little or no work on my part.

The job racked up not only the $350 for the work, but something over $100 charged by the city for refilling the pool after they drained it.

Then about two weeks later, along came the palm tree guys. They proposed to trim and clean up the four neglected palms — those trees hadn’t been trimmed in three or four years — and also “skin” the palm that never had the dead palm frond stumps removed: $250. This was a job that really needed doing, and the price was about what Gerardo would charge…only they’d do it now, not sometime whenever Gerardo & his guys get around to it.

I told them they absolutely must not drop the palm fronds into the damn pool! Right. “Sí señora…no palm fronds in the pool.”

Couple hours later I look out there and the damn pool is FULL OF PALM FRONDS!

I go out and say, “I asked you not to drop the palm fronds in the pool!”

“No problem, señora! We’ll pull them out!”

He didn’t understand what I was saying when I said “no palm fronds in the pool.” He thought I meant “please don’t leave dead fronds and leaves in the water,” not what I really meant, which was “throw the palm fronds over the wall into the alley and onto the street, and then from there load them into your truck.” And of course he had no clue that palm fronds harbor, among many other pests, billions and billions of mustard algae spores.

Of course, they pulled the fronds out of the water, which was exactly what they planned to do. Then, after I taught them how to do it, they cleaned the remaining debris off the bottom of the pool.

They charged $250 to trim all four palm trees (cleaning out at least 3 years’ worth of neglected debris, still clinging to the tops of the 30-foot trunks) and to skin the one inadequately maintained tree. It was miserably hot, they damn near killed themselves working like acrobatic climbing mules, and then they spent another hour shoveling out the pool. Amazingly, they engaged this last annoying chore with good cheer. I gave them a $100 bonus, given the vastness of the job I’d foisted on them.

Understand: Gerardo charges $50/tree: $200 per job, and the unshaven tree would be left unshaven. Over three years, that’s $600…so I came out ahead on that one, and got the neglected frond stubs cut off that one tree at no extra charge. (You don’t even want to know how much Gerardo proposed to charge to shave that tree!)

I poured some more chlorine into the drink. Once again, to no avail.

Within three days, the pool was a murky green swamp again!

A-a-a-n-d once again, I call Aaron in despair, pretty much determined to drain the pool and fill it in. Yea verily, I get the name of a pool demolition company, whose guy gives me an estimate of $12,000 to $14,000. Installing a deck over it with a pump in the bottom to keep mosquito puddle dry would come to about the same.

Aaron sends his colleague Don over. He dumps in some chemicals that, after about 12 hours of run time, sort of clear the water. That bill has yet to be presented. He also suggests that instead of fighting the thing myself, I should hire a pool maintenance guy to come in once a week to do battle with it.

I remark that during the Year of the Surgeries indeed I did do that, to woeful result. It was a total waste of $80 a month and and a total waste of time. He says maybe I should try someone else. So far I haven’t seen the bill for that visit.

Determined to give it one last chance, I ask the neighbors on the ‘Hood’s Facebook page if anyone can suggest a pool guy. And lo! Some woman warmly recommends the Pool Dude of the Century. Another pool dude is also recommended.

I reach the second guy first — he wants $120 a month. Right, pal. We’ll be calling the demolition guy back next.

Finally the first guy returns my call. He comes over, inspects the mess, and says he’ll do it for $85 a month. Weekly visits, chemicals included. Welll….ohhhkayyy…I figure I can always can him when (not “if”) this doesn’t work: “You’re on!”

So he, that very morning, applies three chemicals that he happens to carry on his truck. “You’re gonna have to run the system overnight,” he says. “It’ll take about 24 hours for this stuff to do the job.”

That evening I go out and look at the water: still murky. Another lost cause, I figure, and plan to call the demolition crew the following morning.

But lo! Comes the dawn, I stumble out to the poolside and by golly, the water is as clean and sparkling as it was after Swimming Pool Service and Repair worked their chlorine-washing magic!

He came back the next day, brushed everything down, and it looked incredible. Then he came back a couple days ago for the first of his regular Wednesday jobs. So far, he has yet to present me with a bill, but he did say clarifying it would be about $20. Sooo…$20 + $85: $105.

Okay, so the $2500 for the tax bill did not come out of the day-to-day living funds, that’s so: It was in the Tax Savings account. But the rest of it most certainly did  come out of the grocery budget: $1,715.

Just the beginning.

Then there was the $125 for the closed-toed black shoes we’re required to wear to choir on Sunday. Of course I have perfectly fine pain-free shoes bought specifically for that purpose…but the new director demands closed-toe shoes. You understand: I buy and wear these expensive shoes specifically because my feet hurt as a direct result of wearing shoes designed to please men! Some years ago, after deciding not to have risky surgery on my feet but instead to wear Birkenstocks until my feet eventually stopped hurting at every step (took about three years). At that time I made a considered and very deliberate decision:

I will NEVER AGAIN wear shoes that hurt just to please a man’s taste.

So strongly do I feel about this that I have seriously considered quitting the choir.

But eventually I thought better of that, drove out to Tempe, and plopped down $143 for a pair of black clogs. Wore these to church and found, yea verily, they’re uncomfortable and hot! Very, very hot. I’ve never had my feet actively made hot by a pair of shoes.

A few days ago, I was back out in Tempe to meet The Kid at a restaurant next door to the store. While waiting, I perused the store’s goods again, and mentioned to the clerk that I hated the shoes I’d bought. She said well, I could bring them back if it’s been less than two months.

Truth to tell, I’d have to figure out if it’s been that long or not. This whole week has been one long, hectic whirl, and I certainly haven’t had time to make a 90-minute drive back and forth to lovely downtown Tempe. But…if they’ll still take the shoes back, maybe I can trade them in on something less…clunky.

Yes. Believe it or not, they had a pair of black closed-toe CFMs! 😀

Such a temptation… {cackle!}

God lord, no wonder I’m broke…there’s more. Endlessly more:

  • Chuck’s Auto Service: $96, car maintenance
  • State of Arizona: $17, auto emissions rip-off
  • State of Arizona: $280, car registration rip-off
  • Maricopa County: $53 rip-off for paying $2500 in property taxes by credit card
  • Mayo Clinic: $80 not covered by Medicare or Medigap
  • Plumber: $143, replace worn-out part, fix annoying toilet
  • Gerardo: $150, yard work plus dig up ungodly vicious plants
  • All Saints: $25, choir folder

And the beat goes on…

Batten Down the Hatches! Prepare for the next recession NOW

So Mr. Trump, our mentally ill President, just crashed the economy with one of his acts of lunacy. The Dow is down over 600 points, and that was after showing some signs of instability in the past couple of weeks.

Like it or not, China is a major trading partner for the US. Shut it off, and we cut off our own nose to spite our proverbial face. Trump’s act of spite will harm every business in this country, large or small. Mine, for example, the smallest of the small: Trump just closed my business. China has always been pretty woozy about sending money beyond its borders, so when you’re selling a service to clients on the mainland, getting paid can be a challenge. When I decided to quit using PayPal and found that Bank of America couldn’t figure out how to accept a wire transfer to a business that has an apostrophe in its name(!!), that left only Western Union as a way to transfer payments owed. This was questionable enough as it stood, but now that the Moron in Chief has cut off trade with China, it presumably will be impossible.

Presumably, indeed, I will never be paid for the two difficult academic articles I just finished editing and preparing for publication. And presumably after this The Copyeditor’s Desk will get no (zero, zip) further business from its bread-and-butter clients in China.

That is about as micro- a micro-example of this fiasco as you can get.

On a far more macro level, there’s a reason the market lost over 600 points before it closed. This country does a lot of business with China. Cut it off, and you close a lot of businesses, end a lot of commerce, lose a lot of jobs.

And lose a whole lot of income for the American middle class.

Mark my words: The Trump recession will make the Bush recession look like a walk in the park. If you have any illusions that you can survive it, now is the time to prepare yourself and your affairs. How?

  • First, pay off debt. Pay all your outstanding credit cards right now. If you owe a lot on a mortgage, it may be wise to sell your house while it’s still worth something and rent someplace until such time as this recession comes and goes. If you have a car loan, pay it off if you can, or get rid of the car if you can.
  • Do not take on any new debt. Do not buy a car. Do not buy a new house or apartment. Do not go off on some expensive vacation or indulge yourself with anything that requires you to charge up more than you can pay off at the end of a billing cycle.
  • To the extent possible, place investment funds in money market, CD, or other relatively “safe” instruments. These will not make money for you, but they won’t lose much, either. Get out of securities.
  • Charge nothing on a credit card that you cannot pay at the end of the billing cycle out of your bank account. Pay off credit cards at the end of each month or, if that is a challenge for you, simply stop charging on credit cards. If you can’t pay for something with cash, don’t buy it.

If you’re a retiree with most of your life savings in an IRA, 401(k) or 403(c), the timing of this latest moment of lunacy could hardly be worse. Along about now, retirees with deferred investment instruments have to make their annual “required minimum withdrawal”: a forced withdrawal of a percentage of savings, so that you will have to pay taxes on it. With the market extremely depressed, two things happen:

A drawdown generated by the required percentage will be substantially less than normal (think of it this way: 10% of $100 is $10. But if one day your $100 loses $60 (say 1 stock market point = $1), then you get 10% of $40. That would be $4. Which ain’t a-gunna be enough to live on. And of course the remaining $40 will not rebound to $100 or even to $96 very soon, because it will be short 10% of the funds you would, over time, reinvest to recover the value of your losses.

There aren’t a lot of ways to prepare for a little catastrophe like that. One way or the other, you’re not going to have enough to get by. But you’ll be a lot less likely to have your house foreclosed out from under you and your car towed off to the impound yard if you don’t owe anything on them.

I have to say, for the first time in my adult life, I’ve begun to think seriously about decamping to some other country. Permanently.

Apparently one of the best places you can go to live as an expat is Panama. A little town called Boquette, to be precise. Check out the real estate in this place! How about the view from this hovel, 3520 square feet in a gated community, for about $100,000 less than I could get for my house today…

Crime levels are low in Boquette. The local expats say there’s lots to do and the weather is great. Medical care, we’re told, is more than adequate and is reasonably priced.

Two of my friends have already moved to Mexico. They’re both ecstatically happy. One is a native speaker of Iberian Spanish…but Spanish is easy to pick up if you don’t already have it. Especially if, as happens to be my case, you speak two other Romance languages and have a spattering of Latin.

Lookit this thing: it’s easily a hundred grand less than I could get for my house here, and it’s freaking gorgeous. Much, much nicer than my house, and 1478 square feet larger.

The time may be a-comin…

Bills and Taxes and Budgets and Mathematicians, Oh My!

Almost fainted when I saw the American Express bill this month: $1250! Holeee Mackerel!

Since I’m running low on money anyway and am not going to make it to the end of my “fiscal year” when we’re slated to pull out another Required Minimum Drawdown, this was a bit of an eyepopper.

The fact is, though, that only about $700 of that was for living expenses. The vet charged $200 to put Cassie the Corgi down. The plumber charged $350 to rotoroot the plumbing. Et voilà: budget busted.

Fortunately, I’ve been putting $300 a month into emergency savings, so had a couple thousand bucks for damage control. Transferred $200 to help cover the bill; and if at the end of the month push has come to shove, I can transfer another two or three hunnert into checking for survival purposes.

Meanwhile, the scheme to decommission the Copyeditor’s Desk’s Paypal account continues apace. After hours of hassle, I finally managed to trick damnable PayPal to establish a new account, except that they wouldn’t let me attach it to the corporate bank account. So now money paid for editorial and blogging work will go into my personal account, and then will have to be transferred, with elaborate explanations to the tax man, over to the corporate checking account. That is going to be a vast PITA.

However, speaking of decommissioning: WonderAccountant has a modest proposal. She thinks we should change the business’s structure from an S-corp to a sole proprietorship, an LLC, or a C-corp. And she’s got somethin’ there.

If we made it a sole proprietorship, tax prep would be enormously simplified. The only drawback I can see is that the credit union will want to close the corporate checking & savings accounts. However, WonderAccountant and Mr. W.A. believe we can keep the EIN, and so we could quietly not tell the credit union that any change has occurred. This, we will address later…after tax season.

Meanwhile, all the tax stuff for her is in hand. How I hate this bureaucratic stuff! And how happy am I that I do not have a job in which all you do is wrestle with bookkeeping and taxes? Eeek! Let me count the ways!

Oh, in the PayPal department — and the Department of Outrageous Corporate Bureaucratic arrogance — can you believe this?!? Paypal actually demanded that I provide my bank account number AND password!!!!!!!!! Only in a fine-print line does one find a link to allow you to bypass that bit of bullshit.

Can you imagine? Like I’m gonna give PayPal direct access to my money and let them spy on every thing I do with my bank account? Yes, and while we’re at it, fork over my password to the next hacker who takes on PayPal!

Meanwhile, just as I thought the editing bidness was so moribund I might as well shut it down altogether, along came another of the redoubtable Chinese mathematicians, with 18 typeset pages of elaborate theroretical explication.

What amazing stuff. When you read this copy, you realize how creative and original mathematicians are. The whole premise for the system she uses to describe as a way to understand a specific set of empirical phenomena is a metaphor. Her demonstration works because she founds it in a metaphorical view of the real-world conditions she addresses.

And just as I reached the last few paragraphs of this project, in came a message from a senior scholar who contacted me some time back about helping him with a new biography of a very interesting mid-twentieth-century Chinese figure. This is a book I would really like to work on, and more to the point, he is an eminent scholar with whom I would really like to collaborate. Too, too exciting!

In other pastures of the Elysian Fields…I canceled tomorrow’s crack-of-dawn appointment with the adorable Young Dr. Kildare. Suddenly, out of the proverbial blue (is that also Elysian?), the back pain slacked off markedly. Yesterday afternoon it started to feel better, and this morning the pain was almost gone.

Well. In the first place, I’d just as soon not waste YDK’s time if the damn back sprain is going to go away on its own. Less generously, the prospect of spending a full hour in rush-hour traffic fills me with annoyed horror. To get there by the 8:00 a.m. appointment time, I’d have to leave here at 7 a.m., and the drive would be gawdawful. So…”feels better” served as a convenient excuse.

And a chimera: by 4:00 this afternoon it hurt like hell again.

Among the several tasks I’d set for today was to get a grip on Chapter 36 of Ella’s Story. Right. Well. I filled my pen, anyway.

American Retirement: Be scared, be VERY scared???

So, as on cue, we get another nervous-making rant to the effect that ô God! dear God! Americans are JUST NOT SAVING ENOUGH for their dotage. If you look at NerdWallet’s latest terrifying reprise of Americans’ average 401(k) balance, by age, you’ll be ready to shoot yourself so as to will your savings to your adult kids before you use the money all up. Yea, verily: if you have a kid between 20 and 29 who manages the average savings level, the brat has  set aside only $11,600; but the median for that bracket is a piddling $4,000. If your kids have stumbled into their 40s without undue catastrophe, they’ll have stashed all of $106,200 on average (maybe three years’ worth of living expenses, if they’re lucky), rather more than the median figure of $36,900. And if you — not your kid — have accrued the average US savings for your age bracket, at 65 you have a grandiose $198,6700, but the median among your contemporaries is an even more spectacularly inadequate $63,000.

Horrors. Clearly we’re DOOOOOMED.

Why do I doubt it?

Well, here’s why. A 401K does not one’s only retirement instrument make.

In fact, Americans have a variety of devices that help them prepare for retirement. Not the least is real estate: paying down that mortgage.

Once you’ve paid off a mortgage, your house effectively returns to you the amount you were paying monthly toward the mortgage. It gives you that much money that you don’t have to pay out to keep the roof over your head. So, let’s say (for simplicity’s sake), you pay off your mortgage on your 65th birthday; your payments were $1,000 a month. From then on, that house represents $1,000 a month of retirement savings for you: $12,000 a year that you don’t have to earn and you don’t have to take out of your IRAs or 401(k). If you live to, say, age 85, it returns 12 months x 20 x $1,000: $240,000.

So, let’s say sure, you only have $106,200 in your 401(k). But with that plus the return on your paid-off house, you have the equivalent of $346,200 to live on. Not awesome. But not bad.

Okay, now let’s bear in mind that the 401(k) is not the only savings instrument you might have. For example, some of us know about Roth IRAs. In many ways, it’s better to pay taxes upfront and then stash the balance in a Roth than it is to use a 401(k) and bet that you won’t be earning enough in your dotage to put you in the taxman’s headlights. Lemme tellya from experience: It ain’t necessarily so that you’ll be free of income tax in your poverty-stricken old age.

Uncle Sam requires you to take a percentage of your 401(k) in each year of retirement, forcing you to choke up a chunk of taxes. If you’re not earning any more than Social Security and an annual savings drawdown, that tax bite can be a hardship.

If at the age of 45 you started racking up post-tax savings in a Roth IRA at the maximum amount allowed per year, presently $6,000, in 20 years you would have $120,000. Now let’s continue to assume you pay off the mortgage on your 65th birthday, meaning it starts to “return” the equivalent of the monthly payment, about $240,000 over the next 20 years. At 65, then, you have the practical equivalent of $120,000 + $240,000: that is, $360,000. Now let’s add up the average 65-year-old’s savings: we get $120,000 (Roth IRA) + $240,000 (amount you don’t have to earn to stay in your paid-off home) + $106,200 (average agèd American’s 401(k) savings): $466,200.

Not so bad. But now you not only have the roof over your head more or less free (except for taxes and maintenance), but the house also represents a monetary asset. You can sell it, or you can borrow against it. Let’s say it’s worth $188,900, the median home value of a U.S. house: that gives you a pre-Social Security retirement net worth of $655,100. If we take as the house’s value the average third-quarter 2018 sales price ($390,200), we come up with $866,400. That’s before Social Security income.

So. Yeah: it would be good if you maxed out your 401(k). But its balance doesn’t tell the whole story.

The whole story is represented by the total of all your assets, your Social Security, and the extent to which a paid-off house reduces the amount of cash flow you need to live adequately.