Coffee heat rising

Big-picture thinking and the penny-pincher

This morning a fresh experience led me to realize that I spend way too much time on penny-pinching and way too little on focusing on the big picture that is my life—or more to the point, that is my earning potential.

Yesterday one of my former students sent me a LinkedIn invite. This caused me to return to that much-neglected site, where I was reminded that an old friend, a graphic artist with whom I worked at Arizona Highways and later through a talent agency I ran, had made himself one of my “contacts.” When I dropped him an e-mail to ask how things were going and mentioned that I’m now free of the Great Desert University, he invited me to join him for breakfast today with a business networking group he frequents. So, as dawn first colored the sky, I was shooting across the city to a Good Egg restaurant in one of Scottsdale’s toniest strip malls.

I arrived early, and since I didn’t want to be first at the trough, I spent 15 minutes or so window-shopping.

In more halcyon times, a colleague and I used to meet about once a month for lunch at the expensive trattoria that forms one of the small gems in this iridescent commercial strip. She has since moved to a historic whaling village in Massachusetts, and I have since taken to clinging to every penny that comes my way, and so I haven’t been back there in a long time. As I strolled past the elegant interior design stores, clothing boutiques, and gift shops, I thought, “Imagine what it would be like to be able to shop in one of these places whenever you feel like it!”

But when my friend and I were hanging out there, I used to shop in those glittery stores every now and again. And before then, when I was married to the corporate lawyer, I could indeed have shopped there any time I felt like it. Yes, it is true that even when my husband was bringing home a generous six-figure salary, I would never have purchased the luminous bedding set, redolent with satin and hand embroidery (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it…but you can be sure it’s more than my entire month’s discretionary budget). However, on my Great Desert University salary I did buy smaller items, which today I would not buy because I wouldn’t spend that much on, say, bubble bath or bathroom towels.

Can’t say I feel any great loss in the absence of these things, but still…the point is, I’ve taken to denying myself a lovely venue to hang out in and also small, not very expensive luxuries.

The meeting soon got under way: about a dozen small-business owners meet once a week to socialize and trade leads. I enjoyed these guys very much (the group was all-male, though they swore a couple of women belonged). They seemed like pretty nice gents, all of them fully engaged in their businesses and their lives. The group offered a number of ideas for expanding and improving on the enterprises I have in hand just now, and believe it or not, I got a lead to a full-time job. My old Arizona Highways pal has become a successful web design artist, and another member bills himself as “The PC Magician.” These two got me thinking about ways to improve and grow FaM.

At the end of the get-together, the group’s president suggested I apply for membership. Dues are $110 upfront and $50 a month, for which you get the pleasure of their company and breakfast every Thursday.

Gulp! thought I: Where the hell am I gonna come up with fifty bucks a month?

The money would have to come out of the S-corp’s checking account. The corporation actually has enough to cover that. But…it only just recently accrued enough to get me out of teaching one section of freshman comp next fall. And oboyoboy, do I want to get out of teaching one section of freshman comp! If I spend the money on socializing, I’ll be stuck with three sections next fall. And that, in addition to adding to the misery quotient, will put me over Social Security’s penurious earnings limit.

However, I did feel the group delivered more than that much in value received. And it really would take only one assignment to pay for it. Or one full-time job, eh?

Driving home, it dawned on me how ridiculous it is to feel I can’t spend $600 a year to belong to a trade group.

And, like the morning star sitting in that early dawn light, the thought also struck me that I don’t need to draw down money from the S-corp to get out of teaching one section of composition. In fact, I would do a great deal better not to do so! It would be far better to use $2,400 of the $10,000 emergency savings cushion, and to use the pretax money in the S-corp to pay for business expenses.


The savings fund has already had the tax gouged out of it. The community college is withholding 15 percent of the $2,400 I earn per class, so that third section is actually worth only $2,040. Using after-tax funds I already have would provide an extra $360 to live on. Meanwhile, The Copyeditor’s Desk can pay for anything that’s even vaguely presentable as a business expense with revenues that are effectively tax-free.

This strategy has two other sterling advantages:

By pushing my earned income below $14,000 in 2010, it would ensure that that I absolutely would not exceed the subsistence wage Social Security allows.

It would cut my taxes significantly, since my total taxable income would drop well below $30,000.

I came away from the meeting feeling energized and excited about building Funny about Money and The Copyeditor’s Desk into serious money-making operations that might, in the future, support me in the manner to which I wish to become reaccustomed. And in that flush of ambition, I realized that I spend too much energy and time figuring out how I can live on next to nothing, and way too little time developing assets that I already have and that could do a great deal more for me.

Case in point: sitting here in front of the computer shivering with cold because I’ve calculated, penny by penny, how much I need to save on utilities in the winter to pay the exorbitant air-conditioning and water bills next summer.

Why have I spent all that time counting little pieces of copper? Wouldn’t I be a lot better off to invest some money in living normally and to devote that time to marketing FaM, spinning off a book from it, and hustling some more editorial clients?

And why am I wasting my time teaching time-consuming, exploitively underpaid junior-college courses when I can live on cash I already have and use that time to develop the two far more interesting enterprises that have already shown they can generate income?

Why? Because I’ve been obsessively focused on pinching pennies, at the expense of thinking about the big picture!

What’s the big picture? It’s life. And it’s how I can make life in Bumhood comfortable without having to accept insulting wages and without having to deny myself little luxuries like central heat.

And so, my friends, to work. It’s time to jump-start that old entrepreneurial engine and get it running again!

Entrepreneurs: Adirondack Chimney Sweep

A chimney sweep in one of America’s warmest cities: Mark C. Keever is the second in Funny’s series of stories about entrepreneurs who find creative and unusual ways to jump off the treadmill.

I came across Mark and his business, Adirondack Chimney Sweep, in Angie’s List, where a long line of customers had left ecstatic reviews about his work. Not knowing whether the chimney in my 1971 house had ever been cleaned, about the beginning of December I gave him a call, hoping to have the job done before the big Christmas party.

Mais non! The man was booked into the beginning of January! A chimney sweep with personality, it develops, has more work than he can handle. When Mark dropped in the other day to apply his skills to my old fireplace, complete with his broom and old black stovepipe hat, I asked him a few questions.

FaM: Mark, how on earth did you get into the chimney-sweep business?

Keever: Well, I grew up in Queensbury, New York, a small town between Glens Falls and Lake George. Most people didn’t have much, and when you graduated from high school, your career choice was going to work in the paper mills or going to work in the local prison. Because people had to do for themselves, one of the things we learned in our shop class was how to clean potbellied stoves and chimneys.

In my senior year, I got in a motorcycle accident and was seriously hurt: broke my left foot in twelve places, broke my left leg, messed up my knees and elbows. That was the end of my future in the paper mill.

FaM: It must have kept you out of Vietnam, too.

Keever: That’s right. Couldn’t get into the military, either, because the damage to my foot made me unfit for combat.

FaM: So what did you do?

Keever: I came out to Arizona to recuperate and ended up going to work for the Greyhound Corporation. I worked for seven years, and then I went with the Southern Pacific Railroad. That was a good job, but after four years I was laid off—along with about 9,000 other people.

Not knowing what to do next, I looked around and found out that one in four houses in the Phoenix area has a fireplace. Well, that was a natural: I already knew how to sweep chimneys.

I started a business, but by the time we were up and running, it was out of season. Nobody thinks about their fireplaces on a 110-degree summer day. So I was really struggling.

To make ends meet, I decided I’d better take a full-time job with the City of Glendale. I was happy to get the job, but I kept the chimney-sweep business as a sideline.

And I also thought I’d better go to college to learn how to run a business, so I enrolled in a business course at Phoenix College. It only took me 25 years to finish my associate’s degree!

Meanwhile, I kept on working at the city and also kept sweeping chimneys as a side job.

FaM: It’s always a good idea to have a second income stream, isn’t it?

Keever: Yes. I was glad I had it, because last spring the city offered its employees a buy-out deal. I had only just earned the 80 “points” city and state workers need to retire, but there they were: I actually was in a position to retire. I thought it over for a while, and then finally I decided to take it.

So I got a good severance package and plenty of time to make a go of Adirondack.

FaM: That must have been a breathtaking moment!

Keever: I’ve never been happier! No more stress of a day job and a commute, no more working for a big bureaucracy. I’ve got all the work I can do, most of it in the wintertime while the weather’s nice, and the business has really taken off. All told, Adirondack Chimney Sweep  has had 2,187 customers.

* * *

Cleaning the fireplace, a two-and-a-half-hour project, entailed climbing on the roof to brush out the chimney and then engaging in some lengthy and vigorous cleanup with a large shop vac. By the time Mark finished, the firebox and the family room were spotless.

He sprinkled a handful of salt at the back of the firebox. “This brings good luck,” he said. Then he set a shiny copper penny in the front right corner of the fireplace. “A penny in the fireplace not only brings more good luck,” he continued, “but because it’s this year’s date, all you  have to do is look at it to remember what year you last had the chimney cleaned. This one should be cleaned about once every four or five years.”

After a short demonstration of how to lay a fire and how to use a newspaper torch to warm the cold air seeping down a chimney to make the flue draw better, he was off.

And the next time that thing needs to be cleaned, I know who I’m gonna call!

Entrepreneurs: Your Auto Network

An auto mechanic turned radio personality and Internet entrepreneur: Cary Lockwood is the first star of Funny’s new series interviewing men and women who find creative new ways to jump off the treadmill.

I came across Cary after finding his website, At first glance, it looks like an Angie’s List for car mechanics, except you don’t have to pay for it. On closer inspection, some differences arise: all of the businesses listed are local companies, and unlike Click & Clack’s reader-driven listing, the site offers few consumer reviews. Thinking what a great idea to bring in some side income, I gave him a call. Turns out the story is a lot more complicated.

FaM: Thanks for chatting with us, Cary. Would you tell us how you came to start

Lockwood: I  spent 20 years working for General Motors, at the automobile proving grounds here in Arizona. When GM closed that facility, the company asked me to move to Michigan. Well, I grew up in the East, and my wife and I decided we didn’t want to move back in that direction. So I started a repair shop. It did well, because we emphasized customer service and did honest, high-quality work.

One day a friend and local talk show host, Charles Goyette, invited me to do a segment on his radio talk show. I said I’m not very political and might not fit in. He said they had a Saturday show that didn’t talk about much controversy. So I started doing it.

Pretty quick I realized we were getting a lot of calls from people wanting to know where to get their cars serviced and repaired. There’s a huge need, because—well, to tell the truth, people do run into dishonest shops, and that’s left them untrusting and wary.

That’s when I started the auto network.

The radio show, which evolved into Your Auto Network’s Calling All Cars, began to get bigger. It grew from a Q-and-A segment to a twice-weekly show that covers  everything automotive, covering everything from fuel and batteries to windshields and tires, from gas-saving strategies to laws affecting car owners.

Meanwhile, the list kept growing, too.

After a while I had an offer to buy the shop. My wife and I decided to sell and go with making Your Auto Network our business.

FaM: How does an automotive shop get on your list?

Lockwood: I seek out the proven performers, but listeners and friends recommend them. I check them out personally, along with doing a lot of research. The shops can be doing any work related to automotive upkeep—repair, bodywork, painting, parts operations, window tinting, tires, and the like—but they have to be locally owned independent businesses, not chains or big-boxes.

I check out their experience, because that’s one of the things that makes a great shop: we have minimum requirements for the number of years they’ve been in business. They have to have an A rating with the Better Business Bureau. Often I’ll call without identifying myself, to see how they answer the phone or whether they shunt you off to an answering machine. Then I observe the shop itself and study the operation.

The standards are high, because my name is on it.

FaM: One of the problems with Angie’s List is there’s no way to tell whether an owner has had all his in-laws, cousins, nephews, and nieces send in glowing reports.

Lockwood: That’s right. And that’s why we don’t have a lot of customer reviews, although we do make it possible for people to comment.

Testimonials are great if they’re fair and honest, but they don’t give enough information about the business. We go there to meet them, and we work hard to make the listings accurate.

FaM: It’s hard for the average consumer to get a good picture of an automotive service outfit. Often it’s by guess and by God.

Lockwood: I’m on the Auto Repair Advisory Committee for the Better Business Bureau. We review and advise about consumer complaints to the BBB. One of the first things I do when we get a case is to check out the company’s BBB rating. It’s unbelievable! People will go to F-rated places!

It’s really important to check out service providers before you do business with them. If you find a good independent shop, you save a lot of money—and you have greater peace of mind.

FaM: Other than the obvious publicity, what benefit do the shop owners derive from making the list?

Lockwood: We’re trying to offer benefits that come from the power of collective buying and pricing. For example, we’re now working to get collective pricing on parts and auto supplies. And we’re looking into ways to offer members group health insurance plans.

FaM: Do you charge shops for listing on

Lockwood: Typically, we charge a small fee. Most of the monetization is coming from ad revenues, especially from the radio show. We now own the show’s air time.

FaM: It’s quite a leap from auto engineer to radio talk show host!

Lockwood: Well, I didn’t expect to be on the radio. When I was a kid, I took acting lessons and actually got parts. Then I got picky about what I’d do—decided I only wanted to act in Shakespeare plays—and also, I was very interested in mechanical things.

The show started live, and it’s now recorded. My wife and I do the editing. That helps a lot–it makes me sound a lot better, and also our guests.

One of the things I’m most proud of is the show’s community activities. We started a partnership with the Salvation Army, and network members have joined in a clothing drive. Shops have collections boxes for customers to donate. We sell a car care rewards card to consumers, and for each purchase we donate $4.00 to the Salvation Army, about 13 percent of gross revenues from the card sales.

We first got interested in helping the Salvation Army because of the economic downturn, with so many people out of work and being turned out of their homes. We like the Army’s emphasis on building self-sufficiency. They do more, though, than helping people who are down on their luck financially. In addition to the Family Center, for families who are facing  a crisis, they have a shelter for abuse victims, they do drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and they provide care for the elderly.

FaM: These two enterprises—the radio show and the network listings—must be an enormous amount of work.

Lockwood: It really was a lot of work at first. It’s tapering off now, partly because we’ve achieved one of our goals, which was to have coverage for the entire valley. And over time we’ve learned to work more efficiently.

The big challenge is trying to get the data perfect, before it’s published. My wife helps with getting the information accurate, and we both work at proofreading and checking.

FaM: What advice would you offer a Funny about Money reader who might be interested in doing a similar website in another city?

Lockwood: To do it at a level that offers real value to your readers, you need to be very expert in the business you’re reviewing. Not just anyone can do one of these sites on automotive service. You need many years of experience to understand how these businesses work and what makes them successful, from the owner’s and the customers’ points of view.

I’d suggest that if you want to create a really useful consumer service website, you should pick a business that you truly know something about. If you’re an expert, if you know customer service well, and you know how the businesses operate, you may be able to pull it off.

It’s a lot of work, and you have to be fully committed to accuracy, honesty, and fairness.

FaM: Were you at all nervous about selling the shop to become a full-time radio personality?

Lockwood: No, but you have to be confident and hard-working to insure success.

FaM: What steps did you take to ensure that you could make the transition financially?

Lockwood: We never lived over our heads, so that wasn’t an issue. We did things like building our own house—I helped to build it myself. We didn’t want to get tied down with a large mortgage and other debts. We look at things this way: Say we’d like to get new furniture for the living room. It’s going to cost $4,000. So we ask ourselves, “Do we need it today, or are they still going to be making couches in six months?” If the the answer is “yes, living room furniture will still be around,” we save up and pay for it in cash.

FaM: What’s your strategy for retirement?

Lockwood: Hasn’t entered my mind, because we still have more to achieve. We diversify our investments. And besides, enthusiasm keeps you young.