2021 – The Year In Review

I was about to start this post by saying what a year of change and transition it has been, but then I realized that I say that pretty much every year. To live is to experience change. For us, 2021 kept pace in that regard, even as society has struggled to move on from the year before.

Most notably, this year brought a job change for me, the purchase of a house, and Blaise starting preschool. The spring was a whirlwind with all of the employment and housing activity, though things slowed down for another sweltering summer in the South. The fall brought our annual “Tiger Family Trip”, and we have loved celebrating the holidays in our new home.

  • Early in January, my previous employer Kindful was acquired by a larger company. It was big news since I had been with the company for nearly seven years. Though I took a “wait and see” approach, major changes eventually led me to find a new job within a couple of months.
  • February brought a massive snowstorm to Nashville, and it was so much fun to get out and play in the snow with Blaise after work that week.
  • By March, our house search was in full swing, including numerous showings and lots of research.
  • Around this time we placed membership at Donelson Church of Christ. We had been looking for a new church home for a while, and it has been great to get plugged in, especially for Blaise.
  • In April I turned 35 – another less-than-amusing milestone.
  • Three days later I began my new job as a backend software engineer for Scott’s Cheap Flights. It has been an interesting challenge learning a new industry, company, and business model.
  • Eight days after starting my new job, we closed on our house in Mt. Juliet. We didn’t move in for another few weeks, but it has been such a blessing to have a comfortable home with a nice yard in a wonderful community.
  • May was mostly a blur with house repairs and and preparing to move.
  • In June, Dolly and I celebrated five years of marriage with a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park and a couple other spots in Colorado. It was so nice to get away, especially since Blaise stayed with his grandparents for several days in a row!
  • July included a quick trip to Ohio for Independence Day, and after that mostly wishing it would stop being so hot.
  • In early September, my new employer took the whole company to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico for a company retreat. It was quite an experience, especially since a hurricane hit our last day there.
  • That same week, Blaise started preschool. It’s run by our new church, so it has been a great extension of that world. Plus, he is learning and growing a lot.
  • October brought our “Tiger Family Trip” (family vacation named after an episode of Daniel Tiger). We first swung through Asheville, North Carolina. After that we spent time exploring Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. We finished up by stopping for a day in Kingsport, Tennessee. It was a good bit of driving, but still easier than navigating air travel restrictions with a toddler.
  • The rest of October was filled with the usual fun fall activities including trunk-or-treat and Blaise’s first real trick-or-treat in the new neighborhood.
  • We hosted Thanksgiving for my in-laws – once again thanks to the current difficulties of air travel.
  • While they were visiting, Blaise turned three! It’s hard to believe he’s been a part of our family for that long, yet the actual memory of his birth feels like it was forever ago.
  • The holiday season was that much more fun with Blaise this year since he really seemed to grasp all the concepts, and he didn’t even cry in his Santa photos.
  • I read the following noteworthy books:
  • My favorite albums of the year. They are almost all metal:

Overall, it was a year full of blessings for us. Now that we own a house again, and one where we plan to stay for a while, it feels like we have a foundation to build upon. At the same time, the cultural climate seems more precarious than ever. Things have certainly shifted since the pandemic, and it hasn’t been for the better.

That is one big reason we chose to settle our family in a community that uplifts traditional values and liberty. We want to strive toward that which is ultimately, biblically good, even if society at large is headed in a different direction. We pray that God will fill our lives (and his world) with more of that goodness in 2022.

Thoughts on “Ploductivity” by Douglas Wilson

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Right around the time I finished Quit Like a Millionaire, an acquaintance of mine posted about this book. Since my mind was already mulling over personal finance from the perspective of a believer, this title seemed like it may have something interesting to add. No, that’s not a typo; the book really is called Ploductivity, which I thought may hint at the author’s overall approach to work and wealth.

Firstly, I’ll be transparent and say that this book did not address the topics I hoped it would. I envisioned concrete instruction on how one ought to grow and handle resources from the Christian worldview. Other than a couple of passing references to growing wealth slowly over time, there wasn’t much to say about the topic. I will have to look elsewhere for that.

With that out of the way, I’m glad to share my thoughts on what the book¬†did¬†cover. Though I wasn’t familiar with Wilson, apparently he is a prolific author, well-known in certain circles. His main project here appears to be to discuss how Christians ought to live in the fast-paced age in which we find ourselves, which is a worthy question. He notes that almost everything man has devised since Eden is good, the outpouring of the “dominion” charge given to man in Genesis, and I tend to agree. The idea of Rousseau’s “noble savage,” seemingly popular in our age, is a Romantic notion not grounded in reality. In particular, however, the author is interested in the question of how believers should use the incredible technology at our disposal.

He points out that, indeed all of the powers at our fingertips are a form of wealth handed down to us through the ages. (He sounds this note quite a few times throughout.) We all know that the smartphone in our pockets provides us with more information than the largest library ever could. What responsibility comes with that? To the author, there is little distinction between money sitting in the bank and other resources we have access to, such as the Internet; the Lord expects us to steward all wealth wisely for His glory. From that viewpoint, it is wrong to assume that any advance is inherently bad, as some Christians have through the ages. Jesus and his friends rode around on boats, which are a form of technology. What we have today just looks a little different.

From this mindset, the author lays out some of his personal practices for making the most of what we’ve been given. He mentions filling spare moments with reading Kindle books on a phone, or carving out fifteen minutes each day to write a novel. None are bad ideas, though I’ve had mixed results with such efforts in my own life. He correctly points out that if you wait for the “right” moment to tackle important work, it will probably never come. At the same time, I cannot sit down and develop a useful app in such a short time each day. This gets at the “deep work” concepts I’ve read about before, but some efforts truly do take dedicated time to dig into and make progress. Depending on the type of work, the tactics the author mentions may be more or less effective, so give them a shot.

Overall, Wilson certainly has some good thoughts on the nature of work and wealth for followers of Jesus, though I ultimately found this work a little more high-level than I had hoped. In my twenties, I was much more interested in books abstractly exploring big ideas and themes. Now that I’ve largely settled on a framework through which I see the world, I tend to gravitate toward more practical and concrete non-fiction. For someone wrestling with the intersection of work, technology, and Christianity, Ploductivity could be quite beneficial. For my particular situation, I will reflect a bit on the weight of his analysis, then move on to more tangible instruction.

Thoughts on “Quit Like a Millionaire” by Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung

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Anyone who knows me understands that personal finance is a big part of my journey. Straight out of college I was immersed in the topic as an employee of Dave Ramsey. Later, Dolly and I used his methods to become debt free. Most recently we made a down payment on a house where we can establish some roots as a family. I’ve largely been following the Ramsey plan for over a decade, and the far-off vision was always to retire at sixty-five with a paid-off house and enough savings to last for the rest of our lives.

With the next milestone on the distant horizon, I was kind of on auto-pilot. That was until someone at my current job brought up the concept of FI/RE – being financially independent and retiring early. I had heard the idea before, but frankly I forgot about it because it seemed like it would never apply to me. This time, my mind wandered a bit what it would be like to work only when I wanted to, or for our family to travel the states for months at a time. I did some very light research. It turns out that FI/RE almost always boils down to having enough of the the right kinds of investments that one can live off of the residual income alone while the principal remains level. Was that possible for us? A coworker in the chat mentioned the book Quit Like a Millionaire as a practical summary of how early retirement can be achieved. From a place of daydream inspiration, I bought the Kindle version and read the whole thing in a single weekend.

I’ll first say that I think the title is terrible. A better title may be How to Retire Early, but I guess the publisher wanted something more provocative. The book doesn’t jump right into the details of investing, however. The first few chapters are about the female author’s life growing up poor in communist China, which helps to give context for her mindset around wealth. The meat of the information arrives in the middle chapters: how does one actually do this? The very short answer is that, statistically, if you can save twenty-five times your annual expenses into a diversified portfolio, you can withdraw four percent per year indefinitely.

Now, for most people that is a big number to save. For the authors, it meant that they had to invest literally $1 million. Astonishingly, they were able to do this by age thirty-one. The math experts among us will determine that the authors must live on $40,000 per year, and actually that’s what they require as a married couple. How is that possible? This is where certain circumstances and views give the author a distinct advantage over most people, myself included.

Firstly, the authors have no children, which is a choice I respect. Secondly, they explicitly denounce home ownership. I can see their perspective in some ways; it is a large expense, and someone with a million dollar portfolio can pay rent indefinitely if they want to. Thirdly, their hedge against inflation is to move to another part of the world for a while. They specifically mention living in southeast Asia and eastern Europe. I’m sure those are wonderful places, but if periodically packing up and moving across the globe is a prerequisite for this financial plan, that’s quite a hurdle. Lastly, they advocate for never owning a car. That may be possible in some scenarios, but certainly not mine. Altogether, it explains how they are able to live well on a modest annual withdrawal from their investments. They do cite a few other “early retirees” that have kids and own homes, though they don’t delve into the exact details of their finances; I may follow up on some of those references later.

The cost-of-living question aside, I think the book does a solid job laying out the details of the financial plan. Concepts such as portfolio rebalancing, the “yield shield,” and the “cash cushion” make a lot of practical sense. Nothing with investments is guaranteed, and their methods largely account for that. I found it particularly interesting how they use legal and above-board methods to avoid taxes when withdrawing from retirement accounts before the standard age thresholds. If the federal government provides vehicles to sidestep taxes, I will certainly take them. So far, so good, even if my situation doesn’t completely align with theirs. It may be possible yet, even with a substantially larger cost of living.

Things took a turn, however, when they began to rebut common criticisms of their plan. For anyone who isn’t working, health insurance would rightfully be a huge concern. In one section, the authors advocate taking advantage of large subsidies offered by the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, since the low cost of living typically puts one under income thresholds which allow that. Call me crazy, but someone with a $1 million net worth should not be getting any subsidies from the government, even if their annual income is small on paper. The authors’ personal solution for healthcare seems to be seeking it outside of the United States, either through “expat insurance” or countries with liberal policies around socialized medicine. For me, all of this was the largest sticking point. None of the above are reasonable solutions for me and my family, so we would have to figure out a different way to manage the huge cost of health insurance should we ever shoot for early retirement. There were other facets such as children’s education which would be problematic for me with the solutions they offer.

From that point in the book, it became clear that their particular approach is not a fit for me and my family. Dubious civics aside, it seems like a very self-centered, if austere, existence. Sure, it’s cheaper to go live in another country for a while, but what about investing in a community? What about being available for family? Personal needs may be met, but what about meeting the needs of others? In an appendix, the authors provide budgets for the years they were saving toward financial independence. Notably, charitable giving and gifts are effectively zero. That is not the way I would choose to utilize my income and wealth, both now and once it is large, growing, and tax-sheltered. For someone with my worldview and convictions, the methods described here don’t work – often for practical reasons, but more often for ethical ones.

Would I love to retire at age forty or forty-five? Of course. It’s a lovely daydream. However, with a family that is striving for community and sharing the blessings we’ve been given, there are higher goals to attain. I plan to follow up on some of the other FI/RE advocates who have kids and homes, but for now I guess I’ll get back to Baby Step 6 – paying off the mortgage early.

2020 – The Year In Review

What can be said about 2020? Clearly it was a year that no one expected. Do you remember those social media posts about a year ago saying how awesome 2020 was going to be? Those did not age well.

Despite the chaos of this year biologically, socially, and politically, I’m thankful to say that our family was largely protected and blessed. I got to spend a lot more time at home with Dolly and Blaise. We traveled some and saw our beautiful country. Although we sadly grieved the loss of my grandmother, we stayed healthy and have a roof over our heads.

  • In January I fully began my role as a team manager at Kindful. It has been a challenging step in my career, but most days I’m writing code as much as ever.
  • At the end of February, we took a little family weekend to Chattanooga. The aquarium and hiking were a welcome escape, even if we didn’t know what was about to hit the world.
  • By mid-March, I was working from home as the country began shutting down due to COVID. Those first few weeks were unsettling; I’ll never forget my first foray out to the grocery store wearing a mask. I’ve been to the office exactly once since March, but the business adapted quickly to the switch.
  • In April I turned 34. I appreciated that my sisters and several friends drove by to wish me a happy birthday, a sign of the bizarre times.
  • Since late 2019, my grandmother’s health had been declining. This was especially true after she was forced into isolation due to the pandemic. She took a turn for the worse in April, and sadly she passed away in May. I’m thankful that my mother got to spend about a week at her bedside despite restrictions, though I know that doesn’t make it any easier. We were not able to meet for her memorial service in Ohio until July, and it felt like a sea change losing my last grandparent.
  • I shaved my face for the first time in May. It looked weird, so I grew a beard again immediately.
  • Dolly and I celebrated four years of marriage in June with a getaway to Cookeville. It may not be the most exotic destination, but we enjoyed good meals, sleeping in, and some hiking all the more since we had barely left the house this year.
  • My dad also turned 70 in June, and we were able to celebrate him with a weekend at the lake. I’m more thankful than ever for the time we get to spend together.
  • Summer in Nashville was hot and miserable, as usual. We made the best of it with sprinklers and occasional runs to Janarty’s Homemade Ice Cream.
  • All year Blaise kept growing and learning. He took his first steps in January, and by the end of the summer he had quite a vocabulary. At this point he is constantly telling us “I want…” or reciting parts of books from memory.
  • September was a big month as we took a family trip to Olympic National Park in Washington. It was no small feat flying with a nearly-two-year-old, especially under the conditions, but goodness was it refreshing to be in the cool climate of the Pacific Northwest. The mountains, rainforests, rocky beaches, and drive-thru espresso stands were perfection. Blaise did really well, especially if we had time to let him throw rocks into a body of water.
  • October finally kicked into fall mode in Nashville, and I must say that the weather this year was particularly good. Often it goes from stifling heat to cold without much in between, but we were graced with several weeks in the 50s and 60s. More than ever, it’s the little things. We did trunk-or-treat, pumpkin patches, and jumping in leaves. You really can’t ask for much more.
  • I don’t remember much from November. We hosted Dolly’s mom for Thanksgiving, and Blaise turned two with a small party to commemorate.
  • December was a total blur with the usual holiday commotion (sans parties), but we got to visit my parents in Ohio where we had a real white Christmas.
  • I read the following noteworthy books:
  • I encountered the following noteworthy music (since I am old and mostly listen to old music):
  • And at the very last minute, Dolly and I hit our savings goal for buying a house! So we will be starting that process early next year. That is a huge gift after working to become debt free in 2018 and renting (and borrowing) houses since then.

I know many are anxious to put this year behind us and get back to “normal,” and I am right there with them all. It’s a year of hardship that exposed and widened the deep divides in our culture and world. Frankly, it was disheartening, especially while raising a small child. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As historian Tom Holland points out in Dominion, these are the foundations of Western civilization, even if Western civilization no longer thinks much about who laid that foundation. My prayer for the year to come is that the wisdom and grace of Jesus will shape my family, your family, and our world if we let it.

In Memory of Patricia McCrone

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After 93 wonderful years on Earth, my sweet grandmother, Patricia McCrone passed away on May 12th, 2020. She was a truly amazing woman – loving, godly, steadfast, and unshakeable. The past year in particular, since losing her husband, was difficult for her, but still she made the best of it. She struck up friendships with so many in the apartments and eventually nursing home where she lived. Meal times and group activities were a highlight of each day for her. Even as her health declined, she did not let it bring her spirits down.

I will miss the holidays, Sunday phone calls, and hugs. I will miss her kind smile. I think the hardest thing is knowing that Blaise won’t get to grow up experiencing her love, nor will any other children we may have. With her passing, as the last of my grandparents, the anchor which had tethered our family to Eastern Ohio has been loosed. Life will be different in so many ways over the coming months and years as we adjust to the absence of her warm presence.

From my earliest memories, my grandma was sweet, soft-spoken, and cheerful. She looked forward to baking cookies and making hard-tack candy for us every holiday season, and all the better if we were there to help her. She had a love for animals and owned several cats over the years, at least one of which was a stray she took in. As I grew up, we would often go and stay for a week with my grandparents during the summer. Every day brought some kind of treat, whether a special lunch she knew we would like, a trip to Tuscora Park, or a VHS tape rental from the video store in town. We would often walk around the block or sit on the front porch and play “the car game”; we would choose a color and get points for each vehicle of that color which drove past. Those were simple, beautiful times. When I learned the guitar in high school, she enjoyed any chance to sit and listen to me play, always encouraging me. As I grew older, the visits became less frequent. Still, any time I went to Ohio, I knew she was there waiting to spoil me, even as an adult.

Sadly, I don’t know as much about her early life as I wish I did. She and her sister were raised in Port Washington, Ohio in a rough home. From an early age they clung to each other and learned to make their way in the world. She graduated from high school, and some time after that began dating my grandfather when he came back from the war. Theirs is truly a classic love story like so many of that generation. They dated for several years before eloping in 1948, and they remained married for over seventy years until my grandfather passed.

Perhaps one reason I don’t know as much about her earlier life is because it was so thoroughly lived in service to her family and others. She stayed at home to raise my mother and uncle, and at times she worked as a teacher’s aide at the local school. As my mom tells it, their house was always “the place to be” on Friday nights, largely due to my grandma’s hospitality and generosity. She loved having kids around, and she enjoyed every moment of baking cookies and serving Cokes. One of my favorite stories is the time she welcomed a literal hobo into their home. He had hopped off a train passing through their small town, and the tracks ran just behind their house. She provided him a hot meal and perhaps a bath before blessing him on his way. (It seems insane to think of anyone doing that today.) But that was the generous spirit of my grandma, faithful to the teachings of Jesus.

Although she did not grow up in a Christian home, once she came to faith, she sought to please the Lord with everything she had. She and my grandfather were faithful members of the Church of Christ in town until their last days. One of the hardest parts of her final years was that she did not often get to gather and worship with the church. Those a cappella hymns, echoing off of the vaulted auditorium ceiling, were a constant in her life no matter the storms she was facing.

Although we mourn her, it is that same faith, passed down through her, which gives our family peace. She is no longer in pain, feeble, nor frail. She is whole and reunited with my grandfather in the perfect presence of her Creator. As I told Dolly this morning, “She’s having a better day than we are,” and I know that will be true until we one day join her.

I love you, Grandma. We will surely miss you here, but we also know that we will be together again before we know it.