The Home Swap. A grand experiment in international travel.

By Brad Beckstrom

The proposition I made to my wife was pretty simple: “If you could spend two weeks in Europe every summer, would you be interested?” Of course I got an enthusiastic “yes”, until I brought up home exchange. Home exchange is just what it sounds like. It’s a website with over 65,000 homes in 150 countries. You list your home on home exchange, include all the countries you’d like to visit, and wait for opportunities to appear in your inbox to swap homes in places like Spain, and Italy, Brazil, and all over the world.

It’s vastly different than Airbnb as you are not paying a stranger to stay in their home. With Home Exchange, you are simply staying in their home while they stay in yours: a true exchange. The network is large enough to match up eager travelers from around the world who want to visit your town. Larger homes tend to attract like-minded families, while tiny apartments attract singles and couples. What they have in common is a sense of adventure and openness to meeting new people and trying new things.

As I started to browse through some homes along the Amalfi coast in Italy, or the Le Marais neighborhood in Paris, I started to realize our home is just not ready to attract the type of visitors we would like to exchange homes with for a two week trip. At this point, I am no more near ready to do this than I would be to start renting a room out on Airbnb. There is so much to do before I would even post some photos or create a profile. Sure, our house is in a great neighborhood less than 4 miles from DC, but it’s a big step to make it ready for some long-term visitors.

That is, unless I look at this as an opportunity. The great thing about the opportunity is at the end of the project, my reward is two weeks abroad. Not just this year, but nearly every year. That’s something worth working towards.  It’s also a grand experiment in the sharing economy.  So far we have truly enjoyed our experiences using Airbnb and saved tons of money using UBER and Lyft all over the world.

I was a bit discouraged when I started looking at some beautiful spotless homes in Italy and France, but then I looked up some US properties, even some in our neighborhood. I could spot the familiar clutter that didn’t seem to deter these folks from listing their homes. If we can just get our home somewhere between good and great that would be a start. I’ve always been adept with frequent flyer miles but found that hotels drain them too quickly, especially after you’ve coughed up enough miles for 4 transatlantic tickets. Doing a once a year home swap would be a perfect solution. Adding 14 nights of free accommodations to free airfare can really put some punch behind your travel plans. The great thing is we don’t have to accept any offers for a home swap if we aren’t interested. Read more…

Stop filling your mind with random stuff. It’s time to go on a high-quality, low information diet.

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By Brad Beckstrom

I thought I had this all figured out. A few years ago, I decided to get on a high quality low information diet. I would avoid traditional news sites and only follow a small group of highly trusted writers, using a RSS feed reader. I would update and pare back this list regularly and categorize the writers I followed by interest. The feed reader I use is called Feedly and allows me to group my favorite writers into categories like business, family, personal development, photography, comedy, sports etc. The feed reader is very effective at stripping out distractions, especially all of that click bait, and fake news, you see at the bottom of many websites, even on many major news and network websites. My plan worked well. Each evening my feed reader presented me with a personally curated news stream from a group of writers I trust with very little distraction. No clickbait, no banner ads, no fake news.

Then two things happened. Apple launched an app called “News” that I started playing with after a recent iPhone upgrade. Then the election cycle began. This news app is comes set up like a feed reader for the big news sites. I found myself following multiple networks, major newspapers. Any spare moment I had, standing in line, having some lunch, I started filling up with this news app. Then I felt I needed to share things on Facebook or Twitter which led me to click on more stories shared by friends. There was so much garbage out there about both candidates, I’d quickly spiraled into a news consumption addiction. I’d gone from high quality, low information to just information and way too much of it. Not only did my other feed reader start to fill up with unread articles, I also found myself thinking less about what I wanted to create.  I was too busy absorbing all of the news to think about much else. As a dieter might say, I fell off the wagon. Read more…

Is that purchase worth it? Consider the cost per use, a simple strategy to help you decide.

 

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Technology can be a pain in the ass. Smartphones, Game Consoles, DVRs, digital thermostats, talking cars, and home appliances. A lot of this technology is designed to improve our lives, give us more free time, maybe even help us save a little money.  Most of it falls short. In fact, when multiple technologies are combined, they can often have a negative impact on our time and quality of life. Multiply this by a family of four or more, and all this stuff can make you its bitch. Constantly beeping, demanding upgrades, presenting you with unrepairable failures, offering multiple support options, mostly paid ones, none of which actually solve your problem, and all of which require your time.

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Planned obsolescence has become a science, hurling consumers into a constant cycle of upgrades and repairs on items that didn’t even exist 10-15 years ago, taking time and attention away from more important matters. It in an affluent society we often just throw money at the problem, replacing the defective item with the new shiny model, while the old one often ends up in a landfill.

It’s possible to step off this treadmill, embrace simplicity or minimalism. I believe these are viable approaches that can change people’s lives. The problem most people have is that they been on this hedonic treadmill so long they are afraid to step off.  It’s the transition from having your life managed by stuff to a simpler path. That is the challenge for most people. I’ve been working to simplify my life for over three years: writing about it, working on it, giving stuff away, but still have a long way to go. Some progress is forward progress, and that’s what I’m focused on.

Something I found that has worked is evaluating any purchase, item you want to replace, or something you’re having trouble parting with, on a cost per use basis. Here’s how it works. Cost Per Use is the price of something divided by the approximate number of times you use it over the life of that item. So something you use many times per day may be a better investment than something inexpensive you use infrequently. Based on this formula, my iPhone is one of the least expensive things I own, and after I finish with it, I’ll give it to a family member, lowering the cost of use even further. As an added benefit, my iPhone replaced about 20 other items helping me lighten the load getting rid of everything from music CDs to handheld GPS units.

Some other cost per use examples

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It’s best to start with the big stuff, so let’s start with automobiles. If you buy or lease a new SUV every three years you’re absorbing all of the depreciation and increasing your cost per use of that vehicle substantially. That vehicle loses most of its value in the first three years. If you buy a larger vehicle your cost per use is also higher based on gas and operating expenses.  To lower the cost per use, it would make sense to buy your next car like it’s your last. Purchase one high quality, fuel-efficient vehicle and keep it for at least 10 years. You can lower your cost per use even further if you know exactly the vehicle you’re looking for and can purchase a low mileage version just coming off lease, and keep that vehicle. Once those car payments end, you’ll find the maintenance costs required to keep the car in excellent running condition are a lot easier to swallow. I’ve also found that keeping a car in excellent condition, including the occasional carwash or detailing, makes me less apt to even think about replacing it. Read more…

Make Banks Work for You.

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How I locked in a historically low mortgage rate without getting lost in research, voicemails, and paperwork.

By Brad Beckstrom

I’ve been putting it off. Mortgage rates are at historic lows and, on paper, it made a lot of sense to refinance my current mortgage to a 10 year mortgage available at a lower fixed rate. It’s just that even thinking about my past experiences with refinancing both my home and some rental properties gave me gas. I knew I needed to get it done, especially since I’m always telling people to cut their largest expenses first. Our mortgage is our largest expense.

I’d made some mistakes in the past, like listening to some TV ad and then going to a website like Lendingtree. They say they’re going to find you the lowest rate but in fact they are getting all of your information and giving it to banks, selling your name as a lead. Immediately your phone starts to ring off the hook from banks you’ve never heard of. Luckily I gave them a Google voice number that sends all these folks directly to a digital voicemail graveyard. The messages are transcribed for me in a Gmail account and I quickly delete them in bulk. But, the calls kept coming for months. So, the lesson here is don’t give your loan or refinance information to any consolidator site, claiming to “find the best rate” or “do the work for you.” In fact, take this one step further: don’t share any of your personal information, email, phone number, address, income etc. with any mortgage site, including companies like Quicken Loans. Or any other big banks that bombard you with national TV ads. There’s a reason they can afford to advertise on the Super Bowl.

When it comes to finding a great mortgage rate, you’ll actually save time by doing it yourself, and you won’t have to share any personal information. Here’s a few steps I recently used to lock in a fixed 2.37% rate on a 10 year mortgage. With rates this low there’s really no benefit in getting an adjustable rate loan. Read more…

The Secret to Running The Business of You.

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By Brad Beckstrom

“Have a small nut; that’s the key to life.”

Graham Parker.

What’s an aging rock ‘n roller to do, the once big recording contracts, the limos, seven-figure tour revenue all start to trickle away? Graham Parker, a British punk rock pioneer, knows exactly what to do: enjoy life, have a great time, and keep making music. Graham’s quote “Have a small nut; that’s the key to life” sums up one of the core principles of financial independence. The small nut he’s referring to is not assets, but monthly expenses. Rock stars, athletes, entrepreneurs, everyday folks all hit the same wall. We hear these stories all the time, from the extreme, like Mike Tyson blowing through $400 million and ending up homeless, to the highflying salesperson that overextended themselves, justifying their current expenses on future income fantasies, only to be chop blocked at the knees by a corporate reorg or downsizing.

Professional athletes know this story all too well. The average career in the NFL is about four years. In major league baseball, it’s a little over five years. Knowing this, it seems crazy when you see young athletes, blowing their entire signing bonus, borrowing against it before they even get a check. The secret is to do the opposite, save the entire bonus along with any windfalls, and keep your monthly expenses to a minimum. Read more…