Sunday, February 28, 2016

Did you know grout should be sealed?

My matrilineal line is replete with obsessive housekeepers. For example, I was taught that when you're expecting guests, your carpets should be so freshly vacuumed that the vacuum tracks should be visible (no footprints!). When on the phone at home, make the most of your time by dusting the baseboards simultaneously. Never, ever put your hand on the walls. Minimize clutter on nightstands to make dusting more efficient. And so on.

Lost in that haystack of housekeeping tips was the knowledge that new grout should be sealed to keep it in pristine condition. This is something I would have expected to come up when I got the keys to my new house--I grew up in an area of Southern California where seemingly everyone bought new construction houses. Alas, it took a guest spilling something on my light grey grout for me to realize I should have sealed the stuff my first week in the house.

Better late than never, I bought some 511 Impregnator Sealer (highly recommended by said obsessive housekeepers) at Home Depot and got to work sealing the grout in the laundry room, kitchen and bathrooms. Make sure you open your windows or run a fan while you're sealing. This is noxious stuff.

It turns out my aunt once snuck into a new construction home she had under contract (pre-closing!) to seal the grout before move-in. Like I said, obsessive.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

How I Paid Off my Student Loans in 5 Years

Last week, I paid off my student loans in full. It feels every bit as awesome as I hoped it would.

By the time I finished law school and my MBA, I had six figures in outstanding student loan principal to my name. My loans had a variety of interest rates, topping out around 8.5%, resulting in a monthly minimum payment of $2,098. It was overwhelming, so I created a framework for repaying my loans as soon as possible. Here it is:

I maximized income by:
  • Working part-time every semester of my JD/MBA (yes, even as a 1L) at a great job that paid between $30 and $60 per hour.
  • Working at a "big law" firm that paid me one class year ahead of "market" because I had another advanced degree (my MBA) relevant to my practice area.
  • Earning a bonus. For reasons related to participating in various secondments and study leave to take the bar in a second jurisdiction, I earned only one bonus during my time in big law. 
  • Renting my guest rooms.
I maximized my cash flow by:
  • Taking an assignment in one of the firm's offices in Asia. As part of this assignment, the firm covered my housing costs in Tokyo and part of the cost of storing my belongings, and paid me a COLA. I terminated my lease in Los Angeles and put my belongings in storage. As a result, I saved more than $36,000 per year for the two years that I worked in Tokyo and started making extra payments on my student loans.
I minimized my expenses by:
  • Unsubscribing from retail email newsletters. When you're not bombarded by emails about sales and new offerings, it's easier to avoid shopping.
  • Not signing up for cable television. This also saved me the cost of buying a television and any related components. This also reduced my exposure to commercials, which, in turn, reduced my urge to buy things I didn't need.
  • Not going on vacation except for trips home for the holidays and my brother's wedding.
  • Not shopping for clothes other than to replace worn out items.
  • Driving a 10+ year old car.
  • Living very close to the office. When I lived in Southern California, I walked to work. This saved me money on gas and car maintenance.
  • Not buying new furniture for my new house (for the most part). I did buy window coverings and beds for the bedrooms with rental income.
  • Not keeping up with the Jones (and, by Jones, I mean the other associates who were going to fancy dinners and on fabulous vacations).
  • Being single with no dependents. This wasn't by choice, but it would be unfair not to acknowledge that it's a lot easier to stick to a repayment plan when you don't have to persuade a spouse to get on board or pay for childcare expenses.
I minimized my interest payments by:
  • Refinancing my student loans with SoFi.* This dropped my interest rate to 2.9%, which increased the portion of each payment going to principal and accelerated my repayment.
  • Sending every spare penny to my student loans each month (after saving $300/month in an emergency fund and contributing to my 401(k) and other retirement savings accounts). For example, in 2013, I made principal payments in the aggregate amount of $62,745.11. Other examples include sending the total amount of any "windfall" (such as tax refunds or cash gifts) to my student loans.
I maintained discipline by:
  • Visualizing life after student loans. I wanted to be prepared to move on to achieve other milestones and, in moments of weakness, would think about how my future self would appreciate that my loans were paid off. In particular, because I'd really like to have children, I often thought of how challenging it would be to pay a mortgage, student loans and daycare bill simultaneously. That thought provided the needed kick in the pants to double down on repayment.
I could have paid my loans off sooner by:
  • Not buying a house when I moved back to the US. Starting in 2014, I diverted cash flow to a down payment fund because I wanted to buy a house at the end of my Tokyo assignment. If I had deferred this goal, my loans would have been paid off before I left Tokyo. Ultimately, this choice was driven by all the hype surrounding the real estate market in my new city. I was worried that prices would go up substantially if I waited a couple of years to purchase a home.
  • Earning more bonuses. This was somewhat beyond my control, but I could have turned down secondments, in theory, in order to remain bonus eligible during certain years. If I had earned a market bonus during each of my years in big law, I would have cut months if not years off of my repayment schedule.
  • Living with a roommate during and after law school. I have had temporary roommates during the last year, but otherwise lived alone during and after school.
While paying off my student loans has given me an unparalleled sense of freedom, I think most folks prefer a more balanced approach to student loan repayment. I don't blame them--a vacation or two would have done me good over the past few years.

I haven't decided how I want to approach my finances going forward. First, I want to take a moment to celebrate this milestone.  What do you plan to do to celebrate paying off your student loans?

*Referral program link.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


In the course of just two weeks, I repainted the three bathrooms in my house. Same color, but in semi-gloss, to make up for the builder who thought flat paint in bathrooms was what "Austin hippies" wanted. This Austinite wants bathroom walls that are easier to clean and now I have them!

The builder's painter was sloppy and didn't remove or tape around the plastic utility plates when he touched up. The result was splashes of gray all over the plastic. I learned that a little finger nail polish remover took that paint right off without damaging the plastic plates. (I'd test that in an inconspicuous area before trying the same approach.)

Have to give the builder credit for selecting on-trend light grey paint.

I'm surprised by the over-the-top pride I feel having completed this relatively basic task on my own. It took a little less than one gallon of paint to finish all three bathrooms. The gallon cost nearly $45 (top of the line Valspar semi-gloss) and I spent about $30 on additional supplies (tape, tray liner, roller and detail brush). I sure hope that's less than it would have cost to hire someone to do the job, but I don't know because I didn't bid it out.

Half bath downstairs.

Repainting the bathrooms with semi-gloss was one of my 35 goals for 2016. Ultimately, I want to repaint the rest of the house in eggshell finish paint in the same color (the trim and ceilings are a contrasting cream). The flat paint wears terribly and after just one year shows every guest fingerprint (and shows evidence of effort to clean up said fingerprints no matter what the method) and I'm just not zen enough to let that be.

Completely unrelated, but pertinent to my 2016 goals, I made my first loaf of cinnamon swirl bread from scratch last week. This is delicious stuff and even better as french toast. I promise the further into the loaf, the more swirl, less marble.  (Thank you, America's Test Kitchen.) 

Cinnamon swirl bread.

This relates to my goal to try 35 new recipes this year. So far I've tried pasta e fagioli, lentil soup and this cinnamon swirl bread. I'm hoping this little project will help me find some new gems to work into my regular rotation.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Repainting: Master Bathroom

There are many things I love about my new house, but the interior paint job is not one of them. The builder used flat paint throughout the house. If flat paint works for you in high traffic areas, bless you. In my experience, it's a disaster. (Cannot even imagine the horror of living in a flat paint house with kids.) Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that the painter either diluted the paint or failed to prime. The builder and I had it out about this during the warranty period, but I settled for a free drainage system in my backyard knowing that I was capable of painting the interior (installing drainage is beyond me).

In January, I started the process with a trip to Lowe's to pick up supplies. The paint department manager rolled her eyes when I told her my builder had used flat paint in the bathroom. (Solidarity!) She matched the builder's custom Valspar color--a trendy light grey.  I bought a gallon of paint, FrogTape (it's as good as advertised!) and some accessories that I'd need to paint.

I went with the higher end paint, not what's pictured above.
Taping, painting and cleanup was a lot of work, mostly due to the high ceilings and the bathroom hardware, but I really enjoyed the project.  I felt a huge sense of accomplishment when I pulled down the tape and wiped down the counters. The crap paint job I started with had been bothering me for months. Each little water stain from a guest reaching for a towel after washing hands... oh, it was like death by a thousand paper cuts! Now the bathroom paint job is everything it should have been from the very beginning and it just fills me with joy to know that problem has been fixed (in that room at least) relatively inexpensively.

Painting the master bathroom used about 1/2 gallon of paint. I've still got 1.5 bathrooms to go and hope to be finished this month. Then I'll progress through the house, room by room, until the whole place is done (or until I break down and hire a painter).