Progress to Date

  • Original Loan Amount: $204,000.00
  • Balance at Beginning of 5-year Goal (1/1/08): $188,983.82 @ 6.00%
  • Balance at Refinance in February 2009: $148,000.00 @ 4.625%
  • Outstanding Balance: $0.00 (PAID IN FULL!!!)
  • Latest Payment Date: April 2011
  • Latest Additional Principal Amount: $17,623.22
  • Amount Ahead of Schedule (since refinance): $121,462
  • Time Ahead of Schedule (since refinance): 7 years 10 months
  • Interest Saved Last Month: $23,972.48
  • Total Interest Saved: $28,435.55 ($1,037.74 on original mortgage; $27,397.81 on current mortgage)
  • Months Remaining in 5-year Goal: 20
  • Average Monthly Principal Needed to Meet Goal: N/A (Goal achieved)
  • Progress List Explained

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Monthly Summary: March 2010

Every year I have the same thought when the end of March rolls around. Although the year still seems new, a quarter of it is already in the history books. This has been an unusually warm and rainy March for New snow to speak of, but ample rain over the last two and a half weeks. Luckily, we've been spared the flooding that is affecting other communities in the region.

We made the thirteenth of 120 scheduled payments on our ten-year mortgage in March, and the 27th overall since we set our five-year goal in January 2008.

At the start of the month, our balance was $101,291.80. Because of recent expenses (home repairs and taxes), we added only $500 to our regular mortgage payment. Still, this was enough for us to reduce the principal below $100K, as the end-of-month balance now stands at $99,639.41.

We realized $134.08 interest savings in March, bringing our total savings to $1,960.99 since the beginning of the project.

The loan balance is $35,423 lower than it would be had we never made any prior prepayments. We would still pay off the loan two years and eight months early if we stopped making extra principal payments.

Thirty-three months remain in our five-year goal period. We have to average $3,019.38 in total principal payments each month to meet our goal.

Although it feels great to break below the $100,000 mark, we still have a long way to go before we are completely mortgage-free. We are going to be conservative with our prepayments for the next few months because of the expensive start to 2010, which should allow us to rebuild our savings. There is also a little bit of uncertainty in both of our jobs right now (rumors of job cuts this spring). We have no specific reason for concern over either of our positions, but it's hard to predict the whims of employers. We are fortunate to still have two steady income streams when so many are without a reliable paycheck.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Winter Cycling

Now that spring has officially arrived, I've had a chance to reflect on my success in cycling through the winter. In 2009 I resumed commuting to work by bicycle during the last full week of March, and now that the same calendar week has passed in 2010, I can truthfully claim to have been a year-round New Hampshire cyclist.

I started riding my bicycle to work in the spring of 2007, and continued through 2008 and 2009. In previous years I always stopped cycling by the time Daylight Saving Time ended (late October or early November). I didn't have the confidence to ride in the dark, nor in cold weather. Since my wife and I share one car, we had to carpool during the October-March stretch. This was less enjoyable for both of us: my wife had to stay at work longer than she might have liked, and I had to spend more time driving in afternoon traffic to pick her up. I looked forward to the start of spring riding so we could both regain our transportation independence.

Some time during the past year I met another guy who works at my office who regularly rides his bicycle into work, winter months included. He also introduced me to another gentleman who rides to work year-round in Boston. Both of these men are in their 50s, unassuming, and not what anyone would call muscular (in fact, one of them is pretty scrawny-looking). I figured if they could ride safely during the winter, so could I (since I am of course young, incredibly fit, and nigh-invulnerable). So I solicited their recommendations on clothing, equipment, and riding techniques.

I will say that riding a bicycle during the winter requires more preparation than in the warmer months, but once I got into a routine, it didn't seem all that different from my summertime rides. In my opinion, there are four main challenges to overcome, listed more or less in order of importance:

  1. Illumination
  2. Sharing the road with winter traffic
  3. Keeping warm
  4. Keeping the bicycle maintained
I believe proper Illumination is the most important consideration when riding after DST ends. During the darkest months (November through January), it can get as dark by 4:30-5 PM as it is at midnight. I used one high-intensity LED lamp mounted to the top of my helmet as my "headlight" (with a steady white beam) which enabled me to see the road/trail ahead in total darkness. I also attached four flashing lamps on my bicycle to allow others to see me as I pedaled down the road: one flashing white LED in the front (mounted on my handlebars), one red flashing LED on the end of each handle (shining right and left so I could be seen from the sides), and one bright red flashing LED on the back of my bicycle.

I was pleased to observe that when I rode with all of my lights shining brightly, most cars seemed to give me more clearance when passing then they tend to offer when the sun is shining and I am riding without lights. Still, I found I had to adopt a few strategies during the winter while sharing the road with winter traffic in order to feel safe. First, and in my opinion most important, cars are not expecting to see a bicycle on the road in January. For this reason, I rode more slowly in the winter, double- and triple- checked before making turns or merging with traffic, and paid close attention to trouble spots (like narrow streets, hills, and spots with poor snow clearance or large snowbanks). Second, although I purchased and used studded winter tires which made me feel very confident about my ability to gain traction on snow and (especially) ice, I was not always confident that cars would be able to stop in time to avoid colliding with me in tight spots. So I made sure to yield whenever a car might have had trouble passing me, and kept off the main streets whenever possible to minimize my chances of coming into contact with heavy traffic. Even though the side streets get less attention from the snow plows, I figured I would be better off working harder to ride down snowy, empty streets than I would be fighting for space on the narrow side of a heavily-trafficked (but better-plowed) main thoroughfare. (And as a side benefit, it allowed me to avoid snow plows when on a bicycle...they are no fun to be around, whether they are in front of you dropping salt, or right behind you looking to clear the road on which you are pedaling).

Although it might seem like it would be at the top of the list in order of importance, I found that keeping warm was not as difficult as I expected. Though I'll concede that the winter of 2009-2010 was not one of the coldest I've experienced during my years in NH, I still rode on mornings when the temperatures were in the single digits F. Keeping my core warm was remarkably easy: I used a single wick-away shirt as a base layer, with a pair of thermal bib cycling tights for my torso and legs, and a lightweight barrier shell jacket (windproof/waterproof) on top. On days when the temperatures were below 30 degrees F, I used a balaclava for my head and face, so that only my eyes and nose were exposed to the elements; on "warmer" days I used a simple skull cap. Regardless of the headgear I always wore glasses (clear or tinted depending on the time of day) to cut down on the cold wind hitting the eyes. I had been given special "lobster" cycling gloves for my hands, but I found that on the coldest days, those gloves were not warm enough, and I relied on an old pair of standard ski gloves which kept my hands warm and dry. The footwear was probably the biggest challenge for me. The method which I finally adopted was to tuck a thick wool sock into my high-top Gore-Tex backpacking boots. The boots were heavy, and probably to the disappointment of the cycling purists, there was no way to attach them to the pedals, but they kept my feet warm, which was my top priority. With this set of clothing, I never found myself too cold to ride, and by the time I reached my destination I would often be on the verge of overheating, even on the coldest days.

Keeping the bicycle maintained in the winter is definitely a challenge. The roads get covered with sand and salt, which when mixed with snow and ice makes for a nice corrosive coating on the chain, gears, and brakes. On top of this, it's not really feasible to hose down the bicycle when it's 17 degrees outside and sleeting. So some sacrifices have to be made. I bought a heavy-duty lube which I would never use for summer riding (as it would attract far too much road gunk) and liberally soaked the chain and other moving parts with it. It kept things in decent working order. I took old t-shirts and wiped down the frame and other parts when they got especially wet and grimy. I also used a stiff-bristle brush (made for cleaning tile grout) to scrub off the chain and gears. On a couple of fortunate weekends (when the temperatures had risen to the high 30s during a thaw) I did take out the hose and sprayed down the bicycle, though this was more an exception than the norm. And I counted on the fact that I would need to replace the cassette and the chain after the winter ended, since the sand/salt mixture put far more wear on those parts than they are subject to during the rest of the year.

My wife also started riding her bicycle to work during the winter. She has to be more selective about the days she rides (since she does not have a place to shower at work) and therefore she stuck to the dry, clear days when she would not get soaked with precipitation or road spray. She adopted similar dressing and riding strategies as I did, though she did not opt to buy the studded snow tires this year (I think I'll encourage her to do this next winter).

Of course, there were some days when the snow was falling too fast or accumulating too quickly for me to feel safe on the bicycle, but fortunately they were not too common. For example, the month of January had 19 working days; I rode my bicycle on 14 of those. As a reward, I find myself in the best shape at the start of the spring season as I can remember for many, many years. And the sense of accomplishment is carrying over into other aspects of my life, giving me confidence to keep trying new things which had previously seemed daunting (like home repairs).

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Cost vs. Value

Whenever the wife and I go shopping, we make sure that the products we buy are giving us the best value. This may mean buying a higher-priced item if the cost per unit is lower (assuming the product's performance is similar).

For this reason, I've been irritated by a recent change in an essential item which has significantly reduced its value. Many brands of toilet paper are now up to a half inch more narrow than they used to be. Sheet count is also being reduced, and in some cases the cardboard support in the middle of the roll is getting larger (giving the perception of an identical roll size, only with less usable product).

I emailed one of the offenders (the makers of Quilted Northern) and received the following response.

Thank you for contacting the Georgia-Pacific Consumer Response Center. Georgia-Pacific places tremendous importance on the opinions we receive from our customers. We understand you may have some concerns about the roll width and/or sheet count of Quilted Northern Soft & Strong. As noted at the bottom of the package, Quilted Northern Soft & Strong is about 1/2 inch narrower than before, and we have slightly reduced the sheet count.

Because of today's economy, cost is a factor. We made the decision to slightly reduce the roll to bring you the bathroom tissue you trust and not raise our price to retailers. Quilted Northern Soft & Strong continues to provide the cleanliness and comfort you have come to expect, making it a great value in today's economy. As always, Quilted Northern Soft & Strong is thick, absorbent, and gentle on your skin. The bathroom tissue features strength and durability for cleanliness, with softness and thickness for comfort. With Quilted Northern Soft & Strong, you do not have to compromise comfort for clean.

In fact, we've heard from many of our most loyal customers about how important the quality of our bathroom tissue is to them. For more than 100 years, consumers have trusted Quilted Northern Soft and Strong to deliver what they want most in a bathroom tissue: cleanliness and comfort. We would never make this change if our core consumers didn't approve of the product.
Apparently Georgia-Pacific thinks it makes sense to decrease the quality of their product as long as they can keep costs the same. I'm guessing they are also hope that a significant percent of their customers don't notice the change. Companies seem more than happy to write phrases in big bold lettering like, "NOW, 20% MORE FREE!!!" -- but when product size decreases, they pretend that nothing has changed. They prioritize cost over value.

This is certainly not the first time a company has surreptitiously reduced the size of a product in order to cover their increased costs, and it unfortunately won't be the last time. Although it's disappointing to buy a smaller box of cereal, the product inside the box doesn't conform to a standard. Toilet paper, however, is meant to hang from a roll of a specific size, and fit comfortably in the human hand. To me, reducing the width of toilet paper rolls is almost as inconvenient as it would be if paper companies started selling writing/printing paper in sheets a half inch more narrow than before -- when so many devices (printers, photocopiers, notebooks, and so on) are designed for a standard paper width.

Sadly, even though it's still possible to find a few brands which offer the older (wider) rolls, I think it's only a matter of time before the remainder follow suit. Which means that we, as consumers, will have no say in the matter, unless we want to all suddenly convert to using bidets or leaves or making our own toilet paper. I'll of course continue to look for the wider rolls as long as they last, which means I'll be avoiding the inferior Quilted Northern from now on. My wife and I still prioritize value over cost. Unfortunately, TP manufacturers seem to think we are in the minority on this issue.

This line of thinking is part of what motivates us to pay down the mortgage sooner. By increasing the monthly cost of our mortgage payments in the short term, we're increasing the value of our money in the long term, by paying less interest to the lender.

If you want to read more about
the smaller (and skinnier) TP roll trend, below are links to two articles from a blog called "toiletpaperworld" (I am not making this up) with details.