Saturday, May 6, 2017

Tools and Books from MicroConf 2017

Few groups dedicate themselves more to learning than the attendees and speakers at MicroConf. Like last year, I polled as many folks as possible for their favorite tools and books that others may not know about.

Mentioned in Talks

Tools

Services and APIs

Books and Other Resources

Speaker Slides

Tools for Infoproducts

Social Media and Other Content Distribution

Sources for Content

Attendee Recommendations

Business Books and Resources

Wealth / Personal Finance Books and Resources

Health / Wellness Books

Fiction

Good stuff? You'll probably also enjoy 2016's list of tools and books.



*Moving Average Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. Buying items through this link helps sustain my outrageous reading habit and is much appreciated!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Buying a Car in 2017: Hand to Hand Combat with 11 Car Dealerships

Note: Feel free to ask questions or give me feedback in the comments or via twitter: @WindAddict.

Car salesmen hunt like spiders. An innocent car shopper stops to peek at a car. A salesperson in a polo and khakis trots out to greet their prey. Fresh meat! Soon our shopper has tangled in a web made of words. The more the shopper struggles, the more they tangle in the web. Eventually, the shopper tires of bone-grinding handshakes, back slaps, and ear-grinding speeches. The shopper makes a desperate move for freedom. The shopper drops a large pile of cash and — tires screeching — escapes in a new car.

We all know the sales-arachnid connection if asked. But we don’t really understand it until it’s 8:23pm and our driver's license is being held hostage. Where's the forsaken sales person with the stupid driver’s license? You cross and uncross your legs. You get up and pace the tiny office like a bear in a cage.

Slowly it dawns on you that, like an airport, the environment of the dealership has been carefully purged of any dangerous objects. There is nothing sharp or heavy we might use to launch a mission to recover a drivers license. We're in a place where nobody wants to land: at the mercy of a car salesman.

I Hope the real tale of my car buying experience will help you can escape a gruesome fate. Learn from my mistakes and experiments that let me research and buy a new car for a reasonable price. And I did it all without too much suffering. In a world of legally-mandated middle men, what more can we hope for?

Why a New Car?

In this case I'm not your role model for economic decisions. I bought a new car. Please don’t buy a new car. For most folks, a new car costs too much. You won’t get much more value over a used car. This is especially the case if you need to take a loan. Even if you pay with cash, I’d discourage buying new if the car will cost more than 10% of your net worth. Wisely invest your money instead. 

In my case, the primary motivation for a new vehicle was safety. I wanted something with a 5-star safety rating, blind-spot monitoring, a rear camera, and collision prevention. I could have achieved this with a used car. I chose not to go that route because of excuses. I had access to an extremely low-interest loan. Additionally, reductions in the cost of safety technology had reduced the amount of savings offered by a used car.

What I mean to say is that I fell in love with some aspects of the 2017 Highlander and made up some excuses to justify it. So it goes.

The Test Drives

When I started this adventure, I wasn't sure what car I wanted to buy. I had a short list of vehicles (more on that later), but I knew that I needed to experience each vehicle to make my decision. That left me no choice but to visit car dealers.

I wanted something with similar capabilities to my Element: something that could carry a windsurfing rig or dog and get reasonable mileage. I did the usual research: Edmunds.com and ConsumerReports.org. The top SUVs in the Consumer Reports rankings were the Audi Q7, the Toyota Highlander, the Subaru Forester, and the Kia Sorento. I eliminated the Audi based on the price — and I wasn’t sure I wanted a conspicuous luxury badge. The others I planned to visit in person.

The experience of visiting dealerships ranged from amusing to torture. When I asked to see a Sorento at the Kia dealer, we had to wait a few minutes for the sales guy to find the key to one. Finding car keys seems like an ordeal at most dealerships.

After a wait, the salesperson let us inspect the Kia’s inside, but didn’t offer a test drive. He probably didn’t think I was a serious buyer. Maybe it was the speech I gave each dealer I visited while researching prospects:
"Hi, I’m in the process of researching a car to replace my Honda Element. I’m going down the rankings in Consumer Reports and checking out the cars. I’d like to take a look at the ABC with the XYZ package."
The speech probably wasn’t what the dealer wanted to hear. It told them that I wasn’t buying today, I didn’t know what make or model I ultimately wanted, and I was an educated consumer. It probably also implied that I would shop around. But it was honest. Even though I knew that many of these sales people would try to pressure me, convince me, and probably even lie to me, my honesty let me feel good about myself. 

I think my speech gave me a few tactical advantages. First, it let me see how I was treated when the sales person was doubtful of a sale. If they treated me poorly now, I would know what to expect the rest of the sales process would be like.

Next, being honest about my intent allowed me to not feel guilty for using a sales person’s time. If the sales person spent time with me, they knew the deal, and they consented to it. That point might seem strange, but feelings of guilt put you at a disadvantage. You don’t want a sales person to be able to apply pressure during negotiation: “Oh, but I’ve spent so much time helping you, why are you asking for an unreasonable price?”

The first Subaru dealer I visited presented a similar experience: feel free to take a look, but we won’t offer to let you test drive. This sales guy was a character: he told a gruesome story about a wrecked Forester and implied that the turbocharged Forrester was only suitable for insecure young men. At least he gave me a colorful brochure, something none of the other 6 dealerships I visited offered me! He also clued me in to the cool youtube videos of Subarus driving up roller ramps that only allow one wheel to have traction. Pretty cool!

The first Toyota dealer I visited actually offered to let me do a real test drive — the only test drive offered my first day visiting dealerships. If you want to test drive a car, many dealers will make you ask. This dealership eagerly asked me if I'd like to test drive. They didn't have any brochures, but a drive is better than a brochure.

Finally, I visited a Mercedes-Benz dealer to see the GLC300. It was on the Consumer Reports list too (albeit a bit lower ranked than the others). After visiting Kia, Subaru and Toyota, I was curious what the luxury car dealership would be like. The car looked pretty cool, but no test drive was offered. That didn't seem like a very luxurious experience. The sales folks all had nicer watches and fancier clothes than I own, so perhaps they didn't think someone wearing a t-shirt could afford a Benz. That's OK -- I didn't think I wanted a luxury-branded car.

Using Scripted Answers at the Dealer

To make my life easier I tried to script my replies to sales people. I did this in person, in email, and on the phone. I don’t meant that I memorized lines like an actor. I just prepared responses to common questions used in sales and negotiating. For verbal questions I didn’t give word for word responses — I simply kept to the same outline.

When I encountered a new question, I’d make note of it and come up with a good response I could recycle. Unless you’re a great negotiator, you need to prepare for dealer negotiation tactics in advanced. The wrong response can cost you time, money, or simply offer a sales person too much leverage to persuade you with.

When asked me how much I was looking to spend, I replied to each dealer the same way:
“I’m not sure yet. I need to see all the cars on my list first. Once I know which car I want, I’ll research the price and have a better idea.”
When negotiating, you never want to disclose your budget unless you will get a significant advantage from doing so. In the research phase, you have nothing to gain from disclosing your budget, your net worth, your cash savings, etc. 

Asked about what I was looking for in a car, I answered honestly:
“I want something big enough to fit my windsurfing gear like my Element does I want a 5-star safety rating, comfortable seats, and reliability.”
Combined with my speech about the Consumer Reports rankings, this helps keep the sales person focused on my needs. A response like “Oh, I don’t know” or “I want something big” invites the sales person to push you to buy something according to their incentives. You’ll waste your time politely listening to stories about profitable vehicles. But, if you’ve already done you’re research, you probably don’t want a dealer’s advice on which model to buy.

Later, when you know which vehicle you want, you’ll get extremely specific: X model, Y year, Z color, with the A, B and C packages. That’ll help keep you from getting quotes on cars you don’t want when you’re negotiating price.

Visiting Dealers for the Elimination Round

After my first round of visiting dealers over the holidays, I had narrowed it down to two choices: a Forrester or a Highlander. I still had not driven the Forrester, so I drove up to the Subaru dealer. What a strange surprise. I walked through and around the dealer a few times and nobody offered to help me. Strange. I was starting to get used to sprinting sales people.

I walked to their reception desk and asked to see a Forrester. A salesperson greeted me, I gave her my spiel, and then she took me through Their Process. I assume they had a scripted Process, because it was a bit theatrical. She asked me lots of pleasant questions about my needs while looking up the cars they had in their inventory.

And then I fell into a trap. This was the only unpleasant part of that dealer’s process. I let the sales person vanish with my drivers license. I felt my stomach drop three seconds after she left the room with it. Other dealers didn’t take my license for a walk. I made a tactical mistake: I couldn’t leave the dealership without my license.

I felt like an idiot. One tiny mistake and now a sales person as enough leverage on me to prevent me from leaving. The spider had me cornered, so I did what any hero would. I read a book. And I cursed under my breath.

Years later, she returned to her tiny office with my license and a set of keys for a Forrester. Lesson learned. Never allow the salesperson to leave the room with your property. If they insist on wandering around with your insurance, license, or favorite pet, follow them wherever they go.

After a brief sales speech, I test drove a Forester. The routine was pretty similar to most test drives except for some fun demonstrations, like the adaptive cruise control, and demonstrating the Forrester's turning radius by instructing me to drive in a circle from one parking space to the second one over (it’s not very different from similar sized cars, but it is still a fun demo).

Final Car Research

Before making my final decision on make and model, I spent hours doing research. I used these resources to help my decision:

Consumer Reports (a digital membership is quite affordable)
Talking to workers at a repair shop (they liked Subarus but believed Toyotas were more reliable)
Google News (to search for reviews in the media)
YouTube (to search for video reviews)

Getting Offers

I researched how folks are buying cars in 2017. Car buying services seem like a bigger trend since I last bought a car. These services (many of which seem to be branded versions of TrueCar) promise to get you the car you want at a fair price. The services I tried are free to the consumer, and don’t seem to obligate the buyer in any way.

I’m a Costco member, so I started with their buying service. Sadly, none of the participating dealers in my area had the 2017 Hybrid Highlander Limited Platinum in stock. For that reason, I was unable to use Costco buying service to go any further in the buying process. The service didn’t give me any dealer quotes. Having generated zero contacts with dealers, the Costco car buying service didn’t help me. I suspect it would have been great if there was inventory available in my area, but who knows?

The AAA Car Buying Service was slightly more useful. Like Costco, they didn’t find any matching cars in inventory. Although they wouldn’t help reduce the price of cars not in inventory, the AAA car buying service still put me in touch with several participating local dealerships and let them know what kind of car I was looking for. 

To supplement the AAA Car Buying Service, I also googled some other local Toyota dealerships and contacted them through their websites. Most dealers had a “contact us” form. Dealers must all use the same ancient software to run their website because they all hurt my eyes.

To keep things simple, I recycled the same messages to all the dealers. To kick things off, I sent all the dealers this note:
“Hi,

I'm contacting several dealerships about buying a 2017 Hybrid Highlander Limited Platinum. I'd prefer a white model with saddle brown or black seats, but I'm flexible.

Can you please send your best offer? Please also list any taxes and fees for a "out the door total". I'm planning on paying cash. If you don't have one in stock, can you give a time estimate on when one would be ready?

I have a 2006 Honda Element EX-P with around 171,000 miles I might trade in if it makes economic sense.

Please respond by email.

Thanks“
I kept an Evernote note with both my scripted responses and some simple negotiation notes for each dealer. As I contacted each dealer, I added a line to my notes. Over time, I gradually expanded the search radius for dealers -- my notes made it simple to keep track of where I was in that process. Here is a sample from my notes:

Joe at ______: Quoted $51,010. Told him he'd have to do better.
Traci/Jay at ____: sent wrong vehicle. Asked for right one. Now talking to Jay. 
Joe at _____: Wrong car quoted. $44,257 for non-hybrid, FWD? Asked about hybrid again. 
*Jon at _____: $48,770 + TTL 1st week of Feb. Told him interesting offer, can do better?.
Responded: 46,964. My counter offer: $44500 + TTL; replied No.
Total with Accessories: 47196 before TTL
total with TTL: 50595
TTL = 6.35% plus 430 fees
To reserve need to put down 500$ deposit 
As you can see, the notes are a simple record of the quote from each dealer, and where I was in negotiations. I kept a record of each offer and my response. I sometimes wonder what happened to Traci. Did he get demoted to car wash duty after botching my quote?

Quotes on Highlanders Roll In (kinda)

A few car sales people phoned me after I contacted them. Most of the sales folks I contacted weren't avid readers or writers. To anyone who called, I politely repeated the basics from my email script over the phone and asked them to email me their quote. 

I also told any dealer who called that I preferred to communicate through email because I wanted to make it easier to keep track of the offers. It seemed smart to imply that I was talking to multiple dealers so that I would get good quotes.

In retrospect, implying so much competition may have been a mistake — many dealers never gave me a real quote. I wonder if they were discouraged by the prospect of having competition. On the other hand, I did eliminate many incompetent sales people while still getting a good deal.

Many of the dealerships I contacted didn’t have the car I wanted in inventory. Most of those salesmen who responded wanted me to come visit them at the dealership to order a car. Or did they just want to snare me in their web? 
“I would like to invite you in to visit with me and work out the Order to you satifaction[sic].”
I responded to these invitations identically with a copy and paste from my Evernote scripts:
“I can't come in right now because I'm comparing many quotes before making my final decision. Can you send me your best offer on a 2017 Hybrid Highlander Limited Platinum. I’d prefer a white model with saddle brown or black seats, but I’d consider other colors.

Please also list any taxes and fees for a "out the door total". I'm planning on paying cash. Can you also give a time estimate on when one would be ready? I understand that the timing might not be a sure thing.“
Some of the responses made my eyes do barrel rolls. They claimed that an email quote would be unfair or impossible:
“It would not be fair to you for us to guess what the vehicle will cost you.”
Yeah, right. What a pile of triceratops turds! Would my physical presence somehow improve the accuracy of the quote? Or did they expect me to write them a blank check to order a car? How do these jokers sell anything?

A few of the unreasonable dealers started giving me real numbers after they got the nonsense out of their system. Some suckers must fall into their hare-brained traps. Don’t despair when you get unhelpful responses like this. Often a more senior (and more helpful) sales person followed up after a few days or weeks. Perhaps they make junior sales people answer email so they can audit them for lunacy. I uncovered a few lunatics.

One sales person quoted me $51,010 over email, which almost exactly matched the MSRP on Toyota’s website. Based on what I read about buying cars online, I expected to get competitive offers for the car immediately. My expectation didn’t match reality. You’ll still have to negotiate to get a good offer. So don’t feel too discouraged if the first quotes are high. Negotiations feel less intimidating if you can sit on your couch with a beer while you respond. We live in amazing times.

A ray of hope finally arrived in my inbox — a decent quote for less than MSRP. This seemed much closer to what I was expecting. Normally my next line would be "Sorry, you'd have to do better than that". That seemed harsh for the only decent quote so far. Fortunately I just learned a nice negotiating gambit from Patrick McKenzie, so I gave it a shot:
Jon: “I can do 48,770+ttl as equipped”
Me: “Thanks for your help Jon,
That is an interesting offer. Do you have a better one?
Can you tell me any details I should know to help me make a comparison?” 
Jon: “Hi
I can as always take an offer to the GM
what are you comparing it to?”
Jon’s mention of the GM (general manager) establishes a higher authority, a useful negotiation tool for him. Higher authorities let you blame aggressive negotiations on someone else. This helps maintain your relationship with the party you’re negotiating with: “Bob wouldn’t like that.” Why not blame uncomfortable situations on a third party?

Higher authorities sometimes even trick the other party to disclose information they shouldn’t. Salespeople use it all the time to conjure the illusion that they are on your side: “Let me talk to Bob and see what I can do for you. What is the highest you can go?”
The higher authority also protects the negotiator against disclosing information. When asked a question they don’t want to answer, they can simply say that only the higher authority can say: “Oh, that is up to Bob. Give me a number and I can take it to him.” 

The higher authority gambit also buys a negotiator time to think: you can delay almost anything by saying “let me ask Bob”.

I encourage you to also prepare a higher authority gambit. Spouses, significant others, your bank, or even your parents can work. When confronted with an offer you don't like, you can say your higher authority wouldn't like it. Prepare yourself for the counter gambit against higher authorities: “why don't we give your higher authority a call right now?” 

In my situation with Jon, I decided to ask Jon to help me with the higher authority. I also repeated an outline of the situation from my original message:
“Hi Jon,
If you could ask your GM for their best offer, that would be helpful. 
I've emailed several Toyota dealerships asking for their best offer on a 2017 Hybrid Highlander Limited Platinum (preferring white exterior and black or saddle brown interior). I'll be considering them as they come in, and hope to make a decision soon. 
Thanks,
John”
You’ll notice that I didn’t answer his question about the other offers I’m looking at. Even if I had other offers, I wouldn’t disclose them at this point.

The only situation I can think of where it would make sense to disclose another dealer’s offer is when you’ve already negotiated two or more dealers down to a good price and no dealer will go any lower. Note that pitting two parties against each other can hurt your relationships with them. That concern may not matter in the case of a car dealer, but it would matter for other kinds of negotiations.

If I had disclosed my actual situation (that Jon had the best offer so far), it wouldn’t make sense for Jon to offer a better price. Keeping my offers hidden paid off:
Jon: “Hi 
I can do 46,962+ttl, let me know what options you would want  and will do cost on those”
Wow, one quick email brought the price down another four percent! Now we were about nine percent below MSRP. This was my best offer by far, and it was a price below what my research indicated was a good deal. Of course I’d try to go lower. So far I hadn't mentioned a single number!
Me: “Thanks Jon, 
Ok, that makes sense. Could you do $44500 + TTL? And of course, whatever additional options we agree on (sorry, I'm not super familiar with the accessories at this point).
TTL in this case is 6.25% + $33, correct? 
After we agree on the details, what is the process to lock in the deal and get the car in February?”
Jon: “Hi 
thats my best deal  
need signed buyers order and $500 deposit to order the unit in”
I could have tried another counter offer, but I decided not to at this point. Based on my research, this was a very good deal. Also, given a choice, I'd actually like doing business with Jon. He was the only salesperson so far who responded quickly to my notes and didn't try to play any dishonest games. The majority of my other dealer contacts seemed dishonest and lazy.

Armed with a good offer, I continued talking to other dealers. A few more dealers eliminated themselves from the race by complaining that I was making them "compete with themselves" by asking for a better deal than MSRP. I could have (and maybe should have) probably given them a number similar to the $44500 I gave Jon. But I didn't.

In comparison to the other dealers behavior Jon was far ahead of the pack. Maybe I could get the price a few hundred dollars lower from another dealer, but then I'd have to do business with a snake. No thanks.

At this point I was reminded that I knew a salesperson at a different Toyota dealer. I sent him a text message, and he offered to sell me a Highlander at $500 over invoice price. His quote for the same Highlander configuration was $47,793. When I told my acquaintance about Jon’s offer, he never got back to me. I took the lack of response as a sign that Jon had a great offer. 

I called Jon on the phone and put a $500 deposit on my credit card. He never asked me to sign a buyer’s order, so I figured that I would continue to talk to other dealers just in case. None of them gave me a better offer.

I’ll skip the negotiation of the accessories with Jon because they were uneventful. I wanted to get the side molding and the bumper guard for my Highlander. His quotes were not only less than the MSRP for those dealer add-ons on Toyota’s website, they were less than the cost of the uninstalled parts on https://www.toyotapartsdeal.com. Those prices seemed extremely fair to me, so I did not attempt to negotiate them.

A minor note: even Toyota's highest tier Highlander doesn't include floor mats! I can only imagine that that floor mats are an extremely high-margin item. That's OK -- I wanted third party all-weather mats anyhow.

The Car Negotiating Playbook

These are the scripts I used for negotiations.

First Contact (Asking for Quotes)

Hi, 

I'm contacting several dealerships about buying a 2017 Hybrid Highlander Limited Platinum. I'd prefer a white model with saddle brown or black seats, but I'm flexible.  

Can you please send your best offer? Please also list any taxes and fees for a "out the door total". I'm planning on paying cash. If you don't have one in stock, can you give a time estimate on when one would be ready? 

I have a 2006 Honda Element EX-P with around 171,000 miles I might trade in if it makes economic sense. 

Please respond by email. 

Thanks 

Responding to Nonsense (Invitations to Visit the Salesperson)

I can't come in right now because I'm comparing many quotes before making my final decision. Can you send me your best offer on a 2017 Hybrid Highlander Limited Platinum. I’d prefer a white model with saddle brown or black seats, but I’d consider other colors.  

Please also list any taxes and fees for a "out the door total". I'm planning on paying cash. Can you also give a time estimate on when one would be ready? I understand that the timing might not be a sure thing.

Responding to a Reasonable Offer

That is an interesting offer. Do you have a better one? 

Responding to a Silly (or non-competitive) Offer

Thanks for your help ____! Unfortunately you'd have to do better than that.

Responding to Questions About Your Budget or Price Needs

I can't give you an exact price because I'm getting multiple competitive quotes. Most of the folks I've emailed are in a similar position.

Picking Up the Car

When my Highlander was ready to pick up, the process was simple in principal: show up, test drive, pay, go home. Reality was a little more complex.

I took my future car for a test drive and inspected it. Everything seemed like it was in good order. Only one thing bothered me: the engine had some tape and stickers attached to them that were obviously meant to be removed. When I asked Jon about them, he removed them, but said it was no big deal. There were stickers and things on the engine that would just burn off over time.

Burn off! As someone who aims to build quality software, the concept disturbed me. Did the dealerships not have a checklist of tasks to do on each new car before delivery? Surely Toyota operates using checklists and standard operating procedures. Sure a few stickers are a tiny detail, but what important tasks might the dealership forget before delivering a car?

Next the sales guy and I sat down for a bit to talk about the payment. Up until this point, we had agreed on a price, but we never discussed how I would pay for it.

I knew there could be complications over payment when I picked up the car, but I let the issue lie because I knew it could be a point of negotiation. I figured that if I asked early, they would cite rules and policy about payment. It seemed better from a negotiating standpoint to be able to act surprised if I didn't like their terms.

Back at Jon’s desk, he told me “I hope you won’t be upset, but we need to change the price.” I nearly swallowed my tongue. Change the price?!

Suddenly my mind was full of worry and doubt: "I knew this online negotiation was too good to be true! Did I just waste a few weeks waiting for this car when I could have focused on negotiating with other dealers?" And so on. I took a deep breath and tried to rev up my negotiations brain. I prepared myself to walk away from the deal -- I could always dispute the deposit with my credit card company in the worst case scenario.

My blood pressure nearly redlined before Jon told me “Yes, Toyota just offered a rebate on this car, so I’ll have to reduce your cost by $1000.” We both laughed. Hopefully I didn't sound like I lost my marbles. I assured him that kind of price change was fine with me! 

When Jon asked how I would pay, I told him that I wanted to pay as much as possible on credit card, and the rest by wire transfer. He replied that the maximum they could put on credit card was $2000. I raised my eyebrows and thought for a bit before I said that I needed to do $5000.

Jon said he would need to ask permission. The higher authority gambit! I replied “that would be fantastic”. A few minutes later, he returned and said it would be ok. He swept his paperwork off his desk and walked me down a dimly lit hall to the finance guy.

The Finance Guy

The finance guy? But I’m not financing! Well, you visit the finance guy even if you wheel in a huge stack of two dollar bills. The finance guy is a last-ditch attempt to wring more profit from your wallet. A visit with the king spider. Time to be strong!

The Finance guy had a real office equipped with a closing door. Not a cubicle like the sales guys. I’m sure scream-dampening insulation lined the walls. Finance guy sat in a dress shirt behind a massive wood desk. Some huge diploma-like certificate hung on the wall, radiating trust and authority. A giant desk-size tablet computer fllled the space in front of two chairs.

Jon made a quick introduction, stepped out, and seal me in the room. Finance Guy brought up the bill on the tablet monstrosity. The price was exactly what I expected from previous communications with Jon. Good.

The first swipe at my wallet was (I assume) a deliberate mis-understanding of how much I was going to put on the credit card: “So, you’re going to put $4,500 on the credit card…. you’ve already put $500 on a card for the deposit.”

“No, we agreed that I’d put $5000 on the credit card today”

He didn’t push the issue, or appeal to a higher authority. Perhaps I was talking to the highest authority. Yes, the king spider. My next job was initialing the right spots on the breakdown of costs. No problem — they matched what we had agreed to. Signing on the tablet monster was fun.

Next, he tried to get me to sign a “Dispute Resolution Agreement” with the dealership. I glanced at it — an agreement to arbitration and a waiving of my rights to a trail by judge. Waive my rights? Hmm.  A dealership seemed like the last place I'd like to waive my rights. The agreement didn't seem very balanced -- the dealership wasn't offering me much in exchange for my rights. No surprise there. I asked the finance guy: “Am I required to sign this to buy the car”

“Yes,” he claimed that the agreement was a Toyota requirement, which is probably not true since the agreement was with the dealership, not Toyota. Again, a Higher Authority gambit. This time the higher authority was an international corporation that all Toyota dealers worked with. Nicely done Finance Guy!

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I didn't anticipate this part of the deal. I began carefully reading the agreement, flipping back and forth slowly between the pages while I considered my options. I definitely didn’t want to sign the dumb thing. On the other hand, if I refused to sign, would I be back at square zero with my buying process? I felt exhausted by the thought. I knew my mental state worked in the dealer's favor. I needed to stay silent while I considered my options and gathered my wits.

I kept studying the agreement. Perhaps I could use my own higher authority: a lawyer, or someone like that. I didn’t have anyone lined up as a lawyer. Would Finance Guy call my bluff? Could I call it right back by searching for a lawyer on my phone?

I couldn’t believe how quickly this dilemma unraveled in my favor. It didn’t seem like more than a minute had passed before finance guy capitulated: “OK, well, let me see if this is really necessary. We can go through the rest of the process, and if we need the agreement I’ll contact you later.”

So much for “Toyota’s requirement.” Finance Guy blew up his own higher authority gambit when faced with the ultimate nemesis: uncomfortable silence. Never forget the power of silence.

The next step was the extended warranty sales pitch. Finance guy asked me why I chose my car, etc, etc. He spewed many tedious questions. I think he was trying to get a specific response from me because he kept going until I said the word he was looking for: reliability.

Oh yes, he agreed, Toyotas were known for their reliability. Blah blah blah. To my horror, he then threw Toyota under the bus. Finance guy cast doubt on the reliability of the car I was about to pay 50k for. He felt that the Hybrid technology specifically was troublesome, and he wouldn’t vouch for it’s reliability. No sir! And that’s why he felt I should spend several thousand dollars on an extended warranty.

The trickster in me wanted to stand up and say: "Forget it then. If it's not reliable, I don't want it. Catch you later!" That would have been a lot more fun than his long speech about extended warranties. I probably sighed, hummed, and looked outside. No level of bored body language would discourage Finance Guy. There was a platinum plan and a gold plan. If you're really frugal, you can be a cheap with a silver plan. Blah blah blah.

Unlike him, I didn’t capitulate: “No thanks.” Apparently this has never happened before. Now he had to interrogate me about why I didn't want the warranty. He tried to get me to agree that if it saved me more money than it cost it was a deal. I agreed that was true.

The fresh out of college me might have disputed the point. Now I don’t care. Why disagree? True or not true, agree or disagree, I didn’t have to buy the warranty. Agreeing takes less time.

I agreed. Then I told him I still didn’t want it. He acted like I was crazy, and continued his pitch. I finally told l him that I didn’t budget any more money for the car than the amount we agreed to. The no budget argument finally convinced him to stop boring me to death. No money, no interest.

He ran my credit card and gave me a sheet of paper with the bank wiring instructions. It was Saturday, so the soonest a wire could go through was Monday. That didn’t seem to bother him — I’d still get the car today.

Oddly, their bank account had a completely different name attached to it than the dealership. I can only assume that they use various companies to keep the money separate in case jerks like me (who didn’t sign the arbitration agreement) tried to sue them.

A few minutes later, Finance Guy expelled me from his spider’s den. I savored the fresh air as I wandered the cube farm looking for Jon.

Getting the Car

For the final stage of the buying process, Jon walked me thorough the warranties, the XM radio, the emergency service. He even told me to reject XM’s first attempt to get me subscribe — they’d give me a better price when they followed up.

He walked me back to the car and showed me the main features. He helped me configured the safety features, he showed me how the radio works, and so on. Finally, he gave me a full tank of gas.

At the gas pump, I noticed what looked like scratches on the side of the center console. It turned out to just be some lint that had stuck to it. Jon personally cleaned it up with a microfiber cloth.

After a final handshake I drove home with my new car, a grateful survivor of the car buying process.

Want more? Read my Unlucky Engineer's Guide to Wealth here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Tear-free App Updates

"Dear @Marriott - please go back to your old app - it worked perfectly.  Get rid of whoever designed the new one - it is awwwwful."
Have you seen those home improvement shows where a team of decorators surprises a family with an made-over house? The results cause more huge frowns, tears, and chaos than you’d expect.

Mom stares catatonically after discovering her Grandmother’s antique dresser holding the bathroom sink. Her hand leaves a fuchsia trail of Krylon on her jeans from the last minute paint job. Dad faints on the avant-garde cardboard lounge chairs replacing his beloved leather reclining couch. The kids roll on the floor and wail at their legos glued to the playroom ceiling.

The viewers marvel at the chaos, wondering what the decorators were thinking.
An amazing new floorplan update
The same shock and disappointment hits customers when a company drastically changes their app:
Dear @Marriott - please go back to your old app - it worked perfectly.  Get rid of whoever designed the new one - it is awwwwful.
Bad app makeovers cause tears, and not just for poor taste. Large updates change how an app works. New features are emphasized and existing features are moved, removed, or altered. Our customers finds themselves stumbling through a new, unfamiliar interface, yanking their hair out, not getting work done.

When customers have trouble using a new version of an app, they don’t see a learning curve, or a beautiful new concept they should give time. They see low quality. They got stuff done on version 2. Version 3 leaves them fumbling like a toddler at nap time.

Customers know that they didn’t wake up dumber. The app changed and now they’re balding and can’t get their work done. The simplest explanation: the app sucks. One star — they’d give zero if they could!
"would give it zero if I could" Google search
We app makers often see quality as a one-dimensional measure. The app crashes, or it doesn’t. A feature works or it fails. Simplistic models of quality work for a while, but mature apps need a wider perspective. Measures of quality must incorporate customer sentiment and behavior. An frequent user of your app might prefer an occasional crash to a setback in usability or functionality. A crash is a temporary glitch; an inability to locate or correctly operate a feature leads to a cascade of hurt.

When users get stuck or make an mistake using an app, recovery is difficult. Who do they call for help? There is no AAA to come jump-start your app or tow it to the nearest app repair shop. App support hotlines are rare. Book stores don’ t sell Dummy’s Guides for your app. As app makers, we must anticipate and prevent customer issues so our users don't redline their frustration gauges.

The Great Skitch Update Debacle

Evernote proudly released Skitch 2.0 for Mac in 2012. It was a big moment for the company. Exciting blog posts. Press coverage. Customers reacted like we burned down their house. They wrote reviews that made us double over and clutch our bellies.
"Loved it before the update"
Internally, we saw Skitch as a visual communication tool. We worked hard on Skitch 2.0 addressing many shortcomings of the original app. We worked long hours fixing quirks and adding useful communications features. From our perspective at Evernote, the features we dropped seemed unimportant and a distraction from what we saw as Skitch’s purpose.
"Horrible downgrade" - when app updates go wrong
But we didn’t understand Skitch’s purpose. Our experienced users ached at the loss of features like FTP and custom fonts. To those customers, the features that went missing were key pieces in how they used Skitch. Skitch wasn’t just a visual communication tool to them. For some, Skitch was a tool for uploading images to their blog or website. Others used Skitch as a simple image editing package. Skitch 2.0 broke those workflows, forcing those users to use a different product.
"This version is a colossal piece of junk"
How could we be so dumb? We didn’t control Skitch’s purpose. We could influence it, but the customers ultimately decide what they use the app for. Our team didn’t understand these customer perspectives until after we ruined their week. Like the interior designers on TV, we made drastic changes while ignorant of how people really lived in our app. Where we saw an ugly couch, our customers saw a cozy place to watch an action flick.

Evernote acquired Skitch in part for the passionate user base. We took great care. We didn't want to upset anyone or turn that passion against us. We sat for long meetings, testing betas, debating the user experience. Developers wrote code late at night, trying to get each feature ready for the big 2.0 debut. We put in so much effort that Skitch 2.0 took longer to release than planned.

Quarters of work, probably man-years of effort, and our customers still recoiled in horror. It doesn't matter how much we debated UX and reworked features. The success of an app lies with the customers, not the executive team, product management or the team building the app. That lesson arrived in an avalanche of 1-star reviews. Ultimately we apologized and promised to return the missing features. Too bad it cost us so much good will.

For the record, things have turned around for Skitch. Skitch 2.8 for the Mac has a five star average review. My Evernote friends have worked hard to make Skitch a world-class app.

More Growth Doesn’t Mean More Churn

Remember Skitch 2.0. Never forget your current customers as you scramble for growth or glory. Your best customers have learned every detail of how your app works, even the quirks and flaws. They’ve become experts in your app, probably even more so than you. Like a carpenter with a hammer, or a mechanic with a box wrench, they use your app without effort. They prize this ability because it gives them an advantage. It makes them productive.

If you alter your app too much, you steal their productivity. Skitch’s choice to remove features fell on the extreme end of the productivity-robbery spectrum, but even a simple reorganization of the app can break workflows. When the app no longer feels familiar, even long-time users fall to a novice skill level. Imagine a mechanic having to concentrate on their box wrench technique, or a carpenter having to relearn their hammer. They’d fall out of the zone, lose their happy thought. A forced return to conscious thought means slowing down. It robs them of productivity and leads to busted knuckles.

Even if your new design will make all users more productive in the long term, your formerly most productive users will grind their teeth. Minor productivity setbacks feel like getting stuck in traffic on the way to a party.

Hopefully customers won’t abandon your app before they return to productivity, because you’ve just created a moment with lower switching costs: “since I have to learn a new app anyhow, I may as well try something new.”

Don’t sacrifice your existing users just to attract new users. Customer growth depends on manageable churn rates, not just higher conversion rates. If you pop the balloon, you lose any gains from adding air faster. A successful app requires customer engagement in all cohorts, not just the tire-kickers drawn in by a pretty window display.

Planning Updates

I wish I could explain how to make everyone like your app updates. That's a fairy tale though. With a large enough user base, you will always have one customer scribing a zinger on the App Store. Some people just love to hate. The best you can do is mitigate customer pain by making conscious tradeoffs.
The Update Journey
Like a family road trip, smoothly updating an app requires planning and staging. You can’t just drive from Florida to California without a break. Adults need to stretch their legs. Kids need stimulation and snacks. Everyone need bio-breaks, to eat food and hydrate. Transforming your app is a journey, for both you and your customers. You need to know your destination, how to get there, and where you can take breaks.

To craft high quality apps, you must orchestrate changes to take customer needs into account. Needs like: don't break my workflow. Or: don't let me get lost in an unfamiliar user interface. Or even: give me feature X. And, of course: don't let anything break.

Every change you make to your app adds a little risk to the proposition. Risk that customers won't be happy. Risk that the app might crash. Risk that customer data is lost. Who knows? Limiting the scope of your updates helps you manage risk. Smaller scopes mean faster updates, less for customers to learn, and the ability to respond quickly to customer feedback. Large updates compound that risk and also inhibit your ability to rapidly respond to customer feedback.

The journey metaphor is not without flaws. As you attempt to reach a beach oasis, you'll be camping in the jungle, climbing mountains, and fording rivers. The app may start to look a bit janky: some new bits of interface are slick and beautiful, while older parts of the app seem worn and tired. There are tradeoffs. Spending 6 months on an update that directly helicopters your users from 1.0 to 2.0 could be the right decision for your business (incidentally, there are more than 2 paths; you can helicopter your business focus to 2.0 while leaving the customers at 1.0).

What do You Want?

Start your update planning with self-knowledge. Why does your team wants to change the app? Are you matching competitor’s offerings? Reducing churn? Attempting to increase the average revenue per user? What results do you want?

If you have multiple goals for an update, prioritize. Pick one thing. Having one goal to per release lets you limit the scope of your changes. Big releases can overwhelm your customers. Spreading out the changes over time helps limit the burden on them. Save your second priority for your second update.

If you worry that your app looks uglier than a hippo’s rear, you can start a makeover without impacting the functionality. You don’t need to change how your app is organized, what vocabulary it uses, or how you make money. Hold those variables constant while you reign in the colors, pick more tasteful fonts, and improve your use of whitespace.

When you users open the re-skinned app, it will look cleaner and more modern, and their muscle memory will still work. Is that just putting lipstick on a hippo? Maybe. But your customers understand lipstick. Makeup is useful -- ask any actor. Customers won’t understand if one update transforms a hippo into a narwhale. People understand an ungainly hippo getting a makeover.

For your following release, maybe your goal is to add a new feature. Again, you keep the change surgical. You add the feature, but keep the appearance of the app, the overall organization of it, and so on. Let that change sink in for a bit before your address how the app is organized, or whatever the next stage of your update might be.
App update smash
If you lose sight of the purpose behind an update, you will go overboard. Without focus, designers, developers, and product managers start to think that they “might as well” add X, Y, Z, and also Ƣ to the release. When you finally ship — and it will probably take a while if you keep glomming on features — your customers won’t recognize the updated app.

You must have the discipline to limit the scope of changes. Otherwise your customers will choke on their grande mochaccino and hurl their phone into the nearest storm drain. Clunk. Clunk. Splash!

After they upset your customers, these bloated releases hurt you again. Mistakes in a bloated release takes longer to fix than a tiny one, don't they? Bigger changes also make it more difficult to untangle the feedback you get. Return your gaze to the tweet about Marriott above. Can you tell what went wrong?

How Will Your Customers React?

Great updates require empathy. You can't make good decisions for your customers without knowing how and why they use your app. Some companies use customer personas to help them empathize with each kind of customer. They give their personas names, and sometimes even mascots (e.g. stuffed animals).

You might feel too shy to name your customer personas (Bobby the Ballerina!), but you should keep in mind how different categories of customer have different needs, workflows, and expectations. Your most active customers almost certainly have worn a path through your app. Know what those paths are. Customers won't smile if you obliterate their favorite path with a taco stand. Thanks for the tacos, but how do I get to the FTP feature?

Discovering your customer taxonomy will take some research if you don't already know. There are many tools to help you understand your customers: analytics, customer reviews, and other tools like Jobs to be Done interviews. Your app exists to serve customers. You better understand who they are!

In addition to personas, there are different stages of the customer lifecycle. For instance, most apps have both new and existing customers. A new customer can have a completely different reaction from someone familiar with your app. While you don't want to upset your best customers, you also don't want your new ones to bounce right out of your app and delete it!

Systematic Empathy

Once you know the different kind of customers you have, you can examine each change through their eyes. Make a spreadsheet of your customer taxonomy so your empathy rays don't miss anyone.
Customer Persona Empathy Chart
Here is one way to think about it. For each customer persona, add a column to indicate if a proposed change would go unnoticed by that kind of customer. For each persona who might notice the change, fill out a column indicate if they will be helped in the short term, helped in the long term, or hurt by the change. Add a final column where you will document your strategy to smooth the transition for this customer. If any of those strategies don’t seem trivial, that’s a sign that your update has grown too large. Consider breaking the update down into a chain of smaller updates.

Pro tip: you're allowed to talk to anyone. Test the assumptions in your spreadsheet with conversations, beta tests, and demonstrations! Even if you're speaking one-on-one with customers regularly, never forget to look at the reality of your releases. Analytics and reviews are real feedback from a broad representation of your actual customers. Use all of this feedback to steer your app's direction.

TL;DR

Why not take your users on a steady gradual journey over time? Why kick them out of the airplane over unfamiliar territory? This isn’t the 1990’s, where massive releases were the norm. People no longer hire the Rolling Stones or U2 to launch updates. The world has changed. Abandon the Massive Release Mindset! You’re not mailing CD-ROMs or floppies to users; there are no material costs to save by piling up major changes into one massive release.

The more incremental your updates to your app, the lower the burden on existing customers, and the more specific your analytics and reviews will be. Stacking up big changes just stacks the risk: risk your customers will hate it, risk that the changes won't work correctly, and so on.

Skyscrapers of change looks beautiful while they upload it to the store. Apps always look sleek and clever before customers touch it. The moment of truth arrives soon enough. The update goes out, someone shouts JENGA!, and now you have pieces of app littering the floor.

Or maybe you got everything perfect. What do you think? Can you reliably ship a massive update without bruising your business?


Monday, February 6, 2017

An Unlucky Engineer’s Guide to Wealth


Pirate Treasure. Startup IPOs. 3X bonuses. Scratch-off lotteries. Hypersonic stocks. Marrying royalty.

We think up clever windfalls to rationalize our dreams. We can own handmade sports cars, azure watered tropical islands, and concealed safes reeking of hundred dollar bills. It helps us believe we can live a Hollywood lifestyle if only we make the right bet.
Getting Rich With Pirate Treasure


Get-rich-quick schemes poison our ambition and self control. They trade a million pennies for a swipe at one $10,000 bill. While chasing extraordinary events we miss out on concrete opportunities for building wealth.

None of us will wake tomorrow morning laying in a pile of gold doubloons. None of us will cash a ten million dollar check, or ring the New York Stock Exchange bell. Not even if you fall to your knees and whisper “pretty please.”

I still see friends trying to build a magical money fountain in their spare bedrooms. Our engineer’s inclination to cleverness can distract us from a deliberate approach to goals. Our addition of engineering skill to the equation makes long shots seem more reachable. Making millions at a software startup seems more likely when you’re a software expert. If only you join the right company with the right idea at the right time, you’ll get rich at the IPO. We want to believe that our skills will magnify our chances of a jackpot. Maybe we can engineer some luck!

It’s a trap magnified by our poor grasp on who is rich and how they got there. We think of wealth like the Robb Report does: ostentatious homes, slick gizmos, and over-the-top vacations. For an engineer, luck is the only visible path to 300 foot yachts and six-figure dirigible ski trips in the Andes. Our vision confuses spectacle and splurging with real wealth.

Yachts large enough for Forbes to report are the product of ludicrous spending. Submariner watches look impressive, but they don’t pay dividends. Luxury only tells us about spending, not the path to riches.

Spending money on fancy stuff proves nothing. Paying for luxury with debt takes no special talent. Extravagance doesn’t confirm riches any more than a snobby attitude and a prejudice against hot dogs for lunch. Unsustainable spending surely leads to poverty and frowning bankers, but there is no easy trick to know it when we see it.

From the outside we can’t tell if an autonomous two-masted schooner is worth 1% or 400% of the owner's net worth. A crazy boat that makes up less than 1% of your net worth might make sense. A boat that makes up the majority of someone’s wealth belongs to a fool. Why benchmark our level of success against a situation that might be idiotic?

We need a better measure of wealth than fancy crap. You can’t plot your course to riches without a goal and a tool to measure progress. Discussion won’t mean much without a good metric to judge against.

Measuring Wealth

My preferred measure of wealth compares your resources to your income. It doesn’t care what your neighbors or colleagues own or do. It doesn’t care if you ride a dirt-crusted Huffy mountain bike or a Ferrari F12berlinetta. Do you get your clothes at Walmart? Or do you only go to a boutique where they taylor each garment? This measure doesn’t care.

I love the The Millionaire Next Door. It’s my favorite book about wealth. It proposes a wealth benchmark of ten percent of your annual income multiplied by your age. If your net worth is at that level or above, you have what they consider the expected level of wealth. If you build a net worth that is above twice that level, you are what the book calls a prodigious accumulator of wealth.

The Wealth Formula

Using this measure requires only honesty and math. The terms are simple. Net worth means assets minus liabilities (debt). Bank accounts, stock, mutual funds, ETFs, real estate, and cars are all assets. Credit cards, mortgages, student loans, and car loans are liabilities. Don’t cheat. Never list consumer goods as an asset: most clothing, electronics, and furniture have little value after purchase.

Your income should include your salary, any supplements you get from relatives, and any income that comes from investments like rental property.

More than the superficial signs of wealth involving fashion labels and cars, this measure reveals what proportion of your own income you hold on to and grow. It measures your savings and investment efficiency rather than your appearance.
Income Vs. Wealth

Put another way, it measures how much of the income flowing through your hands stays in your pockets. A river of wealth flows through our bank accounts. If we can divert enough of the river’s current into a reservoir, we will naturally grow wealthy. If we allow our river of income to entirely flow into the sea, we’ll always depend on it.

Does that excite you? It should. No matter what happens in the external world, we can control ourselves. We don’t need much luck to accomplish that. Just habits.

Wealth achieved through our own behavior may seem disappointing. It’s much less convenient than finding a Liberty Head Nickel stuck to your Chucks. Changing your behavior requires tradeoffs and long-term thinking. It may mean sacrificing your desires now to have wealth later.

But have hope. Wealth is a skill. Anyone with more than a poverty-level income can practice it.

Paths from Zero to Wealth

If you graduate college at age 22 and have an income of 100000, our formula expects your net worth to land at $220000. An impressive and unlikely sum for a recent graduate.

My eyes bugged out when I first did this calculation for myself a dozen years ago. I was shocked. I was a few years out of school, in a good job and contributing to a 401k and Roth IRA. Yet on this measure of wealth I fell far behind the curve. I was earning a C or a D grade on wealth, and I itched to improve it.

Consider how you might get from zero to wealth over the ten years. Let’s still assuming an income $100,000. And to keep it easy, let’s also assume that your income and the value of our investments didn’t increase. How would you become wealthy within that decade?

The expected net worth at age 32 is $320,000. To get there from a net worth of zero implies that you saved $32,000 each year. That's a savings rate of 32% of pretax income, or around a 44% savings rate of after tax income (assuming a 28% tax rate). Every month over 10 years, you must drop $2,666 into your piggy bank.
Building Wealth by Saving 40%
Building Wealth from Zero with $100K Income (32% pretax savings)
Incidentally, that amount is about 1.8 times maximum pre-tax income you can contribute to a 401k over 10 years. I’m not necessarily recommending a 401k, but it is a very simple way to automatically accumulate wealth and reduce your tax burden.

What if you procrastinate the wealth question until you’re 30? I know engineers older than that who have saved very little. For this case let's again assume that from 30 to 40 years old you earn $100,000 per year. Your expected wealth level is $300,000 at 30.

If you have very few assets at this point and want wealth by your 40th birthday, you better get busy. You now have to save $40,000 per year over the next ten years, 40% of your pre-tax income, or about 56% after taxes (assuming a .28 tax rate).  You’d need $3,333 per month, 25% more than you needed at 22, and 2.2 times maximum you can contribute to a 401k pre-tax.

The delay stings. If you’re used to a monstrous income-devouring lifestyle, it cuts deep. The earlier you start building your net worth, the gentler the climb to the top. And if you’d like to qualify as a prodigious accumulator of wealth, you need to double these numbers.

Once you reach your target level of wealth, maintaining it won’t hurt as much: you just need to preserve 10 or 20% of your income each year.

Hopefully you noticed some assumptions in my math. The income remains consistent over ten years, and the savings has no growth. If you invest wisely, your net worth will grow faster than your savings rate. If your salary grows, so too will your expected net worth.

Unexpected Implications

The wealth formula leaves clues about money management. Wealth isn’t absolute. Wealth only has meaning relative to your age and income.You can be wealthier on this scale than a neighbor who has a much higher net worth.

Wealth does not necessarily require more income. Controlling spending is just as important. Wealth might mean moving where the cost of living is less. It might mean spending less on things we don’t care about. Or it might mean making good investments. Our wealth isn’t one-dimensional, it’s a landscape of possibilities.

This story also tells us that as we grow older, we require a higher net worth to keep the same level of wealth. Does this represent the cost of healthcare as we age? The prospect of retirement? Inflation? The expectation of the growth of our investments? All of these interpretations seem fair.

As our income grows with raises, promotions, and income-producing investments, our wealth is also expected to grow in turn. Each salary bump requires another step up in the net worth we need to be considered wealthy. Those bumps are also expected to continue to expand our wealth at ten to twenty percent of our age per year. Those consequence almost demand that we invest a large part of our raises instead of spending them.
Building Wealth with Income Growth
Building Wealth With 3% Annual Income Growth (40% pretax savings)
It also suggests that we can be wealthier by having a less expensive lifestyle. The Millionaire Next Door shocked me when I read it. I realized for the first time how misleading the Hollywood and media representation of riches is. The rich people we see on TV and in Magazines are outliers. The conspicuous spenders we regularly encounter are walking lies, often poor by the standards of The Millionaire Next Door.

If you repeat the calculations for a prodigious accumulator of wealth (20% of your annual income times age), you will notice that the pre-tax savings rate over the ten years from age 22 to 32 is 64%. After taxes that leaves very little money (about 12% with the same assumptions). A prodigious accumulator of wealth will almost certainly need excellent investment growth to supplement their income. Saving 40% of your pre-tax income still works with enough time though:
Building Prodigious Wealth by Saving 32% Pretax
Building Prodigious Wealth by Saving 32% Pretax

Practicalities of Building Wealth

More than twelve years after reading The Millionaire Next Door, I have made reasonable progress against its measure of wealth. And I did it despite working at a failed startup that resulted in a more than 50% paycut for a year. Am I rich when compared to the people in magazines and TV? Not even close. But against my own income and my financial needs, I am doing well.

A few key decisions helped me grow my net worth:

  • automated savings and investment in index funds
  • buying and holding on to investments instead of selling when the markets did poorly
  • buying and sticking with a “starter home” even while my income doubled
  • refinancing my home for a lower interest rate and additional 30 years to reduce expenses
  • owning and sticking with a reliable car for the long term

Obviously this isn’t investment advice. You should make your own calculations and talk with an accountant or other professional before making any changes. For instance, buying a house can be a really dumb idea in some parts of the country.

Automated savings and investment let you grow your net worth without having to think. A 401k or Roth 401k let you easily invest in the stock market with every paycheck. Often your employer will even chip in extra money for you. While they might not be perfect for every situation, they are easy to use. If a 401k isn’t enough, or you prefer a more liquid place for your money, many brokerage firms can periodically move money into an investment account from your bank account.

Holding on to investments saves you taxes (in the case of non-retirement accounts) and transaction fees. It also discourages you from trying to time the market or chase higher performing investments.

Buying and sticking with my “starter” home helped me because my income has grown while my mortgage has remained the same.  I can’t say that buying a home is right for everybody, but it has helped my situation. The cost of Austin housing has gone up dramatically. If I had sold this home and bought a new one, not only would it likely have meant a higher mortgage and property tax, it also would have cost me 6% or more in realtor and other transaction fees. If I had rented an apartment, I would probably now be paying more in rent than the cost of my mortgage, insurance, and property tax combined.

One caveat: homes aren’t a great place to store wealth. They aren’t very liquid in poor economic times — more expensive homes become especially difficult to sell. Even if you do sell your home at the right time, where do you plan to live next? Few people manage to do more than roll the sale of one house into the purchase of the next.

Selling my fun but unreliable Jetta and sticking with my reliable used Honda for years has let me save lots of money by not encouraging me treat my car like a status symbol. Also the repairs, insurance, tires, and oil are all much cheaper.

If you are going to do one thing today to get started, calculate your current net worth. See how you compare the wealth formula. Just knowing where you stand can feel motivating. I suggest using Personal Capital to track your investments over time, and Mint for monitoring your spending and current net worth.



†Moving Average Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. Buying items through this link helps sustain my outrageous reading habit and is much appreciated!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Painlessly Traveling with International Data

We might waste time on our smart phones at home, but a data connection is a practical luxury when traveling. Wasting time on Facebook is the last thing on our mind on vacation. Our focus returns to the planet around us and to more practical needs. We might translate a menu, navigate to a hotel, or research how to get from Brussels to Maastricht.

Despite the benefits, many of us rely on cafe wifi instead of buying a local mobile plan. We don't want to waste time finding a shop and haggling over a SIM card in French. We want to go directly from our plane to the incredible spectacle of Sainte-Chapelle. We also don't want to pay our carrier expensive roaming fees and risk shocking overage fees.

I spent weeks researching solutions. I found many past-as-you-go international plans offered, but not many good reviews of them. Most of these providers make it difficult to understand how much they charge per megabyte and what kind of connection they provide. I would hate to pay more than my domestic carrier would charge for international roaming. I also want to have access to modern LTE speeds. I don't want to starve to death before finding a decent restaurant!

After a lot of digging, I ordered a GigSky SIM from Amazon. GigSky seemed to offer clear, reasonable rates and seemed to offer LTE connections in most countries. Other providers did offer lower “starting” rates, but I was unable to find documentation of the specific rates I would get. Very few of the other providers gave any indication that more than 3G speeds were available. I was astonished and skeptical that such basic information couldn’t be found for many providers.

In October 2016, I used the GigSky SIM in my unlocked iPhone 6s Plus in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.

GigSky sells data by country. When I was in the Netherlands, I purchased data for that country. As my train to Brussels crossed into Belgium the data stopped. Data service in Belgium required a separate purchase.

As fussy as that may seem, GigSky accommodates even spontaneous travel. The GigSky SIM is configured to provide data to the GigSky app even before you buy data. This means you can purchase a plan without needing WiFi. Within minutes of payment, data is available to all other apps.

Aside from the national boundaries of the GigSky plans, there are also time limits and data caps. For the Netherlands, a $15 plan buys you 100MB of data that lasts 3 days. $25 equals 400 MB over 7 days, $35 is 800 MB for 14 days, and $50 gives you 3 GB lasting 30 days. Prices can vary by location, but this illustrates the trend. More expensive plans give you much more data per megabyte. You can find details on the pricing in each country here https://www.gigsky.com/pricing.

During my travels I usually was able to get a fast LTE connection using GigSky, although occasionally I would have 3G in more remote areas. Aside from a few understandable situations in buildings with thick walls or in caves, the service never left me without data. I was quite thankful to have GigSky at one fancy hotel — the GigSky LTE connection was much faster than the crummy hotel WiFi.

To prepare for my trip, I took several steps to minimize my data consumption. First of all, I downloaded map data in the Google Maps app for most cities I would visit. Downloaded Google Maps lets you see your location and also the map data without any sort of data connection. It also means that when you do have a connection, less data will need to be downloaded when using the app. Despite the local map data, to get directions Google Maps still requires a data connection.

I also disabled background app refresh for all apps on my phone. Background fetch allows apps to fetch data even when you’re not using them — not something I wanted to pay for. I especially didn’t want to pay for social media apps to distract me on vacation.

The GigSky sim was fairly easy to use. I ejected the iPhone’s sim tray using a safety pin and swapped in the GigSky SIM as my 777 descended upon Amsterdam. The one tricky bit was adjusting the cellular settings after installing the SIM card. I saved the GigSky APN configuration file on my iPhone using an Evernote Premium offline notebook to make it easier. A few minutes after landing I was connected to the local carrier and able to buy data through the GigSky app. Seconds after clearing customs, I hailed an Uber.

When I returned to the US, I simply swapped the SIM cards back and my phone was back to normal.

My data usage for the entire ten-day trip averaged about 100 MB a day. Some days I used a little more data, others a little less. I took advantage of free wifi where possible, and I mostly used the data for directions, researching attractions, and communicating with people we were meeting.

My main frustration with GigSky was that the SIM only provides a data connection. If you’d like to send a text message or make a call, you’re (sorta) out of luck. I planned to meet a friend in the Netherlands, and I needed the ability to make phone calls and send SMS messages to make the rendezvous.

Although Skype will let you send cheap SMS messages and inexpensive international phone calls, you can’t receive text messages. Also, unless you buy a phone number from Skype, you can’t receive phone calls either. In both cases, the sending number is one just temporarily used for that purpose.

Other popular solutions for free international text messaging turned out to require verification through a traditional text message. Bah! The whole point was that I couldn’t SMS. Even a SMS app that I previously configured seemed to realize that my SIM had changed and wanted to re-verify by sending me a traditional SMS.

Ultimately I used Skype to communicate with my friend. I explained the odd phone situation so everything worked out.

Since Apple’s iMessage uses data instead of the SMS system to deliver messages to other iMessage users, it worked fine with GigSky. I did have one problem though: for some time I had been inadvertently saving my contacts to my SIM card instead of iCloud. Since I had removed my domestic SIM card, I lost access to many of my contacts. Many of the messages in the Messages app had been reduced to phone numbers. Everything worked fine when I returned to the US and installed my T-Mobile SIM. I’ve since migrated all my contacts off the SIM card.

Upsides

  • Buying data is quick after the initial setup
  • Data is affordable in larger increments
  • GigSky offers flexibility — an impromptu crossing of borders isn’t a bit deal
  • No contracts
  • The cost of the GigSky SIM Card is offset by offering a free 100 MB plan in the first country you use it in (it expires in 3 days)
  • In most places I received fast LTE connections


Downsides

  • You can’t use an iPhone as a wifi hotspot with GigSky
  • SMS messaging and Phone calls won’t work with the GigSky SIM card installed
  • You lose access to any contact information you store on your main carrier’s SIM card 
  • Initial configuration will take a little time — I suggest installing the app and activating the card before a trip
  • Smaller data plans are pricey and expire quickly
  • Data plans are tied to a single country
  • The GigSky instructional and marketing material can be confusing

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