Writing in 2009

I published one short story in 2009:

My story submission database isn’t really set up to answer the question of how many new stories I wrote this year, but I see three whose first submission to an editor was in 2009.  Hopefully some of those will appear in 2010.

Two articles of mine appeared as guest posts at personal financial blogs:

I wrote 71 posts for Wise Bread.  I’ve bolded a few where I thought I managed to say just what I was trying to say, and commend them to your attention:

One of my Wise Bread posts (Understand Capital Costs) was featured in in US Airways Magazine (October 2009, page 22).

Guest post at The Simple Dollar

A while back Trent Hamm at The Simple Dollar invited me to do a guest post and I finally came up with an idea that I liked:  Living off Capital.

People who come from wealthy families learn how to live off capital. The rules are taught along with all the other things they learn from their parents–how to dress, how to eat, how deal with bankers and trust officers. But even though most people don’t learn the rules, living off capital is just a skill, and it’s one that everybody should learn, because everybody lives off capital sometimes.

It talks about investing for income, reinvesting to preserve capital, diversifying, and keeping your expenses flexible.

The downside of reasonable rules

The apartment complex where we live was built over the course of a decade or so, back in the 1960s. I don’t know what the building code and zoning rules said about things like building spacing, but I imagine that they left quite a bit up to the builder.

Without rules that had to be followed, the builders built the complex with an eye toward maximizing their profit. If you put more units on a piece of property, you can bring in rent from more tenants. But at some point adding more units leads to diminishing returns—adding more buildings makes the space feel sufficiently cramped or crowded that potential tenants view the place as a downscale complex and they won’t pay as much. For a while that can still be profitable—you gain more from the extra units than you lose to lower rents. But squeezing yet another building in won’t just cut the rent on those units, it’ll cut the rent on all the other units as well. Eventually you reach the point where you lose more in rent than you gain from having extra units, so you stop and don’t build that building.

Zoning regulations can change the dynamic. Currently, there are rules in Champaign that limit apartment builders from jamming ever more buildings into a complex.

Apartment complex near where we live
Apartment complex near where we live

This picture is from a newer complex just a few blocks from where we live. The buildings are crammed so close together, it seems to me that you might just as well be living in the same building as your neighbors, as far as noise and privacy go. (This picture shows them face-to-face. Side-to-side they’re even closer.)

Again, I don’t know, but I assume that the buildings are built as close together as zoning regulations allow.  That’s the pernicious side-effect of having that sort of rule.

Because, see, there isn’t just one answer to the question of how closely packed buildings can be before they begin to feel downscale.  It depends on other stuff.  It depends on what people are used to. It depends on what alternatives are available.

When you create a rule, some fraction of the builders are going to aim for the bottom—just meet the rule. Those units aren’t going to be upscale, but there’ll be some people who will rent them.

If there were no rules, of course, some builders might build complexes where the buildings were even closer together than that, but those complexes would seem especially downscale. When you set a minimum, though, everybody who was thinking of someplace in that neighborhood will tend to aim for that same point.

Obviously the people who would have aimed more downscale would be prohibited from doing so. But the people who would have aimed for just slightly better will also be drawn downward. If there were a wide range of densities, builders would see advantages to being just slightly more upscale than the next guy. But with rules setting a lower limit, we don’t see the full range. Instead, we tend to see a binary division between the downscale units that are at the maximum density permitted, versus the upscale units that offer a sufficiently lower density to stand out. The legally mandated minimum becomes normalized (because so many complexes build to that standard) and ends up being a standard, rather than a minimum.

Courtyard outside our apartment
Courtyard outside our apartment

The courtyard outside our apartment is a common area that is actually used by us and our neighbors.  There are picnic tables and grills. The space is comfortable. It’s big enough that we don’t feel like we’re sitting right outside our neighbor’s apartments, but not so big that we feel lost in a vast space.

The space outside the nearby complex, though, feels wretched to me. With the buildings so close together, the space between becomes just a dark corridor. It’s not inviting, which is just as well because there’s no room to do anything there anyway.

In one sense, it doesn’t really matter to me. Our complex exists at its present density, and I can’t imagine that it would make any sense to try find find a way to pack in more buildings. But it makes me sad to see all the other, higher-density, complexes going up. It means that we aren’t getting new options.

The rules that set “reasonable minimums” instead are producing a binary distribution, where our only choices are downscale apartments crammed together or high-priced luxury apartments, where tenants get a reasonable density, but are stuck paying for other amenities that we don’t care about.  It’s the downside of reasonable rules.

Fellow sf/pf writer Karawynn Long

Just heard from Karawynn Long, a fellow sf writer who’s also keeping a personal finance blog:  Pocketmint.  (With Catherine Shaffer, this makes three of us sf/pf writers–I wonder if there are any more?)

Pocketmint is full of personal stories turned into larger lessons.  I rather liked Downsizing appliances to save money, which tells the tale of finding perfectly good freezer in the garage of a new house. Because it was so handy–already there and running–they started using it, rather than going to the work to reorganize the garage to use their own smaller freezer. The core of the article is a link to the US government’s EnergyStar calculator, which she used to figure out how much money they’d save using their own newer, smaller freezer. Then there’s the story where she caught a mistake the bank made that could have cost them $6100.  Lots of good stuff.

I’d actually read her sf work back in the day.  She had a story in Enchanted Forests, where she shared the table of contents with Bruce Holland Rogers, and she had a story in Century, a market that I submitted to but never sold to.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for her new work, both pf and sf.

Interviewed by Laura of Green Panda Treehouse

I did two interviews recently with Laura of Green Panda Treehouse:

She’s looking for other people to interview, so I thought I’d mention that it was fun to do.  If you’re a personal finance blogger, consider getting in touch.

Profiled in the local paper

Christine Des Garennes of the New-Gazette did a profile on me and my writing for Wise Bread.  It made the front page! Checks and Balances: Living large on a smaller budget.

Although some of his blog posts are practical, such as “how to make sourdough bread and save a buck on every loaf,” Brewer’s “central shtick,” as he put it, is all about doing what you love.

Ask yourself, are you working a job just to earn enough money to support your lifestyle?

“If you live frugally enough, you can change your work based on what you want to do,” Brewer said. After your family, he said, there is nothing “that has such an importance on whether or not you’re happy than your work.”

[Updated 29 May 2009:  It used to be that the News-Gazette closed articles behind a pay wall after a week, but as of today the link seems to still be working.]

Translated into Turkish

It seems that someone translated my Wise Bread post The line between frugal and crazy into Turkish:


I’m  kind of chuffed about this–translating a whole article is a lot of work; I’m pleased that there’s someone out there who thought this article was worth the trouble.  I hope it’s a good translation–it’s kind of hard to tell, based on the Google translation:

Nature of diseased condition that does not bring happiness. At this point the question must be asked is: Does it make you happy to make thrifty behavior? In this way, make you happy is to live a frugal man, you are normal and others that it does not matter what you think. For example, to use bicycles for transportation or walk to me very happy.