Wishing for a walkable neighborhood

“You sure slept in late,” I said to Kim this morning.

“I know,” she said. “I was up for two hours in the middle of the night. I was thinking about you. I was thinking about everything we talked about at our family meeting.”

“For two hours?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Kim said. “My wheels were spinning. I was trying to figure out why you’ve been so unhappy since we moved to this house. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it’s because we don’t live in a walkable neighborhood. That’s so important for you. I think it makes a real difference to your mental health.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” I said.

Walk Score: Seven

Actually, when we moved to this place two-and-a-half years ago, the lack of walkability was a very real consideration. I thought about it. I talked about it. I wrote about it. In the end, though, I decided that the pros of the move would outweigh the cons.

Our current home has a Walk Score of 7

Since we moved, I haven’t thought much about the lack of walkability here. I’m aware of it, sure, and I sometimes bemoan the fact that I can’t just walk for errands. But Kim could be right. This could be a critical factor in my (lack of) recent happiness.

  • The condo had a Walk Score of 68, a Bike Score of 81, and a Transit Score of 37. Our current country cottage has a Walk Score of 7, a Bike Score of 24, and a Transit Score of 0. (The only reason our Walk Score isn’t a zero? There are nearby schools and parks.)
  • At our old place, the 0.5-mile walk to the nearest grocery store took ten minutes. Now, the two nearest grocery stores are both 1.5 miles away — or half an hour by foot. (Plus there’s 625 feet of elevation change on one route, an average grade of about 7.5%.)
  • At the condo, walking to restaurants took a little longer than walking to the grocery store — by two minutes. And there were a dozen good eateries to choose from! Here, it’s the same 1.5-mile walk to reach lesser-quality restaurants (and, again, half of them are at the bottom of a huge hill).

When we lived in Portland, it was easy to walk for nearly every errand. If the place I needed wasn’t in the half-mile radius of our immediate neighborhood, it was almost certainly within the one-mile radius of our extended neighborhood. And some summer afternoons, I’d make the 2.7-mile walk to the next neighborhood over in order to access even more stores and services.

Here, outside of the two shopping centers that are 1.5 miles away, there are two additional commercial pockets that are each 2.9 miles away (at the bottom of the hill). Those walks are doable — but not often.

Gone are the days when at three in the afternoon, I’d decide what to make for dinner, then walk to the grocery store to pick up ingredients. Gone are the days of spontaneously deciding to walk to Thai food for lunch. Gone are the days of walking the four miles into downtown Portland from the condo to meet readers and colleagues.

A Cascade Effect

Before we moved, I averaged about 12,000 steps per day. Last month, I averaged 6287 steps per day. Most of those steps are from walking the dog. A few times per year, I’ll walk for errands. Mostly, though, I drive.

Other indicators are worrisome too. In the thirty months since we’ve lived here, I’ve gained thirty pounds. (I’m pleased to report that I seem to have arrested this weight gain, however, and am now losing weight.) My net worth has dropped $300,000 (!!!). I now get a few social interactions per week instead of a few per day.

I can’t say there’s a causal relationship between the move and these changes (although it sure seems likely). And I’m not saying that I want to leave this house. Because I don’t. I told Kim as much this morning.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to improve your mental health,” Kim said this morning. “Even if it means moving.”

I waved her off. “I think you’re probably right about this. I think the lack of walkability probably has had a huge impact on me. But I don’t want to move. That feels foolish. I love this place. I love my life here with you and our animals. I don’t want to leave.”

Instead, I think I need to force myself to get out and walk more. I need to accept where I live and walk regardless.

A decade ago, when Kris and I were still married and living on the other side of the river, I was in a similar situation. The nearest grocery store was exactly one mile away. There were a few restaurants within 1.5 miles of the house. If I was feeling ambitious, I could walk the 2.7 miles to the nearest downtown area to access even more stuff.

For most of the time I lived in that house, I did not walk for errands. But during my last couple of years with Kris, I learned to walk. It became something I looked forward to. By the time we split up, I was often walking the five-mile roundtrip to the nearest town for lunch. I think that’s something I could (and should) do here.

The nearest restaurant to our house

Time to Walk

“You know what?” Kim said as we prepared to walk the dog this morning. “I think you might want to consider renting an office somewhere nearby. Even if it’s just a small place. It’d be a way for you to get out of the house. And if the office was somewhere walkable, you could scratch that itch too.”

Maybe Kim’s right. I don’t know.

This morning, I sifted through Craigslist to see if there’s any local office space for rent. There is, but not much. Five miles from our house, in the center of the next city over, there are two spots available.

  • The first space is 129 square feet for $325 per month.
  • The second space is 161 square feet for $425 per month.

Both of these spaces are in the same building, and the building is in the heart of a walkable downtown where we already do many of our errands. Plus, there’s a Regus shared office space at the bottom our our hill, about 2.5 miles from the house. That’s certainly walkable in summer and bike-able most of the year. (There’s no much else in that particular neighborhood though.)

I’ve already sent email regarding the office space. Tomorrow, I’ll drop by the Regus building to check out my options there. I think Kim may be on to something here.

In the meantime, I’m absolutely going to make myself walk more often — despite the fact that meterological winter starts today. When the cats need food, I’ll walk to the pet store. For small shopping trips, I’ll walk to the grocery store. And once or twice each week, I’ll walk to a local restaurant for lunch (and to work).

Instead of being passive, instead of allowing myself to be unhappy due to my circumstances (circumstances that I chose), it’s time for me to be proactive, time for me to do the things that I know bring me increased well-being. And that means walking.

A very small adventure: Riding the bus

I had a big day today, though I’m sure many of you will laugh: I rode the bus for the first time.

Actually, I’ve been on buses many times before. I rode a school bus as a child, and I’ve used public transportation in other towns. I’ve even used the light-rail trains here in Portland. But I had never used the city’s bus system until this afternoon.

Brave New World

I took my new-used Mini Cooper to the dealer this morning for the inspection I should have requested before I purchased it. Also, the car was due for its 60,000-mile service.

While it was in the shop, I walked around downtown Portland, taking a day to play hooky from the blog. I ran some errands. I shopped for my mom’s birthday presents. (She’s 61 today.) I had lunch with a friend.

After we finished eating, I called the dealer, crossing my fingers that there wouldn’t be any bad news. I’m pleased to report that there’s nothing major wrong with the vehicle — just normal wear-and-tear. I dodged a bullet. (The next time I buy a used car, however, I’ll be sure to have it inspected first.)

All the same, there are a couple of small things that need done, including the repair of a leaking power-steering fluid line. “Can we keep the car overnight?” the dealer asked.

“Sure,” I said. But I was really thinking , “How will I get home?” I thought of how much I paid for taxi fare in San Francisco last week. Then I remembered that Kris used to work just two blocks from where I was standing. She used to ride the bus to-and-from work. Why couldn’t I take it home?

I lucked out; the bus I wanted was pulling to the stop just as I arrived. I hopped on board, fumbling my way through the process. “How much?” I asked the driver. He grunted and pointed at a placard listing the fares: $2.30 for an all-zone pass. I put three one-dollar bills into the ticket machine. “Where’s the change?” I asked. The driver grunted and pointed to another placard that noted there’s no change for bus fare.

Half an hour later, I stepped off the bus about a mile from our home. Another pleasant fifteen minutes of walking saw me safely to the door.

A Small Victory

I realize this is a fairly minor accomplishment, and that many of you won’t see the merit in this. That’s okay. It’s a big deal to me. For years I’ve avoided the bus because I didn’t know how it worked, and because I didn’t know how cost-effective it was. Today I took a chance and just did it. I’ve added another frugal weapon to my arsenal. When the Mini dealer calls tomorrow to say my car is ready, I’ll hop on the bus and head back downtown.

Because I’m that kind of geek, I calculated costs on my ride home. Is the bus cost effective? Is it time effective? I was curious. Here’s what I figured out:

  • The bus ride from downtown Portland to my neighborhood takes 30 minutes. It takes another 15 minutes to walk home. (There’s actually another line that runs closer — I’ll have to look it up.) It costs $2.30 per trip.
  • To drive from downtown Portland to our house takes about 20 minutes. If we use my estimated costs for the Ford Focus I recently sold, it comes to 36.1 cents per mile, or about $3.60 per trip.

So, a round trip from our home to downtown Portland costs $4.60 and takes about 90 minutes on the bus. It costs $7.20 and takes about 40 minutes by car. (Addendum: In the comments, Robert reminds me that to go downtown, I need to pay for parking. That’s true. That brings the total to $9 (or more) per round-trip.) Depending on which is more valuable to you — time or money — you might choose either the bus or a car. In my case, a car is usually the best choice. But I can certainly see how having the bus as an option could save me money sometimes (like today).

And I can understand how, for many people, public transportation can be a heck of a deal!

Note: I’m enjoying this working vacation. It’s been very productive. Although I’m eager to resume writing full time, I’m actually going to stretch this current batch of guest posts until the end of the month. I have some good guest articles on personal finance basics in the queue, and this will give me time to recharge my batteries so that I can come back even stronger in May!

My used mini cooper and the power of saving

For the past two years, one of my top financial goals has been to save for a Mini Cooper. Just like a child with a toy catalog, I’ve spent hours on the Mini website playing with colors and options packages, building my own dream vehicle. Whenever I’m tempted to buy small indulgences, I ask myself, “Would I rather have this or a Mini?”

Until the beginning of last week, however, I thought I still had a long way to go before I could afford even a used Mini Cooper. Turns out I was wrong.

Savings Success

Since the middle of last year, I’ve been saving like mad, attempting to accumulate enough money to buy a car. My progress has been outstanding:

  • After I built my emergency fund, I began to route my regular monthly savings to my Mini Cooper account. I’ve saved about $6,200 for a car during the past eighteen months.
  • I’ve also been putting “found” money into my car account. When I get a birthday check, it goes to my Mini fund. When I sell something on eBay, it goes to my Mini fund. That’s come to almost $700 in the past year.
  • In October, I won a contest at ING Direct. My prize was a $1,000 6-month certificate of deposit. It matured last week, and I promptly rolled the proceeds into my Mini fund.
  • We refinanced our house recently. The last payment on our old mortgage was made in March. Our first payment for the new mortgage is due May 1st. There’s no April payment! That means I can use that thousand dollars for a Mini.
  • Also as part of the refinance, we received a disbursement check of $1879.03, half of which goes to Kris and half of which goes to me. That’s $939.52 more for a car.

All told, by the beginning of April I had managed to save just over $10,000 for a car. That’s not enough to buy a Mini Cooper — not even a used one. But then I found another chunk of change.

Tax Refund

Because I’m self-employed, I pay quarterly estimated tax payments based on income projections I make at the beginning of each year. But because my business has been growing, these projections have been off. At the end of the year, I owe more than I’ve paid, and so have a tax bill due.

The first year this happened, it caught me by surprise. I owed a lot of money, and I didn’t have anything saved to cover the tax bill. Ever since, I’ve set aside as much as possible to prepare for taxes.

Note: For others with their own businesses, here’s what I do: Every month I transfer living expenses from my business account to my personal account. I keep these expenses as low as possible. I leave the rest of the cash in the business to save for taxes. After taxes are paid in April, I pull any remaining “profits” for the year into my personal account.

Well, I paid my taxes last week. When the checks were written, I was amazed to find that I had a huge chunk of cash left over. In fact, there were several thousand dollars remaining in my tax account, all of which was now available for my personal use. I transferred the money to my Mini Coooper account, and stared at the total: I had $16,768.98 in savings.

I almost had enough to buy a car.

New vs. Used

With stars in my eyes, I dropped by the local Mini dealer last Wednesday to wander their showroom. I spent an hour talking with a salesman. He was awesome. He didn’t pressure me, but answered all of my questions. Though I loved the shiny new cars, the vehicles I really wanted were marked at over $25,000. (Most were around $28,000, and one amazing Mini was $40,000!)

“I don’t have enough saved to buy a car right now,” I told the salesman, “but I’d love to rent one for the weekend.”

He frowned. “I’m afraid we don’t do rentals,” he said. “I don’t know anyplace in Portland that rents Mini Coopers. Sorry.”

Then he added, “You know, Mini is offering 1.9% financing right now — if you have good credit. That’s a good deal.”

“Thanks,” I said. “My credit’s great, but I’m not wiling to take on debt. I’ll just wait and keep saving.”

Then a friend called on Friday. “J.D., have you been down McLoughlin lately?” he asked. “There are two used Minis for sale along the strip.” (I live next to a stretch of road that is home to more than a dozen car dealerships.)

I hadn’t considered buying a used Mini (I’m a new car kind of guy), but the more I thought about it, the more the idea appealed to me.

  • If I bought used, I could avoid the instant depreciation associated with a new car.
  • If I bought used, I could save the price difference for other goals.
  • And if I bought used, I could have my Mini Cooper now.

On Friday afternoon, I dragged Kris with me to look at the two used Minis.

The first vehicle was a 2003 Mini Cooper S marked at $13,800. It had 70,000 miles on it. On the surface, this seemed like a great deal, but the car wasn’t in good shape (even after being cleaned up by the dealer), and the salesman gave me a gitchy feeling. I decided to pass.

The second car was a 2004 Mini Cooper marked at $17,000. It had 60,000 miles on it. This car was more expensive, but from what I could tell, it was also in better shape. I took it out for a spin.

“What do you think?” I asked Kris after the test drive. “Should I buy it?” Though I’ve made tremendous progress with my personal finances, I still have a tendency to second-guess myself. I know I’ve done some dumb things in the past, and I’m afraid of heading down that road again. But Kris has always made smart choices. I trust her judgment.

“Do you like it?” she asked. I nodded. “Then you should buy it,” she said. So I did.

The Negotiator

It’s been a long time since I bought a car. I had forgotten how awful I am at negotiating — and how much I hate it. I tried to do a good job on Friday, tried to remember the tips I’ve shared here in the past, but even knowing this stuff in advance didn’t help me. I don’t think I did poorly, but I certainly didn’t get a great deal, either.

I paid $15,600 for my Mini. Kelly Blue Book says that I could expect to pay $14,790 for this vehicle from a private party, so I paid about $800 too much. (It also says that I should expect to pay $17,240 from a dealer, so maybe I actually saved $1,600?) Kelly Blue Book also says I should have received $1,250 in trade-in for my Ford Focus. I got $550. Ouch.

In retrospect, I ought to have done this differently. Once I realized I had enough to buy a used Mini, I should have been methodical about my search, looking for the best deal. That’s what I do with all of my other purchases! Instead, I let euphoria take hold of me, and I bought the first acceptable vehicle that I saw.

I don’t regret my purchase — not at all! — I just don’t think I was as smart as I should have been.

The Joys of Personal Finance

Time will tell whether I’ve made a good choice. It may be that my impatience has cost me money. Or it may be that the pleasure I receive from this little car is worth every penny. So far — after only two days — it’s all joy and no regret!

My favorite part of this transaction, aside from paying cash for the car, was that I didn’t spend all of my savings. I went into the deal with a budget of $16,768.98, and I spent $15,238.80 after taxes and fees. That leaves me $1530.18 to begin saving for something else.

Who says personal finance is no fun? I’m having a blast!

Note: I’m calling this my “starter Mini”. I plan to pursue Dave Ramsey’s Drive Free, Retire Rich program. I’ll continue to sock away money every month in my car fund. In a couple of years, I’ll be able to take that savings, sell this Mini, and upgrade to a higher-priced model. Eventually I’ll be able to afford a new vehicle!

Motor Trend 1971 — 40 cars under $2500

While cleaning my office last Saturday, I stumbled upon a pile of old magazines. Most of these are copies of Modern Mechanix from the 1930s and 1940s, but the issue that caught my eye was the July 1971 edition of Motor Trend. Who wouldn’t be tempted by a Buyer’s Guide that offered “40 cars for under $2500”? I took a break from cleaning to see what I could learn.

[cover of the July 1971 issue of Motor Trend]Some industry experts [forecast] a small car penetration of more than 40 percent in the near future. It is no small wonder, therefore, that more and more automobile companies are getting into the sub-compact field, particularly in the United States.

That this is true is borne out by the ever increasing number of these cars on the road and in the showroom. Whereas a few years ago a person in the market for a small car had only Volkswagen and maybe Renault to choose from, there are now many new names to consider: Subaru, Pugeout, Fiat, Honda and Datsun to name a few. In fact, more than 40 cars on the American market now have sticker prices under $2,500; most of them are foreign.

So, for your interest and edification, on the following pages is a complete small car buyer’s guide listing specifications and prices for 40 of the best-selling compacts in the United States. Included in the guide is a list of options, with prices, which most car buyers want on their vehicles. All this is done with an eye on the price tag, trying to stay under a magical, mystery retail cost of $2,500.

There’s no question that small cars were much more popular during the 1970s and 1980s, but did they ever reach a market penetration of 40 percent? And how many are there now? When we were in London last summer, I was startled by the prevalence of small cars — it made me realize just how few you see on the road in the U.S. The small car market has been lethargic here for the past decade or more, but that may be about to change.

If gas prices continue to increase, more people will consider smaller cars. It’s already beginning to happen. At Kris’ office, a couple of her co-workers are purchasing “commuter cars”. They’re not selling their SUVs, but they’re looking for something small and fuel-efficient for their everyday commutes.

It seems that back in 1971, fuel efficiency wasn’t even a consideration. Take a look at the Motor Trend Buyer’s Guide (which lists “forty, count ’em, forty cars you can buy for under $2,500”). There’s no mention of fuel economy:

[The buyer's guide lists 40 cars under $2,500]
Click to open larger version in new window.

Two thoughts related to this list:

  • The Volkswagen Beetle has held its price well. In fact, I found a 1972 VW Bug on Craigslist for $2,350. You could have bought the car in 1971, driven it for 37 years, and then sold it at a profit! So much for depreciation. (Ha! But then, as a couple people have noted in the comments already, inflation makes $2,000 in 1971 worth more than $10,000 today. So that theoretical profit is just that — theoretical.)
  • In 1985, during my junior year of high school, I worked at Burger King with a guy who owned a 1971 Ford Maverick. He loved that car. He worked like a dog to earn money to spend on that thing. “Wanna race?” he’d ask every night after work. I never did. I was driving my father’s 1983 Datsun 310GX, and wasn’t willing to take any chances.

This issue of Motor Trend also contains an interesting article about a plan to rent Minicars (small cars designed to reduce congestion) with the Select-A-Car System. Now this sounds like a way to rent a car.

[photo of the Select-A-Car System, which looks like a cross between a phone booth and a vending machine]

Imagine you jet into Los Angeles, make your way to the vehicle garage, and find the Select-a-Car machine. You insert your credit card into the key dispenser to select your vehicle. To make the car start, you have to insert the credit card into the vehicle’s dashboard.

[photo of credit card being inserted into dashboard]

“It could be,” says the president of Minicars, the brains behind this contraption, “that once the public gets used to using the Select-A-Car System eventually regular cars could be phased out in favor of genuine Minicars.” A grand vision, sure, but 37 years later we know it didn’t happen. Not even close.

Though this issue includes several articles on smaller cars, it also contains a sneak preview of “1972 Detroit cars”. There was nothing small about these monsters:

[The new car preview highlights some BOATS]
Click to open larger version in new window.

Now those are some cars.

The best part of reading any old magazine is looking at the advertisements. They’re a window to the past. (Those Modern Mechanix from the 1930s are fascinating.) For example, today we know Motorola as a manufacturer of mobile phones and microchips. But in 1971, they were all about car stereo systems:

[Advertisement for Motorola stereo products]
Click to open larger version in new window.

I love the illustrations here, and I love the ad copy:

WRAP-AROUND SOUND in a 4-channel, 8-track tape player. 4 amplifiers and 4 deluxe 5-1/4″ Golden Voice Speakers matched to circuitry wrap the sound around you. Motorola’s TM920S makes turning on a car tape player a whole new happening.

And, of course, there are the ubiquitous record club ads. I never figured out how these companies made money giving away so many free records, but then I know I poured a lot of my own cash into them as a kid, so maybe they knew what they were doing:

[This record ad pitches 8-track tapes]
Click to open larger version in new window.

My favorite offering in this ad? Orson Welles‘ “Begatting of the President”. I had to look it up. It’s an anti-Nixon satire!

And, finally, I was of course intrigued by a brief profile of the Mini Clubman, a “highly popular” car in England:

[photo of the 1972 Mini Clubman]

This year, the Mini Clubman arrived on U.S. soil. Maybe someday I’ll own one.