Reflections on 2019 & Plan for 2020

Another trip around the sun, eh? Seems like the appropriate time to reflect on how things are going.

Last December, I publicly posted the following 2019 goals. For the sake of public accountability, here’s how I grade myself for 2019 (bold is my grade & self assessment, non-bold is the original goal). At the end of the post I’ll include my 2020 goals.


2019 Goals:

  • Finances
    • Stay the course of frugality and disciplined tax-advantaged investing.
      • Grade: A+.
      • Inertia is a powerful thing; it’s great for already established good habits and crappy for already established bad habits.
    • Get non-medical household spend to $45k and total household spend to $53k.
      • Grade: B-. Non-medical household spending was $57k and medical spending was $10k, for total household spending of $67k.
        • It’s evident that my vague desire to spend an implausibly low amount isn’t compelling our family’s spending to zero. Life gets in the way (e.g. multiple surgeries, dog, new mountain bike).
        • Nonetheless, I’m keeping our 2020 goal at $45k of non-healthcare spend because who doesn’t like setting completely arbitrary and implausible goals?
        • Redeemed credit card rewards in 2019 was $2.8k. When added to $1.5k of HSBC bonus, we arrive at $4.3k of free money, $2.8k of which is tax exempt.
        • After subtracting the free money, our non-medical household spending drops to $52.7k of net-of-free-money spending. When viewed this way, we came closer to our goal than it seems.
          • Those that redeem CC rewards for travel never see the expense flow through the income statement. Since I redeem for cash, redeemed cash rewards don’t artificially deflating my cost of living like the travel hacking folks.
  • Family
    • Visit 3 national parks this year.
      • Grade: A+.
    • Camp 3 times.
      • Grade: A+. It was a glorious year in which I slept on the ground many times (roughly 5% of the year).
    • Minimize phone usage in front of kids.
      • Grade: B-. Not much to report here. I tried. Didn’t do great. Didn’t do horrible.
    • Board games with family 3x/week.
      • Grade: B-. We mostly sucked at this but have recently gotten into a good groove playing Ricochet Robots with all 5 kids, which is my favorite game (link).
  • Personal
    • Climb at gym 3x/week.
      • Get up first 5.12 in gym.
      • Get up first V8 bouldering problem.
      • Grade: A+. I climbed the crap out of this year. I went on 3 outdoor climbing trips, one of which was to get trained by a professional guide. Got up a couple V8’s in the gym. I didn’t quite make it up a 5.12, but I’m giving myself the grade of A+ anyway.
    • Weight train in basement 2x/week.
      • Grade: D-. I did it for a month or two but lost steam. I didn’t have much excess energy after biking + climbing + doing family/work stuff.
    • Bike 95% of working days, with 5% of days representing free passes due to inclement weather.
      • Grade: A+. Not purchasing a parking pass is a great commitment mechanism (link) to biking more. Even if I wanted to drive to campus, I can’t.
    • Finish writing book.
      • Grade: F. Life got in the way. I’m in a “publish or perish” environment where I get canned if I don’t produce enough academic papers. Publishing a book that will maybe help someone does not keep me from getting fired.
    • Complete annual backpacking trip.
      • Grade: A+. It was a glorious trip with 3 other friends this time.
    • Make significant strides on a personal project.
      • Grade: F. Life got in the way. Oh well.


Overall Self Assessment

Completely arbitrary weighted average grade across all categories: B. I’m happy with how the year turned out but it was far from perfect.

I mostly stumbled through the year as a sleep-deprived zombie (much like the past decade or two or three of my life). I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I should have. I need to be better at practicing gratitude. I need to be better at living in the moment.

Smart people on the internet/podcasts say that meditation is the secret to living in the moment. It makes no logical sense to me whatsoever. I’ve tried; closing my eyes, focusing on my breathing, and focusing on thoughts as they enter my head. But it seems like a colossal waste of time that accomplishes nothing.


2020 Goals:

  • Finances
    • Stay the course of frugality and disciplined tax-advantaged investing.
    • Get non-medical household spend (net of redeemed CC rewards) to $45k.
      • It didn’t work last year, so why not carry the completely arbitrary goal forward after buying a dog (and thus the financial obligation of dog ownership)?
  • Family
    • Complete another memorable road trip involving sleeping on the ground at least 5 days.
      • The current candidate this year is Pacific Northwest (our old stomping grounds).
    • Enjoy raising kids; don’t just tolerate/survive it.
      • FC1 will be out of the house in 5 years!?!?!?!?
        • Where in the hell did the last 2 decades go!?!?!?!?
        • I’m an old man all of the sudden. I still feel like a 12 year old boy.
    • Board games with family 2x/week.
    • Minimize phone usage in front of kids.
  • Personal
    • Don’t be a sleep deprived zombie. In bed by 11pm. Always.
    • Bike 95% of working days, with 5% of days representing free passes due to inclement weather.
    • Complete annual backpacking trip with undergrad buddies.
    • Do a brocation with little bro.
    • Don’t just tolerate life, enjoy it (despite the drudgery / monotony).
    • Finish writing book.


2019 CC rewards redeemed.

9 thoughts on “Reflections on 2019 & Plan for 2020”

  1. Do you don’t feel like you are speaking into a void, here are some thoughts:
    1. I have tried meditation and have found it utterly useless as well. Trying to quiet (control?) my thoughts SEEMS like a desired goal, but I get absolutely nothing out of the practice. Do keep in mind that most gurus of meditation say that prayer achieves the same purposes.
    2. Writing down and reflecting on your goals is a research-based idea. Anecdotally, here is my favorite story about it. When Russ and I got married, I wrote a 40 things I want to do before I’m 40 (I was 33). On that list was ‘earn another master’s degree.’ The idea of a Ph.D. wasn’t even on my radar.
    3. RE: book vs. academic papers. Of course, I have the same issue. In my department, going from untenured to tenured (assistant to associate), it’s all about peer-reviewed papers. But then there is this unwritten idea that a book is necessary IN ADDITION TO papers once you are on the path to full. Will it be the same for you? Or are you already associate?
    4. Finally, it’s good that you have the sleep goal. Let me tell you: trying to live productively, or even as a nice human being, gets incredibly hard as you get older.

    • 1. Thanks for confirming that meditation doesn’t work for at least one other person. Every time I do it I feel like I’m staring at the emperor’s new clothing.

      2. Goals are indeed pretty great. My problem is that I set them too arbitrarily without dedicating much thought into them.

      3. I’m still a lowly assistant for the foreseeable future. My field does not value books whatsoever. Bummer.

      4. I’ve noticed that people tend to get crankier with age as well. Hopefully being well rested will help combat that!

  2. check out starting strength. Even just squatting 5×5 twice a week with a whole bunch of pullups (might take ~30 minutes with a warmup) would be pretty powerful.

    • Thanks for the suggestion! I read the book years ago but will check it out from the library again. I agree that weight training doesn’t take a long time to finish.

      • Dan John also has some great material that is possibly a little less meat-headish than Rippetoe. I was a collegiate strength and conditioning coach for a decade or so before transitioning to coordinate Exercise/Health Science internships in academia =)

  3. About meditation: it feels exactly as you mentioned when you start out (waste of time, useless, ineffective), but realize that there are only long term benefits – effects you will only notice after weeks/months gone by. Think of it as a long-term investment in your mental health.

    Also, the goal is not really to control/focus your thoughts – noone can do that. The point is to be AWARE of your thoughts going by and not letting it affect you as much as it normally would. End result is more gratitude and peace in the moment.

    Happy new year !

  4. Professor,

    Love reading your blog. My situation is very similar to yours, except with 3 kids (a bit older) and a few more years down the road. However, I am impressed with the low cost you guys have. I struggle to get even close to that level. We have this “general merchandise” category that is crazy. Since I read your last update, I have been going back through my spend and trying to figure out how you do it! I have had a Personal Capital account for quite some time, but never used the expense functions. So, last night I spent 3 hours categorizing and getting that working to changeover from Mint.

    Your post on the BofA rewards was awesome. I have one of those red cards, but never thought of using it for online. Since that post, I have opened 2 more and working on maxing the 5.25%. Found that utilities don’t count as online, even if they are checked as online! So moved those to the grey bofa travel card(1.5%+75% vs the 1%+75%). I spend more than you guys, but you did better on the CC rewards. Something more I can work on!

    We also use for online because it can stack with the credit card savings. Sometimes only 1-2%, but more often 3% and higher around the holidays. Black Friday you can get quite a bit more. Unfortunately, Costco doesn’t have a reward on Befrugal.



    • Thanks for stopping by!

      My compulsion to spend less is born by the realization that happiness is very poorly correlated with spending and that excessive purchasing will, in fact, cause clutter which can decrease happiness. The guys at (books + podcasts + movie + blog) are great at helping consumerism in tact.

      Our “other expenses” category captures anything that isn’t food/auto/dog/housing/healthcare. Thus, it includes piano lessons, gym memberships, entertainment, travel, random amazon crap, etc. While you could argue that other categories are less discretionary, the “other expenses” category is pretty discretionary. I believe it captures well our true frugality, though admittedly I occasionally blow this category up (several thousand of climbing gear, thousand dollar mountain bike, disney cruise for wife, etc).

      Glad the BoA thing is working out for you! We indeed funnel all we can through the 5.25% category. Like you, I’ve experimented with online payments to docs & utilities with no success. Oh well; it’s worth a shot.

      Regarding Befrugal, we use a chrome plugin formerly called Ebates now called Rakuten. It’s surely similar to what you use. We use it whenever possible, increasing our rewards by another percent or two, but the superior financial approach, of course, is to not spend in the first place.


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