Category: money

Tax Time!

Oh joy. Time for us to submit our taxes again. I got mine finished over the weekend, after starting them about a month ago. I typically do that to get a rough estimate on how much I’m going to owe (or get back), so that I can be sure to be prepared when the time comes. But then my inherent laziness steps in, and I wait until much closer to the deadline.

And as my friend Dan always points out, the Simpsons say it best:

Then again, the yearly ritual of doing my taxes is also a great time to take a look back and see how things are going on the whole, financially speaking. For a good long while during COVID, I was worried about the stability of my job and the future in general. (I’m still worried about my university, mind you. There are plenty of signs about just how much trouble we’re in. That’s not unique to my institution by any means. I think higher education in America has a whole slew of problems coming up, but that’s a topic for a different post.)

So when I took the time to actually run the numbers, I was surprised and more than a little grateful to discover 2021 actually turned out to be the best year for Denisa and me ever, from a financial standpoint, this despite the uncertainty at times over whether she’d have classes to teach. In the end, she taught 5 classes and took on several additional responsibilities at the university that compensated her more. I taught a class myself, and I had the best year I’ve ever had as an author.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean I’m just sitting over here in Maine, swimming in my Scrooge McDuck money pool. My grand total of authorly earnings this year, once you take out taxes, paid for . . . about 1/4 of my kitchen renovation. True, the renovation ended up being more expensive than I thought it would be, but I made more money as an author than I thought I would have, so that kind of balances out.

However, I also think it’s important to look at the good things that are happening, and making an honest-to-goodness profit off my writing is definitely a very good thing. There was a long time when I wondered if writing would ever do anything for me. It was a hobby with aspirations. Now it’s a trumped up side hustle with big dreams. 🙂

So while this all means that I had to pay a fair bit more in taxes than I’ve paid in previous years (say goodbye to any hope of a refund), I’m much more focused on the cause of that, rather than the effect. All my problems are not magically solved, but I’m grateful they aren’t worse than they could have been. If that’s not the most 2020’s-ish thing to say, I don’t know what is.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

When Two Wrongs Make a Right

It’s been a tough couple of years for everyone, right? Right. And I’ve mentioned multiple times how I’ve been off my game for the past while. This has resulted in some lapses that I normally just don’t make. The last little bit, I realized I had made two fairly large goofs that were going to cost me some significant money.

Through my job, I put aside $2,750 each year to spend on medical bills through a Flex Spending Account. This is good for tax reasons, but it comes with a couple of stipulations. First, you have to voluntarily re-enroll each year. If you forget to sign up, you don’t get to do it. That’s normally not a problem. I get a reminder each November, and I’ve re-enrolled every year like clockwork.

Until 2021, when I somehow completely spaced it and didn’t re-enroll. (I blame my kitchen.) This meant I wouldn’t have the chance to get the tax benefits, but I wasn’t too terribly upset about it, because I didn’t think those benefits would be too much. (Actually, we can calculate what they would have been. It basically knocks that money off the top of what you earned, so the IRS treats it as if you didn’t earn it, which means it’s not taxed. At my tax bracket, it would have been taxed 22%, which means that by forgetting to do it, I lost $605. It’s not insignificant, and I definitely wasn’t happy about it, but I tried not to beat myself up over it too much.

However.

As I tried to remember through the mists of 2020 and 2021, I couldn’t for the life of me remember submitting a claim for my 2020 flex spending account money. Each year, we just put in a claim in April to get reimbursed for everything we spent the year before, which is always enough to get all our money back. But FSAs are a “use it or lose it” tool. If you don’t get reimbursed for something, then you don’t get the money back from that year. A small amount can typically rollover, but other than that, you’re out of luck.

If I hadn’t submitted a claim, then I would be out $2,750 for that who year, bringing the grand total of my blunders around FSAs to $3,355. That, my friends, is a number that I just can’t let slide. That’s a really boneheaded amount of money to just pour down the drain. And yet yesterday, it looked like that’s just what I had done. I got a letter from my FSA account company that confirmed I hadn’t put in a reimbursement for 2020.

I was, needless to say, not very happy for myself. I read the letter, and then decided to just not think about it until today, because I was too depressed about the loss to face it right away.

Today, however, I cowboyed up and looked into the matter some more. Was there any way I could get some of that money back? It never hurts to ask, right?

Well, after some googling and a few phone calls, I discovered the truth. Because of the pandemic, Congress had altered the rollover rules around FSAs to make it so that your 2020 amount rolled over into 2021, and it could also rollover into 2022. What does this mean for me? It means that while I can’t be reimbursed for any of my 2020 expenses, I can be reimbursed for 2022 expenses, even though I didn’t sign up for the FSA plan for this year. Actually, if I’d signed up like I should have, then I would have had to spend $5,500 this year to get all my money back.

So in the end, by forgetting to sign up for my FSA in 2022, I countered the mistake I made in 2020 of not getting reimbursed.

Mind you, it still means that I’ll lose about $600 in taxes for 2022. The best thing to do would have been to do it right in 2020, 2021, and 2022. But at this point, I’m just grateful to be able to get the money back that I put in. I’ll take my wins where I can get them.

Thanks, Congress! I give you a hard time a lot of the time (deservedly), but you really bailed me out this time, and I appreciate it.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Credit Card Churning: 1.5 Years In

I posted back when I began to dip my toes into the vast world of credit card churning in October of 2017. (For those of you who don’t know, it’s the practice of signing up for credit cards that have attractive incentive offers (tens of thousands of points for spending $3,000 in the first three months, typically), and then chaining those offers together to gets tons of free points for, well, free.) I posted another update about four months later, saying that so far, it had been going well.

How are things looking now?

Still peachy keen. Really, my only regret is that I didn’t start this a long time ago. Though, as always, that comes with a huge disclaimer. To make this work, you need to be hyper-organized. You need to keep track of what cards need to be used when and for what. You *need* to pay off each card in full every month. You also need to have a steady stream of purchases you put on a credit card anyway. If you start making purchases just to meet a minimum spending goal, then you’re spending money you wouldn’t have spent otherwise. And that means you’re likely losing money . . .

Denisa and I have some purchases we know will go on a card every month: groceries, phone, utilities, gas. We know how much we spend on those each month, and so we’ve gotten a new card about every 2-3 months. Since I started this, I have gotten 10 new credit cards. With those credit cards, I have gotten 260,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, 325,000 Marriott Points, and I’m coming up on 275,000 Hilton Points. All earned on purchases we were going to make anyway. In addition, I have Gold status with Marriott and Diamond status with Hilton.

Of course, some of the nicer card offers come on cards that have annual fees. If you don’t watch yourself, you’re going to lose some of your “profits” by paying those, but if you swing it right, it actually works out very well. Some examples:

  • My Marriott cards typically cost about $95/year. However, they each come with a free night each year. If I’m planning on staying at a Marriott one night/year anyway (per card), then as long as the Marriott I was planning on staying at would cost more than $95, I’m ahead of the game on this one. With my family, when we stay at Marriotts, the cheapest we can find them is usually around $120, so this is just fine. And we travel often.
  • My Hilton card costs $450/year(!) When I was starting out, this would have been a deal breaker for me. However, I realize there are ways to make this work as well. For example, it comes with $250 of Southwest gift cards, which knocks that annual price down to $200. It comes with a free weekend night at almost any Hilton. (This year, I’m hoping to take Denisa to stay at a Hilton right off Central Park. It would usually cost $450 for the room. I’ll stay there for “free.”) In addition, I get automatic Diamond status at Hilton, which comes with free upgrades to rooms when I say there, free breakfasts, and other perks. If you don’t travel and stay at hotels enough, it’s hard for these perks to counterbalance the $450 you’re paying for them, but if you *do* travel anyway, they’re an excellent bonus.
  • My Chase Sapphire Reserve card is also $450/year. But again, there are benefits. If I spend Chase points to travel, I get a 50% bonus. The first $300 I spend on travel with that card each year is refunded. I get extra buyers protection on purchases, automatic trip insurance, and more. It all depends on whether these bonuses work for what you’re already doing or what you want to do anyway.

I’m to the point now where I’m being more selective on what cards I get, and where I use which card, as some of them give you bonus points for spending in a particular category. For example, my Chase Freedom card gives me 5% points at grocery stores and home improvement stores this quarter. That means I get back about 8-10% of what I spend there if I use those points in travel. If I was going to buy groceries anyway (spoiler alert: I was), then which would be better: buying them for $100 and getting nothing back, or buying them for $100 and getting $8 in travel credits?

My biggest concern going into all of this had been for my credit score. I needn’t have worried. It’s still at the highest level possible, even with all these cards.

Would I do it again? Of course. But only within the constraints I’ve outlined. This morning I just bought round trip tickets to San Antonio for my family, all with points. They would have been over $1,500 for cash. I spent 96,000 Chase points, transferring them over to Southwest. It really felt like a cheat code for travel.

Honestly, my biggest “problem” at this point is that I’m so used to saving money, my natural inclination is to save points as well. They’re no good to me if I don’t use them, so I’m having to look for ways to spend the points to have fun, which is why I got into all of this in the first place. Next up? I’m hoping to stay in Orlando for a week with the fam for free, and there’s another trip to Boston I’d like to take.

Life’s rough.

If any of this sounds like it’s something that’s up your alley (with the disclaimers I gave), then let me know. I can give you some referral links to good cards . . .

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Tax Time: Author Income and Traveling for Church

It’s March, which means it’s high time for me to be working on my taxes. Part of that process is taking an accounting of everything I was up to the past year from a dollars and cents perspective. Two data points stood out to me this year that I thought would be interesting to you as well.

First off, a candid look at the high flying life of an author. I think there’s a fair bit of misunderstanding out there on just how much you make as an author. I’ll tell people that I got a book deal, and they ask when I’m going to quit my job. Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely authors out there who are able to do that as their main job. But I’d say those are few and far between. Personally, I love the steady paycheck I get as a library director (not to mention the fact that the job itself is rewarding). I’d be hard pressed to give that up for the scattershot approach to payment that’s often the life of an author.

But it’s not making me nothing, and I thought it would be interesting to go back through the data to see how my income as an author has changed over the years, from my first sale in 2011 to this year:

  • 2011: $5,100
  • 2012: $10
  • 2013: $0
  • 2014: $0
  • 2015: $7,243
  • 2016: $3,188
  • 2017: $8,035
  • 2018: $8,960

None of that takes into account any actual expenses. That’s just what I earned. You’ll see there was a nice start with VODNIK, and then several years with no sales, and MEMORY THIEF has been happily churning out money for me since it first sold (and then sold again) back in 2015. I have no real idea what things will look like this year yet. I know I’ll get at least some income from some foreign sales, and hope springs eternal that INKBINDER will finally see print one of these days (or I’ll at least get the second half of my advance for it), and I have a couple other books going out on submission, but you just never know.

So am I raking in the money hand over fist as an author? Clearly not, though I’m grateful to be making what I am. Still, consider that I work on writing approximately 10 hours a week, and my hourly “wage” for writing has been:

  • 2011: $9.81
  • 2012: $0.02
  • 2013: $0
  • 2014: $0
  • 2015: $13.93
  • 2016: $6.13
  • 2017: $15.45
  • 2018: $17.23

Though that’s not quite accurate, since the times I got paid I typically ended up working much more than 10 hours a week on those books. And of course, when you take into account the fact that I started writing in 2000, my average hourly wage over the entire time I’ve been writing comes to a grand total of $3.23. (And remember: that’s before any expenses are taken out at all. Self-employment taxes are significantly more than normal salary taxes . . .)

But hey–the trajectory is definitely upwards, so I’ll take it.

The second data point I wanted to share was total travel for church. I spend a lot of time on the road these days, much of it church-related. How much time? Well, considering all that mileage might be tax deductible, I’ve kept track.

This year, I drove 4,280 miles for church-related service. How much is that?

  • I could drive down to Disney World and then back to Maine, change my mind when I got back to Maine, and drive back to Disney World, though I’d be just shy of making it there.
  • I could drive to Disneyland and still have over 1,000 miles to drive somewhere else.
  • But let’s not worry about Disney. Let’s go international. I could go to Costa Rica if I drove that far south. I could go to Anchorage if I headed north.

That’s a lot of driving.

Why do I drive so much for church? I’m on the high council, which means I drive to Waterville (64 miles, round trip) or Bangor (180 miles, roundtrip) once a month. I also drive to speak at a congregation somewhere in the region about every other month. Some of those drives can be 180 miles roundtrip (or more), as well. Add those trips up and throw in some things that are more local, and it all snowballs pretty easily.

Anyway. Those are my two “gee whiz” facts of the day. Have a good one.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

How to Use Reviews of Products

I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of product reviews. I don’t write too many myself, but I love looking at what other people say about something before I buy it. If there’s something I need to buy, I’ll scour the Amazon reviews before I pick the thing that looks Just Right.

At least, that’s what I’ve done in the past. Over the last few months, however, my faith in those Amazon reviews has really been shaken. Right now, I’m at the point where I no longer firmly believe a product with a ton of great reviews must, by default, be good. Why not?

First of all, it’s clear to me that companies are gaming the system somewhat. More and more after I buy a thing through Amazon, I get a follow up email from the company begging me to review their product. (In so many words.) It’s disguised to be “helpful.” They just want to make sure I know how to properly use the microfiber dust cloth I bought. (Really? If I need directions on how to use a dust cloth, maybe I’m not qualified to write a review. Have you considered that?) But then they also say how important reviews are to them, and how they’re a small company and blah blah blah.

Fact. If you send out emails to everyone asking for reviews, you will inevitably get more reviews than otherwise. If you include “helpful tips” and a good reason why you need a review, you’ll get even more. Not because your product is any better than another, but just because you asked. At that point, Amazon pushes your product more than others. People see all the reviews and assume it’s superior, and you’re off and running, with no real need to even pay for extra reviews. (Though I do think that happens as well.)

It used to be fairly easy to identify the shills in Amazon reviews. Poorly written smear pieces or praises. It was easy to discount them and just focus on the ones that seemed to have merit. These days, it feels to me more and more like companies have caught on to that. The shills write better, if that makes sense. I also feel like companies pay people to write poor reviews of other products. The “complaints” that show up are just bizarre and non-sensical, and (more importantly) hard to prove.

Case in point? I’ve been looking at bluetooth headphones. I went to Amazon, and some products received glowing reviews. Others, not so much. But when I went to actual paid sources like PC Magazine (that review those products) the ones they rated highest are middle-of-the road on Amazon when it comes to reviews. Complaints are “quality control” and “doesn’t hold a charge.” Things that might theoretically get by a professional reviewer. Maybe. But which *might* show up after people have used a product for months.

Except I really don’t believe professional reviewers wouldn’t catch a lot of those things. I’m much more inclined to trust a professional review than I am to trust a random Amazon review. (Especially now that my overall trust of Amazon reviews is becoming shaken.)

So what are your thoughts? How are you using reviews these days? Do you still trust Amazon? Where do you go to decide what you want to buy? I love using reviews, but I want to make sure I use the right ones. Ones I can trust and believe in.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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