Graduation Savings Accounts

About a year ago, I came up with the idea of a Graduation account.  The concept is an account for the kids that they won’t get access to until they graduate from high school.  This account would be for them to get a car, put down as their first month rent for an apartment, or whatever purpose they want, really.  What they use it for isn’t as important as the lesson it’s there to teach them:  That saving money for the future is important, and that they should put a little money aside whenever they get some income.

So, it’s just a savings account, you ask?  Not quite.  My concept is closer to a 401k account.  It’s money they can’t touch once they’ve put it aside, and it gets a “Dad match”.  Whatever money they put into their Graduation Account, I match it 100%.  So, if they get birthday or Christmas money (or money for getting good grades) and want to save it, they can effectively double their gift.  If they earn money around the house, they can double that money too.  Plus, it will earn interest while time passes until graduation.

 

April 19, 2015 at 11:50 am Leave a comment

CradlePoint configuration file format

What’s a CradlePoint?

We’ve recently been considering the use of CradlePoint routers.  CradlePoint specializes in routers that work with wireless providers.  Some companies make routers that have 3G or 4G compatibility with a limited set of hardware, but CradlePoint made a business out of trying to support a significant number of them.  According to my initial tests and their documentation, it should support just about every 3G modem we’ve used over the last 3 years or so from AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, including some new ones we just got in.

We’ve actually been pretty impressed with the level of detail found in the CradlePoint.  It gives us far more information about the cellular signal than our current 3G solution, potentially helping us to make decisions that could affect our customers.

The Plan

In an ideal world, we’d like to configure one CradlePoint router the way we want it, backup the configuration file, then take that and turn it into a template with variables in place for everything that’s unique at each site.  Using our existing site database, we could churn out configuration files for just about every remote site.  We might need to have a different template for each wireless provider, but we could make it work.

The Problem

However, when you backup the configuration, you get a binary file.

Searching through their knowledge base turned out to be a waste of time.

In an earlier version of CradlePoint software, the configuration was in XML format.  From looking at their CLI, it looks like they’ve moved on to JSON formatted data, which is probably for the best.  It’s less prone to issues than XML, according to what I’ve read.

Using their CLI, you can do a “get” from the root and get the entire config in clear text, but you get a lot more than you need (including log files, etc).  There’s a config directory you can cd into, then do a “get” and you’ll get most of what you need.  But, looking through the results, you’ll see that it’s missing some key things that are located in other sections of the file system, like the network and port configuration.

Their Enterprise tech support was not very forthcoming on the matter.  They don’t want to share the format.

What’s the Big Deal?

CradlePoint has a service (ECM), which is basically a Saas central manager for their routers.  I dislike Saas, as a general rule.  Sure, you have subscription services for anything security related, but a subscription to manage my hardware?  It seems that they include this with support now, so it’s “free”, as long as you are keeping up with your support.

I think they have obscured their format precisely to keep people from being able to do what I like to do:  script my own configuration.  We are considering setting up VPN’s across our CradlePoints.  We are all about security, so we’d want a large unique key for every site, and a way to update them periodically.  We’d have to keep those configurations in-sync with the devices at the headquarters end of the VPN tunnel.  Scripting sounds like a perfect solution to these problems, and we can do that if we know the format of the files.

Now, ECM may still have a potential use in my environment.  If it can do a good job of helping us manage AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, it might be worth having, as long as you can just use it to monitor the CradlePoints.

Final Words

CradlePoint, open up your config file format.

You’ll be more likely to get customers like us who want to automate everything ourselves.

April 13, 2015 at 9:52 pm Leave a comment

Comcast blocking Plex? Probably not…

Last summer I used Plex quite extensively.  I took my daughters to swimming practice and instead of driving home, waiting 30 minutes, then driving back to get them, I decided to simply stay there and watch something via Plex on my iPhone while I waited.

Since then, I’ve only used Plex occasionally from outside the home.  Some months ago, I noticed that Plex stopped working when I wasn’t at home.  I briefly looked at it but not too closely.

I decided to dig into it tonight to try to figure out what was going on.

To test, I turned Wifi off on my iPhone and attempted to connect to Plex via LTE.  No dice.  In Plex, I went to Settings > Server > Remote Access.  It complained that Plex was unreachable from the outside.  I noticed that my firewall logs did not show any connection attempts against port 32400, the Plex default.  Interesting.  After trying a few things, I decided to try a different port.  So, I changed the Plex service object (TCP Port 32400) on my Firewall to TCP Port 34200, ensuring the NAT rule still pointed to port 32400 on my Plex machine, and updated the TCP Port setting in Plex.  Within a few moments, it showed “Fully accessible outside your network”.  I validated that I could connect from my iPhone.  Worked great.  In my firewall logs?  Yep, I’m getting hits on 34200 now.

So, is Comcast blocking Plex in NE Florida?  (*GASP*)

I’m leaning toward user error on my part (even though I don’t see an error, and it was working at one point…)

Anyhow, I’m working now…  If I suddenly can’t connect on this new port in a few weeks, I’ll revisit my theory…

April 13, 2015 at 7:56 pm Leave a comment

YNAB long term review – 2 years!

March 15rd, 2013, the date of the oldest entry in my copy of YNAB.

You Need A Budget (YNAB) is a personal finance software package which I began using a little over two years ago.  The company that sells it doesn’t just sell a piece of software, they give you a method to get out of debt.  For me, their method worked.

This is my two year review.

Before I started using YNAB, I had been working for over 20 years, but never seemed to be able to get out of debt and meet any real financial goals.  Sure, I was able to pay my bills on time, buy new cars, etc. but never seemed to be able to get ahead, or save up enough for a major purchase.  I virtually always paid on credit then worked to try to pay it off after the fact.  You can’t really handle retirement that way…

As I remember it, it was late on a Friday or Saturday night.  I was feeling the typical levels of stress associated with debt, as I had either just paid bills or looked at private school tuition pricing, something I saw no possible way of being able to afford.  As I lay in bed surfing a few sites on my phone, I happened across an item on LifeHacker mentioning a special YNAB sale that had been going on, though it appeared to have ended a few hours earlier.  I turned off my phone and laid there in bed for a while.  Suddenly, I made the decision to just get up and see if the sale was still, by some chance, going on.  It was, and it didn’t take me long to make the decision to buy it.

Prior to buying YNAB, I read about one major feature I used that YNAB was missing: the ability to import transactions directly from your online bank.  This weighed in as a negative to me at the time, but viewing this through the lens of experience, I realized this feature doesn’t help you control spending or save money.  It only helps you save time.  But, if you are saving time doing a crappy job of managing your finances, what good is that, really?  After using YNAB for two years, I can tell you there is real value in putting those transactions in yourself, either via your smart phone at checkout, or your computer as you pay your bills.

In just a few short months, YNAB re-shaped the way I viewed money.  I was suddenly very precisely aware of how much money I was spending, and on what.  Within three months, I essentially found $600 per month that I had been frittering away.  Using YNAB, I was able to determine how much money I could afford to use to pay down debt.  It also let me “run the numbers out” to see how long it would take me to extinguish my debt.

There I was, with a monthly budget with realistic numbers, and a plan that showed just how much progress I would make toward killing my debt, each and every month, until it was gone.  Seeing a real-world plan to get out of debt felt great.  It was the motivation I needed to give the YNAB method a real chance at working.

With that debt paid, I figured I would be able to send both of my high school aged girls to private school.  Fast forward to today – they’ve been attending that private school for 3 semesters now.

My wife was initially hesitant to budget, feeling like it would restrict her spending.  She has since told me that she actually likes having a target amount to spend.  If she takes the kids Easter shopping, and we have $200 in the clothing category, she can easily determine a per-child limit.  She took ownership of the grocery category, and got mad at me when I spent money from it without consulting her beforehand.  She knows we are more prepared for emergencies, and she can see that my stress level has dropped dramatically.  The positive effects of budgeting won her over.  Having the monthly budget meeting with her helps, as we both get input on the budget plan.

Using YNAB, we’ve been able to save for Christmas and pay for it from the budget, so there was no “January credit card hangover”.  The big homeowners insurance and property tax bills are now easily handled, since we can save up for them many months ahead of time.  That money is set aside in the respective categories, so I know exactly what it’s for.

Prior to YNAB, I might look at my checking account balance and feel like things were well in-hand.  Then, I wasn’t mentally tracking how much was on all the credit cards, the money we were saving for individual goals, upcoming large bills, etc.

There have been bumps in the road, though.  Like the month that a rock hit by a mower took out a side window on the mini-van.  And the next month when the back window of the car inexplicably shattered.  But, since we had a small Emergency Fund saved, those bumps were just bumps.  They didn’t cause serious stress, or even one penny in interest charges, like they would have in the past.

Early this year, I decided to make retirement more of a priority, so I started a Roth IRA account with WiseBanyan.  I budget it in YNAB, just like any other bill, and I can use YNAB to plan “bumps” to my contributions in future months.Stress over money has plummeted in my home.  We have things planned out in YNAB, so all our major expenses are covered, and we have a little money set aside for emergencies.  Living off of last month’s income means that if I were to lose my job tomorrow, I’d still have about of month before things start to get really tight. So, after two years with YNAB, what’s my conclusion?  Before YNAB, I struggled financially, sometimes wondered where my money went, and couldn’t seem to ever get out of debt.  For me, YNAB was the answer.  Ready to get started with YNAB?  It’s normally $60, but if you click this link, you’ll save $6.00.  Full disclosure:  I also get $6 when you use my link, which adds up to a grand total of about $6 every couple of months, usually.

April 9, 2015 at 11:07 pm 1 comment

Automatic Investing and… Budgeting?

For years I’ve been doing “automatic” investing via my company’s 401k program.  All year long my money goes into various funds without me doing anything other than my daily job.  I pay attention to it about once per quarter.

Recently, I started using WiseBanyan to do the same thing myself.  Every week, $25 $30 is automatically pulled out of my checking account and invested in a portfolio of stocks, bonds, etc.  Using YNAB, I’m tracking these transfers into an external account.  This will let me, at a glance, see exactly how much money I’ve actually deposited into my WiseBanyan account in future months/years and I can simply log into my account to see what the current value is.

Automatic investing is where it’s at…

But Automatic Budgeting?

There are a few services out there, like Mint, that are thrown up as free ways to budget.  These services work by linking to your various accounts so they can monitor your transactions and automatically categorize your spending for you.  I call it Automatic Budgeting, because you don’t have to do much of anything to track your spending.

However, I think there are two key things wrong with this approach.

1.  If this is any sort of budgeting at all, it is rear-view budgeting.  You are looking at your spending after-the-fact.  No successful corporate entity operates this way.

No successful CEO ever told his management team:  Hire anyone you need and spend whatever you have to, just get the job done.  We’ll see what you spent and on what when the bills arrive.

To be successful, you have to know where you’re money is going to go before you spend it, so you can plan your spending and ensure you have enough money to do everything you want to do.  If you don’t plan you’ll almost certainly end up overspending.

2.  You aren’t invested in the method.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but if you get a free budgeting solution, whether it’s Mint.com, or someone gives you a copy of YNAB, or whatever, you aren’t invested in it.  Without a financial cost, you may quickly quit, thinking to yourself “At least I didn’t waste any money on that!”  However, if you invest money on a solution, you are more likely to give it a real shot at working.

I tried Mint.com years ago.  I signed up, linked an active account or two, and checked in here and there.  My spending habits didn’t change one bit.

To Sum Up:

Automatic Investing:  Good!

Automatic Budgeting: Bad!

 

 

February 6, 2015 at 8:20 pm Leave a comment

Budgeting woes…

Sometimes budgeting can be discouraging.

For me, that happens when goals suddenly change.  In my most recent case, I had two major expenses change in big ways on the same day.

One expense turned out to be $400 more than I expected.  Let’s call that Expense A.

Expense B was also about $400 more than expected and could not be paid the way I had planned.  This expense is one that gives a discount if it’s paid early.  My plan to pay it was to charge it to a 0% credit card, then start paying it down in a few months, and pay it off over about 9-10 months.  Unfortunately, payment by credit card was not allowed as it had been in the past.  This meant I had to overhaul my budget so that I could save up several thousand dollars in the next 6 months to meet the “early” deadline.

The overhaul required taking money out of my Emergency fund, stripping out my rainy day funds (money being saved for Christmas, Home Insurance, Property Tax), and take contributions out of my car replacement category  (driving an ’06 now), and a few other smaller categories intended for home improvement projects.

Now, my Christmas, Home Insurance, and Property Tax categories must be completely funded during the last 6 months of this year.  My new plan shows me putting a whopping $162.37 in my car replacement category by December 31st.  In August, I start saving about $600 a month for Expense A for next year.

It’s only January 27th, and my financial year looks pretty bleak.

But, there is hope.  Thanks to my budget, I have a plan!

Trying to handle these expenses without a budget…  Well, that would just be crazy.  I’d end up putting lots of spending on credit cards, building up debt.  I’d be very worried about making sure all the bills were paid.  It would be much more stressful, especially when additional surprise expenses show up (which they always do).

So, while I do see some woe, I also see the hope.  And I know that I would not be able to do the things I’m doing with my money without a budget.

January 27, 2015 at 11:22 pm Leave a comment

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